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Reviewed Book: Selected Verse of Émile Nelligan: Québec’s Great Lyric Poet, translated with commentary by Ian Allaby, Petra Books, 2023

by Gabriella Bedetti

His masts touched the sky, he sailed on seas unknown.
Ses mâts touchaient l’azur, sur des mers inconnues

—Émile Nelligan’s gravestone epitaph

With today’s rising trends in anxiety, depression, and suicide among adolescents, Émile Nelligan’s poems of hope and despair make for enlightening reading. Despite our age of irony, readers will be touched by the Quebecoise’s longing, “I too have dreams of writing verse adored by all,” shattered hopes at a dismissive review in a Paris newspaper of “Wine Song,” and asylum years spent as a “living monument” to poetry.

How did a poet with a couple dozen poems published between the age of sixteen and nineteen (when he was institutionalized and stopped writing) come to be recognized as Canada’s first modern poet? While Margaret Atwood, Al Purdy, and John McCrea (for “In Flanders Fields”) are influential poets worldwide, no other Canadian poet has achieved Nelligan’s iconic stature, memorialized in biography, translation, criticism, film, painting, statuary, rock opera, and song. According to The Nelligan Review, founded in 2022 to honor the poet, “Nelligan successfully created a poetic sensibility that was uniquely his own, striking a chord with French Canada that remains to this day.” Edmund Wilson considered Nelligan to be the greatest Canadian poet in any language.

The latest in a succession of translators, Ian Allaby has selected forty-six poems from one hundred and seventy and presented them in a roughly chronological sequence accessible to lay reader, student, and scholar. Nelligan reveled in fixed forms. With ears tuned to a line’s rhythm, he gave dramatic expression to his psychic turmoil. The poems are striking for the musicality of the poète maudit’s ambition and despair.

Nelligan mastered the turbulence of his emotions in forms such as the sonnet rondel, and virelay. More than any previous translator, Allaby’s ear for the alexandrine line enables him to be faithful to Nelligan’s voice in metrical English. Consider three translations of the first two lines of Nelligan’s most famous poem, the sonnet “Ship of Gold”:

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Ce fut un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l’or massif :
Ses mats touchaient l’azur, sur des mers inconnues ; (Nelligan 1899)

Hewn out of solid gold, a tall ship sailed:
Its masts reached up to heaven, on unknown seas; (Cogswell 1983)

She was a massive ship, hewn in heavy gold,
With masts that fingered heaven, on seas unknown (di Saverio 2017)

A mighty Ship there was, of solid gold ‘twas spun,
Its masts touched the sky, it sailed on seas unknown (Allaby 2023)

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Allaby’s translation remains most true to the caesura, the nineteenth century diction (‘twas spun), and the capitalization of the noun to mark its symbolic value. Inserting “it sailed” in the second line lends a balanced cadence and rocking rhythm to the English line. The lush alliterative “s” sounds in his translation—Ship, solid, spun, sky, sailed, seas—honor “a great musician of syllables,” as Nelligan was described by Louis Dantin, who first compiled Nelligan’s oeuvre in 1904, five years after the poet retreated to an asylum.

As much as possible, Allaby’s versification is true to Nelligan’s voice. Some of the dreaminess can’t help but get lost. For example, in the following lines from “The Bell in the Fog,” the first and third metrical English lines end with a stressed syllable, whereas the soft feminine endings of the French create a drawn-out despair. The clipped English “cope” and “Hope” do not capture the sweetness of the bell’s “primal vibration,” to use Allaby’s term:

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Et qui regrette avec de sonores souffrances
Les fidèled quittant son enceinte qui luit,
Comme vous regrettez l’exil des Espérances.

Absorbed in sonorous lament, seeking to cope
With the flight of the faithful from its holy embrace
So very like yourself, an exile from all Hope.

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Allaby’s translation and commentary are enjoyable on multiple levels. At 186 pages, the paperback’s succinct but fascinating front matter introduces readers to the poet’s life, the controversies surrounding his iconic stature, and the translation, all in a conversational style. The back matter includes a picture gallery and ends with a bibliography.

Rather than appear on the facing page, the source texts appear at the back. At first, it feels strange to flip to the Appendix to find the originals, but one soon abandons the French in favor of the facing page Notes and Comments. Notes clarify words and phrases in specific lines; comments contextualize the poem in literary and social history as well as in form. When the translator’s rhyme scheme veers from the original, Allaby lets his readers know. The clear and concise style of his commentary engages, as in his comment about “Castles in Spain”: “The final tercet deepens the mortification by demonstrating that the poet’s entire quest was founded on illusion. His dreams melt like candles—the perfect image to remind us of Icarus’s melting wings. The poem that started with bravado ends in misery. Now we see clearly what that fortified city was, what that Treasure was—it was the impenetrable citadel of Love.”

