This is the problem of one who lost the whole world and gained his own soul.

‘I like to arrange my life as if it were a novel,’ wrote Gérard de Nerval,1 and, indeed, it is somewhat difficult to disentangle the precise facts of an existence which was never quite conscious where began and where ended that ‘overflowing of dreams into real life,’ of which he speaks. ‘I do not ask of God,’ he said, ‘that he should change anything in events themselves, but that he should change me in regard to things, so that I might have the power to create my own universe about me, to govern my dreams, instead of enduring them.’2 The prayer was not granted, in its entirety; and the tragedy of his life lay in the vain endeavour to hold back the irresistible empire of the unseen, which it was the joy of his life to summon about him. Briefly, we know that Gérard Labrunie (the name de Nerval was taken from a little piece of property, worth some 1500 francs, which he liked to imagine had always been in the possession of his family) was born at Paris, May 22, 1808. His father was surgeon-major; his mother died before he was old enough to remember her, following the Grande Armée on the Russian campaign;3 and Gérard was brought up, largely under the care of a studious and erratic uncle, in a little village called Montagny, near Ermenonville. He was a precocious schoolboy, and by the age of eighteen had published six little collections of verses. It was during one of his holidays that he saw, for the first and last time, the young girl whom he calls Adrienne, and whom, under many names, he loved to the end of his life. One evening she had come from the château to dance with the young peasant girls on the grass. She had danced with Gérard, he had kissed her cheek, he had crowned her hair with laurels, he had heard her sing an old song telling of the sorrows of a princess whom her father had shut in a tower because she had loved. To Gérard it seemed that already he remembered her, and certainly he was never to forget her. Afterwards, he heard that Adrienne had taken the veil; then, that she was dead. To one who had realised that it is ‘we, the living, who walk in a world of phantoms,’ death could not exclude hope;4 and when, many years later, he fell seriously and fantastically in love with a little actress called Jenny Colon, it was because he seemed to have found, in that blonde and very human person, the re-incarnation of the blonde Adrienne.

Meanwhile Gérard was living in Paris, among his friends the Romantics, writing and living in an equally desultory fashion. Le bon Gérard was the best loved, and, in his time, not the least famous, of the company. He led, by choice, now in Paris, now across Europe, the life of a vagabond, and more persistently than others of his friends who were driven to it by need. At that time, when it was the aim of every one to be as eccentric as possible, the eccentricities of Gérard’s life and thought seemed, on the whole, less noticeable than those of many really quite normal persons. But with Gérard there was no pose; and when, one day, he was found in the Palais-Royal, leading a lobster at the end of a blue ribbon (because, he said, it does not bark, and knows the secrets of the sea), the visionary had simply lost control of his visions, and had to be sent to Dr. Blanche’s asylum at Montmartre.5 He entered March 21, 1841, and came out, apparently well again, on the 21st of November. It would seem that this first access of madness was, to some extent, the consequence of the final rupture with Jenny Colon; on June 5, 1842, she died, and it was partly in order to put as many leagues of the earth as possible between him and that memory that Gérard set out, at the end of 1842, for the East. It was also in order to prove to the world, by his consciousness of external things, that he had recovered his reason. While he was in Syria, he once more fell in love with a new incarnation of Adrienne, a young Druse, Saléma, the daughter of a Sheikh of Lebanon; and it seems to have been almost by accident that he did not marry her. He returned to Paris at the end of 1843 or the beginning of 1844, and for the next few years he lived mostly in Paris, writing charming, graceful, remarkably sane articles and books, and wandering about the streets, by day and night, in a perpetual dream, from which, now and again, he was somewhat rudely awakened. When, in the spring of 1853, he went to see Heine, for whom he was doing an admirable prose translation of his poems, and told him he had come to return the money he had received in advance, because the times were accomplished, and the end of the world, announced by the Apocalypse, was at hand, Heine sent for a cab, and Gérard found himself at Dr. Dubois’ asylum, where he remained two months. It was on coming out of the asylum that he wrote Sylvie, a delightful idyl, chiefly autobiographical, one of his three actual achievements.6 On August 27, 1853, he had to be taken to Dr. Blanche’s asylum at Passy, where he remained till May 27, 1854. Thither, after a month or two spent in Germany, he returned on August 8, and on October 19 he came out for the last time, manifestly uncured. He was now engaged on the narrative of his own madness, and the first part of Le Rêve et la Vie appeared in the Revue de Paris of January 1, 1855. On the 20th he came into the office of the review, and showed Gautier and Maxime du Camp an apron-string which he was carrying in his pocket. ‘It is the girdle,’ he said, ‘that Madame de Maintenon wore when she had Esther performed at Saint-Cyr.’7 On the 24th he wrote to a friend: ‘Come and prove my identity at the police-station of the Châtelet.’ The night before he had been working at his manuscript in a pot-house of Les Halles, and had been arrested as a vagabond. He was used to such little misadventures, but he complained of the difficulty of writing. ‘I set off after an idea,’ he said, ‘and lose myself; I am hours in finding my way back. Do you know I can scarcely write twenty lines a day, the darkness comes about me so close!’ He took out the apron-string. ‘It is the garter of the Queen of Sheba,’ he said. The snow was freezing on the ground, and on the night of the 25th, at three in the morning, the landlord of a ‘penny doss’ in the Rue de la Vieille-Lanterne, a filthy alley lying between the quays and the Rue de Rivoli, heard some one knocking at the door, but did not open, on account of the cold. At dawn, the body of Gérard de Nerval was found hanging by the apron-string to a bar of the window.

