The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Parisian Nocturne” is a poem of 106 lines, divided into seven stanzas of unequal lengths. The title suggests a musical composition, perhaps a peaceful evocation of Paris by night. Instead, however, one finds a macabre reflection on the winding progress of the river Seine. This is the thirty-sixth and longest in a collection of forty poems ostensibly written under the influence of the planet Saturn. In keeping with the coldly pessimistic title of the collection, “Parisian Nocturne” describes only negative aspects of the river.

The poem addresses the Seine (a rhetorical device called apostrophe). The first stanza (of six lines) serves as a brief introduction, in which the author calls upon the cold, corpse-laden river to continue its flow through Paris while equally icy thoughts of the poet flow into the lines which follow.

In the second, twenty-eight-line stanza, Paul Verlaine describes a catalog of rivers, all of which possess graceful, musical, or majestic attributes. These rivers include the Guadalquivir, a chief river in Spain, the Pactolus in Asia Minor, the Bosporus strait, the Rhine, the French rivers Lignon and Adour, the Nile, the Mississippi, the Euphrates, and, finally, the mysterious, exotic Ganges. Several elements of the descriptions recall interests of the Romantic movement, which had preceded the era in which Verlaine lived.

The third stanza, of twenty lines, contrasts the squalor of the Seine and Paris to...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Parisian Nocturne” is written in the traditional French poetic units of Alexandrine couplets, with alternating masculine and feminine endings. The Alexandrine line, consisting of twelve syllables, most typically with a caesura, or pause, after the sixth syllable, is not only the most classical unit of French versification but also an apt choice for a poem of this length and narrative weight.

“Parisian Nocturne” is thought to be Verlaine’s earliest extant poem, written not only while he was at school but actually in the classroom, according to his lifelong friend, Edmond Lepelletier, who kept the much-corrected original until Verlaine prepared the first volume of his poetry. It is understandable that a young poet would use the dominant French verse form. Furthermore, Verlaine was enthused at that time by the Parnassian group of French poets, for whom emotional detachment and formal excellence were positive values.

The complex French rhyme system classifies ends of words according to how many elements in them are identical. The most desirable rhyme is designated as “rich.” “Parisian Nocturne” is full of “rich” rhymes. These, too, correspond to the expectation for formal excellence typical of the author’s time. More detailed formal aspects of this poem could be considered, such as the use of enjambment, rhetorical devices, vowel choice for sonority, in imitation of the rolling river, and the use of exclamation points to...

(The entire section is 489 words.)