El Desdichado

by Gérard Labrunie

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The Poem

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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 Octavia, an English girl whom Nerval met in Italy in 1834 and whom he credits with saving his life on Mount Posilippo when he was contemplating suicide. In addition, he may be thinking of his love for his mother, buried in Italy, whose memory he cherishes despite the fact that he was only two years old when she died.

Seeking to understand himself, he asks whether he is Love—that is, Eros, the nocturnal lover—or Phoebus, the Greek god of light and poetry. Is he Biron or Lusignan? Biron is a French hero immortalized in song. According to legend, Lusignan was a lord who had married the fairy Melusina. Melusina had a human form every day except Saturday and had forbidden her lover to come to see her on that day. Lusignan disobeyed, and she left him, to his despair. The poet is asking: Am I truly a poet or a lover? If I am a lover, am I a happy lover like Biron or an unhappy lover of fairies like Lusignan? He concludes that he is Love, not Phoebus, and is Lusignan, not Biron.

The kiss of the queen may be one he received as a child from Adrienne, or it may be a reference to the biblical Queen of Sheba, who seemed to haunt Nerval. His two crossings of the Acheron, the river between life and death, almost surely represent his two worst spells of madness. As Orpheus returned from the underworld playing the lyre, so Nerval found again his poetic talent in his delirium. Both triumphs, however, were short-lived.

Forms and Devices

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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.

(This entire section contains 447 words.)

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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 definite article reinforces the universal nature of the emotions so succinctly expressed.

Nerval makes frequent use of contrasts: While the first quatrain is filled with despair, the second quatrain recalls his days of happiness. He turns from the blackened sun to the radiant light of Italy. Similarly, in the first tercet he is doubtful, questioning his role in life, but the last tercet is triumphant with decision. Allied to this use of contrast is Nerval’s use of juxtaposition. From the midnight of the grave, he invokes the sunny sea, a flower that once pleased him, and thoughts of love and wine.

Alliteration cannot be noted in translation, but it is markedly evident in the original, where in the first eight lines there are thirteen prominent t sounds. It is not by chance that each quatrain contains five pronounced s sounds, and each tercet contains four. This is like the repetition of a note in music, and the repetition helps to unify the independent lines. It is a tremendous feat to condense the story of one’s life and emotions by means of metaphors involving several religions and civilizations, and to weigh one’s possibilities and arrive at an answer, all in fourteen evocative, musical lines.