Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The sighs of the saint, and the fairy's screams - the obscure Chimeras of Gérard de Nerval

El Desdichado

I am the shadowed - the bereaved - the unconsoled,
The Aquitanian prince of the stricken tower:
My one star's dead, and my constellated lute
Bears the Black Sun of Melancholia.

You who consoled me, in the tombstone night,
Bring back my Posilipo, the Italian sea,
The flower that so pleased my wasted heart,
And the arbor where the vine and rose agree.

Am I Love or Apollo? . . . Lusignan or Biron?
My brow is red still from the kiss of the queen;
I've dreamed in the cavern where the siren swims . . .

And twice a conqueror have crossed Acheron:
Modulating on the Orphic lyre in turn
The sighs of the saint, and the fairy's screams.

If a person does not want to read this too closely, I can't say I blame him. It's arcane, from the title on, and doesn't make sense. Hard to focus on it. It is, in some ways, a really famous poem. Here's what I did.

The Spanish title is from, or at least in, Ivanhoe, of all things: "the device on his shield was a young oak-tree pulled up by the roots, with the Spanish word Desdichado, signifying Disinherited." (Ch. 8) The knight Ivanhoe adopts the word as his secret identity.

Now I have a clue to the second line. Maybe you didn't need it, but I did. The Aquitanian prince in the tower might be Richard the Lion-Hearted, imprisoned in Germany on his way home from the Crusades.

The Black Sun of Melancholy is a reference, at least, to Dürer's Melencolia I print (1514) - see the upper left corner. How can I tell that from the poem? I can't, but it comes up again in Nerval's Aurélia.

Posilipo is a seaside suburb of Naples that Nerval had visited. Goethe was there on February 27, 1787 (see The Italian Journey). He said it was very beautiful, which is not too enlightening. But Nerval made his first splash, at the age of twenty, with a translation of Faust, Pt. I, so, hmm.

Plus, the, or a, tomb of Virgil is in Posilipo. So that ties in to the crossing of the Acheron, into, and presumably back out of ("twice a conqueror"), Hell, both through The Aeneid and through Dante, and which seems to lead Nerval to the first poet and conqueror of Hell, Orpheus.

Have I accomplished anything yet? Maybe this is crazy; maybe it's how the poem was meant to be read. The second line, Le prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie, is also line 430 of The Waste Land (1922), one of the "fragments I have shored against my ruins," along with Dante and The Spanish Tragedy and "London Bridge is falling down," all ruins about ruins, fragments about fragments. Nerval called these poems The Chimeras, mythical monsters composed of the pieces of many beasts.

Translation by Peter Jay, The Chimeras, 1984.


  1. I love this and I love that it's in a collection called Chimeras. And you're right, the French canon is really weird.

  2. Thank you for this posting..It was a shock to find the depth of intelligence and ability to make connections..so sadly lacking in readership today..I read to find the mind behind the poem, and the critic/reader who does not reduce literature/poetry to a self serving niche.

    Will have to read Sir Walter Scott again!

  3. Tomorrow's poem will be somewhat less weird. The two days after that, weird, weird, weird.

    Thanks, Artemisia. I'll say, in my anti-defense, that Ye Olde Internet - a searchable text of Ivanhoe, for example - makes this sort of thing a lot easier than it used to be. And that "constellated lute" ("luth constellé") still stumped me.

  4. "luth constelle," O believe is just another reference to Orpheus..
    ..The constellation of the lyre of which Vega if the Harp Star.

    I find that poets/poems like dreams, repeat the smae archetype/symbol more than once in the same dream..as in the same poem!

    Like VW's novel 'Orlando,' Nerval's Prince is many princes..and Orpheus, son of Apollo is THE Prince..Nerval's swan song of poetry throughout his eternity..from time into death and then to live in the poet as his leitmotif..his muse.

  5. I see - that sounds right, and is consistent with the other imagery. Thanks. And see this hilarious Wiki on the subject of the lute: "The constellation Lyra is said to resemble a lyre shape, but it looks more like a lute." Citation, please!

    Thank goodness Nerval repeats himself. Otherwise, I'd be sunk.