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Alfred De Musset by By Henry James


IT HAD BEEN known for some time that M. Paul de Musset was preparing a biography of his illustrious brother, and the knowledge had been grateful to Alfred de Musset's many lovers; for the author of “Rolla" and the “Lettre à Lamartine” has lovers. The book has at last appeared—-more than twenty years after the death of its hero. It is probably not unfair to suppose that a motive for delay has been removed by the recent death of Mme. Sand. M. Paul de Musset's volume proves, we confess, rather disappointing. It is a careful and graceful, but at the same time a very slight performance, such as was to be expected from the author of “Lui et Elle” and of the indignant refutation (in the biographical notice which accompanies the octavo edition of Alfred de Musset's works) of M. Taine's statement that the poet was addicted to walking about the streets late at night. As regards this latter point, M. Paul de Musset hastened to declare that his brother had no such habits—-that his customs were those of a gentilhomme; by which the biographer would seem to mean that when the poet went abroad after dark it was in his own carriage, or at least in a hired cab, summoned from the nearest stand. M. Paul de Musset is a devoted brother and an agreeable writer; but he is not, from the critics point of view, the ideal biographer. This, however, is not seriously to be regretted, for it is little to be desired that the ideal biography of Alfred de Musset should be written, or that he should be delivered over, bound hand and foot, to the critics. Those who really care for him would prefer to judge him with all kinds of allowances and indulgences—-sentimentally and imaginatively. Between him and his readers it is a matter of affection, or it is nothing at all; and there is something very happy, therefore, in M. Paul do Musset's fond, fraternal reticency and extenuation. He has related his brother's life as if it were a pretty “story” and indeed there is enough that was pretty in it to justify him. We should decline to profit by any information that might be offered us in regard to its prosaic, its possibly shabby side. To make the story complete, however, there appears simultaneously with M. Paul de Musset's volume a publication of a quite different sort—-a memoir of the poet by a clever German writer, Herr Paul Lindau. Herr Lindau is highly appreciative, but he is also critical, and he says a great many things which M. Paul de Musset leaves unsaid. As becomes a German biographer, he is very minute and exhaustive, and a stranger who should desire a “general idea” of the poet would probably get more instruction from his pages than from the French memoir. Their fault is indeed that they are apparently addressed to persons whose mind is supposed to be a blank with regard to the author of “Rolla.” The exactions of bookmaking alone can explain the long analyses and prose paraphrases of Alfred de Musset's comedies and tales to which Herr Lindau treats his readers—-the dreariest kind of reading when an author is not in himself essentially inaccessible. Either one has not read Alfred de Musset's comedies or not felt the charm of them—-in which case one will not be likely to resort to Herr Lindau's memoirs—-or one has read them, in the charming original, and can therefore dispense with an elaborate German résumé.

“Biographie de Alfred de Musset: sa Vie et ses Oeavres.” Par Paul de Musset. Paris: Charpentier.

“Alfred de Musset.” Von Paul Lindau. Berlin: Hofmann.

In saying just now that M. Paul de Musset's biography of his brother is disappointing, we meant more particularly to express our regret that he has given us no letters—-or given us at least but two or three. It is probable, however, that he had no more in his hands. Alfred de Musset lived in a very compact circle; he spent his whole life in Paris, and his friends lived in Paris near him. He was little separated from his brother, who appears to have been his best friend (M. Paul de Musset was six years Alfred's senior), and much of his life was passed under the same roof with the other members of his family. Seeing his friends constantly, he had no occasion to write to them; and as he saw little of the world (in the larger sense of the phrase), he would have had probably but little to write about. He made but one attempt at travelling—-his journey to Italy, at the age of twenty-three, with George Sand. “He made no important journeys,” says Herr Lindau, “and if one excepts his love affairs, he really had no experiences.” But his love affairs, as a general thing, could not properly be talked about. M. de Musset shows good taste in not pretending to narrate them. He mentions two or three of the more important episodes of this class, and with regard to the others he says that when he does not mention them they may always be taken for granted. It is perhaps indeed in a limited sense that Alfred de Musset's love affairs may be said to have been in some cases more important than in others. It was his own philosophy that in this matter one thing is about as good as another—-

Aimer est le grand point; qu'importe la maitresse?

Qu'importe le flacon pourvu qu'on ait livresse?

