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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 3 page 07

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Nelligan remained in mental hospitals until his death in 1941. Time and again during the long years of internment he copied out the following sonnet — his most famous work, composed probably in 1899 — and, when asked, he would recite it, in monotone, to his visitors.

The Ship of Gold

A mighty Ship there was, of solid gold ‘twas spun,
Its masts caressed the sky, it sailed on seas unknown,
And naked goddess Venus, tresses wildly blown,
Reclined along the prow before the blazing sun.

One night upon a hidden reef this vessel tripped
In churning waves enchanted by the Siren’s call
And hence this bleak disaster caused the wreck to fall
Into the deep Abyss, an everlasting crypt.

A Ship of Gold it was, whose see-through side
Exposed a treasure trove for whose possession vied
Neurosis, Hatred and Disgust, those pirate scum.

What’s left after the vortex tore at every seam?
That ship which is my heart, what next did it become?
Alas! It sank into the endless depth of Dream.

So Nelligan, for his part, seems to be saying that a pagan sex goddess lured the Ship of Gold to its doom. That was his self-diagnosis, in verse, for us to make of it what we will.

Nelligan as pictured by Jean Paul Lemieux
Young Nelligan, as pictured by Jean Paul Lemieux

It is hard not to notice that, whatever its organic basis, madness was for Nelligan an economic resolution. It was a means for a prematurely burnt-out poet to secure a sort of future survival. This is not to imply any fakery on Nelligan's part. As an inmate he was regularly in and out of what we consider reality. He wasn't fit for much beyond pushing the linen cart. Still, he did have lucid phases. He could spend time leafing through his favorite poets of old, and on occasion he was capable of organizing poetry soirées for his fellow inmates. The readings were accompanied by violin-playing — an artistic advance, perhaps.

However, Emile Nelligan was no longer up to creating original poetry.

We might wish that he had been able to choose otherwise, that he had been able to hang on in the ‘real’ world to provide us with a mature body of writing. But would that have happened? Some people are creative only under the conditions of a particular phase of their life. Being a prodigy was not a happy experience for Emile Nelligan and, in body and mind, after three years of brilliant non-glory, a solution came to him.