Many years ago, I was in a bookstore on Miami Beach and I got into a discussion with a woman working there about writers. She mentioned that Gerard de Nerval was one of her favorite poets. I made a mental note, but up until today I had not read anything by him. Feeling the need to branch out and read something different, I did a little web-searching and came across “Artemis,” which I am including here to ensure we are reading the same translation.
The thirteenth returns … She’s forever the first;
And always the sole one – or the sole instant;
For are you queen, O you, the first or the last?
Are you king, you the sole or the last lover?…
Love him who loved you from cradle to hearse;
She I alone loved still loves me tenderly:
She is death – or the dead one…O joy! O torment!
The rose she holds is the Rose trémiere [hollyhock].
Neapolitan saint with your hands full of fire,
Rose with violet heart, Saint Gudula’s flower:
Have you found your cross in the desert of heaven?
White roses: fall! You insult our gods,
Fall, white phantoms, from your burning skies:
— She, the saint of the pit, is holier to my eyes!
On my first read of this poem, I didn’t quite grasp it. There is a lot of symbolism here and I wasn’t sure how it all related to the Greek goddess Artemis, who represents virginity and hunting, similar to Diana. I decided to do a little research.
I discovered that de Nerval was a romantic poet who had some serious issues in the area of love. He ended up hanging himself in 1855. He immediately struck me as a real-life version of Goethe’s tormented artist depicted in The Sorrows of Young Werther. Now the poem began to make sense to me. I could see de Nerval as a lonely, suffering artist, feeling himself a virgin because he was unable to find love and longing for the solace of death.
I searched a little more and came across a great analysis of the poem and this clarified the other aspects of the poem which still didn’t make sense. The author of this article asserts that, in this poem, de Nerval was drawing on symbolism from the tarot, particularly the Death card (click here to read the entire article). The Death card is number XIII in the deck, or “The thirteenth” referenced in the poem’s opening line. So the thought of death keeps returning to the poet. He has a romantic longing for death, feeling that upon his death his soul will finally be united with some divine, unattainable love.
I wish I was able to read French so I could read this poem in its original language. I’m sure that some of the symbolism is lost in translation. But still, I find this poem deeply moving, and I recall what my World Lit professor told me in college, that French literature translates well to English. I can say that I certainly get a sense of the writer’s suffering and longing. I suspect that I will be reading more of Gerard de Nerval’s works in the future.