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Alfred de Musset (1810-1857)


French Romantic poet and playwright, remembered for his poetry. A love affair with the novelist George Sand between the years 1833 and 1835 inspired some of Musset's finest lyrics. Much influenced by Shakespeare and Schiller, Alfred de Musset wrote the first modern dramas in the French language.

"How glorious it is, but how painful it is also, to be exceptional in this world!" (in La Merle Blanc, 1842)

Alfred de Musset was born in the middle of old Paris, in a house on the Rues des Noyers near the Hôtel de Cluny. Both of his parents were descended from distinguished families, and his father had written several historical and travel works. Musset entered the Collège Henry IV, where his schoolmater included the Duke or Orleans, and graduated with honors in 1827. After hesitating between many professions, Musset abandoned medicine because of his distaste of the dissecting room. Instead, he studied painting for six months in the Louvre.

Musset began his career as a poet and dramatist in 1828 with the publication of a ballad called 'A Dream'. His early poems won the approval of Victor Hugo, who accepted Musset in his Romantic literary circle Cénacle.

Musset's parodic collection of poems in Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie (1830) showed the influence of Lord Byron. In 1830, at the invitation of the director of the Théâtre de l'Odeon, Musset wrote La nuit vénitienne, the first of his plays to be produced. After the humiliating failure on the stage, Musset refused to allow his other plays than historical tragedies and comedies to be performed. This decision partly liberated him from the thoughts of "technique"-he did not care whether the plays made an effect or no. At that time theatre, on the other hand, was for writers a good means to reach their audience. A theatre ticked was not so expensive than a book. Musset's relatively well-made books, which cost only 3.50 francs, still did not reach a public of petits-bourgeois, craftsmen, or workers, who earned little more than 4 francs per day.

Musset's father died in 1832, leaving him the title of viscount. In June 1833 Musset met at a dinner party George Sand, the daring author of Indiana and Valentine, who was carrying a gem-studded dagger.  When Sand sent him proof of her forthcoming novel Lélia, Mussed replied: "You've gone and become George Sand; otherwise, you would merely have been Madame so and so, scribbling away." He started an intense relationship with her, which inspired the celebrated four 'Nuits' (1835-37). Both Sand and Musset recorded in their notebooks the love affair.

Gamiani (1833), an erotic novella, which Musset published under the pseudonym Alcide, Baron de M***, tells of Countess Gamiani, who is frigid with men. At the end she poisons a young woman in a lesbian orgy and dies in ecstasy. According to a legend, Musset took up a challenge to write an obscene book without using obscene words and finished the work in two days. After Musset and Sand separated the story was read as Musset's revenge on her.

In 1834 Musset visited Venice with Sand. Stendhal predicted that Sand would find Italy boring. This journey was a turning point in Musset's life. They both became dangerously ill, but Sand was too sick to suffer from boredom. She fell in love with her physician, Pietro Pagello, and Musset returned alone and in despair to Paris, where he resumed his old habit as a womanizer. Musset and Sand went together to see Alfred de Vigny's Chatterton, a major theatrical event, but eventually she had had enough: "Your behavior is deplorable, impossible. . . . The drunkenness, the wine! prostitutes, still, and always! Your insane jealousy about everything, in the midst of everything else!"

Musset's autobiographical work,  La Confession d'un enfant du siècle (1835), a fictionalized account of the affair written in the form of an apologia, was a succès de scandale. Sand was cast as Brigitte Pierson, the lover of the male protagonist, who treats him in motherly way. They part in the end. This work reflected the mal du siècle, the disillusioned moral atmosphere in the period of strife between liberals and monarchists. "Everything that was no longer exists; everything that is to be does not yet exists," Musset once said. Musset's emotionally stormy year of 1835 inspired also his plays On ne badine pas avec l'amour and Lorenzaccio, which is sometimes considered his finest drama; the 'Lettre a Lamartine' from this period is considered one of the most beautiful pages of French literature.

Lorenzaccio, written in 1834 and produced in 1896, was based on the murder of the Florentine tyrant Alessandro de'Medici by his cousin Lorenzo, known as Lorenzaccio. Idealistic Lorenzo wins the confidence of Alessandro in order to assassinate the tyrant. In the process, he loses his believes that the rebellious faction led by the Strozzis is capable of declaring a republic. He proceeds with the original plan and Cosimo de'Medici is declared the new ruler of Florence. Defeated in his hopes for justice and freedom, Lorenzo is finally assassinated in turn.