It is not necessary to exaggerate the importance of the half-dozen volumes which make up the works of Gérard de Nerval. He was not a great writer; he had moments of greatness; and it is the particular quality of these moments which is of interest for us. There is the entertaining, but not more than entertaining, Voyage en Orient; there is the estimable translation of Faust, and the admirable versions from Heine; there are the volumes of short stories and sketches, of which even Les Illuminés, in spite of the promise of its title, is little more than an agreeable compilation. But there remain three compositions: the sonnets, Le Rêve et la Vie, and Sylvie; of which Sylvie is the most objectively achieved, a wandering idyl, full of pastoral delight, and containing some folk-songs of Valois, two of which have been translated by Rossetti;8 Le Rêve et la Vie being the most intensely personal, a narrative of madness, unique as madness itself; and the sonnets, a kind of miracle, which may be held to have created something at least of the method of the later Symbolists. These three compositions, in which alone Gérard is his finest self, all belong to the periods when he was, in the eyes of the world, actually mad. The sonnets belong to two of these periods, Le Rêve et la Vie to the last, Sylvie was written in the short interval between the two attacks in the early part of 1853. We have thus the case of a writer, graceful and elegant when he is sane, but only inspired, only really wise, passionate, collected, only really master of himself, when he is insane. It may be worth looking at a few of the points which so suggestive a problem presents to us.


Gérard de Nerval lived the transfigured inner life of the dreamer. ‘I was very tired of life!’ he says. And like so many dreamers, who have all the luminous darkness of the universe in their brains, he found his most precious and uninterrupted solitude in the crowded and more sordid streets of great cities. He who had loved the Queen of Sheba, and seen the seven Elohims dividing the world, could find nothing more tolerable in mortal conditions, when he was truly aware of them, than the company of the meanest of mankind, in whom poverty and vice, and the hard pressure of civilisation, still leave some of the original vivacity of the human comedy. The real world seeming to be always so far from him, and a sort of terror of the gulfs holding him, in spite of himself, to its flying skirts, he found something at all events realisable, concrete, in these drinkers of Les Halles, these vagabonds of the Place du Carrousel, among whom he so often sought refuge.9 It was literally, in part, a refuge. During the day he could sleep, but night wakened him, and that restlessness, which the night draws out in those who are really under lunar influences, set his feet wandering, if only in order that his mind might wander the less. The sun, as he mentions, never appears in dreams; but, with the approach of night, is not every one a little readier to believe in the mystery lurking behind the world?


