Geoffrey Brereton (essay date 1956)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1057
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 Verlaine at his best. After this he embarks on his long adventure into piety, which must be described as a one-sided flirtation with a God whom he knew only through such edifying works as the eight-volume Catechism of Perseverance which the prison chaplain gave him to read. Verlaine, of all people, could never take fire through a duenna and the result in his poetry is too often the cultivation of the hackneyed symbol or else that tearful diffuseness which was always the defect of his virtues. His faith, in any case, brought no stiffening into either his concepts or his vocabulary—and how much that was needed is evident in nearly all the poems he published in the last eight years of his life. Not that these are unreadable. The mordant shaft, the humour, the direct sensuality, the touching piety, the growingly conscious but sometimes amateurish echoes of [François] Villon, still give life to the occasional poem if not to the mass. But really by this time Verlaine had disintegrated, and what flies about us as we progress through his increasingly fluffedout verse is no longer feathers but kapok. To the student of the literary scene of the nineties, such collections as Dédicaces, Invectives and Epigrammes have an immense interest. They are highly ingenious as verse and sometimes very funny. But that is incidental to whatever pleasure one may take in poetry.
When he was first published, Verlaine was described by a hostile critic, Barbey d'Aurevilly, as: "A puritan Baudelaire—an unfortunate and comic combination, without the brilliant talents of M. Baudelaire, and with reflections here and there of M. Hugo and Alfred de Musset. . . .
The religious poems in Sagesse have moved many Catholics and in a few of his best sonnets Verlaine is not greatly inferior to the French religious poets of the late Renaissance. Yet his dialogue with the Creator lacks animation: one misses both the battle of doubt and the ecstatic resignation of the true mystic. Biographically, of course, it soon became apparent that neither of these was for Verlaine. As he goes downhill his characteristics become over-stressed. The aery vagueness of his youth becomes a middle-aged flabbiness; his bright-eyed sensuality becomes grossness; his glancing allusions, just chatter. The volume Amour contains a moving sequence of poems on Lucien Létinois, here regarded as an adopted son. His reflections after Lucien's death might be compared to Hugo's meditations after the death of his daughter Léopoldine. At first the contrast, the complete lack of "eloquence" and emphasis, is refreshing. Here grief speaks naturally. . . .
But it becomes obvious that "naturalness" is not enough. Who is this speaking—a poet who can either ennoble or illuminate the occasion, or an old woman, loquacious, sentimental, and querulously pious? Only pathos is communicated and other poets have accustomed us to expect more from poetry.
Nevertheless, Verlaine's work as a whole still interests for its power of sentimental and visual suggestion, its flickering use of imagery, its easy-going rhythms and language. If Hugo had once "put a red cap on the old dictionary", Verlaine went much further, writing argot and slang as freely as he evidently spoke them. This enlivens but also dates him. The current slang of the eighteen-eighties—except for a few words which are always with us—has faded while not yet acquiring the historical interest of, say, Villon's slang. His poetic stock, for a long time quoted over-highly, has now fallen much lower than [Stéphane] Mallarmé's or Rimbaud's. Yet his influence on twentieth-century poetry has been as great as either of theirs. It is felt from [Guillaume] Apollinaire to [Louis] Argon, while his vein if not precisely his influence can be discovered in many of the poets who have rejected the appearance of conscious art to give the first place to fantaisie.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628
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.
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.
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.
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.
A. E. Carter (essay date 1969)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2335
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 verse would be better than ever. Eighty years have passed, and such has not been the case. The exact reverse is closer to the truth: Verlaine, with [Arthur] Rimbaud and [Stéphane] Mallarmé, was the last great French poet. There have been poets in France since he lived, but none of them reach his stature. Not through lack of talent; they were simply lesser men. Much the same thing has happened in England, where Housman and Eliot, brilliant in so many ways, cannot match the sheer bulk and force of the great Victorians. And when all is said, were Verlaine's innovations really as extraordinary as his contemporaries thought? Most of them, examined with care, turn out to be rather trifling: he sometimes composed in lines of 5, 9, 11, 13, and even 17 syllables, instead of the more usual 8, 10, or 12. It was the impair he recommended in "Art poétique. . . . "
And in obedience to another precept of the same poem, he demanded greater freedom of rhyme, by which he meant the right to rhyme weakly or adequately instead of richly.
In some of his best work he follows these rules (if we can call them that): five of the nine pieces of Ariettes oubliées are written in impair, and the rhymes are often weak . . . , depending on vowel sounds alone with no supporting consonant. But his precepts lose something of their force when we discover that three of the other poems in the same section, including the most "Verlainian" of all ("Il pleure dans mon coeur") are not in impair and frequently have adequate rhymes. And this is true of most of his work: "Mon Rêve familier," "Chanson d'automne," "Mon Dieu m'a dit," all of Fêtes galantes except three ("Mandoline," "Colombine," "Ensourdine")—verse with less of heaviness and pose than anything else he produced. The claim that impair and weak rhyme can be used to blur the contours of sense and produce a vague and dreamy impression is one of those paradoxes a clever man invents and others believe. Unless a poem is already vague and dreamy, it is unlikely that any technique will make it so. "Art poétique," as Verlaine himself admitted, was a song; he never intended it to be taken too seriously.
He also liked to override the traditional caesura when he wrote alexandrines. Sometimes it is displaced, falling elsewhere than at the sixth syllable; more rarely deliberately bridged by a single word (enjambement sur la césure) as in "Et la tigresse épouvantable d'Hyrcanie" of Fêtes galantes. But reverence for the caesura was never an absolute, even in classical days. There may not be an example of enjambement sur la césure in Racine, but his tragedies contain numerous lines where the essential pause occurs elsewhere than at the sixth syllable. And for that matter, Victor Hugo had claimed credit for this particular "reform" long before Verlaine wrote ("Réponse à un acte d'accusation"). More important was Verlaine's use of rejet or "overflow" at the end of his lines. He was perhaps the first French poet to use this trick with entire success, and it enabled him to obtain effects of great beauty. . . .
Verlaine practised it with a skill so perfect that one suspects it must have corresponded to a fundamental need of heart and ear. And his more experimental work (Fêtes galantes, Romances sans paroles) does not contain the most striking examples. They are found in Sagesse where they fit the context admirably well, creating a tone of ecstatic adoration, particularly in the "Mon Dieu m'a dit" cycle. The ease and grace of such poems as "Clair de lune," "La Lune blanche," and "Mon Rêve familier," are, I think, more apparent than real. Because such poems express nothing in particular, tell no story, and are mere translations of mood and sensation, we suppose their technique to be as vague, hazy, and harmonious as the impression that technique creates. But on examination, they turn out to obey most of the regulations, such as alternate masculine and feminine rhymes, and lines of equal syllabification. For this reason alone they are triumphs of poetic art. French prosody is touchy and demanding; a poet who can obey all its rules and still give an impression of shimmering and evanescent reverie is a genius indeed.
There is little else to say of Verlaine as an innovator. When theory was in question he was much less daring, much more of a traditionalist, than his fiery young admirers supposed. . . .
Moréas concluded that he was an obstinate Parnassian, who had never progressed further than Baudelaire, with no influence on contemporary poetry, and the end of a line rather than a beginning; a man without ideas, theories, or a reasoned programme.
Coming from a second-rater like Moréas (second-rate by comparison with Verlaine), such criticism appears remarkably brash. But it has some truth. Verlaine's importance in literature, whether French or universal, arises from neither his technical experiments nor his influence on later writers. The experiments were means of self-expression, vehicles for his genius, but not the genius itself. And, unlike Baudelaire, he did not found a line of poets and his influence, when it existed, was almost invariably bad. . . .
There is no rhetoric in Verlaine, only a series of devices for avoiding it. Enjambement was one device, used particularly at the end of the lines. Rhetoric is for strong nerves, not for a sensibility preoccupied with the past, eternally alive to the suggestions of memory. Verlaine dwelt in recollections of his first years; the escapades of his life and the beauties of his verse were both manifestations of the same wish-neurosis, the same desire for a jouissance de néant meilleure que toute plénitude. Hence his style, hence the eternal parallels between life and art: they were mutually nostalgic and even hallucinogenic. And hence too (since reality and illusion are very different things), his constant failure to adjust to ordinary living and the catastrophes that attended all his sentimental adventures. . . .
His books were the direct and inevitable results of his temperament: artificial refuges, constructed according to the emotional habits he had contracted under the bell-glass of Elisa's [Moncomble, his cousin] affection. Each shows the persistence of memory in a man who never grew up, each is an attempt to adjust reality to the data memory supplies. All recreate in some form or other the never-forgotten paradise: ideal love (Poèmes saturniens); an eighteenth-century dreamworld (Fêtes galantes); harmonic suggestion (Romances sans paroles); union with God (Sagesse, Bonheur); life with Rimbaud or Létinois (Parallèlement, Amour); a flesh-padded universe of willing beauties (Chansons pour Elle, Chair, Femmes, Hombres). All the best poems spring from an involuntary nervous tremor, provoked by sensation; it cracks the glass of reality and the old obsession rises like a djin from a bottle. And always, behind the glimmering illusion, flows the chill wind of insecurity, the terror of time and death.
Verse of this kind, evolving from such capricious sources, inevitably has serious limitations, not the least of which is a disconcerting tendency to dry up, leaving the poet with no other resource than silence or uninspired labour. He is never free from the matrix of infancy, and even at its best, his work is often morbid and green-sick. At times he even distrusts his own genius: Verlaine sought to evade his more than once—as when he rushed into marriage, terrified by his passion for Lucien Viotti; or spent his year with Rimbaud lamenting the security he had lost; or again when, overtaken by disaster and locked in a cell, he alternated between exquisite inspiration ("Le ciel est pardessus le toit") and the copious mediocrity of the récits diaboliques. Paralysed by subconscious trauma, he was not only powerless to face the present, but, at times, even to take advantage of his own sublime gifts: they half-frightened him. He was torn between opposites; he wanted illusion and reality, spiritual adventure with Rimbaud (iconoclasm, liberty, "amours de tigre," the flaming blue eyes and the demi-god's body) and also the bourgeois comforts of home, complete with hot tea, a good fire, and a natty little woman. That is to say, he wanted them all until he got them. Then, like Emma Bovary, he wanted something else. There was no end to his powers of self-deception. It would perhaps be an exaggeration to attribute all this to the childhood fixation. But that was the initial flaw, the minute fissure in the dyke which, enlarged by other pressures, admitted a whole sea of anarchic passion. He was never happy with either side of his nature: Mathilde bored him; Rimbaud filled him with guilt and remorse. Neither reconciled dream and action. Neither could, since the dream was so distorted by illusion as to correspond to nothing factual. This memory obsession is one of Romanticism's most poisonous and seductive legacies. The tough, classical centuries—the seventeenth, the eighteenth—had no past; they lived three-dimensionally. A fourth dimension, time, has since been included. It is no passive addition, like a new room in a house, but rather tends to control and even corrupt the other three, as though it were less a room that a hypogeum of badly embalmed corpses, wafting their stench throughout the building. There is a good deal of this kind of smell in Verlaine, unmitigated by any intellectual ventilation. His art belongs to the general reinterpretation of aesthetic values which set in with the waning of scientific positivism. It gave us Impressionist painting, the music of Debussy, Fauré, and Duparc, the poetry of Mallarmé, and the prose of Marcel Proust, not to mention the philosophy of Henri Bergson. Both Proust and Bergson were sensationists; Proust, certainly, was as much fascinated by the past as Verlaine himself. All three used sensation to unchain memory and put it to work in a creative or divinatory way. In more senses than one, Verlaine's poetry is another "recherche du temps perdu," a further example of "matière et mémoire."
But there was an essential difference: Proust and Bergson were less interested in sensation as an end than as a means; they used it to reach a better understanding of illusion and reality. Their aims were objective; they were intent on plumbing the mysteries of consciousness, personality, and the creative process. There was no such purpose in Verlaine. The lack of it was one reason for his break with the Symbolists. They wanted a programme, and he had none. He lived instinctively. In his deepest work (Sagesse) the ideas were not his own but those supplied by the Athanasian Creed. He wandered into unknown country almost by accident, and made no attempt to chart it. He never turned on reality the penetrating gaze of a Baudelaire or the fiery glance of a Rimbaud. His nature was submissive and masochistic—"feminine," as he told [F. A.] Cazals.
He was Baudelaire's disciple; he borrowed some of his ideas and techniques, but only those which heighten sensation, like the theory of correspondances. The two men had no other point of contact. The dark world of despair and unrest which yawns throughout Les Fleurs du mal was not for Verlaine, nor the refusal to accept half-answers, nor the heroic cynicism of "Le Voyage." . . .
[Verlaine] had a prodigious lyric talent, and not many poets can rival him for sheer virtuosity, not even Baudelaire or Rimbaud. But it was the virtuosity of a child prodigy who never ceased being a child prodigy. The more we read him, the more we perceive that his achievements depended on this fundamental immaturity. His shiftlessness, his tantrums, his inability to resist seduction, and his raw sensitivity were all essential to his verse, even his religious verse. Raw sensitivity is a prerogative of childhood; no amount of sophistication could have given birth to the poignant sincerity of Sagesse or the alluring music of Romances sans paroles. .. . He wrote according to the dictates of a nervous erethism forever alert to the half-felt and the intangible: perfume, sound, colour, light and shade, remembered sexuality. Once involved with a subject demanding objectivity, he was beyond his depth and laboured in vain. As far as such a thing is possible, he was a poet of the echo—echoes of dead voices, silent music, joy realized through sadness.
It was a limited range; these are the qualities of frustration, with nothing epic or tragic about them. The past lay across his talent like a fallen column on a growth of acanthus:
Pour soulever un poids si lourd,
Sisyphe, il faudrait ton courage . . .
And Verlaine was no Sisyphus. Even had he been, the obstruction was too massive; he would have spent his forces in sterile effort. There was no escape but the one he chose—illusion, the affreux soulagement of sex and alcohol, the quest for self-oblivion in the personalities of others. He was divided against himself, split into "parallels" by the cumbrous burden. And since parallels never meet, there could be no fusion, no supreme revelation like Les Fleurs du mal. A sadder fate than Baudelaire's, because so totally unheroic. Yet defeat under such conditions was not absolute. It even had elements of victory. The crushed plant was not dead: year after year it sent up its shoots and its leaves, mysterious and indestructible; and with what exquisite foliage it bordered and concealed the unyielding stone!
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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
Joanna Richardson (essay date 1971)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2422
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 life], I think one must live intensely, in every way—and remember it . . .
As I see it, then, the poet must be absolutely sincere, but completely conscientious as a writer. He must hide nothing of himself; but, in his honesty, he must show all the dignity which can be expected of him. He must show his concern for this dignity, as far as he can, if not in the perfection of form, at least in the imperceptible but effective effort towards this high and demanding ideal: I was going to say this virtue.
A poet—myself—has attempted this task. Perhaps he has failed, but he has certainly done all he can to come out of it with honour.
Verlaine, in his best work, had practised this creed. He had lived intensely, and no poet had recorded his life more consistently. At times, it is true, he had hinted rather than recorded, he had suppressed when he might have told, he had spoken when he might have been silent. He had been ambiguous and exhibitionist, he had occasionally played a part. But his life and his poetry cannot be separated, and he reflects his changing moods, his inconsistencies, his spiritual progress, as much as his permanent qualities and his weaknesses; and this he does in a way that no French poet had done before him. Beside the poems of Verlaine, the more personal poems of Hugo sound like theatrical rhetoric, the melancholy and piety of Lamartine sound dated, academic and unconvincing. Musset had lived intensely, as a poet should; but Musset, as Verlaine emphasised, had not given himself completely in his work, and Musset had not been a perfect artist, for he had not laboured to achieve perfect form.
Of all his predecessors in French poetry, it was Baudelaire who was Verlaine's spiritual ancestor. There was a manliness, an intellectual depth, a spiritual power in Baudelaire with which Verlaine was simply not endowed. Verlaine could not rise to the majesty of the poems which Baudelaire addressed to Mme Sabatier; and he did not approach the fierce, exotic passion of the poems to Jeanne Duval. Baudelaire's despair and grief, his anguish of soul, were more bitter and more profound. But there remains a remarkable affinity between their poems of mood. Verlaine was instinctively in sympathy with him. Poèmes saturniens was a tribute to this poetic kinship. Verlaine, like Baudelaire, recognised the correspondences between the arts, and between the senses; Verlaine, like Baudelaire, recorded the inescapable mal du siècle.
The profound originality of Charles Baudelaire is, to my mind [Verlaine had written], his powerful presentation of the essential modern man: . . . the physical man of to-day, as he has been made by the refinements of an excessive civilisation: modern man, with his sharpened, vibrant senses, his painfully subtle mind, his intellect steeped in tobacco, his blood burned up by alcohol .. . It is, I repeat, Charles Baudelaire who presents the sensitive man, and he presents him as a type, or, if you like, as a hero . . . The future historian of our age should study Les Fleurs du mal with pious attention. It is the quintessence, the extreme concentration of a whole element of this century.
This was not only an acute assessment of Baudelaire; it proved to be an unconscious self-portrait. Where Baudelaire had recorded the Parisian of the 1840s and 1850s, Verlaine recorded the man of the following generation: the man who lived through the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris, the Commune and the Republic, the outbursts of anarchy, the moods of defeat, disgust and despair, the aimlessness, the excessive chauvinism. A hundred different and often conflicting influences were felt. It was an increasingly philistine and materialistic age which judged success, American fashion by money. It was the age of 'carnal spirit and unhappy flesh', which welcomed Naturalism and the novels of Zola. It was also the age of aesthetes like Robert de Montesquiou and Huysmans' Des Esseintes. There were influences from abroad: the influence of English aestheticism, of German music, of Russian nihilism. There were disturbing signs of technical progress. The generation of Verlaine lived in the disarray of a stage of transition; as Raynaud observed: 'It was a searching, artistic, refined, but unstable generation; and, drawn by diverse influences, it struggled desperately, in the general débâcle, in search of some or other certainty .. . Verlaine is the voice of this generation .. . He reflects its vain agitation, its incoherence and its ungovernable impotence.'
He did so in a manner that was entirely his own. If Baudelaire had inspired him at the start of his career, Rimbaud had reminded him that poetry must be distilled till it became a new language and expressed the hitherto unknown. Rimbaud—like Baudelaire—had entered Verlaine's life with marvellous precision. He was not only supreme in Verlaine's emotional existence, he was also his poetic kin.
Baudelaire and Rimbaud were Verlaine's literary mentors. Verlaine's own life, brief though it was, embraced a world of experience. He lived feverishly, and, as he told Vance Thompson, he wrote en fièvre. As Arthur Symons recognised:
Few men ever got so much out of their lives, or lived so fully, so intensely, with such a genius for living. That, indeed, is why he was a great poet. Verlaine was a man who gave its full value to every moment, who got out of every moment all that that moment had to give him. It was not always, not often, perhaps, pleasure. But it was energy, the vital force of a nature which was always receiving and giving out, never at rest, never passive, or indifferent, or hesitating .. . He sinned, and it was with all his humanity; he repented, and it was with all his soul. And to every occurrence of the day, to every mood of the mind, to every impulse of the creative instinct, he brought the same unparalleled sharpness of sensation.
As a literary critic, Verlaine had introduced Mallarmé, Rimbaud and Corbière to the French public; and Les Poètes maudits, with his eager, repeated appreciations of Rimbaud, and his early assessment of Baudelaire, were his most significant contributions to criticism. The twenty-seven biographies of poets and men of letters which he wrote for the series Les Hommes d'aujourd'hui were often generous, but they were not profound. Verlaine, as he said himself, was not a critic, he was a man of feeling.
As a writer of prose, he is little more than an unreliable source for the biographer or the literary historian. Charles Le Goffic wrote: 'His prose works, rough and strange, with a syntax dictated only by the impression of the moment, will always surprise those who have not heard him talk. They will delight the others: they were exactly like his conversation, unpredictable, with all its brackets and parentheses. In a few minutes it went through every shade of mischievousness and passion.'
As a poet, he had done service to modern literature. He had restored the free use of metre: given back to poets the unfettered use of their instrument of work. He had deliberately broken every rule of prosody, used every metre from five to thirteen syllables; he had used combinations of metres which had not been used since the sixteenth century. He had done as he pleased with cesuras and enjambements, with masculine and feminine rhymes. He had introduced foreign words, and vulgarisms. He had refined the French language until it became a new instrument in his hands. 'Suggestion,' said [Stephane] Mallarmé. 'That is the dream. It is the perfect use of this mystery which constitutes the symbol.' Verlaine used his marvellous technical powers, as well as his instincts, to record suggestion. Only his two literary mentors, and, perhaps, Gérard de Nerval, or Mallarmé, understood the art of mystery and suggestion like Verlaine. He understood it in his first book, in "Monrêve familier"; he understood it, perfectly, in "Kaléidoscope" in Jadis et Naguère, where a broken mosaic of memories crowds upon him, some apparently trivial, some serious, all of them invested with an undefined, disturbing significance.
Ce sera comme quand on rêve et qu'on s'éveille!
Et que l'on se rendort et que l'on rêve encor
De la même féerie et du même décor,
L'été, dans l'herbe, au bruit moiré d'un vol d'abeille . . .
No-one else catches, like Verlaine, this infinitely fragile state between dreaming and waking, between imagination and reality. He expresses a thought before it is formulated, an instinct before it is recognised, an emotion which has yet to be acknowledged. 'In many short poems which are like the tremors of a soul, caught as they pass, it is hardly Verlaine who is talking any more, it is some or other human soul, impersonal, intemporal, it is almost the soul of things gaining awareness of itself in the soul of a man.'
The best of Verlaine's landscapes are, again, the landscapes of the soul, the "Paysages tristes" of Poèmes saturniens, some of the 'Ariettes oubliées' in Romances sans paroles, and certain poems in Sagesse: "Le son du cor s'afflige vers les bois . . . ," or "L'échelonnement des haies". "Bournemouth", in Amour, is both a landscape and an impression of serenity. Symons wrote wisely that, to Verlaine, 'physical sight and spiritual vision, by some strange alchemical operation, were one'. Fêtes galantes, which was one of the most accomplished of his books, contains a series of tiny pictures of an eighteenth-century world; and yet these are not mere transpositions of art. They give a brilliant suggestion of theatre, of elegant and artificial revelry, of fugitive pleasures watched by a hard and brooding destiny. They are charming, in the style of [Antoine] Watteau, delicately licentious, in the manner of [Jean] Fragonard; and yet they are undoubtedly disturbing. They create an atmosphere as much as a scene.
Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et berga masques . . .
There is a poem written by Verlaine on the threshold of manhood: a poem which he alone could have written. It is at once the landscape of a soul, and a microcosm of the world which Watteau and his contemporaries painted. It is the first poem in Fêtes galantes. The last poem, "Colloque sentimental", concentrates within itself a world of anguish: an anguish half explained, yet completely told. It is a marvel of suggestive power.
No French poet has recorded certain moods with the exquisite touch of Verlaine: the vague melancholy of Chanson d'automne and "II pleure dans mon cœur . . . "; the vast peace of "La lune blanche . . . ", written for Mathilde [Manté, his wife]: a poem which was music long before French composer [Gabriel] Fauré discovered it. In such poems as these, and in "C'est l'extase langoureuse . . . ", which he wrote for Rimbaud, and in the poem of infinite regret which he wrote, in prison: "Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit. . . ," Verlaine is unequalled in French literature. Simple in word and form, he seems to write almost without effort. In their own inherent melody, in their emotive power, his lyrics come as close as any poems have ever come to music.
As a poet of love, Verlaine is uneven. The Lesbian poems of the early years are written with gentle tact, under the influence of Baudelaire. The poems he addressed to Mathilde generally suggest a suitor who is trying to conform. The poems to his mistresses, in his later years, were set down when his mind was dulled, his inspiration gone. They are sometimes trivial, sometimes crude; only rarely (one recalls a fragment in Le Livre posthume) does Verlaine remind us that he was a great poet. Verlaine wrote no poem to a woman which, in intensity of feeling, approached the poem that he wrote on the rumour of Rimbaud's death. "Laeti et Errabundi" was not simply a record of physical passion, it was a tribute to the only complete relationship in his life.
In 1923 Georg Brandes, the Danish critic, wrote: 'The historian . . . will probably point out the ground swell which seems to be bearing modern French literature towards Rome and Catholicism. It seems to me at the moment to be almost entirely ultra-Catholic; it had already been so since the conversion of Verlaine . . . To-day Paul Claudel is setting the tone for French literature, and it is the same tone.' It was ironic that Claudel should be mentioned. At the thought of Verlaine and Rimbaud, he reached instinctively for his chaplet; and he found hypocrisy in Sagesse. Perhaps, as a religious poet, Verlaine has been overestimated. His religious poems lack the conviction of some of his love poems, the originality of his landscapes and his poems of mood. Some critics maintain that his dialogue with God in Sagesse is the height of his poetic achievement; yet, honest though his conversion was, there remains a certain convention about the work. It was remarkable that Sagesse appeared when Naturalism was at its height; it was remarkable that he should write a book religious in inspiration. And yet the poems in Sagesse which one now recalls are not the more theological pieces: they are, yet again, the poems of mood and suggestion, the recollection of forbidden pleasures.
'L'art, mes enfants, c'est d'être absolument soi-même.' So Verlaine had explained in Bonheur. No poet had been more himself than Verlaine. He recorded all his life, all his raptures and regrets, all his bitterness, licentiousness and melancholy, all his humour, violence, weakness, and simplicity. Verlaine's was at times a subtle simplicity. It was that of a child; it was also that of a consummate poet.
For his genius is not in doubt. French poetry was changed by Verlaine. As [Emile] Verhaeren said: 'He fused himself so profoundly with beauty, that he left upon it an imprint which was new and henceforth eternal.'
C. Chadwick (essay date 1973)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2967
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 ici et là. Tel est M. Paul Verlaine. Pas un zeste de plus". He was of course right to recognise the influence of older writers in Poèmes saturniens but he was wrong to condemn the volume as being entirely derivative. His refusal, or inability, to recognise any original talent in Poèmes saturniens was so deep-rooted that he even quoted disparagingly the final line of "Mon Rêve familier", one of the most successful poems in the volume, in order to make a cheap jibe at Verlaine: '"Il a dit quelque part, en parlant de je ne sais qui—cela du reste n'importe guère—'Elle a l'inflexion des voix chères qui se sont tues". Quand on écoute M. Verlaine, on désirerait qu'il n'eût jamais d'autre inflexion que celle-là".
Other critics, however, were more perceptive. Jules de Goncourt wrote to Verlaine: "Merci pour vos vers. Ils rêvent et peignent. Mélancolies d'artistes ciselées par un poète . . . Vous avez ce vrai don: la rareté de l'idée et la ligne exquise des mots". Leconte de Lisle too recognised the technical skill that Verlaine had displayed: "Vos Poèmes sont d'un vrai poète, d'un artiste très habile déjà et bientôt maître de l'expression". Banville and Sainte-Beuve both stressed the originality of Poèmes saturniens—"Vous visez à faire ce qui n'a pas été fait", said the latter, whilst the former wrote: "Je suis certain que vous êtes un poète et que votre originalité est réelle". In support of their compliments, unfortunately, both of them picked out poems which are by no means the best or the most original in Poèmes saturniens, Banville expressing a preference for the three rather trivial poems "Femme et Chatte", "Jésuitisme" and "La Chanson des Ingénues" and Sainte-Beuve choosing two of the most clearly derivative poems in the whole volume, "César Borgia" and "La Mort de Philippe II". It may be, therefore, that their flattering comments should be taken with a grain of salt as simply the polite remarks inevitable in letters of thanks for the copies of his first volume of verse that Verlaine had sent them.
Nevertheless, Poèmes saturniens had attracted favorable attention in literary circles and Verlaine's feet seemed firmly set on the ladder leading to success. He took a further step up this ladder with the publication of Fêtes galantes in 1869 which brought from Victor Hugo the comment: "Que de choses délicates et ingénieuses dans ce joli petit livre". La Bonne Chanson, however, had the misfortune to be printed just before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in September 1870 and it was not published, in the sense of being made available to the public, until 1872 when hostilities had finally ended after the bitter civil strife of the Commune. By then Rimbaud had arrived in Paris and the relationship between him and Verlaine undoubtedly harmed the latter's reputation, particularly after July 1872 when the two poets left Paris to live together in London until the quarrel between them in July 1873. Verlaine's subsequent arrest and eighteen months' imprisonment in Belgium meant that he was still further ostracised as far as literary circles in Paris were concerned. . . . [He] himself wrote, in a poem composed in prison in 1874:
Las! je suis à l'Index et dans les dédicaces
Me voici Paul V . . . pur et simple . . .
It is not therefore surprising that when Romances sans Paroles was published in March 1874 it was a disastrous failure and was completely ignored by the press and by the public. Eighteen months later, in October 1875, the poems Verlaine sent for inclusion in the third volume of Le Parnasse Contemporain were rejected by the editorial committee made up of Banville, Coppée and Anatole France. Since Verlaine had figured in the first two volumes in 1866 and 1869 this was a particularly cruel rebuff, and a particularly undeserved one as the admirable sonnet "Beauté des femmes . . . ", later included in Sagesse, is known to have been one of the poems submitted and the others probably included those written at the beginning of Verlaine's imprisonment, which are generally agreed to be among his finest work. But this was not the view expressed by Anatole France who rejected the poems with the words: "Non. L'auteur est indigne et les vers sont des plus mauvais qu'on ait vus".
Sagesse suffered the same fate as Romances sans Paroles when it was published in 1881. By then Verlaine had been away from Paris for almost ten years, so long a lapse of time that Zola, in an article which also appeared in 1881, referred to him as if he were dead: 'M. Verlaine, aujourd'hui disparu, avait débuté avec éclat par les Poèmes saturniens. Celui-là a été une victime de Baudelaire, et on dit même qu'il a poussé l'imitation pratique du maître jusqu'à gâter sa vie'.
It was not until the following year, 1882, when Verlaine returned to Paris and began to mingle once again in literary circles that he started to re-establish his reputation as a poet. . . .
In 1885 Banville wrote, with regard to Jadis et Naguère which had just been published: "Parfois vous côtoyez de si près le rivage de la poésie que vous risquez de tomber dans la musique. Il est possible que vous ayez raison", an often quoted remark which admirably defines much of Verlaine's poetry, although it is less applicable to Jadis et Naguère than to earlier volumes. It was this musicality of Verlaine's poetry which was now constantly stressed. "There are poems of Verlaine" wrote his English admirer, Arthur Symons, in 1899, "which go as far as verse can go to become pure music". But Symons also emphasised another feature of Verlaine's poetry: "a simplicity of language which is the direct outcome of a simplicity of temperament. These two aspects of simplicity and musicality had already been noted in a striking way by one of the leading French critics of the day, Jules Lemaître, who said of Verlaine, in an essay first published in La Revue Bleue in January 1888 and included the following year in the fourth volume of a series entitled Les Contemporains: "C'est un barbare, un sauvage, un enfant . . . seulement cet enfant a une musique dans l'âme et, à certains jours, il entend des voix que nul avant lui n'avait entendues". Anatole France quoted this remark with approval in an article in Le Temps in 1890 (later published in La Vie Littéraire in 1899) and added: "Il y a quelque chance qu'on dise un jour de lui ce qu'on dit aujourd'hui de Françpis Villon auquel il faut bien le comparer: "C'était le meilleur poète de son temps'".
But in thus making such lavish amends for his unnecessarily harsh rejection of the poems Verlaine had submitted to him some fifteen years before, Anatole France was perhaps being over-generous. The second half of the nineteenth century in France was particularly rich in poets and two of them, Rimbaud and Mallarmé, have a stronger claim than Verlaine to be considered as "les meilleurs poètes de leur temps".
In his Symbolist Manifesto published in Le Figaro on 18 September 1886 Jean Moréas had defined Verlaine's contribution to Symbolism as having been to "briser les cruelles entraves du vers". At that time it was no doubt true that Verlaine seemed to have done more than anyone to break the cruel bonds of versification, because Rimbaud's work was as yet scarcely known and was in fact not so much as mentioned by Moréas. But it is now apparent that Rimbaud went much farther than Verlaine in breaking away from traditional patterns of rhyme and rhythm. Verlaine's innovations were limited to a liking for the octosyllabic line rather than the alexandrine, the introduction, in a number of poems, of the 'vers impair', the extensive use of 'enjambement' and a preference for weak rather than rich rhymes. But Rimbaud, after following in the elder poet's footsteps for a brief period early in 1872, at the beginning of their relationship, soon overtook Verlaine as regards freedom of form and abandoned verse altogether in favour of prose poetry in his Illuminations. Similarly Mallarmé, after beginning as a Parnassian, like Verlaine, and then, again like him, moving towards a more evocative kind of poetry in L'Après-midi d'un Faune, went far beyond any degree of freedom of form that Verlaine had attempted. In Un Coup de Dés, written in 1897, the year after Verlaine's death and the year before his own, Mallarmé used different kinds of lettering and distributed his words irregularly over the unit of the double page as part of his attempt to achieve the effect at which he was aiming in this highly original and complex work. And even in his apparently more conventional poems, such as the sonnets he wrote in the last ten years of his life, Mallarmé's twisted and tortured syntax, which enables him to give to his poems an extraordinary richness and density, makes Verlaine appear as a comparatively timid innovator.
As regards the content of their poetry too, there is no doubt that Rimbaud and Mallarmé, who were intellectually far superior to Verlaine, were pre-occupied with matters beyond the comprehension of 'pauvre Lélian'. In Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer 'la vierge folle' (who is, of course, Verlaine) says of l'époux infernal' (who is, of course, Rimbaud): 'J'étais sûre de ne jamais entrer dans son monde. A côté de son cher corps endormi, que d'heures des nuits j'ai veillé, cherchant pourquoi il voulait tant s'évader de la réalité'. To escape from reality into an ideal world, or rather to create an ideal world through the medium of poetry, was also the aim of Mallarmé who, according to Moréas, gave to Symbolism its 'sens du mystère et de l'ineffable'. Rimbaud and Mallarmé were therefore both Symbolists of the transcendental kind, endeavouring to penetrate beyond the superficial forms of the real world to the ideal forms of an infinite and eternal world. But Verlaine was a Symbolist of the human kind, concerned solely with the reflection of inner feelings in the objects of the outer world of reality. It is true that in some of the religious poems of Sagesse he conjures up a vision of an ideal world parallel with that conjured up by Rimbaud in his Illuminations or by Mallarmé in "Prose pour des Esseintes", but precisely because this was a Christian and therefore traditional vision it lacked the novelty and the excitement of the ideal worlds towards which Rimbaud and Mallarmé aspired and had less appeal in an increasingly secular society.
Verlaine himself realised that he did not belong to Symbolism in its transcendental sense and in Jules Huret's Enquête sur l'évolution littéraire in 1891 he replied to the journalist's request for a definition of Symbolism in the following uninhibited passage, typical of his conversational style in his last years:
Vous savez, moi, j'ai du bon sens; je n'ai peut-être que cela, mais j'en ai. Le Symbolisme? . .. comprends pas .. . Ça doit être un mot allemand, hein? Qu'estce que cela peut bien vouloir dire? Moi, d'ailleurs, je m'en fiche. Quand je souffre, quand je jouis ou quand je pleure, je sais bein que cela n'est pas du symbole. Voyez-vous, toutes ces distinctions-là, c'est de l'allemandisme: qu'est-ce que cela peut faire à un poète ce que Kant, Schopenauer, Hegel et autres Boches pensent des sentiments humains! Moi, je suis FranÇais, vous m'entendez bien, un chauvin de Franæais, avant tout. Je ne vois rien dans mon instinct qui me force à chercher le pourquoi du pourquoi de mes larmes; quand je suis malheureux, j'écris des vers tristes, c'est tout.
He also recognised in the same article, that he did not share the advanced views on prosody of the younger generation of Symbolists.
J'ai élargi la discipline du vers, et cela est bon; mais je ne l'ai pas supprimée! Pour qu'il y ait vers, il faut qu'il y ait rythme. A présent on fait des vers à mille pattes! Ça n'est plus des vers, c'est de la prose, quelquefois même ce n'est que du charabia.
It was for these two reasons—the comparatively unadventurous nature of both the content and the form of his poetry, his inability to speculate on the 'pourquoi du pourquoi' of things and his reluctance to break completely with traditional forms of versification—that Verlaine's reputation, which had stood so high in his last years, soon suffered a steep decline. In February 1896, the month after his death, the magazine La Plume organised a second enquête parallel to the one Jules Huret had carried out half a dozen years before but this time centred on Verlaine, and already certain reservations were expressed. "Il ouvrit la fenêtre" was the opinion of the eccentric femme de lettres Rachilde who had been a close friend of Verlaine's for many years. Another close friend, Mallarmé, described Verlaine as having been caught up in "le conflit de deux époques, une dont il s'extrait avec ingénuité, réticent devant l'autre qu'il suggère". A third contributor to the enquête however, Charles Maurras, was not content with veiled criticisms about Verlaine having merely opened windows, or having failed to complete the transition from one period to another; he expressed his view much more openly: "Paul Verlaine laisse un grand nom; mais je ne sais s'il laisse une æuvre".
A few years later, with the arrival of Surrealism and the emphasis it laid both on the search for a world beyond reality and on total freedom of form, Verlaine's reputation sank still lower and André Breton, the leader of the Surrealists, for whom Rimbaud was the dominant figure of the earlier generation, stated categorically that "la surestimation de Verlaine a été la grande erreur de l'époque symboliste".
Even an admirer of Verlaine such as Pierre Martino who, in 1924 wrote what is still probably the best study of the poet as a poet, agreed that Verlaine did not share the general ambition of the Symbolists to "renouveler les thèmes poétiques et changer l'horizon même de la poésie" and that "sa timidité dans le maniement des procédés nouveaux d'expression rhythmique, ses défiances à l'égard du vers libre tracent une espèce de lignefrontière qui sépare très nettement son æuvre de celles qui eurent les préférences de la génération symboliste".
Thirty years later another Verlaine enthusiast, Antoine Adam conceded that, as far as the attitude of the public was concerned there was still "une réticence que l'on sent générale", and in 1955 A. M. Schmidt, in La Litterature Symboliste, revealed the extent to which he shared this reticence by hesitating to rank Verlaine alongside his fellow poets Mallarmé and Rimbaud and by finding a curiously non-committal adjective to describe his poetry: "Moins grand sans doute que Mallarmé et Rimbaud . . . Verlaine a composé d'inimitables poèmes".
Yet although this view of Verlaine as a poet of the second rank as compared with his two great contemporaries is now generally accepted, it may well be that our continued admiration for the latter springs more from what they attempted than from what they achieved. Rimbaud's insistence that 'les inventions d'inconnu réclament des formes nouvelles' and Mallarmé's ceaseless struggle to find a means of expression that would enable him to create a non-existent world led both of them, in their different ways, 'aux limites extrêmes de la poésie', as R. Jasinski put it [in Histoire de la littérature Française, 1947]. One could indeed go farther and claim that they went not merely to the extreme limits but even beyond the boundaries of poetry, for it now seems certain, after the vast amount of work that has been done on Rimbaud and Mallarmé over the last thirty years, that some of their work is destined to remain inaccessible even to the most perceptive and sympathetic reader.
It is when one turns away, perhaps with a certain impatience, from extreme originality of this kind, towards the poetry of Verlaine, that one wonders whether the latter's more modest achievements may perhaps stand the test of time better than the bolder attempts of his two contemporaries. 'Notre vingtième siècle, si intellectuel, est porté vers l'exégèse des æuvres où des problèmes d'interprétation se posent', wrote Eléonore Zimmermann in one of the most recent studies of Verlaine. It may be that future years will adopt a different approach and will set greater store by Verlaine's unique gift for subtly conveying the infinite sadness of things. The heartsickness of hope deferred, the sense of lost youth, the suicidal loneliness of a rainy day, the fall of autumn leaves, the grief of separation, the stillness of moonlight, the melancholy of sunset, the dream that remains no more than a dream, simply the sadness of being sad—no one else has succeeded as well as Verlaine in re-creating these emotions in those who read his poetry.
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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.
A critical biography, scholarly and readable.
Bishop, Michael. "Verlaine." In Nineteenth-Century French Poetry, pp. 221-54. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
A detailed stylistic and thematic analysis which includes discussion of such topics as the body, women, aspirations, hope, self-renewal, gods, loves, parallels, unity, and innocence in Verlaine's verse.
Carter, A. E. The Idea of Decadence in French Literature: 1830-1900. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1958, 154p.
Discusses Verlaine in the context of the Decadent movement, commenting on Verlaine's ideas of homosexuality.
Cohn, Robert Greer. "Rescuing a Sonnet of Verlaine: 'L'espoir luit . . .'." Romantic Review LXXVII, No. 2 (March 1987): 125-30.
Examines religious and stylistic elements in Verlaine's sonnet.
King, Russell S. "Verlaine's Verbal Sensation." Studies in Philology 72, No. 2 (April 1975): 226-36.
Linguistic study of Verlaine's poetry with a concentration on Verlaine's unique use of verbs and adjectives.
——"The Poet As Clown: Variations on a Theme in Nineteenth-Century French Poetry." Orbis Litterarum 33, No. 3 (1978): 238-52.
A comparative study of the clown as symbol of the poet in the poetry of Verlaine, Théodore de Banville, Charles Baudelaire, and Stéphane Mallarmé.
Milech, Barbara. '"This Kind': Pornographic Discourses, Lesbian Bodies, and Paul Verlaine's Les Amies." In Men Writing the Feminine: Literature, Theory, and the Question of Genders, edited by Thaïs E. Morgan, pp. 107-22. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.
A scholarly exploration of Les Amies, a set of six sonnets on lesbian love, using Foucauldian and feminist theory.
Nalbantian, Suzanne. "The Symbolists: The Failing Soul." In The Symbol of the Soul from Holderlin to Yeats: A Study in Metonomy, pp. 66-85. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.
Describes how Verlaine and other Symbolists treat the soul as a static and material entity, incapable of transcendence.
Rifelj, Carol de Dobay. "Familiar and Unfamiliar: Verlaine's Poetic Diction." Kentucky Romance Quarterly 29, No. 4 (1982): 365-77.
Discusses Verlaine's poetic diction, particularly his use of colloquial and even vulgar and slang expressions
——"Verlaine: Wringing the Neck of Eloquence." In Word and Figure: The Language of Nineteenth Century French Poetry, pp. 100-31. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1987.
Examines Verlaine's use of colloquial diction, metaphor, and figurative language in his verse.
Schmidt, Paul. "Visions of Violence: Rimbaud and Verlaine." In Homosexualities and French Literature, edited by George Stambolian and Elaine Marks, pp. 228-42. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979.
An analysis of the sadomasochistic homosexual relationship between Verlaine and Rimbaud as evidenced through their verse.
Sonnenfeld, Albert. "The Forgotten Verlaine." Bucknell Review XI, No. 1 (December 1962): 73-80.
Investigates the anti-lyrical strain often found in Verlaine's verse, attributing it to the poet's need for irony and his feelings of inadequacy.
Stephan, Philip. "Paul Verlaine." In European Writers: The Romantic Century, Vol. 7, edited by Jacques Barzun, pp. 1619-43. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985.
Informative biographical and critical overview.
Walker, Hallam. "Visual and Spatial Imagery in Verlaine's Fêtes galantes." Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 87, No. 5 (October 1972): 1007-15.
Analyzes the visual and spatial elements of Verlaine's poetry.
Additional coverage of Verlaine's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Volume 2; and Poetry Criticism, Volume 2.
Philip Stephan (essay date 1974)
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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 sexual achievement. Romances sans paroles is seen as a universe shimmering with sensations which hover for ever just this side of extinction. In his rendering of their fadeur, in his translations of these sensations into musical-verbal equivalents, Verlaine has developed a brilliant mode of communication with his reader, for these equivalences sensorielles which he holds at arm's length with c'est and similar impersonal constructions are no more than arm's length from the reader, either, so that our perception and Verlaine's meet at a midpoint of common communication. Dream and sensation—and music is the sensation par excellence for communicating the data of other senses—are the chief elements of this highly original formula.
