Alfred de Musset and the Prophetic Significance of 1830s Paris

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Alfred Louis Charles de Musset-Pathay came into the world in Paris on the 11th of December 1810, as an unusually sensitive infant of noble lineage, who would be much in demand by portrait painters within a few years of his birth by virtue of his extraordinary beauty. Both the son and grandson of writers, his father, Victor-Donatien Musset-Pathay, had published several literary works between 1798 and 1829, including a biography of Rousseau, Histoire de la vie et des ouvrages de J.-J. Rousseau (History of the Life and Works of J.J. Rousseau); while his maternal grandfather Claude-Antoine Guyot-Desherbiers was most famously the author of the satire, Les Chancelières, targeted at one-time Chancellor of France, René-Nicolas de Maupeou, as well as several other minor pieces, including a collection of poems, Les Heurs et les Chats. Neither attained a tithe of the glory that would ultimately befall their illustrious descendant, who published his first poem, À Mademoiselle Zoé le Douairin, aged just 16 in 1826; while he ascended to true fame with the publication of Contes d’Espagne et d’Italie (Tales of Spain and Italy) in 1830. As an eighteen year old, he was, according to a description tendered in 1871 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘laughing and mocking, coldly ironical, a charming story-teller, a pitiless jester, at open war with prosody as well as with morality, a kind of sceptical and licentious nightingale.’1

 He entered the seismic 1830s blessed with every great gift a gilded young genius might hope to possess, and was idolised by the jeunesse dorée of the day, as Francine du Plessix Gray confirms:

 ‘In the 1830s, Parisian youth so worshipped his image as a profligate Romantic rascal – he was a drunk, a whorer, and generally outrageous – that they fought in the streets over his discarded cigarette butts.’2

 And his was the era in which the Romantic movement burgeoned in France for the first time in the wake of the July Revolution, in consequence of which Louis Philippe, known as the bourgeois monarch because the bulk of his support came from the upper middle class, supplanted his cousin Charles X as king of France; while his reign, which had initially been welcomed, was ultimately productive of widespread discontent, as Sylvia Kahan writes:

 ‘[…] the “Citizen King” became progressively more conservative and monarchical, limiting freedom of association and expression. In 1834, new reductions in factory wages resulted in widespread uprisings. The government’s reaction to the uprisings was increased military repression of civil disorder […]’3

 At the same time, as Kahan goes on to assert, ‘The political upheaval of the mid-1830s coincided with the flowering of Romanticism, a word first used during the Napoleonic era.’4

 Yet by the time Musset came to publish his only novel in 1836, namely, the celebrated autobiographical La Confession d’un enfant du siècle (The Confession of a Child of the Century), which was as much about his turbulent love affair with fellow romantic George Sand as the disenchantment of the generation that had come to maturity in the wake of the Revolutionary Age, he had become afflicted by a kind of generational depression which has come to be known as mal du siècle; as Tim Farrant puts it:

 ‘Nowhere is this disenchantment, or mal du siècle, more poignantly expressed than in the second chapter of Musset’s La Confession d’un enfant du siècle (1836):

 

Alors s’assit sur un monde en ruines une jeunesse soucieuse. Tous ces enfants étaient des gouttes d’un sang brûlant qui avait inondé la terre ; ils étaient nés au sein de la guerre. (…) Ils n’étaient pas sortis de leurs villes, mais on leur avait dit que, par chaque barrière de ces villes, on allait a une capitale d’Europe. Ils avaient dans la tête tout un monde; ils regardaient la terre, le ciel, les rues et les chemins; tout cela était vide, et les cloches de leurs paroisses résonnaient dans le lointain.