he writes in one of his great sonnets; and that fear of the invisible watchfulness of nature was never absent from him. It is one of the terrors of human existence that we may be led at once to seek and to shun solitude; unable to bear the mortal pressure of its embrace, unable to endure the nostalgia of its absence. ‘I think man’s happiest when he forgets himself,’ says an Elizabethan dramatist; 10 and, with Gérard, there was Adrienne to forget, and Jenny Colon the actress, and the Queen of Sheba. But to have drunk of the cup of dreams is to have drunk of the cup of eternal memory. The past, and, as it seemed to him, the future were continually with him; only the present fled continually from under his feet. It was only by the effort of this contact with people who lived so sincerely in the day, the minute, that he could find even a temporary foothold. With them, at least, he could hold back all the stars, and the darkness beyond them, and the interminable approach and disappearance of all the ages, if only for the space between tavern and tavern, where he could open his eyes on so frank an abandonment to the common drunkenness of most people in this world, here for once really living the symbolic intoxication of their ignorance.

Like so many dreamers of illimitable dreams, it was the fate of Gérard to incarnate his ideal in the person of an actress. The fatal transfiguration of the footlights, in which reality and the artificial change places with so fantastic a regularity, has drawn many moths into its flame, and will draw more, as long as men persist in demanding illusion of what is real, and reality in what is illusion. The Jenny Colons of the world are very simple, very real, if one will but refrain from assuming them to be a mystery. But it is the penalty of all imaginative lovers to create for themselves the veil which hides from them the features of the beloved. It is their privilege, for it is incomparably more entrancing to fancy oneself in love with Isis than to know that one is in love with Manon Lescaut.11 The picture of Gérard, after many hesitations, revealing to the astonished Jenny that she is the incarnation of another, the shadow of a dream, that she has been Adrienne and is about to be the Queen of Sheba; her very human little cry of pure incomprehension, Mais vous ne m’aimez pas! [‘But you don’t love me!’] and her prompt refuge in the arms of the jeune premier ridé [young male lead], if it were not of the acutest pathos, would certainly be of the most quintessential comedy. For Gérard, so sharp an awakening was but like the passage from one state to another, across that little bridge of one step which lies between heaven and hell, to which he was so used in his dreams. It gave permanency to the trivial, crystallising it, in another than Stendhal’s sense;12 and when death came, changing mere human memory into the terms of eternity, the darkness of the spiritual world was lit with a new star, which was henceforth the wandering, desolate guide of so many visions. The tragic figure of Aurélia, which comes and goes through all the labyrinths of dream, is now seen always ‘as if lit up by a lightning-flash, pale and dying, hurried away by dark horsemen.’

The dream or doctrine of the re-incarnation of souls, which has given so much consolation to so many questioners of eternity, was for Gérard (need we doubt?) a dream rather than a doctrine, but one of those dreams which are nearer to a man than his breath. ‘This vague and hopeless love,’ he writes in Sylvie, ‘inspired by an actress, which night by night took hold of me at the hour of the performance, leaving me only at the hour of sleep, had its germ in the recollection of Adrienne, flower of the night, unfolding under the pale rays of the moon, rosy and blonde phantom, gliding over the green grass, half bathed in white mist. … To love a nun under the form of an actress! … and if it were the very same! It is enough to drive one mad!’ Yes, il y a de quoi devenir fou, as Gérard had found; but there was also, in this intimate sense of the unity, perpetuity, and harmoniously recurring rhythm of nature, not a little of the inner substance of wisdom. It was a dream, perhaps refracted from some broken, illuminating angle by which madness catches unseen light, that revealed to him the meaning of his own superstition, fatality, malady: ‘During my sleep, I had a marvellous vision. It seemed to me that the goddess appeared before me, saying to me “I am the same as Mary, the same as thy mother, the same also whom, under all forms, thou hast always loved. At each of thine ordeals I have dropt yet one more of the masks with which I veil my countenance, and soon thou shalt see me as I am!”’ And in perhaps his finest sonnet, the mysterious Artémis, we have, under other symbols, and with the deliberate inconsequence of these sonnets, the comfort and despair of the same faith.