In a happy fusion of biographical and textual criticism, this interpretation of Verlaine's creative endeavour posits the role played by his emotional imbalance. The dream région où vivre of his poetry depends on the poet's biographical need to sublimate the dissatisfactions of his real existence. When Verlaine did achieve a satisfactory, if temporary, resolution of his emotional problems, as during his engagement to Mathilde Mauté and after his conversion to Catholicism, the effect on his inspiration was unhappy, Hence the critics' denigration of La Bonne Chanson and of parts of Sagesse, which they call prosaic, banal, unimaginative, and given to conceptualism and allegory, for Verlaine's dream poétique does not permit his singing a real and present attainment. His own contemporaries placed a high value on the sincerity, and emotional intensity of Sagesse, and intellectual currents such as the Catholic aspect of decadence and the idealism of symbolism further nourished their high estimate of this work. Modern criticism, on the other hand, has condemned Verlaine's verse beginning with Sagesse—after his mystic experience of 1874 would be a more accurate expression—so that for some readers the term la conversion de Sagesse has become almost a pun, denoting both a religious experience and a changed poetic theory.
It is true that, while Verlaine always wrote some bad poetry, he wrote more and more of it after his prison term at Mons in 1873-75, and that as he used up his supply of unpublished early verse in Jadis et naguère, Amour, and Parallèlement his collections of verse become increasingly dreary. The same is true of his contributions to periodicals during the decade of the 1880's: except for an occasional early poem, titles like "Un Crucifix", "Saint Benoît Joseph Labre", or "La Mort de S. M. le Roi Louis II de Bavière" reveal all too eloquently the limited scope of his poetic imagination. It was unusual for him to collect his poems of the previous two or three years and to publish them immediately, as was the case with Fêtes galantes, La Bonne Chanson, and Romances sans paroles. On the contrary, his normal practice was to collect poems composed over a number of years into variegated and uneven volumes like Poèmes saturniens, Sagesse, or Jadis et naguère. Hence the critic must select poems for discussion according to their date of composition, their similarity to other poems, or some other criterion whicsuits his purpose. To single out those poems composed between 1880 and 1890 which reveal decadent characteristics, therefore, is no more presumptuous than to discuss any other aspect of Verlaine's work. Jacques Borel's studies of Jadis et naguère and Parallèlement for the latest editions of Verlaine's complete works [Oeuvres complètes, 1960, and Oeuvre poétiques complètes, 1962] draw attention to hitherto unnoticed aspects of his verse of this period. The subtlety with which Borei analyses the 'ambiguity' of Verlaine's simultaneous rejection, in 1884-87, both of his earlier work based on a poétique of dream and of sensation, and of the new-found religious orthodoxy which causes him to reject it, suggests that Verlaine's poetry after Sagesse is ripe for reappraisal. When Borei calls Parallèlement, rather than some earlier collection, 'le dernier sans doute des recueils intèressants', it has the effect of prolonging Verlaine's creative period for another fifteen years, thus proposing for our examination poems which perhaps deserve more attention than they have received.
On 26 May, 14 July and 18 August 1883, then, Verlaine published eight poems in Le Chat Noir under the collective title 'Vers à la manière de plusieurs' ('Le Poète et la muse' was added to this series in Jadis et naguère only in 1884). While most of these were composed in the 1860's or early 1870's, 'L'Aube à l'envers', and perhaps 'Madrigal' and 'Langueur' too, were composed after his return to Paris in 1882, and in any case the first two illustrate his decadent manner. In spite of the importance traditionally attached to it, 'Langueur' is not particularly representative of Verlaine's decadent manner, and possibly, as Eléanor Zimmermann argues [in Magies de Verlaine, 1967], it was composed in 1872-74, with the 'Ariettes oubliées', rather than after his contacts with the decadent milieu. Still, the poem is useful as an indication of the direction his poetry would take.
While other poets of the period chose the homosexual as the epitome of classical decadence, for Verlaine decadence was aestheticism, represented by the poet who composes acrostic verses as victorious armies of barbarians march past, just as Nero is said to have fiddled while Rome burned. It is appropriate that Verlaine, who sought to fix in verse the nuances of langueur, should choose lethargy and superficiality as attributes of decadence: 'O n'y pouvoir, étant si faible aux voeux si lents, / O n'y vouloir fleurir un peu cette existence!' The tone of languid, careless aestheticism recalls Nero's 'Qualis artifex pereo', The 'style d'or' (today we speak rather of 'Silver Age' Latin) is rendered by the excessive anaphora of the last eight lines and by the use of diminutives: L'Ame seulette, fleurir un peu, mourir un peu. Diminutive endings were a feature of vulgar Latin, as is evident from the number of modern Romance words derived from them rather than from standard classical forms (e.g. oreille auricula auris). Could Verlaine have had in mind the emperor Hadirna's poem to his departing soul, the charm of which is due largely to its use of affectionate diminutive endings?
'L'Aube à l'envers', a landscape of the modern industrial city, and 'Madrigal' are examples of Verlaine's new manner, a poétique based on style and diction. 'Madrigal' also illustrates the elaborate imagery and a somewhat obscure allusiveness which comprise this manner:
Tu m'as, ces pâles jours d'automne blanc, fait mal
A cause de tes yeux où fleurit l'animal,
Et tu me rongerais, en princesse Souris,
Du bout fin de la quenotte de ton souris,
Fille auguste qui fis flamboyer ma douleur
Avec l'huile rancie encor de ton vieux pleur!
Oui, folle, je mourrai de ton regard damné.
Mais va (veux-tu?) l'étang là dort insoupçonné,
Dont du lys, nef qu'il eût fallu qu'on acclamât,
L'eau morte a bu le vent qui coule du grand mât.
T'y jeter, palme! et d'avance mon repentir
Parle si bas qu'il faut être sourd pour l'ouïr.
The pond is a typically decadent setting. In lines 1-3 and 9-10 closely connected grammatical elements are separated by interrupting phrases. The vocabulary is elaborately chosen: in line 1 pâle (before its noun!) and blanc repeat each other; quenotte and souris in line 4 are colloquial terms, nef in line 9 and ouïr in line 13 are archaic. The poem concludes with an antithetical pointe, that one must be deaf to hear his softly uttered repentance. Esoteric vocabulary terms are drawn not from a single class but from several lexical categories, so that comparatively few such items suffice to give an impression of pronounced strangeness. Souris (smile) puns with souris (mouse), and their use as rhyme words draws attention to the pun. Of the numerous alliterations and assonances we notice line 5, with its 'Fille auguste qui fis flamboyer . . . ' and 'l'huile rancie' in the following line; in line 9 the combination of [k] and [y] render the line cacophonous and even hard to pronounce. In the phrase 'Mais va (veuxtu!)' veux-tu is a colloquial expression for reinforcing an imperative; the three vowels [a], [oe], and [y] form a progressive closing and tightening of the mouth; this tensioning of the vocal organs is set off and contrasted by the open, relaxed, and harmonious vocables immediately following: l'etang là dort. (Such cacophony, caused by the repetition of plosives and of tense, shrill vowels like [oe] [y], [i], and often followed by more relaxed and musical vocables, is a distinctive feature of Verlaine's decadent manner.) Lines 9 and 10 are very confused grammatically: the proper sequence is 'l'étang, dont l'eau a bu le vent qui coule du grand mât du lys, (lequel est une] nef qu'il eût fallu qu'on acclamât'. This involved and inverted grammatical construction, and the accumulation of de's (lines 4 and 9-10), are but two of several factors which in combination create an impression of obscurity. Here, as in other poems addressed to his exwife, Mathilde Mauté, or to Arthur Rimbaud, Verlaine does not explain the biographical frame of reference, whence an air of mystery and of private association which are troubling to the uninitiated reader. In the poem at hand, the girl to whom the poem is addressed is compared, to a mouse, and this figure is completed by the animality of her look and by the gnawing teeth of her smile; it is not necessary to know that the girl is Mathilde Mauté, nor the circumstances of their separation. The next figure, however, is hermetic: a lily floating on a pond is compared to a ship, and the water in the pond has drunk the wind flowing from the mainmast. While appreciating the tone of dark foreboding which this figure adds to the poem, still we should like to see it clarified. While Verlaine is never hermetically obscure, nevertheless confused grammar, allusiveness, and complex imagery do produce a murkiness of expression which is unusual in his verse and hence distinctive of his decadent manner.
About two years later, in May and June of 1885, Lutece published a group of six poems, collected subsequently in Parallèlement under the heading 'Lunes', which also illustrate Verlaine's decadent manner:
Je veux, pour te tuer, ô temps qui me dévastes,
Remonter jusqu'aux jours bleuis des amours chastes
Et bercer ma luxure et ma honte au bruit doux
De baisers sur Sa main et non plus dans Leurs cous.
Le Tibère effrayant que je suis à cette heure,
Quoi que j'en aie, et que je rie ou que je pleure,
Qu'il dorme! pour rêver, loin d'un cruel bonheur,
Aux tendrons pâlots dont on ménageait l'honneur
Es-fêtes, dans, après le bal sur la pelouse,
Le clair de lune quand le clocher sonnait douze.
Again, in lines 1 and 6 we have a harsh alliteration of plosives, the mysterious allusions to Sa main (Mathilde's) and Leurs cous (those of the street-walkers with whom he was living), a classical allusion to Caesar Tiberius in line 5, and, in the last four lines, a combination of interrupted word-order and of choice vocabulary (tendrons, ès, pâlots). We recognise in these poems traits which we have come to regard as typically decadent: exaggerated alliterations and assonances, all manner of word plays, impressionist style, conversational mannerisms of language, classical allusions, the presence of a pond and of flowers, and, in 'L'Aube à l'envers', a modern, urban landscape. 'Lunes I, III, IV, and V hint at the depravity of some decadent poetry.
The figures of the lily compared to a ship in 'Madrigal' and of Tiberius, to whom the poet compares himself in 'Lunes, 1', are examples of the elaborate, sometimes hermetic imagery which distinguishes Verlaine's manner in Parallèlement, but which is not otherwise typical of decadent verse. In 'Fernand Langlois' the poet's heart is compared to a lock which Langlois patiently opens, in 'Autre Explication' there are the tropes of constancy (compared to a prostitute), the cuttlefish, and the hour. Curiously, it is in two of the Poèmes saturniens, 'Crépuscule du soir mystique' and 'Le Rossignol', with their decadent ponds, flowers, and birds, that we find a previous instance of such extended imagery. In 'Le Rossignol' the poet's memories are likened to a flock of birds swooping down on the tree of his heart, mirrored in the water of Regret; and the nightingale is the poet's first love. On the other hand, his practice in these poems of capitalising words taken in a symbolic sense is a common one in decadent verse; in Les Déliquescences 'Pour avoir péché' and 'Platonisme' parody this Baudelairean device.
As with decadent verse in general, an intensification of his usual traits distinguishes 'Madrigal' and 'Lunes' from Verlaine's earlier verse and makes them appear as self-parodies. Recent critics who have drawn attention to this parodying quality in Verlaine's poetry of the 1880's suggest that the very intention of the 'Lunes' cycle, and of 'A la manière de Paul Verlaine' in particular, is to reject his earlier manner by making fun of it. . . . Verlaine's relationship with the decadents was an ambivalent one, since he did not take the decadence very seriously, and it is therefore always possible that the target of his caricatural poems was decadence itself as well as his own earlier manner. If so, in the perverse logic of decadence, which was fascinated by what it loathed, such poems are all the more decadent!
It is in any case certain that Verlaine consciously adopted decadent mannerisms during the 1880's. His use of Latinisms and classical allusions corroborates this point. Although his unpublished verse included three schoolboy translations from Latin, which he apparently valued enough to save, in the 110 poems of Poèmes saturniens, Fêtes galantes, La Bonne Chanson, and Romances sans paroles there are only five containing Latin phrases or allusions to classical antiquity—and two of these reflect merely his Parnassian affectation of Greek mythology. In contrast, of the 128 poems of Jadis et naguère, Amour, and Parallèlement, we count twelve—almost one in ten—containing Latin expressions or classical allusions; this proportion would undoubtedly be still greater if we excluded poems composed before 1880.
Collating two versions of the same poem provides further corroboration. 'L'Aube à l'envers' is clearly contemporary with Verlaine's residence at Boulogne-sur-Seine in the summer of 1882, while the second version, 'Nouvelles Variations sur le Point-du-Jour', published in Lutèce at the very end of 1885, must be an elaboration of the first poem.
L'Aube à l'envers
Le Point-du-Jour avec Paris au large,
Des chants, des tirs, les femmes qu'on 'rêvait',
La Seine claire et la foule qui fait
Sur ce poème un vague essai de charge.
On danse aussi, car tout est dans la marge
Que fait le fleuve à ce livre parfait,
Et si parfois l'on tuait ou buvait,
Le fleuve est sourd et le vin est litharge.
Le Point-du-Jour, mais c'est l'Ouest de Paris!
Un calembour a béni son histoire
D'affreux baisers et d'immondes paris.
En attendant que sonne l'heure noire
Où les bateaux-omnibus et les trains
Ne partent plus, tirez, tirs, fringuez, reins!
Already the poem is distinctly decadent on account of its naturalist subject, with commuter steamers and trains the play on Point-du-Jour, which means 'daybreak' as well as designating a landmark to the west of Paris, and the artificiality implicit in the book trope of line 6. It is precisely these elements that Verlaine expands in the later version:
Nouvelles Variations sur le Point-du-Jour
Le Point du Jour, le point blanc de Paris,
Le seul point blanc, grâce à tant de bâtisse
Et neuve et laide et que je t'en ratisse,
Le Point du Jour, aurore des paris!
Le bonneteau fleurit 'dessur' la berge,
La bonne tôt s'y déprave, tant pis
Pour elle et tant mieux pour le birbe gris
Qui lui du moins la croit encore vierge.
Il a raison, le vieux, car voyez donc
Comme est joli toujours le paysage:
Paris au loin, triste et gai, fol et sage,
Et le Trocadéro, ce cas, au fond,
Puis la verdure et le ciel et les types
Et la rivière obscène et molle, avec
Des gens trop beaux, leur cigare à leur bec:
Epatants ces metteurs-au-vent de tripes!
The basic play on words now fills the first stanza with variants: Le Point du Jour, le point blanc, Le seul point blanc; Point du Jour, aurore des paris; Paris-paris. These are followed up with homonyms: tant de bâtisse, t'en ratisse; Le bonneteau, La bonne tôt. Popular locutions abound, such as je t'en ratisse, à leur bec, dessur, birbe, Il a raison, le vieux, les types, and in general the diction is rhetorically self-conscious. In lieu of the book and margin figure, Verlaine has introduced the old man who seduces the young maid (in the sense of bonne, since he spells out that she is no longer vierge!), a decadent motif. La Seine claire has been replaced by La riviere obscene et molle, in which the adjectives somehow make us think of putrefaction and of flabby degeneracy. While even the 1882 version could be contrasted with Verlaine's landscapes in Poèmes saturniens or Romances sans paroles, the revisions of the 1885 version have emphasised those qualities which Les Déliquescences and minor poems like them have led us to call decadent. . . .
The most general conclusion to be made concerning Verlaine's decadent style is simply that it incorporates pell-mell all manner of previous tendencies: exotic and esoteric vocabulary, colloquialisms, impressionist style, original syntax, As critics from Gautier to A. E. Carter have pointed out, concern with language and with new forms of diction is an essential element of decadence. The progressive exaggeration of his own personalised diction over a twenty-year period, perhaps even for the sake of self-parody, parallels the development of decadent poetry. In its final form Verlaine's asyndetic style reduces the sentence to a series of word groups, the alliterations of plosives have a staccato effect which literally detaches some syllables from their context, interjections are set off by dashes or parentheses, and strong caesuras destroy the entity of the poetic line. Thus the whole of a poem, stanza, or line disintegrates into isolated, autonomous fragments, and this fragmentations of the whole into its parts is typical of decadent style. The conversational tendency in Verlaine's style, and the development of the friendship theme, with its apostrophes to Mathilde and Rimbaud, its frequent poems addressed to personal acquaintances (nine in Amour alone; consider also the very title of Dédicaces), with a poem such as 'A Fernand Langlois' (especially stanzas 6-8), which is structured on a conversational situation, recall the language of the naturalist novel, similar poems we saw in early issues of La Nouvelle Rive Gauche and Le Chat Noir, some poems of Jean Lorrain, and, of course, Corbière and Laforgue. Verlaine, to be sure, lacks the latter's pungent, humorous irony, and in no case do we see their influence on his verse. On the other hand, Claude Cuénot seems to have missed the point when he condemns the vulgar, slangy quality of Verlaine's late verse; such language, like his divergent use of both popular and literary diction, is simply a feature of the decadent preoccupation with language for its own sake.
To look now at themes, Verlaine's changing attitudes toward homosexuality and toward licentious verse in general can perhaps be ascribed to his decadent manner as well as to personal considerations. In July of 1883 he omitted from 'Vers à la manière de plusieurs' the compromising 'Le Poète et la muse'. Now, although the nature of his relationship with Rimbaud had always been known—so much so that in 1874 it was Lepelletier who had to dissuade him from dedicating Romances sans paroles to Rimbaud—from the time of his imprisonment until after his return to Paris Verlaine maintained a firm and tactful silence on the whole subject of perversion (indeed, until his death he always denied that their relationship had been sexual). But in March of 1884 he published the compromising 'Vers pour être calomnié', followed in December by 'La Dernière Fête galante', with its revealing conclusion, 'O que nos coeurs . . . / Dès ce jourd'hui réclament . . . / L'embarquement pour Sodome et Gomorrhe!'. Then the publication of 'Explication' and 'Autre Explication' in Lutèce for 19-23 July 1885 initiated a series of poems in which during the next several years he was to write ever more openly of his relationship with Rimbaud and even to justify homosexuality. Jacques Borei argues convincingly for the psychological reasons which, when he was preparing Parallèlement, induced Verlaine to take up again the Rimbaud theme, with its candour and its exaltation of ' . . . ceux-là que sacre le haut Rite' ('Ces passions qu'eux seuls . . . ' ) : nostalgia for the mystic exhilaration of their adventure, or the false rumours of Rimbaud's death in 1887, which inspired at least one poem. Similar considerations apply to a reprise of the theme of female eroticism; Verlaine's early penchant for erotic verse appears in Les Amies (1868) and in the indecent poems appended to La Bonne Chanson (1870). But these were clandestine works, and less than two decades later he was openly publishing poems of this sort.
Perhaps there was no longer the same need for prudence. While until 1882 Verlaine had good reason to maintain his pose as a respectable gentleman misunderstood by his contemporaries, by 1884 he had little to gain from further claims to respectability. For one thing, the truth was by now widely known; for another, after his dismissal from the Collège de Rethel, after the rejection of his application for re-employment in the city administration, and in view of the impossibility of rejoining Mathilde (who remarried in 1885), it was apparent that he was to be permanently excluded from conventional, self-respecting bourgeois life. On the other hand, with the growth of his 'legend' and with his decision to stake everything on a full-time literary career, he had rather more to gain than to lose by frankly accepting the role of an incorrigible if penitent sinner, as richly endowed with the grace of poetry as he was deprived of that of common morality. But to admit past indiscretions is not the same as singing current offences. Would not Verlaine's new-found candour also have been brought about by the decadent milieu, with its treatment of vice, its preference for perversion because it is unnatural, and its implication that Paris rivalled Rome as a centre of debauchery? Since Baudelaire, since A Rebours, since the more lurid decadent novels like Péladan's Le Vice suprême, homosexuality was becoming less taboo and more, if not acceptable, at least tolerated in avant-garde circles. The first issue of Le Décadent, for example, contains an instalment of Luc Vajarnet's La Grande Roulotte, in which the lesbian attachment of Countess Jeanne and her chambermaid Mariette is presented in such detail as to be erotically stimulating to male readers. Against this background we can understand Verlaine's including in Parallèlement poems such as 'Sur une statue de Ganymède', 'Ces passions qu'eux seuls nomment encore amours', and 'Laeti et errabundi'. Heterosexual love, which, if less original, still figures prominently in the decadent aesthetic, was handled quite freely, to the point where La Plume saw some of its issues seized by the police. In comparison to his relative shyness in 1883, Verlaine's plans for Parallèlement are revealing. Although the first edition already included Filles and Les Amies, for a projected new edition he wanted to include 'Nous ne sommes pas le troupeau', 'Billet à Lily' (from the pornographic volume Femmes), 'Le Bon Disciple' (from Hombres), as well as 'un dialogue entre éphèbes et vierges à la Virgile; le cadre me permettra les dernières hardiesses. Inititulé Chant alterné.' The use of a classical setting as an excuse for licentious verse is particularly indicative . . . , for this common practice of decadent poets reflects their fundamental interpretation of Greco-Roman antiquity.
Joanna Richardson (essay date 1974)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2815
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.]
Romances sans paroles, which many consider to be [Verlaine's] finest book, reflects his persistent love for Mathilde; it also bears the ineffaceable mark of Rimbaud. It was Rimbaud whom Verlaine followed as he created an original, unacademic language. Rimbaud advocated pictorial simplicity, a return to popular sources, to simple refrains and simple rhythms. Verlaine followed his guidance, bringing some of his poems close to popular songs, seeking a new simplicity and a new complexity. Just as Rimbaud freed Verlaine from bourgeois domesticity, from suburban mediocrity, so he shook him free from certain literary conventions, and swept him into a splendid adventure: the search for a new poetry. In some ways, Rimbaud was only appealing to instincts and beliefs which were already present: to Verlaine's sympathy for the simple and the popular, to his love of technical experiments, his lifelong pleasure in exploring and exploiting language and syntax, his interest in expressing moods. Verlaine was already a supreme poet of mood; under Rimbaud's influence he attempted to eliminate himself from his work, to record mood and atmosphere without the intervention of self. This was the ultimate refinement of poetry. . . .
