Paul Verlaine Verlaine, Paul (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Paul Verlaine 1844-1896

(Full name: Paul Marie Verlaine; also wrote under the pseudonym Pablo de Herlagñez) French poet, essayist, autobiographer, and short story writer.

For additional information on Verlaine's career, see Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Volume 2.

A poet renowned for the fluidity and impressionist imagery of his verse, Verlaine succeeded in liberating the musicality of the French language from restrictions imposed by classical, formal structure through his use of innovative rhythms and meters. Fascinated by the visual aspects of form and color, Verlaine attempted to capture in his poems the symbolic elements of language by transforming emotion into subtle suggestion. Verlaine eschewed theorizing; yet, he believed that the function of poetry is to be evocative rather than descriptive. Although Verlaine's decadent lifestyle has often deflected attention from his literary activity, he is, for his aesthetic and intuitive verse, seen as a creative precursor of the French Symbolists.

Biographical Information

An only child, Verlaine was born in Metz to middle-class parents. After the family moved to Paris in 1851, Verlaine attended the Lycée Bonaparte (now Condorcet), earning his baccalaureate along with prizes in Latin and rhetoric. Upon graduating he took a clerical position with the city government, which allowed him ample opportunity to frequent cafes and compose poetry. At this time he associated with a group of young poets known as La Parnasse, or the Parnassians. The Parnassians adopted Théophile Gautier's doctrine of "Art for Art's Sake" and included Leconte de Lisle and Charles Baudelaire. Verlaine married in 1870, but the following year he met and became involved with the young poet Arthur Rimbaud. Verlaine abandoned his wife to travel throughout Europe with Rimbaud. Their affair ended in 1873 when Verlaine shot Rimbaud during a drunken quarrel. Verlaine was arrested and sentenced to serve two years in prison. While incarcerated, he underwent a religious conversion to Catholicism. After his release, he worked intermittently as a teacher. He died in 1896.

Major Works

Verlaine's Poèmes saturniens (1866; Saturnian poems) was a volume true to the Parnassian ideals of emotional detachment, impeccable form, and stoic objectivity. Well-received by his fellow poets, it did not sell well. With Fêtes galantes (1869; Gallant Parties) Verlaine moved away from Parnassian restrictions, creating through the use of unconventional meter, rhyme, and imagery what critics have described as "impressionistic music." According to many commentators, this volume first revealed Verlaine's poetic talents in their pure form and later established him as a precursor of the Symbolist movement. Verlaine celebrated his marriage with La bonne chanson (1870, The Good Song). During his prison term Verlaine wrote Romances sans paroles (1874; Songs without Words), a collection of verse strongly influenced by his life with Rimbaud, and Sagesse (1881; Wisdom), a group of poems about his religious crisis and conversion. Verlaine followed with a trilogy celebrating his religious growth: Amour (1888; Love), Parallèlement (1889; Parallels), and Bonheur (1891; Happiness). In all three collections Verlaine continued to develop his highly personal poetic voice.

Critical Reception

While many critics consider Verlaine one of the harbingers of the French Symbolists due to the impressionistic and evocative nature of his poetry, he denied belonging to any particular movement. Much attention has been given to Verlaine's use of familiar language in a musical and visual manner and to his ability to evoke rather than demand a response from his readers. Since his own time, sensationalistic writing about Verlaine's personal life has often derailed discussion of his numerous collections of verse and his poetic genius. Despite the many attacks on his character, Verlaine is considered a consummate poet whose extraordinary talent for fluid verse, figurative and suggestive language, and impressionistic imagery have assumed legendary stature. It was Verlaine, most critics agree, who was responsible for releasing French poetry from its technical severity and for bringing out the musicality inherent in the French language.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Poèmes saturniens [Saturnian Poems] (poetry) 1866

