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Athabasca University

Émile Nelligan

Photo of Émile Nelligan courtesy of the National Archives of Canada

Born in Montreal in 1879 to an Irish father and French-Canadian mother. He was not a very good student, often skipping school in order to write poems. At 17, he dropped out of school to write poetry full time.

In 1896, he published some of his first poems under the pseudonym "Émile Kovar." He was primarily influenced by French poets such as Verlaine and Baudelaire. His poems were unique and almost revolutionary in Quebec where patriotic and Romantic poetry reigned. He stressed the subjective impression, the power of words and the music of language. He wrote about nostalgia and melancholy, and the conflicts of being a poet.

In 1897, Nelligan joined the École littéraire de Montréal, a literary movement that sought to break free from the restrictive style of poetry that was so dominant in Quebec. At around this time, Nelligan’s father tried to send him off to England as a Merchant Marine, unhappy with his son’s choice of vocation. Nelligan continued to publish poems in local journals, and in 1898, he was readmitted into the École littéraire de Montréal, where he would often read his poems to the gathered crowd. In 1899, however, he was confined to an asylum due to mental illness. He died there in 1941.

In 1903, although only 23 of his poems had been published, Nelligan’s friend Louis Dantin and his mother collected 107 poems and published them as Émile Nelligan et son oeuvre. Nelligan’s popularity has only grown, as has his legend. Today, he is seen as the first Québécois poet, combining French influences with his own voice to create something truly unique, both in form and content. (by Lee Skallerup)

Updated April 07 2021 by Student & Academic Services

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