Paul Verlaine

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2265

Verlaine’s reputation is not as high as it once was, and this is largely because his poetry lacks the depth of that of his greatest contemporaries. Poets such as Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé were nearly as technically proficient as Verlaine, but they had thought deeply about life and the relation of poetry to life in a way that Verlaine had not. Rimbaud, contrastingly, was less technically skilled than Verlaine, but Rimbaud’s lack of emphasis on poetic form followed from a principled and logically consistent rejection of much of tradition, also indicative of serious thought.

Yet there was a disarming feature of Verlaine. He both acknowledged his shallowness and defended himself by arguing that a kind of mistiness in thought was necessary to convey the type of limpidity for which he strove in his writing. In “L’Art poétique,” published in the volume Jadis et naguère (1884), he wrote, “De la musique avant toute chose” (“Music before all things”), and stated that it is best to accomplish that by creating verse “où l’Indécis au Précis se joint” (“where the undefined and precise join”). In other words, to capture an ineffable mood it is necessary to have an underlying structure of thought that is itself rather vague and incomplete. It is hard to argue with his advice, especially since his work is preeminent in French literature in being able to convey delicate, illusive feelings.

It is important to be aware of how he speaks of a combination of the precise and imprecise, for it is not merely by the use of vague words that he creates his moods—his effects cannot be achieved so easily. He combines vagueness and concreteness in precisely the right measure. In “Il faut, voyez-vous, nous pardonner les choses” (“You see, we have to learn to pardon all”), his method of combination can be seen. (This poem, like many of his poems, takes its title from its first line.) The speaker is asking for forgiveness, and he wishes that he and the listener could return to their childish innocence. Exactly what is to be forgiven is left tremulously vague; yet, at the right moment, a concrete image is introduced, a description of frightened little girls who feel enormously guilty for a minor lapse. This image gives the speaker’s suit a poignance based in reality, though still a reality only analogically related to his continuingly unclear original sins.

Three other traits help Verlaine in his quest for distinct indistinctness: musicality, conversational tone, and natural imagery. The verbal music, which he put before all things, was that of an easy lilt and a graceful chiming of vowels and consonants that gave his verse a prettiness that few other poets have matched. In poems such as “Chanson d’automne” (“Song of Autumn”) and “Il pleure dans mon coeur” (“It Is Crying in My Heart”), the easy grace of the lines creates a melody that connects sympathetically to the tremulous passages of a weary sadness.

At the same time, adding to the poetry’s weight and thus balancing its tendency toward evanescence, is a conversational tone that conceals the artistry of the work by creating the sense of listening to a relaxed monologue. Thus, Verlaine may open a poem with an unaffected statement such as “Tournez, tournez, bons chevaux de bois” (“Turn, turn wooden horses”—carousel horses), or with a casual request, as in “Écoutez la chanson bien douce” (“Listen to the sweet song”). In order to embody this tone, Verlaine made a number of innovations and reemphases in the rather strict conventions of French verse. For one, against the more strident practices of Romanticism, he preferred weak rhymes, ones that called less attention to themselves. He broke with the tradition of having a caesura, a brief pause of sense and sound at the middle of the typical twelve-syllable line. Moreover, he worked less with the preferred twelve-count line than with shorter measures and particularly, unusually, ones of odd-numbered syllables, from five to thirteen. He also practiced enjambment (rejet in French), that is, the method of not ending a clause and sense unit at the line’s end but carrying it over to the following line. None of these alterations in standard procedures was made as a technical experiment, but each was done to deemphasize the rigidity and formality of verse (factors that proclaimed, “this is a poem”) in favor of naturalness.

This naturalness, too, helped create the necessary vagueness, which would have been harder to reach within the tougher shell of stricter methods. Verlaine also conveyed this prized quality by choosing to portray nature in its filmy moods. He begins his celebrated “En sourdine” (“Muted”) by describing a wooded glade, “Calmes dans le demi-jour/ Que les branches hautes font” (“Calmly in the twilight/ Created by the upper boughs”). “L’Heure du berger” (“Dusk”) begins “La lune est rouge au brumeux horizon;/ Dans un brouillard qui danse” (“The moon is red along the smoking horizon;/ In a shifting mist”). In each case, a shuttered half-light and the incompletely discerned shapes of foliage or of the sun draw the reader into a web of a twilight world in which formless emotions appear.

More specifically, what were the emotions of which the poet sang? It might be said that Verlaine’s feelings are not those of the will, such as hatred and passionate desire, but those of passivity, such as nostalgia, regret, and unrequited longing. Thus, in “Mon rêve familier” (“My Familiar Dream”), he dreams, literally, of a nameless woman who understands him, saying of her, “Est-elle brune, blond, ou rousse—Je l’ignore” (“Is she brunette, blond, or redheaded?—I do not know”). Perhaps even more representative is a passage in “It Is Crying in My Heart.” There, the speaker experiences a piercing yet unaccountable ache in his heart. He concludes, not by diagnosing the feeling’s cause, but by finding, “C’est bien la pire peine/ De ne savoir pourquoi . . . Mon coeur a tant de peine” (“It is by far the worst pain/ Not knowing why . . . My heart has such pain”). These lines evoke the immediacy of Verlaine’s verse, his ability to make the reader feel the keenness of an emotion whose exact dimensions, such as the dream-woman’s hair color, are withheld.

It is paradoxical, in the end, that a man whose emotional life was filled with above-average turmoil and turbulence should be found to have his chief excellence as a poet in the portrayal of moods that lack contour and are nearly indecipherable.


