The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Art of Poetry” is divided into nine quatrains with a rhyme scheme of abba (the French rime embrassée), though the C. F. MacIntyre translation of the poem has a rhyme scheme of abab. Each verse has nine syllables. The title suggests an addition to the venerable tradition begun by the Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.), in which the Latin poet Horace established rules for the writing of poetry. He inspired countless others, notably the English poets of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century Frenchman Nicolas Boileau, to write their own treatises. Paul Verlaine’s title is intended both seriously (the poem is, in fact, a guide to poetic composition) and ironically (the poem incites aspiring poets to break the rules).

The poet addresses the reader not as a distant critic does his audience, but as a mentor would address his pupil: In line 5, the reader is addressed as tu—the familiar form of “you” in French. In the poem’s first stanza, the speaker stresses the importance of music, which is best achieved through uneven rhythm. Verlaine has chosen his own unusual meter well, for the nine-syllable line is uneven or odd (in French, it is “impair,” meaning any number not divisible by two), and this gives Verlaine’s poetry a light, elusive quality.

In the poem’s second stanza, the reader is exhorted to choose his or her words freely, unafraid of mistakes;...

(The entire section is 532 words.)