Gérard de Nerval

By Robert S. Robbins

Gérard de Nerval lived from 1808 to 1855, meaning he died one year after Arthur Rimbaud was born.  He was an acquaintance of Baudelaire, his junior by thirteen years. Nerval's Journey To The Orient is said to have inspired Baudelaire's poem A Voyage To Cythera and his interest in the orient. Gerard's real last name was Labrunie. Nerval was a pseudonym based on his belief that he was a descendent of the Roman emperor Nerva.

Gérard de NervalNerval was widely regarded as being a distracted soul, a dreamer perpetually lost in a state of supernatural reverie. He studied the Occult and was fascinated by antiquity and dead religions for which he always felt a spiritual affinity. He idolized several women throughout his life and wrote his major works concerning his idealized loves; Sylvie, Aurelia, and Octavia. Nerval's taste in literature tended towards the macabre or mystical which in his day and age meant Edgar Allen Poe, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Swedenborg, and Goethe's Faust. He was particularly influenced by Faust and gained literary renown as one of the foremost French translators of the German play.

Nerval eventually lost the ability to distinguish dream from reality and his bizarre behavior resulted in numerous anecdotes. He was seen walking a pet lobster on a leash in the gardens of the Palais Royal. He came to believe that he was the son of Napoleon's brother. Nerval was committed to an insane asylum, described as being more of a literary rest home than a true institution, where he believed he was being put through an initiation ritual. He came to a tragic end. Nerval hanged himself from a bar in a sewer grate. There are many inaccurate accounts of exactly where he hanged himself. The back cover of Journey To The Orient claims "He died in 1855, hanging himself from a lamp-post in the snowy streets of Paris with an old apron string that he believed to be the Queen of Sheba's garter." The Anchor Anthology of French Poetry's brief introduction to Nerval tells a different story, "...hanged his humble and gentle self in a cellar in the rue de la Vieille-Lanterne on a freezing January morning". However, Solomon Rhodes' biography of Nerval provides the most detailed account of Nerval's suicide so it is probably the most reliable. He describes the spot as where "...the street sank down and was connected with the lower level by a stairway...at the foot of it, level with a man's head...there was a vent-hole with an iron-grating and cross bars".

There are not very many books on Nerval published in English. Gérard de Nerval 1808-1855 Poet, Traveler, Dreamer by Solomon A. Rhodes and The Disinherited: The Life of Gérard de Nerval by Benn Sowerby are the only biographies of the poet that exist in the English language. Wallace Fowlie's Poem & Symbol: A Brief History Of French Symbolism has one chapter on Nerval. The Symbolist Movement In Literature also has a chapter on Nerval which makes the interesting point, "The madness of Gérard de Nerval,...I take to have been essentially due to the weakness and not the excess of his visionary quality, to the insufficiency of his imaginative energy, and to his lack of spiritual discipline".  This may very well be true. He wrote very little poetry and his best known works are his twelve sonnets Les Chimères (The Chimeras):

  1. El Desdichado (The Disinherited)
  2. Myrtho
  3. Horus
  4. Antéros
  5. Delfica
  6. Artémis
  7. Vers Dorés (Golden Verses)
  8. Le Christ aux Oliviers (Christ In The Olive Garden)

Christ in the Olive Garden is made up of 5 sonnets which counts towards the 12 sonnet total.

Nerval is a significant literary figure because he was unusually absorbed in his inner life. He spent so much time lost in reverie that his surprisingly considerate friends remarked, "Sometimes one would catch sight of him at a street corner, hat in hand, in a sort of ecstasy, obviously far withdrawn from his immediate surroundings. . . . When we found him absorbed in this way, we were careful not to accost him bluntly for fear of causing him to fall from the height of his dream like a somnambulist suddenly awakened with a start while walking with eyes closed in deep sleep along the edge of a roof." This shows a charming high regard for the poet's reverie! Nerval clearly found his dreams more captivating than reality and expressed deep disappointment when his travels revealed foreign lands to be unequal to his imagination. I suspect that Nerval's interest in the occult and his idealization of unattainable women was also due to his intense self-absorption. Nerval was probably enchanted by an exceptionally powerful vision of the unreal which he chose to see personified in various women in order to give himself some hope of obtaining the object of his desire. But the true object of his desire would be the Ideal which must have blazed very brightly in his mind. Nerval has become closely identified with the power of dreams to lure us away from the world and for this he is worthy of close study.

