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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.

Achievements

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.

Biography

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.

Analysis

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 “Verlainian” of the poems: vague, melancholy landscapes, inspired by his memories of the Artois region, whose fading colors, forms, and sounds reflect the poet’s soul and whose ultimate disappearance translates as an innate desire for oblivion.

The first of these poems, “Soleils couchants” (“Setting Suns”), a musical poem of sixteen five-syllable lines, describes a rising sun so weakened that it casts a sunset-like melancholy over the fields, inspiring strange raddish ghosts in the poet’s imagination. The short, odd-syllabled lines create a musical effect reinforced by alliteration and repetition—the phrase “setting suns,” for example, is repeated four times in a poem about dawn!

“Promenade sentimentale” (“Sentimental Walk”) presents a twilight scene through which the wounded poet passes. The vaguely lit water lilies that glow faintly through the fog in the evening light are swallowed up by the shroud-like darkness in the poem’s final image.

“Nuit du Walpurgis classique” (“Classical Walpurgis Night”) is full of allusions. Phantoms dance wildly throughout the night in a landscape designed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Richard Wagner, Antoine Watteau, and André Le Nôtre. At dawn’s approach, the Wagnerian music fades and the phantoms dissolve, leaving “absolutely” nothing except “a correct, ridiculous, charming Le Nôtre garden.” Another noteworthy tone poem, “Chanson d’automne” (“Song of Autumn”), a melodic eighteen-line lyric composed of four- and three-syllable lines, combines o’s and nasal sounds to reproduce a melancholy autumn wind which carries off the mournful poet like a dead leaf.

Verlaine’s first collection of verse reveals the influence of Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Charles Leconte de Lisle, Théodore de Banville, and Théophile Gautier—and of Verlaine’s young friends Louis de Ricard and Joseph Glatigny. It is a carefully crafted and original volume, demonstrating that at twenty-four Verlaine had already mastered the art of poetry and discovered most of the themes of his later works.

Gallant Parties

The mid-nineteenth century’s rediscovery of the paintings of Watteau is confirmed by several works dedicated to that artist and to his times, including one by the Goncourt brothers, L’Art du 18ème siècle, which undoubtedly had a strong influence on Verlaine’s choice of this subject and his interpretation of it. During the composition of the poems of Gallant Parties, Verlaine undoubtedly consulted some of the published reproductions of Watteau’s works as well as his one painting in the Louvre collection, Embarkation for Cythère, a vast work devoted to eighteenth century gallantry, its rites, costumes, myths, poetry, and fashionable devotees. These aristocratic gallants and the characters from The Italian Comedy, also painted by Watteau, come alive in Verlaine’s second published volume of poetry.

The often-anthologized “Moonlight” opens the volume and sets the mood. This musical evocation of the songs and dances of the masked characters and the relationship between their costumes and their souls insist upon the underlying sadness of both. The gallant aristocrats are somewhat sad beneath their fantastic disguises because they do not really believe in the love and life of which they sing. Their dispersed song is absorbed by the moonlight.

These same characters sing, dance, walk, skate, and love through the rest of the volume, sometimes assuming stock character names from commedia del l’arte—Pierrot, Clitandre, Cassandre, Arlequin, Colombine, Scaramouche, and Pulcinella—and sometimes classical names—Tircis, Aminte, Chloris, Eglé, Atys, Damis.

The landscapes of Gallant Parties are very different physically and psychologically from those of the Poèmes saturniens. They are sculpted, landscaped, arranged, and peopled. Paths are lined by rows of pruned trees and mossy benches. Fountains and statues are harmoniously placed around well-kept lawns. The relationship between the characters and the landscape is no longer a natural sympathetic mirroring. Nature has been artificially subdued to reflect the characters’ forced gaiety and becomes a mocking image of the vanity of their pursuits. One of the obvious formal characteristics of the volume is the presence of dialogue and monologue, couched in the artificial, erotic language of gallantry. There are many allusions to “former ecstasies,” “infinite distress,” and “mortal languors.”

The volume’s overriding pessimism is orchestrated by the arrangement of the poems. The latent sadness of the apparently carefree gallants in “Moonlight” becomes the dominant feeling in the second half of the work. While humorous love play and inconsequential erotic exchanges dominate the first half, several disturbing images—such as the statue of a snickering faun who anticipates eventual unhappiness and the sad spectacle of a statue of Cupid overturned by the wind—foreshadow the volume’s disastrous conclusion, the poem “Colloque sentimentale” (“Sentimental Colloquium”), in which a ghostly “form” tries to recall a past sentimental adventure. The cold, solitary park, witness to the scarcely heard dialogue, swallows up the desperate efforts to recall a past love as well as the negations of those efforts. One of the lovers tries unsuccessfully to awaken memories of their past love, which the other negates repeatedly: “Do you remember our former ecstasy?” “Why do you want me to remember it?” “Does your heart still beat at the sound of my name?” “No.”

