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What does Alfred de Musset mean in Sur une morte?

The whole thing is a piece of revenge poetry. The unnamed ‘elle’ rejected him as a would-be lover and this poem is Musset’s revenge.

When we first look at the poem Sur une morte by Alfred de Musset, we get a slight surprise. Its title suggests that it is an epitaph or an elegy, a discussion of the serious subject of death, and yet it is written in the eight-syllable lines that are normally reserved for lighter themes. There is, right from the start, a slight dissonance.

We quickly see that each of the first four stanzas starts with a statement in the imperfect saying something about the unidentified ‘elle’, presumably the person who is dead, and saying something pretty positive: elle était belle, elle était bonne, elle pensait, elle priait. This looks like quite a strong endorsement. But then we see that each of those statements is followed by a qualifying ‘si’, and that the rest of the stanza in each case undercuts the initial statement quite savagely; she was in fact very far from having these positive qualities. Like a prosecutor piling up the evidence, the poet seems, in his precisely repeated structures, to be hammering nails into the deceased’s coffin.

The next three stanzas start in the conditional perfect, a tense only ever used in French for something that didn’t happen. Again, conditions are laid down with the repeated ‘si’, but in this case the initial tense makes it structurally necessary that she did not meet those conditions. She would have smiled, wept and loved if…, but clearly she did not, because she did not have the emotional or moral capacity.

This all adds up to a pretty damning indictment: whatever happened to the idea that you should speak nothing but good of the dead? In the final stanza the poet states baldly that she is dead and never really lived, but the tone here is not remotely sympathetic or compassionate but hostile and accusatory. We inevitably end up wondering why Musset is so hostile and what was the history between these two.

In fact, the whole thing is a piece of revenge poetry. The unnamed ‘elle’ was princess Christina di Belgiojoso and was very much alive when Musset wrote this poem. She had rejected him as a would-be lover and, he felt, humiliated him. This elegantly-constructed poem is Musset’s revenge.

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