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Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 197-209

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Alfred de Musset's Romantic Irony

Yifen Beus

The year of 1797, though somewhat arbitrary in terms of historical significance in German and French drama, marks German philosopher and theorist Friedrich Schlegel's initial efforts to establish irony as a philosophical as well as literary concept. The concept of irony was then being rediscovered and redefined by the early Romantics and is now considered by scholars of Romanticism essential to the understanding of the Romantic doctrines. As Friedrich and his brother August Wilhelm Schlegel drew inspiration from the early (Shakespeare and Cervantes) as well as the contemporary moderns (Sterne, Diderot, and Goethe) in analyzing and theorizing modern art and literature, the French also noticed the dominance of Shakespeare in English and German literary criticism as well as of eighteenth-century sentimentality. Sterne's A Sentimental Journey and Tristram Shandy were widely read in France and gave him a near celebrity status during his visits to numerous literary salons in Paris. Diderot deliberately copied Sterne's model when writing his Jacques le fataliste and prompted the French literary circles to reflect on the use of humor and the role of the author in the creative process and the relation to his work and audience. The transition from the classic to the modern is most notably fostered by Mme de Staël and her group at Coppet. Under the impact of eighteenth-century sentimentality, the promotion of German literary theory by the Coppet Group as well as the anti-classicist sentiment developed within the French literary circle, a number of writers, such as Hugo, Stendhal, Musset, and Vigny, produced works that recognize the merits of the new Romantic ideals and advocate what their German counterparts had done decades before. In this article, I will examine the dramatic works of Musset in the light of Romantic irony, an irony that synthesizes conflicting forces to produce a universal type of poetry and reveals the nature of artistic creation by a self-critical writing process [End Page 197] of the author while preserving the art work's function to describe the author's duty to the society and to reflect his own time.

Among the French Romantic dramatists, the theories of Hugo, Vigny, and Musset on "modern drama" and the role of the author bear most striking resemblance to that of Friedrich Schlegel. This is in no way accidental. The Schlegels' discussions of humor, irony, and poetry are not unfamiliar in the French literary circle thanks to translations of the Schlegel brothers' works, the Schlegels' debates with the French literary and publishing circles about the Romantic/classic contrast,and the publications, Staël's De l'Allemagne in particular, and literary discussions of theCoppet group. Nor has the subject gone altogether unnoticed.

At the time when Hugo and Vigny were primarily poets, the younger Musset also started his career writing poetry. However, he found himself lacking passion as a poet, and after the indifferent reception of his first staged play, La Nuit vénitienne in 1830, he also lost enthusiasm for writing plays for the stage. Instead, as the title of Un Spectacle dans un fauteuil (1832) indicates, he went on to write plays for reading. Most of these were not meant to be performed at the time of their writing, though they were staged later, thanks to the advancement of stage technology. Quite ironically, his place as one of the greatest dramatists of his time was established through these then unstageable works. These works, along with those of Hugo and Vigny, are generally considered the best exemplars of Romantic irony in nineteenth-century French drama.

Some personal traits of Musset group him with Hugo and Vigny, while others distinguish him from the latter. On one hand, Musset belongs to a younger generation of the French Romantics (with Gautier, Nerval, and others) than that of Hugo and Vigny (who are his seniors by eight and thirteen years respectively). Yet, though only in his twenties, he produced, contemporaneously with them and all in the short span of two years...


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