Romances Without Words

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Commune separated Verlaine from his Parnassian friends and led him toward new friendships and a new form of poetry, toward a modernistic vision which replaced the artificiality of Parnassian inspiration with an attempt to capture the essence of contemporary life. During 1872 and 1873, Verlaine wrote the poems of Romances Without Words, which was published in 1874. All the poems precede the episode with Rimbaud which resulted in Verlaine’s imprisonment. The period was emotionally difficult for Verlaine. Torn between love for Mathilde and dependence on Rimbaud, Verlaine was tormented by his vacillations. Romances Without Words fuses his new poetic ideal with his personal struggle.

The sad, lilting songs which make up the first part of the volume, titled “Ariettes oubliées” (“Forgotten Melodies”), include one of the most frequently quoted of Verlaine’s poems, “It Is Crying in My Heart,” in which the gentle sound of the rain falling on the town echoes the fall of tears within his heart. A more interesting poem, however, is the musical twelve-line poem “Le Piano que baise une main frêle” (“The Piano Kissed by a Fragile Hand”), in which the light, discreet melody rising from the piano corresponds to the faintness in the fading evening light of the visual impression of slight hands on a barely discernible piano. A series of vague, fleeting adjectives seep out of the perfumed boudoir to disappear through a slightly opened window into a small garden. The hushed sonorities of the poem coincide with the diminished intensity of the images. One remarkable phrase in the tenth line embodies both the musical effects and the characteristic tone of Verlaine’s verse: “fin refrain incertain” (“delicate, uncertain refrain”).

While the influence of music on Verlaine’s poetry is certain, the importance of painting is no less significant. Gallant Parties is to a great extent a tribute to the painting of Watteau. The “Paysages belges” (“Belgian Landscapes”) which Verlaine paints into Romances Without Words are a tribute to the Impressionist school of painting, whose birth corresponds with the date of composition of the collection. Verlaine knew Édouard Manet and Ignace Henri Fantin-Latour and was certainly interested in their technique. The impressionistic Belgian landscapes which Verlaine has painted are carefree and gay, carrying no reflection of the shadow of Mathilde which haunts the rest of the volume. The first poem in the section, “Walcourt” (a small, industrial town in Belgium), reflects the gaiety of the two vagabond poets (Verlaine and Rimbaud) in a series of brightly colored images which flash by, without help of a verb, in lively four-syllabled lines: tiles and bricks, ivy-covered homes, and beer drinkers in outdoor bars.

The gaiety of the Belgian countryside is interrupted by a bitter poem, “Birds in the Night” (original title in English), which Verlaine had first titled “La Mauvaise Chanson” (“The Bad Song”) as an ironic counterpart to his previous book of poems, La Bonne Chanson, devoted to marital bliss. “Birds in the Night” accuses Mathilde of a lack of patience and kindness, and of treachery. The suffering poet offers his forgiveness. The poem suggests a singular lack of understanding of the real causes of their marital discord.

The last section of Romances Without Words contains visions of Verlaine’s London experience, but the image of Mathilde pierces through the local color with haunting persistence. All six of the poems have English titles. The most interesting is “Green,” in which the poet presents to his mistress fruits, flowers, leaves, branches, and then his heart, which he commends to her care. The poem ends with the desire for a restful oblivion upon the woman’s breast.

Sagesse

Only seven of the poems in Sagesse were actually composed while Verlaine was in prison. The rest were written between the time of his release in 1875 and the spring of 1880. The volume was published at the end of that year. The title refers to Verlaine’s intention to live virtuously according to the principles of his new faith and should perhaps be translated not as “wisdom” but as “good behavior.” The volume is divided into three parts, the first of which dwells on the difficulty of converting to a virtuous life, the almost daily battles with overwhelming temptation. The second part narrates the poet’s mystic confrontation with God, primarily through a cycle of ten sonnets. The last part describes the poet’s return to the world and contains many of the themes and images of his earlier nature poetry. These poems are not overtly religious; the prologue to this part, “Désormais le sage, puni” (“Henceforth, the Virtuous, Punished”), explains the virtuous poet’s return to a contemplative love of nature.

Poems 6 and 7 of the first part, both sonnets, are the most poetic of Verlaine’s evocations of the contrast between his former and his present preoccupations. Poem 6 presents his former joys as a line of clumsy geese limping off into the distance on a dusty road. Their departure leaves the poet with a welcome emptiness, a peaceful sense of abandonment as his formerly proud heart now burns with divine love. Poem 7 warns of the prevailing appeal of the “false happy days” which have tempted his soul all day. They have glowed in his memory as “long hailstones of flame” which have symbolically ravaged his blue sky. The last line of the poem exhorts the poet’s soul to pray against the storm to forestall “the old folly” which threatens to return.

