Thence, according to Musset’s Octave, Byron responded to a nascent strain of decadence within the ‘littérature nouvelle’ of which Goethe was the patriarch, with his own contributions,
such as the aforesaid Manfred from the ‘metaphysical drama’ of the same name, composed between 1816 and 1817, who is quintessentially Byronic by virtue of what F.W.
Stokoe refers to as ‘consciousness of superior faculties’ , as well as ‘the remorseful memory of a past mysterious crime’ .
Moreover, he has been likened to Goethe’s Faust, not least by virtue of his Faustian craving for knowledge, specifically of the esoteric variety,
as confirmed by Frank Erik Pointner and Achim Geisenhansluke:
‘What Manfred and Faust have in common is the indefatigable striving for knowledge of the world-secret.’
Musset’s mal du siècle can be traced as least as far back as 1833, the year he composed the long poem Rolla, centring on protagonist Jacques Rolla, ‘le plus grand débauché’,
as the narrator describes him,
whose combination of libertinage and melancholia anticipated that of Octave; while the narrator voiced the loss of Christian faith that afflicted Musset’s tragic generation,
as Linda Kelly writes:
‘1833, the year of his meeting with George Sand, was a period of intense creation in Musset’s life […] In August, his “Rolla” appeared,
a poem memorable for its analysis of the religious drama of his generation […]’:
Je ne crois pas, ô Christ ! à ta parole sainte :
Je suis venu trop tard dans un monde trop vieux […]’
(‘I am not one, O Christ, who dwells within your fold,
Too late have I set foot within a world too old […]’ )
Yet, while it would be inadvisable to view the narrator of Rolla as Musset himself,
his brother Paul provides a portrait of the youthful Alfred as a king of epochal seer - as well as a quintessential poète maudit - which reinforces the cogent theory of
the autobiographical nature of both the eponymous Rolla and the poem’s narrator:
‘Not only did Alfred de Musset receive the gift of keen feeling and forceful expression,
but the sentiments and thoughts to which he gave so fair a form were those of a whole generation […] Sensitive souls are sent into the world to be crowded and crushed […] So that those
who afford us our highest intellectual pleasures and our sweetest consolations appear doomed to weariness and melancholy […]’
While Musset’s Octave laments the darkness he sees as having been ushered into the collective psyche of his generation by works by Goethe and Byron,
the narrator of Rolla reaches further back into Western literary history for the root cause of generational malaise to the personage of Voltaire,
described by Karen O’Brien as ‘the personification of the Enlightenment’ :
‘Dors-tu content, Voltaire, et ton hideux sourire,
Voltige-t-il encore sur tes os décharnés ?
Ton siècle était, dit-on, trop jeune pour te lire ;
Le nôtre doit te plaire, et tes hommes sont nés.
Il est tombé sur nous cet édifice immense
Que de tes larges mains tu sapais nuit et jour […]’
(‘Sleep you content, Voltaire, and does your hideous smile,
Flit o’er your fleshless skull in mockery the while?
Your century was too young to read you so they say;
Our own must please you well – your men are born today!
The mighty edifice with your industrious hands
Worked with such zeal to undermine, no longer stands […]’ )
What the narrator is asserting is that the influence of Voltaire as what has called, while exerting minimal influence on the eighteenth century itself, impacted the nineteenth,
and specifically Musset’s own generation, with a leviathan-life force which he views as wholly destructive, this being especially true with regard to religious faith in France.
Yet, what Paul Lawrence Rose describes as ‘Voltaire’s anti-Christian sentiments’ were to a degree reflective of the French Enlightenment as a whole; as Terence Nichols writes:
‘The French Enlightenment, led by men such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot, was […] much more anti-Christian and anti-clerical than the English, American or German Enlightenments.’
Accordingly, Musset’s mal du siecle, expressed firstly through Rolla, and subsequently through La Confession d’un enfant du siecle,
was significantly rooted in a conviction that his generation had been blighted by, one the one hand, the impact of the Enlightenment, and specifically Voltaire, on the Christian faith,
and on the other, a distinctly morbid strain within Romanticism epitomised in its earliest stages by such fictional characters as Werther, Faust, and Manfred.
