Indecision in Musset's Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie

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Author: Russell S. King
Editor: Russel Whitaker
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,810 words

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[(essay date October 1969) In the following essay, King surveys Musset's Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie, examining this work as a product of the writer's early literary apprenticeship.]

In the early and middle years of French Romanticism, few writers and fewer critics succeeded in defining the movement clearly and positively. Hugo's Préface de Cromwell, published in 1827, the most prominent of Romantic manifestos, is seen to be inadequate when one examines its validity in so far as even Hugo himself was concerned. What relevance does the Préface have in such disparate works as Les Orientales (1829), Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné (1829), Hernani (1830), and Les Feuilles d'Automne (1831)? Earlier, Stendhal, in his Racine et Shakespeare, had argued on much safer grounds, by declaring that being Romantic meant being "modern," being of one's age, but this says little.

Despite the manifestos, despite Hernani, despite the Cénacle, Sainte-Beuve, Le Globe, despite Chateaubriand and Lamartine, Romanticism meant different things for different writers. In England, the role and significance of imagination binds together the principal exponents of Romanticism, with the glaring exception of Byron. In France no one quality or characteristic unifies the writers of the 1820s and 1830s. There were many strands and many short-lived fashions. Apart from experimentation and innovation in form, versification and vocabulary, Romanticism was manifested in a predilection for the Orient, Spain, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; for England, Shakespeare, Ossian, Byron; for Werther and René's mal du siècle; for the glorification and even sanctification of nature and love; for liberalism, political opposition, Republicanism, monarchy, socio-political awareness. ...

For a nineteen-year-old writer, in 1829, striving to be both original and modern, such a picture was indeed bewildering. Musset's Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie can be seen as a product of this bewilderment. ...

The poems [of the Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie,] were first read before a large audience of the Cénacle on Christmas Eve, 1829, an occasion which Dumas describes in his Mémoires. The reception must have been pleasing to a young débutant who had just celebrated his nineteenth birthday. Although all did not rush to acclaim the new poet, he was attentively heard, the young ladies blushed, the "orthodox" Romantics were scandalized by some of the liberties in his versification. Once the Contes1 were published, critics felt impelled to review the work at length; an aunt, the "Chanoinesse de Vendôme," disinherited him, and Harel, the Director of the Odéon theatre, begged him to write a play, "la plus neuve et la plus hardie possible."2

This collection represents for the most part Musset's earliest literary efforts. In 1828, he had published a free translation of De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and, on 31 August 1828, his first poem, "Un Rêve," was printed. Earlier poems are known, including a song written for his mother when he was fourteen; another, dated Le Mans, October 1826, is addressed to a Mademoiselle Zoé le Douairin, whilst yet another "La Nuit" was written at about the same time.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420063886