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Alfred De Musset by Sarah B. Wister

It is twenty years since the death of Alfred de Musset, a poet whose popularity and influence, both in his own country and out of it, can be compared only to Byron's. Not that the Frenchman is known in England as the Englishman is known in France, but the latter country may be called the open side of the Channel, and in establishing a comparison between the relative fame and familiarity of foreign names and ideas there and on the isolated side, it is proportion rather than quantity which must be kept in view. While Byron is out of fashion in his own country, the rage for Musset, which for a long time made him appear not so much the favorite modern poet of France as the only one, has subsided into a steady admiration and affection, a permanent preference. New editions of his works, both cheaper and more costly, are being constantly issued, portraits of him are multiplied, his pieces are regularly performed at the Théâtre Français, his verses are on every one's lips, his tomb is heaped with flowers on All Souls' Day. Until after his death it would have been easy to count those who knew even his name in this country and England: as usual in such matters, we preceded the English in our acquaintance with him. The freedom with which Owen Meredith and Mr. Swinburne helped themselves from his poems proves how unfamiliar the general public was with him ten years ago, but his distinction is now so well recognized in that island, so remote from external impressions, that some knowledge of his life and writings formed part of the French course last year in the higher local examinations of Cambridge University.

Alfred de Musset belongs to the class of poets whose inner history excites most curiosity, because his readers feel that there lies the spring of his power, the secret of his charm, as well as the key to the riddles and inconsistencies which his writings present: they are so imbued with the essence of a common humanity that the heart that beats, the tears which start, the blood which courses through them, keep time with our own. The desire to penetrate still further into the intimacy to which they admit us is quite distinct from the vulgar inquisitiveness which pursues celebrity, or merely notoriety, into privacy. His biography has lately been published by one who recognizes the true nature of this curiosity: Paul de Musset has reserved the right of telling his brother's story, regarding it, he says, "not only as a duty I owe to the man I loved best, and whose most intimate and confidential friend I was, but as a necessary complement to the perfect understanding of his works, for his work was himself."

The way in which this task has been performed is not entirely satisfactory, and many passionate admirers of the poet, the order of readers to whom it is dedicated, will feel disappointment and a regretful sense of its failing to fulfil what it undertook, increased by the conviction that, having been undertaken by the hand best fitted for it by natural propriety, it cannot be done again. The book bears the relation to what one desired and expected that a bare diary does to the journal, or memoranda to the lecture. It is a collection of notes on the life of Alfred de Musset, rather than a full memoir. This inadequacy arises principally from the biographer himself. Paul de Musset, the poet's elder and only brother, is a man of taste and cultivation, a judge of art, literature, music and the drama, a person of charming manners and conversation, dignified, kindly, courteous, easy: he was until middle age a busy, working man, whose leisure moments were occupied with writings that have found little favor, except the Femmes de la Règence and the pretty child's story of M. le Vent et Mme. la Pluie, which latter has been translated. He was the devoted, unselfish friend and mentor of Alfred, to whose juniority and genius he extended an indulgence of which he needed no share for himself: in fact, he was the elder brother of the Prodigal in everything but want of generosity. A more amiable portrait cannot be imagined than the one to be drawn of him from the history of his intercourse with his brother and from Alfred's own letters and verses to him. This, however, was not the person to give us such an account and analysis of the life and character of Alfred de Musset as the subject called for: he has neither the necessary impartiality nor ability. He is now seventy years old, and although, like his brother, he has the gift of appearing a decade less than his age, he is forced to remember that the time must come when he will no longer be here to defend his brother's memory, which has suffered more than one cruel attack. Having once had to silence calumny under cover of fiction, he naturally wished to put his name beyond the reach of being further traduced. Whatever the shortcomings of the performance, it could not fail to be interesting. It is written in an easy, well-bred style, like the author's way of talking—not without a sense of humor, with touching pride in his brother's endowments, and tenderness toward faults which he does not deny. In place of comprehensive views and sound judgment of Alfred de Musset's genius and career, we have the knowledge of absolute intimacy and sympathy, candor, a hoard of reminiscences and details which could be gained from no other source, and, more than all, that certainty as to events and motives which can exist only where there has been a lifelong daily association without disguise or distrust.

The family of Musset is old and gentle, and was adorned in early centuries by soldiers of mark and statesmen of good counsel—the sort of lineage which should bequeath high and honorable ideas, an inheritance of which neither Paul nor Alfred de Musset nor their immediate forbears were unworthy. A disposition to letters and poetry appears among their ancestry on both sides, beginning in the twelfth century with Colin de Musset, a sort of troubadour, a friend of Thibaut, count of Champagne, while the poet's paternal grandmother bore the name of Du Bellay, so illustrious in the annals of French literature. Alfred de Musset's parents were remarkable for goodness of heart and high principle: both possessed an ideality which showed itself with them in elevation of moral sentiments, and which passed into the imaginative qualities of their sons. From remoter relatives on both sides came a legacy of wit, promptness and point in retort, gayety and good spirits. Alfred de Musset was born on the 11th of December, 1810, in the old quarter of Paris, on the left bank of the Seine. The stories of his childhood—which are pretty, like all true stories about children—show a sensitive, affectionate, vivacious, impetuous, perverse nature, precocious observation and intelligence. He was one of those beautiful, captivating children whom nobody can forbear to spoil, and who, with the innocent cunning of their age, reckon on the effect of their own charms. He was not four years old when he first fell in love, as such mere babies, both girls and boys, occasionally do: these infantine passions exhibit most of the phenomena of maturer ones, and show how intense and absorbing a passion may be which belongs exclusively to the region of sentiment and imagination. Alfred de Musset's first love was his cousin, a young girl nearly grown up when he first saw her: he left his playthings to listen to her account of a journey she had made from Belgium, then the seat of war, and from that day, whenever she came to the house, insisted on her telling him stories, which she did with the patience and invention of Scheherazade. At last he asked her to marry him, and, as she did not refuse, considered her his betrothed wife. After some time she returned to her home in Liége: there were tears on both sides—on his genuine and excessive grief. "Do not forget me," said Clélia.—"Forget you! Don't you know that your name is cut upon my heart with a pen-knife?" He set himself to learn to read and write with incredible application, that he might be able to correspond with his beloved. His attachment did not abate with absence, so that when Clélia really married, the whole family thought it necessary to keep it a secret from her little lover, and he remained in ignorance of it for years, although he betrayed extraordinary suspicion and misgiving on the subject. He was a schoolboy of eight or nine before he learned the truth, and was at first extremely agitated: he asked tremblingly if Clélia had been making fun of him, and being assured that she had not, but that they had not allowed her to wait for him, and that she loved him like an elder sister, he grew calm and said, "I will be satisfied with that." The cousins seldom met in after-life, but preserved a tender affection for each other, which served to avert a lawsuit and rupture that threatened to grow out of a business disagreement between the two branches of the family. In 1852, Clélia came to Paris to be present at Alfred's reception by the French Academy. He had great confidence in her taste and judgment, and the last time they met he said to her, "If there should ever be a handsome edition of my works, I will have a copy bound for you in white vellum with a gold band, as an emblem of our friendship."