Putting aside the “ivresse,” which was constant, Musset's life certainly offers little material for narration. He wrote a few poems, tales, and comedies, and that is all. He did nothing, in the sterner sense of the word. He was inactive, indolent, idle; his record has very few dates. Two or three times the occasion to do something was offered him, but he shook his head and let it pass. It was proposed to him to accept a place as attaché to the French embassy at Madrid, a comfortable salary being affixed to the post. But Musset found no inspiration in the prospect. He had written about Spain in his earlier year—-he had sung in the most charming fashion about Juanas and Pepitas, about señoras in mantillas stealing down palace staircases that look “blue” in the starlight. But the desire to see the picturesqueness that he had fancied proved itself to have none of the force of a motive. This is the fact in Musset's life which the writer of these lines finds most regrettable—-the fact of his contented smallness of horizon—-the fact that on his own line he should not have cared to go further. There is something really exasperating in the sight of a picturesque poet wantonly slighting an opportunity to go to Spain—-the Spain of forty years ago. It does violence even to that minimum of intellectual eagerness which is the portion of a contemplative mind. It is annoying to think that Alfred de Musset should have been meagrely contemplative. This is the weakness that tells against him, more than the weakness of what would be called his excesses. From the point of view of his own peculiar genius, it was a good fortune for him to be susceptible and tender, sensitive and passionate. The trouble was not that he was all this, but that he was lax and soft; that he had too little energy and curiosity. Shelley was at least equally tremulous and sensitive—-equally a victim of his impressions, and an echo, as it were, of his temperament. But even Musset's fondest readers must feel that Shelley had within him a firm, divinely-tempered spring against which his spirit might rebound indefinitely. As regards intense sensibility—-that fineness of feeling which is the pleasure and pain of the poetic nature—-M. Paul de Musset tells two or three stories of his brother which remind one of the anecdotes recorded of the author of the “Ode to the West Wind.” “One of the things which he loved best in the world was a certain exclamation of Racine's 'Phædra,' which expresses by its bizarrerie the trouble of her sickened heart:

Ariane, ma soeur, de quel amour blessée,

Vous mourtütes aux bords où vous fûtes laissée!

When Rachel used to murmur forth this strange, unexpected plaint, Alfred always took his head in his two hands and turned pale with emotion.

The author describes the poet's early years, and gives several very pretty anecdotes of his childhood. Alfred de Musset was born in 1810, in the middle of old Paris, on a spot familiar to those many American visitors who wander across the Seine, better and better pleased as they go, to the museum of the Hôtel de Cluny. The house in which Musset's parents lived was close to this beautiful monument—-a happy birthplace for a poet; but both the house and the street have now disappeared. M. Paul de Musset does not relate that his brother began to versify in his infancy; but Alfred was indeed hardly more than an infant when he achieved his first success. The poems published under the title of “Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie” were composed in his eighteenth and nineteenth years; he had but just completed his nineteenth when the volume into which they had been gathered was put forth. There are certainly—-if one considers the quality of the poems—-few more striking examples of literary precocity. The cases of Chatterton and Keats may be equally remarkable, but they are not more so. These first boyish verses of Musset have a vivacity, a brilliancy, a freedom of feeling and of fancy which may well have charmed the little cénacle to which he read them aloud—-the group of littérateurs and artists which clustered about Victor Hugo, who, although at this time very young, was already famous. M. Paul de Musset intimates that if his brother was at this moment (and. as we may suppose, indeed, always) one of the warmest admirers. of the great author of “Hernani” and those other splendid productions which project their violet glow across the threshold of the literary era of 1830, and if Victor Hugo gave kindly audience to “Don Paez” and “Mardoche,” this kindness declined in proportion as the fame of the younger poet expanded. Alfred de Musset was certainly not fortunate in his relations with his more distinguished contemporaries. Victor Hugo “dropped” him; it would have been better for him if George Sand had never taken him up; and Lamartine, to whom, in the shape of a passionate epistle, he addressed the most beautiful of his own, and one of the most beautiful of all poems, acknowledged the compliment only many years after it was paid. The cénacle was all for Spain, for local colour, for serenades, and daggers, and Gothic arches. It was nothing if not audacious (it was in the van of the Romantic movement), and it was partial to what is called in France the “humoristic” as well as to the ferociously sentimental. Musset produced a certain “Ballade à la Lune” which began—-

C'était dans la unit brune

Sur le clocher jauni,

La lune

Comma un point sur un!!

This assimilation of the moon suspended above a church spire to a dot upon an i became among the young Romanticists a sort of symbol of what they should do and dare; just as in the opposite camp it became a by-word of horror. But this was only playing at poetry, and in his next things, produced in the following year or two, Musset struck a graver and more resonant chord. The pieces published under the title of “Un Spectacle dans un Fauteuil” have all the youthful grace and gayety of those that preceded them; but they have beyond this a suggestion of the quality which gives so high a value to the author's later and best verses—-the accent of genuine passion. It is hard to see what, just yet, Alfred de Musset had to be passionate about; but passion, with a poet, even when it is most genuine, is very much of an affair of the imagination and the personal temperament (independent, we mean, of strong provoking causes), and the sensibilities of this young man were already exquisitely active. His poems found a great many admirers, and these admirers were often women. Hence for the young poet, says M. Paul de Musset, a great many romantic and “Boccaciennes” adventures. “On several occasions I was awaked in the middle of the night to give my opinion on some question of high prudence. All these little stories having been confided to me under the seal of secrecy, I have been obliged to forget them; but I may affirm that more than one of them would have aroused the envy of Bassompierre and Lauzun. Women at that time were not wholly absorbed in their care for luxury and dress. To hope to please, young men had no need to be rich; and it served a purpose to have at nineteen years of age the prestige of talent and glory.” This is very pretty, as well as very Gallic; but it is rather vague, and we may without offence suspect it to be, to a certain extent, but that conventional coup de chapeau which every self-respecting Frenchman renders to actual or potential, past, present, or future gallantry. Doubtless, however, Musset was, in the native phrase, lancé. He lived with his father and mother, his brother and sister; his purse was empty; Seville and Granada were very far away; and these “Andalusian passions,” as M. Paul de Musset says, were mere reveries and boyish visions. But they were the visions of a boy who was all ready to compare reality with romance, and who, in fact, very soon acceded to a proposal which appeared to offer a peculiar combination of the two. It is noticeable, by the way, that from our modest Anglo-Saxon point of view these same “Andalusian passions,” dealing chiefly with ladies tumbling about on disordered couches, and pairs of lovers who take refuge from an exhausted vocabulary in biting each other, are an odd sort of thing for an ingenuous lad, domiciled in the manner M. Paul de Musset describes, and hardly old enough to have a latch-key, to lay on the family breakfast table. But this was very characteristic all round. Musset was not a didactic poet, and it was not for him to lose time by taking his first steps as one. His business was to talk about love in unmistakable terms, to proclaim its pleasures and pains with all possible eloquence; and he would have been quite at a loss to understand why he should have blushed or stammered in preluding to so beautiful a theme. Herr Lindau thinks that even in the germ Musset's inspiration is already vicious—-that “his wonderful talent was almost simultaneously ripe and corrupted.” But Herr Lindau speaks from the modest Saxon point of view; a point of view, however, from which, in such a matter, there is a great deal to be said.

