Finding Émile


I reached another marker this week in my posthumous, intriguing, fan-like relationship with Montréal poet Émile Nelligan (1879-1941) when Craig’s partner, Claude, drove me to the site of his burial in Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges. Even with a map of the cemetery it took us a while to find Marker #588 in Section N. At 350 acres, and with fifty-five kilometres of road, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges is Canada’s largest cemetery, dating back to 1854, and fast closing in on a population of one million people’s remains.

He even wrote about the place, the only reference in his works to Montréal:

Notre-dame-des-neiges

Sainte Notre-Dame, en beau manteau d’or,
De sa lande fleurie
Descend chaque soir, quand son Jésus dort,
En sa Ville-Marie.
Sous l’astral flambeau que portent ses anges,
La belle Vierge va
Triomphalement, aux accords étranges
De céleste bîva.

Sainte Notre-Dame a là-haut son trône
Sur notre Mont-Royal ;
Et de là, son oeil subjugue le Faune
De l’abîme infernal.
Car elle a dicté: ” Qu’un ange protège
De son arme de feu
Ma ville d’argent au collier de neige “,
La Dame du Ciel bleu !

Sainte Notre-Dame, oh ! tôt nous délivre
De tout joug pour le tien ;
Chasse l’étranger ! Au pays de givre
Sois-nous force et soutien.
Ce placet fleuri de choses dorées,
Puisses-tu de tes yeux,
Bénigne, le lire aux roses vesprées,
Quand tu nous viens des Cieux !

Sainte Notre-Dame a pleuré longtemps
Parmi ses petits anges ;
Tellement, dit-on, qu’en les cieux latents
Se font des bruits étranges.
Et que notre Vierge entraînant l’Eden,
O floraison chérie !
Va tôt refleurir en même jardin
Sa France et sa Ville-Marie…

Below, closer to his home as a teenager on rue Laval (also shown) near Square Saint-Louis, is a bust of the young Nelligan, which enjoys a prominent place in that lovely park.  It remains a somewhat bohemian, albeit pricier, neighbourhood of artists and students among whom, over the objections of his parents, he found companionship among peers.

Born at 602, rue de La Gauchetière (not far from present-day Gare Centrale) on Christmas Eve 1879, and baptized at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church on Christmas Day, he was the first son of Irish immigrant David Nelligan and Emilia Amanda Hudon, a francophone and daughter of the former mayor of the lower St. Lawrence town of Rimouski. Two younger sisters, Beatrice and Gertrude, followed. It cannot be overlooked that Nelligan’s bi-cultural background represented something essential to the understanding of Montréal culture at the time (think of Hugh MacLennan’s later work “Two Solitudes”). At the time of Nelligan’s birth, the percentages of francophones and anglophones in the city-proper was tied (and the English overwhelmingly waved power over the French). It was only after the annexation of outlying “towns”, which have been part of Montréal for generations now, and with increased migration from rural areas to the city, that the proportion of francophones grew to 75% by 1920.

On the outside, his childhood would have appeared to be pretty good, spent between the family home in Montréal and their summer residence in Cacouna, not too far from his mother’s birthplace. However Nelligan skipped school increasingly, devoting more and more time to his love of writing poetry. He left school outright in 1897, over the strong objections of his working-class father.

Childhood, despair, difficult relationships with his individual parents right out of a session with Freud, social awkwardness, love, sin, music and a morbid fascination with what he viewed as the relief of death dominate his work.

The story is told, in the preface to P.F. Widdows’ bilingual edition of “Émile Nelligan – Selected Poems”, of David Nelligan sending his son off to Liverpool, as something of a would-be merchant mariner. Alas he was back home in two months. His father having given up on him, as Widdows writes, “he never again submitted himself to what the world and his father called work”.

Émile’s work, however, his poetry, continued unstopped.

His first published poem appeared in the journal Le Samedi de Montréal on June 13, 1896, which he submitted under the pen-name Émile Kovar. It was Rêve fantasque, an early indication of his fascination with death, even suicide.

Qu’il est doux de mourir quand notre âme s’afflige,
Quand nous pèse le temps tel un cuisant remords,
-Que le désespoir ou qu’un noir penser l’exige -
Qu’il est doux de mourir alors!

My shaky translation:

How sweet to die when our soul is grieved,
When we weigh the time such a bitter remorse,
-Such black despair of thinking that is required
It is sweet to die then!

Nelligan was just sixteen years old.