Musset’s anguished critique of the Paris of the 1830s, expressed in Rolla, and to an even greater degree in La Confession d’un enfant du siècle,
is remarkably applicable to our own post-war Western culture, with a special emphasis on one-time crucible of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, Western Europe, which,
broken by a long history of conflict culminating in two exhausting world wars, entered a protracted period of moral decline in the wake of World War II, as Craig A. Lockard writes:
‘World War II had left western Europe devastated in the later 1940s [and she] emerged from the ashes of World War II economically and morally bankrupt.’
Thence, Musset’s Paris was to a degree a foreshadow, on a smaller scale, of the entire post-war West, and while Musset was in nowise immune to the temptations tendered by societal dissolution,
he was yet something of Jeremiah for his times.
It was as if he foresaw the Parisian fin de siècle,
of which the 1830s was a foretaste (Maria Filomena Monica describes him as ‘The precursor of fin de siècle pessimism’ ); in fact not just the fin de siècle,
which was - in the grand scheme of things - a relatively minor phenomenon, but the decadence that afflicted the entire American/Western World during the second half of the twentieth century,
of which the 1960s was very much a starting point.
That is, according to the conservative worldview, while the liberal would view it altogether differently, as Anthony Adams and Witold Tulasiewicz have asserted:
‘[…] the conservative Right identified “the 1960s” as the period of moral decline when pride in the nation diminished and the moral decadence of relativism in values began.’
A similar declension in terms of the absolute nature of traditional values was at the heart of the misery that afflicted several of the anti-heroes Musset forged during the turbulent years
of 1833-36, which were of course coincidental with his love affair with George Sand, one of, if not the, defining event in his life.
By the time of Sand’s relationship with Musset, she was already a divorcee with two young children, as well as being a Baroness through her marriage to Casimir Dudevent.
Born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin in Paris in 1804, of aristocratic lineage through her father, she was clearly a woman of quite extraordinary magnetic power,
inspiring much of Musset’s finest work (while in addition to Musset, as well as Jules Sandeau, Prosper Merimee and others, she was also, famously,
Chopin’s lover from 1838 until some ten years thereafter).
For in addition to La Confession d’un enfant du siècle, the famous series of poems known as Les Nuits 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, as Germaine Mason writes of them:
‘His liaison with George Sand (1833-35) gave him the great love he had dreamed of, but their separation, in Venice, nearly brought him to despair.
The repercussions of this sentimental crisis inspired his deepest and most moving verse, the four poems of Les Nuits (1835-37): Nuit de mai; Nuit de décembre; Nuit d’août; Nuit d’octobre.
No other Romantic poetry has such an intense and poignant beauty, none sounds so deeply sincere. It is indeed the purest poetry of the heart.’
Musset’s dramatic career began as early as 1830 with La Nuit venitienne, whose failure caused him to temporarily forego writing for the physical stage,
even while he continued to compose theatrical works, such as Lorenzaccio from 1833, and On ne badine pas avec l’amour from the following year.
However, it would not be until 1847 that Musset achieved success as a dramatist, when Un caprice, produced at the Comédie-Française by the actress Madame Allan-Despréaux,
provoked a revival of interest in his plays; as Felicia Hardison-Londré writes of this felicitous occurrence:
‘[…] a French actress, Madame Allan-Despréaux performing in St. Petersburg, saw Musset’s Un Caprice (1837) presented there in Russian.
Charmed by the delightful and psychologically penetrating three-character play, she took it to the Comédie-Francaise, performed it there with great success, and became Musset’s mistress.’
From towards the end of the 1830s, Musset wrote increasingly little, as Karen L. Taylor confirms:
‘After 1838, Musset seemed to lose inspiration.
He […] was elected to the Académie Française in 1853, the same year that he was appointed librarian to the Ministry of Education,
but he no longer wrote […] Musset’s most creative period was during his youth and ended by 30.’