“Parisian Nocturne” is an impressionistic poetic journey through the city of Paris and, by extension, through life, to its inevitable conclusion in anonymous death. The river serves to remind the poet of unpleasant verities concerning the life of each person as well as life in Verlaine’s century and in this particular European city.
The poem has a paradoxical sense of concrete times of day, such as afternoon and evening, in identifiable parts of Paris, such as the Pont de la Cité and Notre-Dame (stanza 3), while it also universalizes these experiences to encompass the times and places of each reader’s individual life.
The discordant song of the organ grinder, heard at night, although it would not be appreciated by a real musician, such as the composer Gioacchino Antonio Rossini (stanza 4), serves the poet again as a summarizing device. He describes the evocation of each person’s dearest hope for harmony and for the benediction “of setting suns,” which symbolize a happy ending to one’s life. In the dream state, the reader or poet is capable of creating a beautiful “mingling” of visual and auditory impressions with inner recollection to make a positive whole, one that would transform death into a fulfillment.
The poet destroys, however, the synesthesia and the dream called forth, as in the Romantic period, by sensory stimulation, even if it is the discordant, populist, gypsy stimulus of street music. This process is analogous to the rejection of the Romantic worldview by the nineteenth century, where realism soon passed over into a naturalism emphasizing the ugly aspects of human experience.
Verlaine ends the poem (in the last three stanzas) with loneliness, fear, lack of consolation, and intimations of suicide. The fact that he mentions the implications of the Bible and shows Orestes without his consoling sister, serves to remind the reader of the dual heritage, Greek and biblical, of Western culture. That heritage, the poem implies, is negated by the awful reality of the soulless material world, represented here by the city and the river.
The last four lines give a dull, hopeless impression. The double use of the word “agèd,” particularly, takes the reader to a world outside historical time, the world after Eden, lost because of the treacherous “serpent,” which still snatches people back from Paradise, as reality snatches them from the dream of harmony, and deposits them, lifeless and unredeemed, among the flotsam carried by forces they cannot overcome.
“Parisian Nocturne” is a dramatic first poem for Verlaine, whose sensibility Clive Scott describes as “a floating sensibility, operating in the ill-defined space between sentiment and sensation, between self-surrender and anxious interrogation of the physical world” (The Riches of Rhyme: Studies in French Verse, 1988). In “Parisian Nocturne,” Verlaine used the experience of the modern city-dweller to describe the wretchedness of the human condition.
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