The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 567 words.)