Table of Contents
This file is a discussion of Alfred de Musset’s poem “Tristesse,” focussing especially on the use made in it of the passé composé.
As an undergraduate, long ago when American New Criticism still reigned, I was taught to despise the effusions of the romantic poet Shelley, such as in his “Ode to the West Wind”:
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
About the same time I learned about the French poet Alfred de Musset (1810-1857), who came slightly later, and was even more inclined to reflect in verse on his own unhappiness. The poem “Tristesse” epitomizes his attitude of complaint.
I am sorry to have to report that I have not yet succeeded in undoing the effects of my early training in this regard. Fortunately, the point in this file is not the high points of world literature, but grammar.
You can hear recordings of the poem at these places:
- at “vive-voix”
- at YouTube. Notable is this recital by deceased arch-conservative (to say no worse) Jean-Marie Le Penn. No doubt, in the imagined good old days when France belonged only to the French, every schoolchild learned this poem.
- at Archive.org
An amusing discussion of the poem, initiated by some poor lycéen(ne) having to write a commentaire composé on the text, can be read here at EtudesLittéraires.
I. Grammatical-Lexical Discussion Section-by-Section
|J’ai perdu ma force et ma vie,
Et mes amis et ma gaieté;
J’ai perdu jusqu’à la fierté
Qui faisait croire à mon génie.
|I have lost my strength and my life,
And my friends and my gaiety;
I have lost even the self-esteem
That made [people] believe in my genius.
A. j’ai perdu
The form j’ai perdu is 1st person singular, passé composé, of perdre.
It has the force of an English present perfect: “I have lost,” rather than of a simple past or preterite (“I lost”).
The form jusqu’à (and other combinations, e.g., jusqu’en, jusque dans, etc.) is normally a preposition meaning “up to, all the way to, until”:
- L’avion sera à votre disposition jusqu’à lundi. (The airplane will be at your disposal until Monday.)
- L’avion sera à votre disposition jusqu’en 2017. (The airplane will be at your disposal until 2017.)
- Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras / Egorger nos fils, nos compagnes. (They are getting really really close [They are coming all the way up into our arms], so as to slit the throats of our wives and children.)
However, it can also mean “even” (by way of “everything-up-to-and-including”) and be used with a direct object:
- J’ai perdu jusque la fierté… (I have lost even the pride… [I have lost everything, up to and including the pride…])
There are two nouns for “pride” in French. One is positive, the other negative:
- fierté, fem. = “‘good’ pride, legitimate self-esteem.” Adjective fier, fière (both pronounced the same way, [fjɛr]). Je suis fier de vous! (I am proud of you!)
- orgeuil, masc. = “‘bad’ pride, haughtiness, arrogance.” Adjective orgueilleux, orgueilleuse.
For more on the distinction between fierté and orgueil, see this text commentary: The Trouble with Roland.
faisait is 3rd person singular imperfect of faire. faisait croire is an example of the faire causatif construction.
The subject of the infinitive croire is implicit: “us, people in general.”
|Quand j’ai connu la Vérité,
J’ai cru que c’était une amie;
Quand je l’ai comprise et sentie,
J’en étais déjà dégoûté.
|When I first became acquainted with Truth,
I thought Truth was a friend;
When I understood and felt her,
I was already disgusted with her.
A. j’ai connu, j’ai cru
Verbs indicating a mental state (as connaître [to know], croire [to believe]) will normally be in the imperfect, because we are not interested in when the state began or finished.
When you do put a mental-state verb into the passé composé, it can be because you want to emphasize:
- the moment when the state began;
- the momentariness of the state.
The first applies to j’ai connu, which I translate as “When I first got to know (Truth).” The second applies to j’ai cru: I thought that way back then, but I have ceased to do so since that time.
B. j’ai comprise, j’ai sentie
Once again we have mental-state verbs (comprendre, sentir) that (nonetheless) have been put into the passé composé; the reason is to emphasize “the moment when the state began.” One might translate the line: “When at last (or “eventually”) I understood and felt it/her.” Both verbs contrast with the imperfect verb était in the last line of the quatrain: the disgust was present even before he actually succeeded in “understanding” Truth.
The two past participles (comprise, sentie) are feminine singular, to agree with the preceding direct object l’ = la = la Vérité.
Theoretically one should not use en to refer to a person, but one could say that, as a personnification, Vérité (Truth) is halfway between a person and a thing.
|Et pourtant, elle est éternelle,
Et ceux qui se sont passés d’elle
Ici-bas ont tout ignoré.
|And yet she is eternal,
And those who have done without her
On this earth have known nothing.
