No poet of the French Romantic group has a more ardent public today than Gérard de Nerval, whose haunting poetic visions have influenced poets from Baudelaire to the Surrealists. Yet his visionary powers also brought him poverty, madness and repeated failure in love, and finally led him to take his own life. Numbering scarcely more than fifty, his poems remain more strangely suggestive than any other writing of the period and reveal a true poet’s sense of the secret sources of lyricism. The finest of them carry this lyricism into a world of illusions and shifting forms, where “dream overflows into real life.”
Setting aside his earliest poems, Nerval grouped the others under three different headings: the Odelettes, short lyric pieces; the poems composed specifically to be set to music, Lyricism and Operatic Lyrics (Lyrisme et vers d’opera); and finally, separate from the others, the twelve sonnets (plus nine published long after his death) of Les Chimeres (Chimerae, or Visions). He also made collections of the folk songs, poems, and legends of his native Valois and some remarkable translations of the German mystical and Romantic poets, including Heine and Richter. His rendering of Faust (Parts I and II), a scrupulously careful, yet eminently poetic text which remains the standard French version of Goethe’s great poem, earned high praise from the author. Alone among the French poets of his generation, Nerval felt a spiritual kinship with the metaphysical orientation of the German poetic tradition. From the fantastic, hallucinatory tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann he learned what fragile boundaries separate the realms of poetry, dream, and external reality—the central discovery of his life.
Characteristic of all his work is a perfect technical control. The directness of German and folk poetry taught him to avoid the pretentiousness and bombast which mar the work of so many of his more famous contemporaries. From the lightest song to the densest sonnet, meter and rhyme sustain the poetic movement, seconding and enhancing its suggestions. The lyrics achieve that rare feat of retaining their charm in the absence of the musical setting for which they were created. Even his prose expresses delicate nuances of perception with a musicality in which not a word is wasted.
The Odelettes are vibrant with the same sort of limpid enchantment. Avoiding the pompous rhetoric, didactic tendencies, and factitious allegory inherited by his contemporaries from the eighteenth century, Nerval looked back for his models to the greatest period of pure lyrical expression in French literature, the Renaissance of Ronsard. In this collection the exuberant rhymes of a bacchic song such as “Gaiete” stand beside shimmering, whispered evocations of the natural world “In the Woods” (“Dans les bois”) or in early springtime (“Avril”):
Deja les beaux jours, la poussiere,Un ciel d’azur et de lumiere,Les murs enflammes, les longs soirs;Et rien de vert: a peine encoreUn reflet rougeatre decoreLes grands arbres aux rameaux noirs!Ce beau temps me pese et m’ennuie.Ce n’est qu’apres des jours de pluieQue doit surgir, en un tableau,Le printemps verdissant et rose,Comme une nymphe fraiche eclose,Qui, souriante, sort de l’eau.(Already there are fine days and dust,Already a blazing, azure sky,The walls are on fire, the eveningslengthening,And nothing green; barely visible yet,A reddish reflection decoratesThe towering trees with their blackbranches!This fine weather weighs me down andwearies me.It is only after rainy daysThat spring should surge up,A picture going green and rose-colored,Brought out like a new nymphWho steps from the water, smiling.)
A lament for lost loves—“Les Cydalises”—follows a sensitive, half-mocking rumination on “Butterflies,” hovering flowers which “pass like a thought/of poetry or of love.” Whatever the subject of the approach, the result is a gem of pure lyrical expression. Where his contemporaries posture and declame, Nerval simply sings.
Some of his fundamental preoccupations appear in the Odelettes free from the obscurity and cypher-like transmutations of Les Chimeres. Long before Marcel Proust, he asserted the superiority of affective memory over immediate experience. “It is now three years since my grandmother died,” he says in “La grand’mere”:
Depuis trois ans, part le temps prenantforce,Ainsi qu’un nom grave dans une ecorce,Son souvenir se creuse plus avant!(For three years now, taking strength
(The entire section is 2309 words.)