Nerval, Gérard de (Poetry Criticism)
Gérard de Nerval 1808–1855
(Born Gérard Labrunie) French poet, short story writer, playwright, translator, novelist, essayist, and critic.
Nerval is recognized as one of the most influential French poets of the nineteenth century. One of the first writers to explore the realm of the subconscious, he is noted for the innovative use of illusory states such as dreams and hallucinations in his work. The themes and imagery in Nerval's poetry were directed by several persistent personal obsessions, and originated in such diverse sources as art, mythology, religion, fantasy, and the occult.
Nerval was a small child when his mother died while assisting her husband, a surgeon in the Napoleonic army, on his tours of Germany. He was raised by a great-uncle in the Valois, the rural region of France that was to remain in his memory—and appear in his poetic works—as an idyllic landscape of childhood perfection. During his schooling in Paris, he displayed precocious literary talent, publishing at age twenty a translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, which the great poet himself acclaimed. Nerval became a member of the Jeune-France, a group of Romantic artists and writers who challenged the established classical school not only with radical artistic theories but with flamboyant dress and eccentric behavior. But Nerval's carefree Bohemian life became troubled as increasingly severe money problems and mental difficulties befell him. Biographers allege that the fact that Nerval had never known his mother led to intense infatuations with women later in life; in his writing, women are depicted in various guises as unattainable embodiments of ideal femininity. The most enduring of his unrequited passions was for an actess, Jenny Colon, whose aloofness and early death hastened the deterioration of Nerval's mental health. Ironically, the madness which plagued Nerval heightened his artistic sensibility, and it was in his final years that he produced his greatest poetry. At the age of forty-six, Nerval committed suicide by hanging himself from a railing in a Paris alley.
Published in 1854, Les Chiméres is considered by most critics to be Nerval's greatest poetic accomplishment. The sequence is composed of twelve sonnets, each imbued with mythological and religious imagery, as well as themes
derived from Nerval's own life. The poems are interwoven, with recurring characters and allusions that parallel religious history and the alchemist's process of turning base metals into gold. The first sonnet, "El Desdichado," introduces a character called the black prince; the second, his feminine counterpart "Myrtho." The result of their union is described in the third sonnet of the sequence, "Horus"; this offspring is viewed not only as a symbol of the birth of Christ, but also the product of combining two metals in alchemy. In addition, "Horus" is seen by commentators to represent the revival of Nerval's interest in new poetic forms and techniques. In the remaining sonnets comprising Les Chiméres, Nerval continues to develop several spiritual, mythological, and autobiographical themes, creating what critics consider a dense, highly evocative work.
Nerval is praised for the far-reaching influence of his artistic vision which is manifest in the work of many notable French writers of the Symbolist and Surrealist literary periods, including Guillaime Appollinaire, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Proust, and Théophile Gautier. When discussing Nerval's body of work, critics have focused on his innovative use of dreams and visions, the semiotic qualities of his language, his copious references to mythology and religon, and the extensive incorporation of events and characters from his own life.
Les Chiméres [The Chimeras] 1854; published in Les Filles du feu
Les Filles du feu [Daughters of Fire] (poetry and novellas) 1854
Le Rêve et la Vie [Dreams and Life] (poetry and short stories) 1855
Selected Writings (poetry and short stories) 1957
Other Major Works
Faust de Göthe [translator] (poetry) 1828
Léo Burckart (drama) 1839
Voyage en Orient [Journey to the Orient] (short stories) 1851
Les Illuminés (sketches) 1852
Lorely: souvenirs d'Allemagne (travel essays) 1852
Sylvie: Recollections of Valois (short stories) 1887
Œuvres Complètes. 10 vols. (short stories) 1926-32
Aurélia [Aurelia] (short stories and sketches) 1932
Œuvres 2 vols. (short stories) 1960-61
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SOURCE: "Nerval: The Poet's Uncrowning," in Love in Literature: Studies in Symbolic Expression, Indiana University Press, 1965, pp. 58-63.
[Fowlie is one of the most respected and versatile critics of French literature. His works include translations of major dramatists and poets of France as well as critical studies of the major figures and movements of French letters. In the following excerpt, Fowlie speaks of the life and works of Nerval as those of a man inhabiting a dream world.]
