The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The twenty-eight lines of “Kaleidoscope” are divided into seven four-line stanzas of Alexandrine verse (twelve-syllable lines). The rhyme scheme (abba, cddc, and so on), with alternating masculine and feminine end rhymes, is traditional in French poetry. In these seven quatrains, fragments of diverse sensory impressions of the past are presented to the reader in juxtaposed images that change like bits of colored glass in a kaleidoscope.

Paul Verlaine composed the poem during his incarceration in Brussels, after being arrested for firing at and wounding his lover, the young poet Arthur Rimbaud. The two poets had returned from London, where they had spent several months. The poem recollects images from this period spent wandering the streets of London with Rimbaud, reality obscured by alcohol, time rendered timeless by love and pleasure.

In the first stanza, the locale of the poem is established: a city street. Neither the street nor the city is real, though: It is a dream city, yet one that evokes a sensation of past experience, of déjà vu characterized by vagueness and clarity at the same time. A single image, “sun shining through a fog,” appears in the first stanza and confirms the inspiration for the poem: The sun suggests physical desire, the fog suggests London.

The second stanza opens with two auditory images. There is a “voice in the woods” and a “cry on the sea.” These sounds are surprising, for...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem is an example of poetic impressionism: Verlaine suggests with verbal imagery the same way Debussy suggests with music and Monet suggests with pastels. Verlaine veils his meaning, deliberately obscuring contours in order to create an enchanting vagueness in which there are elements of both the unknown and the familiar. “Kaleidoscope” is written in accordance with Verlaine’s personal system, which he developed around the time the poem was written (1873, ten years before publication). In this system, Verlaine sought to eliminate entirely the first person, the poet, the “moi,” from poetry. In this poem, the “I” is replaced by the more nebulous, nonspecific pronoun “one.”

Although the poem is set visually in quatrains, it is knit together verbally. Three stanzas are joined by the continuation of a sentence from the last line of one to the first line of the next without a syntactical pause. Others are joined by repeating first words (lines 4 and 5 begin “Oh this!”), which allows Verlaine to blur the traditional boundaries of the poetic stanza.

Except for the word “metempsychoses,” the vocabulary of the poem is simple, almost childlike. The phrase “It will be as if . . .” (“Ce sera comme quand on . . .”) is a colloquialism Verlaine often used. In keeping with this puerile simplicity, he uses much repetition, especially at line beginnings (in French, “Où” begins lines 10 and 11 and “Des” opens lines...

(The entire section is 504 words.)