Émile Nelligan was born December 24, 1879 in Montreal, Quebec, at 602, rue de La Gauchetière. His father, David Nelligan, arrived in Quebec from Dublin, Ireland at the age of 12. His mother was Émilie Amanda Hudon, from Rimouski, Quebec. He had two sisters, Béatrice and Gertrude. In 1896, he met his mentor and future editor, the priest Eugène Seers. In 1897, Nelligan was invited by his friend, Arthur de Bussières, to join the recently founded École Littéraire de Montréal, a circle of young writers and intellectuals who met weekly to discuss the arts and voice their concerns about the deteriorating state of the French language. In 1899, Nelligan was confined to the Saint-Benoît asylum, having exhibited signs of schizophrenia, where he remained for 25 years, before being transferred to the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu Hospital, where he died November 18, 1941.
Émile Nelligan’s body of work comprises some 170 poems, sonnets, rondels, songs, and prose poems, all of which were written by the age of 19. Prior to his incarceration, he had published only 23 poems. By 1904, however, thanks to the diligence of his friend Louis Dantin, and with the help of his mother, 107 poems were published in Émile Nelligan et son oeuvre with a preface by Dantin. A further three editions were published in 1925, 1932 and 1945. In 1952, Luc Lacourcière compiled a comprehensive edition of Nelligan’s poems, entitled Poésies complètes : 1869-1899, containing the 107 poems gathered by Dantin, as well as additional poems that Nelligan had written before his hospitalization, that he had been sent to friends or that were found among his papers. This edition has been reprinted several times, most recently in 1989.
Émile Nelligan was a pioneer of French-Canadian literature. In his poetry, he reached past the time-worn subjects of patriotism and fidelity to the land that had occupied so many of his literary predecessors, while instead, focusing on the symbolic possibilities of language and his own inner landscape. Although his writing was influenced by symbolist poets such as Charles-Pierre Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, and English-language writers such as Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe, Nelligan created a poetic sensibility that was uniquely his own. In so doing, he struck a chord of recognition with French Canada that remains to this day. His poems have been translated into English, and he is the subject of numerous colloquia, films, novels, poems, a ballet, and an opera.
Le Vaisseau d’Or
Ce fut 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 cœur, navire déserté?
Hélas! Il a sombré dans l’abîme du Rêve!
The Golden Ship
She was a massive ship, hewn in heavy gold,
with masts that fingered heaven on seas unknown.
Under redundant sun, with scattered hair,
was prowed outspread Venus, bare;
but then one night she hit the huge reef
in waters where the Sirens sing,
and this ghastly shipwreck tilted its keel
to the depths of the chasm, that immutable
tomb. She was a ship of gold, but her diaphanous
flanks showed treasures over which the blasphemous
sailors Psychosis, Spite and Nausea clashed.
So, what has survived this flash of storm?
What about my heart, abandoned ship?
... O, still it sinks, deep in Dream's abyss.
In June, 2015 a rare 1912 handwritten copy of Le vaisseau d'or was sold for $23,000.