The great event in Alfred de Musset's life, most people would say, was his journey to Italy with George Sand. This event has been abundantly—-superabundantly—-described, and Herr Lindau, in the volume before us, devotes a long chapter to it and lingers over it with peculiar complacency. Our own sentiment would be that there is something extremely displeasing in the publicity which has attached itself to the episode; that there is indeed a sort of colossal indecency in the way it has passed into the common fund of literary gossip. It illustrates the base, the weak, the trivial side of all the great things that were concerned in it—-fame, genius, and love. Either the Italian journey was in its results a very serious affair for the remarkable couple who undertook it—-in which case it should be left in that quiet place in the history of the development of the individual into which public intrusion can bring no light, but only darkness—-or else it was a piece of levity and conscious self-display; in which case the attention of the public has been invited to it on false grounds. If there ever was an affair it should be becoming to be silent about, it was certainly this one; but neither the actors nor the spectators have been of this way of thinking; one may almost say that there exists a whole literature on the subject. To this literature Herr Lindau's contribution is perhaps the most ingenious. He has extracted those pages from Paul de Musset's novel of “Lui et Elle” which treat of the climax of the relations of the hero and heroine, and he has printed the names of George Sand and Alfred de Musset instead of the fictitious names. The result is perhaps of a nature to refresh the jaded vision of most lovers of scandal.

We must add that some of his judgments on the matter happen to have a certain felicity. M. Paul de Musset has narrated the story more briefly—-having, indeed, by the publication of “Lui et Elle,” earned the right to be brief. He mentions two or three facts, however, the promulgation of which he may have thought it proper, as we said before, to postpone to Mme. Sand's death. One of them is sufficiently dramatic. Musset had met George Sand in the summer of 1833, about the time of the publication of “Rolla”—-seeing her for the first time at a dinner given to the contributors of the “Revue des Deux Mondes,” at the Trois Frères Provençaux. George Sand was the only woman present. Sainte-Beuve had already endeavoured to bring his two friends together, but the attempt had failed, owing to George Sand's reluctance, founded on an impression that she should not like the young poet. Alfred de Musset was twenty-three years of age; George Sand, who had published “Indiana,” “Valentine,” and “Lélia,” was close upon thirty. Alfred de Musset, as the author of “Rolla,” was a very extraordinary young man—-quite the young man of whom Heinrich Heine could say “he has a magnificent past before him.” Upon his introduction to George Sand, an intimacy speedily followed—-an intimacy commemorated by the lady in expansive notes to Sainte-Beuve, whom she kept informed of its progress. When the winter came the two intimates talked of leaving Paris together, and, as an experiment, paid a visit to Fontainebleau. The experiment succeeded, but this was not enough, and they formed the project of going to Italy. To this project, as regarded her son, Mme. de Musset refused her consent. (Alfred's father, we should say, had died before the publication of “Rolla,” leaving his children without appreciable property, though during his lifetime, occupying a post in a government office, he had been able to maintain them comfortably.) His mother's opposition was so vehement that Alfred gave up the project, and countermanded the preparations that had already been made for departure.

“That evening toward nine o'clock,” says M. Paul de Musset, “our mother was alone with her daughter by the fireside, when she was informed that a lady was waiting for her at the door in a hired carriage, and begged urgently to speak with her. She went down accompanied by a servant. The unknown lady named herself; she besought this deeply grieved mother to confide her son to her, saying that she would have for him a maternal affection and care. As promises did not avail, she went so far as sworn vows. She used all her eloquence, and she must have had a great deal, since her enterprise succeeded. In a moment of emotion the consent was given.” The author of “Lélia” and the author of “Rolla” started for Italy together. M. Paul de Musset mentions that he accompanied them to the mail coach “on a sad, misty evening, in the midst of circumstances that boded ill.” They spent the winter at Venice, and M. Paul de Musset and his mother continued to hear regularly from Alfred. But toward the middle of February his letters suddenly stopped, and for six weeks they were without news. They were on the point of starting for Italy, to put an end to their suspense, when they received a melancholy epistle informing them that their son and brother was on his way home. He was slowly recovering from an attack of brain fever, but as soon as he should be able to drag himself along he would seek the refuge of the paternal roof.

