Émile Nelligan is one of the most celebrated and admired of Canada’s nineteenth-century poets. He had only a brief career as a young poet, but produced some remarkable poems.
Born in Montreal on the 24th of December, 1879, Nelligan was the oldest child of David Nelligan, an Irish immigrant, and Émilie Amanda Hudon, a French Canadian. Family life was difficult for Émile: he was caught between the stern and practical attitudes of his English-speaking father and the soft and artistic sensibilities of his French-speaking mother. While Émile spoke both French and English fluently and habitually read and memorized poems of both languages, he, as an adolescent, very strongly identified with the French language and culture. He insisted on a French pronunciation of his last name, and sometimes altered its spelling (Nellighan and Nélighan) to emphasize his preferred pronunciation.
In the spring of 1896, Nelligan attended a concert given by Ignacy Jan Paderewski; this helped strengthen his interests in Romantic, emotionally charged music and contributed to his interest in using art as a vehicle for emotional expression. That June, at the age of sixteen and a half, Nelligan published his first poems. For the next three years and two months, he tried to devote his life to poetry, dropping out of school in early 1897, shortly after turning seventeen. He joined the École littéraire de Montréal, a group of poets and artists promoting a new and vibrant Québecois artistic life, where he established a friendship with other young talents, especially Arthur de Bussières and Charles Gill. Nelligan and others in the École littéraire were strongly influenced by the bohemian lifestyle, which celebrates a total devotion to art at the expense of money and comforts; the school was also reacting against the conservative social and religious themes that dominated Quebecois poetry at the time. Nelligan was highly influenced especially by European French poets who had a reputation for their bohemian lives, especially Verlaine, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud. Nelligan adopted poetic themes from these French symbolist poets, including a celebration of music, an exploration of death, and a adoption of a melancholic attitude towards life. Other dominant themes in his poems are a result of his Catholic Christian background and an idealization of his childhood.
While his relationship with the École littéraire was not always sturdy (dropping out for about a year before being readmitted), Nelligan recited some of his poems at the group’s evenings at Montreal’s château de Ramezay. Nelligan’s recitations at these soirées were generally very well acclaimed; however, a review published in Le Monde illustré (11 March 1899) was particularly harsh with regards to a couple of Nelligan’s poems. The young poet was troubled by the review, but it sparked him to write one of his most celebrated poems, “La romance du vin,” a defence of his poetic art, which, after he recited it at a soirée du château de Ramezay, was met with an unusually enthusiastic standing ovation, and his friends then carried the acclaimed poet through the streets of Montreal on their shoulders. That night in May 1899, it was clear that Montreal had a great poet in its midst.
Shortly after his triumphal evening, his family and friends started to notice that Nelligan was suffering. There are anecdotes of him loudly reciting poems to strangers on the street for no reason, spending nights sleeping in chapels, experiencing nightmarish hallucinations, and attempting suicide. On August 9, 1899, at the age of nineteen, Nelligan was institutionalized, at the request of his parents, in an asylum for patients with mental disorders. He was diagnosed as suffering from dementia praecox, what is usually now labelled as schizophrenia. Nelligan did not write any more poetry after this date. He lived first at la Retraite de Saint-Benoît, run by the Brothers of Charity, and then at the Asile de Saint-Jean-de-Dieu where he died on November 18, 1941.
While his father did not approve of Nelligan’s devotion to poetry (and his refusal to enter into a more standard profession), Nelligan found a good friend and mentor in Louis Dantin, whose real name is Eugène Seers (1865-1945). Dantin, about twice Nelligan’s age, was a priest who was also devoted to poetry. Dantin encouraged Nelligan before he was institutionalized; and while many of Nelligan’s friends helped to publish some of his poems after he was removed from society, it was Dantin who collected Nelligan’s poems and produced the first book publication of selected poems in 1903. Dantin’s book includes a biographical portrait of Nelligan that celebrates Nelligan in glowing terms and has contributed to his legacy as a troubled, romantic figure:
Une vraie physionomie d’esthète: une tête d’Apollon rêveur et tourmenté, où la pâleur accentuait le trait net, taillé comme au ciseau dans un marbre. Des yeux très noirs, très intelligents, où rutilait l’enthousiasme; et des cheveux, oh! des cheveux à faire rêver, dressant superbement leur broussaille d’ébène, capricieuse et massive, avec des airs de crinière et d’auréole.
C’était l’intelligence, la vivacité, la fougue endiablée d’un Gaulois de race, s’exaspérant du mysticisme rêveur et de la sombre mélancolie d’un barde celtique. Jugez quelle âme de feu et de poudre devait sortir de là! quelle âme aussi d’élan, d’effort intérieur, de lutte, d’illusion et de souffrance!... Supposez maintenant une telle âme s’isolant, se murant en elle-même, un tel volcan fermant toutes ses issues: n’était-il pas fatal que tout sautât dans une explosion terrible?
[He possessed the physiognomy of a true aesthete: an Apollonian head, both dreamer and tormented, where the pallor accentuated the clean line, as chiselled in marble. Very black and very intelligent eyes, gleaming with enthusiasm; and hair, oh! hair to make one dream, drawn up superbly like an ebony bush, capricious and massive, as both mane and halo.
He possessed the intelligence, the vivacity, the frenzied ardour of the Gallic race contrasted with the dreamy mysticism and dark melancholy of a Celtic bard. Consider what a powder keg of a soul resulted, what carefree abandon, inner struggle, suffering, and illusion! Now consider that such a soul isolates itself, withdraws within itself, like a volcano that has sealed off all of its outlets: was it not inevitable that a terrible explosion resulted?]