A. se sont passés, ont…ignoré
Once again, we have two verbs, at least one of which is a “mental-state” verb (ignorer = “not to know”) that one would normally expect to find in the imparfait, placed in the passé composé. We can add the reason for the choice as a third to the list given above, to emphasize:
- the moment when the state began;
- the momentariness of the state;
- the fact that the state is over with, completely done with (in this case, because the lives of the people in question are being envisaged sub specie æternitatis, i.e., as if their lives were done with).
B. What’s Up with the Masculine Plural Participle passés?
se passer de is a pronominal verb of the “idiomatic” or “subjective” sort. The past participle passés is in the masculine plural form (with an extra “s”), because it is agreeing with the direct object pronoun se, which agrees in person and number with the subject (ils).
ici-bas is a combination of the adverb ici (here) and the adjective bas (low), and hence means: “down here,” and consequently, “in this vale of tears, in this world of shadows, in this mortal life.” The contrasting expression and concept is l’au-delà (the other world, the beyond, the world “on the other side”).
In proper French ignorer means “not to know, to be unaware of, to be ignorant of.” Hence tout ignorer means “to be unaware of everything, to be ignorant of everything.”
|Dieu parle, il faut qu’on lui réponde.
– Le seul bien qui me reste au monde
Est d’avoir quelquefois pleuré.
|God speaks; one must needs answer him.
The only good that remains to me in the world
Is to have wept a few times.
A. réponde, reste
The verb répondre here appears in the (3rd person singular present) subjunctive, required after the impersonal expression of necessity il faut. A closer translation of the line would be: “it is necessary that one should reply to him.” The ordinary indicative 3rd person singular present of this verb is: répond.
See Verbs in -(d)re
The verb reste is also in the subjunctive present, appearing as it does in a “relative characteristic clause”; however, it is identically similar in form to the indicative present of the same person and number.
We have a “past (OR compound) infinitive” here, made up of the infinitive of the auxiliary verb avoir and the past participle of the “meaning” verb pleurer. The result is…exactly the same thing as in English:
“to have wept”
II. The Form of the Poem
It is of course a sonnet. The line is octosyllabic. The rhyme scheme is a standard Petrarchan one, with the possible oddity that the rhymes of quatrain one are reversed in quatrain two –
a b b a b a a b c c d e e d
– or, as one might say in French: C’est un sonnet à vers octosyllabiques, composé de deux rimes embrassés suivies d’une rime plate et d’une autre rime embrassée.
The poem has only one really good case of enjambment (or, in French: enjambement): it is in the first tercet, between the 10th and 11th lines:
Et ceux qui se sont passés d’elle
Ici-bas ont tout ignoré.
You rigorously cannot pause at the end of line 10; you have to go on immediately to the beginning of the next line, so as to complete the entire subject phrase (ceux qui se sont passés d’elle ici-bas). You can pause after Ici-bas in line 11, but not after d’elle in line 10. In the recordings linked to in the beginning of this file, some speakers observe this dictum, and some do not.
III. Something About the Content
Call me insensitive, call me dumb; I’ve never been able to convince myself that this poem is not incoherent at points. Et notamment:
- In line one “the speaker” (in French: le poète) tells he has lost “his strength and his life.” So why tell us in the next line that he has also lost his friends and his gaiety? Couldn’t he be assumed to have lost those things if indeed he has lost “his life”?
- I pass over the fact that I cannot imagine a justification for the jusqu’à in line three.
- In line 7 (Quand je l’ai comprise et sentie), what is the verb sentir doing there? What does it add that comprendre doesn’t already communicate?
- Regarding line 8: why is he disgusted with Truth, OR: what “truth” is he disgusted with: the truth about (other) human beings? the “truth” that a poet would be treated badly? Or what?
- And line 9: But “Truth” is “eternal”! And you can’t do without her (lines 10-11)! ?? As an explanation of how you get from lines 5-8 to line 9, “Et pourtant” just doesn’t cut it.
- The first line of the second tercet (Dieu parle, il faut qu’on lui réponde) suggests: God/Truth inspires the poet, who is hizzer messenger; it is thus in line with the first tercet: most people don’t recognize Truth, but the poet does, willy nilly, and must express the truth, whomever it may displease. But then why, after lines 9-12, does the “speaker” return (without any further justification) to the sentiments of lines 1-8, the point of which was: I’ve lost everything – ?