El Desdichado
Je suis le ténébreux,- le Veuf, - l'inconsolé,
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie:
Ma seule étoile est morte, et mon luth constellé
Porte le soleil noir de la Mélancolie.

Dans la nuit du Tombeau, Toi qui m'as consolé,
Rends-moi le Pausilippe et la mer d'Italie,
La fleur qui plaisait tant à mon coeur désolé,
Et la treille où le Pampre à la rose s'allie.

Suis-je Amour ou Phoebus ?.... Lusignan ou Biron ?
Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la Reine ;
J'ai rêvé dans la grotte où nage la Sirène...

Et j'ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l'Achéron :
Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d'Orphée
Les soupirs de la Sainte et les cris de la Fée.

The Chimères are a collection of sonnets written by Gérard de Nerval and published in 1853. El Desdichado is considered one of the masterpieces of that collection. Allow me to offer this translation:

I am the dark one, the widower, the unconsoled,
The prince of Aquitaine whose tower is destroyed:
My only star is dead, and my constellated lute
Bears the black sun of the Melancholy.

In the night of the Tomb, You who consoled me,
Give me back Mount Posilipo and the Italian sea,
The flower my desolate heart liked so much,
And the trellis where the grapevine unites with the rose.

Am I Amor or Phoebus?.... Lusignan or Biron?
My forehead is still red from the kiss of the queen;
I have dreamed in the grotto where the Mermaid swims...

And two times victorious I have crossed Acheron:
Modulating turn by turn on the lyre of Orpheus
The moans of the Saint and the screams of the Fairy.

 

As its title indicates, El Desdichado is a poem about loss of love due to fate: when Nerval first wrote it, it was called Le Destin. The final title refers to Walter Scott's Ivanohe, where a mysterious knight whose fief was stolen appears at a tournament with an uprooted tree as his coat of arms, and El Desdichado as his motto. The Spanish word actually means "unhappy" and Scott may have wanted to use desherado, which means disinherited. But the difference doesn't matter, because both notions apply to Nerval's feelings. Like all poems, this one works by playing with juxtaposed opposite notions. The first quatrain focuses on how miserable he is while the second one retells his memories of happiness. The source of his past happiness is a woman, and he reminisces about his love for her in the final two tercets. All of this is done in dense, obscure verses which combinbe his experience with cultural references (literature, poetry, mythology, alchemy, astrology...), giving a really intense result. Allow me a verse by verse commentary:

 

First stanza.

Je suis le ténébreux,- le Veuf, - l'inconsolé, — The poem starts out with a repetition, but this repetition isn't redundant, because each word makes the image evoked by the last heightened and more precise. Ténébreux indicates sadness, but combined with veuf it shows that he is sad because he is alone, and (inconsolé) that he has been abandoned.

Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie: — This is one of Nerval's most interesting verses, which is probably why it was nodeshelled. There are many interpretations for this. The name Nerval is a pseudonym which went with an invented aristocratic heritage from the Aquitaine region of France. The mention of a tour abolie refers to the strengthening of royal authority in France during the Middle Ages, where the King would have the dungeons of rebellious noblemen destroyed as a symbol of their loss of sovereignty and their submission to regal authority. Like his fictional ancestors whose traditions were cut down by the State, Nerval is robbed of a sense of belonging, of his home, by Fate. This may also refer to Guillaume d'Aquitaine, one of the earliest French medieval poets, whose melancholic works also dwelled on love and loss. Other explanations include the Tarot Arcana XVI, The Tower, and his presumed sexual impotence.

Ma seule étoile est morte, et mon luth constellé — Nerval's only star (ma seule étoile) is obviously the girl this poem refers to. The imagery of the star as a symbol of feminity is pervasive throughout Nerval's works: like women stars are perfect and inaccessible and, as stars, women are mediatrixes between man and the cosmos. In Tarot, The Star is also Arcana XVII.