His first literary passion was the Arabian Nights, which filled the imagination of both brothers with magical lamps, wishing-carpets and secret caverns for nearly a twelvemonth, during which they were incessantly trying to carry out their fancies by constructing enchanted towers and palaces with the furniture of their apartment. The Eastern stories were superseded by tales of chivalry: Paul lit upon the Four Sons of Aymon in his grandfather's library, and a new world opened before him in which he hastened to lose himself, taking his younger brother by the hand. The children devoured Jerusalem Delivered, Orlando Furioso, Amadis de Gaule, and all the poems, tales and traditions of knighthood on which they could lay hands. Their games now were of nothing but tilts and jousts, single combats, adventures and deeds of arms: the paladins were their imaginary playfellows. A little comrade, who charged with an extraordinary rush in the excitement of the tournament, generally represented Roland: Alfred, being the youngest and smallest of the three, was allowed to bear the enchanted lance, the first touch of which unseated the boldest rider and bravest champion—a pretty device of the elder brother's, in which one hardly knows whether to be most charmed with the poetic fancy or the protecting affection which it displayed. The delightful infatuation lasted for several years, undergoing some gradual modifications. Until he was nine, Alfred had been chiefly taught at home by a tutor, but at that age he was sent to school, where the first term dispelled his belief in the marvellous. His brother was by this time at boarding-school, and they met only on Sunday, when they renewed their knightly sports, but with diminished ardor. One day Alfred asked Paul seriously what he thought of magic, and Paul confessed his scepticism. The loss of this dear delusion was a painful shock to Alfred, as it is to many children. Who cannot remember the change which came over the world when he first learned that Krisskinkle alias Santa Claus did not fill the Christmas stocking—that the fairies had not made the greener ring in the grass, where he had firmly believed he might have seen them dancing in the moonlight if he could only have sat up late enough? The Musset children fell back upon the mysterious machinery of old romance—trap-doors, secret staircases, etc.—and began tapping and sounding the walls for private passages and hidden doorways; but in vain. It was at this stage of the fever that Don Quixote was given to them; and it is a singular illustration both of the genius of the book and the intelligence of the little readers that it put their giants, dwarfs and knights to flight. During the following summer they passed a few weeks at the manor-house of Cogners with an uncle, the marquis de Musset, the head of the family: to their great joy, the room assigned them had underneath the great canopied bedstead a trap leading into a small chamber built in the thickness of the floor between the two stories of the old feudal building. Alfred could not sleep for excitement, and wakened his brother at daybreak to help him explore: they found the secret chamber full of dust and cobwebs, and returned to their own room with the sense that their dreams had been realized a little too late. On looking about them they saw that the tapestry on their walls represented scenes from Don Quixote: they burst out laughing, and the days of chivalry were over.

Alfred de Musset was nine years old, as we have said, when he began to attend the Collége Henri IV. (now Corneille), on entering which he took his place in the sixth form, among boys for the most part of twelve or upward. He was sent to school on the first day with a deep scalloped collar and his long light curls falling upon his shoulders, and being greeted with jeers and yells by his schoolmates, went home in tears, and the curls were cut off forthwith. He was an ambitious rather than an assiduous scholar, and kept his place on the bench of honor by his facility in learning more than by his industry; but it was a source of keen mortification to him if he fell behindhand. His talents soon attracted the attention of the masters and the envy of the pupils, the latter of whom were irritated and humiliated by seeing the little curly-pate, the youngest of them all, always at the head of the class. The laziest and dullest formed a league against him: every day, when school broke up, he was assaulted with a brutality equal to that of an English public school, but which certainly would not have been roused against him there by the same cause. He had to run amuck through the courtyard to the gate, where a servant was waiting for him, often reaching it with torn clothes and a bloody face. This persecution was stopped by his old playfellow, Orlando Furioso, who was two years his senior: he threw himself into the crowd one day and dealt his redoubtable blows with so much energy that he scattered the bullies once for all. Among their schoolmates was the promising duke of Orleans, who was then duc de Chartres, his father, afterward King Louis Philippe, bearing at that time the former title. He took a strong fancy to Alfred de Musset, which he showed by writing him a profusion of notes during recitation, most of them invitations to dinner at Neuilly, where he occasionally went with other school-fellows of the young prince. For a time after leaving school De Chartres—as he was called by his young friends—kept up a lively correspondence with Alfred, and when their boyish intimacy naturally expired the recollection of it remained fresh and lively in the prince's mind, as was afterward proved.

