Émile Verhaeren Biography


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Émile Verhaeren was born on May 21, 1855, in Saint-Amand, in the vicinity of Antwerp. During his schooling at the Jesuit College of Sainte-Barbe in Gand (Ghent), he was to form friendships with three others who were destined to make their mark in Belgian literature: Georges Rodenbach, Maurice Maeterlinck, and Charles van Lerberghe. These men became aware of the Symbolist ferment that was going on in France and was beginning to filter across the borders to Belgium. Verhaeren, in his youth, had been influenced by the works of Alphonse de Lamartine, from whom he gained an appreciation for the purely musical possibilities of poetry, and of Victor Hugo, from whom he learned the skill of arranging poetic collections into architectonic wholes. A reluctant law student at the University of Louvain, Verhaeren gave himself over to a debauched life that was later to contribute crucial motifs to his first important poetic collection. It was also in Louvain that he began to publish poetry. Called to the bar in Brussels in 1881, he came into contact with a group of artists and writers known as “Young Belgium.” In Brussels, he developed a deep enthusiasm for the visual arts as well as a new political awareness. Under the influence of the Young Belgium group, Verhaeren abandoned the practice of law and devoted himself to art criticism and to the creation of a highly visual style of poetry.

Always extremely sensitive, Verhaeren suffered a nervous breakdown in 1887. His mental illness inspired a...

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