Gérard de Nerval Nerval, Gérard de (Poetry Criticism) - Essay

Gérard Labrunie


(Poetry Criticism)

Gérard de Nerval 1808–1855

(Born Gérard Labrunie) French poet, short story writer, playwright, translator, novelist, essayist, and critic.

Nerval is recognized as one of the most influential French poets of the nineteenth century. One of the first writers to explore the realm of the subconscious, he is noted for the innovative use of illusory states such as dreams and hallucinations in his work. The themes and imagery in Nerval's poetry were directed by several persistent personal obsessions, and originated in such diverse sources as art, mythology, religion, fantasy, and the occult.

Biographical Information

Nerval was a small child when his mother died while assisting her husband, a surgeon in the Napoleonic army, on his tours of Germany. He was raised by a great-uncle in the Valois, the rural region of France that was to remain in his memory—and appear in his poetic works—as an idyllic landscape of childhood perfection. During his schooling in Paris, he displayed precocious literary talent, publishing at age twenty a translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, which the great poet himself acclaimed. Nerval became a member of the Jeune-France, a group of Romantic artists and writers who challenged the established classical school not only with radical artistic theories but with flamboyant dress and eccentric behavior. But Nerval's carefree Bohemian life became troubled as increasingly severe money problems and mental difficulties befell him. Biographers allege that the fact that Nerval had never known his mother led to intense infatuations with women later in life; in his writing, women are depicted in various guises as unattainable embodiments of ideal femininity. The most enduring of his unrequited passions was for an actess, Jenny Colon, whose aloofness and early death hastened the deterioration of Nerval's mental health. Ironically, the madness which plagued Nerval heightened his artistic sensibility, and it was in his final years that he produced his greatest poetry. At the age of forty-six, Nerval committed suicide by hanging himself from a railing in a Paris alley.

Major Works

Published in 1854, Les Chiméres is considered by most critics to be Nerval's greatest poetic accomplishment. The sequence is composed of twelve sonnets, each imbued with mythological and religious imagery, as well as themes

derived from Nerval's own life. The poems are interwoven, with recurring characters and allusions that parallel religious history and the alchemist's process of turning base metals into gold. The first sonnet, "El Desdichado," introduces a character called the black prince; the second, his feminine counterpart "Myrtho." The result of their union is described in the third sonnet of the sequence, "Horus"; this offspring is viewed not only as a symbol of the birth of Christ, but also the product of combining two metals in alchemy. In addition, "Horus" is seen by commentators to represent the revival of Nerval's interest in new poetic forms and techniques. In the remaining sonnets comprising Les Chiméres, Nerval continues to develop several spiritual, mythological, and autobiographical themes, creating what critics consider a dense, highly evocative work.

Critical Reception

Nerval is praised for the far-reaching influence of his artistic vision which is manifest in the work of many notable French writers of the Symbolist and Surrealist literary periods, including Guillaime Appollinaire, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Proust, and Théophile Gautier. When discussing Nerval's body of work, critics have focused on his innovative use of dreams and visions, the semiotic qualities of his language, his copious references to mythology and religon, and the extensive incorporation of events and characters from his own life.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Les Chiméres [The Chimeras] 1854; published in Les Filles du feu

Les Filles du feu [Daughters of Fire] (poetry and novellas) 1854

Le Rêve et la Vie [Dreams and Life] (poetry and short stories) 1855

Selected Writings (poetry and short stories) 1957

Other Major Works

Faust de Göthe [translator] (poetry) 1828

Léo Burckart (drama) 1839

Voyage en Orient [Journey to the Orient] (short stories) 1851

Les Illuminés (sketches) 1852

Lorely: souvenirs d'Allemagne (travel essays) 1852

Sylvie: Recollections of Valois (short stories) 1887

Œuvres Complètes. 10 vols. (short stories) 1926-32

Aurélia [Aurelia] (short stories and sketches) 1932

Œuvres 2 vols. (short stories) 1960-61

Wallace Fowlie (essay date 1948)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nerval: The Poet's Uncrowning," in Love in Literature: Studies in Symbolic Expression, Indiana University Press, 1965, pp. 58-63.

