The Poem

Gérard de Nerval’s sonnet “Golden Verses” relates humankind to the natural world. In its dual suggestions of the dominance of humanity and the dominance of nature, the poem draws on a conflict that is still very real in modern times, as humanity tries to decide when to control nature and when to leave it alone.

This traditional Petrarchan sonnet in Alexandrine verse concludes Nerval’s sonnet sequence Les Chimères. The title (chimeras) may refer to the mythological beast or to any imaginary vision. In the light of this definition, one wonders which of the views expressed in his sonnet Nerval held to be true. The first quatrain, with its reference to man as a “free thinker,” recalls the scientific positivism of the Enlightenment, when the concept of progress by means of the scientific analysis of nature promised to free humans from the superstitions that free thinkers associated with traditional religious beliefs. Both modern science and the Christian views that had preceded it, however, granted to humankind a special status that made it superior to all other things in nature. Both of these schools of thought pushed aside a much older belief in which ancient peoples had seen divinity in nonhuman forms.

In the first quatrain, Nerval seeks to recall the old belief, asking how humans can believe that they alone are capable of thought when “life bursts forth in all things” around them. When he says that the “universe is...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Forms and Devices

Nerval’s choice of imagery in “Golden Verses” reflects the context of the nineteenth century, but in a way that is distinctly his own. The Romantic poets’ concept of nature was strongly pantheistic. Victor Hugo repeatedly invoked such a world, as he does in his poem “To Albert Dürer” (from Les Voix intérieures, 1837) in which the forest, to Dürer’s “visionary eye” becomes “a hideous monster.” This pantheistic life in nature, apparent only to the artist’s penetrating vision, also retained a link with its classical origins. (According to Hugo, Albrecht Dürer “sawthe faunthe sylvanPan.”) Thus it seems strange that, except for his sonnet’s epigraph, which is attributed to Pythagoras, Nerval does not cite explicitly classical sources, but presents his pantheism in an entirely modern context.

Paradoxically, the only special degree of insight to which Nerval’s sonnet alludes is not that of the poet as seer, but that of the free thinker who believes that humans alone are capable of thought. The only voice that recalls the insights of a pantheistic world is that of Nerval himself.

In the second quatrain, Nerval’s generic imagery leads the reader ever further from the initial focus on humankind, first to the beast, then to the flower, and finally to metal. In his choice of categorical references that do not specify which beast or which flower, Nerval parallels a generic form of expression that Charles...

(The entire section is 546 words.)