Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427

Painting a metaphorical picture of a person’s soul, “Moonlight” evokes simple desires for beauty, love, and tranquillity. The atmosphere of increasing disillusionment that emanates from the poem lends itself to a meditative and introspective tone. The reader inevitably wonders whether love and happiness can be found in reality. The central metaphor suggests that everyone carries an “interior landscape” within, and in this particular case, the elements that form it are, paradoxically, both beautiful and forlorn. The dichotomy between l’être (being) and le paraître (appearance) is one of the most important themes of “Moonlight.” In addition to this perhaps surprising combination of physical beauty and sadness, Verlaine communicates to the reader the impossibility of attaining complete happiness. In doing so, the poet suggests that in life, as in the afterlife—the latter symbolized by the soul—man’s desires for perfection, be it for overly romanticized love or a perfect life, will inevitably remain unfulfilled. In this way, Verlaine guides one through a self-examination that poses various questions concerning one’s expectations in life as well as one’s appreciation of the ambient world. The true essence of existence is, therefore, not visible on the surface.

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There is, however, some ambiguity in the concluding lines of the poem, for although “sparkling fountains sob in ecstasy,” “even birds dream in the leafy shade.” Sadness is seen not as a stultifying force, but as one that leads to introspection and contemplation. One important aspect of “Moonlight” is Verlaine’s obvious love of natural beauty; the poet endeavors to encourage the appreciation of a beauty that is neither gaudy nor artificial. “Moonlight” puts into perspective hopes and desires in order that the individual might have a more balanced conception of existence, one that is unencumbered by the physical, which is symbolized by the marble statues anchored in their own permanence. They are to be admired for what they offer, but one must remember to appreciate them for what they are: objects created by man that render his creativity immortal.

“Moonlight,” a deceptively simple narrative poem, addresses philosophical and aesthetic preoccupations that have long fascinated writers and artists. Why does it seem that sad songs are the most beautiful? What special aesthetic attraction does sadness exert? Verlaine does not provide the answers. The poet does, however, endeavor to challenge the reader’s beliefs by creating with words a scene that does not conform to the aesthetics of eighteenth century plastic arts. Crossing boundaries and provoking unexpected reactions, Verlaine demonstrates a particular perception of existence through his mastery of irony.

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