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.)