Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

While with his generic imagery Nerval seems to make a simple statement that is devoid of detail and as spare as the sonnet form is brief, when the poem is considered in its context, a further complexity emerges that is perhaps analogous to the sonnet in its detailed structure. Between its autobiographical opening sonnet, “El Desdichado,” and this concluding one, Les Chimères devotes five sonnets to figures from pagan antiquity and five to the sonnet sequence “Christ on the Mount of Olives.” In the context of “Golden Verses,” this pagan/Christian dualism may seem to combine views centered on nature and on humanity. The time sequence of the poems, however, suggests a more coherent view.

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Time as it is invoked in “El Desdichado” works backward from the early references to “my only Star,” said to be the woman Nerval loved, and the relatively modern Dürer engraving of Melencolia I (1514) to classical references to the Acheron and Orpheus. Nerval frequently connected his family to early periods of French history, but here he combines French references with those from a much earlier time. Thus, by the time the first sonnet ends, one is ready to accept Nerval’s assertion in the first pagan poem, “Myrtho,” that “the Muse made me one of the sons of Greece.”

One may wonder how much of Nerval’s pagan experience was real and how much was imagined, for while he asserts that he “had drunk the intoxication” of it, the role of the Muse still implies the intervention of imagination. The experience of the sonnet sequence takes Nerval to a number of early cultures, and the nature gods of Egypt in “Horus” parallel the pantheism of the Greeks. In all these settings, however, he finds evidence of a dying world. The “clay gods” of “Myrtho” are broken, and Isis in “Horus” says “the new spirit is calling me.” In “Delfica,” Nerval seeks consolation: “They will come back, those Gods you weep for!” Inevitably, however, Christ follows the pagan gods.

Nerval shows the reader Christ at his most desperate moment, facing death alone, but his Christ speaks already of a vast experience. Unlike the pagan sonnets, which are rich in flower images that may be linked to the nature invoked in “Golden Verses,” “Christ on the Mount of Olives” abandons such imagery for a vaster vision of “worlds,” and Christ affirms that “no spirit exists in these immensities.” A profusion of life existed in the elements of nature, but it has become invisible to the Christian view that is oriented toward the cosmos but not toward the things of this world.

Thus “Golden Verses” may serve as the moral that concludes the sonnet sequence. Having experienced and compared the cultures of the past, Nerval finds himself in the visionary role of the poet who should advise humanity. The context of the poem may be Greek without specifically Greek references within the text because its message results from the entirety of Nerval’s poetic vision. The multiple imperatives of the poem define the poet’s role in that it is he who must return humanity to the consciousness of nature.

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