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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Musset had emancipated himself from the Cenacle


He

gave his adhesion to the romantic school, rather with the light effrontery of youth than with depth of conviction; he was impertinent, ironical, incredulous, blasphemous, despairing, as became an elegant Byron minor of the boulevards, aged nineteen. But some of the pieces were well composed; all had the "form and feature of blown youth"; the echoes of southern lands had the fidelity and strangeness of echoes tossed from Paris backwards; certain passages and lines had a classic grace; it might even be questioned whether the _Ballade a la Lune_ was a challenge to the school of tradition, or a jest at the expense of his own associates.

A season of hesitation and of transition followed. Musset was not disposed to play the part of the small drummer-boy inciting the romantic battalion to the double-quick. He began to be aware of his own independence. He was romantic, but he had wit and a certain intellectual good-sense; he honoured Racine together with Hugo; he could not merge his individuality in a school. Yet, with an infirmity characteristic of him, Musset was discouraged. It was not in him to write great poetry of an impersonal kind; his _Nuit Venitienne_ had been hissed at the Odeon; and what had he to sing out of his own heart? He resolved to make the experiment. Three years after his first volume a second appeared, which announced by its title that, while still a dramatic poet, he had abandoned the stage; the _Spectacle dans un Fauteuil_ declared

that, though his glass was small, it was from his own glass that he would drink.

The glass contained the wine of love and youth mingled with a grosser potion. In the drama _La Coupe et les Levres_ he exhibited libertine passion seeking alliance with innocence and purity, and incapable of attaining self-recovery; in _Namouna_, hastily written to fit the volume for publication, he presented the pursuit of ideal love as conducting its victim through all the lures of sensual desire; the comedy _A quoi revent les jeunes Filles_, with its charm of fantasy, tells of a father's device to prepare his daughters for the good prose of wedlock by the poetry of invented romance. Musset had emancipated himself from the Cenacle, and would neither appeal to the eye with an overcharge of local colour, nor seduce the ear with rich or curious rhymes. Next year (1833) in the _Revue des Deux Mondes_ appeared _Rolla_, the poem which marks the culmination of Musset's early manner, and of Byron's influence on his genius; the prodigal, beggared of faith, debased by self-indulgence, is not quite a disbeliever in love; through passion he hastens forward in desperation to the refuge of death.

At the close of 1833 Musset was with George Sand in Italy. The hours of illusion were followed by months of despair. He knew suffering, not through the imagination, but in his own experience. After a time calm gradually returned, and the poet, great at length by virtue of the sincerity of genius, awoke. He is no longer frivolously despairing and elegantly corrupt. In _Les Nuits_--two of these (_Mai_, _Octobre_) inspired by the Italian joy and pain--he speaks simply and directly from the heart in accents of penetrating power. Solitude, his constant friend, the Muse, and love rising from the grave of love, shall be his consolers--

"_Apres avoir souffert, il faut souffrir encore; Il faut aimer sans cesse, apres avoir aime._"


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