Émile Nelligan, poet, tortured soul, was born Christmas’s eve 1879 and died his second death in 1941. His second death was physical. His first death, the real one, lasted forty two years.
A comet in Québec’s literary sky, Émile burned bright but a few seconds. Sensitive and shy, close to his mother, he wrote brilliant poems, studied in schools even today.
POSTER CHILD OF THE TWO SOLITUDES
Canada has an expression entirely its own: the two solitudes, taken from Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 novel of the same title. It refers to the rift between English and French, the lack of communication and the lack of will to communicate.
Émile’s father, David Nelligan, emigrated to Montreal from Dublin at the age of twelve, succeeded at school and managed to establish himself in middle-class society with a job at the post office. He married Émilie Hudon, from an old Montreal family, catholic but French-speaking.
Émile came first, then his two sisters were born. David forbade his wife and children to speak French at home, and this only pushed Émile closer to his mother, a devout catholic and a musician. Émile chose French to write his first poems.
WHEN IN TIME
Émile’s era came just after the Enlightenment movement in Paris and its famous poets, Verlaine, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Inspiration also came from Poe, since Émile was fluent in both French and English.
Rimbaud is the poet Émile is most compared to, both for their visionary verses and their short careers. Émile Nelligan’s “Le Vaisseau D’Or” or “The Ship of Gold” is often compared to Rimbaud’s “Bateau Ivre” or “The Drunken Ship”.
The Nelligan family had a summer home in Cacouna and Émile missed school a lot every year between March and August. His mother completed his education at home. In 1896, age 17, he enters Ste-Marie College and it’s at that school he finds his first literary friendships, Joseph Melançon, Denys Lanctôt and Louis Dantin. His first poem is published in a weekly journal under a pseudonym. But the journal refuses to publish more poems unless Émile gives his real name and address.
In 1897, he meets Arthur de Buissière, who gets Émile admitted at the Literary School, a club of young writers, freshly out of university or in their last year. At his first meeting, he reads two poems, Berceuse and Le Voyageur. Émile goes regularly to the Literary School and writes steadily.
The following year, Émile finds a job as a sailor on a boat leaving for Liverpool. He makes the voyage but upon his return, he abandons the job. His father finds him a new position with a coal merchant (or a flower shop, history is unclear on that point) but Émile can’t stand it. Meanwhile, other writers read his poetry at the Literary School and his name gets circulated in the literary world.
MAY 26TH, 1899
In January 1899, the popular newspaper, La Patrie, publishes L’Idiote aux Cloches and Émile works with fervor to complete his first poem collection. In March, La Patrie publishes yet another poem and Émile is on the roster at the Literary School on six consecutive meetings between January and February. A journalist from France gives a negative review of Le Perroquet and Émile is crushed. He stays a few weeks away from the Literary School but returns in April.
May 26th, Émile reads La Romance du Vin, written in response to the French journalist’s critique, and the crowd is ecstatic. He wins the honors of the night and he is carried home by his friends in triumph.
This was Émile Nelligan’s last public appearance. He suffered a psychotic breakdown that summer and he never recovered. He was 19 years old. In August of that year, his family committed him to the St.Benoit’s retreat house and he came out in 1925 only to be transferred to the psychiatric hospital St-Jean-De-Dieu, where he died in 1941. After
his triumph on May 26th, he never wrote again.
My mother gave me his complete collection when I was teenager and I cherish the book. I studied Émile Nelligan’s body of work in high school, and contrary to my classmates, I was completely absorbed by his poetry.
The public library I lived closest to was called Émile Nelligan and I loved to roam the rows of book and settling my eyes on his pictures that dotted the walls.
I’ll leave you with Émile Nelligan’s last poem, the one he recited on the evening of May 26th, 1899, La Romance du Vin or The Song of Wine. I found the translation online on The Flying Scribbler.
Song of Wine
Fred Cogswell (1917-2004)
Fresh in joy, life, light – all things coincide,
This fine May eve ! like living hopes that once
Were in my heart, the choiring birds announce
Their prelude to my window open wide.
O fine May eve! O happy eve of May!
A distant organ beats out frigid chords;
And long shafts of sun, like crimson swords,
Cuts to the heart the scent of dying day.
How gay, how glad am I ! Pour out, pour out
Once more the wine into the chiming glass
That I may lose the pain of days which pass
In scorn for all the wicked human rout.
How glad am I ! My wine and art be blest!
I, too, have dreamt of making poetry
That lives, of poems which sound the exequy
For autumn winds that passing far-off mist.
The bitter laugh of rage is now good form,
And I, a poet, must eat scorn for food.
I have a heart but am not understood
Save by the moonlight and the great nights of storm.
Woman ! I drink to you who mock the path
where the rose-dream calls with arms flung wide;
I drink, too, to you men with brows of pride
Who first refuse my hand then scorn my life!
When the starry sky becomes one glorious roof,
And when a hymn resounds for golden spring,
I do not weep for all the days’ calm going,
Who wary grope within my own black youth.
How glad am I ! May eve all eves above.
Not drunk but desperately glad am I !…
Has living grown at last to be a joy?
Has my heart, too, been healed of my sick love?
The clocks have struck and the wind smells of night
Now the wine gurgles as I pour it out.
So glad am I that I laugh and shout
I fear I shall break down and sob outright.
No other spirit in history has the mystique of Absinthe. It was the muse of Beaudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud, of Van Gogh, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec.
In ancient Egypt, mentions of absinthe were found in papyrus. The Greeks, Pythagore and Hippocrate, also praised absinthe, its creative stimulation and its aphrodisiac after-effect.
