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Reviewed by:
  • Reading Nelligan
  • Carrol F. Coates
Talbot, Émile J.Reading Nelligan. Montréal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. Pp. ix + 221. ISBN0-7735-2318-9 (cloth); 0-7735-2479-7 (paper)

The discovery, celebration, neglect, and rediscovery of Nelligan's poetry belong to the first half of the twentieth century. Yet, the precocious young poet's formation and his brief period of activity with the École Littéraire de Montréal (1895-1899) were very much part of the nineteenth-century French-Canadian literary scene and his poetry relates closely to French Symbolist and Parnassian literary traditions. Born in 1879, Nelligan's schooling (in French) went from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties. Nelligan's association with the members of this group of young poets runs from 1896 to 1899, when he was interned for the remainder of his life (he died in 1941). Nelligan is credited with having introduced Rimbaud's poetry in Montréal and some Canadian critics have taken him as the "Rimbaud" of French Canada. Émile Talbot surmises that Nelligan may have become acquainted with some of Rimbaud's poetry, but makes amply clear that the French-Canadian poet did not mirror the revolt of his French predecessor.

While leaving the details of Nelligan's biography to Paul Wyczynski's Émile Nelligan 1879-1941: Biographie (Montréal: Fides, 1986), Talbot deftly gives relevant information about the Nelligan family in his first chapter, making clear that Nelligan's father spoke French as well as English. The French-Canadian cultural and literary scene is the context of Nelligan's poetry. Talbot judiciously inscribes Nelligan's poetry in the Canadian literary scene of the nineties. He acknowledges Nelligan's debt to French poets even as he carefully reveals the subtle changes of meaning with which Nelligan imbues Parnassian [End Page 194] lexicon and images.

A prime example of Talbot's careful readings is his discussion of Nelligan's best-known poem, "Le Vaisseau d'or," which Wyczynski and others have compared to Rimbaud's "Le Bateau ivre." The poetic voice in both poems is that of the boat itself, but Talbot carefully notes that Nelligan's golden ship is not "ivre" and that the "title projects largely positive signifiers" (126). The voyage ends in tragedy, however: the "Vaisseau d'Or" has sunk in the "abîme du Rêve." Talbot notes the influence of the sonnet on the work of the younger poet, Saint-Deny Garneau, who took up the theme of the sinking ship in his "Sombrer" (132-133).

In his introduction, Talbot catalogues occurrences of the nominal syntagm "d'or" (used adjectivally) in Heredia's Trophées (12-13) and then shows that Nelligan inscribes the same group very nearly the same number of times, although complementing different nouns (14-15). Nelligan's subtle shift is that his nouns refer to "interior reality, the domain of sensibility" rather than to "material objects made of gold, or to the colour gold" (15). Talbot traces Nelligan's poetic itinerary through a detailed reading of selected poems, from the early poems (ch. 1) through the themes of "Spirituality and Sensuality" (ch. 2), the "poetics of failure" (ch. 3), and the poetics of "Melancholy and Nostalgia" (ch. 4). In the conclusion, he shows how Nelligan incorporates some of the themes of neurosis from the Decadents without rejecting his own quasi-Jansenist upbringing. A "preponderance of guilt" in Nelligan's poetry distinguishes him from the Decadents, "most of whom experienced no sense of moral conflict" (191).

Talbot wants to avoid a reductionist reading of Nelligan that would become the mere tracing of "sources and influences." He proposes an interpretation consisting of "recognizing Nelligan's absorption of a nineteenth-century French poetic discourse but reading through that discourse to arrive at the French-Canadian text which is Nelligan's" (8). The result is a careful reading based on a thorough knowledge of Nelligan's work, the French-Canadian cultural context, and the sources in French poetic movements of the latter nineteenth century.

Carrol F. Coates
Binghamton University – SUNY


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