On the 10th of April he reappeared alone. A quarter of a century later, and a short time after his death, Mme. Sand gave to the world, in the guise of a novel, an account of the events which had occupied this interval. The account was highly to her own advantage and much to the discredit of her companion. Paul de Musset immediately retorted with a little book which is decidedly poor as fiction, but tolerably good, probably, as history. As a devoted brother, given all the circumstances, it was perhaps the best thing he could do. It is believed that his reply was more than, in the vulgar phrase, Mme. Sand had bargained for; inasmuch as he made use of documents of whose existence she had been ignorant. Alfred de Musset, suspecting that her version of their relations would be given to the world, had, in the last weeks of his life, dictated to his brother a detailed statement of those incidents to which misrepresentation would chiefly address itself, and this narrative Paul de Musset simply incorporated in his novel. The gist of it is that the poet's companion took advantage of his being seriously ill, in Venice, to be flagrantly unfaithful, and that, discovering her infidelity, he relapsed into a brain fever which threatened his life, and from which he rose only to make his way home with broken wings and a bleeding heart.

Mme. Sand's version of the story is that his companion's infidelity was a delusion of the fever itself, and that the charge was but the climax of a series of intolerable affronts and general fantasticalities.

Fancy the great gossiping, vulgar-minded public deliberately invited to ponder this delicate question! The public should never have been appealed to; but once the appeal made, it administers perforce a rough justice of its own. According to this rough justice, the case looks badly for Musset's fellow traveller. She was six years older than he (at that time of life a grave fact); she had drawn him away from his mother, taken him in charge, assumed a responsibility. Their literary physiognomies were before the world, and she was, on the face of the matter, the riper, stronger, more reasonable nature. She had made great pretensions to reason, and it is fair to say of Alfred de Musset that he had made none whatever. What the public sees is that the latter, unreasonable though he may have been, comes staggering home, alone and forlorn, while his companion remains quietly at Venice and writes three or four highly successful romances. Herr Lindau, who analyses the affair, comes to the same conclusion as the gross synthetic public; and he qualifies certain sides of it in terms of which observant readers of George Sand's writings will recognize the justice. It is very happy to say “she was something of a Philistine”; that at the bottom of all experience with her was the desire to turn it to some economical account; and that she probably irritated her companion in a high degree by talking too much about loving him as a mother and a sister. (This, it will be remembered, is the basis of action with Thérèse, in “Elle et Lui.” She becomes the hero's mistress in order to retain him in the filial relation, after the fashion of Rousseau's friend, Mme. de Warens.) On the other hand, it seems hardly fair to make it one of Musset's grievances that his comrade was industrious, thrifty, and methodical; that she had, as the French say, de l'ordre; and that, being charged with the maintenance of a family, she allowed nothing to divert her from producing her daily stint of “copy.”

It is easy to believe that Musset may have tried the patience of a tranquil associate. George Sand's Jacques Laurent, in “Elle et Lui,” is a sufficiently vivid portrait of a highly endowed, but hopelessly petulant, unreasonable, and dissipated egotist. We are far from suspecting that the portrait is perfectly exact; no portrait by George Sand is perfectly exact. Whatever point of view she takes, she always abounds too much in her own sense. But it evidently has a tolerably solid foundation in fact. Herr Lindau holds that Alfred de Musset's life was literally blighted by the grief that he suffered in Italy, and that the rest of his career was a long, erratic, unprofitable effort to drown the recollection of it. Our own inclination would be to judge him at once with more and with less indulgence. Whether deservedly or no, there is no doubt that his suffering was great; his brother quotes a passage from a document written five years after the event, in which Alfred affirms that, on his return to Paris, he spent four months shut up in his room in incessant tears—-tears interrupted only by a “mechanical” game of chess in the evening. But Musset, like all poets, was essentially a creature of impression; as with all poets, his sentimental faculty needed constantly to renew itself. He found his account in sorrow, or at least in emotion, and we may say, in differing from Herr Lindau, that he was not a man to let a grievance grow stale. To feel permanently the need of smothering sorrow is in a certain sense to be sobered by it. Musset was never sobered (a cynical commentator would say he was never sober). Emotions bloomed again lightly and brilliantly on the very stem on which others had withered. After the catastrophe at times his imagination saved him, distinctly, from permanent depression; and on a different line, this same imagination helped him into dissipation.