For most of the romantics, the dream world was a second domain of consciousness to which they escaped with pleasure, where they fought reason and reasoning, and where they bedecked, according to their desires, the real world. The dream for Chateaubriand, Lamartine, and de Musset was a band they put over their eyes to blot out the vulgar world of the bourgeois. For only one of the romantics was the dream what it should have been: the world of the subconscious controlled by its own laws, where the inhabitants are indigenous and bear the recognizable traits of fantastic and fairy-like creatures. The name of this romantic, Gérard de Nerval, is as unreal as the visions which compose his dreams, and after one hundred years, we say today 'Gérard de Nerval' and read the sonnets of his Chimères and his short novels, as if his true name and real life outside his writings had never existed. The dream of Nerval has triumphed....
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SOURCE: "The Poet and His Moira: 'El Desdichado'," in PMLA, Vol. LXXV, No. 4, September, 1960, pp. 402-09.
[An English-born critic and educator specializing in French literature, Kneller is the coauthor of Introduction à la poésie francaise (1962) and a former editor of French Review. In the following essay, he provides an exegesis of "El Desdichado, " finding the sonnet to be an expression of Nerval's belief about his lot in life.]
Concerning Gérard de Nerval it has been said, of late, that the hour of synthesis is at hand. This is particularly true of "El Desdichado," for most authors of the increasingly voluminous literature devoted to this sonnet have taken an extrinsic approach; that is, they have applied techniques of other fields, such as psychiatry, biography, astrology, and alchemy. At best they have helped to elucidate hitherto obscure symbols; at worst they have made of their thesis a kind of Procrustean bed on which the poem has been either stretched to death or decapitated.
In this richly connotative piece, almost every word is a symbol evoking a cluster of ideas and feelings, and, because of this, the reader has frequently selected, according to his lights, the meaning which is appropriate for him. Enlightened by Dante's Convivio, Nerval did indeed want his later poems to have not one meaning, but several, and this fact lends credence to a...
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SOURCE: A preface and "The Seer in French Romanticism," in The Orphic Vision: Seer Poets from Novalis to Rimbaud, University of Nebraska Press, 1964, pp. vii-ix, 68-128.
[Bays is an American educator and critic specializing in French literature. In the following excerpt, she asserts that Nerval attempted to unify myth, the occult, and religion in Les Chimères.]
In the literature of Romanticism the theme of the poet as seer is not the large and all-embracing subject it might appear to be at first glance. It is, in fact, a small branch of a much larger current of thought known as Illuminism, which was extremely rich and complex and which affected, to a greater or lesser degree, the majority of writers from the middle of the eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth….
The intellectual curiosity of the Romantics toward the phenomenon of voyance, it may be noted, has an exact parallel in present-day interest in such subjects as hypnosis, telepathy, and extrasensory perception….
As an esthetic theory, the idea of the poet as seer is not one which passed away quickly in the nineteenth century. It has survived and has many modern adherents, who, although they state the theory in different terms, still hold to its essential tenet that art is not an end in itself but a valid means of arriving at new knowledge. As such, the doctrine lies midway between two extreme...
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SOURCE: "Gérard de Nerval," in The Emory University Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Spring, 1965, pp. 15-31.
[Strauss is a German-born American critic and educator. In the following excerpt, he summarizes Nerval's philosophical orientation and discusses Les Chimères, focusing on the poems "El Desdichado" and "Artemis."]
Between the years 1798 and 1800 a group of German poets and critics launched a journal known as the Athenäum, which became the first platform of the conti nental Romantic movement. The leading critic of the group, Friedrich Schlegel, declared, "Only he who has a religion of his own, an original view of the Infinite, can be an artist"; and the leading poet of the group, Novalis, proclaimed, "Poetry is that which is genuinely and absolutely real. This is the core of my philosophy: the more poetic, the truer."
These new assertions about the nature of art and poetry are indices of a profound change taking place in the notion of poetry in Europe, and their effect was to be farreaching. This phenomenon, generally referred to as Romanticism, marks the moment at which the poet ceases to regard himself as an interpreter or servant of the society and its world-outlook, and invests himself with the new role of transformer, legislator, visionary—either as Orphic metamorphoser or as Promethean rebel, reconciler or destroyer….
[In] Germany the...
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SOURCE: "The Proper Marriage of Allegory and Myth in Nerval's 'Horus'," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, 1967, pp. 317-28.
[In the following essay, Strange contends that the allegorical dimension of "Horus" is augmented by the mythology employed in the poem.]
