Il a vécu tantôt gai comme un sansonnet,
Tour à tour amoureux insoucieux et tendre,
Tantôt sombre et rêveur comme un triste Clitandre.
Un jour il entendit qu’à sa porte on sonnait.
C’était la Mort ! Alors il la pria d’attendre
Qu’il eût posé le point à son dernier sonnet ;
Et puis sans s’émouvoir, il s’en alla s’étendre
Au fond du coffre froid où son corps frissonnait.
Il était paresseux, à ce que dit l’histoire,
Il laissait trop sécher l’encre dans l’écritoire.
Il voulait tout savoir mais il n’a rien connu.
Et quand vint le moment où, las de cette vie,
Un soir d’hiver, enfin l’âme lui fut ravie,
Il s’en alla disant : ” Pourquoi suis-je venu ? ”
Gerard de Nerval
Here is a sonnet from Nerval, attempting to write an epitaph, presumably for himself, as a way of assessing his own life and legacy. Sounds like a useful exercise for anyone at any stage of his life. It does not have the intensity of Ronsard’s deathbed sonnet, posted here on September 25th, but it is focused on death, its meaning and the poet’s view of himself. Interestingly, Nerval uses the third person throughout the sonnet, lending a slight degree of ambiguity as to the subject, but I have no doubt he was referring to himself, it would be much harder to be so introspective about another person.
The first four lines reflect on the life experience of the poet, sometimes happy and carefree, sometimes in love and tender, sometimes sad and depressed. And then one day the doorbell rings.
The second four lines announce the visitor – it is death (presumably wearing a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe like in the Woody Allen movie, Love and Death, his parody of War and Peace). So like Ronsard, the poet begs death to wait while he finishes his last sonnet.And when it is done he goes to lie down in a cold coffin.
The final six lines sum up his legacy, the verdict of posterity and ultimately his own view of his life. It is not a very flattering portrait – lazy, unproductive (as a poet he let the ink dry in the inkwell, rather than keep on writing), curious but ultimately ignorant. Adding all this up, Nerval comes to his final conclusion – “Why was I alive?”, finding nothing worthy of celebration or remembrance.
Clearly, Nerval was too hard on himself, he is remembered as one of the great post-Romantic French poets. But the sonnet is a reminder that most of humanity does indeed die without leaving a trace, and is soon forgotten.
The Poetry Dude