In 1837 Musset became engaged to Aimée d'Alton. The relationship faded within a year and was followed by brief affairs. Throughout his life, Musset also frequented prostitutes and used occasionally opium. His health began to fail and after 1840s Musset's literary production as a dramatist diminished. However, Poésies nouvelles (1836-52) included 'Les Nuits,' the series of lyrics for which Musset is best-known.

Musset was appointed librarian of the Home Office by the Duke of Orleans. The pay was small, 3,000 francs, and it has been said that there was no library at all. In 1845 Musset was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1845. From the late 1840s his plays, which were recognized for their profound grasp of the psychology of love, started to enjoy success on the French stage. Musset's later works include the patriotic song 'Le Rhin Allemand', and the popular comedy Il faut qu'une porte soit ouverte ou fermée (1845). In 1852 Musset was elected to the French Academy. In the same year he entered into a love affair with Louise Colet, the former mistress of Gustave Flaubert.

For the last two years of his life, Musset was confined to his apartment near the Comédie-Française. His heart ailment, an unusual vascular malfunction that became known to scientist as the Musset symptom, was aggravated by drinking. He died in Paris on May 2, 1857. Nowadays Musset's popularity is considered second only to Racine and Moliere. "My glass is not big, but I drink out of my own glass," he once stated self-consciously. His influence is probably best seen in the plays of Jean Anouilh. Many of the titles for his works were taken from proverbs popular at the time.

J'ai perdu ma force et ma vie,
Et mes amis et ma gaîté;
J'ai perdu jusqu'à la fierté
Qui faisat croire à mon génie.
Quan j'ai connu la Vérité,
J'ai cru que c'était une amie;
quand je l'ai comprise et sentie,
J'en étais féjà dégoûté.
Et pourtant elle est éternelle,
Et ceux qui se sont passés d'elle
Ici-bas ont tout ignoré.
Dieu parle, il faut qu'on lui réponde.
Le seul bien qui me reste au monde
Est d'avoir quelquefois pleuré.
For further reading: Documents littéraire by E. Zola (1881); Les amants de Venise by Ch. Maurras (1902); Life of Alfred de Musset by A. Barine (1906); Un grand amour romantique: George Sand et Alfred de Musset by A. Feugère (1927); Le romantisme de Musset by P. Gastinel (1933); La vie privée de Musset by A. Villiers (1939); Musset: L'homme et l'oeuvre by P. van Teighem (1945); Alfred: The Passionate Life of Alfred de Musset by C. Haldane (1961); Etude historique et critique du théâtre de Musset by M. Vantore (1962); Vues sur le théâtre de Musset by A. Lebois (1966); The Dramatic Art of Musset by H.S. Gochberg (1967); Vie de Musset ou l'amour de la mort by M. Toesca (1970), A Stage for Poets by C. Affron (1971); The Poetry of Alfred De Musset: Styles and Genres by Lloyd Bishop (1987); Musset Et Shakespeare: Etude Analystique De L'Influence De Shakespeare Sur Le Theatre D'Alfred De Musset by Rex A. Barrell (1988); Paradigm and Parody: Images of Creativity in French Romanticism--Vigny, Hugo, Balzac, Gautier, Musset by Henry F. Majewski (1989); L'Esprit. Stylistique du mot d'esprit dans le Theatre de Musset by Jean-Jacques Didier (1992); The Romantic Art of Confession: De Quincey, Musset, Sand, Lamb, Hogg, Fremy, Soulie, Janin by Susan M. Levin (1998) - Note: Diane Kurys's film Enfants du siècle (1999), starring Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel, depicted the love affair of Alfred de Musset and George Sand. - Suom.: Suomeksi Mussetilta on julkaistu mm.  Novelleja (suom. Matti Vuori, 1907), Rakkauden tiet (suom. Jalmari Kekkonen, 1943), runoja teoksissa Ranskalaista laulurunoutta (suom. L. Onerva, 1912), Yöt ja muita runoja  (suom. Yrjö Kaijärvi, 1949) ja  Tuhat laulujen vuotta (toim. Aale Tynni, 1974), komedioita sekä elämäkerta V.A. Koskenniemen kirjoittamana.