 

(Then troubled youth sat down on a world in ruins. All these children were drops of a burning blood that had flooded the earth; they had been born in the bosom of war, for war. […] They had not left their towns, but they had been told that, by each gate of those towns, you went to one of Europe’s capitals. They had a whole world in their heads; they cast their gaze at the earth, the sky, the roads and the paths; all that they saw was empty, and the bells of their parishes rang out in the distance.)’5

 

While the central female figure, Brigitte, was based on Sand, the character of Octave was forged from Musset himself, while being representative of an entire generation, as Karen L. Taylor writes:

 ‘Octave […] represents both Musset himself and his entire generation of young men [for whom] Despair over lost innocence and moral idealism lead to debauchery, the only apparent alternative to boredom and frustration.’6

 This epochal melancholia arose from a variety of causes, not least the fact that his generation came into being in the wake of the Revolution, and Napoleon’s recent ignominious defeat, exile and premature death, as Musset himself describes it:

 ‘[…] Napoléon avait tout ébranlé en passant sur le monde […] Ainsi tout avait tremblé dans cette forêt lugubre de la vieille Europe; puis le silence avait succédé.’7

 

([…] Napoleon had shaken everything as he passed over the world […] Thus everything had trembled in that dismal forest of old Europe ; then silence had succeeded.’8)

 

In addition to disenchantment centring on Napoleon, Musset’s generation had been profoundly impacted by two figures central to the Romantic revolution in the shape of Goethe and Byron, the creators, respectively, of Werther, the suicidal anti-hero of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of the Young Werther), published in 1774 at the height of the Sturm und Drang period in German literature, and the Byronic Hero, a fatalistic figure considerably indebted to Werther, as Arnold Hauser confirms:

 ‘The Byronic Weltschmerz has its source in Chateaubriand and the French émigré literature, the Byronic hero in Saint-Preux and Werther.’9

 Of the impact of the Byronic Hero on post-revolutionary France, Sarah Wootton writes:

‘The Byronic Hero’s suffering, isolation and defiance of authority and conventional morality captured the deflated spirit of a generation that had witnessed the horrors of the French Revolution.’10

 Musset links the two, with allusions to both Werther and Faust, as well as Byron’s Manfred in the following passage:

 

‘Or, vers ce temps la, deux poètes, les deux plus beaux génies du siecle après Napoléon, venaient de consacrer leurs vies a rassembler tous les éléments d’angoisse et de douleur épars dans l’univers. Gœthe, le patriarche d’une littérature nouvelle, après avoir peint dans Werther la passion qui mène au suicide, avait tracé dans son Faust le plus sombre figure humaine qui eût jamais représenté le mal et le malheur. Ses écrits commencèrent alors a passer d’Allemagne en France. […] Byron lui répondit, par un cri de douleur qui fit tressaillir le Grèce, et suspendit Manfred sur les abîmes, comme si le néant eût été le mot de l’énigme hideuse dont il s’enveloppait.’11

 

(‘Now about that time two poets, the two finest geniuses of the age following that of Napoléon, had just devoted their lives to colleting all the elements of anguish and sorrow scattered through the universe. Goethe, the patriarch of a new literature, after having depicted in Werther the passion that leads to suicide, had traced in his Faust the darkest human figure that ever represented evil and misfortune […] Byron answered him with an exclamation of sorrow that made Greece bound, and suspended Manfred over the abyss, as if nothingness had been the solution to the riddle that enveloped him.’12)

 

Thence, according to Musset’s Octave, Byron responded to a nascent strain of decadence within the ‘littérature nouvelle’ of which Goethe was the patriarch, with his own contributions, such as the aforesaid Manfred from the ‘metaphysical drama’ of the same name, composed between 1816 and 1817, who is quintessentially Byronic by virtue of what F.W. Stokoe refers to as ‘the consciousness of superior faculties, and by the remorseful memory of a past mysterious crime’13. Moreover, he has been likened to Goethe’s Faust, not least by virtue of his Faustian craving for knowledge, specifically of the esoteric variety, as confirmed by Frank Erik Pointner and Achim Geisenhanslüke:

 ‘What Manfred and Faust have in common is the indefatigable striving for knowledge of the world-secret, which they both know is impossible to attain.’14

