Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1508
The importance of literary groups or schools has always seemed greater in France than in England or the United States, and much of French literary history can best be understood through the reaction of one school against another. After the great wave of Romanticism in the 1830’s and 1840’s, a counterwave was inevitable. This originated in the group known as the Parnassians, which first made itself known in 1866 and was led by Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle and continued by José-Maria de Heredia.
The members of the school had two objectives. They wanted the reformation of the loose metrical methods of the disciples of Victor Hugo and Alphonse de Lamartine and a return to something like the traditional strictness of French prosody. More important, they were reacting against the excessive subjectivity and emotionalism of Romantics like Alfred de Musset, who exploited his famous love affair with novelist George Sand in his verse. Poetry, according to the Parnassians, should aim at an “abstract beauty” and avoid the cultivation of “private sorrows and their lamentation”; it should be cold and aloof, purely objective. In the famous “Elephants” (1862) by de Lisle, for example, the great beasts solemnly march across the desert of red sand and as solemnly disappear; “and the desert resumes its immobility.” As James Elroy Flecker, one of the group’s few English disciples, wrote, Parnassians considered it abhorrent “to overlay fine work with gross and irrelevant egoism,” as Hugo had done; had the movement existed in England, Alfred, Lord Tennyson “would never have published ’Locksley Hall.’”
It was in this spirit that Paul Verlaine wrote his early poems. He was, however, never a thoroughgoing Parnassian; occasionally, as in “A Dahlia” (1866), he achieved something of the desired objectivity, but even in his first volume there were hints of the much more characteristic manner that was to develop three years later in Fêtes galantes. In such a poem as “Classic Walpurgis Night” (1866), with its description of the “correct, ridiculous, and charming” garden designed by André Le Nôtre, there is a distinct foreshadowing of the eighteenth century fantasies of his subsequent volume. Also included in this first book is what became one of his most famous poems, “Autumn Song,” one of those almost wordless little songs associated with his later manner.
The publication, between 1857 and 1875, of three books by Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt on various aspects of life and art during the eighteenth century marked another sharp break with the Romantics. As had happened earlier in England, the French Romantics had turned violently against the preceding century, detesting what they considered to be its coldness and artificiality. However, as a result of this latest turn of the wheel of taste, this very artificiality became the eighteenth century’s greatest charm; some writers were fascinated by the brilliant, stately society that their grandfathers had overthrown.
Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes—probably his best-known book outside France—belongs to this pattern; in it, as Holbrook Jackson said, “Watteau became literature.” It is an evocation of the world of François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, with its formal gardens, silks, fluttering of fans, and tinkling of mandolins in the eternal twilight or moonlight, while abbés, female shepherds, and others stroll along paths beside the fountains. Stylistically, most of its twenty-two poems are still indebted to the Parnassian style, but some of the poems in the volume also mark Verlaine’s first flirtation with symbolism.
Structurally, Fêtes galantes can be divided into two large sections of ten poems and twelve poems, respectively. The first group of poems is largely written in a Parnassian-influenced style and concludes with “Skating,” a colossal, sixty-four-line poem that contrasts sharply with the shorter poems that comprise the rest of the collection. Most of the poems are written in traditional Parnassian forms: quatrains with traditional rhyme schemes, such as rimes croisées (abab) and rimes embrasées (abba); and sizains (six-line stanzas with a rhyme scheme of aabccb). “Seashells” even reprises the Renaissance fixed form of the villanelle. Other poems—particularly in the second half of the collection—are more progressive, however, foreshadowing favored forms of the Symbolists: “Sailing” is in a tercet monorime (aaa, bbb), and “Lovers’ Chat” is written in blank-verse couplets.
Although the title Fêtes galantes directly refers to the eighteenth century painting style of Jean-Antoine Watteau, Verlaine uses this theme merely as a starting point, expanding upon it throughout his collection. For instance, moonlight was not explored by Watteau or his contemporary painters, but moonlight becomes the main theme in three of Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes poems, as the collection Poetry of Paul Verlaine is best known: “Moonlight,” “Puppets,” and “Mandolin.” In “Le faune,” readers enter a scene not from an eighteenth century Fêtes galantes painting; rather, readers glimpse two lovers who have wandered away from the festivities. To Verlaine, the original subject is no longer the subject of interest.
In some of the Fêtes galantes poems, Verlaine also introduces metaphor and ambiguity, indicating the beginning of his more mature Symbolist phase. In the opening poem, “Claire de lune,” the traditional Watteauesque scenery becomes a metaphor for the human soul itself: “Your soul is a landscape which maskers and bergamasks charm.” In the final poem, “Colloque sentimental,” Verlaine presents two ghostly figures to the reader. In an obtuse dialogue, they pose questions to one another that are not answered with any sort of clarity or certainty. Even the genders of the two ghosts cannot be gleaned from Verlaine’s words. Shrouded in an atmosphere of mystery, it could be justified that Verlaine’s symbolist period begins with poems like these.
Indeed, Verlaine’s chief literary significance lies in his connection with the Symbolist movement, which began as an unconscious protest against what has been called the Spartan creed of the Parnassians and which had links with the work of the Impressionist painters. Arthur Symons, who knew many of the writers involved and who translated a few of Verlaine’s pieces, called the whole body of late nineteenth century French literature the Decadent movement, which he then divided into impressionism and Symbolism. It is difficult and perhaps unnecessary to make a distinction between the two. According to Symons, impressionism gives the truth “of the visible world to the eyes that see it,” and Symbolism gives “the truth of spiritual things to the spiritual vision.” Still, Symons cited Verlaine’s Romances sans paroles, the book that is usually considered the beginning of the poet’s Symbolist period, as an example of impressionism.
It was the effort of the Symbolists to see through outward appearances to inward reality by trying to express “the secret affinities of things with one’s soul.” It is generally thought that the germ of this point of view is to be found in Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences” (1857). Baudelaire saw nature as a “forest of symbols,” in which “perfumes, colors, and sounds answer one another.” This perspective leads to poetry in which the subject becomes unimportant or disappears altogether. The meaning of the poem is of no more significance than it is in a musical composition. The following remark by nineteenth century critic Walter Pater is frequently quoted in this connection: All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music; and the perfection of poetry seems to depend in part on a certain suppression of mere subject, so that the meaning reaches readers through ways not distinctly traceable by the understanding.
Verlaine, in his “The Art of Poetry,” said “Music before everything.” He also declared, “no color, only the nuance,” for it is this nuance that weds “the dream to the dream.” His later poems became almost literally songs without words, in which the content consists only of half hints and vague suggestions.
In France, this kind of poetry led to the work of Stéphane Mallarmé, who composed poems filled with symbols within symbols, in which hardly a word is meant to be taken in its customary sense; the French claim that his verse is better understood by those not French. In England, Verlaine was much admired by the “minor” poets of the 1890’s, several of whom—among them Symons, John Gray, and Ernest Dowson—translated some of his poems. It is certainly possible to see his influence, or that of his school, on some of the early poems of William Butler Yeats as well.
Although Verlaine experienced a religious conversion that found expression in many of the poems in Sagesse, his life was a tragic one. He has been called a modern François Villon. Almost everyone who wrote about Verlaine has referred to his childlike qualities. François Coppée said, Alas, like a child he was without any defense, and life wounded him often and cruelly. Suffering, though, is the ransom paid by genius, and this word can be uttered in speaking of Verlaine, for his name will always awaken the memory of an absolutely new poetry which, in French literature, has acquired the importance of a discovery.