Porte le soleil noir de la Mélancolie. — The word Porte as a transition between these two verses really has a lot of sonority in French. However, the mention of a black sun (le soleil noir) negates the hopeful notion of star-like women and the upbeat note of Porte. The vision of a black sun is relatively common in art, and the mention of Mélancolie with a capital M shows that he's thinking of Albrecht Dürer's strange and beautiful engraving Melancolia, which amply deserves a detailed analysis of its own. Both Nerval's poem and Dürer's engraving allude to The Apocalypse of Saint John.

 

Second stanza.

Dans la nuit du Tombeau, Toi qui m'as consolé,/Rends-moi le Pausilippe et la mer d'Italie, — While the first stanza was a complaint, the second one is a prayer, which reminisces on the now gone, happier times. In Nerval's writings, cultural references and his own experience are always intertwined: la nuit du Tombeau refers to a particularly difficult time of his life when his lover, stage actress Jenny Colon, left him. He fled to Italy and sufferred grave depression there. Italy is a land practically made for poets, even more so than France, full of incredible beauties, both natural and man-made. Yet Nerval, suffering from clinical depression, cannot enjoy them: he pleads for his former girlfriend's mediation, because only through her can he enjoy the sight of Naples from Mount Pausilippo and the beautiful Mediterranean sea.

La fleur qui plaisait tant à mon coeur désolé,/Et la treille où le Pampre à la rose s'allie. — Throughout the quatrain, Nerval paints a striking image of Italy by using contrasting references. Italy is described as the bush where the grapevine and the rose grow: the grapevine is the symbol of Dionysius, of paganism and sensuality, while the purity of the rose signifies the Catholic Church. This evokes Italy's rich cultural history, but also Nerval's own passions, as he is torn between his desires for sensuality and chastity.

 

Third stanza.

Suis-je Amour ou Phoebus ?.... Lusignan ou Biron ? — Nerval expands on the conflict evoked in the last verse, again referring to his own internal turmoil with erudite references. Amour is Eros, the Greek god of erotic love, while Phoebus, the sun god, represents Appolo and pure, spiritual union. Lusignan was King of Jerusalem, a chivalrous knight and courtly lover, while Biron was a 16th century French marshal, an archetypal bawdy, barbarian warrior. The obvious chiasmus of this verse really shows the duality of the poem, that it is about the struggle between light and dark, hot and cold.

Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la Reine ;/J'ai rêvé dans la grotte où nage la Sirène... — The other two verses of the tercet really show off this duality. First, the woman is a Queen, who gives him a chaste kiss on the cheek, a kiss whose mark doesn't wear off; then she is a Siren, a half-animal woman who leads men astray, and frolics in a dark, damp, ominous grotto.

 

Final stanza.

Et j'ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l'Achéron — The structure of this verse is beautiful, with short words and the alliterations of the "k" and "r" sounds giving it a real momentum. Placing a word like vainqueur (winner) at the hemistich accentuates it further.

Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d'Orphée — Nerval refers to his depression as going to hell and back like Orpheus. As a poet, Nerval also identifies with Orpheus, because he was a poet and a lover, but most importantly because, just like the Greek drew the strength of their culture from trying to reconcile the Dionysiac and the Appoloniac, Nerval draws his poetry from reconciling these conflicting sides of his personality.

Les soupirs de la Sainte et les cris de la Fée. — This final verse wraps up the whole poem. The first half of the verse is soft, full of diphthongs while the latter half has acute vowels. Like Orpheus travelling to hell and back, Nerval sinks into the depths of his emotional turmoils, and comes up, grabbing his conflicting desires and weaving them together into his art, chanting the moans of the modest Saint and the screams of the exuberant Fairy.

I think this is a really beautiful poem. The fact that it relies on a lot of erudite knowledge might put off some people but, as poetry lovers know, poetry draws its power not from understanding and reflecting on references and symbols, but on letting them sink in along with the music of the sounds, turning poetic words into magic.

 

 

According to French copyright law, de Nerval's works are in the public domain. Translation © LeoDV 2004.

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