[While in prison, Verlaine] wrote 'Kaléidoscope.' As the title suggests, it is a collection of impressions, with no logical connection. Here, before Proust, Verlaine experiences those rare, mysterious, transient moments which have more savour than the actual events which they revive. The setting of the poem cannot be identified. In the last verse, he destroys any lingering vestige of reality, and leaves the whole poem, suspended, in a dream. Like certain poems by Rimbaud, 'Kaléidoscope' catches a world beyond the world. It is in this sort of poem that Verlaine shows the extent of his powers. . . .
The profound charm of Sagesse lies in its obsession with the past. Verlaine's contrition is frail, but it intensifies the forbidden pleasures of the past, the enduring obsession with Rimbaud. When he wrote Sagesse, he honestly believed that he had entered the path of salvation; he had been tempted, but determined that he would not now turn back. But one must distinguish between the man's intentions and the very depth of his soul, which he could not help revealing in poetry. The essential reality is not edifying. There are a few moments in Sagesse when the convert bathes in the purifying love of Christ; and there are many times when he re-lives and regrets the forbidden past. Verlaine was not a hypocrite—but Sagesse presents the two contestants in the unequal fight which God would lose. . . .
Verlaine spent his final years in the cafés and hospitals of Paris. Perpetual drinking and squalid living, illness and disease, had made him, now, a wreck of a human being. His homosexual days were virtually over, but he was torn between two middle-aged women of dubious morals, and for one of them he wrote Le Livre posthume. Here, for a brief moment, his poetic gift returned. But, for the most part, he turned out sadly pedestrian verse; his inspiration had gone, and he was living on his past. . . .
[In January 1896, shortly after Verlaine died,] in Le Figaro, É mile Zola enlarged on the theme of Verlaine, the man apart. Far from Verlaine as he had been in his literary principles and his achievement, he spoke of him with admiring sympathy, and with vehement conviction.
Sad, delightful Verlaine has gone to the land of great eternal peace, and already a legend is growing over his grave.
He was, we are told, a solitary, disdainful of the crowd, a man who lived in the lofty dream of his work, without any kind of concession or compromise . . . This is quite untrue . . . Verlaine did not disdain society, it was society which rejected him. He became an unwilling creature apart, an involuntary 'exile' . . . Indeed, so little did he spurn honours and distinctions that, quite seriously, he wanted to stand for the Académie .. . If he refused everything, as they have said, that was because nothing was offered him . . .
And who knows if misery did not diminish him? Of course the fatal negligence of his life helped to give his poetry that freedom of movement which is its original contribution to literature. But . . . I should like to imagine him happy, well off, comfortable, an Academician, having had the leisure to produce all his fruit, like the tree which a kindly destiny shelters from the onslaughts of frost and wind. Certainly he would have left a more complete and more extensive work.
The critic Charles Le Goffic disagreed with Zola: he considered that Verlaine had been genuinely indifferent to honours, and that he had chosen independence. Independent he had certainly been; he had always stood apart, and, as Le Goffic emphasized, the years had not changed him.
Until the end he lived outside the rules of prosody and behaviour. And this independent bohemianism was neither an attitude nor the accepted consequence of his errors: he could (and some have tried to make him do so) make honourable amends, conform to the outward conventions of bourgeois life. He preferred to die his old vagabond self, indifferent to status and to official celebrity: he was honestly uninterested. At the height of his glory he remained a good soul, he broke with none of those he had known in his days of ill-fortune, and he refused to discriminate. He is a singularly déclassé figure . . . But this déclassé had a humble heart; this unnatural Catholic made the sweetest gesture of submissive and repentant piety before the Blessed Virgin; this poet found in the delights of a fallen angel some lines of mortal beauty. His art was great enough, and controlled enough, to efface itself, and to break the bounds of a confining prosody until it became a light and volatile music, a tremor and a cry. There it was that he set himself apart from other poets, and there it is that he remains inimitable and the most wonderful example of the helotism of genius to present to lettered youth in every age.
Some critics insisted that Verlaine had been a perpetual child; others acclaimed him as 'the dear father of us all, a good old grandfather .. . In him,' wrote one, 'we proudly honour the great French Christian poet'. Verlaine remained controversial; but now, by common consent, he had entered into glory. It was decided to erect a memorial in the Jardin du Luxembourg; Mallarmé and Rodin presided over the memorial committee. In 1897, the year after Verlaine's death, Mallarmé declared: 'We know that he is smiling in immortality, and that he is now beside La Fontaine and Lamartine'. Verlaine must indeed have been smiling. At the Académie française, José-Maria de Heredia, the Parnassian poet, was singing his praises. In Brussels, É mile Verhaeren proclaimed the greatness of 'the wandering Lélian, whose thumping and imperious stick seems like a symbol on the paths of literature'.
Verhaeren was among Verlaine's most understanding admirers. That April , in La Revue blanche, there appeared the generous appreciation which was to be reprinted in his Impressions:
After the death of Victor Hugo, it was the death of Verlaine which afflicted French literature most deeply . . . Whatever the worth of Banville and Leconte de Lisle, they seem to be tributaries; they do not shine enough with a personal fire . . .
Paul Verlaine proves himself to be quite different. If the Poèmes saturniens are still impregnated with Parnassian traditions, if the Fêtes galantes seem to drive from 'La Fête chez Thérèse', which Victor Hugo arranged in his Contemplations, the Romances sans paroles and, above all, Sagesse, affirm their independence in French literature. These works are no longer subjects, they are sovereigns. They live with a new and special art . . .
Verlaine never knew calm . . . His being is always shaken by anguish or pacified by prayer; he is always burning with vices, or with virtues .. . He is a man as profoundly as he is a Christian. And it is his double nature that, as a great poet, he has sung, expressed and immortalized . . .
He spiritualized the language; he was tempted by shades of meaning, and by the fragility of phrases. He composed some which were exquisite, fluid, tenuous.
They seem scarcely a tremor in the air; the sound of a flute in the shadows in the moonlight; the vanishing of a silk dress in the wind; the trembling of glass and crystal on a dresser. Sometimes all that they contain is the docile gesture of two hands coming together . . .
It will be the original glory of Paul Verlaine to have conceived, lived and created a work of art which, alone, reflects and enlarges the rebirth of faith—that rebirth which we have seen in recent years . . .
There are moralists who reproach Verlaine for his dissipated and sinful life. One really wonders if it should be deplored, as soon as one recalls the cries of repentance, of gentleness, humility and sacrifice with which he redeemed it.
Other critics were less admiring and less charitable. A psychiatrist, discussing decadent poetry, considered that 'Verlaine was a disturbed man of genius, a progenerate rather than a degenerate, but he had strange deviations and strange weaknesses . . . One is too well aware of the sick man behind the poet.' Several critics confused their moral and aesthetic judgements. In his study What is Art?, [Leo] Tolstoy wrote, in puritan mood:
I cannot refrain from dwelling on the extraordinary glory of these two men, Baudelaire and Verlaine, who are recognized today, throughout Europe, as the greatest geniuses of modern poetry. How can the French . . . attribute such vast importance, and accord such enormous glory, to these two poets, who are so imperfect in manner and so vulgar and so low in matter? . . . The only explanation which I can see is this: that the art of the society in which they produce their works is not something serious and important, but a mere amusement . . .
Baudelaire and Verlaine have invented new forms, they have, moreover, spiced them with pornographic details which nobody before them had deigned to use. And that was all that was needed to make them acknowledged as great writers by the critics and the upper classes.
Despite Tolstoy's moral strictures and left-wing criticism, it was clear that Verlaine now enjoyed a European reputation. In 1899, Georges Rodenbach, the Belgian Symbolist poet, declared that Verlaine's conversion had been 'a struggle between Jesus and a childlike Pascal. And in this sublime crisis were born the eternal poems of Sagesse, the most moving confession of the soul in all modern literature'. Rodenbach maintained his belief in Verlaine's immortality. His faith was shared by the publisher who, in 1899-1900, brought out the five volumes of Verlaine's Oeuvres complètes (followed, in 1903, by his Oeuvres posthumes). Achille Segard, who had known Verlaine, declared that he had 'established a new form of sensibility, and in it . . . a whole generation rediscovered, enlarged and clarified, the very image of its common soul'. Ernest Raynaud, the historian of Symbolism, wrote that he understood 'all the phenomena of modern neurasthenia .. . No one translated, better than Verlaine, the atrophy which comes from excessive activity, excessive nervous tension, the abuse of life and its stimulants. In his poetry, the apotheosis of transient sensation, Verlaine contrived to catch the indiscernible.'
As the twentieth century began, the familiar trend in Verlaine criticism continued. While men of letters recognized his individual gifts and his influence, the more conventional critics continued to take a moral stand and to show a violent personal resistance to his work. Now that it was no longer possible to ignore Verlaine, people denied his genius with fury. One remains astonished by the tone of the discussion, the degree of anger and invective which sober writers allowed themselves to show. In 1901, René Doumic reviewed his Oeuvres complètes in the Revue des deux mondes.
We have been invited to do something which few of us had done: to read Verlaine in his entirety. This reading . . . makes us appreciate the equal banality of the man and of his work. And so it could not be recommended too warmly to literary novices who would take their elders' word and be tempted to believe in Verlaine's genius. This reading will prevent them from being, in their turn, the victims of a kind of gigantic joke and the dupes of an insolent mystification . . .
Far from being a beginning, the art of Verlaine is the last convulsion of a dying poetry. This poetry is merely Romanticism which has lost its vigour .. . One had only to see Verlaine ambling round the streets to think of the old Romantics in the days of the Bousingots, who were proud to go around the town in clothes which made them noticed, and believed that eccentric dress possessed some secret virtue. The careful disorder and the contrived irregularity of this costume is simply another form of dandyism. Verlaine knew it and he was prepared to admit it. He was not unaware that decent dress would make him lose much of his personality . . .
Verlaine is the frantic representative of intimate poetry thus conceived in conformity with the credo of Romanticism. One could not mention any work in which the self has so far been displayed with such boastful cynicism.
It is to be feared that one day Verlaine will be completely forgotten. He has collected his admirers, some of them men of good faith. His poetry has found an echo in certain souls which therefore saw in it something of themselves. This example will be quoted to show into what deliquescence moral ideas and artistic feelings have, at a certain date and in a certain group, very nearly dissolved, lost themselves and foundered. . . .
As a poet, he had done service to modern literature. He had restored the free use of metre, given back to poets the unfettered use of their instrument of work. He had deliberately broken every rule of prosody. He had used his marvellous technical powers, as well as his instincts, to record suggestion. No one else catches, like Verlaine, the infinitely fragile state between dreaming and waking, between imagination and reality. He expresses a thought before it is formulated, an instinct before it is recognized, an emotion which has yet to be acknowledged. As Fernand Gregh observed: 'In many short poems, which are like the tremors of a soul, caught as they pass, it is hardly Verlaine who is talking any more, it is the human soul, impersonal, intemporal, it is almost the soul of things gaining awareness of itself in the soul of a man.' No French poet has recorded certain moods with the exquisite touch of Verlaine. Simple in word and form, he seems to write almost without effort. In their own inherent melody, in their emotive power, his lyrics come as close as any poems have ever come to music.
As a poet of love, he is uneven. As a religious poet, he has perhaps been over-estimated. But 'l'art, mes enfants, c'est d'être absolument sois-même'. So he had explained. No poet had been more himself than Verlaine. He recorded all his life, all his raptures and regrets, all his bitterness, licentiousness and melancholy, all his humour, violence, weakness and simplicity. Verlaine's was at times a subtle simplicity. It was that of a child. It was also that of a consummate poet.
Henri Peyre (essay date 1974)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7223
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 Qu'est-ce que le symbolisme? in 1974]
[Verlaine] wrote too much, and many mediocre things. Those less prolific than he, like Coleridge or Baudelaire, or those who died while still writing, or who disappeared young, like Rimbaud and Keats, have in the last resort found themselves more fortunate. What is worse, Verlaine repeated himself; J. S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Goethe himself, Hugo, and Claudel did the same, the latter taking the precaution of frequently contradicting himself. Verlaine often fell into vulgarity or into inconsequential platitudes. But criticism came to the final conclusion that there were some very fine works, fervent with youthfulness, in the poems of the fiftyish Victor Hugo and even in the works of the elderly Tennyson, or in the last canvases of [Claude] Monet and [Pierre] Renoir. In Verlaine's case, it has taken much longer to revise lazily arrived at opinions that set the final limit of his important production at Romances without Words (1874; he was then thirty years old) or, at the furthest extent, at the religious verses and the laments emitted in prison and collected in Wisdom, written between 1875 and the date of their publication in book form in 1881. But the greater Verlaine, certainly the most tragic, is the one of the fifteen or so pieces in the volumes that followed: Long Ago and Not so Long Ago (1885), Love (1888), In Parallel (1889). And the very last of his poems, from 1895, "Mort," is not the least moving or the least artistically orchestrated.
If being called a "symbolist" meant above all to have recourse to symbols and to insinuate that a mysterious meaning resided behind the appearances of expression, Verlaine would be a symbolist only occasionally. But Verlaine occupies a considerable place, both in the history of the symbolist movement (his "Art poétique" and his sonnet on decandence have served much more effectively as rallying banners than all the manifestoes) and in the spiritual and technical enrichment of French poetry that occurred between 1870 and 1890. One often forgets today that it was he first of all, through his work and his early innovations, who initially fascinated the adolescent Rimbaud and contributed to showing him his way; the younger man very quickly showed more fierce boldness than the older one. Even then, Verlaine, so malleable and unresisting, revealed a certain independence in refusing to let himself be seduced by the voyant's theories and in accepting to serve as the target for his sarcasms. He understood that neither free verse nor the biblical verset nor the poem-in-prose suited him, and that objective poetry, if he had been capable of it, was not in itself superior to the other. Nevertheless, and better than any of those who are called symbolists (Mallarmé included), Verlaine proclaimed the superhuman or inhuman genius of his young friend. In truth, in several of his judgments or his remarks uttered somewhat casually on Baudelaire, on Poe (by whom he refused to be captivated), and later in his admittedly hasty articles on the poètes maudits, Verlaine revealed flair and perspicacity. As others have already remarked, he remained faithful to poetry and to a rather elevated idea of art, refusing to abandon literature as Rimbaud did, or to toy with it in graceful "futile petitions" or witty quatrains that might be deciphered by the postman.
With respect to the psychological imbalance that is at the source of his poetry, Verlaine let it be understood more than once that he knew very well what was involved there, even if he lacked the will and perhaps the desire to discipline himself. "I have the rage to love. My so weak heart is mad," he pathetically admits in the fifth of his pieces entitled "Lucien Létinois" in Love. His avowal in a letter to Cazalis has often been cited: "I am a feminine person, which explains many things." Antoine Adam, as early as 1936, in one of the most subtle and most convincing studies in which psychoanalysis has served literary appreciation, then Guy Michaud in his Message poétique du symbolisme in 1947, have shown how well Verlaine's work can be elucidated by the deciphering of his temperament and by a character analysis of the poet's self. He knew himself to be profoundly, and no doubt incurably, "double," vacillating between the faun and the angel, the occasional tiger and the small child crying out his need to be commanded and loved. The perspicacity of his self-image is keen in a different way from that of many so-called personal poets, from Lamartine or Musset to Laforgue. He knew the strength of that "amativeness" within him that he could not resist. There is yet to be extracted from his prose and poetic works (in the former, often under the cover of characters into whom he projects his own self or behind whom he conceals himself, Gaspard Hauser or the condemned husband rising up from Hell in "Grace") a self-portrait of Verlaine that would be astonishingly accurate.
Verlaine's work is so closely entangled in his life that critics who have devoted themselves to it have hardly been able to avoid explications based on his heredity, his parents' indulgence, the keen awareness of his ugliness ("They did not find me handsome," Gaspard Hauser says of women), a first love for his cousin Eliza, broken off by death, and finally, homosexuality. Sensual rage and ecstatic rapture alternated in him, or rather coexisted, along with gentleness and contrition. Antoine Adam has shown what one can read into declarations by way of which the poet seems to rediscover old symbols of sexuality that on one occasion profess guilt and on another pride themselves on being unorthodox. "A falcon I soar, and I die a swan," he exclaims in the most inverted and daringly inverse of his sonnets, "The Good Disciple." He finds it delightful to abdicate, to allow himself to be engulfed in the vertiginous sensation of the swing that rocks him, of the carousel horse that turns, of the jig that he dances. He knows that he is like the dead leaf carried off by some ill wind, like the butterfly, like the pilotless vessel. At the moment, that forgetfulness is delightful, that langorousness is voluptuous and propitious to dreaming. Afterward, reality will take its revenge and remorse will gnaw him:
Le ver est dans le fruit, le réveil dans le rêve
Et le remords est dans l'amour: telle est la loi.
The worm is in the fruit, the awakening in the dream,
And within love is remorse: such is the law of things.
From this vertigo, from these bouts of repetance, will spring forth, however, confessional poems scarcely less bitter than those of Baudelaire, almost as uninhibited in their unabashed display of a dislocated self as the avowals of Dostoevski's characters. In marriage, in his liaison with the imperious dominator that Rimbaud was, in conversion, sometimes even in a childish patriotism, in promises to himself (set down in his diary) to "pray morning and night" and to attend mass everyday, Verlaine would seek the stability to which he aspired. All in vain. He was never really to find that discipline except in his craft as a poet and in the constraints he was able to impose on himself.
"This innocent," Paul Valéry, the most conscious and least undisciplined of verse writers, wrote of Verlaine, "is an organized primitive. . . . Never was there a more subtle art than this art that supposes that in it one flees from another and not that one precedes him." In the area of language, first of all, Verlaine joins the example to the precept, or rather furnishes examples well before formulating the precept, by wringing the neck of eloquence. Eloquence, to be sure, did not die of it; from "The Drunken Boat" to the "Five Great Odes" and the remarkable poets of 1950 or 1960, it survives and creates the merit of several of the most moving works of French poetry. But Verlaine broke with the somewhat encompassing unity of tone and style that characterized Les Fleurs du Mal almost as much as the works of Hugo or Leconte de Lisle. There is nothing stilted in him. He dared introduce familiar speech, popular turns of phrase, and even low-class words (peuple) in his verses, to write as one speaks among friends—"You! you've got your head someplace else" ("Toi! t'as du vague à l'âme"), to use "ca" repeatedly instead of "cela," to omit the pronoun before the third-person verb in the present tense ("faut pas"), to introduce the exclamatory "tiens" or "hein," or call wooden horses "dadas." Historians of the symbolists' language, such as Charles Bruneau, have pointed out provincialisms in the poet's verses, popular archaisms, the unselfconscious omission of "ne," which, in a negative expression, should precede the "pas," charming grammatical inaccuracies such as "faisez le beau" (for "faites le beau"), "plus pire" (for "pire" or "plus mauvais"). Odd poetic effects sometimes result from these insolent manipulations of speech, as in the celebrated lines of "Reversibilities."
Ah, dans ces mornes séjours
Les Jamais sont les Toujours!
Ah, in these dreary abodes
The Nevers are the Always!
Similar effects are achieved with other adverbs, "Encores" or "Déjàs," put in the plural like substantives.
The French reader is so accustomed to demanding a certain purity of tone and to taking offense in numerous ways at the mixing of the genres, that Verlaine's semivulgarisms clash with the need for dignity and even for formality that he brings to the reading of poets. Verlaine, without affectation and with a knowing dose of humor and poetic vision, as an amused observer of others than himself, achieves an almost unique success in nineteenth-century poetry in pieces like "It's Jean de Nivelle's Dog" or "Brussels: Wooden Horses." The symbolic meaning of this last piece does not have to be emphasized by the poet, desirous of losing himself in the circular motion. Adroitly, following a few lighthearted lines ("It's wonderful what a buzz you get, going to that silly circus"), in the final stanza he dares evoke poetically the coming of night that sees the departure of the soldier and the maidservant, their Sunday diversion at the carnival ended:
Tournez, tournez! le ciel en velours
D'astres en or se vêt lentement.
Turn, turn! the sky, velvet-clad,
Slowly adorns itself with golden stars.
He would later advise the poet to avoid "impure laughter," which French poets have traditionally—and quite regrettably—in fact avoided in their works, especially the romantics. But Verlaine in practice frequently accepted it and did not judge it impure. Laforgue, Apollinaire, and various "fantasy poets" of our century were not to forget this precedent.
But still more than in the area of language and style (although an in-depth study of Verlainian metaphors deserves to be undertaken and ought to prove rich in possibilities), it is through his metrics that the poet showed himself to be a sometimes innovator and a very great master. As early as 1931-32 a very keenly precise article by P. Mathieu in the Revue d'Histoire littéraire analyzed the various lasting changes that Verlaine had brought to French prosody, still timorous among the romantics (Hugo excepted) and with Baudelaire. A book by Eléonore Zimmermann, impressive in its sharp subtlety and its erudition, has analyzed Verlaine's work very closely in its musicality, its stylistic methods, as much as in its inspiration and its affinities with other forms of poetic expression, notably that of Rimbaud.
The example of his more deliberately revolutionary young friend, it is readily admitted, prompted the author of Romances without Words (1873) to put behind him what had been facile and traditional in his previous collections. Verlaine himself, always generous in that regard, stated this to be the case. To tell the truth, it is not at all certain that the elder of the two poets, frightened by the audaciousness of the younger man, and especially by his theories (which he considered demoniacal), was not made more cautious because of that. Verlaine was already, before knowing Rimbaud, the author of Sapphic love poems published in Brussels in 1867 under a quite transparent pseudonym, and also of the collection entitled Fêtes galantes, judged by the schoolboy Rimbaud in Charleville, as early as August 25, 1870, "most strange, very odd and truly . . . adorable." Free verse, in any case, suited Verlaine no more than Mallarmé, Apollinaire, or Valéry, and he did not deceive himself on that score. Aggravated at the end of his career by the innovations of young poets who seemed to reject him, he spoke out as a conservative embittered against those who thus claimed "to lay a hand on verse."
