In the series of the twelve sonnets he grouped together under the title The Chimeras, Gérard de Nerval exploits ambiguities that resemble the creatures of his title. The chimera, a monster depicted in Greek mythology, is a hybrid creature combining elements of a lion, a goat, and a serpent. In its later derivation, the word refers to something fanciful or imaginary that does not exist. Nerval plays on both senses of the word: His poems recall mythic past times, and they also produce a somewhat fictitious portrait of Nerval himself.
Nerval separately titled each of the first six sonnets and the last but grouped the remaining five into a sonnet sequence entitled “Christ on the Mount of Olives.” An analysis of the work, however, shows it to be composed of four parts, with the first and the last poems forming separate units. According to that model, the opening sonnet, “El Desdichado,” presents the persona of Nerval himself. The next five sonnets, each bearing as title a name from antiquity (Myrtho, Horus, Antéros, Delfica, and Artémis), evoke the gods and goddesses of pre-Christian times. “Christ on the Mount of Olives” portrays the new leader, to whom the pagan gods must yield their power, in extremely human terms. Finally, “Vers dorés” (golden lines) returns to a perception of humanity in the present.
The autobiographical “El Desdichado” draws on Nerval’s personal crisis of mental illness, seen here as a descent into Hell, and Nerval’s identification of himself, through the lineage of his family, with heroes from French history. The linking of the poet’s descent into Hell with that of the mythic musician, Orpheus, sets up a contrast of pagan and Christian referents within the poem, a dualism that leads to the poet’s question concerning his own identity.
The opening quatrain introduces the complexity of the poem and Nerval’s multiple perceptions of his own persona with a large number of separate references. In the first line, he describes himself as “somber and widowed,” by implication separated from the woman he loves, as Orpheus was separated from Eurydice. In the second line, however, he is “the prince of Aquitaine at the abolished tower,” a figure from a period of French history.
In the following lines the words “star” and “sun” are written in italics to emphasize the affinity of these similar objects. Their symbolic references, however, differ. When Nerval says “My star is dead,” he seems to refer to the woman whose absence causes his widowed state. However, when his starry lute carries as a chivalric device “the black sun of Melancholia,” he refers to the engraving by Albert Dürer in which an angel meditates sadly on the passing of time.
The second quatrain remains much more unified, as Nerval cries out from the tomb in which he sees himself and desires the happiness he knew in the past on a trip to Italy. The symbolic flower (again italicized) that represents this experience anticipates the further flower imagery of “Artémis.” Meanwhile, the rose growing together with grapevines, although it reflects a pattern of planting common in vineyards, parallels the combining of different elements in the rest of the poem.
The simple declarations in the quatrains become a question in the tercets, as multiple allusions reflect Nerval’s confusion about his true identity as a character from pagan antiquity (Cupid or Phoebus) or from Christian France (Lusignan or Biron). In whichever guise he goes on the descent into Hell, to which he twice “crossed the Acheron river,” he is in the process marked by a woman because his “forehead is still red from the queen’s kiss.” The identity of the woman remains ambiguous. Nerval, as Orpheus, sings alternately of “the saint” and “the fairy,” mythic women who represent Christian and pagan cultures.
The ensuing five sonnets constitute an excursion through pagan antiquity. The first, “Myrtho,” invokes the “divine enchantress” whose name recalls the myrtle plant and who is linked both with the Italian scene of “El Desdichado” and with the more distant “brightness of the Orient.” The quatrains portray a seduction of the poet by the female spirit as muse. First he...
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