The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

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“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 rivers described in the preceding stanza. The author gradually evokes the night by describing sunset, the disappearance of swallows and emergence of bats, along with the emergence of dreamers from “dens in slums.” He invites the reader to experience the hush of evening but also to see it as a time of illicit love and crime.

In the fourth stanza, of twenty-two lines, Verlaine describes the sudden discordant music of an organ grinder. This is a surprising nocturne, “desperate” and “shrill.” Verlaine also describes the thoughts evoked in listeners such as himself. Readers are moved to tears, because the music is a reminder of the longing for harmony. Sight mingles with sound in a poignant, self-created synthesis of fulfillment.

In the shorter fifth stanza (of twelve lines), however, the music dies; “dull” night descends; by gaslight the river becomes “blacker than velvet masks”; happy thoughts are dispelled in “panic flight” and the persona of the poem is alone with “Seine, Paris and Night.”

The next-to-last stanza (of fourteen lines) addresses these three as doom laden, like the mysterious writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast in the book of Daniel, and as “ghastly ghouls.” The poet asks by which means it is better for “wretched man” to die: by darkness, drowning, or in the arms of Paris itself. In any case, humans are all offerings to the river, a mighty “Worm.”

The final stanza (of four lines) continues the idea of the ancient river-serpent, flowing indifferently through the town, carrying “cargos of wood, coal and corpses,” a much-admired formulation. “Parisian Nocturne” is a despairing poem, conveying the feeling of the helplessness of the individual in the face of implacable forces, represented by the city and the Seine.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

“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 punctuate the surprising turns of the narrative. These are pertinent aspects in considering the poem’s effect in French, but translation cannot duplicate them.

The dominant metaphorical qualities of this “tone poem” are those connected to exoticism, music, and death, all attributed to rivers, some also to the sounds of the city. In his use of image, even of resonant phraseology, Verlaine is frankly derivative. For example, the first line in French, “Roule, roule ton flot indolent, morne Seine,” is reminiscent of the line in George Gordon, Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818, 1819), “Roll on, thou deep and dark-blue Ocean, roll!” (noted by Jacques Henry Bornecque, in Les poèmes saturniens de Paul Verlaine, 1952). The evocation of the world’s rivers, too, is replete with borrowings from Victor Hugo, Théophile Gautier, François-Auguste-René de Chateaubriand, and others.

Adjectives such as “icy” and “putrid,” metaphors such as “Worm” and “serpent,” as well as the reiteration of the word “corpses” serve to create a sense of despair in the reader. This feeling is reinforced by the adding of discordant music, which symbolizes modern life in the crowded city. The piling up of disparate images and negative similes to a crescendo in succeeding verses is a further musical effect. The last four lines imitate the river itself, because the use of repetition, where the second and third lines flow into the last line, carries the reader, as the words describe, to unity with the river, where he or she becomes one of the cargo items with which the poem so callously ends.