First published: “Green,” 1874 (collected in One Hundred and One Poems, 1999)

Type of work: Poem

The speaker presents a beautiful woman with gifts, his relation to her growing gradually more intimate and more mysterious.

“Green,” written in the period of Verlaine’s escapades with Rimbaud, can be read as the recording of an impulse toward reconciliation with his wife. It is a complex piece of three four-line stanzas, in which each phrase both fills in more details of the speaker’s immediate relation to the woman being addressed and, simultaneously, shrouds further in mystery the couple’s ultimate connection.

The poem can also be read, in terms of literary history, as an interesting play with the tradition of the harsh mistress. The male Romantic poets, following a convention dating to the Middle Ages, often portrayed unnaturally cruel lovers, who remorselessly broke the hearts of the tortured but loyal lyricists. Verlaine unveils two variations on this motif. First, while the traditional poet’s torments as he described them were undeserved, the speaker in “Green” seems to have some unspecified trespass on his conscience and, so, cannot avoid his sense that rejection by the addressed woman would be richly merited. Second, there is no evidence in the poem, as there would be in the typical Romantic lament, that the addressee is actually disdainful. It is only that the poet, possibly misled by guilt, anticipates that she will be. Thus, in the poem’s opening, the speaker offers her a beautiful plait of flowers, fruits, and sprays (including, as an afterthought, his heart); he then pleads that she not break the offering and cast it aside: “Ne le déchirez pas avec vos deux mains blanches” (“Do not break it with your two white hands”). Such cruelty, however, seems more in the poet’s mind than in reality, since, as it happens, she does not spurn the peace offering and will allow even greater liberties later.

In the first stanza, all that is clear is that the speaker has come in from the garden. The second quatrain suggests that the speaker has been on a long journey, which, complexly, can be seen as endearing him to the woman, as he is weary and pitiably cold with the morning dew; but it may also estrange him somewhat from the listening woman, whom he may have deserted in some sense. Whatever the mix of these elements, he has advanced enough in her estimation—each stanza notes the speaker’s greater physical proximity to the woman—to request that he might lay himself at her feet.

In the last stanza, their bodies move still closer. Verlaine confesses to the reader that she has kissed him, as if in her joy at his recovery from absence, and then, trading on this intimacy, begs that he might lay his head on her breast.

Two interesting points about relationships appear at the end. The speaker remains a pleader. No matter what ground he has crossed in reviving their old feelings, he is still as unsure and abject as he had been at the outset. Verlaine’s view of the game of love seems to be that every conquest of a degree of intimacy leads the conqueror merely to another field with a new series of hurdles blocking communion. The second point is that the ending reveals that the speaker’s desired haven is rest on a maternal bosom. The loved woman, who is young, merges back toward the mother and does so very naturally since the connection suggested up until the end has been loving but not erotic. Without negating the originally portrayed situation between adult man and woman, this return delicately indicates how such scenes, whether of reconciliation or tidy closeness, may be lit from within by evergreen reminiscences of childhood passions.

“My God Said to Me”

First published: “Mon Dieu m’a dit,” 1881 (collected in Selected Poems, 1948)

Type of work: Poem

Jesus asks for the addressee’s love, citing His sufferings on Golgotha as reasons to embrace His cause.

“My God Said to Me” (also translated as “’Son, Thou Must Love Me See’—My Saviour Said”) shows interesting variations on earlier Verlaine themes. Many poems in Romances Without Words are in the form of a plea, the speaker begging an imagined listener for some favor, some tenderness. In Verlaine’s sequence of ten religious sonnets, of which “My God Said to Me” is the first, appearing in Sagesse (1881; the volume following Romances Without Words), it is God who is doing the praying. Jesus Christ is begging the listener, who is presumably Verlaine, since he claimed that these poems marked his religious conversion, to love Him.

Another daring departure from Verlaine’s customary style found in this poem is that the emotion felt is presented in a blunt, raw way, which contrasts markedly with the ineffability of emotion that reigns in most of his pieces. It is as if, where Verlaine finds humans to be inexhaustibly vague in their moods, he is compelled to portray God as knowing His own mind. Thus, in the first line, Jesus states forthrightly, “Il faut m’aimer” (“It is necessary to love Me”—addressing the listener).

In keeping with Verlaine’s emphasis on sensation over thought, what God brings forth to motivate the listener to become a Christian are not reasons but wounds. Jesus stands, as it were, in front of the poet as He did before Doubting Thomas and has him examine His pierced side and torn heart.

There is, however, more than show-and-tell to this poem. It is a sonnet, a fourteen-line poem with five rhythmic units per line. Sonnets have been known for compressed arguments that lead to something of a twist in the concluding thought. Verlaine accepts this tradition, though the argument that he presents is rather startling. He has Jesus pass beyond listing His afflictions to state that the world is primarily a place of the flesh and that, therefore, suffering is what counts above all things. It is the type of argument that would certainly strike a sensualist such as Verlaine. The poem’s ending twist is that, to drive the argument’s point home, Jesus says that His own sufferings are very much like Verlaine’s own. He tells the poet, “N’ai-je pas sangloté ton angoisse suprême?” (“Have not I sobbed in your supreme anguish?”) The line can be taken to indicate either that Jesus’ tortures have been as bad as the poet’s or that Jesus has somehow been suffering Verlaine’s troubles in His own flesh.

Certainly, in one sense the ending smacks of the writer’s self-importance, as if God had to prove that He had suffered as much as Verlaine. Yet in the context of the whole poem, that is only one example of the poem’s most remarkable feature: the intimacy of the appeal from Jesus to a sinner. The Son of God frames His pleas to the bent of the listener and loses no dignity in so doing.

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Verlaine, Paul (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)