Who has not often meditated, above all what artist, on the slightness, after all, of the link which holds our faculties together in that sober health of the brain which we call reason? Are there not moments when that link seems to be worn down to so fine a tenuity that the wing of a passing dream might suffice to snap it? The consciousness seems, as it were, to expand and contract at once, into something too wide for the universe, and too narrow for the thought of self to find room within it. Is it that the sense of identity is about to evaporate, annihilating all, or is it that a more profound identity, the identity of the whole sentient universe, has been at last realised? Leaving the concrete world on these brief voyages, the fear is that we may not have strength to return, or that we may lose the way back. Every artist lives a double life, in which he is for the most part conscious of the illusions of the imagination. He is conscious also of the illusions of the nerves, which he shares with every man of imaginative mind. Nights of insomnia, days of anxious waiting, the sudden shock of an event, any one of these common disturbances may be enough to jangle the tuneless bells of one’s nerves. The artist can distinguish these causes of certain of his moods from those other causes which come to him because he is an artist, and are properly concerned with that invention which is his own function. Yet is there not some danger that he may come to confuse one with the other, that he may ‘lose the thread’ which conducts him through the intricacies of the inner world?

The supreme artist, certainly, is the furthest of all men from this danger; for he is the supreme intelligence. Like Dante, he can pass through hell unsinged. With him, imagination is vision; when he looks into the darkness, he sees. The vague dreamer, the insecure artist and the uncertain mystic at once, sees only shadows, not recognising their outlines. He is mastered by the images which have come at his call; he has not the power which chains them for his slaves. ‘The kingdom of Heaven suffers violence,’ and the dreamer who has gone tremblingly into the darkness is in peril at the hands of those very real phantoms who are the reflection of his fear.13

The madness of Gérard de Nerval, whatever physiological reasons may be rightly given for its outbreak, subsidence, and return, I take to have been essentially due to the weakness and not the excess of his visionary quality, to the insufficiency of his imaginative energy, and to his lack of spiritual discipline. He was an unsystematic mystic; his ‘Tower of Babel in two hundred volumes,’ that medley of books of religion, science, astrology, history, travel, which he thought would have rejoiced the heart of Pico della Mirandola, of Meursius, or of Nicholas of Cusa, was truly, as he says, ‘enough to drive a wise man mad.’14 ‘Why not also,’ he adds, ‘enough to make a madman wise?’ But precisely because it was this amas bizarre, this jumble of the perilous secrets in which wisdom is so often folly, and folly so often wisdom. He speaks vaguely of the Kabbala; the Kabbala would have been safety to him, as the Catholic Church would have been, or any other reasoned scheme of things. Wavering among intuitions, ignorances, half-truths, shadows of falsehood, now audacious, now hesitating, he was blown hither and thither by conflicting winds, a prey to the indefinite.

La Rêve et la Vie, the last fragments of which were found in his pockets after his suicide, scrawled on scraps of paper, interrupted with Kabbalistic signs and ‘a demonstration of the Immaculate Conception by geometry,’ is a narrative of a madman’s visions by the madman himself, yet showing, as Gautier says, ‘cold reason seated by the bedside of hot fever, hallucination analysing itself by a supreme philosophic effort.’15 What is curious, yet after all natural, is that part of the narrative seems to be contemporaneous with what it describes, and part subsequent to it; so that it is not as when De Quincey says to us, such or such was the opium-dream that I had on such a night; but as if the opium-dreamer had begun to write down his dream while he was yet within its coils. ‘The descent into hell,’ he calls it twice; yet does he not also write: ‘At times I imagined that my force and my activity were doubled; it seemed to me that I knew everything, understood everything; and imagination brought me infinite pleasures. Now that I have recovered what men call reason, must I not regret having lost them?’ But he had not lost them; he was still in that state of double consciousness which he describes in one of his visions, when, seeing people dressed in white, ‘I was astonished,’ he says, ‘to see them all dressed in white; yet it seemed to me that this was an optical illusion.’ His cosmical visions are at times so magnificent that he seems to be creating myths; and it is with a worthy ingenuity that he plays the part he imagines to be assigned to him in his astral influences.