[Fowlie is one of the most respected and versatile critics of French literature. His works include translations of major dramatists and poets of France as well as critical studies of the major figures and movements of French letters. In the following excerpt, Fowlie speaks of the life and works of Nerval as those of a man inhabiting a dream world.]

For most of the romantics, the dream world was a second domain of consciousness to which they escaped with pleasure, where they fought reason and reasoning, and where they bedecked, according to their desires, the real world. The dream for Chateaubriand, Lamartine, and de Musset was a band they put over their eyes to blot out the vulgar world of the bourgeois. For only one of the romantics was the dream what it should have been: the world of the subconscious controlled by its own laws, where the inhabitants are indigenous and bear the recognizable traits of fantastic and fairy-like creatures. The name of this romantic, Gérard de Nerval, is as unreal as the visions which compose his dreams, and after one hundred years, we say today 'Gérard de Nerval' and read the sonnets of his Chimères and his short novels, as if his true name and real life outside his writings had never existed. The dream of Nerval has triumphed. His work, rather than being an obviously symbolic transcription of his life, is his life. Everything has been reversed in Nerval, because his life is a faint transcription of his dream.

As the popular ballad reveals the heart of a people more accurately than any historical narration of events, as mythology alone really penetrates the meaning of history, Nerval's work, and especially the sonnets called Les Chimères, form a more authentic record of his life than any biography could. The sonnets are much more than a distillation of experiences. They create the new compact life where the settings are more real than the landscapes of the Valois and the Orient, where the characters are more living than Adrienne in the children's dance in the park of the château, and more real than Jenny Colon on the stage of the Paris theatres. The voyages in Les Chimères are the only ones we need to follow. The madness of this poet undertook voyages less exaggerated than the real voyages in which Nerval, incited by his studies of the cabala, of magic, and mystical initiations, destroyed the real worlds. His wisdom was obscure because it was composed of magnetism, esoterism, and occultism, but his madness was lucid because it constructed the limitless and perfect world of dreams. As a traveller, Nerval pursued the symbolism of numbers and the memories of magic and of cabala, but as a poet, he constructed the existence of a man who loves and suffers. Any historical or psychological method used to explain Nerval will fail, because reality for him existed as the substance of a dream, as a substance to be modified and remodelled. His writings are therefore as invulnerable as a dream. Any explication is less than approximate. In order to read Nerval, it is a question of living a dream and feeling its beauty. It is not a question of dissecting it.

The figures of the women who inhabit his work resemble those phantoms who are always the same phantom of a dream. Adrienne, Jenny Colon, the Neapolitan girl, the English girl, are all synthesized in Aurélia, the only woman Gérard could love since, never having seen her in life, he was able to make her divine. The conscious life of the poet was composed of departures, of voyages, of peregrinations, and only in his dreams did he remain immobilized before the ideal form of the woman he was seeking. A poet of love, Nerval always remained a poet of metempsychosis: he was never sure of loving, he was never sure of having loved, and only in his dreams was his former existence of Eden purity, of innocency, and of happiness reproduced. Nerval encouraged his madness because it abolished time and plunged him into a distant past where all was illuminated with joy. The children's dance during which he received a kiss from yellow haired Adrienne marked the beginning of an experience in metempsychosis in which he believed he was all the youthful dancers of former times and in which so ancient a ceremonial kiss symbolized perfect happiness. The moment of ecstasy in our childhood, which was perhaps in Gérard de Nerval's case, Adrienne's kiss, is the supreme moment in our amorous experience which we try during the rest of our life to recognize, to recapture, to re-live in other forms and with other beings. The spiritual experience alone of love is tenacious. It inevitably triumphs over physical experience in binding us to time which has gone by, to a past which becomes present and future. Love is metempsychosis. It is the same experience we re-live ceaselessly.