Three of the most moving poems of the third part were written in prison, one on the very day of Verlaine’s sentencing: “Un Grand Sommeil noir” (“A Great Black Sleep”). This poem, as well as “Le Ciel est, par-dessus le toit” (“The Sky Is, Beyond the Roof”) and “Gaspard Hauser chante” (“The Song of Kaspar Hauser”), sings of the poet’s despair, plaintively expressing his self-pity, his regrets, and his total sense of shock in the early days of his imprisonment. The third part of Sagesse also contains two of Verlaine’s most finely crafted sonnets. “L’Espoir luit comme un brin de paille dans l’étable” (“Hope Glistens Like a Blade of Straw in a Stable”) is perhaps his most Rimbaudian and most obscure poem. An unidentified protector speaks to the poet reassuringly as he rests in a country inn. The voice is maternal and encourages the poet to sleep, promising to cradle him. The voice shoos away a woman whose presence threatens the poet’s rest. The poem opens and closes with a fragile image of glistening hope, which, in the final line, opens up into a hoped-for reflowering of the roses of September.

The sonnet “Le Son du cor” (“The Sound of the Hunting Horn”) is perhaps the best example of Verlaine’s poetic art. It was written before his imprisonment, probably in the spring of 1873. This very musical poem blends the sound of the hunting horn, the howling of the wind, and the cry of a wolf into a crescendo which subsides to a mere autumn sigh as the falling snow blots out the last colors of the setting sun. The painful notes of the opening stanza are completely obliterated as day gives way to a cradling, monotonous evening.

Bibliography

Blackmore, A. M., and E. H. Blackmore, eds. Six French Poets of the Nineteenth Century: Lamartine, Hugo, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. This anthology of poetry is preceded by an introduction, notes on text and translations, a select bibliography, and a chronology.

Ivry, Benjamin. Arthur Rimbaud. Bath, Somerset, England: Absolute Press, 1998. A biography of Rimbaud which details his two-year affair with Verlaine. Ivry delves deeply into the relationship, and especially its sexual aspects including possible dalliances with other men, misogynistic outbursts, and graphically sexual poems.

Lehmann, John. Three Literary Friendships: Byron and Shelley, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. New York: Henry Holt, 1984. An examination of the way these friendships influenced each poet’s work. J. R. Combs, commenting for Choice magazine, notes, “[Lehmann] argues convincingly that after Verlaine and Rimbaud became friends and lovers, they became more productive literarily.”

Lepelletier, Edmond Adolphe de Bouhelier. Paul Verlaine: His Life, His Work. Translated by E. M. Lang. New York: AMS Press, 1970. The only English translation of the hefty 1909 biography.

Nicolson, Harold George. Paul Verlaine. 1921. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1997. This venerable biography remains useful.

Robb, Graham. “Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Their Season in Hell.” New England Review 21, no. 4 (Fall, 2000): 7-20. An excerpt from Rimbaud, a biography of nineteenth century poet Arthur Rimbaud by Graham Robb, is presented. The selection features an altercation Rimbaud experienced with his friend and lover, poet Paul Verlaine, in which violence broke out after Rimbaud announced his intention to leave Verlaine and return to his wife and children.

Sorrell, Martin. Introduction to Selected Poems, by Paul Verlaine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Sorrell’s introduction is useful for beginning students in this bilingual edition of 170 newly translated poems by Verlaine.

Bibliography

Blackmore, A. M., and E. H. Blackmore, eds. Six French Poets of the Nineteenth Century: Lamartine, Hugo, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. This anthology of poetry is preceded by an introduction, notes on text and translations, a select bibliography, and a chronology.

Ivry, Benjamin. Arthur Rimbaud. Bath, Somerset, England: Absolute Press, 1998. A biography of Rimbaud which details his two-year affair with Verlaine. Ivry delves deeply into the relationship, and especially its sexual aspects including possible dalliances with other men, misogynistic outbursts, and graphically sexual poems.

Lehmann, John. Three Literary Friendships: Byron and Shelley, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. New York: Henry Holt, 1984. An examination of the way these friendships influenced each poet’s work. J. R. Combs, commenting for Choice magazine, notes, “[Lehmann] argues convincingly that after Verlaine and Rimbaud became friends and lovers, they became more productive literarily.”

Lepelletier, Edmond Adolphe de Bouhelier. Paul Verlaine: His Life, His Work. Translated by E. M. Lang. New York: AMS Press, 1970. The only English translation of the hefty 1909 biography.

Nicolson, Harold George. Paul Verlaine. 1921. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1997. This venerable biography remains useful.

Robb, Graham. “Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Their Season in Hell.” New England Review 21, no. 4 (Fall, 2000): 7-20. An excerpt from Rimbaud, a biography of nineteenth century poet Arthur Rimbaud by Graham Robb, is presented. The selection features an altercation Rimbaud experienced with his friend and lover, poet Paul Verlaine, in which violence broke out after Rimbaud announced his intention to leave Verlaine and return to his wife and children.

Sorrell, Martin. Introduction to Selected Poems, by Paul Verlaine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Sorrell’s introduction is useful for beginning students in this bilingual edition of 170 newly translated poems by Verlaine.

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