Early Life and Education
Except for a few summer vacations in Cacouna and a sea voyage about which little is known, Émile Nelligan spent his entire life in Montréal. He attended the École Olier 1886-90, Mont Saint-Louis 1890-93 and the Petit Séminaire de Montréal 1893-96. In September 1896 he enrolled in the Collège Sainte-Marie, which he left in March 1897. He became friendly with Louis Dantin and Arthur de Bussières, and on 10 February 1897 he was elected a member of the École littéraire de Montréal and began writing poetry with increasing ardour.
Career as a Poet
His first poem, “Rêve fantasque,” had been published in Le Samedi on 13 June 1896, under the pseudonym of Émile Kovar. Other poems appeared in Le Monde illustré, Alliance nationale and Le Petit Messager du Très-Saint-Sacrement. In the course of his reading, he discovered Lamartine, Hugo and Millevoye, Verlaine, Baudelaire and Pierre Dupont, Rodenback and Rolliant, Catule Mendès, Heredia and Leconte de Lisle, and other Parnassian and symbolist poets such as Sully Prudhomme, Théodore de Banville, Albert Samain and Arthur Rimbaud. He was fascinated by the dark world of Edgar Allan Poe.
Nelligan recited his poems brilliantly at the 4 sessions of the École littéraire de Montréal. At the last meeting, held in the Château de Ramezay on 26 May 1899, he performed a forceful reading of his “Romance du vin,” which, with his unforgettable “Vaisseau d’or,” has contributed to his almost legendary fame.
On 9 August 1899, exhausted, ill and suffering from mental problems, Nelligan was taken to the Retraite Saint-Bénoît; in 1925 he was transferred to the Hôpital Saint-Jean-de-Dieu, where he remained until his death.
Style and Themes
Émile Nelligan’s work, which includes some 170 poems, sonnets, rondels, songs and prose poems, is strikingly lyrical. The poet’s voice is sad and nostalgic, oscillating between the theme of the passage of time and a hallucinatory vision of the world. Conveyed through traditional prosody, Nelligan’s imagery often attains the symbolic and always points to an exacerbated perception of the ego: the suffering of a heart prematurely hardened by life, a sense of solitude, a fascination with death, the sad fate of the poet as a human and artist.
Nelligan’s style is innovative for his time. He breaks free from the constraints of form in poetry, by expressing himself with ease and flow, in a nuanced manner and with a sense of musicality. To the patriotic themes approached in poetry at that time, Nelligan opposes a full display of his inner universe. His work was collected by Louis Dantin and published in 1904. Three subsequent editions were issued in 1925, 1932 and 1945. In 1952, Luc Lacourcière published a critical edition of the work, which was reprinted in 1958, 1966 and 1974. Two deluxe editions appeared in 1967 and 1979. (See French language poetry and French language literature)