Musset’s mal du siècle can be traced as least as far back as 1833, the year he composed the long poem Rolla, centring on protagonist Jacques Rolla, whose combination of libertinage and melancholia anticipated that of Octave; while the narrator voiced the loss of Christian faith that afflicted Musset’s tragic generation, as Linda Kelly writes:

 ‘1833, the year of his meeting with George Sand, was a period of intense creation in Musset’s life […] In August, his “Rolla” appeared, a poem memorable for its analysis of the religious drama of his generation […]’:

 

Je ne crois pas, ô Christ ! à ta parole sainte :

Je suis venu trop tard dans un monde trop vieux […]’15

 

(‘I am not one, O Christ, who dwells within your fold,

Too late have I set foot within a world too old […]’16)

 

Yet, while it would be inadvisable to view the narrator of Rolla as Musset himself, his brother Paul provides a portrait of the youthful Alfred as a king of epochal seer - as well as a quintessential poète maudit - which reinforces the cogent theory of the autobiographical nature of both the eponymous Rolla and the poem’s narrator:

 ‘Not only did Alfred de Musset receive the gift of keen feeling and forceful expression, but the sentiments and thoughts to which he gave so fair a form were those of a whole generation […] Sensitive souls are sent into the world to be crowded and crushed […] So that those who afford us our highest intellectual pleasures and our sweetest consolations appear doomed to weariness and melancholy […]’17

 While Musset’s Octave laments the darkness he sees as having been ushered into the collective psyche of his generation by works by Goethe and Byron, the narrator of Rolla reaches further back into Western literary history for the root cause of generational malaise to the personage of Voltaire, described by Karen O’Brien as ‘the personification of the Enlightenment’18:

 

‘Dors-tu content, Voltaire, et ton hideux sourire,

Voltige-t-il encore sur tes os décharnés ?

Ton siècle était, dit-on, trop jeune pour te lire ;

Le nôtre doit te plaire, et tes hommes sont nés.

Il est tombé sur nous cet édifice immense

Que de tes larges mains tu sapais nuit et jour […]’19

 

(‘Sleep you content, Voltaire, and does your hideous smile,

Flit o’er your fleshless skull in mockery the while?

Your century was too young to read you so they say;

Our own must please you well – your men are born today!

The mighty edifice with your industrious hands

Worked with such zeal to undermine, no longer stands […]’20)

 

What the narrator is asserting is that the influence of Voltaire as what has called, while exerting minimal influence on the eighteenth century itself, impacted the nineteenth, and specifically Musset’s own generation, with a leviathan-life force which he views as wholly destructive, this being especially true with regard to religious faith in France. Yet, what Paul Lawrence Rose describes as ‘Voltaire’s anti-Christian sentiments’21 were to a degree reflective of the French Enlightenment as a whole; as Terence Nichols writes:

 ‘The French Enlightenment, led by men like Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot, was […] much more anti-Christian and anti-clerical than the English, American or German Enlightenments.’22

 Accordingly, Musset’s mal du siecle, expressed firstly through Rolla, and subsequently through La Confession d’un enfant du siecle, was significantly rooted in a conviction that his generation had been blighted by, one the one hand, the impact of the Enlightenment, and specifically Voltaire, on the Christian faith, and on the other, a distinctly morbid strain within Romanticism epitomised in its earliest stages by such fictional characters as Werther, Faust, and Manfred.

 Musset’s anguished critique of the Paris of the 1830s, expressed in Rolla, and to an even greater degree in La Confession d’un enfant du siècle, is remarkably applicable to our own post-war Western culture, and while Musset was in nowise immune to the temptations tendered by societal dissolution, he was yet something of Jeremiah for his times. It was, one might say, as if he foresaw the Parisian fin de siècle of which the 1830s was a foretaste (Maria Filomena Mónica has described him as ‘The precursor of fin de siècle pessimism’23); in fact not just the fin de siècle, but the far greater decadence that, according to the conservative worldview, afflicted the entire Western World during the second half of the twentieth century, with the 1960s very much the starting point. With respect to Britain, although they could equally have been writing about the United States, among other Western nations, Anthony Adams and Witold Tulasiewicz asserted in 1995:

 ‘[…] the conservative Right identified the ‘1960s’ as the period of moral decline when pride in the nation diminished and the moral decadence of relativism in values began.’24

 A similar declension in terms of the absolute nature of traditional values was at the heart of the misery that afflicted several of the anti-heroes Musset forged during the turbulent years of 1833-36, which were of course coincidental with his love affair with George Sand, one of, if not the, defining event in his life.