Selected works:

  • L'Anglais mangeur d'opium, 1828
  • Les Marrons du feu, 1929
  • La Nuit vénitienne, 1830 (play, in Un Spectacle dans un fauteui, 1834, prod. 1830) [A Venetian Night]
  • Comtes d'Espagne et d'Italie, 1830 (ed. by Margaret A. Rees, 1973)
  • Un Spectacle dans un fauteuil, 1834
  • La Coupe et les Lèvres, 1832 [The Cup and the Lip]
  • À quoi rêvent les jeunes filles, 1832 [Of What Young Maidens Dream]
  • Les Caprices de Marianne, 1834 (play, in Un Spectacle dans un fauteui, 1834, prod. 1851, rev. version, 1851)
    - A Good Little Wife (1847?) / The Moods of Marianne (in Five Plays, ed. Claude Schumacher, 1995) / Marianne (tr. Peter Meyer, in Seven Plays, 1962)
  • Gamiani, ou Deux Nuits d'excès, 1833
    - Gamiani; or, Two Nights of Excess (tr. A. Mentula, 1923)
    - Gamiani eli kaksi hillitöntä yötä (suom. Jaana Seppänen, 2012)
  • Rolla, 1833
  • Un Spectacle dans un fauteuil, 1833 (second series, 2 vols., 1834)
  • André del Sarto, 1834 (play, in Un Spectacle dans un fauteui, 1834, prod. 1848, rev. version, 1851)
  • Fantasio, 1834 (play, in Un Spectacle dans un fauteui, 1834, prod. 1866)
    - Fantasio (in Comedies, 1890) / Fantasio: a Comedy in Two Acts (tr. Maurice Baring, 1929) / Fantasio (tr. by Peter Meyer, in Seven Plays, 1962) / Fantasio and Other Plays (translated by Michael Feingold et al., 1993)
  • On ne badine pas avec l'amour, 1834 (play, in Un Spectacle dans un fauteui, 1834)
    - No Trifling with Love (in Comedies, 1890) / Don't Trifle with Love (tr. Peter Meyer, in Seven Plays, 1962; Nagle Jackson in Fantasio and Other Plays, 1993) / Don't Trifle with Love (tr. Peter Meyer, in Seven Plays, 1962)
  • Lorenzaccio, 1834 (play, in Un Spectacle dans un fauteui, 1834, prod. 1866)
    - Lorenzaccio: A Drama in Five Acts (tr. Edmund Thompson, 1989)
  • Le Chandelier, 1835 (play, in Comédies et proverbs, 1840, rev. version, 1848)
    - The Candlestick (tr. Peter Meyer, in Seven Plays, 1962)
  • La Quenouille de Barberine, 1835 (play, in Comédies et proverbs, 1840, rev. version, as Barberine, prod. 1882; in Comédies et proverbes, 1853)
    - Barberine (in Comedies, 1890)
  • Les Nuits, 1835-37 (beginning with La nuit de Mai)
    - A Night in May (by Claire Nicolas White, 1989)
    - Yöt (suom. Yrjö Kaijärvi, 1943; Yöt ja muita runoja, 3. tarkistettu p. 1961)
  • La Confession d'un enfant du siècle, 1936 (2 vols.)
    - The Confession of a Child of the Century (tr. Kendall Warren, 1892)
    - Vuosisadan lapsen tunnustus (suom. V.A. Koskenniemi, 1915)
  • Il ne faut jurer de rien, 1836 (play, in Comédies et proverbs, 1840, prod. 1848)
    - You Can't Think of Everything (tr. Michael Feingold, in Fantasio and Other Plays, 1993)
  • Lettre à M. de Lamartine, 1836
  • Lettres à Dupuis et Cotonet, 1836-37
  • Un Caprice, 1837 (play, in Comédies et proverbs, 1840, prod. 1847) - A Caprice (tr. Mary Helena Dey, in The Complete Writings of Alfred de Musset, Vol. 5, 1905) / A Diversion (tr. Peter Meyer, in Seven Plays, 1962)
  • Contes et nouvelles, 1838
  • Margot, 1838
    - Margot (tr. Raoul Pellissier, in The Complete Writings of Alfred de Musset, Vol. 6, 1908)
    - Margot (suom. Hemminki Karjalainen, 1918) / Rakkauden tiet: kaksi novellia (suom. Jalmari Kekkonen, 1943)
  • Frédéric Et Bernadette, 1838
    - Rakkauden tiet: kaksi novellia (suom. Jalmari Kekkonen, 1943)
