Emile Nelligan, A Poet, A Childhood Library

Emile Nelligan, A Poet, A Childhood Library

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.


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.

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.


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
Translation by
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.

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