 By the time of Sand’s relationship with Musset, she was already a divorcee with two young children, as well as being a Baroness through her marriage to Casimir Dudevent. Born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin in Paris in 1804, of aristocratic lineage through her father, she was clearly a woman of quite extraordinary magnetic power, inspiring much of Musset’s finest work (while in addition to Musset, as well as Jules Sandeau, Prosper Merimee and others, she was also, famously, Chopin’s lover from 1838 until some ten years thereafter). For in addition to La Confession d’un enfant du siècle, the famous series of poems known as Les Nuits spring from his unhappy relationship with Sand, and they are rightly considered to be among the unimpeachable masterpieces of French Romanticism, indeed of French literature as a whole, as Germaine Mason writes of them:

 ‘His liaison with George Sand (1833-35) gave him the great love he had dreamed of, but their separation, in Venice, nearly brought him to despair. The repercussions of this sentimental crisis inspired his deepest and most moving verse, the four poems of Les Nuits (1835-37): Nuit de mai; Nuit de décembre; Nuit d’août; Nuit d’octobre. No other Romantic poetry has such an intense and poignant beauty, none sounds so deeply sincere. It is indeed the purest poetry of the heart.’25

 Musset’s dramatic career began as early as 1830 with La Nuit venitienne, whose failure caused him to temporarily forego writing for the physical stage, even while he continued to compose theatrical works, such as Lorenzaccio from 1833, and On ne badine pas avec l’amour from the following year. However, it would not be until 1847 that Musset achieved success as a dramatist, when Un caprice, produced at the Comédie-Française by the actress Madame Allan-Despréaux, provoked a revival of interest in his plays; as Felicia Hardison-Londré writes of this felicitous occurrence:

 ‘[…] Madame Allan-Despréaux performing in St. Petersburg, saw Musset’s Un Caprice (1837) presented there in Russian. Charmed by the delightful and psychologically penetrating three-character play, she took it to the Comédie-Francaise, performed it there with great success, and became Musset’s mistress.’26

 From towards the end of the 1830s, Musset wrote increasingly little, as Karen L. Taylor confirms:

 ‘After 1838, Musset seemed to lose inspiration. He […] was elected to the Académie Française in 1853, the same year that he was appointed librarian to the Ministry of Education, but he no longer wrote […]  Musset’s most creative period was during his youth and ended by 30.’27

 In the respect that Musset’s period of greatest glory took place during the frenetic 1830s, he was akin to other artistic legends who have ascended to pre-eminence during decades of unusual incandescence and significance, only to become indelibly associated with the epoch that made their name, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, who effectively defined the Jazz Age, and The Beatles, who will forever be associated with the Swinging Sixties, even while they were unable to survive it as a functioning entity. Yet, like his close contemporary Théophile Gautier, Musset attained respectability in late middle age, receiving the Légion d’honneur in 1845, at the same time as another contemporary, Balzac, while being elected to the Académie française in 1852.