Les Amies [as Pablo de Herlagñez] (poetry) 1868

Fêtes galantes [Gallant Parties] (poetry) 1869

La bonne chanson [The Good Song] (poetry) 1870

Romances sans paroles [Songs without Words] (poetry) 1874

Sagesse [Wisdom] (poetry) 1881

Jadis et naguère (poetry) 1884

Les poètes maudits (essays) 1884

Les Memoires d'un veuf (prose poetry) 1886

Amour [Love] (poetry) 1888

Parallèlement [Parallels] (poetry) 1889

Bonheur [Happiness] (poetry) 1891

Chansons pour elle (poetry) 1891

Hombres (poetry) 1891

Mes hôpitaux (essays) 1891

Liturgies intimes (poetry) 1892

Dans les limbes (poetry) 1893

Elégies (poetry) 1893

Mes prisons (essays) 1893

Odes en son honeur (poetry) 1893

Confessions [Confessions of a Poet] (autobiography) 1895

Poems of Paul Verlaine (poetry) 1895

Chair (poetry) 1896

Invectives (poetry) 1896

Oeuvres complètes [Complete Works]. 5 vols. (poetry, short stories, essays, and autobiography) 1898-1903

Oeuvres posthumes. 3 vols. (poetry, essays, and letters) 1911-29

Geoffrey Brereton (essay date 1956)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Paul Verlaine," in An Introduction to the French Poets: Villon to the Present Day, 1956. Reprint by Methuen and Company, 1957, pp. 174-85.

[In the following excerpt, Brereton briefly outlines Verlaine's artistic development and literary influence.]

The deplorable Verlaine—for so, from the moral point of view, he must be considered—traversed in his life various psychological crises which, if lived experience alone were decisive, should have yielded poetry comparable to Baudelaire's. Yet, for all his self-inclusion among the poètes maudits or "doomed poets" of the eighties, Verlaine is not a Satanic, or even a tragic, figure. It is not possible to take him so seriously, nor does he often demand it. When he does, one is inclined to smile rather than to participate. It is always "pauvre Lélian" in trouble again, never a clairvoyant fellow man playing on one's own fears and vices. Certainly he can sometimes be touching, with oblique, unexpected strokes which awaken a momentary sentiment, a probably literary nostalgia, but do not last. Their effect can be quite pleasing.

He is not to be criticized for the fact that he is relatively superficial. It was part of a valid conception of poetry which he evolved to harmonize with his own temperament. He aimed at other effects than the effect in depth. His work marks the beginning of Symbolism, and if he is now more usually classed as an impressionist, in this instance the one led to the other. In any case, in spite of his openly personal and "intimate" style, he marks very clearly the end of Romanticism as poets from [Alphonse] Lamartine to [Victor] Hugo had conceived it. The moi in Verlaine no longer performs the same function as in them. It is more like the "I" in [Clément] Marot, or even in La Fontaine. It is, though on several levels higher, the "I" of the crooner and not of the guide or prophet who leads us by the hand into our own natures. . . .

Verlaine, whose reputation to-day stands considerably lower than that of his friend [Arthur Rimbaud] was an excellent poet in his own right. His work follows a curve which is clear enough in outline. There is a first phase of imitation and experiment, containing some poems stamped with the contemporary impersonality and even "impassibility", though stamped with a feather if one compares them with the massive castings of Leconte de Lisle. Then follows the truly feathery phase of La Bonne Chanson and Romances sans paroles—which is the characteristic...

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A. E. Carter (essay date 1969)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Paul Verlaine," in Verlaine: A Study in Parallels, University of Toronto Press, 1969, pp. 228-40.

[In the following essay, Carter surveys Verlaine 's career.]

Had anyone present at the funeral been asked why he admired the dead man, he would probably have answered that Verlaine carried on the work of Baudelaire, added new themes and techniques to French poetry, and freed it from the shackles of tradition. Such was his reputation during his last years. . . .

If we view these opinions nowadays with a rather sceptical eye it is not because they are false, but because they imply a kind of progress: that after Verlaine, and through him, French...

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Joanna Richardson (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Prince of Poets (1893-96)," in Verlaine, The Viking Press, 1971, pp. 323-61.

[In the following excerpt from her seminal biography of Verlaine, Richardson discusses Verlaine 's poetry in the context of his era.]

Verlaine published his first book at a moment when French poetry was dominated by the Pernassians: by a belief in technical perfection and by the creed of impassibility. Verlaine was a technician of consummate skill, he understood the value of discipline; but he could not be impassible. He was, by his nature, from the first, the most responsive and personal of poets.

To be a poet [he maintained, at the end of his...

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C. Chadwick (essay date 1973)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Verlaine and His Critics," in Verlaine, The Athlone Press, 1973, pp. 113-21.

[In the following excerpt, Chadwick traces the early critical reception of Verlaine 's poetry.]

