Paul Verlaine Biography


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

0111201599-Verlaine.jpg Paul Verlaine (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Other Literary Forms

Most of Paul Verlaine’s other published works are autobiographical writings and critical articles on contemporary poets. During his lifetime, he published two plays which were performed—Les Uns et les autres (pr. 1884; the ones and the others) and Madame Aubin (pr. 1886)—and one short story, Louise Leclercq (1886). A collection of seven other short stories, Histories comme ça (1903; stories like that), was published posthumously.

The most significant of his critical writings were published under the title Poètes maudits (1884; cursed poets), which includes articles on Tristan Corbière, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, and others. Verlaine’s Confessions (Confessions of a Poet, 1950) was published in 1895. Many of his previously unedited writings were published posthumously in a 1903 edition of his works, which includes several autobiographical pieces as well as some original ink drawings. All his prose works were published in the 1972 Pléiade edition.


Paul Verlaine is universally recognized as one of the great French poets of the nineteenth century. His name is associated with those of his contemporaries Charles Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. His most famous and frequently anthologized poems, such as “Chanson d’automne” (“Song of Autumn”), “Mon rêve familier” (“My Familiar Dream”), “Clair de lune” (“Moonlight”), and “Il pleure dans mon coeur” (“It Is Crying in My Heart”), are readily recognized and often recited by persons with any knowledge of French poetry. Many of his poems, including those cited, have been set to music by serious composers.

Verlaine’s admirers include both saints and sinners, for Verlaine is at once the author of one of the most beautiful collections of religious poetry ever published and the writer of some explicitly erotic poems. During his lifetime, Verlaine’s poetic genius was recognized by only a handful of poets and friends. His penchant for antisocial and occasionally criminal behavior (he was jailed twice for potentially murderous attacks) undoubtedly contributed to his lack of commercial success or popular recognition during his lifetime. By the end of his life, he had gained a small measure of recognition and received some income from his royalties and lecture engagements.


Paul Marie Verlaine was born in Metz, France, on March 30, 1844, the only child of Captain Nicolas-Auguste Verlaine and Elisa Dehée Verlaine. The family moved often during Verlaine’s first seven years, until Captain Verlaine retired from the army to settle in Paris. Verlaine attended the Lycée Bonaparte (now Condorcet) and received his baccalauréat in 1862.

Verlaine’s adoring mother and equally adoring older cousin Elisa Moncomble, whose death in 1867 affected him profoundly, spoiled the sensitive child, encouraged his demanding capriciousness, and helped him to become a selfish, immature, unstable young man.

After his baccalauréat, he worked in an insurance office and then found a clerical job in municipal government, which he kept until 1870. In 1863, he published his first poem, “Monsieur Prudhomme.” He met Catulle Mendès, an editor of the literary magazine Le Parnasse contemporain, in which Verlaine published eight poems. In 1866, he published his first volume of poetry, Poèmes saturniens, and in 1869 a second volume, Gallant Parties.

Alcoholism began to take its toll on his personal life. Twice in drunken rages he threatened to kill his mother. His family tried to marry him to a strong-willed cousin, a fate which he avoided by proposing to Mathilde Mauté, whom he married in 1870 and who inspired his third volume of poetry, La Bonne Chanson.

Having served as press officer to the Commune of Paris during the 1870 insurrection, Verlaine subsequently fled Paris and lost his government job. He helped to found a new journal, La Renaissance, in which he published many of the poems included in his 1874 volume, Romances Without Words.

Verlaine’s drinking and his friendship with Arthur Rimbaud led to violent domestic scenes. Following several fights and reconciliations with Mathilde, Verlaine ran off to Brussels with Rimbaud in July, 1872. During the following year, the two poets lived together in Brussels and London and then returned to Brussels. On July 10, 1873, Verlaine, in a drunken rage, fired a revolver at Rimbaud, who had threatened to leave him. Verlaine was convicted of armed assault and sentenced to two years in prison.

In prison, Verlaine converted to a mystical form of Catholicism and began to write the poems for the volume Sagesse, published in 1880. After his release in 1875 and until 1879, he held teaching positions in England and France. He formed a sincere and probably chaste relationship with one of his students, Lucien Létinois. They attempted a joint farming venture which failed and then returned to Paris, where Verlaine tried to get back his old government job but was turned down because of his past record. This disappointment, coupled with the sudden death of Lucien in 1883, caused Verlaine to become profoundly discouraged.

