The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Originally, this French sonnet was entitled “Le Destin” (the destiny), but its published title even in translation is “El Desdichado,” the Spanish words for “the unhappy one.” It is one of a series of twelve sonnets that Gérard de Nerval wrote while confined in an asylum in a state of delirium. The poem is written in the first person, and it is a part of the poet’s anguished effort to escape from the horrors of insanity into a state of comfort, represented by women, and to evaluate his poetic talent.

Nerval’s blending of mysticism and personal experience in a traditional literary form is original. Many poets have expressed their personal feelings in sonnets—for example, William Shakespeare in Sonnet 29 and John Milton in “On His Blindness”—but Nerval is perhaps unique in clothing his feelings in mysticism.

El Desdichado is a name found in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), where it is the motto of a mysterious knight in black armor who turns out to be Ivanhoe in disguise. He is unhappy because he has lost his estate and has been forbidden to court the lady he loves. Nerval says that, like the black knight, he is desperately unhappy. He has lost his inheritance, and his “only star” is dead. He may be referring to Adrienne, a childhood sweetheart, and also to Jenny Colon, an actress whom he had loved. Both are dead. The star may also represent pure love and spiritual faith. His consolation may refer to...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The French original of this sonnet is completely traditional in form: fourteen lines of twelve syllables each, arranged in two quatrains followed by two tercets. The rhyme scheme is also traditional, and each line, with two exceptions, is complete in itself. This rigidity presents a tremendous problem to the translator.

Nerval is considered a precursor of the Symbolists because he bound his images chiefly by the dreamlike quality of his musical fancy, and because, like them, he avoided concreteness and clarity, relying instead on imagination and suggestion.

The density of his expression allows him to tell his life story in fourteen lines. Almost every line is, in a sense, a complete poem; each follows the preceding, not logically, but in the way a vision follows another vision. Everything mentioned carries at least two meanings. There is nothing as simple as a simile: Nerval does not say that one thing or person is like another. He leaves the reader to decipher the hidden meanings. A determined reader needs knowledge of Nerval’s life, Greek mythology, the Bible, Oriental mysticism, and tarot cards to understand this poem; even eminent scholars cannot agree on the significance of numerous words.

The poem is not a sort of exorcism that is read solely for its incantatory power; it is a poem of expression, a kind of meditation that is meant to be a striving for the essential, the eternal, the absolute. The frequent use of the...

(The entire section is 447 words.)