Selected Poems

96 pages,
ISBN: 1550710346

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Abyss? or Gulf?
by Bernard Kelly

ON Monday, April 2nd, 1900, the École littéraire de Montréal held its fifth and final public meeting in the Château de Ramezay, a curious-looking building with as many tall chimneys, it seems, as mullioned windows. Despite the storm blowing outside, the audience was large and included representatives from the "better" families and the "nobler" professions.
Wilfrid Larose, president of the École, opened the meeting by displaying a beribboned copy of the just published Les Soirées du Château de Ramezay, a collection of the members' works, for which he had borne the costs and, in the opinion of some, rigged the contents. He then read aloud several congratulatory letters from several congratulatory Frenchmen (the book was dedicated to "France, the mother country"). Finally, the members read from the contributions. Noticeably absent was the co-founder, Louvigny de Montigny, who thought Larose nothing more than a "gambleur littéraire" using the collection as well as the École for his personal glory.
Montigny, with Jean Charbonneau, had called the very first meeting of the École in November 1895. The offspring of a bohemian drinking-and poetry- club known as the Groupe des six éponges and conceived, so the story went, in disgust at the mediocrity of the speeches given during a political banquet ("d'interminables discours assaisonnés de `canadianismes', d'anglicismes et de lieux communs"), the École was but one of many such circles, societies, and academies in Montreal at the time, all hoping to improve the language and the literature of French Canada. What set it apart, perhaps, in the beginning (and no doubt because of its beginnings), was the variety of tastes and tendencies it harboured. And yet, however much the École might consider itself a source of literary renewal, there were few among its twenty or so members willing to let go of the past. Some were still students; some were just beginning their professional careers. As poets, they merely sought, for the most part, to endow the traditional themes of French-Canadian poetry with a modern tone. The form may have changed from one generation to the next; the content had not. It was entirely in keeping with the École's character, then, that they should elect Louis Fréchette, author of La légende d'un peuple, honorary president, and that, after two years of a more or less regular existence, they should open their meetings, on occasion, to the bourgeois public in the historico-bourgeois setting of the Château de Ramezay.
The collection, this "livre d'or" had been one of the École's earliest ambitions; it was to have embodied the new, rebellious spirit of French-Canadian writing. As published, these four years later, it could hardly be said to do that. It did, all the same, contain seventeen poems from its youngest and, by now, most remarkable member, Émile Nelligan, two of which Charles Gill chose to recite that evening, "pour évoquer les absents." Nelligan, as some in the audience must have known, had been admitted to a private asylum nine months before.
The initial diagnosis of "dégénérescence mentale, folie polymorphe" would hardly have surprised Nelligan himself, whose poems and obiter dicta contain so many prophetic hints of madness ("Je mourrai fou-comme Baudelaire") and whose working method required an abstracted state very like possession. Louvigny de Montigny complained that Nelligan's misfortune had given birth to a legend. It was one that he and several of the original members would come to resent. Here was a child-an "unhappy bewildered boy", to use Fred Cogswell's phrase-who had set out, in his sixteenth year, to be a poet and nothing else. And so well had he succeeded that they themselves were soon overshadowed, their work almost forgotten.
Despite the frequency with which Nelligan published in local periodicals during the three years he was active, it's unlikely that so much of his work would have survived without the efforts of his mother and his mentor and friend, Louis Dantin. The latter did more than collate the manuscripts; he touched up the poems where they needed it; he put them in order; he selected those that merited publication and put aside those that did not. He also wrote the first critical study of Nelligan as a poet, allowing that, for all his gifts, the boy, now "dead", had scarcely begun, although what he had begun showed traces of genius. Nelligan's mother, with Charles Gill's help, would see to the publication of this "editio princeps".