More than any other, nevertheless, Verlaine worked to alter the profound character of the alexandrine by multiplying the number of ternary lines, by boldly varying the cesura, by accumulating odd run-on lines that broke out of the verse mold and came close to certain prose poems: dialogues with God or Christ in Wisdom, an astounding piece in the same volume that invokes the voices of Pride, Hate, and the Flesh in order to entreat them to die and to make way for the voice of Prayer and "the terrible Voice of Love." He will vilify rhyme in a celebrated line from his "Art poétique." The most skillful of rhymers (and the most discreet of them when he wanted to be), Verlaine makes light of rhyme at other times, forming couplets that end with the two words "choisi" and "quasi," "gai" and "guet," playing with bizarre words ("upchucked" ["débagoulé"], "tribades"), in the hardly edifying "Saturnian Poem" from In Parallel. Above all, he modifies the alexandrine while rendering it more supple with such virtuosity that the ear no longer knows if it is hearing ten, eleven, or thirteen syllables or where the verse line, segmented by run-on lines and odd divisions, begins or ends. Verlainian metrics often seem to reject any kind of syllabication and are based on combinations of very expert stresses, so expert that they often fall on conjunctions or on particles astonished to find themselves thus ennobled. With a daring that few French poets have had, Verlaine took delight in composing poems made up of odd-syllable lines: five syllables ("In the Interminable," in which frequent recurrences of rhymes reinforces the impression of monotonous boredom), of seven or nine syllables (the former very frequent and most often admirably successful, as in "Wooden Horses" and "Art poétique"). But it is mastery of the eleven-syllable line, for example in the most grandiose of all Verlaine's poems (Crimen Amoris), and in the thirteen-syllable line ("A Tale" in Love; less happily in the pious poetry of 1893 that begins with "Little Jesus who already suffers in your flesh"). Often, running every risk, Verlaine triumphantly won. Ronsard had been able to endow certain heptasyllabic poems with a hesitant and seductive grace; but it is Verlaine who imposed upon French ears both this line and the nine-syllable line from this or that "forgotten arietta." After him, Frenchmen have recited "It is the langorous Ecstasy" or "I detect through a Murmur" quite as familiarly as though it were a matter of one of Villon's or Gautier's lines, or one from Baudelaire's "To Her Who Is too Gay." The very new stress combinations of the Verlainian hendecasyllables (two groups of four syllables and one of three in a number of lines from Crimen Amoris), the fragmentations of the verse line when the poet uses the article les to form the rhyme, the words that the article announces ("seven sins") being, for the eye alone, carried over to the following line, makes the poet the first in France who cannot be reduced to a system based on syllabic count. With him, French versification at last proclaims that it rests on individual combinations and not on a mechanical counting of syllables. Later in his career, the aged poet was to feel himself outdistanced by the young symbolists of 1885 and made fun of their innovations. But since Rimbaud was not known, and since Mallarmé remained a traditionalist in matters of versification, it was Verlaine who had made their attempts possible.
Verlaine's mind was without doubt not the most disposed to construct coherent and rigorous doctrines. Nonetheless, and paradoxically, no French poem in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century and for some years to come in the twentieth, not even Baudelaire's "Correspondences," has had more striking effect as a poetic manifesto than "Art poétique," composed in 1873-74 and published in 1882 in a review and in 1885 in the volume Long Ago and Not So Long Ago. In that volume the poet sets forth, in the form of precepts (or rather of advice), what his work, from before 1873 (and even before he had known Rimbaud), had put into practice. Did he write it under Rimbaud's influence? It is generally stated that he did, but gratuitously, and without doubt by way of a too elementary simplification of the very mysterious concept of "influence." Other recollections that some have thought to find there (from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, for example) are even more problematical. The piece, if worthwhile for its content and its doctrinal statements, is no less significant for the emotions with which it is charged (this defense of freedom and imagination by a prisoner) and for the exquisite art of its vocabulary and its rhythm. . . .
Verlaine states first of all, not in a didactic counsel but in an impassioned cry, the primacy of music in poetry, and foreshadows, without knowing it, the symbolists and their successors, Pierre Louÿs and Paul Valéry, who chose later to consider music as the rival necessary to despoil to the profit of poetry. Image, symbol, are at one blow relegated to a secondary level. This music will be above all that finer, newer one born of the odd-syllable line that melts away as did poor Lélian's will and that rejects pose and affectation, and weighty stability if, indeed, Verlaine meant to play with the double meaning of the verb qui pose. That kind of ambiguity Verlaine calls "misapprehension" ("méprise"), and he recommends it: it forces upon the reader an active way of reading that Mallarmé was soon to demand by asking the reader to seek out the key to poetic mystery. In the very graceful third stanza, by way of three metaphorical evocations, Verlaine offers a few illustrations of this mystery while taking care himself, as one of the clearest of poets, to use the adjective clear ("clair"). For, Valéry was to say later, what is more obscure and more profound than clarity? In the same stanza, the adjective trembling ("tremblant") is no less important; beauty for the poet is inconceivable without mobility or without vibration.
Like the painters who, shortly after the composition of this poem, were in 1874 to take to themselves the term impressionists, by which people had thought to ridicule them, Verlaine forcefully lays claim to the nuance, mother of dreams and of soft spiritual harmonies in place of color. At the home of Nina de Villars, he had often encountered Manet who asserted: "The principal character of a painting is light." The prosaicness of the artful conceit and of clever wittiness is banished, though not that form of it that comes from recourse to the familiar that Verlaine practiced. Eloquence is vilified in the well-known outcry. Rhyme, which Verlaine in practice never renounced (although he may have treated it with disrespect), is condemned if it is too rich. Before everything else, let poetry be escape, adventure, unceasing aspiration towards the new: let it suggest, like music, the unexpressed; it does not reject precision, but prefers it to be limited and to serve as a foil to ambiguity.
This pursuit of vagueness that is "muted" ("en sourdine"—also the title of one of the poems from Fêtes galantes), of the half-light, of grisaille, or "morning twilight" ("crépuscule du matin," the orginal title of "L'Angélus du matin") or of evening twilight—is quite another matter and much more than a technique for Verlaine. It translates his rejection of brutality, of the too-neat choice between the flesh and the soul, between angelism and the mire, between the drunken man's brutality and childlike gentleness, and even between one sex and the other. Verlaine's poems on lesbians are much more than an erotic game on a theme that Gautier, Baudelaire, and many others since Sappho had touched upon. The "Songs of the Ingénues" in Verlaine's first collection, these artless young women who know themselves to be "the future lovers of libertines," allude to the hero of sexual transvestitism, the gracious and cunning Faublas. Another piece, in Les Fêtes galantes, has as its title "The Ingénus," male this time, but their words are "specious," the autumn evening is "equivocal," and even their sex is vague, as are the commentators of many poems who are undecided whether to read Mathilde or Arthur behind works like "Forgotten Arietta" or even "Water Color," in which the author dreams of letting his head roll upon a young breast. In more than one domain, Verlaine spontaneously translates the deep secret of his vacillating nature by avoiding the clear-cut, the decisive, the choice that was later to disturb the Gide of Fruits of the Earth because it forces one to renounce what one has not chosen and some potentiality within oneself. In his old age, and like so many others turned conservative (Baudelaire, also weary, had indeed conceded to his younger friend Manet that he was foremost, but "in the decrepitude of his art"), Verlaine treated his "Art poétique" lightly in 1890, while sounding this warning—tinged however with a rare modesty—to the young: "Do not take my 'Art poétique' at face value; after all it is only a song." At that time he made himself the apostle of common sense, especially against the dogmatic doctrines of the technicians. That "Art poétique," so undidactic, so lilting and mocking, remains the only one still alive among the ten or fifteen poems of the same, or almost the same, title that, since Gautier and Mallarmé, French poets have written (Tristan Klingsor, Francis Jammes, Max Jacob, J.-M. Bernard, André Salmon, Jean Cocteau, André Spire, and various surrealists).
Around this period in his life, between 1871 and 1874, Verlaine was equally seminal in creating (or nearly so, if Victor Hugo's poems that can be called impressionist, such as "Evening Things" in The Art of Being a Grandfather are excepted), in the poetic domain, literary impressionism. Here again, his originality seems complete. He was scarcely touched by the example of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, and very little by that of the painters, even those like Monet and Pissaro whom he might have been able to see in London in 1871 or in Ignace Fantin-Latour's studio. The very tempting and very dangerous parallels that critics strive periodically to propose between the three forms of impressionism—pictorial, musical, literary—do not help very much. The practitioners of these three art forms are conditioned by the techniques of expression, the medium, the autonomy peculiar to each of them. It is more natural to expect of the poet that he pierce or tear away the veil that he draws over reality or over the canvas on which he traces it, and touch upon the secret or the import that lies beyond. The exaggerated claims to the synthesis of the arts and to an ambitious and heady orphism count among the least fortunate aftereffects of the symbolist movement. The transpositions of art dear to Gautier and even the synesthetic effects described in the tercets of the celebrated Baudelairian sonnet scarcely went beyond the picturesque or the piquant. It would amount to a kind of purism, however, to seek to raise an insurmountable barrier between writers, painters, and musicians who, in Paris especially, live, discuss, and create in close proximity to one another. Prudently, in the last great article that he had written on Delacroix, Baudelaire had observed that the arts are incapable of taking one another's place, but that they could in our times "reciprocally lend one another new strengths."
Verlaine did not venture to formulate the theory of any certain literary impressionism. He wrote from London to Edmond Le Pelletier at the end of 1872, when he was making an effort to learn more about English art (for which he cared little, but which he was perhaps to like better in the long run): "In the meantime, like Mérat, I am collecting impressions." After so much classic, romantic, and Parnassian poetry that explained, proclaimed, reasoned, or, in any case, went beyond sensations, Verlaine, out of temperament, had preferred to let himself be lightly touched and sometimes invaded by landscapes and objects, refusing to interpret them or to ask them their secret. The frequency of expressions of his ignorance, of his uncertainty, of his refusal to know, is revealing: "what?" "who?" "we don't know why," "I am unaware." Often he avoids organizing sketchy details in an ordered landscape, not from lack of skill, for he is the author of one of the best composed landscapes there is, in the very beautiful poem contained in the collection Love, "Bournemouth," but because he wanted only to enumerate, to juxtapose, while omitting verbs and adjectives, as in the graceful Belgian landscape entitled "Walcourt," composed in lines of four syllables with two tonic accents. Realism? Not precisely, for this reality is permeated with phantoms "Charleroi"); the sounds of wind, of some forge, the whistling of grass in cold blasts, trains that thunder, even odors; all of these are "sinister," and the poet renders this shuddering of things and of his entire being. Above all, everything there moves, runs, flees. Few poets have so well rendered in French this feeling of something ephemeral, disturbing, in which the self is dissolved, which Joseph Eichendorff, Nikolaus Lenau, or an impressionist like Edward Moerike have captured in the German language. "Simple Frescoes" in heptasyllables and in entirely feminine rhymes, in Romances without Words, is a slender, graceful, and disturbing masterpiece:
La fuite est verdâtre et rose
Des collines et des rampes,
Dans un demi-jour de lampes
Qui vient brouiller toute chose.
The flight is greenish and pink
Of hills and slopes,
In a dim lamp's light
That comes to confuse all things.
In Romances without Words as well, and also in heptasyllables, the untitled piece that opens with "The ordered ranks of the hedgerows" ("L'Echelonnement des haies") is one of the most original works of Verlaine the impressionist. The verb unfurls ("moutonne") brings together from the start the plain dissected by hedgerows and the image of foamy waves. Everything is in movement—hills, trees, young horses in the fields, lambs, and the swirling rain. No feeling, no lament is suggested. The masterpiece of this type is doubtless "In the Interminable/Tedium of the plain," in pentasyllables. The word tedium ("ennui") brings together the impression received by the poet and the feeling of dreary monotony that weighs upon his soul. The blackness of the sky is interpreted through comparisons, to the moon, for example, that seems to live and die. The oaks appear to float like storm clouds in the grisaille that blends together sky and earth; the thoughts of the poet, who does not want to complain in his own name, transfers to imaginary animals, in the form of questions, his internal desolation. The real is grasped but never immobilized or materialized. Verlaine does not try to take hold of this reality as Rimbaud does, to incorporate it into a construction of his own like a demiurge recreating the world. He does not seek, like a voyant, to supplement it with a superreality. He translates the astonishment of his sometimes childlike soul and that headiness born of the void into which he feels himself perpetually upon the point of sinking. Beyond external notations that are a form of realism (but a magic realism in the manner of the German romantics), one denotes Verlaine's effort to forget himself, to escape life's wounds and his feeling of guilt—from before the time of the pistol shot and the prison at Mons.
It would be idle to exaggerate the similarities between Verlaine the poet and this or that one among the painters who were his contemporaries. He is not, like them, a colorist; he does not have their luminosity or the serene patience of their attention to the out-of-doors. More than they, he feels himself to be a musician and inclined towards gently soothing reveries. There is in truth a literary impressionism that runs parallel to the need to harden and stiffen reality that was typical of Flaubert and Maupassant. The Goncourts are the prose authors who had the clearest awareness of it and who, in passages that one would prefer to isolate from the rest of their work, have given remarkable samples of it in prose. Mallarmé, as early as March 1865, wrote to Henri Cazalis, alluding to his "Hérodiade": "I have discovered there an intimate and unique way of sketching and noting very fugitive impressions." Hugo, we know, called him, in a surprisingly exact remark: "My dear impressionist poet." There are those who sometimes seek to limit Verlainian impressionism to a brief period in his career—1872-74—and to convince themselves that afterwards he went beyond it. He certainly changed, and he understood the danger of monotony that that kind of art runs. But there remains much of this feeling of the fluidity of all things and of what is elusive, in poems from which neither the inner life nor feelings in which impressions complement one another are banished. Other than the very well-known sonnet of the summer of 1873, "Hope gleams . . . " (Wisdom), in which impressions and discreet symbols are wedded (a piece of straw that is perhaps grace, a wasp that could be woman, consoling water, the pebble in a hollow place), several of Verlaine's most beautiful poems are still impressionistic, but composed rather than juxtaposed and incorporating within them the dramatic element of time that flies and that overlays impressions of the present with nostalgia for the past and anguish before the future. We would include among these poems that ought to be the very first to represent Verlaine in an anthology of French impressionistic poetry: "The Morning Angelus" from Long Ago and Not So Long Ago (published under a different title in the first issue of Le Parnasse Contemporain), "Kaleidoscope" from the same collection that dates from the prison years (October 1873), and, later, that subtle poem on the imagination that bears the title "Limbo" in In Parallel (1889).
Artists and art critics who, around 1885, turned away from pictorial impressionism, like the very remarkable and short-lived Albert Aurier, reproached it with being a surface art, a kind of realism too slavishly submissive to the visible appearance and the color of things and landscapes, uninterested in the absolute and in being. The pursuit of that absolute and the disdain for the concrete and the fleshly did not always succeed, moreover, for the English pre-Raphaelites, for the philosophical painters of Germany, or even for Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, and Puvis de Chavennes in their less good moments. But if, in effect, the absence of the tragic can be deplored among painters such as Monet, Renoir, or Alfred Sisley (whose daily existence amid poverty and among general incomprehension nonetheless skirted tragedy more than once), this reproach cannot be addressed to Verlaine. More than Rimbaud, who was less gnawed by remorse and less haunted by the flesh than Verlaine, more than Mallarmé whose torment was metaphysical and literary, Verlaine lived tragically; it is he who could most accurately be seen as a parallel to Van Gogh. "Kaleidoscope," "Bournemouth," and "There," another poem inspired by the section of London called "Angels," stand among the greatest poems in French of throbbingly painful memories, of anguish, and of visionary dreams welling up out of reality. In the first of these pieces, past and future are confounded in an irresistible whirlwind, as often in Verlaine. The setting is that of the large city that had fascinated the two friends vagabonding among the streets of the British metropolis, though here it is a "dream city," a "magic city" (lines one and nine). The rupture, the one's scorn for the pitiful "mad virgin," the other's exasperation, and, then, his "cellular" life emerge. Will he be able to relive the past? "A slow awakening after many metempsychoses?" The poet sees again in his mind the vulgarity of the city and its hideous festivities, which were nonetheless dear to him; of the future he expects nothing. He calls upon death, but directly, without romantic rhetoric. Will it be the awakening from a dream, the dream of life, "life's unquiet dream" to use Shelley's phrase? Then, again, the descent into the dream and into the same pitiable weaknesses?
Ce sera comme quand on rêve et qu'on s'éveille,
Et que l'on se rendort et que l'on rêve encor
De la même féerie et du même décor,
L'été, dans l'herbe, au bruit moiré d'un vol d'abeille.
That will be as when one dreams and when one awakens
And goes back to sleep and dreams once again
Of the same fairy tale and the same setting
In the summertime, in the grass, to the shimmering hum of a flight of bees.
The word kaleidoscope contains within itself the adjective that signifies "beautiful," and Verlaine tried to see as beautiful, through the darkness of what lay in wait for him, his dream of the future. He cannot believe in it. He knows himself to be the slave of his destiny, and he bows his head. "It will be so ineluctable that one will think to die of it." A few years later, he wrote "Bournemouth," when he was teaching in England. In his Confessions of 1894, he recalled that visit and the landscape. Modestly, he added: "I also wrote an entirely insignificant poem, entitled 'Bournemouth,' that people are quite pleased to find good." Octave Nadal was to say correctly of that admirable work, which is symbolist in more ways than one: "It is the roar, the death rattle, and the stubbornness of the sea that find their correspondences in the tortured and patient heart of the poet." Claudel, who had had the courage in his youth, when it was not fashionable to do so, to celebrate Verlaine, declared in his later days (in his Improvised Mémoirs from his eighty-second year) that this poem was "one of the most beautiful pieces of French poetry." With a worthy independence of taste, he added, rightly in our eyes, that it was not in his Catholic collection, Wisdom, but in Love (published in 1888) that Verlaine had attained the summit of his art.
"There," from the same collection, entirely stamped with the memories of London, and transpierced by the passage of grace while he recalls his "old sins," a symbolist poem in its own way, is discreetly haunted by Rimbaud's memory. It is in the twenty or so poems that form the Rimbaud cycle that Verlaine attains the tragic. These pieces range from a few ariettas from the beginning of their liasion to the most immodest lines, "Verses for Being Vilified," and "Lusts" in Long Ago and Not so Long Ago, and to the two pathetic sonnets of Dedications (1890), addressed to Rimbaud (the second, inserted later in Dedications, is from 1893) "Mortal, Angel AND Demon," "You, dead, dead, dead."
People have evinced distaste for certain of these poems. There are those, in fact, like numbers IV, V, and VI of the "Old Coppées," interlarded with slang and very free in their language, that wallow in obscenity. The inverse sonnet "The Good Disciple" flaunts insolently, as no poem in any other language has dared, the physical ecstasy sought by the two companions. But the very brutality of that frankness which seeks to make a display of itself only barely hides Verlaine's secret remorse, recalling past pleasures and knowing with what regrets and what abandonment they were followed. "Laeti et errabundi" is a poem otherwise radiant with beauty in its boasting. Verlaine, so feminine himself, and whom the need for feminine tenderness and understanding always pursued, takes pleasure in crying out his disdain for orthodox love: " . . . detached / From women taken pity upon / And from the last of prejudices." No doubt he is echoing certain of the mocking remarks about his need for women and grace, and on the subject of his very real suffering at the time of his divorce, that his young partner must have often repeated. The piece is swept away by an inflamed outburst; it closes with the admirable verses in which the poet celebrates his forever absent friend as a "god among the demigods" and refuses to believe him dead. "He lives his life," and that exalting love burns his veins and radiates in his brain. Verlainian eroticism is one of the most ardent and the most splendidly expressed in all literature, equaled by neither the Marquis de Sade nor Jean Genêt in prose nor Victor Hugo or Pierre Louÿs in poetry. Verlaine is the poet of the flesh, as he was at other times and in other pieces, the poet of virginal reveries and of the soul's longings.
But this exaltation of the flesh is very far from being joy alone. Verlaine knows that desire is insatiable, and he recalls this in another very beautiful piece of insolent avowal ("These passions they alone still call love"); he boasts of being the apostle of that reinvented love. He knows as well, however, the weariness and disgust of both rapture and sensual satisfaction. In his boldest collection, In Parallel, he included two sonnets of "Explanation" in which he confessed "satiety to be an obscene machine," and a "Saturnian poem" in which he depicts himself sinking into the mire, jeered at by hooligans in the street, fallen to the lowest degree of abject humiliation.
It is in certain ones of these poems from the Rimbaud cycle that Verlaine reached the depths and the summit of the tragic, on a par with Baudelaire, and better than any other poet from what is called the symbolist movement. It has become fashionable to declare as outmoded the verse tale, of which Musset, Keats, and Matthew Arnold in England had given some very fine examples. It is not even certain that these verse tales, a kind of indirect lyricism avoiding the self and its laments, may not be preferable, in Musset's case, to the "Nights" and "Hope in God." More than one poetry lover, rejecting passing fashions, may have regretted that French symbolism and its immediate successors should have abandoned poetic domains where free rein could be given to narrative account, drama, inventive fantasy, and humor. Poetry did not as a matter of course gain anything in being reduced to lapidary aphorisms and to abrupt discontinuity. To be sure, some banalities slip into the hundreds of alexandrines of "Grace" or "Final Impenitence" (Long Ago and Not so Long Ago.) But Verlaine embodies therein the torment that is his during those years when he is unable to resign himself to the abandon upon which Rimbaud has decided and to bury his memories of complete joy experienced with him. The claims of the flesh are less plainspoken than in the more directly personal and vulgar pieces in the late-published collection, Flesh, in which the poet wants to make himself believe that the pagan times regretted by Lucretius can be reborn, the bodies of lovers embracing one another in the forests like does and stags. The battle between the Devil and salvation, the headiness of knowing oneself to be damned, and the vague feeling that it is to the damned (as in the novels of François Mauriac and Julien Green) that grace prefers to go, renders these tales lugubrious and tragic. "Don Juan Duped," in decasyllables, shouts blasphemies: "The Flesh is holy, we must worship it," and contains something of the fearful boldness within revolt of Balzac's novella The Elixir of Long Life. But the masterpiece of the genre, and perhaps Verlaine's masterpiece, is the great symbolic and apocalyptic poem to which he gave the Latin title "Crimen amoris." Verlaine recounted in My Prisons how he composed this diabolical tale in the early days of his incarceration, using a small piece of wood and on paper having served to wrap his meager food ration. He later reworked it a great deal. Some Baudelairian memory wandered about his brain when he incarnated in his sixteen-year-old friend (Verlaine several times attributed that age to the urchin-genius who invaded his life in 1871) the most beautiful of angels, Lucifer. In an oriental palace in the midst of an orgy where the Seven Deadly Sins flaunt themselves, during the course of an enchanted night, the adolescent suddenly appears. There, he cries out impudently his rebellious will against conventional morality, against narrow and timorous love, against God: "Oh, I shall be he who will create God!" He wants to marry the Seven Deadly Sins to the Three Theological Virtues, good and evil, heaven and hell. He lights an immense cauldron of fire in which "Satan, his brothers and his sisters" die as (in certain of the Illuminations) the victims of the capricious prince die. He offers to some new and maleficent divinity this sacrificial conflagration.
