Louis Charles Alfred de Musset

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Louis Charles Alfred de Musset

The French poet, dramatist, and fiction writer Louis Charles Alfred de Musset (1810-1857), a major romantic poet, is remembered for his Iyric poems, elegant comedies, and the powerful drama "Lorenzaccio," perhaps the finest French play of the 19th century.

Alfred de Musset was born in Paris on Dec. 11, 1810. He was a brilliant student at the Lycée Henri IV and early frequented the important romantic circles. In 1828 he published his first book, L'Anglais mangeur d'opium, an adaptation of Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. His first volume of verse, Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie, appeared in 1830. The same year his one-act comedy La Nuit vénitienne failed on the stage, and he decided to write no more for the theater.

In June 1833 Musset met the French writer George Sand. Their ensuing love affair, passionate and somber, was one of the most famous of the romantic period. After a winter together in Venice and infidelity on both sides, the lovers quarreled and separated. Musset returned to Paris ill and broken in spirit. His affair with George Sand inspired his finest poems; but his life thereafter was one of dissipation and sorrow. Musset continued to write and was elected to membership in the French Academy in 1852. He died in Paris on May 2, 1857.

Musset's poems are collected in two volumes: Premières poésies (to 1835) and Poésies nouvelles (1835-1852). In the first volume the Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie, the poem Ballade à la lune, and Le Spectacle dans un fauteuil remain of interest. Musset's finest poetry is in the Poésies nouvelles, which contains the famous poems inspired by his love for George Sand: La Nuit de mai, La Nuitde décembre, La Nuit d'août, and La Nuit d'octobre. It also contains Lettre à Lamartine, Souvenir, Àla Malibran, Tristesse, Rappelle-toi, and Une Soirée perdue. The four Nuits, or "Nights," and their lovely pendant, Souvenir, trace the poet's gradual recovery from his bitter disillusionment after his affair with George Sand. Musset wrote Souvenir after he had passed once more through the forest of Fontainebleau, where he had been with George Sand 7 years earlier. It concludes on the immortal quality of love.

Musset's theater pieces in verse comprise Les Marrons du feu (in the Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie, 1830); La Coupe et les lèvres and Àquoi rêvent les jeunes filles (in Le Spectacle dans un fauteuil, 1832); a two-act comedy, Louison (1849); and an incomplete tragedy, La Servante du roi.

After the failure of La Nuit vénitienne on the stage in 1830, most of Musset's later prose comedies were written for the Revue des deux mondes and were published in volume form in 1840. They include Les Caprices de Marianne (1833), Fantasio (1834), On ne badine pas avec l'amour (1834), Barberine (1835), Le Chandelier (1835), Il ne faut jurer de rien (1836), and Un Caprice (1837). In 1845 Musset published Il faut qu'une porte soit ouverte ou fermée. His delightful comedies were not played in France until the late 1840s. Popular recognition led to Musset's writing once again for the stage. He then published On ne saurait penser à tout (1849), Carmosine (1850), and Betine (1851). Musset's comedies, which have kept much of their freshness, are characterized by their elegance, sophistication, irony, and sentiment.

Musset wrote the serious dramas André del Sarto (1833) and Lorenzaccio (1834). The latter has as its protagonist a fascinatingly ambiguous "stranger" or "outsider" with very modern qualities of mind.

Musset's brief tales include such stories as Emmeline (1837), Frédéric et Bernerette (1838), Croisilles (1839), Histoire d'un merle blanc (1842), Mimi Pinson (1843), and Pierre et Camille (1844). La Confession d'un enfant du siècle (1836) was Musset's famous autobiographical attempt to analyze the causes of the mal du siècle that affected the youth of France after the close of the Napoleonic Wars.

Further Reading

There is a translation of The Complete Writings of Alfred de Musset by Andrew Lang and others (10 vols., 1907). In 1962 Peter Meyer published a translation of Seven Plays of Musset, containing Marianne, Fantasio, Camille and Perdican, The Candlestick, A Diversion, A Door Must be Kept Open or Shut, and Journey to Gotha. Biographies of Musset are Paul Edeme de Musset, The Biography of Alfred de Musset (trans. 1877); Henry Dwight Sedgwick, Alfred de Musset, 1810-1857: A Biography (1931); and Charlotte Haldane, Alfred: The Passionate Life of Alfred de Musset (1960). For Musset's drama see Herbert S. Gochberg, Stage of Dreams: The Dramatic Art of Alfred de Musset, 1828-1834 (1967). □

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