Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442
Verlaine was a Parnassian poet (that is, believing in art for art’s sake) in the sense that he was horrified at the idea of using poetry as a vehicle for preaching ideas or indulging in self-pity, as was often the case with the Romantics. He wrote to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé that his poetry was an effort to render sensations drawn from a personal world of memory and illusion. It is helpful to keep this purpose in mind when interpreting Verlaine’s work.
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Many poets through the ages have dealt with the theme of the passage of time. “Kaleidoscope” looks to the future in using the repeated line “It will be . . .” (“Ce sera . . .”) and by the predominance of the future tense throughout the poem in French. Yet the dream is about the past “as if one had lived there.” The verbs “wakes” and “falls asleep” are in the present tense. By obscuring the division of time into past, present, and future, the poem presents time as an illusion, irrelevant, because it is subject to distortion by the senses.
Like Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), a poet of the preceding generation, Verlaine chose as his primary subject modern man, who must cope physically with the refinements of an excessive civilization, more specifically, the sentient creature confronted with the lure of the city, the vices of the social underworld. In “Kaleidoscope,” the city is London, but it is also Paris, Brussels, any city. The reader enters the poet’s personal world of sensation, which immediately becomes the reader’s personal world, “one’s” own experience. It suffices merely to hint at, to suggest, meaning in muted tones and minor keys.
“Kaleidoscope” is a poem about the dichotomy of the human condition, the contrasts and contradictions inherent in human beings. There are dream states and waking states, both of which seem to be reality at the time. There are experiences of great joy and extreme sadness. There are moments of clarity (“this sun”) and moments of dim perception (“a fog”). There is a longing for the purity of nature and a fascination with the corruption of the city. There is the will to live and the will to die. In the poem, lines distinguishing one from its opposite have been obscured; it is impossible to differentiate reality from dreams, pleasure from pain, past from present or present from future, or, by extension, good from bad and right from wrong. One is no more than the reflected image of the other. Viewed in this light, the poem is truly a kaleidoscope in which the mirror of poetry creates symmetrical patterns out of random pieces of sensation.