The Literary Tourist Goes to….Montreal

The Literary Tourist Goes To….


Émile Nelligan. Poet.

Regular visitors to my blog might be expecting some flash fiction, and whilst I’m not giving up on my own writing (far from it, I’m working on a novel-length story for children which is taking up most of my writing time) and still hope to post some stories here occasionally, I’ve decided to spice things up a bit and make more use of the fabulous opportunity I have in travelling to so many different places around the world.

I came up with ‘The Literary Tourist Goes To….’. I see it as combining travelling with my interest in writing, writers and things literary.

Before I leave for a destination, I’m going to do some research on a writer from there about whom I know nothing or very little. Then I aim to discover a bit more about them when I get there, by walking in their footsteps, as it were, and visiting places they might have been themselves.

Let me know what you think and feel free to add to/annotate/correct what I come up with.

To get the literary ball rolling then, please meet Émile Nelligan.  If ever there was a tortured soul then this would be the face of it. What pain are those eyes so desperate to communicate?

Nelligan seems to fall into that category of brilliantly gifted young people whose star burns brightly, oh so brightly, for a short time, before being extinguished suddenly. Keats, Wilfred Owen, Joe Orton, even Amy Winehouse. Illness, war, murder and drugs: they’ve all taken their toll. In Nelligan’s case though it was insanity; and it didn’t kill him, just his creativity and ability to write.

Émile was born and died in Montréal. I tried to find the house he was born in on the Rue de la Gauchetière, but it no longer exists. The city’s main teaching hospital now looms large over the area, presumably having consumed streets and buildings as it grows. However, if it was anything like the houses nearby which are still standing, I wouldn’t say he was born into poverty, and it seems that he had the fortune of a good education.

In any case, it is clear that he was something of a prodigy. All his poems of note were produced in three short years between the ages of sixteen and nineteen; 170 poems, sonnets and rondels. During this time he also became a member of the École Littéraire de Montréal  (Montréal School), where he ‘performed’ some of his poems before an audience at the Château de Ramezay.

According to my research, he was influenced by the French symbolist poets Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine: they stressed restraint, objectivity and precise description as a reaction against the more emotional response of the Romantics who came before them. He is also known for the sadness, nostalgia and inner sorrow which he displayed in his work, drawing inspiration from his “inner self”.

This recording of his poem La Romance du Vin certainly suggests the melancholic nature of Nelligan (even if the music and ponderous voice lays it on a bit thick).

He performed this poem (seen as a rallying call in defence of beauty and poetry) himself at the Château in 1899, apparently to great acclaim, but was destined to never produce another word. Shortly after his appearance Nelligan succumbed to his mental demons, spending the rest of his life in institutions.

I found a bust of Nelligan in a quiet corner of a small park near the Francophone University.

Bust of Nelligan in Sq St-Louis, Montreal

He even looks tortured, cast in bronze. Young lovers, dog-walkers and literary tourists glance at him on their way to sit by the pretty fountain nearby. It’s a decent place to be remembered. I wonder if the fountain’s gently cascading water soothes his soul.

Don’t feel obliged, but here is that poem in full, with an English Translation to follow.

La Romance du Vin.

by Émile Nelligan (1879-1941)

Tout se mêle en un vif éclat de gaieté verte
O le beau soir de mai ! Tous les oiseaux en choeur,
Ainsi que les espoirs naguère à mon coeur,
Modulent leur prélude à ma croisée ouverte.

O le beau soir de mai ! le joyeux soir de mai !
Un orgue au loin éclate en froides mélopées;
Et les rayons, ainsi que de pourpres épées,
Percent le coeur du jour qui se meurt parfumé.

Je suis gai! je suis gai ! Dans le cristal qui chante,
Verse, verse le vin ! verse encore et toujours,
Que je puisse oublier la tristesse des jours,
Dans le dédain que j’ai de la foule méchante !

Je suis gai ! je suis gai ! Vive le vin et l’Art !…
J’ai le rêve de faire aussi des vers célèbres,
Des vers qui gémiront les musiques funèbres
Des vents d’automne au loin passant dans le brouillard.

C’est le règne du rire amer et de la rage
De se savoir poète et objet du mépris,
De se savoir un coeur et de n’être compris
Que par le clair de lune et les grands soirs d’orage !

Femmes ! je bois à vous qui riez du chemin
Ou l’Idéal m’appelle en ouvrant ses bras roses;
Je bois à vous surtout, hommes aux fronts moroses
Qui dédaignez ma vie et repoussez ma main !

Pendant que tout l’azur s’étoile dans la gloire,
Et qu’un rythme s’entonne au renouveau doré,
Sur le jour expirant je n’ai donc pas pleuré,
Moi qui marche à tâtons dans ma jeunesse noire !

Je suis gai ! je suis gai ! Vive le soir de mai !
Je suis follement gai, sans être pourtant ivre !…
Serait-ce que je suis enfin heureux de vivre;
Enfin mon coeur est-il guéri d’avoir aimé ?

Les cloches ont chanté; le vent du soir odore…
Et pendant que le vin ruisselle à joyeux flots,
Je suis gai, si gai, dans mon rire sonore,
Oh ! si gai, que j’ai peur d’éclater en sanglots !


Song of Wine
Translation by
Fred Cogswell (1917-2004)

Fresh in joy, life, light – all things coincide,
This fine May eve ! like living hopes that once
Were in my heart, the choiring birds announce
Their prelude to my window open wide.

O fine May eve! O happy eve of May!
A distant organ beats out frigid chords;
And long shafts of sun, like crimson swords,
Cuts to the heart the scent of dying day.

How gay, how glad am I ! Pour out, pour out
Once more the wine into the chiming glass
That I may lose the pain of days which pass
In scorn for all the wicked human rout.

How glad am I ! My wine and art be blest!
I, too, have dreamt of making poetry
That lives, of poems which sound the exequy
For autumn winds that passing far-off mist.

The bitter laugh of rage is now good form,
And I, a poet, must eat scorn for food.
I have a heart but am not understood
Save by the moonlight and the great nights of storm.

Woman ! I drink to you who mock the path
where the rose-dream calls with arms flung wide;
I drink, too, to you men with brows of pride
Who first refuse my hand then scorn my life!

When the starry sky becomes one glorious roof,
And when a hymn resounds for golden spring,
I do not weep for all the days’ calm going,
Who wary grope within my own black youth.

How glad am I ! May eve all eves above.
Not drunk but desperately glad am I !…
Has living grown at last to be a joy?
Has my heart, too, been healed of my sick love?

The clocks have struck and the wind smells of night
Now the wine gurgles as I pour it out.
So glad am I that I laugh and shout
I fear I shall break down and sob outright.

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