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Nelligan’s poems tend to get mined for psychoanalytical clues, so that his craftsmanship sometimes goes unremarked. Nelligan was a master of form. The sonnet was his preferred structure. In his practice it was built of fourteen twelve-syllable lines (i.e., "alexandrines"). Here is one of his sonnets:
My mother, how I love her in this painting made
In days of yore when she was still a maiden fair;
With shining eyes, white lily brow and flaxen hair
She glowed like mirror glass in a frame of gold inlaid.
But look, this second picture shows a later phase
Where furrows line the precious marble of her face
And time erased her girlish shine with not a trace
Remaining from her tender virgin rose-poem days.
Now sorrow fills me when these portraits I compare:
One brow is bright with joy, the other grim with care,
A golden sun, and then the heavy fog sets down.
So here’s a puzzle that our guarded hearts hold deep:
How is it that I smile to see that worried frown?
And the picture where she smiles, how is it that I weep?
To Emile Nelligan, youth is golden bliss, adulthood is decay. Time, which is never anything except the passing away of time, is essentially malevolent.
Another Nelligan theme is romantic frustration. Several of his poems have to do with non-girlfriends who spurn his affection. One of these he referred to as “Gretchen”, who may have been a young lady from his neighborhood. Journalist Robertine Barry, who played a role in getting some of Nelligan’s work published in the paper La Patrie, has been hypothesized as another.
I know a church that has a mystic painted glass
on which the artist, by angelic sights inspired,
portrayed a blue-eyed saint in flowing robes attired,
her face aglow like heaven high above the mass.
At night, my mind impelled by dark submerged desire
and echoing with voices singing eerie chants,
I go to beg her favor, where the moonlight slants
upon her golden hair and sparkles there like fire.
And that's how I upon my heart’s stained glass did paint
my paragon of love, my blond beloved saint —
That’s you, the only one I love and always will.
But you stay silent, self-contained and prideful still,
amused to watch me wander, wretched and ill-starred,
within my hopeless love as in a cold graveyard.
It was devastating for Nelligan when Edouard de Marchy in Le Monde Illustré penned a dismissive review of his poetry and as much as called Nelligan a parakeet. De Marchy was a visiting journalist, a minor critic at best, but — an important point — he was from France.