De Musset left college at the age of sixteen, having taken a prize in philosophy for a Latin metaphysical essay. His disposition to inquire and speculate had already manifested itself by uneasy questions in the classes of logic and moral philosophy; and although few will agree with his brother that his writings show unusual aptitude and profound knowledge in these sciences, or that, as he says, "the thinker was always on a level with the poet," nobody can deny the constant questioning of the Sphinx, the eager, restless pursuit of truth, which pervades his pages. He pushed his search through a long course of reading,—Descartes, Spinoza, Cabanis, Maine de Biran—only to fall back upon an innate faith in God which never forsook him, although it was strangely disconnected with his mode of life.

I have lingered over the early years of Alfred de Musset because the childhood of a poet is the mirror wherein the image of his future is seen, and because there is something peculiarly touching in this season of innocence and unconsciousness of self in the history of men whose after lives have been torn to pieces by the storms of vicissitude and passion. So far, he had not begun to rhyme—an unusual case, as boys who can make two lines jingle, whether they be poets or not, generally scribble plentifully before leaving school. At the age of fourteen he wrote some verses to his mother on her birthday, but it is fair to suppose that they gave no hint of talent, as they have not been preserved: it was only from his temperament that his destiny might be guessed. The impressions of his infancy were singularly vivid and deep, and acted directly upon his imagination: they are reflected in his works in pictures and descriptions full of grace or power. The ardent Bonapartism of his family, particularly of his mother, whom he loved and revered, took form from his recollections in the magnificent opening of the Confession d'un Enfant du Siècle, which has the double character of a prose poem and a kindling oration, while by the volume and sonorous beauty of the phrase it reminds one of a grand musical composition. When he was between seven and eight years old his family passed the summer at an old country-place to which belonged a farm, and he and his brother found inexhaustible amusement among the tenants and their occupations. He never saw it again, but it is reproduced with perfect fidelity in the tale of Margot. The chivalric mania left, as Paul de Musset observes, a love of the romantic and fantastic, a tendency to look upon life as a novel, an enjoyment of what was unexpected and unlikely, a disposition to trust to chance and the course of events. The motto of the Mussets was a condensed expression of the gallant love-making, Launcelot side of knightly existence—Courtoisie, Bonne Aventure aux Preux ("Courtesy, Good Luck to the Paladin;" or, to translate the latter clause more freely, yet more faithfully to the spirit of the original, "None but the Brave Deserve the Fair"). It came from two estates—Courtoisie, which passed out of the family in the last century, and Bonne Aventure, a property on the Loire, which was not part of Alfred's patrimony. The fairies who endowed him at his christening with so many gifts and graces must have meant to complete his outfit when they presented him with such a device, which might have been invented for him at nineteen. On leaving college he continued his education by studying languages, drawing, and music to please himself, and attempting several professions to satisfy the reasonable expectations of his father. He found law dry, medicine disgusting, and, discouraged by these failures, he fell into low spirits, to which he was always prone even at the height of his youthful joyousness—declared to his brother that he was and ever should be good for nothing, that he never should be able to practise a profession, and never could resign himself to being any particular kind of man. His talent for drawing led him to work in a painter's studio and in the galleries of the Louvre with some success, and for a time he was in high spirits at the idea of having found his calling, and pursued it while attending lectures and classes on other subjects. This uncertainty lasted a couple of years, during which he began to venture a little into society, of which, like most lively, versatile young people, he was extravagantly fond. His Muse was still dormant, but his love for poetry was strongly developed; a volume of André Chenier was always in his pocket, and he delighted to read it under the trees in the avenues of the Bois on his daily walk out of Paris to the suburb of Auteuil, where his family lived at that time. Under this influence he wrote a poem, which he afterward destroyed, excepting a few good descriptive lines which he introduced into one of later date. Meanwhile, he had been presented to the once famous Cénacle, the nucleus of the romantic school, then in the pride and flush of youth and rapidly increasing popularity; its head-quarters were at the house of Victor Hugo facile princeps ordinis even among its chiefs. There he met Alfred de Vigny, Mérimée, Sainte-Beuve and others, whose talents differed essentially in kind and degree, but who were temporarily drawn together by similarity of literary principles and tastes. Their meetings were entirely taken up with intellectual discussions, or the reading of a new production, or in walks which have been commemorated by Mérimée and Sainte-Beuve, when they carried their romanticism to the towers of Notre Dame to see the sun set or the moon rise over Paris.

Stimulated by this companionship, Alfred de Musset began to compose. His first attempt at publication was anonymous, a ballad called "A Dream," which, through the good offices of a friend, was accepted by Le Provincial, a tri-weekly newspaper of Dijon: it did not pass unnoticed, but excited a controversy in print between the two editors, to the extreme delight of the young poet, who always fondly cherished the number of the paper in which it appeared. At length, one morning he woke up Sainte-Beuve with the laughing declaration that he too was a poet, and in support of his assertion recited some of his verses to that keenly attentive and appreciative ear. Sainte-Beuve at once announced that there was "a boy full of genius among them," and as long as he lived, whatever Paul de Musset's fraternal sensitiveness may find to complain of, he never retracted or qualified that first judgment. The Contes d'Italie et d'Espagne followed fast, and were recited to an enthusiastic audience, who were the more lenient to the exaggerations and affectations of which, as in most youthful poetry, there were plenty, since these bore the stamp of their own mint.

