Emile was born in Montreal. His father, David Nelligan was an Irish immigrant and his mother, Emilie-Amanda Hudon Nelligan, a French-Canadian. David Nelligan - a postal inspector - had no appreciation of French-Canadian culture or language; Emilie-Amanda was a talented musician and proud of her heritage.
Emile had an undistinguished academic career preferring to write poetry rather than study.
He enrolled in the College Sainte-Marie in 1896 but in 1897 he left to pursue the writing of poetry - much against his parent's wishes. He had met Eugene Seers (later called Louis Dantin) who was to become his mentor and editor. Seers introduced him to literary circles in Montreal.
His first poem to be published was in 1896 in the journal "Le Samedi" and was called "Rêve Fantastque". He published it under the pseudonym Emile Kovar. This was in June, by September of that year eight more poems had been published. By 1897 poems were appearing under his own name.
Also in 1897 he was invited to join the newly formed L'Ecole Litteraire de Montreal - a circle of young writers who met weekly to discuss literature and read each other their current works.
In 1898 Emile's father had had enough of his son's lifestyle and enlisted him in the merchant navy - to make a man of him. Emile had one voyage to Belfast and Liverpool but quit on returning to Canada.
His father then arranged a job for his son as a book keeper - but this was short lived.
He continued writing and having poems published and in 1899 L'Ecole Litteraire started a series of public readings.
On May 26th 1899 Emile read his poem "La Romance de Vin" - he got a standing ovation!
Sadly, the highlight of his life.
On August 9th of that year he had a breakdown and was confined to the Saint-Benoit Asylum where he was kept for 25 years and then transferred to the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu Hospital where he remained until his death on November 18th 1941.
Although he continued to write whilst in the asylum nothing was as good as the poems he had written between the ages of 16 and 19.
At the time of his incarceration he had had 23 poems published. His mother and Louis Dantin published in 1904 a collection of 107 of his poems in the book "Emile Nelligan et son œuvre". A later expanded book of his poems was compiled by Luc Lacourciere. There was not an English language version until 1960.
Emile Nelligan is considered one of the most outstanding French-Canadian poets a great Romantic poet - his influences were Arthur Rimbaud, Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe. In three years he had written some outstanding poetry.