It is no less true that Dantin rejected work that he thought tainted by irrationality, work that Nelligan's mother may later have destroyed. Their selection, first published in 1904, was not replaced until 1952, when Luc Lacourcière, adding to the corpus of 107 poems fifty-six others, published the Poésies complètes, which was the standard text for almost as long. By 1991, Nelligan's reputation had so developed that a new, critical edition was called for. In the first volume, Poésies complètes 1896-1941, edited by Réjean Robidoux and Paul Wyczynski, Lacourcière's texts and Dantin's grouping were considerably revised. More notable, perhaps, was the inclusion in a second volume, Poèmes et textes d'asile 1900-1941, edited by Jacques Michon, of work that had for years been dismissed as the productions of a mind that could only (imperfectly) repeat, never, any longer, create.
The details in Nelligan's biography-his illness (which we would now call schizophrenia), the cultural and psychological hopscotch of his family life, the worrisome question of his literary borrowings-serve sometimes to illuminate, sometimes to obscure the poems they surround. It would be impossible to ignore their influence altogether. Since the publication, in 1987, of Paul Wyczynski's comprehensive and scholarly account, we have known pretty much all we need to, to construct a credible life-sized figure, pen in one hand, brow in the other. The film by Robert Favreau and the opera by Michel Tremblay and André Gagnon, as contestable as their versions were, did allow us to see how this figure might look when in motion. Something similar might be said about Nelligan's translators.
If the poems are generally easy to read, it's because the single-minded adolescent that was Nelligan soon mastered the fundamental principles of French prosody: syllabication, rhyme, and accentuation. If they are sometimes hard to read, it's because he cut his meaning to measure in forms-sonnet and rondel-that were anything but flexible. Rhyme is the foundation of Nelligan's "system", supporting a rhythm so forceful it verges on song. The poets he admired-Baudelaire, Millevoye, Moore, Poe, Rimbaud, Rodenbach, Rollinat, and Verlaine-shared this trait to greater or lesser degrees, but in Nelligan it clearly dominates. Fellow members of the École criticized him for it severely, especially those who, like Melançon and Charbonneau, would later claim to have been his teachers. "De la musique, de la musique et rien d'autre," Melançon complained in his diary of 1897 after a reading at the École. "De la musique avant toute chose," Nelligan might have replied, quoting Verlaine. (In fact, Nelligan's working title for the collection that illness prevented him from completing-Motifs du Récital des Anges-indicates how far the theme of music had entered into the very arrangement of his work, with such divisions as Clavecin céleste, Intermezzo, and Lied.)
It is this musicality-phonemic, syntactical-that, at once, invites and defies translation. In his anthology The Poetry of French Canada, John Glassco chose 1950 as the watershed year for literary translation. Little done before that date, he wrote, was "worth preserving except for antiquarian reasons." Among the few works then comprising "the history of serious translation of French-Canadian poetry" he named P. F. Widdows's selection from Nelligan, published by Ryerson Press in 1960. Of the twelve poems by Nelligan that Glassco anthologized, eight were translated by Widdows, three by George Johnston, and one by A.J.M. Smith. In 1983, when Fred Cogswell supplied his own "English equivalent verse" for the entire Lacourcière edition, he gave Widdows credit for having written "a generally good translation and an excellent introduction." (Cogswell's "adaptation" received praise as mild several years later from Nelligan's biographer, Paul Wyczynski, who thought this "difficult and ungrateful task" would stand as an "example of honesty and courage.")
So many poets to make a Nelligan ("Tout en imitant," advised Millevoye, "sois original!"): why shouldn't it take nearly as many to translate him? When even so partisan a critic as Réjean Robidoux agrees that three-quarters of the oeuvre is apprentice's work, a small selection like Widdows's (thirty-two poems), now republished, with minor changes to the preface, by Guernica, may hope to represent it accurately enough. In truth, Nelligan's popularity, if not his reputation, has never needed more than a handful, chief among them the two show-pieces that visitors to the asylum so often asked him to recite: Le Vaisseau d'or and La Romance du vin.
In Le Vaisseau d'or the conceit is simple: a golden ship with a Venus figurehead strikes a reef and sinks. In the final tercet, the poet identifies the ship with his own heart: "in Dream's abyss sunk without trace." Both Cogswell and Widdows are careful to match the rhyming scheme; Smith does away with it altogether. They all make interesting choices.