After another ill-fated farming venture, Verlaine abandoned himself for a long period to drinking and sordid affairs. A drunken attack on his mother cost him a month in prison in 1885. During his last ten years, his economic distress was somewhat eased by his growing literary reputation. He continued writing and published several more significant volumes of verse.

From 1890 to his death in 1896, Verlaine moved in and out of several hospitals, suffering from a swollen, stiffened leg, the terminal effects of syphilis, diabetes, rheumatism, and heart disease. He lived alternately with two women who cared for him and exploited him. During his last years, he was invited to lecture in Holland, Belgium, and England.


In two articles on Baudelaire published in L’Art in 1865, Paul Verlaine affirms that the overriding concern of a poet should be the quest for beauty. Without denying the role of inspiration and emotion in the process of poetic creation, Verlaine stresses the need to master them by poetic craftsmanship. Sincerity is not a poetic virtue. Personal emotion must be expressed through the combinations of rhyme, sound, and image which best create a poetic universe in which nothing is the result of chance.

The most obvious result of Verlaine’s craftsmanship is the musicality of his verse. Sounds flow together to create a sonorous harmony which repetitions organize and structure as in a musical composition. In his 1882 poem “L’Art poétique,” Verlaine gives a poetic recipe which begins with the famous line, “Music above everything else.” He goes on to counsel using odd-syllabled lines, imprecise vocabulary and imagery (as if veiled), and nuance rather than color. The poet should avoid wit, eloquence, and forced rhyme. Poetic verse should be light and fugitive, airborne and slightly aromatic. The poem ends with the somber warning, “Anything else is literature.”

The subject matter of Verlaine’s carefully crafted poetry is frequently his personal experience, certainly dramatic and emotionally charged material. The prologue to Poèmes saturniens reveals his consciousness of his miserable destiny. Throughout the rest of his poetry, he narrates the various permutations of his self-fulfilling expectation of unhappiness. “Moonlight,” which serves as a prologue to his second volume of verse, presents gallant eighteenth century lovers “who don’t appear to believe in their happiness.” This skepticism clouds the fugitive moments of happiness throughout Verlaine’s poetic pilgrimage. La Bonne Chanson is Verlaine’s homage to marital bliss. Poem 17, filled with images of love and faithfulness, begins and ends with the question, “Isn’t it so?” Poem 13 ends with a similar worry: “A vain hope . . . oh no, isn’t it so, isn’t it so?” In Sagesse, which proposes Catholic mysticism as the ultimate form of happiness, the fear of a return to his old ways haunts the poet’s peaceful communion with God.

Because sex, love, God, and wine all fail to provide a safe haven from his saturnine destiny, Verlaine must seek another refuge. What he finds, perhaps not entirely consciously, is sleep. With surprising frequency the final images of Verlaine’s poems are images of sleep; many of his musical pieces are thus lullabies whose delicate, soothing images—from which color, laughter, pompousness, loudness, and sharpness have been banished—lead the poet’s battered psyche to the unthreatening harbor of sleep. Often, a maternal figure cradles the poet’s sleep or stands watchfully by. In many poems in which the sleep motif is not explicit, the imagery subsides at the end of the poem, leaving an emptiness or absence analogous to the oblivion of sleep.

Poèmes saturniens

Verlaine’s first volume of poetry was published by Lemerre in November, 1866, at the author’s expense. It drew very little critical or popular attention. The title refers to the astrological contention, explained in the prologue, that those like Verlaine who are born under the sign of Saturn are doomed to unhappiness, are bilious, have sick, uneasy imaginations, and are destined to suffer.

The volume is the work of a very young poet, some of the poems having been written as early as 1861. They are consequently of uneven quality, but among them is the poem “My Familiar Dream,” which is perhaps the most frequently anthologized of all Verlaine’s poems and which, according to Verlaine’s friend and admirer H. Suquet, the poet preferred to all his others. It is a haunting evocation of an imaginary woman who loves the poet, who understands him, and who is capable of soothing his anguish.

The central section of the volume, titled “Paysages tristes” (“Sad Landscapes”), contains the most...

(The entire section is 4190 words.)