Gérard de Nerval

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)
0111207201-Nerval.jpg Gérard de Nerval (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Other Literary Forms

Gérard de Nerval tried his hand at drama, short fiction, and nonfiction. He wrote two dramas in collaboration with Alexandre Dumas, père. They are Piquillo (pb. 1837) and Alchimiste (pb. 1839). His other dramas include Chariot d’enfant (1850, with Joseph Méry), L’Imagier de Haarlem (pr. 1851), and a translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust in 1827 and 1840. Among his nonfiction prose works are Voyage en Orient (1851; Journey to the Orient, 1972); Les Illuminés (1852), and Aurélia (1855; English translation, 1932). A collection of his stories came out as Les Filles du feu (1854; Daughters of Fire, 1922).


During his lifetime, Gérard de Nerval was generally regarded as an enthusiastic but harmless eccentric, a writer of some genius whose best and freshest productions were marred by occasional lapses into obscurity. Because of his bouts with madness—both manic-depressive psychosis (or, in modern psychological language, cyclothymic depression) and schizophrenia—he struck most of his contemporaries as an oddity, a poet sometimes pathetic yet never dangerous except to his own well-being. Around him numerous legends accumulated, most of them ludicrous. Some of the more absurd stories were given wider circulation by Champfleury in Grandes Figures (1861) and by Arsène Houssaye in Confessions (1885). In part as a result of such droll anecdotes, Nerval’s reputation during the first half of the nineteenth century was that of a minor figure: a poet with close affinities with German Romanticism, a distinguished translator of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, a moderately popular playwright and the author of sumptuously exotic travel literature, and a lyricist whose originality and vigor were evident but whose interests were too often attached to the curious and the extravagant. Later during the century, critics compared Nerval with Charles Baudelaire, treating both as psychologists of the aberrant. After the beginning of the twentieth century, commentators judged Nerval favorably in relation to the Symbolists, especially to Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud. Still later, Nerval was appreciated as a forerunner of Guillaume Apollinaire and modernist experimentation. Since the 1920’s, Nerval’s achievements have been viewed independently of their connections with other writers or movements. Treated not as a precursor of greater talents but as a towering genius in his own right, Nerval has been examined as a seer, a mystic, a student of Hermetic doctrine and of alchemy, a poet of extraordinary complexit, resonance, and power. His most important works in prose and poetry—Petits Châteaux de Bohème, Aurélia, and Daughters of Fire—are among the glories of French literature.


Gérard de Nerval was born Gérard Labrunie, the son of Étienne Labrunie, a medical doctor, and of Marie-Antoinette Marguerite Laurent, daughter of a Paris draper. Nerval did not change his name until 1831, when he signed a letter “G. la Brunie de Nerval,” taking the name from a property, Le Clos de Nerval, belonging to his mother’s family. The name is also an anagram of his mother’s maiden name, Laurent. It is known that Nerval hated his father, who served with Napoleon’s Grande Armée as a field surgeon and who was, throughout the poet’s life, an aloof, insensitive parent. Nerval’s mother died when the boy was only two years old, and Nerval was sent to live with his granduncle, Antoine Boucher, at Mortefontaine. These early years Nerval later described as the happiest of his life. He had free range of a library of occult books and discussed philosophy with his granduncle, who may have served as a model for Père Dodu in Nerval’s short story “Sylvie.” When Nerval’s father returned from the front in 1814, the boy joined him in Paris. In 1820, Nerval entered the Collège Charlemagne, where he began to exhibit a fondness for literary pursuits and began his lifelong friendship with the poet Théophile Gautier.

In November, 1827, Nerval published his translation of Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (1808), but under the publication date of 1828. This work was well received in Parisian literary circles, and Nerval became a disciple of Victor Hugo and joined his Cénacle Romantique. In the notorious dispute that followed the disruptive theatrical opening (February 25, 1830) of Hugo’s play Hernani, however, Nerval sided with Gautier, and thereafter Nerval frequented Gautier’s petit cénacle.

An inheritance from his maternal grandfather in 1834 allowed Nerval to give up his medical studies and pursue a literary career, much to his father’s disapproval. In the fall of that year, Nerval visited Italy (Florence, Rome, and Naples), a trip that later proved invaluable to his writing. Upon his return to Paris in 1834, he met and fell in love with the actress Jenny Colon. In May of 1834, he founded the theatrical review Le Monde dramatique, dedicated to the glorification of Jenny Colon. For a brief time, Nerval enjoyed a life of prosperity, identifying himself with the “Bohème galante.” When the review failed in 1836, however, financial difficulties forced Nerval to become a journalist, writing articles for Le Figaro and La Presse. He visited Belgium with Gautier in 1836 in an effort to forget his personal struggles for a time.

On October 31, 1837, Nerval’s play Piquillo premiered in Paris with Jenny Colon in the lead role as Silvia. The play was a success, and Nerval was encouraged to declare his love for her. On April 11, 1838, however, Jenny married the flutist Louis-Gabriel Leplus, an event that left the poet bitterly disillusioned. During the summer of that year, he traveled to Germany with Alexandre Dumas, père, and from that time the two writers began a series of theatrical collaborations.