First of all I imagined that the persons collected in the garden (of the madhouse) all had some influence on the stars, and that the one who always walked round and round in a circle regulated the course of the sun. An old man, who was brought there at certain hours of the day, and who made knots as he consulted his watch, seemed to me to be charged with the notation of the course of the hours. I attributed to myself an influence over the course of the moon, and I believed that this star had been struck by the thunderbolt of the Most High, which had traced on its face the imprint of the mask which I had observed.

I attributed a mystical signification to the conversations of the warders and of my companions. It seemed to me that they were the representatives of all the races of the earth, and that we had undertaken between us to re-arrange the course of the stars, and to give a wider development to the system. An error, in my opinion, had crept into the general combination of numbers, and thence came all the ills of humanity. I believed also that the celestial spirits had taken human forms, and assisted at this general congress, seeming though they did to be concerned with but ordinary occupations. My own part seemed to me to be the re-establishment of universal harmony by Kabbalistic art, and I had to seek a solution by evoking the occult forces of various religions.

So far we have, no doubt, the confusions of madness, in which what may indeed be the symbol is taken for the thing itself. But now observe what follows:

To have thus realised that central secret of the mystics, from Pythagoras onwards,16 the secret which the Smaragdine Tablet of Hermes betrays in its ‘As things are below, so are they above’;17 which Boehme has classed in his teaching of ‘signatures,’ and Swedenborg has systematised in his doctrine of ‘correspondences’; does it matter very much that he arrived at it by way of the obscure and fatal initiation of madness? Truth, and especially that soul of truth which is poetry, may be reached by many roads; and a road is not necessarily misleading because it is dangerous or forbidden. Here is one who has gazed at light till it has blinded him; and for us all that is important is that he has seen something, not that his eyesight has been too weak to endure the pressure of light overflowing the world from beyond the world.


And here we arrive at the fundamental principle which is at once the substance and the aesthetics of the sonnets ‘composed,’ as he explains, ‘in that state of meditation which the Germans would call “super-naturalistic.”’ In one, which I will quote, he is explicit, and seems to state a doctrine.

But in the other sonnets, in Artémis, which I have quoted, in El Desdichado, Myrtho, and the rest, he would seem to be deliberately obscure; or at least, his obscurity results, to some extent, from the state of mind which he describes in Le Rêve et la Vie: ‘I then saw, vaguely drifting into form, plastic images of antiquity, which outlined themselves, became definite, and seemed to represent symbols, of which I only seized the idea with difficulty.’ Nothing could more precisely represent the impression made by these sonnets, in which, for the first time in French, words are used as the ingredients of an evocation, as themselves not merely colour and sound, but symbol. Here are words which create an atmosphere by the actual suggestive quality of their syllables, as, according to the theory of Mallarmé, they should do; as, in the recent attempts of the Symbolists, writer after writer has endeavoured to lure them into doing. Persuaded, as Gérard was, of the sensitive unity of all nature, he was able to trace resemblances where others saw only divergences; and the setting together of unfamiliar and apparently alien things, which comes so strangely upon us in his verse, was perhaps an actual sight of what it is our misfortune not to see. His genius, to which madness had come as the liberating, the precipitating, spirit, disengaging its finer essence, consisted in a power of materialising vision, whatever is most volatile and unseizable in vision, and without losing the sense of mystery, or that quality which gives its charm to the intangible. Madness, then, in him, had lit up, as if by lightning-flashes, the hidden links of distant and divergent things; perhaps in somewhat the same manner as that in which a similarly new, startling, perhaps over-true sight of things is gained by the artificial stimulation of haschisch, opium, and those other drugs by which vision is produced deliberately, and the soul, sitting safe within the perilous circle of its own magic, looks out on the panorama which either rises out of the darkness before it, or drifts from itself into the darkness. The very imagery of these sonnets is the imagery which is known to all dreamers of bought dreams. Rose au coeur violet, fleur de sainte Gudule; le Temple au péristyle immense; la grotte où nage la syrène: the dreamer of bought dreams has seen them all. But no one before Gérard realised that such things as these might be the basis of almost a new aesthetics. Did he himself realise all that he had done, or was it left for Mallarmé to theorise upon what Gérard had but divined?18

