The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.)