Punishment comes in a lugubrious twilight of the gods and of men. "The sacrifice had not been accepted." Verlaine cries out the terror that his friend's monstrous pride inspired in him. In a very beautiful finale, the night becomes once again serene, an "evangelical" softness (Verlaine used this adjective) has succeeded the harsh Rimbaldian colors: black, red, gold. Nature once again at peace "professes / The clement God who will guard us from evil." Verlaine, fraught with fear, aspires to punishment and peace. He cannot brace himself to go beyond "morality, that weakness of the intellect" vilified by his friend, and resolutely bypass the distinction between good and evil, the better and the worse. He already senses the submission, if not the denial, to which his friend was to resign himself, far from the Western world, and, on his deathbed, having perhaps murmured childishly, "Then, it was evil." The form of the poem of twenty-five stanzas (one less than the "Femmes damnées" of Baudelaire of which it makes one think), Verlaine's most brilliantly colored and most dramatic, and the originality of his hendecasyllabic lines divided after the fourth syllable, then after the seventh—sometimes the sixth—make it the most successful of Verlaine's works and perhaps the most tragic of all the poetry that is called symbolist.
Enid Rhodes Peschel (essay date 1981)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2701
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 poetry as well:
Your soul is a selected landscape that maskers
And bergamasche go about beguiling
Playing the lute and dancing and quasi
Sad beneath their fantastical disguises.
While singing in the minor mood
Triumphant love and life that is opportune,
They do not seem to believe in their good fortune
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
With the calm moonlight sad and beautiful,
That makes the birds dream in the trees
And the fountains weep with ecstasy,
The great svelte fountains amid the marble statues.
Here, a landscape and a soulscape are equated. Perceptions in Verlaine's poetry are paramount, for just as a person's soul reflects or incorporates a "selected landscape," so a landscape will reflect or incorporate the person perceiving it. The soul in the first stanza is another person's soul (a woman's soul, perhaps, or perhaps your soul, the reader's soul, as you enter this world of gallant festivals). But that soul also reflects, in some profound and important ways, the poet's soul, for it is he who is depicting its inner depths. In that soul, the site of a masked ball, people are actors and dancers, "maskers and bergamasche." Their masks, which both conceal what they are and reveal what they might like to be or what they play at being, suggest theater and artifice, charm and disguise, enchantment and deceit. Are these phantomlike figures only acting the roles of lovers, or do they—or can they—love in reality? The word "bergamasche" is richly suggestive. While Verlaine seems to imply dancers by it, the word actually means some fast dances (or the music for those dances) similar to the tarantella, the rapid, whirling southern Italian dance for couples. "Bergamasche" therefore evoke exoticism, eroticism, and a whirling, swirling frenzy: the kind of dizzy, intoxicating and disequilibriating motion in which Verlaine so often delights (e.g. see and ).
Subtly now, indications of malaise are insinuated. The actors, dancers and musicians "go about beguiling" the soul they inhabit, enchanting, captivating and charming it for good—but perhaps for evil. Suddenly a chill ripples through. For the end of the first stanza reveals that amid all the charm and gaiety of the masked ball, the gallant figures are "quasi / Sad beneath their fantastical disguises." Words about seeming, that by their nature question the existence and very essence of what is seen and what is said, are one of the hallmarks of Verlaine's poetry. For him, things rarely are; instead, they seem to be, which means that they almost always suggest the lurking presence of something else, of something alien perhaps, or even opposite. These figures, clothed in their "disguises," seem sad, almost sad. What are they disguising? Are they really sad, or is that the poet's projection of himself onto the scene? In any case, a note of melancholy is sounded here. Too, the word "fantastical" insinuates a disturbing tone, for while it means fantastic—of the mind or the imagination—it also may imply something strange, or weird or grotesque.
In the second stanza, the poet continues his impressionistic medley of sights that are both precise and hazy, and of sounds that are simultaneously soothing and unsettling. Now the nature of everything evoked is questioned, for although the figures sing what would seem to be victorious, favorable and timely ("Triumphant love and life that is opportune"), still they sing these "in the minor mood," suggesting the melancholy and plaintive sounds associated with the minor key. Once again, a motif of seeming questions everything. Phrased now in a negative way ("They do not seem to believe in their good fortune"), the words cast doubt not only on the singers' feelings, but also on the nature of their fortune.
Finally, their song mingles with the moonlight: the microcosm of this soul inhabited by people and a landscape mingles fully with the macrocosm—with the universe, with "the calm moonlight sad and beautiful." The word "calm," like motifs of seeming, is a key word for Verlaine, a word that almost invariably veils an underlying malaise or frenzy, at times even a feeling of despair. "Calm" is often a mask or veil that Verlaine uses to cover, or to try to cover, a face of anguish. "Calm in the twilight that / The high branches make above, / With this profound silence let's / Completely imbue our love," he begins "With Muted Strings," another of the Fêtes galantes which, like several poems in that collection, proceeds from ostensible calm to a cry of anguish: "And when the solemn evening / Falls from the black oaks, / Voice of our hopelessness, / The nightingale will sing."
The moonlight in "Moonlight" is at once "sad and beautiful": beauty for Verlaine implies the presence of sadness. So, too, does his notion of "ecstasy," for the very intensity of this emotional rapture leads inevitably to its loss (see, for example, and ). In "Moonlight," where "the fountains weep with ecstasy," the trancelike state is so overpowering that the joy expresses itself in tears: tears of rapture that recall sorrow and pain.
This brief examination of "Moonlight" suggests that Verlaine's poetry, which might appear calm or simple on the surface, is actually much more complex, extremely rich in underlying tensions and implications. Even such an apparently carefree piece as "Streets" (a poem inspired by Verlaine's and Rimbaud's stay in London) contains an inner anguish, despite its exclamatory refrain sounded five times, "Let's dance the jig!" For, from the poet's evocation of the woman's "mischievous eyes," to his exclaiming that the way she had of "making a poor lover grieve" was "really . . . charming indeed!", to his recalling in the last stanza that the times and talks they had had together were the "best" of his "possessions," certain impressions of pain and of melancholy have filtered through. When the refrain is sounded a final time after the last stanza, the poet's call to dance the jig seems like an attempt to shake off, by means of this fast, gay and springy dance, the loneliness, nostalgia and sadness that have been welling within him. "The desired lightness of motion and emotion is there; but almost inadvertently, the presence of thought, tinged by regret, has been insinuated. 'Let's dance the jig' contains at the end an echo of remembrance more than an invitation to joy," writes Henri Peyre [in French Symbolist Poetry].
The incessant interplay between quiet and disquiet continues throughout Verlaine's poetry, contributing to its uniqueness and its melancholy beauty, and to its powers to enchant and to disturb. Thus, "Crimen amoris," one of Verlaine's most fascinating and ambitious poems, modulates from a swirling and violently agitated vision into a melodious and peaceful soulscape at the end. It is almost as though for Verlaine the excess of one emotion calls for, and must be balanced by, its opposite. But for the reader well-attuned to the ceaseless struggles going on in Verlaine's tortured psyche, the calm vision at the end of "Crimen amoris" contains echoes of the agitations that preceded and—we know from Verlaine's life—would follow.
"Crimen amoris" is Verlaine's one-hundred-line vision of Rimbaud as a sixteen-year-old prophet, an "evil" angel, a "Satan," who also, in certain ways, resembles Jesus. It is written in lines of eleven syllables, a rhythm that is somewhat jarring to the French reader reared on classical alexandrines. But just because of the line's unevenness and its sense of imbalance, the vers impair is so well suited to this poem and to Verlaine's equivocal nature.
The "crime" takes place in Persia, in Ecbatana (the ancient name of Hamadan in present-day Iran). The location adds exotic, mythical and religious dimensions to the tale. As the poem opens, "Beautiful demons, adolescent Satans," celebrate "the festival of the Seven Sins." Their glorification of sensuous and sensual pleasures ("ô how beautiful / It is! All desires beamed in brutal fires") is, of course, a rebellion against the church. Their festival, as described lyrically, excitedly—delightedly—by the poet, is melodious, amorous, luxurious, and filled with "Goodness." Verlaine's words capture its splendor, rapture, fierceness and excitement, its tender erotic ecstasies that bring on tears, its cosmic proportions and powers of enchantment:
Dances to the rhythms of epithalamiums
Were swooning in long sobs quite tenderly
And beautiful choirs of men's and women's voices
Were rolling in, palpitating like waves of the sea,
And the Goodness that issued from these things was so potent
And so charming that the countryside
Around adorned itself with roses
And night appeared in diamond.
In stanza 5, Rimbaud, "the handsomest of all those evil angels," appears. Because he is deeply distressed, the other Satans try to cheer him. Finally, in stanzas 10-14, he addresses them, proclaiming a "gospel of blasphemy" that is at the same time a "metaphysical rebellion." '"Oh! I will be the one who will create God!'" he begins his scandalous and prophetic pronouncements. He then delineates his dream of abolishing the concept of sin, for sins, he says, will henceforth be rejoined to virtues. And he announces that he will sacrifice himself—make himself sacred thereby—for the sake of others, and for the sake of "universal Love": '"through me now hell / Whose lair is here sacrifices itself to universal love!'" This, therefore, is his "Crime of Love": his vision of a new and revolutionary Love, of a total and completely unrestricted Love, of a Love that is universal, all-embracing, erotic, emotional and spiritual. But this Love is also a rebellion that implies, among other things, Verlaine's and Rimbaud's homosexual love. It is a physical and metaphysical revolt against the teachings of Catholicism, and so is a "crime" in the eyes of society and the church. The title is, therefore, an indictment against Rimbaud (and Verlaine). But it may also be interpreted as an indictment against the church and state that condemn a complete and free and universal Love.
The sacrifice, flame-licked, tortured, but exalted, begins in stanzas 15-18, with repeated intimations that death and destruction are imminent as the other Satans follow their visionary prophet:
And the dying Satans were singing in the flames. . . .
And he, with his arms crossed in a haughty air,
With his eyes on the sky where the licking fire climbs along,
He recites in a whisper a kind of prayer,
That will die in the gaiety of the song.
Suddenly, the song ends, for "Someone had not accepted the sacrifice." Everything is then destroyed, and all becomes "but a vain and vanished dream . . . " (stanza 21). But does that dream really disappear?
The four last stanzas are lyrical and calm, a gentle song after the exploding visions in the twenty-one that preceded. Yet calmness in Verlaine's poetry is so often a veil cast over an inner agitation that one cannot but wish to look more closely here. In stanza 22, the entire ambiance is veiled, wavering, almost palpitating; something seems to be rising from just below the surface. One senses a soul behind the scene. The plain is "evangelical," "severe and peaceful." The word "severe" might indicate an underlying strain. The tree branches, "vague like veils," suggest angels—or ghosts. They also "look like wings waving about," intimating angels' wings perhaps, or perhaps wings of birds that wish to fly—to flee.
In the next stanza, all seems calm. "The gentle owls float vaguely in the air / Quite embalmed with mystery and with prayer." But the word "embalmed" . . . suggests, along with sweet scents, intimations of death. "At times a wave that leaps hurls a flash of lightning." This sentence at the end of the stanza startles: its fire is reminiscent of the flames of the Satanic festival.
In stanza 24, a "soft shape" rises from the hills "Like a love defined unclearly still, / And the mists that from the ravines ascend / Seem an effort towards some reconciled end." In the context of Verlaine's other poetry, the word "seem" is somewhat troubling. While here it seeks to define nature in terms of the divine, still the word does raise a question, for it is certainly possible that the mists might not be "an effort towards some reconciled end."
The last stanza is clearly an invocation to Christ—a "heart," and a "soul," and a "word" (the Word), and a "virginal love":
And all that like a heart and like a soul,
And like a word, and with a virginal love,
Adores, expands in an ecstasy and beseeches
The merciful God who will keep us from evil.
The word "ecstasy" is used here in its religious sense, but for Verlaine, as we saw earlier, the notion of ecstasy leads almost invariably to feelings of loss, or pain or sadness. Two other words clearly inject some uneasiness into the apparently serene soulscape of this last stanza: "beseeches" ("réclame") and "evil" ("[le] mal"). The word "beseeches" stresses urgency and need. It means "to ask for earnestly," "to implore" and "to beg for." This is a heartfelt and a pressing prayer. One senses at this point the poet's profoundest longings for peace and for a pure love: for a "virginal love" that would counter the "crime of love," and for a "virginal love" that would be free from sexuality. The poet's calling upon God to help him in his distress is typical of Verlaine's religious poetry. It is also significant, I believe, that he does not beseech a "God who will lead us to good" but rather a "God who will keep us from evil." This is, in the closing quiet of "Crimen amoris," a muffled cry of anguish. The fact that Verlaine ends his poem on the word "evil" suggests that "evil" will continue to torment—and to attract—him. In fact, judging from the length of the poem, and from the beauty and power of the description of the Satanic festival, that "evil" undoubtedly continued to allure Verlaine, even as he wrote the poem and sought to condemn the "Crime of Love."
Verlaine's poems mediate ceaselessly therefore, between gaiety and sadness, hope and fear, quiet and disquiet. It is as though just below their melodious and apparently simple surfaces, a silent scream is waiting to be released. In his poetry, as Festa-McCormick notes, "The tragic shows through the surface, as it shows through the surface in certain impressionist paintings or in Watteau's so melancholy picture ["The Embarkation for Cythera"] in which the voyagers seem sadly satiated or disenchanted with the pleasure for which they are embarking." Verlaine's moods and language, his mysterious music "with muted strings," his choice of rhythms, rhymes and words that continually question the scene's—and therefore the soul's—serenity, combine to create a state of uneasy calm, a vision of happiness or pleasure that may be undermined at any moment. One can sense in Verlaine's poetry, as in his life, both control and loss of control. For his soulscapes are permeated with a kind of restless repose and with tremors of the ephemeral or otherworldly which seek to convey calm or hope or joy, but which almost invariably insinuate hidden presences of pain or sorrow, as well. And always in Verlaine's poetry there is "Music before anything else. . . . " Never overpowering or thunderous in its orchestration, his music, lute-like, or like the music of other stringed instruments, is melodious, lyrical and seductive, an integral part of his poetry of moods and sensations. Through its sounds and its rhythms, his poetry filters into you, caresses you, possesses you, lulls you and disturbs you, subtly. You are taken into its beauty and its uneasiness, almost unawares. Verlaine's malaise, through his music, becomes your own disquietude. And his poetry, that "One wants to think caressing . . . both delights / And distresses simultaneously."
Susan Taylor-Horrex (essay date 1988)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8746
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 galantes and Romances sans paroles take a different approach from La Bonne Chanson and Sagesse which treat the theme of the weak self to be saved, respectively, by marriage to Mathilde [Mauté] and returning to God, and where the conflict is somewhat externalised. With Fêtes galantes and Romances sans paroles the conflict remains firmly located within the poet's self.
Not surprisingly then, in comparison with these other collections, Fêtes galantes and Romances sans paroles have a predominantly emotional rather than intellectual content.
Fêtes galantes and Romances sans paroles deal with the theme of the divided self specifically in the area of love. In an important respect all the poems in the collections treat love. It is the central theme. Some poems present a related theme but this always refers back, directly or indirectly, to the dominant theme of love. The thematic pattern of both collections is, then, multidimensional as distinct from exclusively linear and progressive.
This is not to say that the thematic presentation is static, a random assortment of emotional moods. Both collections present a range of shifting emotional nuances, and both collections are shaped by an evolution in the nature of Verlaine's conflict with himself and consequently in his way of loving. The development from passive versus active self to a clearer confrontation of the irresponsible with the responsible self (already hinted at in Fêtes galantes) will equally be the argument of my discussion of the themes of Fêtes galantes and Romances sans paroles. Change is rarely satisfyingly straightforward. We often come full circle before we are able to move forward. And change does not necessarily mean improvement. This is perhaps the deepest exemplification of Verlaine's other 'art poétique', 'L'art, mes enfants, c'est d'être absolument soi-même.' . . .
In Fêtes galantes there are three distinct aspects; echoes of the paintings of [Antoine] Watteau and of the poetry of Hugo, and the themes of love and passivity. I shall consider these aspects as three 'layers' in the poems and show that, in a small number of poems, these three layers merge so as to be indistinguishable. This kind of merging, I believe, is the hallmark of Verlaine's distinctive poetry, a form of pure poetry, which creates its own world and terms of reference and is the vital link with Verlaine's poetic art of the finest poems of Romances sans paroles.
In one important respect the title of Fêtes galantes is its theme, for it denotes the complex nature of the detached perspective on love, that least detached of emotions. Verlaine's title is commonly attributed to the influence of Watteau's eighteenth-century genre of painting of the same name, and to Victor Hugo's poem, "La Fête chez Thérèse" (Les Contemplations, I, 22, 1840, published 1856). Watteau (1684-1721) is credited with having developed the genre of the fête galante. Broadly speaking, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, the fête galante was an idealised country scene peopled by aristocratic figures, originally the new élite of the city which, under the Regency, and in rivalry with the court after the death of Louis XIV, went to the 'country' (in reality the Paris suburbs) to 'commune with nature'. . . .
Watteau's art enjoyed a revival of interest in the midnineteenth century; Hugo, [Théodore] Banville, [Théophile] Gautier and especially Baudelaire responded to it. The revival was doubtless one element of the more general reaction against an age of materialism, of bourgeois mediocrity, the impulse towards the lowest common denominator of imaginative understanding. It was after all the age which could prosecute Les Fleurs du mal and Madame Bovary. Poems on the fête galante theme were also written by Banville, Gautier and Baudelaire. It is well documented that Verlaine enjoyed Watteau's painting and, especially, responded to the Goncourt brothers' [Edmond and Jules] studies of eighteenth-century art. . . .
[An] underlying assumption of Fetes galantes is the notion of the mask which conceals the feeling person. . . . Above all the onlooking Pierrot of Watteau's painting encapsulates Verlaine's own distancing of himself from the world of emotions which is the substance of Fêtes galantes. Indeed a number of critics have traced the probable pictorial originals of some of Verlaine's Fête galante poems. What matters of course is what Verlaine made of these and doubtless other related inspirations. Clearly he responded to the Watteau who used the artifice of the fête galante to explore essential and natural truths of the human condition. Obviously this 'impersonality' would appeal to a young poet still closely identified with the Parnassian movement. Watteau's figures appear to seek harmonious happiness with the right partners; some succeed, some fail. The couples, partners in dance and song, symbolise the psychological truths of harmony and fulfilment; the distant, isolated figures, the absence of this fulfilment. The apparently lighthearted fête galante mode explores with complete seriousness the life of the emotions. The paradox does not stop here. This life itself brings with it numerous ambiguities. The very artificiality which has revealed these essential human truths and aspirations also asks the spectator such questions as 'can these scenes of harmony be trusted; is such harmony possible, and if so, how long does it last?' The apparent légèreté of the paintings, an aspect too readily seized upon and used to dismiss Watteau, is only apparent. We have only to consider the central female figure in L'Embarquement pour Cythère moving away from the island, her head turned wistfully towards the paradise she is leaving, to understand this.
Verlaine responded, then, to Watteau's use of the impersonal stylised mode as a means of seriously exploring the intensely personal world of love and its disappointments. Watteau achieves an impersonal, some would say objective, means of studying that which is most personal. He gave Verlaine an example of how he might usefully distance himself from the emotions he knows most intimately; usefully because in Fêtes galantes the emotional confusion is located in the conflict between active and passive modes of loving. . . .
I suggest that Fêtes galantes can be considered as a coherent collection of poems with a definite structure, that of an emotional life, much as we find in Hugo's Les Contemplations or Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal. The first and last poems of Fêtes galantes ("Clair de lune" and "Colloque sentimental") function as a kind of framework to the ever-changing picture of emotional life on the canvas of the remaining twenty poems. These two poems operate to achieve a 'distance' comparable to that of Watteau's paintings. This is in no way a verbal transcription of Watteau's mode of painting. "Clair de lune" is, literally, a scene setter. All the main elements of the collection are present in this poem and indeed the first line 'Votre âme est un paysage choisi', is the key to the collection. Firstly, the landscape is identified with the soul, the poet's and, quite possibly, our own. The scenes depicted in the remaining poems will ultimately be statements about the poet's and our own emotional landscape. Secondly, it is a 'paysage choisi'; it has a particularity, a uniqueness, a stylisation; in short, an artificiality which will permit an exploration of the natural life of the emotions. . . .
[In] "Clair de lune" a stylised world is established, one which is then further transformed. This is the artificial, transfigured, self-enclosed fête galante world of which the remaining poems are a part. Never again are we reminded that this world is the poet's/our own soul. We are invited once and for all to enter fully into this world.
"Colloque sentimental" repeats the ambiguity of the opening poem. One of the characters in the dialogue appears to doubt that any part of the couple's experience of 'bonheur' ever happened. At the very least s/he does not remember. There is additional uncertainty: the characters seem like ghosts; and by whom are they overheard? It is not altogether certain they were heard. All might equally have been imagined by the poet/reader. In this sense, then, the poem casts a further ambiguity, this time retrospective, over the entire collection. The suggestive power of the emotions is all the stronger for this uncertainty. In a sense the very quality of our existence is put in doubt. So equally there may be a move back on the part of the disbelieving character from the enclosed fête galante world to a familiar reality. We seek refuge from uncertainty in the certain reality of disbelief. An emotional shift such as this is entirely appropriate to what is ultimately a thematic ambiguity.