That he made the discovery, there is no doubt; and we owe to the fortunate accident of madness one of the foundations of what may be called the practical aesthetics of Symbolism. Look again at that sonnet Artémis, and you will see in it not only the method of Mallarmé, but much of the most intimate manner of Verlaine. The first four lines, with their fluid rhythm, their repetitions and echoes, their delicate evasions, might have been written by Verlaine; in the later part the firmness of the rhythms and the jewelled significance of the words are like Mallarmé at his finest, so that in a single sonnet we may fairly claim to see a foreshadowing of the styles of Mallarmé and Verlaine at once. With Verlaine the resemblance goes, perhaps, no further; with Mallarmé it goes to the very roots, the whole man being, certainly, his style.

Gérard de Nerval, then, had divined, before all the world, that poetry should be a miracle; not a hymn to beauty, nor the description of beauty, nor beauty’s mirror; but beauty itself, the colour, fragrance, and form of the imagined flower, as it blossoms again out of the page. Vision, the over-powering vision, had come to him beyond, if not against, his will; and he knew that vision is the root out of which the flower must grow. Vision had taught him symbol, and he knew that it is by symbol alone that the flower can take visible form. He knew that the whole mystery of beauty can never be comprehended by the crowd, and that while clearness is a virtue of style, perfect explicitness is not a necessary virtue. So it was with disdain, as well as with confidence, that he allowed these sonnets to be overheard. It was enough for him to say:

J’ai rêvé dans la grotte où nage le syrène;§

and to speak, it might be, the siren’s language, remembering her. ‘It will be my last madness,’ he wrote, ‘to believe myself a poet: let criticism cure me of it.’ Criticism, in his own day, even Gautier’s criticism, could but be disconcerted by a novelty so unexampled. It is only now that the best critics in France are beginning to realise how great in themselves, and how great in their influence, are these sonnets, which, forgotten by the world for nearly fifty years, have all the while been secretly bringing new aesthetics into French poetry.


Derived, with minor revisions, from ‘The Problem of Gérard de Nerval’, Fortnightly Review 63 (January 1898), pp. 81–91.

Symons’ note

Napoléon et la France Guerrière, élégies nationales, 1826; La mort de Talma, 1826; L’Académie, ou les Membres Introuvables, comédie satirique en vers, 1826; Napoléon et Talma, élégies nationales nouvelles, 1826; M. Dentscourt, ou le Cuisinier Grand Homme, 1826; Élégies Nationales et Satires Politiques, 1827; Faust, tragédie de Goethe, 1828 (suivi du second Faust, 1840); Couronne Poétique de Béranger, 1828; Le Peuple, ode, 1830; Poésies Allemandes, Morçeaux choisis et traduits, 1830; Choix de Poésies de Ronsard et de Regnier, 1830; Nos Adieux à la Chambre de Députés de l’an 1830, 1831; Lénore, traduite de Burger, 1835; Piquilo, opéra comique (with Dumas), 1837; L’Alchimiste, drame en vers (with Dumas), 1839; Léo Burckhardt, drame en prose (with Dumas), 1839; Scènes de la Vie Orientale, 2 vols., 1848–1850; Les Monténégrins, opéra comique (with Alboize), 1849; Le Chariot d’Enfant, drame en vers (with Méry), 1850; Les Nuits du Ramazan, 1850; Voyage en Orient, 1851; L’Imagier de Harlem, légende en prose et en vers (with Méry and Bernard Lopez), 1852; Contes et Facéties, 1852; Lorely, souvenirs d’Allemagne, 1852; Les Illuminés, 1852; Petits Châteaux de Bohême, 1853; Les Filles du Feu, 1854; Misanthropie et Repentir, drame de Kotzebue, 1855; La Bohême galante, 1855; Le Rêve et la Vie: Aurélia, 1855; Le Marquis de Fayolle (with E. Gorges), 1856; Oeuvres Complètes, 6 vols (1, Les Deux Faust de Goethe; 2, 3, Voyage en Orient; 4, Les Illuminés, Les Faux Saulniers; 5. Le Rêve et la Vie, Les Filles du Feu, La Bohême galante; 6, Poésies Complètes), 1867.

