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26 June, 2013
Letters On Literature
Gerard de Nerval
by Lang, Andrew


To Miss Girton, Cambridge.

Dear Miss Girton,--Yes, I fancy Gerard de Nerval is one of that rather select party of French writers whom Mrs. Girton will allow you to read. But even if you read him, I do not think you will care very much for him. He is a man's author, not a woman's; and yet one can hardly say why. It is not that he offends "the delicacy of your sex," as Tom Jones calls it; I think it is that his sentiment, whereof he is full, is not of the kind you like. Let it be admitted that, when his characters make love, they might do it "in a more human sort of way."

In this respect, and in some others, Gerard de Nerval resembles Edgar Poe. Not that his heroes are always attached to a belle morte in some distant Aiden; not that they have been for long in the family sepulchre; not that their attire is a vastly becoming shroud- -no, Aurelie and Sylvie, in Les Filles de Feu, are nice and natural girls; but their lover is not in love with them "in a human sort of way." He is in love with some vaporous ideal, of which they faintly remind him. He is, as it were, the eternal passer-by; he is a wanderer from his birth; he sees the old chateau, or the farmer's cottage, or even the bright theatre, or the desert tent; he sees the daughters of men that they are fair and dear, in moonlight, in sunlight, in the glare of the footlights, and he looks, and longs, and sighs, and wanders on his fatal path. Nothing can make him pause, and at last his urgent spirit leads him over the limit of this earth, and far from the human shores; his delirious fancy haunts graveyards, or the fabled harbours of happy stars, and he who rested never, rests in the grave, forgetting his dreams or finding them true.

All this is too vague for you, I do not doubt, but for me the man and his work have an attraction I cannot very well explain, like the personal influence of one who is your friend, though other people cannot see what you see in him.

Gerard de Nerval (that was only his pen-name) was a young man of the young romantic school of 1830; one of the set of Hugo and Gautier. Their gallant, school-boyish absurdities are too familiar to be dwelt upon. They were much of Scott's mind when he was young, and translated Burger, and "wished to heaven he had a skull and cross- bones." Two or three of them died early, two or three subsided into ordinary literary gentlemen (like M. Maquet, lately deceased), two, nay three, became poets--Victor Hugo, Theophile Gautier, and Gerard de Nerval. It is not necessary to have heard of Gerard; even that queer sham, the lady of culture, admits without a blush that she knows not Gerard. Yet he is worth knowing.

What he will live by is his story of "Sylvie;" it is one of the little masterpieces of the world. It has a Greek perfection. One reads it, and however old one is, youth comes back, and April, and a thousand pleasant sounds of birds in hedges, of wind in the boughs, of brooks trotting merrily under the rustic bridges. And this fresh nature is peopled by girls eternally young, natural, gay, or pensive, standing with eager feet on the threshold of their life, innocent, expectant, with the old ballads of old France on their lips. For the story is full of those artless, lisping numbers of the popular French Muse, the ancient ballads that Gerard collected and put in the mouth of Sylvie, the pretty peasant girl.

Do you know what it is to walk alone all day on the Border, and what good company to you the burn is that runs beside the highway? Just so companionable is the music of the ballads in that enchanted country of Gerard's fancy, in the land of the Valois. All the while you read, you have a sense of the briefness of the pleasure, you know that the hero cannot rest here, that the girls and their loves, the cottage and its shelter, are not for him. He is only passing by, happy yet wistful, far untravelled horizons are alluring him, the great city is drawing him to herself and will slay him one day in her den, as Scylla slew her victims.

Conceive Gerard living a wild life with wilder young men and women in a great barrack of an old hotel that the painters amused themselves by decorating. Conceive him coming home from the play, or rather from watching the particular actress for whom he had a distant, fantastic passion. He leaves the theatre and takes up a newspaper, where he reads that tomorrow the Archers of Senlis are to meet the Archers of Loisy. These were places in his native district, where he had been a boy. They recalled many memories; he could not sleep that night; the old scenes flashed before his half- dreaming eyes. This was one of the visions.

"In front of a chateau of the time of Henri IV., a chateau with peaked lichen-covered roofs, with a facing of red brick varied by stonework of a paler hue, lay a wide, green lawn set round with limes and elms, and through the leaves fell the golden rays of the setting sun. Young girls were dancing in a circle on the mossy grass, to the sound of airs that their mothers had sung, airs with words so pure and natural that one felt one's self indeed in that old Valois land, where for a thousand years has beat the heart of France.

