Alfred de Musset
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction, Vol. XIII, Part 3.
Selected by Charles William Eliot
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LOUIS CHARLES ALFRED DE MUSSET was born in the heart of old Paris on November 11, 1810. His father, who held various important state offices, is remembered chiefly as the editor and biographer of Rousseau. Alfred was brought up in a literary atmosphere and his early experiments in poetry and the drama convinced Sainte Beuve that he possessed genius. When he was nineteen his “Contes d’Espagne et d’Italie” had a sensational success. Though he is reckoned a member of the romantic school, he was
sufficiently detached and critical to be aware of its foibles, and in his “Ballade à la lune,” contained inthis first volume, he poked fun at the romantic worship of the moon, comparing it as it shone above asteeple to the dot over an i. He had a strong admiration for certain elements in classicism, and it seemedat one time that he might found a new school combining the virtues of both the old and new. But hisdrama, “Une nuit vénitienne,” was a failure on the stage, and in the future he wrote only to be read and somissed much of the influence he might have had on the theatre of his day. Many of his plays reached thestage years after they were written, notable among them being “Les Caprices de Marianne,” “Il ne fauturer de rien,” “Il faut qu’une porte soit ouverte ou fermée,” “Un Caprice,” and “Bettine.”In 1833 De Musset went to Italy with George Sand, and that tempestuous and typically romantic love
affair left him a wreck. The traces of it are to be found not only in his elegiac love poetry, but also inprose work like his “Confession d’un enfant du siècle,” and in drama like “On ne badine pas avec l’amour,” where one is shown the danger of trifling with love.
The gaiety and irresponsibility which marked the earlier years of his production had now given place topain and bitterness. His later years were lightened by popular appreciation, but he suffered much fromillness. He wrote little of importance after he was forty, and he died on May 2, 1857.
De Musset’s reputation is primarily that of a poet, and he ranks among the greatest in French literature.
His “Nuits” reveal with great beauty of expression all the passion and suffering of which a soul ofextreme sensitiveness is capable. Though he resented the suggestion that he imitated Byron, he showssome resemblance to him in his self-pity; but in the delicacy and variety of the phases of sentiment andpassion displayed in his poems he far surpasses the English poet. His plays and his reflective writings areoften brilliant, and he had a fine satiric power.
His fiction is subordinate in importance to both his poetry and his dramas, yet it exemplifies some of hischaracteristic qualities. His first success was won in this field, and his “Confession” contains muchbesides the other side of the story told in George Sand’s “Elle et Lui.” “The White Blackbird” is acharming satire on the literary life of his time, exposing not merely the ease with which popular taste is
imposed upon and some current types of literary humbugs, but also the universal tendency to confoundmere eccentricity with genius. The allegorical form in which it is clothed is well sustained in the earlierpart; but as the satire becomes more pronounced the blackbird and his pretended affinity tend to discard their disguise as birds and become frankly human beings—perhaps even human beings who can beidentified. Yet, on the whole, the blackbird’s story holds our attention, and in the telling of it there is a delightful mingling of grace, sentiment, and wit.
W. A. N.
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