La treizieme revient … C'est encor la première.

The sumptuous resonances of this sonnet of "Artémis," while knowingly falsifying the truth, reduce the fragments of real experiences into a single experience as simple as it is profound, as permanent as it is inaccessible.

"Artémis" is a luminous example of lyric creation in which the entire life of the poet is recast: all the idealisms and all the failures. The sonnet not only contains direct...

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John W. Kneller (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poet and His Moira: 'El Desdichado'," in PMLA, Vol. LXXV, No. 4, September, 1960, pp. 402-09.

[An English-born critic and educator specializing in French literature, Kneller is the coauthor of Introduction à la poésie francaise (1962) and a former editor of French Review. In the following essay, he provides an exegesis of "El Desdichado, " finding the sonnet to be an expression of Nerval's belief about his lot in life.]

Concerning Gérard de Nerval it has been said, of late, that the hour of synthesis is at hand. This is particularly true of "El Desdichado," for most authors of the increasingly voluminous literature devoted to this sonnet...

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Gwendolyn Bays (essay date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A preface and "The Seer in French Romanticism," in The Orphic Vision: Seer Poets from Novalis to Rimbaud, University of Nebraska Press, 1964, pp. vii-ix, 68-128.

[Bays is an American educator and critic specializing in French literature. In the following excerpt, she asserts that Nerval attempted to unify myth, the occult, and religion in Les Chimères.]

In the literature of Romanticism the theme of the poet as seer is not the large and all-embracing subject it might appear to be at first glance. It is, in fact, a small branch of a much larger current of thought known as Illuminism, which was extremely rich and complex and which affected, to a greater or lesser...

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Walter A. Strauss (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gérard de Nerval," in The Emory University Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Spring, 1965, pp. 15-31.

[Strauss is a German-born American critic and educator. In the following excerpt, he summarizes Nerval's philosophical orientation and discusses Les Chimères, focusing on the poems "El Desdichado" and "Artemis."]

Between the years 1798 and 1800 a group of German poets and critics launched a journal known as the Athenäum, which became the first platform of the conti nental Romantic movement. The leading critic of the group, Friedrich Schlegel, declared, "Only he who has a religion of his own, an original view of the Infinite, can be an artist"; and...

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William C. Strange (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Proper Marriage of Allegory and Myth in Nerval's 'Horus'," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, 1967, pp. 317-28.

[In the following essay, Strange contends that the allegorical dimension of "Horus" is augmented by the mythology employed in the poem.]

Although overshadowed by "El Desdichado" and "Artemis," the great pieces in Gerard de Nerval's Les Chimères, the sonnet "Horus" does have a certain charm of its own and a particular usefulness, for few poems demonstrate so clearly just what allegory is and what it is not.


Le dieu Kneph en tremblant ébranlait l'univers:

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John W. Kneller (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anteros, Son of Cain?" in Writing in Modern Temper: Essays on French Literature and Thought in Honor of Henri Peyre, edited by Mary Ann Caws, Anma Libri, 1984, pp. 91-101.

[In the following essay, Kneller explicates the poem "Anteros" as the protagonist's announcement of his revolt against God.]

The Chimeras of Gérard de Nerval continue to fascinate us because they are both hermetic and startlingly clear. These sonnets invite us to wonder about their sources, their genesis, and their hidden meanings. They move us by the cogency of their own poetic statement.

Unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Hugo, and Baudelaire, Nerval did not...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Villas, James. Gérard de Nerval: A Critical Bibliography, 1900 to 1967. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1968, 118 p.

Annotated bibliography of criticism on Nerval published from 1900 to 1967.


Rhodes, S. A. Gérard de Nerval, 1808-1855: Poet, Traveler, Dreamer. New York: Philosophical Library, 1951, 416 p.

The only full-length English biography of Nerval. The author presents critical commentary incidental to biographical information.

Symons, Arthur. "Gérard de Nerval." In his...

(The entire section is 547 words.)