El Desdichado

by Gérard Labrunie

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Themes and Meanings

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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 black sun that is supposed to herald the end of the world; it is a reference to a famous engraving by Albrecht Dürer called Melancholia. The star and the black sun are symbols of the poet’s deep despair.

While the first quatrain contains symbols only of darkness, the second quatrain offers symbols of light. The poet asks for the restoration of the happiness he had known in Italy. The flower he wants represents all flowers, and the union of the rose and the vine is a reference to Venus and Bacchus—love and wine.

The first tercet indicates his identity crisis: Is he primarily a lover or a poet? Is he happy, like Biron, or unhappy, like Lusignan? There is much disagreement on the identity of the queen whom Nerval mentions. She may be Adrienne, the Queen of Sheba, or a combination of several mystical figures found in Nerval’s poetry. More likely, she represents his “only star,” and the grotto where the Siren swims may be a reference to his childhood dreams. In the original, this line ends with suspension points, indicating the end of the reverie.

The final tercet identifies the poet with Orpheus returning from the underworld playing his lyre. It sounds a triumphant note. His terrible fits of madness have made him a seer, and he has transformed his sufferings into poetry.

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