The Poem

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Composed of twelve ten-syllable lines, “Moonlight” is divided into three stanzas, each of which possesses its own regularly alternating rhyme scheme (abab, cdcd, efef). The title of the collection in which the poem originally appeared, Fêtes galantes, bears considerable importance on a visual level to the interpretation of this piece. Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was renowned as the painter of “fêtes galantes,” jewel-like renderings of men and women dressed in satins, lounging gracefully in nature’s lushness. In the same way that Watteau, in A Pilgrimage to Cythera, invites the eye to take in the golden splendor of love in paradise, Paul Verlaine invites the reader to discover a world colored by moonlight and enlightened by strolling musicians.

In the first stanza, Verlaine compares the soul of an unknown person—“your soul”—to a landscape, which is personified as being gladdened by masked musicians, who play the flute and dance, dressed in gaudy colors. Contrasting with the happy countryside, the musicians exhibit traits of sadness, scarcely concealed by their colorful disguises.

The second stanza focuses on the musicians, now singing huskily of love that conquers and the fullness of life. Seemingly doubtful of the happiness that they depict in song, they offer music that blends with the softness of the moon’s rays. The personification of the landscape in the first stanza continues in the final stanza; the moonlight rays are sad, birds dream, fountains sob in ecstasy. The coldness of marble statues contrasts with the subdued spirituality of personified elements in this concluding stanza.

Through the musicians’ “gaudy colours of disguise,” Verlaine evokes the timeless opposition between “l’être et le paraître,” between reality and illusion. It is ironic that the initial tone of joy and joviality in the first stanza should yield to one of pronounced sadness, permeating nature as well as mankind. The fact that Verlaine chose this poem to be the collection’s pièce luminaire reveals that, as the introductory poem, it was likely meant to set the stage for further development of similar scenes. Both time and place—night and countryside—lend themselves to a meditative state, one that belies the gaiety conveyed by the strolling musicians.

Verlaine’s sensibility is revealed effectively through the painterly aspect of his poetry. The association between the collection’s title and Watteau’s work is, therefore, all the more fitting, since Verlaine brings into play with precision and wistfulness particular scenes found in eighteenth century French painting. It is, however, the irony in “Moonlight” that goes beyond a simple romanticized landscape, since the main point of this poem is the metaphorical depiction of a person’s soul. The development of the poem’s focus from the comparison between soul and landscape in the first stanza to the portrayal in the second of the musicians’ sadness, and finally to the climax in the third stanza underlining the moon’s sad beauty differs markedly from the aesthetics of those plastic arts that evoke a similar scene. Verlaine’s skill as a writer enables him, therefore, to illuminate gracefully an aspect of the human condition that is perhaps imperceptible to the casual observer.

Forms and Devices

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Verlaine’s poetry is extremely mellifluous. It is not surprising that “Moonlight” has been set to music by Claude Debussy (in 1881), Gabriel Fauré (1887), and Gustave Charpentier (1896). The musical qualities of the original text result largely from the resonance of b’s, f’s and v’s combined with the proliferation of a’s. Curiously, the smooth flow of the English version is strengthened by the repetition of s ’s, a somewhat dissonant sound...

(This entire section contains 567 words.)

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that succeeds, nevertheless, in creating an ethereal quality (“soft moonlight rays—so beautiful to see,” line 9) that elevates the scene to a dreamlike level of existence. Generally speaking, Verlaine utilizes simplicity of form and musicality to encapsulate a commonplace of eighteenth century plastic arts, but at the same time, he offers on a visual level a new dimension to this cliché. By penetrating the façade of the country idyll, he underscores a hidden anguish that seizes the reader’s attention in the penultimate line of the final stanza.

The microcosm depicted by the poet serves as an obvious point of comparison with the soul that is mentioned in the first line of the first stanza. At the opening of the text, Verlaine establishes the metaphor evoking “your soul” as a landscape that progressively reveals itself to be less than joyous, although it is initially presented as a “chosen landscape glad.” The irony of this metaphor is that the reader assumes incorrectly from the poem’s first line that the remainder of the text will blindly follow a pattern like that of Watteau’s paintings, which depict images of pleasure and revelry in a setting of natural perfection. The subtlety with which Verlaine visually guides the reader is the key to his use of irony. Given the often romanticized symbolism associated with moonlight, the image of which is present in the title as well as in the second and third stanzas, the reader’s expectations that the text will fashion yet another superficial rendering of love and tranquillity under the moonlight seem to be confirmed. Gradually, however, there appear indications that “Moonlight” will rebel against romantic conventions. The musicians “strum the lute and dance and are half sad” (line 3); “They seem to doubt that they can happy be/ And blend their song with soft rays of the moon” (lines 7 and 8). The minstrels’ song tells of the power of love and the fullness of life, and it intermingles with the moonlight, oddly described in line 9 as “sad moonlight rays.” This shift from the gladness of the landscape in the first stanza to the sadness skillfully rendered in the second and third stanzas culminates in a curious paroxysm of emotion in the poem’s final lines: “And sparkling fountains sob in ecstasy/ Amid the marble statues in the glade.” The strangeness of this personification creates an eerie atmosphere, given the odd combination of tears and profound happiness suggested by this image. It is to be noted, however, that the marble statues evoke a permanent physical state, and that they exist in isolation. This final image completes the metaphor by drawing the reader’s eye to the permanence of physical existence, anchored in solitude, and contrasts sharply with the soul mentioned at the beginning of the text. The opposition between the heaviness of physical existence and the ethereal quality of spirituality is, therefore, effectively rendered by means of the ironic development of the text’s central metaphor.