The Poem

“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.)

Forms and Devices

Verlaine’s poetry was part of a larger movement in French poetry that occurred in the mid to late nineteenth century. Simply stated, poets increasingly favored oblique, suggestive poetry over the direct expression of events or emotions through clear metaphorical imagery. Musicality became as important as any message the poet might wish to impart, and this emphasis on form became known as “art for art’s sake.” Thus in “The Art of Poetry,” Verlaine concentrates on the poem as an object in itself, not a vessel of meaning imposed from without.

The poem’s metaphors continually remind the reader that a poem should be experienced on its own terms. Verlaine suggests such experience with the five senses: hearing (“music,” “rhythm,” “song,” “flute and horn,” “laughter”); sight (“the veiled and lovely eye,” “Color,” “shade”); taste (“garlic of vulgar dishes”); smell (“smelling of wild mint, smelling of thyme”); and touch (“Take Eloquence and wring his neck,” “hold Rhyme in check”).

Verlaine’s poem, however, is not a random series of images. He has his own messages to communicate, and perhaps the most important is his insistence that poetry be suggestive. To avoid being the slave or victim of something else (“Epigram’s an assassin! Keep/ away from him, fierce Wit, and vicious/ laughter”), the poem must never state directly, but should instead inhabit an elusive and allusive twilight...

(The entire section is 478 words.)