Selections From the Prose and Poetry of Alfred De Musset

New York : Hurd and Houghton.
MRS. OWEN WISTER has made a commendable effort to introduce a much-loved French poet to the English-reading public, and the measure of her success is much larger, it strikes us, than that of the ordinary translator from the same difficult language. If Alfred de Musset is greatest as a lyric poet, — and he certainly seems so to the Anglo-Saxon critic, — Mrs. Wister has done wisely in making her “ Selections ” with a kind of lyric purpose even as to the prose. However startling it might sound in Gallic ears, very little is hazarded in the remark that the present translator has done her readers greater service, and the poet too, by giving them Mimi Pinson and “The White Black Bird” than she would have done by serving up to them the whole of La Confession d'un Enfant du Siècle. That unequal performance of his younger years may seem De Musset’s masterpiece to those who can understand all of his more sober poetry, but the English reader, we venture to say, will see more to admire and to be thankful for in the portrayal of Mimi Pinson’s exquisite French human nature than in all the raptures of Octave and Madame Brigitte, or the calmer sentimentalities of the “honnête Smith.” It is to be feared that Mrs. Bridget would he as prosaically unromantic as her name, if translated into our literature, and that the triumphant Smith would be only a plain Mr. Smith in English garments.
Of the two other pieces of prose with which Mrs. Wister has favored us, the little two - act comedy of “Fantasio” perhaps reads the better. Her rendering of On ne badine pas aver. l' Amour (“ No trifling with Love”) does not fall short so much from any lack in her ; it is as well done as the former ; but the fault may be said to lie in the charming little comedy itself. Those who have seen it played as only French actors can play such pieces will understand why any reading of it in English or French must seem unsatisfactory. Published twenty-seven years before it was thought worth while to represent it, scarcely ever was there a play that shows so much better on the stage than it does in print, Indeed, after an evening of On ne badine pas avec l' Amour at the Théâtre Français, in Paris, De Musset’s original language reads like a translation.
If Mrs, Wister’s success in the rendering of the nine poems which conclude her volume is not quite equal, it is certainly striking in some instances. All things considered, the poem in which the translator has best caught and conveyed the spirit of the original is perhaps that entitled “Advice to a Gay Lady” (Conseils à une Parisienne). Here Mrs. Wister kas, in our opinion, wisely made up for what she may have lost in the movement of the French verse, by changing the succession of the rhymes : —
“ Yes, were I a woman, charming and pretty,
[ think I should do,
Fair Julia, as you ;
Without fear or favor, distinction or pity,
Smile and make eyes
At all ’neath the skies.”
“ Oui, si j’étais femme, aimable et jolie,
Je voudrais, Julie,
Faire comme vous ;
Sans peur ni pitié, sans choix ni mystère,
A toute la terre
Faire les yeux doux.”
This, we think, is very happily turned. It is, indeed, more within the possibilities of translation than the more heroic or the most vivacious of French poetry. The following from Mimi Pinson’s song is less successful, though it is so perhaps because perfect success there would have been almost impossible. It is very doubtful whether Mimi’s elfin gayety could be got into English words. Her exquisite vivacity is at least taken off here with her solitary dress : —
“ Mimi Pinson is a blonde of renown ;
But one gown and cap has she ;
The Grand Turk has surely more !
Heaven gave her small store,
Meaning her discreet to be.
None can pawn Mimi Pinson’s only gown.”
“ Mimi Pinson est une blonde,
Une blonde que l'on connaît,
Elle n’a qu’une robe an monde,
Landerirette !
Et qu'un bonnet.
Le Grand Turd eft a davantage.
Dieu voulut de cette faç;on
La rendre sage.
Ou ne peut pas la mettre en gage,
La robe de Mimi Pinson.”
The next morning after the student banquet at which Mimi Pinson had sung her song she proved that it was not true, and in a way which illustrates the winning, contradictory nature of the lively grisette. The passage in which this is related gives a fair sample of the manner of Mrs. Wister’s translation from De Musset’s prose : —
“ ‘ Mademoiselle has gone to church,’ said the woman who answered the door, to the two students, when they reached Mademoiselle Pinson’s lodgings.