The Temple Of Isis

Temple of Modern Philosophy at Ermenonville
The Temple Of Isis in Pompeii Temple of Modern Philosophy at Ermenonville

Selected Bibliography - Books In My Collection
Underlined titles are not hyperlinks. PB = paperback, HC = hard cover

1. Gérard de Nerval 1808-1855 Poet, Traveler, Dreamer by Solomon A. Rhodes ©1951 Philosophical Library New York HC

2. Journey To The Orient by Gérard de Nerval translated by Norman Glass ISBN: 0-7206-1096-6 ©2001 Peter Owen Publishers PB

3. Aurélia & Other Writings by Gérard de Nerval translated by Geoffrey Wagner, Robert Duncan, Marc Lowenthal ISBN: 1-878972-09-X ©1996 Exact Change Boston PB

4. Aurélia / Sylvia by Gérard de Nerval translated by Kendall Lappin ISBN: 1-878580-0708 ©1993 Asylum Arts PB

5. Selected Writings Of Gérard de Nerval translated by Geoffrey Wagner, Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 57-5158  ©1957 Grove Press Inc, An Evergreen Book (E-103) PB

6. The Anchor Anthology Of French Poetry: From Nerval To Valery In English Translation edited by Angel Flores ISBN: 0-385-49888-8 ©2000 Anchor Books Editions PB

7. Selected Writings by Gérard de Nerval translated by Richard Sieburth ISBN: 0-14-044601-X ©1999 Penguin Classics PB

8. Poem & Symbol: A Brief History Of French Symbolism by Wallace Fowlie ISBN: 0-271-00696-X ©1990 The Pennsylvania State University Press PB

9. Aurélia by Gérard de Nerval translated by Monique DiDonna ISBN: 1-892295-46-6 ©2001 Green Integer PB

10. Œuvres Gérard de Nerval edited by Albert Béguin & Jean Richer Bibliotheque de la Pleiade ©1956 Librairie Gallimard, 2 volumes (in French)

11. The Disinherited: The Life of Gérard de Nerval by Benn Sowerby ISBN: 8147-7757-0 ©1974 New York University Press HC

12. Gérard de Nerval: The Mystic's Dilemma by Bettina L. Knapp ISBN: 0-8173-7608-9 ©1980 The Universary of Alabama Press HC

13. Léo Burckart / L'Imagier de Harlem by Gérard de Nerval, Édition de Jacques Bony ISBN: 2-08-070597-0 ©1996 GF-Flammarion 597 (in French)

14. The Symbolist Movement In Literature (1919) by Arthur Symons and Richard Ellmann ISBN: 0-7661-8291-6 ©1919 Kessinger Publishing Reprint PB

15. There And Here: A Meditation On Gerard de Nerval by David Miller ISBN: 0-905220-39-0 ©1982 Bran's Head Books

Click on thumbnail for larger image

Gérard de Nerval 1808-1855 Poet, Traveler, Dreamer Journey To The Orient Selected Writings Of Gérard de Nerval
The Anchor Anthology Of French Poetry: From Nerval To Valery In English Translation Aurélia / Sylvia
Poem & Symbol: A Brief History Of French Symbolism Selected Writings Aurélia by Gérard de Nerval translated by Monique DiDonna
Œuvres Gérard de Nerval The Disinherited: The Life of Gérard de Nerval Gérard de Nerval: The Mystic's Dilemma
There And Here Leo Burckart The Symbolist Movement In Literature

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