Alfred de Musset's first steps in life were made at the same time with his first essays in poetry. He was so handsome, high-spirited and gay that women did not wait to hear that he was a genius to smile upon him. His brother, who is tall, calls him of medium height, five feet four inches (about five feet nine, English measure), slender, well-made and of good carriage: his eyes were blue and full of fire; his nose was aquiline, like the portraits of Vandyke; his profile was slightly equine in type: the chief beauty of his face was his forehead, round which clustered the many-shaded masses of his fair hair, which never turned gray: the countenance was mobile, animated and sensitive; the predominating expression was pride. Paul relates without reserve how one married woman encouraged his brother and trifled with him, using his devotion to screen a real intrigue which she was carrying on, and that another, who was lying in wait for him, undertook his consolation. One morning Alfred made his appearance in spurs, with his hat very much on one side and a huge bunch of hair on the other, by which signs his brother understood that his vanity was satisfied. He was just eighteen. That a man of respectable life and notions like Paul de Musset should take these adventures as a matter of course makes it difficult for an American to find the point of view whence to judge a society so abominably corrupt. Thus at the age of a college-boy in this country he was started on the career which was destined to lead to so much unhappiness, and in the end to his destruction. Dissipation of every sort followed, debts, from which he was never free, and the habit of drinking, which proved fatal at last. To the advice and warnings of his brother he only replied that he wished to know everything by experience, not by hearsay—that he felt within him two men, one an actor, the other a spectator, and if the former did a foolish thing the latter profited by it. On this pernicious reasoning he pursued for three years a dissolute mode of life, which, thanks to the remarkable strength and elasticity of his constitution, did not prevent his carrying on his studies and going with great zest into society, where he became more and more welcome, besides writing occasionally. He translated De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, introducing some reveries of his own, but the work attracted no attention. During this period his father, naturally anxious about his son's unprofitable courses, one morning informed him that he had obtained a clerkship for him in an office connected with the military commissariat. Alfred did not venture to demur, but the confinement and routine of an office were intolerable, and he resolved to conquer his liberty by every effort of which he was capable. He offered his manuscripts for publication to M. Canel, the devoted editor of the romantic party: they fell short by five hundred lines of the number of pages requisite for a volume of the usual octavo bulk. He obtained a holiday, which he spent with a favorite uncle who lived in the provinces, and came back in three weeks with the poem of "Mardoche." He persuaded his father to give a literary party, to which his friends of the Cénacle were invited, and repeated his latest compositions to them, including "Mardoche." Here we have another example of manners startling to our notions: the keynote of these verses was rank libertinism, yet in his mother's drawing-room and apparently in the presence of his father, a dignified, reputable man, venerated by his children, this young rake declaimed stanzas more licentious than any in Byron's Don Juan. But it caused no scandal: the friends were rapturous, and predicted the infallible success of the poems, in which they were justified by the event. "Rarely," says Paul de Musset, "has so small a quantity of paper made so much noise." There was an uproar among the newspapers, some applauding with all their might, others denouncing the exaggeration of the romantic tendency: the romanticists themselves were disconcerted to find the "Ballade à la Lune," which they had taken as a good joke, turned into a joke against themselves. At all events, the young man was launched, and his vocation was thenceforth decided. In reading these first productions of Alfred de Musset's without the prejudice or partiality of faction, it cannot be denied that if not sufficient in themselves to ensure his immortality, they contain lines of finished beauty as perfect as the author ever produced—ample guarantee of what might be expected from the development of his genius.

He now began to be tired of sowing wild oats, and became less irregular in his mode of life. A lively, pretty little comedy called Une Nuit Vénitienne, which he wrote at the request of the director of the Odéon, for some inexplicable cause fell flat, which, besides turning him aside from writing for the stage during a number of years, discouraged him altogether for some time. Before he entirely recovered from the check he lost his father, who died suddenly of cholera in 1832. The shock left him sobered and calm, anxious to fulfil his duties toward his mother and young sister, whose means, it was feared, would be greatly diminished by the loss of M. de Musset's salary. Alfred resolved to publish another volume of poetry, and, if this did not succeed to a degree to warrant his considering literature a means of support, to get a commission in the army. He set himself industriously to work, and inspiration soon rewarded the effort: in six months his second volume appeared, comprising "Le Saule," "Vœux Stériles," "La Coupe et les Lèvres," "A quoi rèvent les jeunes filles," "Namouna," and several shorter pieces. Among those enumerated there are splendid passages, second in beauty and force to but a few of his later poems, the sublime "Nuits," "Souvenir," and the incomparable opening of "Rolla." Again he convoked the friends who three years before had greeted the Contes d'Espagne with acclamation, but, to the unutterable surprise and disappointment of both brothers, there was not a word of sympathy or applause: Mérimée alone expressed his approbation, and assured the young poet that he had made immense progress. Perhaps the others took in bad part their former disciple's recantation of romanticism, which he makes in the dedication of "La Coupe et les Lèvres" after the following formula:

For my part, I hate those snivellers in boats,
Those lovers of waterfalls, moonshine and lakes,
That breed without name, which with journals and notes,
Tears and verses, floods every step that it takes:
Nature no doubt but gives back what you lend her;
After all, it may be that they do comprehend her,
But them I do certainly not comprehend.

The chill of this introduction was not carried off by the public reception of the Spectacle dans un Fauteuil (as the new collection was entitled), which remained almost unnoticed for some weeks, until Sainte-Beuve in the Revue des Deux Mondes of January 15, 1833, published a review of this and the earlier poems, indicating their beauty and originality, the promise of the one and progress of the other, with his infallible discernment and discrimination. A few critics followed his lead, others differed, and discussions began again which could not but spread the young man's fame. The Revue des Deux Mondes was now open to him, and henceforth, with a few exceptions, whatever he wrote appeared in that periodical. He made his entry with the drama of Andrea del Sarto, which is rife with tense and tragic situations and deeply-moving scenes. The affairs of the family turned out much better than had been expected, but Alfred de Musset continued to work with application and ardor. His fine critical faculty kept his vagaries within bounds: he knew better than anybody "how much good sense it requires to do without common sense"—a dictum of his own. Like every true artist, he took his subjects wherever he found them: the dripping raindrops and tolling of the convent-bell suggested one of Chopin's most enchanting Preludes; the accidental attitudes of women and children in the street have given painters and sculptors their finest groups; so a bunch of fresh roses which De Musset's mother put upon his table one morning during his days of extravagant dissipation, saying, "All this for fourpence," gave him a happy idea for unravelling the perplexity of Valentin in Les Deux Maîtresses; and his unconscious exclamation, "Si je vous le disais pourtant que je vous aime," which caused a passer-by in the street to laugh at him, furnished the opening of the Stances à Ninon, like Dante's

Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore.