The sonnets, written at different periods and published for the first time in the collection of 1854, ‘Les Filles du Feu,’ which also contains ‘Sylvie,’ were reprinted in the volume of Poésies Complètes, where they are imbedded in the midst of deplorable juvenilia. All, or almost all, of the verse worth preserving was collected, in 1897, by that delicate amateur of the curiosities of beauty, M. Remy de Gourmont, in a tiny volume called Les Chimères, which contains the six sonnets of ‘Les Chimères,’ the sonnet called ‘Vers Dorés,’ the five sonnets of ‘Le Christ aux Oliviers,’ and, in facsimile of the autograph, the lyric called ‘Les Cydalises.’ The true facts of the life of Gérard have been told for the first time, from original documents, by Mme. Arvède Barine, in two excellent articles in the Revue des Deux Mondes, October 15 and November 1, 1897, since reprinted in Les Nevrosés, 1898; and, later, by M. G. Labrunie de Ferrières, in La Vie et l’Oeuvre de Gérard de Nerval, 1906.


1. Nerval committed suicide before he had comp leted the serial publication of Aurélia. Symons quotes here from a posthumous collection of Nerval’s writings put together by Théophile Gautier and Arsène Houssaye, entitled Le Rêve et la vie (1855). At this point in Nerval’s manuscript, the text contains a gap which his editors decided to fill by including the fragments of letters Nerval apparently wrote to a lover. Subsequent scholarship suggests, however, that these texts may be fictional rather than autobiographical.

2. Symons translates here from an article by Nerval entitled ‘Paradoxe et Verité’ published in L’Artiste, 2 June 1844. Parts of this article were re-published in 1865 as Nerval’s Pensées, although not, apparently, this remark. Symons probably found it in the account of Nerval’s life given by Arvède Barine cited in his notes (above).

3. Having declared himself Emperor of France in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) assembled a Grande Armée defeating the combined Russian and Austrian armies at the Battle of Austerlitz in December 1805 (although failing in his attempt to invade England). His forces retained this name during subsequent campaigns until his forced abdication in 1814.

4. Symons translates here from ‘Introduction. XIV – Le Songe de Polyphile’, in Voyage en Orient (1851).

5. Originating with Nerval’s friend, Théophile Gautier, Symons probably found this famous anecdote in Barine. The Palais Royal is an arcade of shops and booths along the edges of a large courtyard near to the Louvre in the centre of Paris. For a detailed social and cultural history see Eric Hazan, The Invention of Paris, trans. David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2011).

6. ‘Sylvie’ is the second story in Nerval’s Les Filles du Feu (1854), a collection of seven short stories, each weaving autobiography, history and fiction around a central female figure. The first edition also included Nerval’s sonnets, Les Chimères, and a preface addressed to Alexandre Dumas, explaining the origin of Les Filles du Feu and taking Dumas to task for printing Nerval’s sonnet ‘El Desdichado’ without permission while he was detained in a mental asylum.

7. Madame de Maintenon was the second wife of Louis XIV. She established a convent school for girls in 1686 at Saint-Cyr, near Versailles, and commissioned the French playwright Jean Racine (1639–99) to write the plays from biblical sources, Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691). Both plays were first performed by girls at the school.

8. Dante Gabriel Rossetti translated two old French poems (‘My Father’s Close’ and ‘John of Tours’) in his Poems (1870), based upon texts reproduced by Nerval in 1842.