The next two years were ones of increasing mental instability and depression for Nerval. Though he published his translation of Faust: Eine Tragödie, Zweyter Teil (1833) in 1840, the strain of the work took its toll, and Nerval was hospitalized as a result of a nervous breakdown. The death of Jenny Colon in 1842 did nothing to restore his ailing spirits. In ill health and overcome with grief, he embarked in 1843 on a trip to Malta, Egypt, Syria, Cyprus, Constantinople, and Naples. He later published an account of his travels in Journey to the Orient. Nerval had discovered his psychological need to wander, a theme found in his major works.

Though his mental and physical health continued to deteriorate, Nerval struggled to support himself with his writing. Still hoping to establish himself in the theater, he wrote Chariot d’enfant with Joseph Méry, a production which premiered on May 13, 1850. In September, 1851, Nerval suffered an accident, followed by a serious nervous breakdown. Nerval believed that he would soon become incurably insane, a realization which made him increase his literary efforts. In 1852, he published Les Illuminés, a series of biographies on historical figures interested in mysteries of the occult and of alchemy. In 1853, he published a volume of nostalgic poems recalling a happier youth, Petits Cháteaux de Bohême. In the summer of that year, Nerval published his best-known story, “Sylvie,” followed by two other great works, Daughters of Fire and Les Chimères, in 1854. Aurélia, an account of his madness, appeared in 1855. Alone and destitute, Nerval hanged himself in an alley on January 26, 1855.


Théophile Gautier, who perhaps appreciated the fine qualities of Gérard de Nerval’s character and art more than any other contemporary, once described his friend as an “apodal swallow.” To Gautier, Nerval was

all wings and no feet: At most he had perceptible claws; these enabled him to alight, at least momentarily, just long enough to catch his breath, then go on . . . to soar and move about in fluid realms with the joy and abandon of a being in his element.

Gautier’s idealization of Nerval as an ethereal figure—a Shelleylike bird in flight who abjured the common terrestrial condition of humanity—is a valid judgment only to a limited degree. To be sure, a reader may approach Nerval on a superficial level as a poet of intense, vivid, direct intuition; a poet of dreams and visions; a creator of myths and fantastic personal symbolic constructs that reach into the archetypal imagination.

Certainly, most of Nerval’s poetry, much of his prose poetry, and a portion of his dramatic work can be appreciated according to the qualities of Impressionism. His work has, on a simple level of perception, an evocative, dreamy, otherworldly, melancholy vein that resembles the Impressionism of otherwise dissimilar poets such as Edgar Allan Poe and Paul Verlaine. One can enjoy the seemingly imprecise but hauntingly evocative imagery of a familiar Nerval poem such as “Le Point noir” (“The Dark Smudge”) as though the writer were merely inducing an impression of malign fate. Reading Nerval for his surface characteristics of hauntingly sonorous music, vague but unsettling imagery, and technically perfect mastery of verse forms, one can accept Gautier’s early evaluation of the poet as a kind of bird-like spirit—or, to use Baudelaire’s image of a poet idealized as an albatross (“L’Albatros”), a creature free in the air but confined and crippled on the crass Earth.

Moreover, a reader who approaches Nerval’s basic themes without first investigating their intellectual context is likely to appreciate their surface qualities of authentic feeling and simplicity of expression. Nerval is always concerned with human values, no matter that he may choose exotic subjects or complex methods to express them. His work is nearly always confessional. Although in his poetry he rarely tends to be self-dramatizing, he often places his persona—his other self—at the center of the theme in order to examine the psychological insights of a human life. An early verse, “Épître première,” at once expresses his artistic philosophy and predicts his fate; he will, despite madness under the aegis of the moon, serve humanity with a generous desire. In his poems as well as in much of his prose and drama, Nerval appeals directly—without a reader’s need for critical exegesis—to the human heart: to its courage, its idealism, its love. Although Nerval’s subjects often appear to be odd, exotic, or perverse, the poet treats the flowers of his imagination not as “evil,” as does the great poet of the next generation, Baudelaire, but as fragrant symbols of a mysterious, arcane harmony in the universe.

Indeed, Nerval is best appreciated as a mystic and a seer, a poet whose surface qualities of vague dreaminess conceal an interior precision of image and ideas. Reading a popularly anthologized lyric such as “Fantaisie” (“Fantasy”), for example, one tends to dismiss the poem as a piece influenced by German Romanticism, especially by the Märchen-like songs of Heinrich Heine or Goethe. A closer reading, however, will show that the seemingly vague images are not merely decorative; they are rendered with precision, although their precise significance as personal symbol is not clear. Nevertheless, the “green slope gilded by the setting sun” and the stone castle are objects, not atmosphere, and the mysterious theme of déjà vu is intended to be psychological truth, not fairy tale.

German Romanticism

To appreciate Nerval fully, one should understand the poet’s relationship to German Romanticism without treating him exclusively as a Romantic—or, indeed, exclusively as a pre-Impressionist, pre-Symbolist, or pre-modernist. Although his affinities to poets such as Heine and Goethe (Romantics), Poe and Verlaine (Impressionists), and Mallarmé and Rimbaud...

(The entire section is 4977 words.)