The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Burwick, Frederick. Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Examines the concept of “poetic frenzy” as it was understood in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Analyzes the techniques Nerval used in The Chimeras to relate his visionary experiences.

Jones, Robert Emmet. Gérard de Nerval. New York: Twayne, 1974. This standard biography provides a chronology of Nerval’s life and a selected bibliography. Chapter 2 on Nerval the poet analyzes the elements of his earlier works that contributed to The Chimeras and offers a partial interpretation of the work.

Knapp, Bettina L. Gérard de Nerval: The Mystic’s Dilemma. University: University of Alabama Press, 1980. Offers an extensive consideration of Nerval’s life and earlier work. Chapter 20 gives a line-by-line reading of the twelve sonnets of The Chimeras, incorporating paraphrases that amount to an analytical translation of the work.

Nerval, Gérard de. Selected Writings of Gérard de Nerval. Translated and edited by Geoffrey Wagner. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957. Contains an introduction that provides information on aspects of Nerval’s life that influenced his poetry. Discusses The Chimeras in the context of Nerval’s other work. Includes translations of the principal works, including all of The Chimeras except “Christ on the Mount of Olives.”

Sowerby, Benn. The Disinherited: The Life of Gérard de Nerval, 1808-1855. London: P. Owen, 1973. This biography, with its convenient chronology of Nerval’s life, focuses on events rather than Nerval’s work. Includes some comments on The Chimeras, chiefly in the last chapter.

Winston, Phyllis Jane. Nerval’s Magic Alphabet. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. Chapter 4 is devoted to The Chimeras, citing principally “Antéros” and “Delfica.” Provides an intellectual context for the work but limited interpretation of the text.