9. Situated on the right bank of the Seine in Paris, close to the Palais du Louvre, the Place du Carrousel was part of an intricate warren of small, dirty backstreets during Nerval’s lifetime, inhabited by bohemians. Slowly torn down from the 1840s onwards, its destruction was completed in the 1850s under Napoleon III, prompting Baudelaire to remark that ‘the shape of a town / Changes more quickly, alas, than the heart of a man’, in his poem ‘Le Cygne’ [The Swan]. Nerval describes living in a squat on the Rue du Doyenné in Petits Châteaux de Bohême (1852).

10. Vindice from Cyril Tourneur’s play The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606): ‘Joy’s a subtle elf; / I think man’s happiest when he forgets himself’ (IV.iv.83–83). In the 1898 version of this essay, Symons misattributed the line to Webster’s Duchess of Malfi.

11. A short novel by French writer and translator Antoine-François Prévost (1697–1763), L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731) begins as a story of the forbidden and unrequited love of a young aristocrat for a serving-girl (Manon) who cheats on him for wealthy men. Eventually they are exiled to America but Manon’s death cuts short their chances of happiness.

12. In De l’amour (1822) Stendhal describes the imaginative transformation love performs upon its object as ‘crystallisation […] a certain fever of the imagination that makes the most ordinary of objects unrecognisable and sets them apart from everything else’ – On Love, trans. Sophie Lewis; intr. A.C. Grayling (London: Hesperus, 2009).

13. The New Testament: ‘And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force’ (Matthew 11:12).

14. Pico della Mirandola (1463–96) was an Italian humanist whose motto was reputed to be ‘De omni re scibili’ (‘of all things knowable’). Jan Meursius (1579–1639) was a Dutch philologist and the author of a commentary on Lycophron, reputed to be the most obscure of Greek authors. Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64) was known for his polymathic command of languages, philosophy, theology and mathematics.

15. Nerval’s friend and colleague Théophile Gautier describes him in these terms in the preface to Le Rêve et la vie.

16. As well as laying the foundations for modern trigonometry, Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (c.580–500 BC) is associated with the doctrine of the transmigration of souls whereby the soul is immortal and passes from body to body in search of perfection. He was interested in the mathematical bases of music and saw mathematics as a tool for uncovering various forms of symbolic harmony within the universe.

17. The Tabula Smaragdine (1541) was a medieval Latin treatise on alchemy, attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a Hellenised form of the Egyptian god of writing, Thoth. Bridging Greek, Egyptian and Christian sources, this text was highly influential upon the development of Hermetic mysticism from the seventeenth century onwards. W.B. Yeats also cites it at the head of his essay, ‘Symbolism in Painting’ (1898).

18. In an interview with Jules Huret, Stéphane Mallarmé famously remarked that the aim of poetry was not to ‘name’ things but to ‘suggest’ them. Symons develops this in more detail in his essay on Mallarmé.

* [‘Fear, in the blind wall, a gaze which spies on you!’]

[‘The Thirteenth returns … she is the first once more; / And she’s still the only one, – or it is the only moment: / For are you, queen, you! the first or the last? Are you, king, you the only lover or the last one? … // Love in her grave whoever loved you from the cradle; / The one I loved alone loves me still tenderly; / She is death – or dead … O delight! O torment! / The rose she holds is the Rose trémière. // Holy neapolitan with hands full of fire / Rose with a violet heart, flower of Saint Gudula: / Did you find your cross in the deserted skies? // Fall, white roses! You insult our gods: / Fall, white ghosts, from your burning sky; / The Saint of the abyss is more holy in my eyes!’]

[‘Man, free thinker! Do you believe you are the only thinking being / in this world where life breaks out of all things? / You are free to dispose of the forces you have at your command / But the universe doesn’t take your advice. // Respect the spirit which moves each beast; / Each flower is a soul where Nature buds; / A mysterious love sleeps in each metal; / ‘Everything is conscious’ and everything exercises power over your being. // Fear a gaze within the blind wall which spies on you! / The word is inseparable from matter itself … / Don’t use it for impious purposes! // Obscure beings often house a hidden God; / and like a nascent eye, covered by eyelids, / A pure spirit grows beneath the stony crust.’]

§ [‘I have dreamed in the grotto where the siren swims’]