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Musset and the Romance of Young France
by Carl Halling
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It was in the glittering Paris of the 1830s that a certain French Romantic poet, playwright and novelist of noble birth by the name of Alfred Charles de Musset-Pathay came close to having the exorbitant ambition of one who didn’t want to write without aspiring to the greatness of a Shakespeare or Schiller fulfilled.
But then he’d been a brilliant student, the son and grandson of writers who’d published his poem at just 16 in 1828, and a translation of de Quincey’s “The Confessions of an English Opium Eater” in the same year.
While his first works, which included the “Contes d’Espagne et d’Italie” were published at the dawn of that decade which he entered blessed with every great gift a gilded young genius might hope to possess. Being tender as well as elegant, beautiful as well as brilliant, and an irresistible enthusiast of the most exorbitant passion and sensibility. But he’d have to wait a few years before real artistic success came his way.
And his was the era in which the Romantic movement came into full flower in France. And he revelled in it as the so-called Phosphorescent Prince, his sphere, the dandified café society of the Parisian Right Bank, his closest friend, fellow dandy Alfred Tattet.
For the Paris of the 1830s was the very cradle of the nascent Modern impulse, the leading world incubator of the most charismatic originality of thought and behaviour, in which such distinctly Modern phenomena as Bohemianism and the avant-garde came into being more or less for the first time. And the Gothic tendency flourished as never before in the hands of such proto-Bohemian bands as the Bouzingots and the Jeunes-France.
It was a uniqueness, moreover, that has tended ever since to verge on the downright aberrant when manifested by some of her most gifted citizens, such as her celebrated poètes maudits…long the apostles of the avant-garde par excellence.
And it could be said the first generation of these were numbered among the young men who in the wake of the July Revolution of 1830 congregated about such wild and brilliant youth as Pétrus Borel and Théophile Gautier, two writers of the so-called frenetic school of late Romantic writers. And these seminal avant-gardists have become known as the Bouzingos, although little distinguished them from the earlier Jeunes-France.
Originally members of a Romantic clique known as le Petit Cénacle, their role in the infamous Battle of Hernani at the Comédie Francaise theatre in February 1830 was paramount.
And this took place on the opening night of Hugo’s play, “Hernani”, and was marked by violent scenes involving defenders of the Classical tradition, and Hugo’s supporters, who flaunted long hair and flamboyant costumes in defiance of everything the bourgeois held dear.
In addition to Gautier, they included Pétrus Borel, Gérard de Nerval, Philothée O’Neddy and Augustus MacKeat, all of whom went on to be numbered among the Jeunes-France.
According to one theory, the first Bouzingos were a band of political agitators who took part in the July Revolution in wide-brimmed leather hats. While their artistic equivalents were so named by the press following a bout of riotous boozing which saw some of them end up in prison for the night.
However, they too embraced radical political views; for the artistic avant-garde has mostly inclined to the left, while containing an ultra-conservative element.
Needless to say, they owed an enormous debt to the earlier English and German Romantics, who did so much to promote the myth of the artist as tormented genius ever-existent on the fringes of respectable society. A Bohemian in others words.
And akin to the Bohemian was the Dandy; and of the poètes maudits of mid 19th Century Paris, several were both Bohemians and Dandies, depending on their circumstances at the time.
They included Charles Baudelaire, whose essay “Le Dandy” (1863) is one of the defining works on the subject.
And the same could be said of his forebear Musset, whose tormented relationship with fellow Romantic George Sand, born Amantine Lucile Dupin in Paris in 1810, had much of the Bohemian about it. That is, in terms of its turbulence and debauchery, which left the former golden boy of French letters a prematurely broken man at just 24, spurring him to pen his hyper-emotional “Confession”. And this was as much about his failed love affair with Sand as the disenchantment of the generation that had come to maturity in the wake of the Revolutionary Age.
Sand, born Amantine Lucile Dupin in Paris in 1810, was clearly a woman of quite extraordinary magnetic power…and by the time of her affair with Musset, she was a divorcée with two young children, and a baroness to boot, even though her own roots were only partly aristocratic. And her effect on Musset was little short of cataclysmic, inspiring much of his finest work; and not just the “Confession”.
For the famous series of poems known as “Les Nuits”, composed between 1835 and ’37, also spring from his unhappy relationship with Sand. And they are rightly considered to be among the unimpeachable masterpieces of French Romanticism. Indeed of French literature as a whole.
Yet it could be argued that Musset is best known for his theatrical writings, which began as early as 1830 with “La Nuit Venitienne”. And of which “Lorenzaccio” from 1833, and “On Ne Badine Pas Avec L’Amour” from ’34 are among the most celebrated.
Having said that, it’s the true life romance at the heart of the “Confession” that most inspires contemporary creators
And the motion picture “Les Enfants du Siecle”, which was directed by Diane Kurys in 1999 with Benoit Magimel as Musset and Juliette Binoche as Sand, was directly inspired by these. While a version of the “Confession” itself is purportedly in the pipeline.
And certainly it’s a glamorous tale, while Musset’s life itself is the stuff of legend.
Yet despite the fact that like Gautier, he became a deeply respectable figure in late middle age, receiving the National Order of the Legion of Honour in 1845, before being elected to the French Academy in ’52, his was an ultimately tragic life, blighted by alcoholism. Which together with the condition known as aortic insufficiency, brought about his demise from heart failure at just 46 years old.
An age which appears to be a common one for the deaths of great poets whose flaming, beautiful youths were garlanded with the most magnificent promise imaginable. For as well as Musset…Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde died at 46, and together they might serve as a testimony to the awful truth of the brevity of even the most glorious of youths.
As well as the ruinous nature of youthful self-indulgence which so often leads ultimately to what is described in 2 Corinthians 7:10 as “the sorrow of the world”, and of which Musset’s own heartbreaking poem “Tristesse” is a pre-eminent expression. As opposed, that is to “godly sorrow”, which “worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of.”

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