These fortunate dispositions were interrupted by a meeting which affected his character and genius more than any other event in his life. It is curious that Madame Sand and De Musset originally avoided making each other's acquaintance. She fancied that she should not like him, and he, although greatly struck by the genius of her first novel, Indiana, disliked her overloaded style of writing, and struck out in pencil a quantity of superfluous adjectives and other parts of speech in a copy which unluckily fell into her hands. Their first encounter was followed by a sudden, almost instantaneous, mutual passion—on his part the first and strongest if not the only one, of his life. The first season of this intimacy was like a long summer holiday. "It seemed," writes the biographer, "as if a partnership in which existence was so gay, to which each brought such contributions of talent, wit, grace, youth, and good-humor, could never be dissolved. It seemed as if such happy people should find nothing better to do than remain in a home which they had made so attractive for themselves and their friends.... I never saw such a happy company, nor one which cared so little about the rest of the world. Conversation never flagged: they passed their time in talking, drawing, and making music. A childish glee reigned supreme. They invented all sorts of amusements, not because they were bored, but because they were overflowing with spirits." But Paris became too narrow for them, and they fled—first to Fontainebleau, then to Italy. Musset's mother was deeply opposed to the latter project, foreseeing misfortune with the prescience of affection, and he promised not to go without her consent, although his heart was set upon it. The most incredible story in the biography is that Madame Sand actually surprised Madame de Musset into an interview, and, by appeals, eloquence, persuasion and vows, obtained her sorrowful acquiescence.

The lamentable story of that Italian journey has been told too often and by too many people to need repetition here. No doubt Paul de Musset has told it as fairly as could be expected from his brother's side: probably the circumstances occurred much as he sets them down. But he could not make due allowance for the effect which Alfred's dissolute habits had produced upon his character: he was but twenty-three, and had run the round of vice; he had already depicted the moral result of such courses in his terrible allegory of "La Coupe et les Lèvres:" the idea recurs throughout his works, conspicuously in the Confession d'un Enfant du Siècle, which is Madame Sand's best apology. But if his excesses had destroyed his ingenuousness, she destroyed his faith in human nature, and on her will ever rest the brand he set in the burning words of the "Nuit d'Octobre."

He returned to Paris shattered in mind and body, and shut himself up in his room for months, unable to endure contact with the outer world, or even that of the loving home circle which environed him with anxious tenderness. He could not read or write: a favorite piece of music from his young sister's piano, a game of chess with his mother in the evening, were his only recreations—his only excitement the letters which still came from Venice, for which he looked with a sick longing, at which one cannot wonder on reading them and remembering what a companionship it was that he had lost. Urged by his brother and his friend M. Buloz, the director of the Revue des Deux Mondes, to try the efficacy of work, he completed his play of On ne badine pas avec l'Amour, already sketched, in which, of all his dramatic writings, the cry of the heart is most thrilling. Aided by this effort, he made a journey to Baden in September, five months after his miserable return to Paris. The change of air and scene restored him, and his votive offering for the success of his pilgrimage was the charming poem called "Une Bonne Fortune." Although he had determined not to see Madame Sand again, their connection was renewed, in spite of himself, when she came back from Italy: it lasted for a short period, full of angry and melancholy scenes, quarrels and reconciliations. Then he broke loose for ever, and went back to the world and his work.

This episode, of which I have briefly given the outline, was the principal event of Alfred de Musset's life, the one which marked and colored it most deeply, which brought his genius to perfection by a cruel and fiery torture, and left a lasting imprint upon his writings. Although he never produced anything finer than certain passages of "Rolla," which was published in 1833, yet previous to that—or more accurately to 1835, when he began to write again—he had composed no long poem of equal merit throughout, none in which the flight was sustained from first to last. The magnificent series of the "Nights" of May, December, August and October, the "Letter to Lamartine," "Stanzas on the Death of Malibran," "Hope in God," and a number of others of not less melody and vigor, but less exalted and serious in tone; several plays, among them Lorenzaccio, which missed only by a very little being a fine tragedy; the greater part of his prose tales and criticisms, including Le Fils de Titien, the most charming of his stories, and the Confession d'un Enfant du Siècle, which shows as much genius as any of his poems,—belong to the period from 1835 to 1840, his apogee. Of the last work, notwithstanding its unmistakable personal revelations—which, if they do not tell the author's story, at least reflect his state of mind—Paul de Musset says, what everybody who has read his brother's writings carefully will feel to be true, that neither in the hero nor any other single personage must we look for Alfred's entire individuality. In the complexity of his character and emotions, and the contradictions which they united, are to be found the eidolon of every young man in his collection, even "the two heroes of Les Caprices de Marianne, Octave and Cœlio," says Paul, "although they are the antipodes of one another." Neither is it as easy as it would seem on the surface to trace the thread of any one incident of his life through his writings. Although containing some irreconcilable passages, the four "Nights" appeared to have been born of the same impulse and to exact the same dedication: it is undeniably a shock to have their inconsistencies explained by hearing that while the "Nuits de Mai," "d'Août" and "d'Octobre" refer to his passion for Madame Sand, the "Nuit de Décembre" and "Lettre à Lamartine," which naturally belong to this series, were dictated by another attachment and another disappointment. I will not stop to moralize upon this: the story of De Musset's life is really only the story of his loves. His brother says that he was always in love with somebody: it was a necessity of his nature and his genius. Before he was twenty-seven, six different love-affairs are enumerated, without taking into account numerous affairs of gallantry; nor was the sixth the last. The "Nuit d'Octobre" was written two years and a half after his return from Italy, and its terrible malediction is the outbreak of the rankling memory of his wrong and suffering. It was psychologically in order that while his love (which does not die in an hour, like trust and respect) survived, it should surround its object with lingering tenderness, but that as it slowly expired indignation, scorn and the sense of injury should increase: this is their final utterance, followed by pardon, a vow of forgetfulness and farewell, but not a final farewell. That was spoken years afterward, in 1841, when, once again seeing by chance the forest of Fontainebleau, and about the same time casually encountering Madame Sand, he poured forth his "Souvenir," a poem of matchless sweetness and beauty, vibrating with feeling and most musical in expression—an exquisite combination of lyric and elegy. In this he calls her

Ma seule amie à jamais la plus chère.

