In my post EL DESDICHADO (1) I talked about my first ‘meeting’ with Gérard de Nerval’s poem El Desdichado all those years ago, and you will find the original poem in EL D (1) together with my own translation.
It occurred to me that there ought to be a recording of a real French person reading the real French words on YouTube, and sure enough there was – in fact more than one. This was the one I liked best:
I was quite young when I first started work on the poem. In those days there was no internet; I was having to rely on dictionaries and trips to the library, plus my own intuition and guesswork. Eventually I set it aside, knowing I had taken it as far as I could with the resources at my disposal. But I always hoped that one day I might be able to burrow a bit further into this multi-layered masterpiece. Unfortunately, by the time I was able to access the internet I didn’t have the time; the struggle for existence took over, as it tends to do. However, now I do have both the time and the perfect excuse – this blog.
I thought I would go through the various mythological references first. The poem is nothing without these, and unless you have some understanding of them you will keep tripping up on them. This part looks likely to spread over two posts (EL D 2 and 3).
In the final post – EL D 4 – I will attempt to pass on my personal feelings – instincts, really – not so much as to what the poem means as to what Nerval may have been going through when he wrote it, what he might have been thinking and and how the poem fits in with the often sad facts of his life. Really, of course, it’s impossible to say for certain what any poem means: that’s only possible with prose. I am saving this attempt until last because I am probably going find it hard to think out and put into words.
So, mythology. I am going to make a breakdown of the names, places and references I found puzzling when I first read the poem, in the order that they appear in El Desdichado, and see what more I can find out about them.
First of all, El Desdichado is a sonnet. Sonnets are a great test of a poet’s skill, but the punch a great sonnet packs is incredible. It’s an energy thing. The poet accepts – chooses – the technical constraints of the sonnet form. He then works hard to overcome them using all his natural gifts. If he succeeds the energy he put in seems to burst out again in the finished work. It’s a bit like focussing the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass.
There are a number of variant ‘forms’ of sonnet, but by no means do all sonnets fit neatly into one or other of those forms. A sonnet always consists of 14 lines, which are usually made up of two Quatrains (four-line verses) plus one Sestet (a six-line verse). The two final lines of the Sestet usually rhyme with one another, and tend to contain some kind of pay-off or dramatic twist. El Desdichado does in fact have two Quatrains and a Sestet, it’s just that Nerval has chosen to make a kind of breathing space – a gap between its first three lines and its second.
If you are interested in further technicalities of sonnet form, here’s a useful link: