El Desdichado (3)


I included in EL D (2) a YouTube link to one real French person reading El Desdichado, and mentioned that I preferred it to another reading I had found. This is the other one, just for comparison. You may like it better.

Title: El Desdichado

This means the disinherited one. It sounds Spanish, and is, but originates in a three-volume English novel, Ivanhoe by Walter Scott. This came out in 1819 or 20, so Nerval could have read it, or a French translation of it, before he wrote the poem around 1854. El Desdichado is the name adopted by the eponymous hero, Ivanhoe as a disguise. Ivanhoe is a medieval romance, a ‘historical novel’ written in Victorian times. Wilfred of Ivanhoe is disinherited (El Desdichado means the disinherited/unfortunate one) by his father Cedric of Rotherwood for supporting the Norman King Richard (the same Richard Coeur de Lion mentioned below) and for falling in love with the Lady Rowena, his father’s ward.

Richard is away at the crusades. On the first day of the tournament Ivanhoe appears as a mysterious knight, calling himself El Desdichado, at a tournament run by Prince John, Richard’s brother. In this disguise he defeats some of the best Norman competitors and chooses Lady Rowena as the Queen of the Tournament. The following day, however, he is badly injured and his identity revealed. Lady Rowena nurses him.

Ivanhoe is a three volume, very complex novel, but all we really need to know is that El Desdichado is a nobleman who has been deprived of his inheritance, a man trying to rebuild something out of the ruined fragments of his life.

First Quatrain

In the first quatrain he is inventing titles for himself, in effect transforming himself into a series of figures in a mythical landscape. He makes this quite clear by capitalising them – Le Ténébreux: Le Veuf, l’Inconsolé, Le Prince d’Aquitaine.

He is not just a shadowy figure, he is Le Ténébreux. Le beau ténébreux is an archetypical male seducer in fiction: the dark, tormented, beautiful loner. Other examples would be Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Heathcliffe from Wuthering Heights and Edward Cullen from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga. Like Lord Byron he is ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ and women are drawn to him like moths to a flame. For a woman, he is temptation personified.

He is not just un veuf (a widower) he is Le Veuf – The Widower. He is implying some sort of marriage or conjunction which has been broken or torn from him. He is also presenting himself, in effect, as the most widowed man ever. Le Veuf has become a symbol, for all male grief and loss, a monument.

He is not just inconsolé (unconsoled) he is The Unconsoled – another monumental figure, standing for all men whose grief is beyond any help.

And finally he is Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la Tour abolie. This is probably a reference to the king we know as Richard the Lionheart or Coeur de Lion, who left to fight in the Crusades in 1192. We think of him as an English king but in those days the rulers of France and England were often intermixed, and sometimes England and the northern parts of France were ruled almost as one kingdom. Richard was actually Duke of Aquitaine, his mother being Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. On his attempted return, in disguise, from the Holy Land he was captured by one of his many enemies (he seems to have been quite an arrogant man) Duke Leopold of Austria, in Durnstein Castle near Vienna, who demanded ransom money to release him.

There is a legend – probably untrue – that the minstrel Blondel searched for the king, playing his lute outside castle walls until, as he played a song he had written with King Richard during the Crusade, he heard the King singing with him, in a cell in a tower high above. As for the tower being abolie (ruined) this is partly an emphasis by Nerval of his destroyed life (or even his manhood, if you choose to interpret the tower as a phallic symbol), partly a reference to Ivanhoe/El Desdichado, and maybe partly a reference to a tarot card – the Tower, in which two men are always pictured as falling head first from a falling-down tower.

The Tower is often also in flames, having been struck by lightning. It symbolises, depending on the context in which it appears, darkness and destruction in the physical world, also the destruction of ambitions built on false premises – as was Nerval’s ambitions to marry Jenny Colon. It represents a shocking realisation, a flash of truth, a sudden inrush of consciousness. Both the inner and the outer worlds are under attack. Something overwhelming is happening or about to happen. This card can inspire dread, when it appears.

Second Quatrain

La nuit du tombeau. A tombeau (tomb) is distinguished from a sepulchre by being below ground. A sepulchre can receive natural light, when the stone is rolled away; a tomb is all darkness. So he is talking about being enclosed, in darkness, damp, cold. This connects with la Grotte où nage la sirène – a watery place, a cave. Nerval may also be contrasting the sepulchre in which the crucified body of Christ was laid, and this alternative burial place, closer to hell than heaven. Nerval suffered from fits of suicidal depression and madness, and this hellish place, the tombeau, I think is his symbol for where he feels he is during one of these episodes.

And yet he says this woman, presumably Jenny Colon, the love of his life (toi) has consoled him, even in this dark place. She has given him, or rather given him back several different forms of beauty – le Pausilippe (Posilippo, on the Italian coast), la mer d’Italie (the Italian sea), la fleur qui plaisait tant à mon coeur désolé (the flower which gave such pleasure to his desolate heart) and la treille où le Pampre à la Rose s’allie (the trellis or arbour where vine stems and roses intertwine). Note that the vine is masculine, the rose feminine, and the vine is the one playing the active part – doing the twining. So, she has given him back something – or a series of things – he once had, and which gave him joy – even in this dark and desolate place. It is as if she is all that he has ever had as an antidote to the darkness, she is and always has been his only hope for survival on a psychic level, she is the only ray of light, his guardian angel, his muse, himself – and he has clung to her as a drowning man clings to driftwood.

Posillipo meant, in the original Greek, respite from worry. There are Roman ruins at the water’s edge, and the place is mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman sources. It was said to have been the residence of the poet Virgil (who composed The Aeneid).

Now look at this:

 The so-called tomb of the Roman poet, Virgil (70–19 BC), lies on the Posillipo Hill at the Piedigrotta entrance to the Grotto of Posillipo (known as the Crypta Neapolitana) in the present-day Parco Virgiliano. Comprised of an ancient cylindrical burial vault on a square base rising to the left of the grotto, its authenticity is unconfirmed, although Virgil’s connection with Naples is well established and his villa is said to have been located in nearby Pozzuoli. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the tomb was a popular tourist site, not only because of its classical connections but also owing to the spectacular view of the bay and Vesuvius which could be seen above it.


 The tomb of Virgil – a burial vault – lying at the entrance of the Grotto (J’ai rêvé dans la Grotte où nage la sirène) of Posillipo, a popular site for visitors in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nerval went on a sea trip to Italy, and was to meet and fall in love with Jenny Colon on his return in 1834. It was a relatively happy time of his life, when he still had his grandfather’s inheritance, which had allowed him to give up his medical studies and pursue a literary career. So – freedom. Then he meets Jenny, then he becomes obsessed. He writes a play in which she plays the lead role, which is successful. Thinking this is the moment to declare his love for her, he does so, but she does not respond and his life takes a darker turn.

In this poem, he is addressing the woman he idolises. He is saying that she has given him back that time – or those tiny symbols of that time – when he was young and happy. ‘She’ marks a dividing line between light and darkness, and has now become all the things he actually lost when he met her, freedom, youth, beauty, joy.

To be continued…

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