This Week in History


Émile Nelligan, a poet with a tragic destiny

For the week of Monday February 4, 2002

On February 10, 1897, Émile Nelligan was elected a member of the École littéraire de Montréal. As a young poet whose career was tragically cut short, his perceptive works rejuvenated French-Canadian poetry at the beginning of the 20th century.

Émile Nelligan

Émile Nelligan
© LAC / C-88566

Born in Montréal on December 24, 1879, he was the son of David Nelligan, originally from Ireland, and Émilie Amanda Hudon from Rimouski. Émile and his two sisters were torn between the two family cultures. In Émile's case, his mother's prevailed, and he was brought up in French. He lived in Montréal his entire life.

In his early youth, Émile was a poor student and was thought to be timid. But during a Paderewski concert, he discovered a love of poetry. He began to read poets like Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud and Poe. From the age of 16 and a half, he had his first poems published in a Montréal newspaper. One year later, to his mother's great despair, he left school to fully devote himself to writing.

As a member of the École littéraire de Montréal, he read his poems and attended the public meetings held by this group of writers until 1899. It was at the May 26, 1899 meeting, that he recited La Romance du Vin, a poem that brought him great renown.

From 1898 on, Émile wrote his poems late into the night. He spent almost all of his time confined in his room. On August 9, 1899, he was admitted to an asylum, and his ailment consumed him. Yet, in 1904, a first edition of his work was released.

His famous sonnet, Le Vaisseau d'Or, poetically summed-up his destiny:

Hewn out of solid gold, a tall ship sailed:
Its masts reached up to heaven, on unknown seas;[...]

How much remains after the storm's brief wars?
And what of the deserted craft, my heart?
In Dream-Abyss, alas, it foundered deep!**
Nelligan at the Saint-Benoit-Joseph Labre asylum

Nelligan at the Saint-Benoit-Joseph Labre asylum
© Photo from Joseph-Ocotave Lagacé, ca. 1920,
Wyczynski Collection

His death on November 18, 1941, was in fact a beginning. The public quickly became enamoured of and fascinated by his very beautiful poems, which spoke of childhood, music, love and death.

Émile Nelligan has made an indelible mark on the history of Quebec literature. His work includes some 170 poems, sonnets, rondeaux, songs and a prose poem. Les Poésies complètes de Nelligan was published in 1992. This great lyrical poet was commemorated as a person of national historic significance.

** Translation. From "Ship of Gold" in Fred Cogswell (ed.) The Complete Poems of Emile Nelligan. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1983. Reproduced with permission.
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