Although overshadowed by "El Desdichado" and "Artemis," the great pieces in Gerard de Nerval's Les Chimères, the sonnet "Horus" does have a certain charm of its own and a particular usefulness, for few poems demonstrate so clearly just what allegory is and what it is not.
Le dieu Kneph en tremblant ébranlait l'univers:
Isis, la mère, alors se leva sur sa couche,
Fit un geste de haine à son époux farouche,
Et l'ardeur d'autrefois brilla dans ses yeux verts.
"Le voyez-vous, dit-elle, il meurt, ce vieux pervers,
Tous les frimas du monde ont passe par sa bouche,
Attachez son pied tors, éteignez son ceil louche,
C'est le dieu des volcans et le roi des hivers!
L'aigle a déjà passé, l'esprit nouveau m'appelle,
J'ai revêtu pour lui la robe de Cybèle…
C'est l'enfant bien-aimé d'Hermès et d'Osiris!"
La déesse avait fui sur sa conque dorée,
La mer nous renvoyait son image adorée,
Et les cieux rayonnaient sous...
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SOURCE: "Anteros, Son of Cain?" in Writing in Modern Temper: Essays on French Literature and Thought in Honor of Henri Peyre, edited by Mary Ann Caws, Anma Libri, 1984, pp. 91-101.
[In the following essay, Kneller explicates the poem "Anteros" as the protagonist's announcement of his revolt against God.]
The Chimeras of Gérard de Nerval continue to fascinate us because they are both hermetic and startlingly clear. These sonnets invite us to wonder about their sources, their genesis, and their hidden meanings. They move us by the cogency of their own poetic statement.
Unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Hugo, and Baudelaire, Nerval did not write about theories of poetry. Even if he had, he probably would have departed from the generalizations and principles he had developed as he went about the practice of poetry. Here and there throughout his prodigious and varied literary output he scattered traces which have been pursued with sometimes successful and sometimes uncertain results. If it is true that no gap separates Nerval's sources from his writings—or his writings from one another—it is also true that none of the mythological, historical, or biblical figures that stand out in his poems conforms to the accepted characterization of that figure. Their names may well be Artemis, Amor, Phoebus, Orpheus, Isis, or Daphne, or even Caesar, Pilate, or Christ—in which instances...
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SOURCE: "Nerval's 'Artémis'," in Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading, edited by Mary Ann Caws, The Modern Language Association of America, 1986, pp. 26-32.
[In the following essay, Kneller studies the language, imagery, and literary devices used in "Artémis" and asserts that Nerval's poem is "the most ambitious, the most carefully elaborated, and the most beautiful of this great poet's writings."]
The approaches to Les chimères of Gèrard de Nerval have followed rather than anticipated the successive stages of literary criticism in France, Great Britian, and the United States. In brief, they have been extrinsic, intrinsic, and structural. For current purposes, extrinsic method will be synonymous with projection; intrinsic procedure will also go by the name of explication or commentary; and structural system will include not only structuralism but also semiotics and theories of reading.
After the thunderous silence of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Lansonian literary historians, who hardly mentioned Nerval in their manuals, practitioners of extrinsic methods prevailed after World War II and took two different courses. Some applied techniques of other fields, such as psychiatry, biography, astrology, and alchemy. Others attempted to use texts or parts of texts as a means of obtaining access to obscure parts of the poet's life. The first group, in their...
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Villas, James. Gérard de Nerval: A Critical Bibliography, 1900 to 1967. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1968, 118 p.
Annotated bibliography of criticism on Nerval published from 1900 to 1967.
Rhodes, S. A. Gérard de Nerval, 1808-1855: Poet, Traveler, Dreamer. New York: Philosophical Library, 1951, 416 p.
The only full-length English biography of Nerval. The author presents critical commentary incidental to biographical information.
Symons, Arthur. "Gérard de Nerval." In his The Symbolist Movement in Literature, pp. 10-36. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1908.
Surveys Nerval's life and writings and describes the author's role in the Symbolist movement.
Whitridge, Arnold. "Gérard de Nerval." In his Critical Ventures in Modern French Literature, pp. 45-64. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1924.
Largely biographical essay offering brief critical commentary.
Wood, Michael. "Gérard de Nerval: (1808-1855)." In European Writers: The Romantic Century, edited by Jacques Barzun, pp. 943-69. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985.
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