Between 1896 and 1897 he met, and was taken under the wing of, Roman Catholic père Eugène Seers, better known in Montréal literary circles as Louis Dantin. An encouraging critic of Nelligan’s work, he published some of his religious-themed poems in the newsletter of his Order and was instrumental in preparing his protegé’s collected poems for publication after Nelligan’s mental breakdown.

Joining, quitting, then re-joining, l’École littéraire de Montréal which met at the Château Ramezay (pictured below in Old Montréal) Nelligan’s brief public reading stint came to a dramatic end during the presentation of three of his poems to members, one of them his most well-known La Romance du vin. Following a rapturous reception from his audience a nearly-ecstatic Émile Nelligan was carried away on the shoulders of his friends during – or after – which he suffered a psychotic breakdown.

That was May 26, 1899.  He was diagnosed with irreversible psychoses, before schizophrenia had been named.

At the insistence of his parents, Nelligan was confined to la Retraite Saint-Benoît, a Catholic brothers’ retreat centre at the eastern end of the Island of Montréal. He was moved to what was then the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu asylum in 1925, where he remained until his death on November 18, 1941.

In 1979, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp which paid tribute to one of his most widely-read poems Le Vaisseau d’Or:

“Le Vaisseau d’Or”

C’était un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l’or massif: 
Ses mâts touchaient l’azur, sur des mers inconnues; 
La Cyprine d’amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues, 
S’étalait à sa proue, au soleil excessif. 

Mais il vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil 
Dans l’Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène, 
Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène 
Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil. 

Ce fut un Vaisseau d’Or, dont les flancs diaphanes 
Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes, 
Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputés. 

Que reste-t-il de lui dans la tempête brève? 
Qu’est devenu mon coeur, navire déserté? 
Hélas! Il a sombré dans l’abîme du Rêve! 

“The Ship of Gold”

It was a great ship carved from solid gold:
Its masts touched to the skies on uncharted seas;
Venus, goddess of love, her hair streaming, her flesh bare,
Flaunted herself on the prow beneath a blazing sun.

But one night it struck the great reef
In that treacherous ocean where the Siren sang,
And the horrible shipwreck tilted its keel
Into the depths of the abyss, ineluctable coffin.

It was a ship of gold whose diaphanous sides
Revealed treasures which the profane mariners,
Loathing, Hatred, and Neurosis, disputed among themselves.

What remains of it in the brief tempest?
What has become of my heart, a deserted ship?
Alas! It has foundered in the depths of the dream!

Source: Wikipedia, translator unknown

My very first introduction to Nelligan was through the music of pianist and composer André Gagnon .  On an early album was a tune entitled “Nelligan”.

Then, around 1990, Gagnon collaborated with playwright Michel Tremblay and mounted an opera/musical “Nelligan”.

One of Nelligan’s poems Soir d’hiver was put to music by the recently-deceased Claude Léveillée

Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.   My window is a garden of frost.
Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre   What is the spasm of life
Ô la douleur que j’ai, que j’ai!   Oh the pain I have, that I have!

Tous les étangs gisent gelés,   All ponds lie frozen,
Mon âme est noire: Où vis-je? où vais-je?   My soul is black: Where am I living? Where am I going?
Tous ses espoirs gisent gelés:    All his hopes lie frozen:
Je suis la nouvelle Norvège   I am the new Norway
D’où les blonds ciels s’en sont allés.  Hence the fair skies are gone.

Pleurez, oiseaux de février,   Weep, birds of February,
Au sinistre frisson des choses,  The thrill of sinister things,
Pleurez, oiseaux de février,   Weep, birds of February,
Pleurez mes pleurs, pleurez mes roses,   Weep my tears, cry my roses,
Aux branches du genévrier.  On branches of juniper.

Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.   My window is a garden of frost.
Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre   What is the spasm of life
A tout l’ennui que j’ai, que j’ai!…   For all the trouble I have, that I have! …

A lovely boutique hotel in Vieux-Montréal, complete with the renowned Verses restaurant, bears his name and celebrates his legacy. Hôtel Nelligan opens onto the cobble-stoned Rue Saint-Paul

Having learned about Nelligan’s impressive body of work (to say nothing of a promising career) dashed by mental illness that was treated with the crude methods of the day, I felt some identification with him – if only in the sense of having felt private despair.  I almost never fail to walk past Nelligan’s bust in Square St-Louis when I’m in Montréal.  I am so pleased to be connecting my love of André Gagnon’s music, the poetry of Émile Nelligan, my fascination with Nelligan landmarks downtown, and now his grave-site on the beautiful slopes of Mont-Royal.