“‘To church!’ repeated Eugene with surprise.
“‘To church!’ echoed Marcel. ‘That is impossible ; she is not out. Let us in, we are old friends.’
“'I assure you, sir,’ said the woman, ‘ that she went to church about three quarters of an hour ago.’
“ ‘ To what church did she go?1
“ ‘ To St. Sulpice, as usual ; she never misses a morning.’
“ ‘ Yes, yes, I know that she says her prayers, but it seems odd that she should be out to-day.’
“‘There she comes, sir; she is turning the corner ; you can see her for yourself.’
“It really was Mademoiselle Pinson coming home from church. Marcel no sooner caught sight of her than lie rushed toward her, impatient to examine her toilet. She had on, in lieu of a gown, a petticoat of dark calico, half hidden by a green serge Curtain, of which she had contrived to make herself a sort of shawl. From this singular costume, which, however, owing to its dark tone, did not attract attention, peeped her graceful head in its white cap, and her little feet in gaiter-boots. She had wrapped herself in her curtain with so much art and care that it really looked like an old shawl, and the border could hardly be seen. In short, she contrived to be charming even in this toggery, and to prove, for the thousandth time, that a pretty woman is always pretty.
“ ‘ How do I look? ’ said she to the young men, opening her curtain a little and giving them a glimpse of her slender waist.
“‘You look charming!’ cried Marcel. ' Upon my soul, I never would have believed anybody could look so well in a window-curtain.’
“‘Do you really think so?’ returned Mademoiselle Pinson. ‘I look a little bunchy, though.’
“ ' Like a bunch of roses ! ’ replied Marcel. ‘ I am almost sorry now that I brought you back your dress.’
“ ‘ My dress ? Where did you find it ? ’
“ ‘ Where you left it, most likely.’
“ ‘ And have you rescued it from captivity ? ’
“ ' Yes, by Jove, I paid its ransom. Do you resent the liberty ? ’
“ ' No indeed ! provided you will let me do as much for you some day. I ’m glad enough to see my dress again, for, to tell the truth, we have lived together for a long while, and I have insensibly become attached to it.’
“ As she spoke, Mademoiselle Pinson ran briskly up the five flights of stairs which led to her little room, which the two friends entered with her.
“ ' But I can only give you back the dress upon one; condition,’said Marcel.
“‘Fie!’ exclaimed the grisette. ‘For shame ! Conditions ? I won’t have it, ’
“‘ I have a wager,’ continued Marcel. 1 And you must tell us honestly why you pawned your gown.’ ”
Then it comes out that Mimi has pawned her only dress to save from starvation another grisette, with whom she had feasted sumptuously a week before, and with whom two days afterward she was feasting more sumptuously and expensively than ever, — on probably the last franc sent to their relief by sympathizing friends.
In the poem “ On Three Steps of Rosecolored Marble,” which as a whole is very well rendered, we notice that the name of the Greek painter Praxiteles is used with the penult improperly long ; and in the very next poem, and on the next page but one, the same word is given with its proper quantity, the antepenult long. Here and there, too, is a word or phrase which does not exactly convey De Musset’s meaning, but there are many more in which it is hit off in an idiomatic way truly admirable. Indeed, it is hardly fair to dwell on the few minor blemishes which, after all, it is much easier to pick out than to have avoided in a work so difficult.
If, as Sainte-Beuve has said, Alfred de Musset entered the lyric sanctuary through the window, “ Spéciality d’absinthe ” must have been inscribed on the back door through which he went out. George Sand by her scandalous portrayal, and his brother Paul equally by his scathing denial, have made the failings of the unfortunate poet only too well known to the world; and no small measure of gratitude, we take it, is due to the American lady who has so well contributed her share toward doing what Madame Sand and his brother would both better have done, namely, let Alfred de Musset speak for himself.