 He died four years later at the early age of 46 from a case, allegedly syphilitic in origin, 28 of aortic regurgitation, thereby lending his name to one of the latter’s symptoms, which subsequently became known as ‘De Musset’s sign’. Delicate as a child, he’d attained a powerful degree of physical soundness by his twenties; however, his health started to decline from 1840, which marked both the year marking the end of the revolutionary 1830s, and Musset’s own thirtieth birthday on December the 11th. Thence, while his life was in many ways a tragic one of what some might describe as unfulfilled promise, his reputation has ascended by degrees since his death, as Susan McCready has asserted:

 ‘Musset’s road to redemption had begun in 1847, when his Caprice, a play written in 1837, was performed at the Comedie-Francaise for the first time […] By the time Emile Fabre took the helm of the Comédie-Française in 1915, a shift in the way Musset was appreciated both as a poet and playwright was underway […] From the beginning of his tenure, Emile Fabre wished to pay homage to Musset by adding his name to the list of playwrights whose birthdays were traditionally celebrated at the Comédie. Musset was thus promoted to the select group of Moliere, Corneille, Racine and Hugo.  The canon was indeed under review.’29

 Moreover, both La Confession d’un enfant du siècle, and the actual events at its heart, continue to inspire creative artists, having recently birthed no less than two moving pictures in the shape of Diane Kurys’ Les Enfants du Siècle from 1999, loosely based on the real life romance between Musset and Sand, and more recently, a faithful adaptation of the novel itself by Sylvie Verheyde, featuring singer-songwriter Pete Doherty as Octave, and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Brigitte. And if anyone can rightly be called a poète maudit in the classic tradition, but within a millennial context, it is dandy-bohemian Doherty; while Charlotte Gainsbourg is the deeply gifted daughter of chanson genius Serge, himself a latter-day poète maudit of the old school.

As to the age of his passing…it appears to be quite a common one for great poets whose flaming, beautiful youths were garlanded with the most magnificent promise imaginable, for as well as Musset, Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde both died at 46, and together they might serve as a testimony to the awful truth of the brevity of even the most glorious of youths.

________________________________________________________________________________________

The Poets and Poetry of Europe, intr. and biographical notices by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1871), p. 850.

2 Francine du Plessix Gray, Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet: Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert’s Muse (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Tokyo, Singapore: Simon and Schuster, 1994) p. 223.

3 Sylvia Kahan, In Search of New Scales: Prince Edmond de Polignac, Octatonic Explorer (Rochester: university of Rochester Press, 2009), p. 12.

4 Kahan, p. 12.

5 Tim Farrant, Introduction to Nineteenth-Century French Literature (London, Delhi, New York and Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic, 2007), p. 17.

6 Karen L. Taylor, The Facts on File Companion to the French Novel (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007), p. 276.

7 Alfred de Musset, La Confession d’un enfant du siècle (Paris: Larousse, 1900) p. 9.

8 Alfred de Musset, The Confession of a Child of the Century, transl. by T.F. Rogerson (Philadelphia: George Barrie and Sons, 1899), p 15.

9 Arnold Hauser, intr. by Jonathan Harris, The Social History of Art: Volume III: Rococo, Classicism and Romanticism (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 199.

10 Men and Masculinities: A Social, Cultural and Historical Encyclopaedia, Volume 1: A-J, ed. by Michael Kimmel and Amy Aronson (Santa Barbara, Denver and Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2004) p. 122.

11 Musset, p. 12.

12 Musset, p. 20.

13 F. W. Stokoe, German Influence in the English Romantic Period: 1788-1818 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926), p. 165.

14 The Reception of Byron in Europe, Volume I, II, ed. by Richard A. Cardwell (London and New York: Continuum, 2004) p. 245.

15 Linda Kelly, The Young Romantics: Writers & Liaisons, Paris 1827-37 (London: Starhaven, 2005), p. 105.

16Alfred de Musset, The Complete Writings of Alfred de Musset: Volume Two, trans. by George Santayana, Emily Shaw Forman and Marie Agathe Clarke (New York: James L. Perkins and Company, 1908), p. 3.

17 Paul de Musset, The Biography of Alfred de Musset, trans. by Harriet W. Preston (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1877), p. 2.

18 Karen O’Brien, Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 21.

19 Alfred de Musset, Poésies nouvelles (Paris: Charpentier, 1857), p. 15.

20 Musset, The Complete Writings of Alfred de Musset: Volume Two, p. 21.

21 Paul Lawrence Rose, German Question/Jewish Question: Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany from Kant to Wagner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 47.