M. Paul de Musset mentions that in 1837 his brother conceived a “passion sérieuse” for an attractive young lady, and that the liaison lasted two years—-two years “during which there was never a quarrel, a storm, a cooling-off; never a pretext for umbrage or jealousy. This is why,” he adds, “there is nothing to be told of them. Two years of love without a cloud cannot be narrated.” It is noticeable that this is the third “passion sérieuse” that M. Paul de Musset alludes to since the dolorous weeks which followed the return from Venice. Shortly after this period another passion had come to the front; a passion which, like that which led him to Italy, was destined to have a tragical termination. This particular love affair is commemorated, in accents of bitter melancholy, in the “Nuit de Décembre,” just as the other, which had found its catastrophe at Venice, figures, by clear allusion, in “Nuit de Mai,” published a few months before. It may provoke a philosophic smile to learn, as we do from If. Paul de Musset—-candid biographer!—-that the “motives” of these two poems are not identical, as they have hitherto been assumed to be. It had never occurred to the reader that one disillusionment could follow so fast upon the heels of another. When we add that a short time afterward—-as the duration of great intimacies of the heart is measured—-Alfred de Musset was ready to embark upon “two years of love without a cloud” with still another object—-to say nothing of the brief interval containing a sentimental episode of which our biographer gives the prettiest account—-we seem to be justified in thinking that, for a “blighted” life, that of Alfred de Musset exhibited a certain germinal vivacity.

During his stay in Italy he had written nothing; but the five years which followed his return are those of his most active and brilliant productivity. The finest of his verses, the most charming of his tales, the most original of his comedies, belong to this relatively busy period. Everything that he wrote at this time has a depth and intensity which distinguishes it from the jocosely sentimental productions of his début, and from the somewhat mannered and vapidly elegant compositions which he put forth, at wide intervals, during the last fifteen years of his life. This was the period of Musset's intellectual virility. He was very precocious, but he was at the same time, at first, very youthful. On the other hand, his decline began early; in most of his later things, especially in his verses (they become very few in number), the inspiration visibly runs thin. “Mon verre n'est pas grand, mais je bois dans mon verre,” he had said, and both clauses of the sentence are true. His glass held but a small quantity; the best of his verses—-those that one knows by heart and never wearies of repeating—-are very soon counted. We have named them when we have mentioned “Rolla,” the “Nuit de Mai,” the “Nuit d'Aout” and the “Nuit d'Octobre”; the “Lettre à Lamartine,” and the “Stances à la Malibran.” These, however, are perfection; and if Musset had written nothing else, he would have had a right to say that it was from his own glass that he drank. The most beautiful of his comedies, “Il ne faut pas badiner avec l'Amour,” dates from 1834, and to the same year belongs the “Lorenzaccio,” the strongest, if not the most exquisite, of his dramatic attempts. His two most agreeable nouvelles, “Emmeline" and “Fréderic et Bernerette,” appeared about the same time. But we have not space to enumerate his productions in detail. During the fifteen last years of his life, as we have said, they grew more and more rare; the poet had, in a certain sense, out-lived himself. Of these last years Herr Lindau gives a rather realistic and unflattered sketch; picturing him especially as a figure publicly familiar to Parisian loungers, who were used to observe him as “an unfortunate with an interesting face, dressed with extreme care” with the look of youth and an the lassitude of age, seated in a corner of a café and gazing blankly over a marble table on which “a half empty bottle of absinthe and a quite empty glass” stood before him. M. Paul de Musset, in describing his brother's later years, is mindful of the rule to glide, not to press; with a very proper fraternal piety, he leaves a great many foibles and transgressions in the shade. He mentions, however, Alfred's partiality for spirits and stimulants—-a taste which had defined itself in his early years. Musset made an excessive use of liquor; in plain English, he got drunk. Sainte-Beuve, somewhere in one of his merciless but valuable foot-notes, alludes to the author of “Rolla” coming tipsy to the sittings of the French Academy. Herr Lindau repeats, a pun which was current on such occasions. “Musset s'absente trop,” said some one. “Il s'absinthe trop,” replied some one else. He had been elected to the Academy in 1852. His speech on the occasion of his reception was a disappointment to his auditors. Herr Lindau attributes the sterility of his later years to indolence and perversity; and it is probable that there is not a little justice in the charge. He was unable to force himself; he belonged to the race of gifted people who must do as it pleases them. When a literary task was proposed to him and he was not in the humour for it, he was wont to declare that he was not a maid-of-all-work, but an artist. He must write when the fancy took him; the fancy took him, unfortunately, less and less frequently. With a very uncertain income, and harassed constantly by his debts, he scorned to cultivate a pecuniary inspiration. He died in the arms of his brother in the spring of 1857.

He was beyond question one of the first poets of our day. If the poetic force is measured by the quality of the inspiration—-by its purity, intensity, and closely personal savour—-Alfred de Musset's place is surely very high. He was, so to speak, a thoroughly personal poet. He was not the poet of nature, of the universe, of reflection, of morality, of history; he was the poet simply of a certain order of personal emotions, and his charm is in the frankness and freedom, the grace and harmony, with which he expressed these emotions. The affairs of the heart—-these were his province; in no other verses has the heart spoken more characteristically. Herr Lindan says very justly that if he was not the greatest poet among his contemporaries, he was at any rate the most poetically constituted nature. A part of the rest of Herr Lindau's judgment is worth quoting:

He has remained the poet of youth. No one has sung so truthfully and touchingly its aspirations and its sensibilities, its doubts and its hopes. No one has comprehended and justified its follies and its amiable idiosyncrasies with a more poetic irony, with a deeper conviction. His Joy was young, his sorrow was young, and young was his song. To youth he owes all happiness, and in youth he sang his brightest chants. But the weakness of youth was his fatal enemy, and with youth faded away his joy in existence and in creation,

