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Émile Nelligan (1879-1941)

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Photograph of Émile Nelligan  (1879-1941) Émile Nelligan, an outstanding turn-of-the-century writer, is French-Canadaís most beloved and admired poet. A romantic figure whose literary career was tragically short-lived, Nelligan ushered French-Canadian poetry into the modern age.

Nelligan was born in Montreal on Christmas Eve, 1879. His parents, who had a troubled marriage, embodied the two solitudes of Canada. His father, David Nelligan, was an Irish immigrant with little appreciation for French-Canadian language or culture. His work as a postal inspector necessitated frequent absences from home. Nelliganís mother, Émilie-Amanda Hudon Nelligan was a French Canadian who was musically talented, proud of her culture and heritage and a devout Catholic. Except for summer vacations with his family in the village of Cacouna, Quebec in the Gaspé peninsula, and a short trip to Europe, Nelligan spent his entire life in Montreal.

Nelliganís academic career was undistinguished. In 1896, at the age of 17, he entered the Collège Sainte-Marie, where he proved to be a mediocre student, preferring instead to immerse himself in the study and writing of poetry. In 1897, against his parentsí wishes, he abandoned his studies to pursue his poetry. He was actively writing verses and could envision no other profession for himself.

In 1896, he met his mentor and future editor, the priest Eugène Seers (later called Louis Dantin) and Joseph Melançon, who introduced Nelligan to the literary circles of Montreal. Under the pseudonym Émile Kovar, he published his first poem "Rêve fantasque" in Le Samedi (June 13, 1896). By September of that year, eight more of his poems had appeared in local papers and journals such as Le Monde Illustré and Alliance nationale . Nelliganís poems showed a remarkable sensitivity to the power of words and the music of language and were tinged with melancholy and nostalgia. By 1897, poems appeared for the first time in Le Monde Illustré and La Patrie under his real name, which was sometimes modified to "Nellighan" or "Nelighan".

In 1897, Nelligan was invited by his friend, Arthur de Bussières, to join the recently founded École Littéraire de Montréal, a circle of young writers and intellectuals who met weekly to discuss the arts. Begun in 1895 by students concerned by what they perceived to be the deteriorating state of the French language, the group soon attracted the most interesting and dynamic writers of the day. During several meetings, the young Nelligan read his poetry with deep feeling. Nelligan envisioned himself as a poet in the romantic tradition, and he certainly looked the part, with his dark Byronic good looks, large expressive eyes and distant, pensive air.

In 1898, Nelliganís father sent him on a sea voyage to Liverpool and Belfast, the details of which remain unclear, but it is thought that the elder Nelligan attempted to enlist Émile in the Merchant Marine. Later that year, his father arranged employment for him as a bookkeeper. These positions came to naught, however, for much to his fatherís annoyance, the artistic Nelligan resolved to devote himself to poetry. Often, he would escape to his friend de Brussière's attic to read and work, and he continued to publish his poems in local papers and journals.

At this time, LíÉcole Littéraire de Montréal initiated a series of public readings in which Nelligan performed. In a reading on May 26, 1899, he fervently recited his poem "La Romance du vin", an impassioned reply to detractors of poetry. The audience responded with a resounding ovation, and Nelligan was carried home in triumph. Unfortunately, this, his finest hour as a poet, was to be his last public appearance. A short time later, on August 9, 1899, the ever-fragile thread of his sanity snapped, and he was confined to the Saint-Benoît asylum, exhibiting signs of derangement. Nelligan remained at Saint-Benoît for 25 years, after which he was transferred to the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu Hospital. During his years of confinement, Nelligan continued to write, but he had lost the capacity to create a body of work and spent his time rewriting his earlier poems from memory. He remained in hospital until his death on November 18, 1941.

Émile Nelliganís body of work comprises some 170 poems, sonnets, rondels, songs and prose poems. Astonishingly, these were all written when he was between the ages of 16 and 19. Nelligan had published only 23 poems before his incarceration, but in 1904, thanks to the diligence of his friend Louis Dantin and with his motherís help, 107 poems were published in Émile Nelligan et son oeuvre with a preface by Dantin. Three subsequent editions were published in 1925, 1932 and 1945. In 1952, Luc Lacourcière compiled a comprehensive edition of Nelliganís poems, entitled Poésies complètes : 1869-1899, containing the 107 poems gathered together by Dantin and additional poems that Nelligan had written before his hospitalization and that had been sent to friends or found among his papers. This edition has been reprinted several times, most recently in 1989.

Émile Nelligan was a pioneer of French-Canadian literature. In his poetry, he threw off the time-worn subjects of patriotism and fidelity to the land that had so occupied his literary predecessors, and explored the symbolic possibilities of language and his own, dark, inner landscape. Although his writing was influenced by symbolist poets such as Charles-Pierre Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud and English-language writers such as Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe, Nelligan created a poetic sensibility that was uniquely his own. In so doing, he struck a chord of recognition with French Canada that remains to this day, for his work continues to be celebrated. His poems have been translated into English, and he is the subject of numerous colloquia, films, novels, poems, and a ballet and an opera. A hundred years after he created his last poem, the poetic vision of Émile Nelligan endures.

Biography by:
Nina Milner
Canadian Literature Research Service

Selected Works by Émile Nelligan

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  • Émile Nelligan et son oeuvre, edited by Louis Dantin. -- Montreal : Beauchemin, 1904.

  • Poésies complètes : 1896-1899, edited by Luc Lacourcière. -- Montreal & Paris : Fides, 1952.

  • Selected Poems by Émile Nelligan, translated by P.F. Widdows. -- Toronto : Ryerson, 1960.

  • Poèmes choisis, edited by Eloi de Grandmont. -- Montreal : Fides, 1966.

  • Poèmes choisis, edited by Roger Chamberland. -- Montreal : Fides, 1980.

  • 31 Poèmes autographes : 2 carnets díhôpital, 1938. -- Trois-Rivières, Que. : Forges, 1982.

  • The Complete Poems of Émile Nelligan, edited and translated by Fred Cogswell. -- Montreal : Harvest House, 1983.

  • Le recital des anges : 50 poèmes díÉmile Nelligan, edited by Claude Beausoleil. -- Trois-Rivières, Que. : Forges, 1991.

  • Poèmes autographes, edited by Paul Wyczynski. -- Montreal : Fides, 1991.

  • Poèmes choisis : le recital de líange, edited by Jocelyne Felx. -- Saint-Hippolyte, Que. : Noroît, 1997.

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