Verlaine’s reputation is not as high as it once was, and this is largely because his poetry lacks the depth of that of his greatest contemporaries. Poets such as Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé were nearly as technically proficient as Verlaine, but they had thought deeply about life and the relation of poetry to life in a way that Verlaine had not. Rimbaud, contrastingly, was less technically skilled than Verlaine, but Rimbaud’s lack of emphasis on poetic form followed from a principled and logically consistent rejection of much of tradition, also indicative of serious thought.
Yet there was a disarming feature of Verlaine. He both acknowledged his shallowness and defended himself by arguing that a kind of mistiness in thought was necessary to convey the type of limpidity for which he strove in his writing. In “L’Art poétique,” published in the volume Jadis et naguère (1884), he wrote, “De la musique avant toute chose” (“Music before all things”), and stated that it is best to accomplish that by creating verse “où l’Indécis au Précis se joint” (“where the undefined and precise join”). In other words, to capture an ineffable mood it is necessary to have an underlying structure of thought that is itself rather vague and incomplete. It is hard to argue with his advice, especially since his work is preeminent in French literature in being able to convey delicate, illusive feelings.
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