Each of the poems [in Fêtes galantes] deals with love from a particular angle. In fact the themes, that is, emotional attitudes towards love, cover a very wide range, from lighthearted enjoyment to despairing isolation. Moreover, these related themes are dealt with in groups of poems, so that a number of aspects of the same theme are offered in a kaleidoscopic presentation. "Pantomime" and "Sur l'herbe" give a specifically lighthearted picture of the playfulness of relationships, in Watteauesque terms. The commedia dell 'arte characters engage in the playful stages of 'l'amour naissant'. Colombine, in "Pantomime", feels love dawning. The lover in "Sur l'herbe" indulges in the stock language of adoring the loved one. This light-heartedness is picked up later in "En bateau."
In "L'Allée", "A la promenade", "Dans la grotte", "Cortège" and "Les Coquillages", Verlaine intensifies this idealised love game into a stylised sensual idealism which includes the erotic. "L'Allée" offers a detailed portrait of a woman loosely based on the blason device, used in the sixteenth century and dating back, via the poets of the Middle Ages, to Antiquity. It is a device whereby a woman's beauty is detailed from head to toe. . . .
In "A la promenade" the poem following "L'Allée", the same scene is entered more intimately, for it is presented from the point of view of one of the lovers. . . .
"Dans la grotte" employs consciously archaic eighteenth-century poetic diction to express the lover's complete submission to the pain of love in this idealised love world. . . .
"Cortège" and "Les Coquillages" present essentially the same stylised loving in even more elaborate terms. "Cortège", clearly inspired by Watteau's painting of the same name, nonetheless captures the quintessential artificiality of the scene in such a way that the pet monkey gazing at the woman's décolletage and the negro attendant peeping at his mistress's ankles function like sixteenth-century emblems to symbolise repressed desire strong enough to be lust. Such feelings are spoken in the first person in the erotic poem "Les Coquillages", clearly modelled on eighteenth-century erotic poetry, such as "Le Sein" from Tableaux by Parny.
Matters taken a stage further are presented in the theme of emotional and sensual surrender in "Les Ingénus", "Mandoline" and "En sourdine". In "Les Ingénus" Verlaine depicts the emotional surrender in the early stages of a relationship. . . .
"Mandoline" captures the precise moment when the lovers, their exquisite clothes, their style their happiness, their shadows, all blend perfectly with the moonlight, the music, the quivering breezes. This precise moment of total harmony of sensations, emotions, physicality, is encapsulated in intense movement. . . .
With the poem "Cythère" the ideal world of total surrender is achieved. Cythera, the island of Aphrodite's temple, has long been a favoured subject of painters and poets, Watteau and Baudelaire among them. Verlaine is writing very much within this tradition. The poem's theme is ideal love, a world of passivity, of complete sensual gratification. . . .
The theme of love has so far been presented as a mainly positive and pleasurable experience. Nonetheless, love's less attractive aspects are at least hinted at in some of these poems, "Cythère" for example. Other poems deal more directly with these issues. . . .
[L]ove does not last. The longest poem, "En patinant", uses the familiar device of the passing seasons to depict the passing of love. In this poem there is a further dimension, the idea of manipulation. . . .
Failure, despair, and fear are dealt with more directly in "Le Faune", "L'amour par terre" and "Colloque sentimental". Like its more positive counterpart, "Mandoline", "Le Faune" fixes the precise moment when the lover realises that love will not last. . . .
Despair of love lasting is polarised into the themes of innocence and corruption in "Fantoches" and "Colombine". In 'Fantoches' the evil commedia characters Scaramouche and Polichinelle seemingly plot in the moonlight while Colombine steals away to her handsome lover. Love asserts itself over evil and, it is hoped, will assuage the lovers' distress. In "Colombine", on the other hand, Colombine is presented as an evil manipulator of her innocent lovers. . . .
Across the collection, the distinctive theme of love is developed in an equally distinctive way. There is a deepening emotional richness. In general the poems up to "En patinant" are fairly straightforward depictions of a happy, lighthearted love. "En patinant" marks a turning point; with the theme of manipulation, the darker side of love is introduced. From this point on, the poems are more complex with the additional dimension of the more negative aspects of love discussed above. This interplay of positive and negative aspects of love, I suggest, is the source of the richness of the later poems as of the essential thematic progression.
If we take together the three commedia/Watteauesque poems, "Pantomime", "Fantoches" and "Colombine", it is possible to see this symbolised in the way the character of Colombine is developed. In "Pantomime", Colombine is surprised by love; she is tender and gentle. In "Fantoches" she actively seeks her lover, whilst in "Colombine" she has become a cruel manipulator, she is active rather than passive, and this activity is perceived as malign. As a commedia character, she symbolises, from a safe distance, somewhat in the manner of Watteau's artificiality, the range of emotions associated with love and which Fêtes galantes explores. As a character associated with love, the Colombine figure may be considered to represent the increasingly complex treatment of love across the collection.
"A la promenade", "A Clymène" and "Les Indolents" suggest a modus vivendi in the face of this despair, this 'fate'. . . .
The stance adopted with its logic, 'Le rare est le bon. Donc mourons' is specifically amoral with its implied (conventional) equation of death with sex. The tone of the poem is no less so. . . .
"A la promenade" and "A Clymène" approach the theme of amorality from a different angle. In "A la promenade" we are told quite simply that the lovers are 'Cæurs tendres, mais affranchis du serment'. As in Watteau's paintings, they are absolved of all responsibilities and are free to pursue their pleasures, their search for the right partner in defiance of fate. The liyed reality of such a world is the theme of the beautiful poem, "A Clymène". As in "En sourdine" the poem traces the process of invoking passivity, of relaxing control. This time the power of the loved one is specifically in the domain of sensations. Here too Verlaine self-consciously uses Baudelairian correspondances. (Baudelaire's sonnet "Correspondances explores the symbolic connections of perfume, sound and colour.) In "A Clymène" the effect on the poet's senses, backed up by the 'authority' of another poet's experience, is offered as a justification of the poet's surrender. The repeated construction 'Puisque' leading to the final 'Ainsi soit-il!' which, translated, means 'Amen', has, as in "Les Indolents", a semblance of logic. In addition the strikingly liturgical quality of the verse seems to offer further justification. Amorality, then, a refusal of responsibility, some would say decadence, a seizing of the moment, is both an aspect of love and may well be a way of dealing with love's transience. The 'Ainsi soit-il' which closes "A Clymène" is more than the quasi-religious acquiescent welcoming of love that it may first appear to be. As I have suggested above, the syntax of 'Puisque . . . Ainsi soit-il' offers a justification, a legitimisation of amorality. The world of "Les Indolents" operates on just such a legitimised assumption. . . .
A critic has referred to this amorality as 'libertinage sophistiqué'. This seems to me accurate, but I believe the amorality to be a great deal more than this. As such it is the principle connection with Verlaine's vision of love in Romances sans paroles. In "Les Ingénus" the amoral is specifically a freedom from commitment. . . . It may equally be viewed as a special world where such commitments are irrelevant, if not rejected. Certainly this last attitude would constitute the darker side of freedom. Another way of considering the matter would be to suggest that it is a world of irresponsibility, attempted, if not chosen. The amoral, then, may usefully be seen as the irresponsible. Verlaine's investigation of the nature of love has led him to the verge of taking responsibility, a point beyond which he has chosen not to go. The amoral fête galante world strongly and permanently hints at a world of irresponsibility as a way of life.
It is in this context that I want to suggest that beneath the overt theme of love there lies a theme less directly expressed; it is the theme of passivity. Each poem can be seen as an evocation of a state of passivity. In a fundamental sense this is the key to Verlaine's poetic vision and art. This theme is suggested throughout the collection and is the mood through which the dominant theme of love is filtered. In Verlaine's case the evocation of states of passivity may usefully be viewed as the aesthetic counterpart of his own lived refusal to take responsibility for himself, his actions, his moods, his decisions. It is an astounding and, in some ways, a horrendous transmutation of lived experience into art. The impossible lands of Fêtes galantes, as indeed of Romances sans paroles, have their genesis in that which is only too possible.
As with the theme of love, the states of passivity cover a wide range. "Les Coquillages", "Dans la grotte" and "A Clymène" evoke the pleasure of letting go, of achieving the perfect passivity of physical pleasure. As suggested, the theme of "En sourdine" is the process of bringing about a state of passivity, here a form of receptivity to nature, in such a way that the individual and nature become one on some plane of exquisite pleasure, which is detailed further in "A Clymène" J. P. Richard refers to this process as the removal of 'le moi conscient' of the thinking self, to allow the world of sensations alone to come into being. Passivity too can be discerned in the theme of manipulation; the victims are passive in "En patinant". Passivity is equally the inability or refusal to do anything about this manipulation and the resultant isolation ("Fantoches"). It is vulnerability in "En bateau", fear and loss of control over one's destiny ("Le Faune"). Above all, in "A la promenade", "A Clymène" and "Les Indolents", passivity is manifested in amorality which is legitimised into a way of life in the fête galante world; refusal of commitment is proposed as an ethos. It is a serious proposition and one which Verlaine explores much further in Romances sans paroles.
This layering of themes, one overt, one suggested, is, of course, appropriate to the presentation of mainly nonintellectual themes. I want to go further and suggest that the way the themes are presented also emerges as a theme in its own right. These structures are the nearest the poems get to being 'intellectual'. After all, the world of emotions has to be set down. For the sake of clarity, four distinctive modes of presenting the emotions can be discerned.
Firstly, in "Pantomime" and "A la promenade", for instance, Verlaine uses the device of contrast. Pierrot's practical activity of eating is contrasted with Colombine's passive reception of love to underline the theme of isolation, and the contrast between callousness and feeling, corruption and innocence, conventional masculine and feminine principles. The word 'contraste' is actually used in "A la promenade" to emphasise the enigmatically playful quality of idealised love scene. The woman's cold gaze is contrasted with her generous smile. . . .
This contrast between appearance and reality is tightened into a paradox in a number of poems, notably "L'Allée", and "Dans la grotte". Paradox, the second mode, is obviously of the essence of the fête galante world, dealing as it does with artificial appearance and emotional truth. "L'Allée", which precedes "A la promenade", is a purely external portrait of the lovers of the latter poem. . . .
"A Cythère", "Mandoline" and "En sourdine" present a world within the world of Fêtes galantes, the third mode. "A Cythère" is the pure, perfect world of sensations. This plane of rarefied existence is doubtless the world experienced, in movement, by the characters in "Mandoline" as they 'Tourbillonnet dans l'extase'. In its more relaxed form this world is that to which the lovers aspire in "En sourdine". . . .
[The] fourth mode, I term a dialectic. In the abstract, dialectic may be defined as follows: one emotional state is taken to the extreme point where it brings into being its opposite emotion. This is comparable to the essence of Mallarmé's Symbolist undertaking, 'après avoir trouvé le Néant, j'ai trouvé le Beau'; it is only by encountering total negation that the poet can imagine its opposite, 'l'Idéal'. Verlaine's dialectic, of course, operates on an emotional level. The happiness in "En sourdine" cannot last. In addition, the letting go of the thinking self runs so close to self-annihilation that the conscious self reasserts itself. And this takes the form of despair in "En sourdine", despair at the loss of the conscious self, or equally at not being able to escape its control, at not being able to achieve the emotional ideal of total passivity. Certainly there is too the despair of the deeper parts of the emotional self which are usually suppressed. . . .
On a more mundane level, a mode of presentation such as this conveys the understandable fear that happiness will not last. "Le Faune" demonstrates this very clearly. There is too, something here of the dynamic of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Each of these suggested approaches has its truth. Not surprisingly, there is overall a greater incidence of this dialectical presentation of the theme in the second half of the collection "Mandoline", "A Clymène", "Les Indolents", "Colombine", "En sourdine"), which is obviously a factor in the greater complexity noted in the thematic development of the collection.
I suggested earlier that the way the theme is presented constitutes a theme in its own right. The three 'layers' of themes in Fêtes galantes, love, passivity and the mode of presentation, blend in 'En sourdine'. Here the willed gradual surrender and resultant despair, which is nothing other than vulnerability, is a dialectical process. Emotions work like this. The world of "En sourdine" is more recognisable than that of "Cythère" for instance. In "En sourdine" we are invited to participate in the gradual process of passivity, in "Cythère" to witness an idealised world. This art of merging layers in "En sourdine" marks an important link with the poetic art of Romances sans paroles.
The significant connections between Fêtes galantes and Romances sans paroles are the themes of love and passivity, their links with the positing of an amoral world where responsibility is refused, and the expression of this in a form of pure poetry. As such Fêtes galantes contains elements of this, Verlaine's art of symbolist impressionism. By using the fête galante mode, Verlaine has explored these issues in a safe, detached way. He distances himself from the highly personal and confused emotions to clarify the conflict between active and passive modes of loving. In Romances sans paroles the same issues are examined in a more personal way, and so, more deeply. In so far as "En sourdine" expresses the experience of willed passivity more intimately than the other poems in the collections, it is the key connecting poem between the two collections. In Fêtes galantes, Verlaine is an onlooker, gazing at the Watteauesque painterly poems which he creates. He is a spectator. In Romances sans paroles, the more specifically musical poems, Verlaine is more profoundly engaged. "En sourdine", with its stated musicality, points the way.
As with Fêtes galantes, the themes of Romances sans paroles are predominantly emotional states. To the familiar themes of love and passivity is added that of freedom. .. . I shall consider three ways in which Romances sans paroles develops from Fêtes galantes; firstly, the use of the Romances sans paroles mode with its subdivisions, secondly the resultant double perspective of external reality and inner emotional reality which permeates the collection, and finally how the presentation of the themes focuses the conflict noted in Fêtes galantes between active and passive ways of loving into the issue of responsibility versus irresponsibility, the issue which, I believe, accounts for the uneven quality of the poetry in this collection. There is, quite simply, a marked contrast between a 'poésie pure' of delicious passivity, free from moral values, a poetry of presentation (as distinct from representation), and a poetry of unsubtly expressed emotions, clearly autobiographical in nature. Fêtes galantes presents a wholly imagined inner world where ethos and emotional state are unified in the specifically pure, amoral world of "A la promenade", "A Clymène" and "Les Indolents". In Romances sans paroles this is not the case.
Romances sans paroles explores further the fête galante world and, as it were, tests out these imaginary lands. As we shall discover, the lands are visited and yet it is impossible to remain there. Emotions and ethos are ultimately found to be in conflict. This is because Verlaine is forever torn between the pull of freedom and the temptation of security, and refuses to choose one or the other. I consider that this unresolved gap between the delicious emotional state, its pain as well as its pleasure, and the ethical basis on which it is founded, generates the best and worst of Verlaine's poetic art and is the halimark of Romances sans paroles. In view of this it seems to me crucial to adopt two approaches to the collection: firstly that of 'poésie pure', poetry in its own right, and secondly a biographical approach in the case of a number of poems, specifically the fourth and sixth "Ariettes oubliées", "Birds in the night", "Child wife", "A Poor Young Shepherd" and "Beams". Apart from the "Ariettes oubliées", these poems contain little that I consider to be of purely aesthetic merit. They are largely versified self-pity and/or anger directed towards Mathilde [Mauté, his wife].
In Fêtes galantes Verlaine dealt with the themes of love, passivity and amorality in a detached way, through the fête galante world. Romances sans paroles is distinctly less detached in its treatment of these themes. In the place of the fête galante framework there is the mode of the Romances sans paroles, wordless songs, which are subdivided into "Ariettes oubliées", "Paysages belges", "Simples fresques" and "Aquarelles", that is, musical as well as pictorial modes, linked by the notion of the significance of the unexpressed. While Romances sans paroles clearly refers to Mendelssohn's 'Songs without words', the 'Romance' is also a sung elegy, emotional in substance and without complicated dramatic presentation. The genre itself conveys the idea of musicality, of experiences that transcend the limitations of words, a questioning of the power of words. . . . There is too the idea that there is no name for the experience which Romances sans paroles collectively portrays. This is less to do with morality, or its absence, than to suggest the uniqueness of a love affair, of which homosexuality is but one element. In short, another plane of existence is involved, as in Fêtes galantes. In Fêtes galantes this world of delicious passivity was lived vicariously through the commedia characters, with the notable exception of "En sourdine" where the experience is considerably less limited by the specific figures. In Fêtes galantes there is an outer reality, that of the fête galante world, and an inner reality, the truth of human emotions. With Romances sans paroles the outer reality is the fact and circumstances of the relationship with [Arthur] Rimbaud, and Mathilde; the inner reality, the intimate experience of this relationship, what it felt like. The experience is neither vicarious nor transposed beyond recognition. Both realities are the poet's. There is, then, no one clear mode to give specificity to the experience. On the contrary, like music, it is evoked in the very process of its unfolding. "En sourdine" came nearest to this kind of poetry in Fêtes galantes. The mode of the Romances sans paroles is entirely appropriate to this art of symbolist impressionism which presents, not represents.
Within this overall genre it seems to me worth considering the titles of the separate sections. "Ariettes oubliées", the first section, contains the quintessentially Verlainian poetry. The 'Ariette' certainly refers to the musical comedy, Ninette à la cour, by the eighteenth-century dramatist, Favart, from which the opening epigram is taken. Rimbaud discovered these plays in the library at Charleville. As the name implies, an 'Ariette' is a small aria. Its distinctive quality is an unaccompanied melody. The melody is the theme, that is, the ephemeral quality of the emotions, possibly a reason for the use of the diminutive. The melody's accompaniment derives from the words' rich suggestiveness, connotative, phonological and metrical. Given the fact that Verlaine named this particular section later (they were originally to have been called Romances sans paroles), there is, as Bornecque suggests, a retrospective view; the experience of the relationship, of its emotional essence, has been forgotten by Rimbaud.
"Paysages belges" obviously recalls the setting of Fêtes galantes, 'Votre âme est un paysage choisi' ("Clair de lune"). The equivalence between landscape and emotions now applies in reverse; the Belgian landscape is that of the poet's soul, it is seen through the poet's emotional being. This section is a continuation of the emotional world of "Ariettes oubliées" and is more outward looking. The subdivision, "Simples fresques" (fresco art implies painting directly on to wet plaster), suggests the seizing of the bare essential elements of the experience, in the form of sparse landscape details. It is the art of the precise nuance and of the rapid gesture. "Aquarelles" continues the painting mode. The water colours may be considered the visual equivalent of "Ariettes oubliées". The pictorial detail of the landscape is fused with the emotional landscape. There is a shift in emphasis from music in the first section, to painting in the final section, which denotes a move away from the completely personal world of emotions and sensations in its complex unfolding process ("C'est l'extase", "Ariette" I) to a world where details from a 'recognisable' external world depict a particular emotional attitude ("Green"). . . .
Each section is linked with a place visited by Verlaine and Rimbaud. "Paysages belges" obviously recalls Belgium, "Birds in the night" and "Aquarelles" are from the London experience, while "Ariettes oubliées" probably covers the entire experience, certainly the early Paris-based relationship, and that on a far more essential level. It is the 'paysage intérieur' of merging emotions and sensations, Verlaine's own Cythère, the journey to and from the island of ideal love. A number of critics assign each section to a particular person in Verlaine's life at this time. The general consensus appears to be thus: "Ariettes oubliées"—nostalgia for Mathilde; "Paysages belges"—Rimbaud; and "Aquarelles"—return to Mathilde. I see an emotional truth and logic in this. After all, Verlaine found it difficult to leave Mathilde and presumably to live, for him, a more adult, homosexual life. On balance, though, I believe the sections signify in a different manner. Each division presents a different location for a particular stage in the relationship with Rimbaud, beginning with the self-enclosed world of emotions ("Ariettes"), the life of adventure in Belgium ("Paysages belges") and then London ("Aquarelles"). Cutting across these sections is the conflict between the reluctance to leave Mathilde and security, and the tempting freedom with Rimbaud. Verlaine's attacks on Mathilde are, after all, externalised fear and cowardice. The straightforward circumstantial adventure is accompanied by a far more complex refusal of this freedom. Even so, each section has its own coherence, recalling the 'blocks' of poems in Fêtes galantes; for instance "Ariettes oubliées" presents kaleidoscopic perspectives on the physical, emotional and artistic relationship, ranging from sensual pleasure through the 'morality' of the situation, to regret at the loss of the stable conventional marriage that freedom has demanded.
The collection as a whole has rather less coherence. There is the overall pattern of a decline in emotional intensity and subtlety. The collection begins with the exquisite "C'est l'extase", the assertion of the reality of the least tangible of experiences, and ends with "Beams", with its theme of surrender in love. However, in "Beams" the presentation is utterly conventional and Hugolian in tone. There are two possible explanations for the decline. Firstly, the inevitable diminution of intense experience. Secondly, there may well be some cynical mockery, ever the perspective of Verlaine in exile. Certainly a poem such as "Beams" bears a strong resemblance to the less impressive poems from La Bonne Chanson and later Sagesse. Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact remains that the poetry in Romances sans paroles ranges from the exquisite to the banal and the ludicrous.
It seems to me too that a double perspective operates. Just as the fête galante world, by its very nature, ultimately doubts the existence of the harmony it depicts, so Romances sans paroles is pervaded by an atmosphere of retrospective fatalistic melancholy, a strong sense of past, present, and future preconditioned by the past, far more marked than in Fêtes galantes (cf. "Le Faune", "L'Amour par terre"). Accordingly there is a greater awareness of the gap between ideal and reality than in Fêtes galantes. In "C'est l'extase", for instance, the moment of sublime happiness is immediately questioned 'C'est la nôtre, n'est-ce pas?' Many of the poems are permeated by this fatalistic doubt. Some are entirely composed of it, for instance the eighth "Ariette", "Dans l'interminable . . . " From the beginning in Romances sans paroles there is the certainty that harmonious happiness will not last. In the light of this and for the sake of clarity, I shall discuss each section separately with respect to the treatment of the themes of love, passivity and freedom.