Ten years after this, in one of the last strains of his unstrung harp, a fragment called "Souvenir des Alpes," the sad chord is touched once more: up to the end it answered faintly to certain notes. Long after their rupture and separation he said that he would have given ten years of his life to marry her had she been free; and it is deplorable that the most fervent and lasting affection of which he was capable should have been thrown back upon him in such sort.

Of marriage there were several schemes at different times: they fell through because he was averse to them himself, except one to which he much inclined, the young lady being pretty, intelligent, charming and the daughter of an old friend; but on the first advances it turned out that she was engaged to another man. His biographer regrets this deeply, convinced that such an alliance would have been his brother's salvation; but even if he could have been more constant to his wife than to his mistresses, the habit of intemperance was too confirmed to admit much hope of domestic happiness. The same may be opined in regard to the vague hopes which were destroyed by the death of the young duke of Orleans. When Louis Philippe came to the throne, De Musset made no attempt to approach the royal family on the pretext of the old school-friendship: it was the duke himself who renewed it in 1836 on accidentally seeing some unpublished verses of the poet's on the king's escape from an attempt at assassination. Louis Philippe himself did not like the sonnet, considering the use of the poetic thou too familiar a form of address: he did not know who was the author; and when Alfred was presented to him at a court-ball took him for a cousin who was inspector of the royal forests at Joinville, and continued to greet him, under this mistake, with a few gracious words two or three times a year during the rest of his reign, while the poet's name was on the lips and in the heart of every one else. The duke's favor and friendliness ended only with his sad and sudden death.

Paul de Musset tells us that the years 1837 and 1838 were the happiest in his brother's life. The love-trouble which had wrung from him the "Nuit de Décembre" was a disappointment, but not a deception, and the parting had caused equal sorrow on both sides, but no bitterness. After no long interval appeared "a very young and very pretty person whom he met frequently in society, of an enthusiastic, passionate nature, independent in her position, and who bought the poet's books." An acquaintance, a friendship, a correspondence, a serious passion followed, and became a relation which lasted two years "without quarrel, storm, coolness or subject of umbrage or jealousy—two years of love without a cloud, of true happiness." Why did it not last for ever? The biographer does not give the answer. It is hinted in a letter to Alfred's friend, the duchesse de Castries, dated September, 1840, in his Œuvres posthumes: "I have told you how about a year ago an absurd passion, totally useless and somewhat ridiculous, made me break with all my habits. I forsook all my surroundings, my friends of both sexes, the current in which I was living, and one of the prettiest women in Paris. I did not succeed in my foolish dream, you must understand; and now I find myself cured, it is true, but high and dry like a fish in a grain-field." This is probably the clue, and the foolish dream was for a woman to whom his brother refers as having repelled Alfred's homage with harshness, and having called forth from him some short and extremely bitter verses beginning "Oui, femme," and another called "Adieu!" in which there prevails a tone of quiet but deep feeling. This is a sad story: he apparently united the volatility and vagrancy of fancy, the inconstancy of light shallow natures, with the ardor and intensity of passion and the capacity for suffering which belong to strong and steadfast ones. There was a childlike quality in his disposition, which showed itself in a sort of simplicity and spontaneousness in the midst of a corrupt existence, and still more in the uncontrollable, absorbing violence of his emotions: they swept over him, momentarily devastating his present and blotting out the horizon, but unlike the tempests of childhood their ravages did not disappear when the clouds dispersed and the torrents subsided. The life of debauchery which had preceded his journey to Italy was replaced, for some years, by a less excessive degree of dissipation, during which he lived with a fast set, who, however, were men of talent and accomplishments, the foremost among them being Prince Belgiojoso. The influence of the two fortunate years, 1837-38, not only the happiest but the most fertile of his short career, seems to have weakened these associations and led him into calmer paths. He had formed several friendships with women of a sort which both parties may regard with pride, in particular with the Princess Belgiojoso, one of the most striking and original figures of our monotonous time, and Madame Maxime Jaubert, a clever, attractive young woman with a delightful house, whom he called his Marraine because she had given him a nickname. These women, and others—but these two above the rest—were sincerely and loyally attached to him with a disinterested regard which did not spare advice, nor even rebuke, or relax under his loss of health and brilliancy or neglect of their kindness, which nevertheless he felt and valued. His purest source of pleasure was in the talent of others, which gave him a generous and sympathetic enjoyment. The appearance of Pauline Garcia—now Madame Viardot—and Rachel, who came out almost simultaneously at the age of seventeen, added delight to the two happy years. He has left notices of the first performances of these artistes, the former in opera, the latter on the stage (for he was musical himself and a connoisseur) which are excellent criticisms, and have even more interest than when they appeared, now that the career of one has long been closed and that of the other long completed. His relations with Rachel lasted for many years, interrupted by the gusts and blasts which the contact of two such natures inevitably begets. She constantly urged him to write a play for her, and in the year after her début he wrote a fragment of a drama on the story of Frédegonde, which she learned by heart and occasionally recited in private; but there were endless delays and difficulties on both sides, and the rest was not written. After various episodes and passages between them, De Musset was dining with her one evening when she had become a great lady and queen of the theatre, and her other guests were all rich men of fashion. One of them admired an extremely beautiful and costly ring which she wore. It was first passed round the table from hand to hand, and then she said they might bid for it. One immediately offered five hundred francs, another fifteen, and the ring went up at once to three thousand: "And you, my poet, why do not you bid? What will you give?" "I will give you my heart," he replied. "The ring is yours," cried Rachel, taking it off and throwing it into his plate. After dinner De Musset tried to restore it to her, but she refused to take it back: he urged and insisted, when she, suddenly falling on her knee with that sovereign charm of seduction for which she was as renowned as for her tragic power, entreated him to keep it as a pledge for the piece he was to write for her. The poet took the ring, and went home excited and wrought up to the resolve that nothing should interfere with the completion of his task. But it was the old story again—whims and postponements on Rachel's part, possibly temper and pique on his—until six months afterward, at the end of an angry conversation, he silently replaced the ring on her hand, and she did not resist. Four years later the compact was renewed, and although by this time De Musset had to all intents and purposes ceased to write, he struck off the first act of a play called Faustina, the scene of which was laid in Venice in the fourteenth century; but he put off finishing it, and finally let it drop altogether.

