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UBC Theses and Dissertations

L'imagerie animale et vegetale dans la poesie d'Emile Nelligan Joeck, Susan Augusta


Over fifty per cent of Nelligan's poems, approximately 100 out of a total of 175 poems written, contain images of animals and plants. In examining this imagery, the first step was to study it historically, considering the use of parable in the New Testament, some medieval works of painting, and literature, and the fable as handled by Aesop and La Fontaine. Secondly, the works of some of Nelligan's predecessors are considered. A brief view of a number of examples from these forbears led us to believe that this particular imagery was used as stock poetic imagery, possessing little value in itself. Its purpose in the poetry of certain members of the "Ecole de Québec" reinforced their romantic sentiments and patriotic loyalties to Canada and to France, as they reacted against such literary trends as the Symbolist and Parnassian schools, for example. Poets of the "Ecole littéraire de Montréal" used this imagery to describe their land - its forests, mountains, and other wild places. Both schools used natural imagery in their lyric poetry. The first chapter, concerning Nelligan's animal imagery, covers images of mammals, passes on to birds, and thence to "diverse animals," a minor category comprising insects and fish. After evaluating the frequency with which these animals appear, we have discovered that Nelligan has used those most familiar to him. Among mammals these were dogs, cats, horses, oxen; among birds they were simply "birds." In the majority of instances, animal images occur to help establish a particular atmosphere in a poem: goats and cattle accentuate a pastoral setting, deer a scene of wilderness, cats, at times, a domestic tranquillity. Birds appear in a variety of settings, indoor or outdoor, in close or distant association with man. In spite of their preponderance as images of secondary importance, certain ones form the chief subject of a poem: "Le Chat fatal," "Le Boeuf spectral," and "Les Corbeaux," are three examples. Here the animal image is of primary importance; in each of the poems noted, and in others, it is a clear indication of a neurotic mind. The second chapter, devoted to plant imagery, is patterned on the first. The images were divided into three categories: trees, flowers, and diverse plants. In this latter group are hay, grass, shrubs, and the like. Plant images occur more frequently than animal images, and again, most of them are of secondary importance. However, Nelligan's plants sometimes yield a variety of insights into his inner, poetic world. Flowers outside the house can indicate an optimistic attitude, a belief in renaissance, while those inside, cut and placed in vases, point quite literally to a dead end. Cypresses and willows are mentioned in conjunction with death and loss, a traditional and even banal usage. Plants foreign to Canadian soil appear mostly in metaphors and similes, as when a maple tree, whipped by wind, is said to twist itself like a bamboo. There is little breach of verisimilitude in the use of exotic plants. The third chapter unites plant and animal images to examine them in their various thematic contexts. These were established as follows: art (music and literature), the domain of the house, religion, and the world of dreams. The swan, image of purity and perfection, and flowers, symbols of beauty and rebirth, translate in part Nelligan's view of art as the realm of the elite. If the house represented to him a possible shelter against menacing elements, biting critics as well as biting winter winds, it did not fulfil its promise; for between these walls, in spite of the fire's warmth, the woman's love, the cat's physical satisfaction, there is nonetheless a stifling feeling, anxiety and fear. Flowers wither and die in this atmosphere. Moreover, at night cats prowl and fill the house with fearful and mysterious cries. Birds are often connected with Nelligan's religious penchant; representing the spirit, they present a kind of union with God. Nelligan's world of dreams, often of nightmares, is peopled with crows feeding on the dead bodies of zebras, cats feeding on the poet's own soul, and is an occasional setting for the attempted fulfilment of the poet's own thinly veiled sexual desires. Although Nelligan did not consciously use animal and plant imagery to demonstrate his individuality (which, to be more accurate, he showed in his subject matter), this imagery does frequently exhibit a uniqueness which distinguishes him not only from his predecessors but also from his contemporaries.

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