Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

Verlaine contends that poetry should be musically suggestive, “vague and soluble,” not something the reader can separate neatly into formal or thematic topics. As its title suggests, however, the poem remains a manifesto, and has practical advice for the apprentice poet. Yet this is advice that Verlaine himself does not always follow, and both his ambivalence and the poem’s imagery reveal him to be a transitional figure in the history of nineteenth century French poetics.

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The young Verlaine was associated with the Parnassiens (c. the 1860’s), a group of poets who celebrated art for art’s sake but who also insisted upon an impassive or objective precision they often compared to sculpture or painting. Clearly, in “The Art of Poetry,” Verlaine has abandoned such rigor for the fluidity of the Symbolists (c. the 1880’s), of whom he is considered both an influence and an early member. For him there is “nothing more dear than the tipsy song/ where the Undefined and Exact combine.” The poem’s first line—“De la musique avant toute chose” (“You must have music first of all”)—can be translated “music above all,” for music displaces the sculptural metaphor so dear to the Parnassiens, to whom Verlaine perhaps alludes in calling rhyme a “trinket for a dime,/ sounding hollow and false when filed.” The poet repudiates la lime (“the file”), a favorite image of the Parnassiens.

Two poetic tendencies are criticized in “The Art of Poetry”: form that is too regular, even monotonous; and a preponderance of content, or moral messages, at the expense of poetic qualities. Although form is given priority over meaning, by form Verlaine means a vague, uneven poetry that suggests “Never the color, always the Shade,/ always the nuance.” Traditional form and content are both rejected, for together they create the classical French clarity in which verse is considered the mere garment of an idea that already exists. The clear preference in “The Art of Poetry” for music, shades, nuance, dream, flight, wind, and odor—as opposed to color, epigram, wit, eloquence, rhyme, and literature—indicates why the older Verlaine inspired a generation of French Symbolists to attempt an intangible, ineffable poetry of suggestion. With his consistent use of rhyme, line length, and stanza, however, the poet stops far short of poetic nihilism.

Finally, “The Art of Poetry” teaches a lesson—in spite of itself—that transcends French literary history. It both reveals the difficulty of simultaneously prescribing and following rules for poetic composition. For Verlaine, the task is particularly vexing, for his practical recommendations are all negative. Yet in his very failure to make specific suggestions, the poet has brilliantly made his point, that “Only by shade is the trothal made/ between flute and horn, of dream with dream!” With fleeting images of liberation expressed in traditional poetic structure, Verlaine creates his own “tipsy song/ where the Undefined and Exact combine.”

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