Critical opinion of Verlaine's work varied enormously throughout his career, not always in direct ratio to the quality of his poetry. A good example of this is provided by a review of Poèmes saturniens by Barbey d'Aurevilly who, in revenge perhaps for the scathing comments Les œuvres et les Hommes had received the previous year, dismissed Verlaine as "un Baudelaire puritain . . . sans le talent net de M. Baudelaire, avec des reflects de M. Hugo et d'Alfred de Musset...

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Philip Stephan (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Verlaine's Decadent Manner," in Paul Verlaine and the Decadence, 1882-90, Manchester University Press, 1974, pp. 124-40.

[Here, Stephan describes some decadent elements and themes in Verlaine 's works.]

For a quarter of a century now it is Fêtes galantes and Romances sans paroles that Verlaine critics have esteemed the most highly. Phenomenological critics have examined the psychological tensions of Fêtes galantes, where Verlaine seeks to compensate for the amorous frustrations of real life by projecting an imaginary world of commedia dell' arte figures enjoying an endless orgy of desire and gallantry unmarred by...

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Joanna Richardson (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Verlaine: Selected Poems, translated by Joanna Richardson, Penguin Books, 1974, pp. 15-28.

[In the following excerpt, Richardson provides a critical overview of Verlaine's verse, reputation, and contribution to literature.]

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Henri Peyre (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Tragic Impressionism of Verlaine," in What Is Symbolism?, translated by Emmett Parker, University of Alabama Press, 1980, pp. 48-62.

[Peyre is a French-born critic who has lived and taught in the United States for most of his career. One of the foremost American critics of French literature, he has written extensively on modern French literature in works that blend superb scholarship with a clear style accessible to the non-specialist reader, most notably in French Novelists of Today (rev. ed. 1967). Below, he discusses stylistic aspects of Verlaine 's verse that are frequently labeled symbolist and impressionist. Peyre's commentary was originally published as...

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Enid Rhodes Peschel (essay date 1981)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Four French Symbolist Poets: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé, translated by Enid Rhodes Peschel, Ohio University Press, 1981, pp. 1-65.

[In the following excerpt, Peschel presents a detailed analysis of two of Verlaine 's poems, "Moonlight" and "Crimen Amoris," describing tensions that exist beneath the calm surface of the text.]

"Your soul is a selected landscape," Verlaine begins "Moonlight," the first of the lovely and unsettling, happy and sad, populated and lonely poems of his Fêtes galantes. This poem, which sets the ambiguous scene for that entire book, is emblematic of much of Verlaine's other...

(The entire section is 2701 words.)

Susan Taylor-Horrex (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Impossible Lands: Themes in Fêtes galantes" and "Themes in Romances sans paroles," in Verlaine: "Fêtes galantes " and "Romances sans paroles," Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1988, pp. 24-63.

[Below, Taylor-Horrex analyzes the themes of love, active versus passive modes of loving, and irresponsibility versus responsibility in Verlaine's collections of verse Fêtes galantes and Romances sans paroles.]

In essence, Verlaine's poems treat the theme of the divided self: in Fêtes galantes the passive versus the active self, in Romances sans paroles the irresponsible versus the responsible self. As such, Fêtes...

(The entire section is 8746 words.)

Laurence M. Porter (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Verlaine's Subversion of Language," in The Crisis of French Symbolism, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 76-112.

[In the following excerpt, Porter comments on Verlaine's antilinguistic stance and subversion of language.]

Verlaine has been neglected in recent years. The brevity of his poems; their songlike, informal diction; their paucity of metaphor and allusion; and their lack of those intellectual themes that are commonly held to characterize true "Symbolism"—from the beginning, all these features have tempted critics to judge his verse agreeable but minor. His alcoholism and the poetic decline of his final fifteen years, which he spent as a sodden...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Hanson, Lawrence, and Hanson, Elizabeth. Verlaine: Fool of God. New York: Random House, 1957, 394 p.

A sensitive and sympathetic biography that treats Verlaine's works as a natural outgrowth of his personality.

Harris, Frank. "Talks with Paul Verlaine." In Contemporary Portraits, pp. 269-82. New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1915.

Personal recollections of Verlaine and his wife, providing insights into both their characters.

Richardson, Joanna. Verlaine. New York: Viking, 1971, 432p.


(The entire section is 572 words.)