In December, 1840, Alfred de Musset was thirty years old, and on his birthday he had one of those reckonings with himself, which the most deliberately careless and volatile men cannot escape. At twenty-one he had held a similar settlement: he was then uncertain of his genius, dissatisfied with his way of life and with the use he made of his time: the result was his adoption of a more serious line of study and conduct, which had led him, in spite of interruptions and aberrations, to the brilliant display of his beautiful and splendid talents, the full exercise of his wonderful powers. Now another review of his past and survey of his future left him in a mood of discontent and depression. He felt that he could not always go on being a boy. The year behind him had been almost sterile, and marked by the loss of many of what he called his illusions. He had been implored and urged to write by his friends and editors, had made and broken promises without number to the latter, and had become involved in money difficulties to a degree which kept him in constant anxiety and torment. Yet he steadily rejected all his brother's affectionate advice and importunities to shake off the deepening lethargy. He would not write poetry because the Muse did not come of her free will, and he would never do her violence. He had forsworn prose, because he said everybody wrote that, and many so ill that he would not swell the number of magazine story-writers, who, he foresaw, were to lower the standard of fiction and style. In short, he always had an excuse for doing nothing, and although he hated above all things to leave Paris, and seldom accepted the invitations of his friends in the country, he now repeatedly rushed out of town to escape the visits of editors, who had become no better than duns in his eyes. When at home he shut himself in his room for days together in so gloomy a frame of mind that even his brother did not venture to break in upon him: he even made a furtive attempt at suicide one night when his despondency reached its lowest depth; it was foiled by the accident of Paul's having unloaded the pistols and locked up the powder and balls some time before. He grew morbidly irritable, and resented Paul's remonstrances, which, we may be sure, were made with all the tact and consideration of natural delicacy and unselfish affection, generally by laughing at the poor poet, which was the most effectual way of restoring his courage and good-humor. One morning he emerged from his seclusion, and with vindictive desperation threw before his brother a quantity of manuscripts, saying, "You would have prose: there it is for you." It was the introduction to a sort of romance called Le Poète déchu, a wretched story of a young man of many gifts who finds himself under the necessity of writing for the support of his orphan sisters, and it described with harrowing eloquence the vain efforts of his exhausted brain. The extracts in the biography are painfully affecting and powerful, but the work was never finished or published. Such a state of things could not go on indefinitely, and De Musset fell dangerously ill of congestion of the lungs, brought on by reckless imprudence when already far from well: the attack was accompanied by so much fever and delirium that it was at first mistaken for brain fever. This illness redoubled the tenderness and devotion of his family and friends: his Marraine and Princess Belgiojoso took turns by his bedside, magnetizing the unruly patient into quiescence; but the person who exercised the greatest influence over him was a poor Sister of Charity, Sœur Marcelline, who was engaged to assist in nursing him. The untiring care, self-abnegation, angelic sweetness and serenity of this humble woman gained the attachment of the whole family, and established an ascendency over Alfred's impressionable imagination. She did not confine her office to her patient's physical welfare, but strove earnestly to minister to him spiritually. His long convalescence "was like a second birth. He did not seem more than seventeen: he had the joyousness of a child, the fancies of a page, like Cherubino in the Marriage of Figaro. All the difficulties and subjects of despair which preceded his malady had vanished in a rose-colored distance. He passed his days in reading interminable books—Clarissa Harlowe, which he already knew, the Memorial of St. Helena, and all the memoirs relating to the Empire. In the evening we all gathered about his writing-table to draw and chat, while Sœur Marcelline sat by knitting in bright worsteds. Auguste Barre, our neighbor, came to work at an album of caricatures in the style of Töppfer's, and we all amused ourselves with the comic illustrations: Alfred and Barre had the pencil, the rest of us composed a text as absurd as the drawings. Who will give us back those delicious evenings of laughter, jest and chat, when without stirring from home or depending on anything from without our whole household was so happy?" Alas! they were not of long duration. By and by Sister Marcelline went away, leaving her patient a pen on which she had embroidered, "Remember your promises." He was afflicted by her departure, and wrote some lines to her, who, as he said, did not know what poetry meant, but he could never be induced to show them, although he repeated them to Paul and their friend Alfred Tattet, who between them contrived to note down the four following verses:

Poor girl! thou art no longer fair.
By watching Death with patient care
Thou pale as he art grown:
By tending upon human pain
Thy hand is worn as coarse in grain
As horny Labor's own.
But weariness and courage meek
Illuminate thy pallid cheek
Beside the dying bed:
To the poor suffering mortal's clutch
Thy hard hand hath a gentle touch,
With tears and warm blood fed.


Tread to the end thy lonely road,
All for thy task and toward thy God,
Thy footsteps day by day.
That evil must exist, we prate,
And wisely leave it to its fate,
And pass another way;
But thy pure conscience owns it not,
Though ceaseless warfare is thy lot
 Against disease and woe;
No ills for thee have power to sting,
Nor to thy lip a murmur bring,
Save those that others know.

De Musset held in peculiar sacredness and reverence whatever was connected with this good woman and his feeling for her: seventeen years after this illness the embroidered pen and a piece of her knitting were buried with him by almost his last request.