  • Poésies complètes, 1840
  • Souvenir, 1841
  • Histoire d'un merle blanc, 1842
  • Pierre et Camille, 1844
    - Pierre and Camille (tr. Raoul Pellissier, in The Complete Writings, Vol. 7, 1905)
  • Il faut qu'une porte soit ouverte ou fermée, 1845 (play, prod. 1848)
    - The Door Must Be Either Open or Shut (tr. Mary Helena Dey, in The Complete Writings of Alfred de Musset, Vol. 5, 1905) / A Door Must Be Open or Shut (tr. Peter Meyer, in Seven Plays, 1962)
  • Mimi Pinson, 1846
  • Nouvelles, 1848
    - Tales from Musset (1888); The Two Mistresses, etc. (1900)
  • L'Habit vert, proverbe en un acte et en prose, 1849 (play, with Émile Augier, prod. 1849)
    - The Green Coat (tr. Barret H. Clark, 1915)
  • Louison, 1849 (play, prod. 1849)
    - Louison (tr. Mary Helena Dey, in The Complete Writings of Alfred de Musset, Vol. 5, 1905)
  • Carmosine, 1850 (play, in Comediés et proverbs, 1853)
    - Carmosine (tr. Mary Helena Dey, in The Complete Writings of Alfred de Musset, Vol. 5, 1905)
  • Bettine, 1851 (play, prod. 1851)
    - Bettine (tr. Mary Helena Dey, in The Complete Writings of Alfred de Musset, Vol. 5, 1905)
  • Premières poésies, 1852
  • Poésies nouvelles, 1852
  • La Mouche, 1853
  • Comédies et proverbes, 1853
  • On ne saurait penser à tout, 1853 (play, prod. 1849, in Comédies et proverbs, 1853)
    - One Can Not Think of Everything (tr. Mary Helena Dey, in The Complete Writings of Alfred de Musset, Vol. 5, 1905) / You Can't Think of Everything (tr. Peter Meyer, in Seven Plays, 1962)
  • Contes, 1854
  • Poésies complètes, 1854 (2 vols.)
  • L'Âne et le Ruisseau, 1860 (play, prod. 1876, in Oeuvres posthumes, 1860)
    - All Is Fair in Love and War (tr. 1868) / The Donkey and the Stream (tr. Mary W. Artois, The Complete Writings of Alfred De Musset, Vol. 10, 1905)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1865-66 (10 vols., ed. Paul de Musset)
  • Mélanges de littérature et de critique, 1867
  • Œuvres, 1876 (10 vols.)
  • Œuvres posthumes, 1881
  • Comedies, 1892 (tr. S.L. Gwynn)
  • La Quittance du Diable, 1896 (play, prod. 1938)
  • The Complete Writings of Alfred de Musset, 1905 (10 vols., rev. ed. 1907, tr. M. A. Clarke et al.)
  • Comédies et proverbes, 1906
  • Correspondance1827-57, 1907
  • Œuvres complètes, 1907-09 (8 vols.)
  • Lettres d'Amour à Aimée d'Alton, 1910 (ed. Léon Séché)
  • Oeuvres complémentaires, 1911 (ed. Maurice Allem)
  • Poésies complétes illustrées, 1927-29 (10 vols.)
  • Correspondance entre George Sand et Alfred de Musset, 1930
  • Comediés et proverbes, 1937-1957 (4 vols.)
  • Comediés et proverbes, 1945 (2 vols.)
  • Œuvres complètes en Prose, 1951
  • Poésies complétes en Prose; Thèâtre complet; Poèsies complètes, 1951-58 (3 vols., ed. Maurice Allem)
  • Thèâtre complet, 1952 (ed. M. Allem)
  • Textes dramatiques inédits, 1953 (ed. Jean Richer)
  • A Comedy and Two Proverbs, 1957 (tr. G. Graveley)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1963 (ed. Philippe van Teighem)
  • Seven Plays, 1962 (tr. Peter Meyer)
  • Fantasio and Other Plays, 1993 (tr. Michael Feingold)
  • Five Plays: The Moods of Marianne, Fantasio, Lorenzaccio, Don't Play With Love, Caprice, 1995 (ed. by Claude Schumacher)
  • Historical Dramas of Alfred De Musset, 1997 (tr. David Sices)

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