The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

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.

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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 absent” from human “councils,” Nerval’s suggestion of a governmental body invokes an area of thought that gives great attention to the rights of humankind and little consideration to those of nature.

The second quatrain asks man to respect the various elements of nature, but a change occurs in the final line when Nerval asserts that “all has power over you.” Up to this point, the power in the poem was human power, the “forces that you hold” of the first quatrain. Now, suddenly, humankind must face a strength that is potentially superior to its own. When the sestet begins with the imperative “Fear,” the once secure position of humankind is clearly threatened.

Nerval seeks to restore the respect that was once given to nonhuman things. If a “hidden God” resides within each element of the natural world, humankind has a sacred duty to respect the life and growth of these things. When the final line says that “a pure spirit grows,” however, it introduces two new concepts into the poem. First, the pure spirit seems to be of a more transcendent nature than that of the animal or vegetable life to which the earlier lines seem to be referring. If this is the case, the growth of this spirit constitutes a form of theological progress that outweighs the concerns of humanity.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

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 Baudelaire would develop later in Les Fleurs du mal (1857; Flowers of Evil, 1909) in which flowers, almost never a specific variety, become emblems of beauty and poetry.

With the final element named in the second quatrain, metal, Nerval draws especially close to Baudelaire. In his poem “To the Reader,” Baudelaire describes moral strength as “the rich metal of our will,” and references to metal and gems occur frequently in his work. Despite the similar vocabulary, however, this usage serves to pinpoint the difference between Baudelaire and Nerval in their use of generic nature images. For Baudelaire, the importance of either the metal or the flower comes from its role in representing an attribute or a creation of humankind: will or poetry. For Nerval, the life that exists in natural elements does not depend on humans. It has an independent status, resisting human attempts to dominate it, but can nevertheless influence the world.

Given this subordination of humankind’s role, the choice of imagery in the sestet contains an apparent contradiction. When Nerval tells the free thinker to “fear in the blind wall a gaze spying on you,” not only does blindness conflict with seeing, but also the wall itself seems an unlikely object for this role. Although they may contain natural stones, walls are human construction, but this exploitation of the material is doubtless what Nerval has in mind in his injunction not to make “any impious image” of it.

In any case, the progression of objects Nerval invokes in this sonnet takes one far from those in which one is accustomed to imagining life. Plant and animal life are not unusual, but to find sentience in metal or stone, even after the latter has been worked by human hands, demands a leap of faith. Thus the “eye” born in the final tercet seems that of a chimeric being.

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