Seventeen years! a large bit of any one's life—more than a third of Alfred de Musset's own term—yet there is hardly anything to say about it. The "Souvenir," which was written about six months after his recovery, is the last poem in which all his strength, beauty and pathos find expression: he never wrote again in this vein: it was the last echo of his youth. He composed less and less frequently, and though what he wrote was redolent of sentiment, wit, grace and elegance, and some of the short occasional verses have a consummate charm of finish, the soul seems gone out of his poetry. His brother mentions a number of compositions begun, but thrown aside; there were projects of travel never carried out; he gradually gave up the society of even his oldest friends: everything indicated a rapid decline of the active faculties. Unhappily, that of suffering seemed only to increase—no longer the sharp anguish of unspent force which had wrung from him the passionate cries and plaintive murmurs of former years, but the dull numbness of hopelessness. His existence was monotonous, and the few occurrences which varied it were of a sad or unpleasant nature. His sister married and left Paris, and his mother subsequently went to live with her in the country, thus breaking up their family circle; Paul de Musset was absent from France for considerable spaces of time, so that for the first time Alfred de Musset was compelled to live alone. Friends scattered, some died: the Orleans family, for whom he had a real affection, was driven from France; he fancied that his genius was unappreciated—a notion which, strangely enough, his brother shared—and although he was the last man to rage or mope over misapprehension, the idea certainly added to his gloom. Through the good graces of the duke of Orleans he had been appointed librarian of the Home Office, a post of which he was instantly deprived on the change of government; but a few years later he was unexpectedly given a similar one in the Department of Public Education. In 1852 he was elected to the French Academy, that honor so limited by the small number of members, so ridiculed by unsuccessful aspirants, yet without which no French author feels his career to be complete. His plays were being performed with great favor, his poems and tales were becoming more and more popular, his verses were set to music, his stories were illustrated: but all this brought no cheer or consolation to the sick spirit. He lived more and more alone: the Théâtre Français, a silent game of chess at his café, the deadly absinthe, were his only sources of excitement. It is a comfort to learn that the last ray of pleasure which penetrated his moral dungeon, reviving for an instant the generous glow of enthusiasm, was the appearance of Ristori: inspired by her, he began a poetical address which he never finished, nor even wrote down, but a fragment of it was preserved orally by one or two who heard it:

For Pauline and Rachel I sang of hope,
And over Malibran a tear I shed;
But, thanks to thee, I see the mighty scope
Of strength and genius wed.
Ah keep them long! The heart which breathes the prayer
When genius calls has ever made reply,
Bear smiling home to Italy the fair,
A flower from our sky.


They tell me that in spite of grief and wrong,
And pride bent earthward by a tyrant's heel,
A noble race, though crushed and conquered long,
Has not yet learned to kneel.
Rome's godlike dwellers of a bygone age,
The marble, porphyry, alabaster forms,
Still live: at night, to speech upon the stage,
An ancient statue warms.

What was the cause of De Musset's unhappiness and impotence? His brother tries to account for them by an enumeration of the distresses and annoyances mentioned above, and others of the same order; but when one remembers how the poet's great sorrows, his father's death and the betrayal of his affection by the first woman he really loved, had given him his finest conceptions in verse and prose, it is impossible to accept so insufficient an explanation. Nor can we allow that De Musset sank into a condition of puerile impatience and senile querulousness. Judged by our standard, all the Latin races lack manhood, as we may possibly do by theirs: De Musset was only as much more sensitive than the rest of his countrymen as those of the poetic temperament are usually found to be in all countries. Nor had he seen his talent slowly expire: the spring did not run dry by degrees: it suddenly sank into the ground. He had made a fearful mistake at the outset, which he discovered too late if at all. Considering what life is sure to bring to every one in the way of trial and sorrow, it is not worth while to go in search of emotions and experience which are certain to find us out; nor is it in the slums of life that its meaning is to be sought. He had foretold his own end in the prophetic warning of his Muse:

Quand les dieux irrités m'ôteront ton génie,
Si je tombe des cieux que me répondras-tu?

His light was not lost in a storm-cloud nor eclipse, but in the awful Radnorok, the Götterdämmerung, when sun and stars fall from a blank heaven. His health and habits constantly grew worse—he had organic disease of the heart—but his existence dragged on until May 1st, 1857, when an acute attack carried him off after a few days' illness. He died in his brother's arms, and his last words were, "Sleep! at last I shall sleep." He had killed himself physically and intellectually as surely as the wages of sin are death.

But let not this be the last word on one so beloved as a poet and a man. Mental qualities alone never endear their possessor to every being that comes into contact with him, and Alfred de Musset was idolized by people who could not even read. There was not a generous or amiable quality in which he was wanting: he had an inextinguishable ardor for genius and greatness in every form; he was tender-hearted to excess, could not endure the sight of suffering, and delighted in giving pleasure; his sympathy was ready and entire, his loyalty of the truest metal. "He never abused anybody," says his brother, "nor sacrificed an absent person for the sake of a good story." He loved animals and children, and they loved him in return.

He can never cease to be the poet of the many, for he has melody, sentiment, passion, all that charms the popular ear and heart—a personality which is the expression of human nature in a language which, as he himself says, few speak, but all understand. He can never cease to be the poet of the few, because, while his poems are a very concentration and elixir of the most intense and profound feelings of which we are all capable, they give words to the more exquisite and intimate emotions peculiar to those of a keener and more refined susceptibility, of a more exalted and aërial range. Sainte-Beuve says somewhere, though not in his final verdict on De Musset, that his chief merit is having restored to French literature the wit which had been driven out of it by the sentimentalists. His wit is indeed delightful and irresistible, but it is not his magic key to souls. In other countries every generation has its own poet: younger ears are deaf to the music which so long charmed ours; but De Musset will be the poet of each new generation for a certain season—the sweetest of all, because, as has been well said, he is the poet of youth. And if doubt breathes through some of his grandest strophes, Faith finds her first and last profession in the lines—

Une immense espérance a traversé la terre;
Malgré nous vers le ciel il faut lever les yeux.