Nelligan describes the sinking thus: "Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carêne/Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil." In Widdows's version, this becomes: "Appalling shipwreck plunged her keel aslant/To the Gulf's depths, that unrelenting tomb." For Cogswell, it is: "And dreadful shipwreck beat its hull right down/To the depths of the gulf, that rigid grave." And for Smith: "Ghastly, a slanting hulk, she twists and swings/Down the profound Abyss, her changeless shroud." Appalling, dreadful, and ghastly the sinking ship surely was. I myself prefer "ghastly". I also prefer "hull" to "keel", although carêne would include both. (I suppose "careening" wouldn't do, since even metaphorical wrecks go down figurehead first.) And "changeless shroud", a little freer than "unrelenting tomb", is, to me, far more evocative than "rigid grave".
The curiously emblematic image that follows is just as challenging: "Ce fut un Vaisseau d'Or, dont les flancs diaphanes/Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes,/Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputés." Widdows is plain as a biscuit: "She was a Golden Ship: but there showed through/Translucent sides treasures the blasphemous crew,/Hatred, Disgust and Madness, fought to share." Cogswell is slightly saltier: "A gold ship whose translucence in each part/Disclosed the treasures that those impious tars,/Disgust and Hate and Madness, fought to keep." Smith is downright briney: "She was a golden ship whose glassy hull/Betrayed the treasure-trove for which the three/Foul Captains, Hate, Disgust, and Frenzy strove." Widdows's "fought to share" owes more, perhaps, to rhyme than to sense, but I prefer his "blasphemous crew" to Cogswell's "impious tars" (which sounds awkward to my ear). Again, Smith's choices are inspired, but do they not rather too boldly improve upon the original?
According to Widdows, La Romance du vin was Nelligan's manifesto; it also happened to be his swan song. His recital of it, at the last meeting of the École he would ever attend, so enthused his listeners that some of them carried him home on their shoulders. It's that sort of poem: dithyrambic, tremulous. In nine quatrains, the poet, all the while insisting on his gaiety and wondering whether he's been cured of despair, discovers a heart so fragile it's ready to break. "Je suis gai! je suis gai! Vive le vin et l'Art! .../J'ai le rêve de faire aussi des vers célèbres,/Des vers qui gémiront les musiques funèbres/Des vents d'automne au loin passant dans le brouillard." Widdows is Pindaric: "How gay am I! To wine and Art, all praise!/I dream of making poems that will find/Renown, and sigh the haunting dirge of winds/Moving in autumn through the distant haze." Cogswell is somewhat Thomas Grayish: "How glad am I! My wine and art be blest!/I, too, have dreamed of making poetry/That lives, of poems which sound the exequy/For autumn winds that pass in far-off mist." And George Johnston (whose version Glassco picked, rather than Widdows's) achieves his own elegiac effect in a prolonged last line : "Gay, I am gay! Exalted in wine and art! .../How I dream of the lofty rhymes I shall make,/Rhymes trembling with the sighs of funeral music,/Winds of autumn passing through the haze, distant, apart." (Elsewhere in the same anthology, Johnston has an especially witty translation of Nelligan's Vieille romanesque.)
There are no score cards, of course. Cogswell, it should be remembered, translated all the poems; this is valuable in itself, since it allows an anglophone reader to get acquainted with the fragments and the more religious works. And his translations, too, are "generally good", sometimes "excellent". But Nelligan, as I've attempted to demonstrate here, is worthy of a mixed choir. Guernica was right to republish Widdows's selection. As a translator, he is consistently clever, faithful, and harmonious. On the whole, his versions seem to me to communicate best with Nelligan's precocious and bewildered sensibility.
Dantin wrote of "l'atavisme du sang", suggesting that within the poet the "intelligence, vivacity, and devilish fire of a Gaul" kept uneasy company with "the dreamy mysticism and sombre melancholy of a Celtic bard." Whatever validity these terms may now have, it's certainly true that, if his mother hadn't prevailed, Nelligan's first language, like his father's, would have been English, and he might have turned to other transatlantic models. (Rossetti? Tennyson? Ernest Dowson?) Then again, French for Nelligan was the language both of poetry and filial resistance; it's not so certain that he was free to choose. The face that looks out of the Laprès et Lavergne portrait (which has become an icon) is just a year or two short of maturity, but the intellect behind these soft, evasive eyes has grown about as much as it ever will. Though profoundly marked by his mixed parentage, Nelligan, in his determination to be the equal of Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire, was not at all divided.

l Bernard Kelly is the publisher of paperplates, "a magazine for fifty readers".


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