The modern origins are disputed between Doctor Pierre Ordinaire and between a woman named Henriod in the canton of Neuchatel, in Switzerland. What historians seem to agree on is the recipe was bought by a soldier, Major Dubied, who opened with his son-in-law, Henri Louis Pernod, in 1797, the first absinthe distillery in Couvet, Switzerland.
For thirty years or so, absinthe remained a local beverage, despite an organized fight against alcoholism. In 1830, French soldiers colonized Algeria and recommended to the population to distill a few drops of absinthe in water to fight malaria and dysentery. Upon their return to France, soldiers quickly shared their taste of the beverage and its popularity lighted up Paris.
WHAT’S IN ABSINTHE?
Wormwood is the main herb used in absinthe. Green anis, fennel, lemon balm and hyssop are also part of the recipe. Absinthe is a distilled alcohol, like whisky or gin. This beverage is between 45 and 90% proof. No wonder one can hear muses and angels.
THE HIGH TIMES OF ABSINTHE
During the mid nineteenth century, absinthe was the preferred drink of writers, poets and painters. Oscar Wilde loved the “green fairy”, and he is quoted: ”What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?” Ernest Hemingway, (no surprise here, as stated in this other blog) featured the drink in For Whom The Bell Toll and the short story Hills Like White Elephants. It is said he procured absinthe from Spain and Cuba after the ban.
Famous French poets, Verlaine and Rimbaud, were known to drink large quantities of absinthe together. Beaudelaire was also a “green fairy” addict and wrote under its influence. Guy de Maupassant, in his story A Queer Night in Paris, describes all sensations from the hour to take absinthe.
Painters also let absinthe color their work. Van Gogh’s many yellow paintings and his ear cutting episode are attributed to absinthe.
Absinthe became the ugly face of alcoholism throughout France, speared on by anti-alcoholic leagues (one was headed by Louis Pasteur) circa 1875. In 1906, The French National Anti-Alcoholic league collected 400,000 signatures. In a time where signature had to be collected one by one (No Facebook option at the time), this movement was simply phenomenal. In a twist that’s all French, their motto was “All for wine, all against absinthe.”
Wine producers might have been behind the movement, non?
Sarcasm aside, if one drank the same amount of absinthe as wine, the effects were four to six times more heady.
The leagues won their cause. In 1915, absinthe was banned in France and many other countries. It’s been re-emerging lately with modification to the recipe. If you’re interested in knowing more about absinthe, there’s a fascinating documentary available on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime.
Writers and bars. There’s something in the combination that works. The drinks, the crowd, the music, the people-watching. Today I’m following James Joyce, Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway.
In St-Patrick’s day honor, I thought I’d start with Ireland. Touted as Dublin’s oldest bar – circa 12th century – The Brazen Head has a courtyard and three bars and live music every night. It’s a short walk away from the Guinness Brewery. History has marked the walls of the bar, with revolutionaries drawing plans against the British, treason, arrests and more beer please!
Ireland is on my list of must-see places-before-I-die. And the Brazen Head screams Irish fun. Especially the Storytelling evening: a night of food, folklore and fairies.
Born in 1882, James Joyce enrolled in the new Dublin University College in 1898, graduated in 1902. He left Dublin briefly for Paris but came back when his mother became sick. Known for getting into trouble, he drank heavily, and many of his friends – and enemies – ended up in his most famous novel, Ulysses. He left Dublin in 1904 in self-imposed exile and came back only on occasion. But his stories all revolved around Dublin.
It’s impossible to find to bars in the world where Ernest Hemingway has not visited. Harry’s Bar in Venice has been patronized by Hemingway, but I’ll concede this one to Truman Capote.
Venice, Italy. The charm of a forever sinking city.
My husband and I happened on Harry’s Bar at the end of a long walking day. It was our first time in Venice and we did like all tourists: oohing, aahing and pointing. The architecture defies logic, the waterways are amazing, the museums seductive.
Feet aching, Harry’s Bar called to us like water to a parched throat. But we didn’t drink water. We had bellinis. One can’t go at Harry’s Bar and not try the bellini.
The name Harry is after a young man, Harry Pickering, a young, rich man from Boston. He hung out at Hotel Europa in Venice where he met bartender Giuseppe Cipriani. His family cut his finances and Harry stopped going to the bar. Cipriani loaned him some money. Two years laters, Harry came back to Venice and gave Cipriani almost triple the amount and asked the bartender
to open his own establishment and to call it Harry’s Bar.
Truman Capote traveled Europe and published in 1950 Local Color, a collection of travel essays. He is known for this quote about Venice: “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”
Conferences attract writers, even in difficult economic times, because it’s an occasion to meet other writers, to socialize, to commiserate. In other eras – after wars especially – writers and other artists would gather at bistros and cafés, thirsty for mind-like company.
That’s how The Bodeguita came to be in the 1950s. The bohemian Casa Martinez, as it was named then, attracted writers and journalists, musicians and choreographers. It brought life to Old Havana. Oh, and a new cocktail named “mojito”, an affair of rum, mint, sugar, lemon and club soda.
Ernest Hemingway lived a Ferrari life in a world of Peugeot. He traveled intensely – that’s why he’s been in every bar in the world - married four times, had multiple accidents that should have killed him but didn’t. He was there on D-Day, covered both world wars in person, and drew inspiration in every place he visited. He was the Indiana Jones version of a writer.
He was known for drinking – a lot. Chronic pain propelled him into self-medicating with alcohol. Paris, Venice, Havana and Key West, many cities boast of bars where Hemingway spent time at. At The Bodeguita, there’s a sign on the wall: ”My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in La Floridita.”
I hope you enjoyed my historic bar crawl. Which one have you visited? Please share with me in the comment section!Read More