Skip to main content

Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 3 page 06


According to Louis Dantin, the disaffected priest who compiled Emile Nelligan’s work and constructed his legend a few years later, Nelligan rebounded from de Marchy’s attack with a rousing poetry reading before a literary crowd at Château de Ramezay where, in a voice charged with emotion, he acknowledged his fate to be that of a poet-outsider comprehended by no one, “except by the moonlight and the great stormy night.” Supposedly the audience cheered Nelligan deliriously, hoisting him on their shoulders and carrying him to his home on Carré St.-Louis — which would be a fair climb.

But maybe that’s not exactly what happened. Although the Montreal press regularly covered the literary beat (those were the days!) none of the reports on the gathering at the chateau particularly remarked on Nelligan, except for Edouard de Marchy again, who ranked Nelligan sixth-best of the seven poets who took the podium that evening. Perhaps he just didn’t like Nelligan.

However that may be, Nelligan's mental state badly deteriorated in the following months. He had never been quite right in the first place. Moony and hyper-sensitive, in several of his poems he had predicted, even embraced, madness as his destiny. And now, in summer 1899, he was racked by nervous spasms, insomnia, succubae, loss of faith, and, what makes him rare among poets, an oppressive sense of self-damnation.

Nocturnal Confession

Padre, it’s night in town, by demons I’m possessed,
Dark mortal sins have made my soul a torture room,
Upon the boulevards falls a torrent of gloom,
And the plebs don’t turn out to celebrate this fest.

All quiet, all asleep. This lonely Town so depressed
Grows sick on its old streets where creepy houses loom;
Padre, it’s night in town, by demons I’m possessed,
Dark mortal sins have made my soul a torture room.

I shudder in this park that winter winds infest
Like Satan's howling laugh as my despair takes bloom
Insanely! While Lord Suicide prepares a tomb! —
To hang myself upon this tree, that would be best.

Padre, it’s night in town; your prayers I do request.

Despite the title of this poem, the poet does not confess to anything in particular — we don’t know what the “mortal sins” are — nor does he seek forgiveness. He does ask the priest to pray for him — but that seems like a sort of faint-hope clause. The bottom line here is that society shuns this poet, Nature is hostile, Satan rules.

It is easy to surmise that the religion of his era did not do Nelligan much good. He had got himself into the unfortunate predicament of believing in sin but not in redemption.