22 The Christian Theological Tradition, ed. by Catherine A. Cory and Michael J. Hollerich (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), p. 384.

23 Maria Filomena Mónica, Eça de Queiroz, trans. by Alison Aiken (Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2005), p. 311.

24 Anthony Adams and Witold Tulasiewicz, The Crisis in Teacher Education: A European Concern? (London and Washington D.C.: The Falmer Press, 1995), p. 20.

25 Germaine Mason, A Concise Survey of French Literature (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), p. 176.

26 Felicia Hardison-Londré, The History of World-Theatre: From the English Restoration to the Present (New York: Continuum, 1999), p. 241.

27 Taylor, p. 276.

28 JV Pai-Dhunghat and Falguni Raik,  Alfred de Musset’s Sign (Mumbai: Journal of the Association of Physicians of India: Vol. 63, 2015).

29 Susan McCready, Staging France Between the World Wars: Performance, Politics and the Transformation of the Theatrical Canon (Lanham, Boulder, New York, London,: Lexington Books, 2016) p. 103.

 

 

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Starward's picture

I first saw this essay a

I first saw this essay a little over eighteen months ago, and I was reminded of how impressed I was when I first read it.   By coincidence, I have just required what appears to be a very interesting biography of Countess D'Agoult, who wrote under the pen name Daniel Stern, so I am looking foward to reading that soon; and now, have become reacquainted with your essay, I am curious to learn what her opinion of De Musset's novel (especially its portrain of George Sand) might have been.  If I recall correctly (from my adolescent researches in the mid-seventies), Sand's societal notariety took a huge boost during her affair with De Musset, which brought her to Countess D'Agoult's attention and gave D'Agoult an example which encouraged her to leave her husband for a dalliance with Franz Liszt.  Thank you for reminding me of all this.


Starward

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Starward's picture

Very impressive.  I like the

Very impressive.  I like the blame being placed squarely on Voltaire, which dovetails into what I was taught about him decades ago in school.  Oddly enough, George Sand's paternal grandmother is said to have entertained Voltaire for several days at the family estate, Nohant.  (From 1975 to about 1979, George Sand very fahionable, due to the BBC's broadcast of the miniseries,Notorious Woman, on Masterpiece Theater.  When I went up to college, the Sand/Chopin mess was causing disruption between the music majors and the literature majors.  I was ferociously fond of George Sand, which cost me some academic friendships; but have since mellowed and I believe, with more historical evidence available now, that the scales tip more toward Chopin's side.


Starward

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Carl_Halling's picture

Thank you!

Yes, I have to confess to not being a massive 'fan' of the Enlightenment. I didn't know that about Sand's grandmother. I've not seen the series, I'll see if I can catch some on 'You Tube'. I do remember seeing 'Impromtu' with Judy Davis as Sand and Hugh Grant as Chopin in what was I think the early 1990s. There was also a Hollywood version of the story, which seems to have vastly occulted her love affair with Musset, who remains little known, while Chopin is of course universally adored.


Born London, residing London Metropolitan Area.

Starward's picture

Sadly, unless there has been

Sadly, unless there has been a sudden chane, Notorious Woman has only one brief clip on You Tube, and there are no dvd's to purchase on amazon.  Although Rosemary Harris delivers a magnificent performance, the series is wildly inaccurate---as, for example, it shows her having what proves to be a fatal stroke while visiting the monument over Chopin's grave (which was sculpted by her ex-son-in-law).  The truth of it is that she died of an cancer of the digestive system/ intestinal system at Nohant.  This is my second draft of my comment; the first one is very verbose about Sand/Chopin, and I am sending that to you by PM, as the public comment venue doesn't seem right for that much chatter.  I know very little about Musset, although I recall that both Musset and Sand wrote novels giving their individual and conflicting versions of the affair.  And was Musset acquainted with Liszt and his mistress, Countess D'Agoult?


Starward

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