"I was the only boy in the circle whither I had led my little friend, Sylvie, a child of a neighbouring hamlet; Sylvie, so full of life, so fresh, with her dark eyes, her regular profile, her sunburnt face. I had loved nobody, I had seen nobody but her, till the daughter of the chateau, fair and tall, entered the circle of peasant girls. To obtain the right to join the ring she had to chant a scrap of a ballad. We sat round her, and in a fresh, clear voice she sang one of the old ballads of romance, full of love and sadness . . . As she sang, the shadow of the great trees grew deeper, and the broad light of the risen moon fell on her alone, she standing without the listening circle. Her song was over, and no one dared to break the silence. A light mist arose from the mossy ground, trailing over the grass. We seemed to be in Paradise."

So the boy twisted a wreath for this new enchantress, the daughter of a line of nobles with king's blood in her veins. And little brown, deserted Sylvie cried.

All this Gerard remembered, and remembering, hurried down to the old country place, and met Sylvie, now a woman grown, beautiful, unspoiled, still remembering the primitive songs and fairy tales. They walked together through the woods to the cottage of the aunt of Sylvie, an old peasant woman of the richer class. She prepared dinner for them, and sent De Nerval for the girl, who had gone to ransack the peasant treasures in the garret.

Two portraits were hanging there--one that of a young man of the good old times, smiling with red lips and brown eyes, a pastel in an oval frame. Another medallion held the portrait of his wife, gay, piquante, in a bodice with ribbons fluttering, and with a bird perched on her finger. It was the old aunt in her youth, and further search discovered her ancient festal-gown, of stiff brocade. Sylvie arrayed herself in this splendour; patches were found in a box of tarnished gold, a fan, a necklace of amber.

The holiday attire of the dead uncle, who had been a keeper in the royal woods, was not far to seek, and Gerard and Sylvie appeared before the aunt, as her old self, and her old lover. "My children!" she cried and wept, and smiled through her tears at the cruel and charming apparition of youth. Presently she dried her tears, and only remembered the pomp and pride of her wedding. "We joined hands, and sang the naive epithalamium of old France, amorous, and full of flowery turns, as the Song of Songs; we were the bride and the bridegroom all one sweet morning of summer."

I translated these fragments long ago in one of the first things I ever tried to write. The passages are as touching and fresh, the originals I mean, as when first I read them, and one hears the voice of Sylvie singing:

"A Dammartin, l'y a trois belles filles,
L'y en a z'une plus belle que le jour!"

So Sylvie married a confectioner, and, like Marion in the "Ballad of Forty Years," "Adrienne's dead" in a convent. That is all the story, all the idyll. Gerard also wrote the idyll of his own delirium, and the proofs of it (Le Reve et la Vie) were in his pocket when they found him dead in La Rue de la Vieille Lanterne.

Some of his poems have a sweetness and careless grace, like the grace of his favourite old ballads. One cannot translate things like this:

"Ou sont nos amoureuses?
Elles sont au tombeau!
Elles sont plus heureuses
Dans un sejour plus beau."

But I shall try the couplets on a Greek air:

"Neither good morn nor good night."

The sunset is not yet, the morn is gone;
Yet in our eyes the light hath paled and passed;
But twilight shall be lovely as the dawn,
And night shall bring forgetfulness at last!

Gerard's poems are few; the best are his vision of a lady with gold hair and brown eyes, whom he had loved in an earlier existence, and his humorous little piece on a boy's love for a fair cousin, and on their winter walk together, and the welcome smell of roast turkey which greets them on the stairs, when they come home. There are also poems of his madness, called Chimeres, and very beautiful in form. You read and admire, and don't understand a line, yet it seems that if we were a little more or a little less mad we would understand:

"Et j'ai deux fois vainqueur traverse l'Acheron:
Modulant tour e tour sur la lyre d'Orphee
Les soupirs de la sainte et les cris de la fee."

Here is an attempt to translate the untranslatable, the sonnet called -

"El Desdichado."

I am that dark, that disinherited,
That all dishonoured Prince of Aquitaine,
The Star upon my scutcheon long hath fled;
A black sun on my lute doth yet remain!
Oh, thou that didst console me not in vain,
Within the tomb, among the midnight dead,
Show me Italian seas, and blossoms wed,
The rose, the vine-leaf, and the golden grain.


Say, am I Love or Phoebus? have I been
Or Lusignan or Biron? By a Queen
Caressed within the Mermaid's haunt I lay,
And twice I crossed the unpermitted stream,
And touched on Orpheus' lyre as in a dream,
Sighs of a Saint, and laughter of a Fay!

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