Émile Nelligan

Ship of Gold: The Essential Poems of Émile Nelligan translated by Marc Di Saverio

Émile Nelligan had me at “Canada’s first modern poet.” Nelligan is regularly touted (when he’s touted at all) as Canada’s Rimbaud. Wearing the influence of Baudelaire on his sleeve, it’s an easy comparison to make. “Our tongues now shudder in your lyrical spell,” as Marc Di Saverio translates a line from the poem “Baudelaire.”

When I found out that Marc Di Saverio was translating the poems, alongside his father, Carlo Di Saverio, I couldn’t wait to see the results. I’d read all of Nelligan’s biggest hits in the original (not always knowing what was going on), and otherwise have carted around Fred Cogswell’s The Complete Poems of Émile Nelligan in my pocket on and off for six or seven years. Cogswell’s translations are good, but they feel old—older than they actually are.

Fred Cogswell’s translations were published in 1983, but in Cogswell’s hands, they feel like Alexander Pope translating The Iliad. Their rhyme schemes feel forced. The language is distorted into lines that seem only tangentially related to Nelligan’s original. Cogswell’s translations haven’t aged well, and while Di Saverio doesn’t hesitate to reinvent Nelligan’s verse, there are parts that stick closer to literal translations. Take “Soir d’hiver,” one of Nelligan’s better-known works. The refrain “Ah! Comme la neige a neigé!” becomes “Ah! how the snow falls free!” with Cogswell. Di Saverio cleaves to the literal, “O how the snow has snowed!”

This hypothesis falls apart only three lines later, where Cogswell sticks to the original and Di Saverio is looser with his translations, but Di Saverio’s lines come across as organic where Cogswell’s seem ornate. There are plenty of parts where Di Saverio takes considerable liberty, but also gives us something much better than Cogswell. Take “Romance du Vin.” Nelligan’s three lines read:

J’ai le rêve de faire aussi des vers célèbres,
Des vers qui gémiront les musiques funèbres
Des vents d’automne au loin passant dans le brouillard.

Cogswell gives us:

I, too, have dreamed of making poetry
That lives, of poems that sound the exequy
For autumn winds that pass in far-off mist.

Finally, Di Saverio, breaking quatrains which he preserves in most of the other poems:

O know I too had dreams of writing verses worth reciting—lines of distant autumn breezes passing in the fog.

He drops completely the “musiques funèbres,” but at least he hasn’t spoiled the thing with “poems that sound the exequy.” Di Saverio condenses, and changes the original considerably, but the funereal feeling carries through. They’re good poems and they’re good translations, and they bring back into discussion one of Canada’s best 19th century poets—a great reminder for anyone who makes the case that, before 1959, Canada was a country “without a literature.” (Everyone has their favourite pre-war antecedents to pick out, Nelligan’s just mine.)

In his afterword, Di Saverio claims that Nelligan “was one of the first poets to write openly about suicide, neurosis, and psychological breakdown, and, in a way, he is a precursor of Confessional poetry.” It’s a much-needed update to the “Canada’s first modern poet” line, which zeroes in on Nelligan’s use of imagery to express an emotional state. A big part of modern poetry, the part that might be most aligned with Baudelaire, is the turn toward poetry about miserable feelings—depression and anxiety, set against the fog and poverty of Paris, or in this case, the snow and church bells of Montreal. Before Baudelaire, suicide was something literary characters only did with a good reason. Marc Di Saverio brings Nelligan in English back from the Romantic-brink where Cogswell took him, away from the sublime and toward cold winter nights in carré St-Louis, where the trees look like good places to end it all.

Leave a Reply