Study Guide

El Desdichado

by Gérard Labrunie

El Desdichado Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Scholars have explained this poem at length biographically, metaphysically, and astrologically. The simplest way to read the poem is as a beautiful, condensed biography. Such an oversimplification, however, gives no idea of the great knowledge that Gérard de Nerval possessed of Oriental mysticism, Greek mythology, alchemy, and astronomy.

In a time of great depression, Nerval examines his life lucidly, reflecting on his past and his present misery and trying to evaluate his talent. By means of mysterious symbols in a hauntingly musical form, he offers this brief poetic account of his years of anguish, his dreams and plans. It is the essence of his life.

In the first quatrain, Nerval tells the reader that he is the incarnation of everything dark and gloomy, widowed, alone, disconsolate. He likens himself to a legendary hero, the Prince of Aquitaine, whose castle tower was destroyed. Although Nerval’s family was not of the nobility, he invented some noble ancestors for himself, along with a coat of arms that contained three silver towers. When he unexpectedly acquired a rather large sum of money, he lost it almost immediately.

His “only star” probably refers primarily to Jenny Colon, whom he had truly loved and who seems to represent a feminine ideal that he cherished all his life. She broke off their liaison after about a year, married a musician, and died four years later. His ill-fated lute, his poetic talent, bears the...

(The entire section is 466 words.)