This is exactly true. Half the beauty of Musset's writing is its simple suggestion of youthfulness—-of something fresh and fair, slim and tremulous, with a tender epidermis. This quality, with some readers, may seem to deprive him of a certain proper dignity; and it is very true that he was not a Stoic. You may even call him unmanly. He cries out when he is hurt; he resorts frequently to tears, and he talks much about his tears. (We have seen that after his return from Venice they formed, for four months, his principal occupation.) But his defence is that if he does not bear things like a man, he at least, according to Shakespeare's distinction, feels them like a man. What makes him valuable is just this gift for the expression of that sort of emotion which the conventions and proprieties of life, the dryness of ordinary utterance, the stiffness of most imaginations, leave quite in the vague, and yet which forms a part of human nature important enough to have its exponent. If the presumption is against the dignity of deeply poetic utterance, poor Musset is, in the vulgar phrase, nowhere—-he is a mere grotesque sound of lamentation. But if in judging him you don't stint your sympathy, you will presently perceive him to have an extraordinarily precious quality—-a quality equally rare in literature and in life. He has passion. There is in most poetry a great deal of reflection, of wisdom, of grace, of art, of genius; but (especially in English poetry) there is little of this peculiar property of Musset's. When it occurs we feel it to be extremely valuable; it touches us beyond anything else. It was the great gift of Byron, the quality by which he will live in spite of those weaknesses and imperfections which may be pointed out by the dozen. Alfred de Musset in this respect resembled the poet whom he appears most to have admired—-living at a time when it had not begun to be the fashion to be ashamed to take Byron seriously. Mr. Swinburne in one of his prose essays speaks of him with violent scorn as Byron's “attendant dwarf,” or something of that sort. But this is to miss the case altogether. There is nothing diminutive in generous admiration, and nothing dwarfish in being a younger brother; Mr. Swinburne's charge is too coarse a way of stating the position. Musset resembles Byron in the fact that the beauty of his verse is somehow identical with the feeling of the writer—-with his immediate, sensible warmth—-and not dependent upon that reflective stage into which, to produce its great effects, most English poetic expression instantly passes, and which seems to chill even while it nobly beautifies. Musset is talked of nowadays in France very much as Byron is talked of among ourselves; it is noticed that he often made bad verse, and he is accused of having but half known his trade. This sort of criticism is eminently just, and there is a weak side of the author of “Rolla” which it is easy to attack.

Alfred de Musset, like Mr. Murray's fastidious correspondent, wrote poetry as an amateur—-wrote it, as they say in France, en gentilhomme. It is the fashion, I believe, in some circles, to be on one's guard against speaking foreign tongues too well (the precaution is perhaps superfluous) lest a marked proficiency should expose one to be taken for a teacher of languages. It was a feeling of this kind, perhaps) that led Alfred de Musset to a certain affectation of negligence and laxity; though he wrote for the magazines, he could boast a long pedigree, and he had nothing in common with the natives of Grub street. Since his death a new school of poets has sprung up—-of which, indeed, his contemporary, Théophile Gautier, may be regarded as the founder. These gentlemen have taught French poetry a multitude of paces of which so sober-footed a damsel was scarcely to have been supposed capable; they have discovered a great many secrets which Musset appears never to have suspected, or (if he did suspect them) to have thought not worth finding out. They have sounded the depths of versification, and beside their refined, consummate facture Musset's simple devices and good-natured prosody seem to belong to a primitive stage of art. It is the difference between a clever performer on the tight rope and a gentleman strolling along on soft turf with his hands in his pockets. If people care supremely for form, Musset will always but half satisfy them. It is very pretty, they will say; but it is confoundedly unbusinesslike. His verse is not chiselled and pondered, and in spite of an ineffable natural grace, it lacks the positive qualities of cunning workmanship—-those qualities which are found in such high perfection in Théophile Gautier. To our own sense Musset's exquisite feeling more than makes up for one-half the absence of “chiselling,” and the ineffable grace we spoke of just now makes up for the other half. His sweetness of passion, of which the poets who have succeeded him have so little, is a more precious property than their superior science. His grace is often something divine; it is in his grace that we must look for his style. Herr Lindau says that Heine speaks of “truth, harmony, and grace” being his salient qualities. (By the first, we take it, he meant what we have called Musset's passion.) His harmony, from the first, was often admirable; the rhythm of even some of his earliest verses makes them haunt the ear after one has murmured them aloud.

Ulric, des mers nul œil n'a mesuré l'abime,

Ni les hérons plongeurs, ni les vieux matelots;

Le soleil vient briser ses rayons sur leur cime,

comme un soldat valueu brise ses javelots.

Musset's grace, in its suavity, freedom, and unaffectedness, is altogether peculiar; though it must be said that it is only in the poems of his middle period that it is at its best. His latest things are, according to Sainte-Beuve, colifichets—-baubles; they are too much in the rococo, the Dresden china style. But as we have said before, with his youth Musset's inspiration failed him. It failed him in his prose. as well as in his verse. “Il faut qu'une Porte soit ouverte on fermée,” one of the last of his dramatic proverbs, is very charming, very perfect in its way; but compared with the tones of the “Caprices de Marianne,” the “Chandelier,” “Fantasio,” the sentiment is thin and the style has rather a simper. It is what the French call marivaudage. There can, however, be no better example of the absoluteness of the poetic sentiment, of its justifying itself as it goes, of lyrical expression being as it were not only a means, but an end, than the irresistible beauty of such effusions as the “Lettre à Lamartine” and the “Nuit d'Aout.”