The translator connects the poems with people and events in the poet’s life. For example, he notes that eighteen-year-old Nelligan wrote “Two Portraits of My Mother” when his mother was “very much alive and running a household of three kids.” Here is the “unbearably sad poem” about the passage of time:

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My mother, how I loved her in this painting made
In her glory days when she was a maiden fair;
With her brow the color of lilies, and eyes that flare,
She glowed like a mirror in a golden frame inlaid.

But look, this second picture shows a later phase
Where furrows line the precious marble of her face;
Time has erased her girlish shine without a trace
Since her bridal hymn sounded in her rose-poem days.

Sorrow consumes me when these portraits I compare:
One brow is bright with joy, the other grim with care;
A golden sun there was, and then the fog sets down.

So here’s a puzzle that our guarded hearts hold deep:
How is it that I smile to see that worried frown?
And the picture where she smiles, how is it that I weep?

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Nelligan’s voice moves from a pastoral optimism to a fall from romantic idealism in love and fame. “A Portrait of Dante” expresses Nelligan’s longing in perfect iambic hexameter: “through time as vast as God your fame will be relayed” (“Et tu vivra aussi longtemps que Dieu lui-même”). Nelligan’s Italian phase is followed by the occasional whimsical and irreverent poem (“Ecclesiastical Siesta,” “Rondel to My Pipe”), pious poems, poems of despair, poems that ridicule and mourn pastoralism, and finally poems about death and the failure of love. Allaby describes the distinctive mix of currents in Nelligan’s poems: “Nelligan the Symbolist displays his symbols while Nelligan the Parnassian sculpts them. At the end, in that fateful summer of 1899, Nelligan the Decadent drives his symbols into brilliant psychotic depths.” Avoiding any aesthetic and ethical ethnocentrism, Allaby does not turn Nelligan into a Rimbaudian caricature. Nor does he see him as a victim of non-conformist genius. Instead, he reflects that madness was for Nelligan an exit for his problems.

Allaby shares just enough of other commentators’ readings and arrangements of poems to contrast them with his own. He identifies the poetic influences of Baudelaire, French-Belgian poet Georges Rodenbach, and French poet Maurice Rollinat. Like other French Canadians of his time, Nelligan looked to Paris; unfortunately, once a Parisian journalist’s dismissive review likens Nelligan to an imitative parrot, Allaby notes that “Émile sweeps serenity off the page.” Forever after, the poet stopped “living the dream.”
Readers living in a free verse world will be astonished by the music in these poems and saddened by the suffering. It’s especially sad to know that once he stopped writing, Nelligan (1879-1941) achieved the love and fame he craved.

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A translator from the French, Gabriella Bedetti’s prose translations appear in New Literary History and Critical Inquiry, while her poetry translations appear in Puerto del Sol, World Literature Today, The Los Angeles Review, Rhino, Asymptote, and elsewhere. She is a University of Iowa Ph.D. in comparative Literature circulating her translation, The Butterfly Tree: Selected Poems of Henri Meschonnic.


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8 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    What a clear, concise, and perceptive review! Intelligent commentary of this kind is becoming rare in mainstream academia.

    I’m not familiar with this poet Nelligan, but I look forward to comments from Margaret Coats and Joshua Frank, SCP members who are fluent in French.

    Reply
  2. Monika Cooper

    Thank you for drawing this poet and translation to our attention. I’m intrigued. I know several Spanish-writing poets from South of US but really nothing of French-writing poets from the North. Strange gap, when I think of it. I appreciate this introduction!

    Reply
  3. Cheryl Corey

    Thank you for this interesting essay. It sounds like young Mr. Nelligan was a very sensitive soul.

    Reply
  4. Margaret Coats

    I’ve read a few Nelligan poems in the older Cogswell translation, and these impel an English reader who knows French to go the original. Thus I’m disappointed that Allaby relegates the French poems (the poet’s actual works of art!) to the back of his book. But this may do just as well for most readers whose principal or only language is English. Nelligan is a poet whose aim from adolescence was to BE A POET; nothing else mattered. He has many features that appeal more to popular taste now than during his lifetime, or even 40 years ago when Cogswell’s complete English translation appeared. He was an identity-seeking young man who chose to be French even though he was bilingual. He devoted himself to the most bohemian aspects of artistic existence. He was a rebel thoroughly imbued with religion, and he was crazy. The institutionalization desired by both parents destroyed him as a poet, but kept him alive. What a story!

    Thank you, Gabriella Bedetti, for bringing him to our attention. It is significant that two new translations have been made within the past few years.

    Reply
    • Gabriella Bedetti

      As a translator, initially I shared your surprise at having to locate the original French poems in the back of the book rather than on the facing page. After I compared a few translated poems with the originals, and the translator had gained my trust, however, I found myself so engrossed in the poems and commentary that I read straight through, enjoying the story. For the most part, I only went to the original on second reading.

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments, though, and plan to use the facing page format in a bilingual collection of a different poet, including no commentary, only an introduction.

      Reply

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