Gay or Mentally Ill? A Tragic Story of Canada’s finest symbolist poet…


French-Canadian Poet Émile Nelligan (1879-1941), shown here at about age 20, was a francophone poet from Quebec. Highly influenced by the symbolist poetry of Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe and others, Nelligan was a precocious talent and published his first poems in Montreal at age 16. He supposedly suffered a major psychotic breakdown in 1899 and never finished his first book of poetry, which according to his notes, was to be named The Recital of Angels. His Collected Poems were published in 1903, and his reputation has only grown in the years since. He is now considered a Quebecois literary icon.

Above: Nelligan as a youth and at age 41 after 20 years in the asylum.

Christ on the Cross

I’d always gaze into this plaster Jesus
pitched like a pardon at the old abbey-door—
a black-gestured solemn scaffold
with saintly idolatry I’d bow before.

Now as I sat around at the hour of cricket’s play,
in funereal fields, blue-viewedly musing
one near-past night with wind-blown hair, reciting
Eloa, in that swelled esthetic ephebic way,

I noticed near the debris of a wall
the heavy old cross heaped up tall
and crumbled plaster among primroses

and I froze, doleful, with pensive eyes,
and heard spasmodic hammers strike, in me,
the black spikes of my own Calvary.

(Trans. by Marc di Saverio)

Above, left: A bust of Nelligan as an adolescent by Roseline Granet (2005); Carré Saint-Louis, Montréal. Above, right: A monument to Nelligan in Québec by Gregory Pototsky (2004).

Soir d’Hiver

Ah ! comme la neige a neigé !
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.
Ah ! comme la neige a neigé !
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre
À la douleur que j’ai, que j’ai.

Tous les étangs gisent gelés,
Mon âme est noire ! où-vis-je ? où vais-je ?
Tous ses espoirs gisent gelés:
Je suis la nouvelle Norvège
D’où les blonds ciels s’en sont allés.

Pleurez, oiseaux de février,
Au sinistre frisson des choses,
Pleurez, oiseaux de février,
Pleurez mes pleurs, pleurez mes roses,
Aux branches du genévrier.

Ah ! comme la neige a neigé !
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.
Ah ! comme la neige a neigé !
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre
À tout l’ennui que j’ai, que j’ai !…

About the PoetÉmile_Nelligan

Voir aussi:Émile_Nelligan

Émile Nelligan was a talented and poet, born in Quebec in 1879. His first poems, heavily influenced by the work of Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe, were published in Montreal when he was only 16.

By age 20, in 1899, Nelligan began exhibiting strange behavior. He would spend nights sleeping in chapels and yelling out poetry to passing strangers on the street. He became plagued by hallucinations and attempted suicide. It is said that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to a psychiatric hospital by his parents.

Some biographers claim that Nelligan was likely gay   and may have become mentally ill due to inner conflict between his religious upbringing and his homosexuality. Others have suggested that he was not mentally ill but was committed by his parents because of homosexuality.

Once hospitalized, Nelligan stopped writing poetry. However, in 1903 his collected poems were published to great acclaim in Canada. When he died in 1941, it is believed that he was completely unaware that he was counted as one of French Canada’s greatest poets.

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