Poëte, je t'écris pour te dire que j'aime!

—-that is all, literally, that Musset has to say to the “amant d'Elvire”; and it would be easy to make merry at the expense of so simply candid a piece of “gush.” But the confidence is made with a transparent ardour, a sublime good faith, an audible, touching tremor of voice, which, added to the enchanting harmony of the verse, make the thing one of the most splendid poems of our day.

Ce ne sont pas des chants, ce ne sont que des larmes,

Et je ne te dirai que ce que Dieu m'a dit!

Musset has never risen higher. He has, in strictness, only one idea—-the idea that the passion of love and the act of loving are the divinest things in a miserable world; that love has a thousand disappointments, deceptions, and pangs, but that for its sake they are all worth enduring, and that, as Tennyson has said, more curtly and reservedly,

'Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.

Sometimes he expresses this idea in the simple epicurean fashion, with gayety and with a more or less cynical indifference to the moral side of the divine passion. Then he is often pretty, picturesque, fanciful, but he remains essentially light. At other times he feels its relation to the other things that make up mans destiny, and the sense of aspiration meets with the sense of enjoyment or of regret. Then he is at his best; then he seems an image of universally sentient youth.

Je ne puis; malgré moi, l'infini me tourmente.

Je n'y saurais songer sans crainte et sans espoir;

Et quoiqu'on en ait dit, ma raison s'épouvante

De ne pas le comprendre, et pourtant de le voir.

While we may suspect that there is something a little over-coloured in M. Paul de Musset's account of the degree to which his brother was haunted by the religious sentiment—-by the impulse to grope for some philosophy of life—-we may also feel that with the poets sense pf the “divineness” of love there went a conviction that ideal love implies a divine object. This is the feeling expressed in the finest lines of the “Lettre à Lamartine” in lines at least which, if they are not the finest, are fine enough to quote:

Eh bien, bon ou mauvais, Inflexible on fragile,

Humble ou gai, triste ou fier, mais toujours gémissant,

Cet homme, tei qu'il est, cet être fait d'argile,

Tu l'a vu, Lamartine, et son sang est ton sang.

Son bonheur est le tien; sa douleur est la tienne;

Et des maux qu'ici bas il lui faut endurer,

Pas un qui ne te touche et qui ne t'appartienne;

Puisque tu sale chanter, ami, tu sais pleurer.

Die-moi, qu'en pensee-tu dans tes jours de tristesse?

Que t'a dit le malheur quand tu l'as consulté?

Trompé par tes amis, trahi par ta maitresse,

Du ciel et de toi-même as-tu jamais douté?

Non, Alphonse, jamais. La triste expérience

Nous apporte la cendre et n'éteint pas le feu.

Tu respectes le mal fait par la Providence;

Tu le laisses passer et tu crois à ton Dieu.

Quelqu'il soit c'est le mien; il n'est pas deux croyances.

Je ne sais pas son nom: j'ai regardé les cleux;

Je sais qu'ils sont à lui, je sais qu'ils sont immenses,

Et que l'immensité ne peut pas être à deux.

J'ai connu, jeune encor, de sévères souffrances;

J'ai vu verdir les bois et j'ai tenté d'aimer.

Je sais ce que la terre engloutit d'espérances,

Et pour y recueillir ce qu'il y faut semer.

Mais ce que j'ai senti, ce que je veux t'écrire,

C'est ce que m'ont appris les anges de douleur;

Je le sais mieux encor et puis mieux te le dire,

Car leur glaive, en entrant, la gravé dans mon cœur.

And the rest of the poem is a lyrical declaration of belief in immortality.

We have called the “Lettre à Lamartine” Musset's highest flight, but the “Nuit de Mai” is almost as fine a poem—-full of imaginative splendour and melancholy ecstasy. The series of the “Nuits” is altogether superb; with an exception made, perhaps, for the “Nuit de Décembre,” which has a great deal of sombre beauty, but which is not, like the others, in the form of a dialogue between the Muse and the poet—-the Muse striving to console the world-wounded bard for his troubles, and urging him to take refuge in hope and production:

Poëte, prende ton luth et me donne un baiser;

La fleur de l'églantier sent ses bourgeons éclore.

Le printemps nait ce soir; les vents vout s'embraser;

Et la bergeronette, en attendant l'aurore,

Au premier buissons vertes commence à se poser.

Porte, prends ton luth et me donne un baiser.

That is impregnated with the breath of a vernal night. The same poem (the “Nuit de Mai") contains the famous passage about the pelican—-the passage beginning

Les plus désespérés sont les chants les plus beaux,

Et j'en sale d'immortels qui sont de purs sanglots—-

in which the legend of the pelican opening his breast to feed his starving young is made an image of what the poet does to entertain his readers:

Poëte, c'est ainsi que font les grands poëtes.

Ils laissent s'égayer ceux qui vivent un temps;

Mais les festins humains qu'ils servent à leurs fêtes

Ressemblent la plupart à ceux des pélicans.

This passage is perhaps—-unless we except the opening verses of “Rolla” Musset's noblest piece of poetic writing. We must place next to it—-next to the three “Nuits” the admirably passionate and genuine “Stanzas to Malibran”—-a beautiful characterization of the artistic disinterestedness of the singer who suffered her genius to consume her—-who sang herself to death. The closing verses of the poem have a wonderful purity; to rise so high, and yet in form, in accent, to remain so still and temperate, belongs only to great poetry; as it would be well to remind the critic who thinks the author of the “Stanzas to Malibran” dwarfish. There is another sort of verse in which violence of movement is more sensible than upwardness of direction.

So far in relation to Musset's lyric genius—-though we have given but a brief and inadequate account of it. He had besides a dramatic genius of the highest beauty, to which we have left ourself space to devote only a few words. It is true that the drama with Musset has a decidedly lyrical element, and that though his persons always talk prose, they are constantly saying things which would need very little help to fall into the mould of a stanza or a sonnet. In his dramas as in his verses, his weakness is that he is amateurish; they lack construction; their merit is not in their plots, but in what, for want of a better term, one may call their sentimental perfume. The earliest of them failed upon the stage, and for many years it was supposed they could not be played. Musset supposed so himself, and took no trouble to encourage the experiment. He made no concessions to contemporary “realism.” But at last they were taken up—-almost by accident—-and it was found that, in the hands of actors whose education enabled them to appreciate their delicacy, this delicacy might become wonderfully effective. If feeling is the great quality in his verses, the case is the same in his strange, fantastic, exquisite little comédies; comedies in the literal English sense of the word we can hardly call them, for they have almost always a melancholy or a tragical termination. They are thoroughly sentimental; he puts before us people who convince us that they really feel; the drama is simply the history of their feeling. In the emotions of Valentin and Perdican, of Fantasio and Fortunio, of Célio and Octave, of Carmosine and Bettine, there is something contagious, irresistibly touching. But the great charm is Musset's dramatic world itself, the atmosphere in which his figures move, the element they breathe.

It seems at first like a reckless thing to say, but we will risk it: in the quality of his fancy Musset always reminds us of Shakespeare. His little dramas go on in the country of “As you Like It" and the “Winter's Tale”; the author is at home there, like Shakespeare himself, and he moves with something of the Shakespearian lightness and freedom. His fancy loves to play with human life, and in the tiny mirror which it holds up we find something of the depth and mystery of the object. Musset's dialogue, in its mingled gayety and melancholy, its sweetness and irony, its allusions to real things and its kinship with a romantic world, has an altogether indefinable magic. To speak it on the stage is almost to make it coarse. Once Musset attempted a larger theme than usual; in “Lorenzaccio” he wrote an historical drama on the scale of Shakepeare's histories; that is, with multitudes of figures, scenes, incidents, and illustrations. He laid his hand on an admirable subject—-the story of a certain Lorenzino de' Medici, who played at being a debauchee and a poltroon in order better to put the tyrant of Florence (his own cousin) off his guard; and serve his country by ridding her of him. The play shows an extraordinary abundance and vivacity of imagination, and really, out of those same “histories” of Shakespeare, it is hard to see where one should find an equal spontaneity in dealing with the whole human furniture of a period. Alfred de Musset, in “Lorenzaccio,” has the air of being as ready to handle a hundred figures as a dozen—-of having imagination enough for them all. The thing has the real creative soufflé, and if it is not the most perfect of his productions, it is probably the most vigorous.

We have not spoken of his tales; their merit is the same as of the comédies—-that of spontaneous feeling, and of putting people before us in whose feelings we believe. Besides this, they have Musset's grace and delicacy in a perhaps excessive degree; they are the most mannered of his productions. Two or three of them, however—-"Emmeline,” “Les Deux Maitresses,” “Frédéric et Bernerette”—-are masterpieces; this last epithet is especially to be bestowed upon the letter written by the heroine of the last-mentioned tale (an incorrigibly volage grisette) to her former lover on the occasion of his marrying and settling. The incoherency, the garrulity, the mingled resignation and regret of an amiable flirt of the lower orders, divided between the vivacity of her emotion and the levity of her nature, are caught in the act; and yet it is not fair to say of anything represented by Musset that it is caught in the act. Just the beauty and charm of it is that it is not the exact reality, but a something seen by the imagination—-a tinge of the ideal, a touch of poetry. We must try to see Musset himself in the same way; his own figure needs to a certain extent the help of our imagination. And yet, even with such help taken, we cannot but feel that he is an example of the wasteful way in which nature and history sometimes work—-of their cruel indifference to our personal standards of economy—-of the vast amount of material they take to produce a little result.

Alfred de Musset's exquisite organization, his exaltations and weaknesses, his pangs and tears, his passions and debaucheries, his intemperance and idleness, his years of unproductiveness, his innumerable mistresses (with whatever pangs and miseries it may seem proper to attribute to them), his quarrel with a woman of genius, and the scandals, exposures, and recriminations that are so ungracefully bound up with it—-all this was necessary in order that we should have the two or three little volumes into which his best could be compressed. It takes certainly a great deal of life to make a little art! In this case, however we must remember, that little is exquisite.


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