In "Ariettes oubliées" the theme of love is not articulated as such. Instead the poems variously explore finely nuanced facets of the state of being in love. The theme of passivity too pervades this section in the sense that, with the exception of IV, the poems are about a sensual and emotional state in which the poet finds himself. The theme of passivity is united with the theme of freedom, for the poems evoke an attitude of complete surrender, a letting go, including the fearful dimensions of such a situation. Together, then, the nine "Ariettes" present the essence of the Verlainian emotion of total surrender to love; each poem constitutes an aspect of the entire experience which is thus unfolded in its finely nuanced, ever-changing process. The "Ariette", "C'est l'extase" is one of the best examples of this. . . .
Just as the first poem evoked sensual perfection and doubts, and the second a spiritual ideal and certain doubts, so poem III completes this opening cycle of experience. It is a poem of melancholy. The tragedy is that the poet does not know why he is so desolate:
C'est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi
Sans amour et sans haine
Mon coeur a tant de peine!
This, the essence of despair, has an unresolved quality which focuses and expresses directly that of I, the demand for reassurance, and of II, the certainty of imperfection.
Together, the first three "Ariettes" convey the entire and extreme range of Verlaine's experience, which is consistently presented as an unfolding process: we are taken through the process with the poet. The remaining "Ariettes" are rather more varied in that they treat specific aspects of this experience and differ considerably in tone. With the possible exception of VI, poems IV-IX deal with the various forms of pain the relationship inevitably entails.
"Ariette" VI is of quite a different order. It is Verlaine's version of Rimbaud's 'Ma Bohème', a half mocking poem of joyous wandering. . . .
Compared with "Ariettes oubliées", the "Paysages belges" are generally more outward-looking, as the title suggests. The themes of love, passivity and freedom are present in the poet's receptivity to the Belgian landscape, which, of course, is simultaneously his emotional landscape. In contrast to the "Ariettes" which unfolded sensations and emotions, "Paysages, belges" tend to pile up sensations in a manner which resembles Rimbaud's poems of sensations, Illuminations. "Voyance" includes pure receptivity to sensations. Nonetheless the poems are never exclusively verbal impressionism. They have their emotional depth.
"Walcourt" and "Charleroi", like "Bruxelles: Simples fresques", form diptychs which depict the pleasure and the pain of the exile in freedom. The mood of "Walcourt" recalls that of "Ariette" VI with its jolly conclusion to the brief and rapid description of the town through which Verlaine and Rimbaud walked on their way to Brussels in 1872, . . . and which led him to compare the two friends with happy wanderers, whereas usually the wandering Jew is seen as a tragedy. On the other hand, the opening line of "Charleroi", 'Dans l'herbe noire / Les Kobolds vont' echoes the eighth "Ariette", 'Dans l'interminable / Ennui de la plaine' just as the questioning, 'On sent donc quoi?' echoes that of "Ariette" V, 'Qu'est-ce que c'est que ce berceau soudain?'. In both instances despair is manifested in an unbridged gap between the senses, emotions and the faculty of understanding. In "Le piano . . . " the poet's memory fails to recall the origin of the sensations; in "Charleroi" the intellect fails to understand both the sensations and their source. The situation becomes worse still in the first of the "Bruxelles" poems, "Simples fresques": there is a near-failure of feeling. Like the fresco which fades with time, the poem deals with the passing of time, and so, of love and memory. . . .
However, the defiance of passing time and of failure of emotions is not guaranteed, for the achievement of emotional happiness is uncertain. The first "Fresque" had questioned whether the experience had ever happened, so frail is memory. The desperate tone of "Fresque" II conveys more of an unfulfilled wish than of certainty. The doubts and ambiguities posed in the ninth "Ariette" persist.
"Chevaux de bois" is quite different in theme, tone and length from the other poems in "Paysages belges". Its loud, exciting evocation of a fairground scene anticipates the early twentieth-century simultaneity of Apollinaire's and Cendrars's poetry of urban life. . . .
The closing poem, "Malines", constitutes a farewell to this cycle of poems, depicting as it does scenes glimpsed from a train. The poem is characterised by silence especially after the noisy activity of "Chevaux de bois". The train's carriages are rooms for intimate communication:
Chaque wagon est un salon
Où l'on cause bas et d'où l'on
Aime à loisir cette nature
Faite à souhait pour Fénelon.
And communication is but part of a more general harmony ('cette nature'). The allusion to Fénelon's doctrine of quietism completes the picture of silent harmony. This, an emotionally gentle close to the cycle, gives a note of completion contrasting with the section "Aquarelles" which follows after the vicious interlude of "Birds in the night" in which Verlaine criticises his young wife. The Belgian experience has been explored and understood: that of London will remain unresolved. In "Aquarelles" the theme of freedom is treated rather differently from the two previous sections. There is less consistent welcoming of freedom. In "Green" and "Spleen", love and passivity take the form of a full and open receptivity to the fleeting, essential moment in the emotional life. . . .
In "Spleen" the poet is slave to his emotions.
In contrast, the London-based "Streets", I and II, present respectively a lighthearted farewell to the loved one and a vivid street scene in London. The poems' joyful energy conveys a momentary freedom, real or imagined, from the loved one, be it freedom from wanting Mathilde or from the depths of surrender to Rimbaud. It does not matter. What does matter is the mature understanding that happy memories are the positive reward of this freedom:
Mais je trouve encore meilleur
Le baiser de sa bouche en fleur,
Depuis qu'elle est morte à mon coeur.
"Streets" II is an example of the clear, fresh vision that emotional freedom can bring, . . . The poem, entirely a painted scene, and comparable in this to some of Rimbaud's Illuminations, is one of the few where the landscape (or, in this case, townscape) is free from any signs of reference to an inner landscape. This absence itself of course informs us of the poet's freedom from distress. Nothing interferes with his detailed and original observations of the world around him. Passivity can be this constructive receptivity to the external world. Here absence of love is seemingly the condition of freedom.
Together "Child wife", "A Poor Young Shepherd" and "Beams" are about love. They enact, respectively, the process of leaving Mathilde, the early stages of love and the playful surrender to a new lover. The tone of these poems is markedly different from that of the other poems in the collection, with the exception of "Birds in the night", although it is marginally prefigured in "Streets". The three poems have a Hugolian tone of declamation: love from a great distance and an impressive height. The child wife is told, 'Et vous n'aurez pas su la lumière et l'honneur / D'un amour brave et fort' (17-18). It is a stance of love, not the experience of love: 'Elle se retourna, doucement inquiète / De ne nous croire pas pleinement rassurés' ("Beams" 13-14). The emotions were raw at the beginning of this third cycle ("Green", "Spleen"), now they are hardened. The issue of freedom has been resolved' by evasion into externalised imagined scenes of parting, courtship and acquiescence to a new love, as it has into a poetic style which contrasts to the point of parody with the authentic Verlainian style.
In discussing Fêtes galantes, I referred to three themes, love, passivity and the mode of treatment, and suggested that the blending of these three in 'En sourdine' made that poem a significant link with Romances sans paroles. In Romances sans paroles the themes of love, passivity and freedom blend with the mode of treatment. In "Ariette" II ("Je devine . . . ") the unfolding presentation is appropriate to the theme of spiritual love; so too, and at the other extreme, is the chronological narrative of the popular song genre, to the unsubtle and strong emotions expressed in "Birds in the night". Running through the entire collection is a further layer. It is the pattern of emotional harmony and discord, a moving away from or towards one of these polarities. Some of the poems begin in a state of harmony and move towards discord. Thus "Ariette" V ("Le piano que baise . . . ") opens with a full evocation of finely nuanced sensations and progresses towards troubled questioning. "Ariette" IX ("L'ombre des arbres") on the other hand remains harmonious in its consistent evocation of disappointment. Harmony does not necessarily imply happiness, although the harmonious joy in "Walcourt" does involve both.
It is illuminating to consider the first and last three poems of Romances sans paroles in the light of this emotional pattern. As I have shown, the first three "Ariettes" constitute a small cycle of poems in their own right, for they deal with the full range of Verlainian experience, sensual ecstasy, spiritual ideals and despair, all of which are expressed as an unfolding experiential process. The last three poems, "Child wife", "A Poor Young Shepherd" and "Beams" also constitute an independent cycle of poems in their externalised stance of parting and loving anew. As such both 'cycles' offer vignettes of the Verlainian experience, both are harmonious in their tonal consistency. The first cycle is authentic, the second, an unconvincing pose. However, unlike "Colloque sentimental" (Fêtes galantes), the lack of conviction in the second cycle does not cast a retrospective ambiguity over the whole collection. Instead it opens up questions concerning the diminution of the poems' quality, and so, the uneven quality of the poetry in the collection as a whole.
The key factor is the theme of freedom. If we consider the poems in their order of arrangement, which is not necessarily the order of composition, a picture emerges. In the first three "Ariettes" freedom is of the essence of the experience, for the poems convey the poet's acceptance of the positive and negative aspects of the experience. The reassurance he seeks in "C'est l'extase", the doubt itself, is part of the experience, as is the failed spiritual perfection in "Je devine . . . " and the failure to understand the source of despair in "Il pleure ... " In the last three poems Verlaine adopts a pose of freedom, leaving a woman, beginning a new relationship; even the acquiescent love in "Beams" is playful. Put another way, the first three "Ariettes" do not question the ethical basis for this freedom, the situation is enjoyed and accepted for what it is; by the stage of the last three poems, the matter has been confronted and sidestepped.
So there is an unresolved conflict in the collection between emotional freedom and its ethical basis. This, the crucial and poignant discord, cuts across the collection and is the source of its tension. This discord concerns the issue of a Chosen irresponsibility. In Fêtes galantes Verlaine justifies his amorality, and "Ariettes" IV and VII, "Birds in the night" and "Child wife" deal with the same matter, this time in the form of an irresponsibility not chosen, together with the attendant guilt and indictment of the beloved. These poems, circumstantially autobiographical, contrast with the other poems in the collection by dealing with specifically ethical matters. "Ariettes" IV and VII present respectively the homosexual life with Rimbaud and the leaving of Mathilde, representing conventional heterosexual security; bohemianism versus social integration. In offering a justification for 'amorality', "Ariette" IV develops the theme of "A Clymène" (Fêtes galantes). In this "Ariette" Verlaine's justification is an uncharacteristically assertive demand for forgiveness, 'Il faut . . . nous pardonner les choses'. It is obviously possible to read this line as referring to some undisclosed violation of an unstated code. Indeed the vagueness is the very condition to which he refers; homosexual love was inadmissible in nineteenth-century France and, as Oscar Wilde put it, 'dared not speak its name'. There is possibly a sense of sin in the choice of the word 'pardonner', given Verlaine's subsequent reconversion to Catholicism during his imprisonment in Mons prison after the shooting incident, and in view of the fact that he was given the maximum sentence of two years' hard labour, less for shooting at Rimbaud than for practising sodomy with a minor. In "Ariette" IV, Verlaine insists on a life of freedom which, given the reference to the poets as 'filles', is doubtless passive in the sense of rejecting coventional notions of masculinity. Depending on one's point of view, the seventh "Ariette" ("O triste . . . ") captures, as I have suggested, the paradox of being separated without being separate; equally it could convey the self-pity of a man who cannot have his cake and eat it.
"Birds in the night" evokes a similarly ambiguous response. It is by far the longest poem in the collection, narrating the poet's emotional life with a woman from the beginning of the relationship to a parting which clearly does not constitute the end of the relationship. The overt theme of the poem is the poet's forgiveness of the woman. I do not doubt the sincerity of this, given Verlaine's collections of poems such as La Bonne Chanson and Sagesse I find the criterion of sincerity difficult with respect to poetry and prefer to leave it aside as being ultimately unuseful for assessing the merits of a poem. In the final analysis the poem should stand on its own. Letting "Birds in the night" do just that, I find it has little aesthetic merit, with its banal verse form, rhyme scheme and relentless list of undoubtedly powerful but nonetheless crassly expressed emotions. And indeed I find that in the place of any such merit the emotional content intrudes itself. This is the point: the poem refuses any response of the order which we are accustomed to give to most of the poems in the collection. Instead it presents itself with a tone of appalling self-pity and cowardly self-justification. The same is true of "Child wife" which begins, 'Vous n'avez rien compris à ma simplicité'. As with "Birds in the night", the fact that Verlaine obviously believes such assertions is ultimately irrelevant. For the overt theme of self-pity and cruel criticism of Mathilde's understandably annoying childish behaviour is contradicted by a tone of quite staggering indictment of the young wife. The poem ends with a grandiose and ludicrous Hugolian utterance indicating all that the young wife has missed through her failure to understand her husband. Presumably the Hugolian echoes are further justification for the criticism of the wife. Hugo's life is doubtless the ideal to which all poets and wives should aspire. Adèle Hugo had, after all, 'understood' her husband's infidelities.
These four poems, autobiographical, and expressing the tension between freedom and security, are Verlaine's 'Saison en enfer'. Fêtes galantes had presented an ethos of freedom from responsibility in the transposition to the imaginary fête galante world. In Romances sans paroles the matter is focused into a choice between a free, 'immoral' life with Rimbaud or a life of conventional security with Mathilde. Verlaine seems to choose neither; or rather he refuses to choose. In the last analysis, the direction chosen is irrelevant; what matters is the choice between responsibility and amorality. Verlaine does not even choose to be amoral; this is the ultimate, and damaging, irresponsibility. His change of lifestyle with Rimbaud has hardly proved to be the free amoral world imagined in Fêtes galantes. The promise of the fête galante world has not been realised. The poet is faced instead with the consequences of his chronic refusal to choose; they are aesthetic as well as ethical consequences.
The quality of the poetry in Romances sans paroles is patchy compared with that of Fêtes galantes. Verlaine's best art is written under the successfully self-deceiving illusion of acceptance that love is passive irresponsibility. Moreover, in these poems, particularly the "Ariettes", the positive and negative dimensions of the situation are maturely explored. However, in the poems where no such illusions are created, and where a more recognisably personal matter intrudes, Verlaine simply misses the essence of the moment in question. So, it is when he deals with the serious source of his delicious irresponsibility and which he ultimately evades by blaming Mathilde for everything, that the poetry borders on the banal. In such poems Verlaine misses the core of the emotion: 'Tout le reste est littérature'. This, the last line from "Art poétique", Verlaine's own criticism of 'unmusical' poetry, judges, sadly, its own author. With Verlaine's critique in mind, together with his own dramatic lapses from this ideal of musicality, it is time to turn our attention to the large question of music in Fêtes galantes and Romances sans paroles, beginning with Verlaine's art of versification.
Laurence M. Porter (essay date 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3283
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 derelict, have reinforced the trend to slight or to dismiss his work. Until recently even critics who have looked closely at his poems have tended to obscure our sense of the evolution of Verlaine's poetry by treating it in terms of what they perceive to be general, overarching tendencies such as "fadeur" (insipidity) or "naiveté," to say nothing of the all too familiar "musicality." A fine recent collection of French essays is disparagingly titled La Petite Musique de Verlaine [SEDES, 1982]. Once one has described Verlaine's "music" by counting syllables and noting repetitions of sounds, there seems to be little more to say. Like Lamartine, he has been damned with faint praise.
If one seriously addresses the question of Verlaine's musicality, it seems intuitively obvious that repetition and regularity are more "musical" than their absence. In actual music composed before the modern era, a high percentage of the measures occur more than once—only one-third or one-quarter of the total may be different—whereas in a literary work few if any sentences are repeated. Zola need use the same sentence only half a dozen times in a long novel such as La Bête humaine before critics start comparing it to a Wagnerian leitmotif. A modest amount of repetition in literature, then, has the same effect as the considerable amount of repetition in music. The phrases that echo frequently in a poem such as Verlaine's "Soleils couchants" attract all the more attention because they do not belong to a conventional pattern of recurrence in a fixed form such as the rondeau or the ballade.
No one, however, has yet done a statistical study to determine whether Verlaine deploys obvious forms of repetition—rich rhyme, internal rhyme, anaphora, epiphora, refrains, reduplication of single words, alliteration, and assonance—more frequently than less "musical" poets. Baudelaire and Mallarmé, in fact, seem to use more rich rhymes than does Verlaine; Baudelaire more often repeats lines. Nor has anyone done an empirical study to determine whether poems identified as "musical" by naive and by sophisticated audiences actually contain more repetitive devices than do other poems. No one, in short, has rigorously characterized "musicality" in language in linguistic terms. And no one who wishes to ascribe "musicality" to the verse of Verlaine and the other Symbolists has come to terms with the fact that all these poets were lamentably illiterate and incompetent as composers, as performers, and even as passive listeners to music. While awaiting the outcome of the empirical and statistical studies of the future, we can best treat the problem of literary "musicality" by recognizing that "musicality" serves merely as a metaphor for the relative prominence of phonemic and verbal repetition; for allusions to, evocations of, and descriptions of things musical; for the foregrounding of rhythm, which is the essence of music; for vagueness of denotation; and for the suppression of overt narrative progression. (These last two traits often figure together in descriptions of that critical artifact called "literary impressionism.") Taken all together, these features do not help to distinguish Verlaine's poetry from that of many of his contemporaries.
One can obtain a more fruitful definition of Verlaine's "musicality" by observing what I consider to be a primary rule in literary criticism: once you have singled out a certain motif or a feature for analysis, seek its polar opposite. It is not the motif of "musicality" alone but the structure formed by thesis (here, "musicality"), antithesis (whatever for Verlaine may seem opposed to "musicality"), and the relationship between them which characterizes the creative individuality of the poet. This structure defines his imagination (in linguistic terms, his poetic "competence") and its expression (in linguistic terms, his poetic "performance") in a way that one isolated element such as "musicality," shared by many poets, could not possibly do.
Mistrusting the act of communication, each of the major French Symbolist poets focuses his principal suspicion on one particular, discrete point along the axis of communication. What Verlaine's good early verse does is to call into question the signifying capacities of the verbal medium itself. He fears lest the very ground of his utterances be meaningless or at least vitiated by the way it is ordinarily treated. The problem is not merely that he finds words inadequate to treat transcendent subjects (Mallarmé's difficulty) but rather that he finds words unreliable, period. Since he still wishes to write poetry, he has no recourse other than to exalt the "je ne sais quoi," the "imprécis," and to expatiate upon the topos of inexpressibility.
Antoine Adam, a noted critic of Verlaine, does not take the poet's antilinguistic stance too seriously. He invokes [in The Art of Paul Verlaine, 1963] the testimony of Edmond Lepelletier, who saw Verlaine daily at the time of his early publications and claimed that lyrical expressions of love and sadness in the Poèmes saturniens and the Fêtes galantes were mere poses in a person interested primarily in dogmatic poetics. He cites two lines from "Aspiration" (1861) to suggest that the critique of love language in ensuing collections may derive as much from misogyny as mistrust of communication: "Loin de tout ce qui vit, loin des hommes, encor / Plus loin des femmes". Far from all that lives, far from men, and yet / Farther from women). Referring specifically to the Fêtes galantes, Adam claims: "This poetry of an all-embracing melancholy dimension is, however, meant to be a game. . . . The poet amuses himself. . . . Baudelaire's sober doctrine [in Verlaine's "A Clymène"] becomes a pretext for subtle combinations of hues and fragrances. The enjambments that set off the ironical charge of a phrase, and the rhymes—profuse, unusual, employed in a hundred original ways—these are part of the fun."
But in an interpretation similar to my own, Jacques-Henry Bornecque, who studied this crucial collection in much more detail, maintains that it traces a sequence of moods declining toward pessimism and despair. Verlaine contaminates with his own sadness the playful Regency world (1715-23) into which he had hoped to escape. His other writings of the same period include many macabre pieces that express his disgust with his contemporaries. Bornecque observes, "In those verse or prose pieces that are not 'fêtes galantes,' Verlaine does not disguise his feelings: he gives free rein to his peevishness as to his anguish, regularly and obviously swinging between aggressive bitterness and the despairing detachment which is the ebb tide of the former." He cites many examples, notably the sinister short story "Le Poteau," which reveals a certain affinity with Baudelaire's "Vin de l'assassin." The death of Verlaine's beloved Elisa Moncomble four days before the composition of the first two "Fêtes galantes" seems decisive. Bornecque characterizes the collection as the work of a convalescent—a convalescent, one could add, with nothing to live for.
Sensitive though he is to Verlaine's moods, Bornecque overlooks the poet's mistrust of language, so characteristic of the Symbolist crisis. Unlike the other major French Symbolist poets, Verlaine focuses this mistrust on the linguistic medium itself, instead of on the acts of conceiving and communicating a message. He subverts the notion of the essential "humanness" of language by playfully (and of course figuratively) replacing human speakers with nonhuman ones. And by making utterances flatly contradict the situations to which they refer, Verlaine challenges our assumption that language provides reliable information. Many instances can be found in the prose works, particularly the Mémoires d'un veuf. There "Bons bourgeois" describes a family quarrel: after an exchange of insults, "la parole est à la vaisselle maintenant" (now the crockery [which the family members start throwing at each other] does the talking). Afterward the lady of the house excuses herself to her visiting country relative by saying CELA N'ARRIVE JAMAIS" (that never happens). "Ma Fille" cancels its own language when after an idealized description the narrator announces, "Heureusement qu'elle n'a jamais existé et ne naîtra probablement plus!" (Fortunately she never lived and probably will not be born in the future!). In another story, Pierre Duchâtelet has a conversation with his wife in which he lies to conceal his imminent departure for a ten-day mission to a battle zone; on his return he finds a letter saying simply, "Monsieur—Adieu pour toujours" (Sir: Farewell forever). And if we read allegorically, considering the hand as the writer's instrument . . . , we could even say that artistic self-expression destroys its subject and is itself doomed to a sudden death. Such an interpretation illuminates Verlaine's tale "La Main du Major Muller" (from Histoires comme ça), where the preserved hand that had to be amputated after a duel comes to life, poisons its owner, and then quickly rots.
The most compelling corroborative evidence for Verlaine's dour linguistic self-consciousness, however, comes from the master article of all his literary criticism (and one that should be much better known): his response to another great Symbolist poet, Baudelaire. This piece appeared in the November 16, 1865, issue of L'Art. Of three individual lines cited as models, two treat nonverbal communication: "Le regard singulier d'une femme galante" (the odd glance of a promiscuous woman) and "Un soir l'âme du vin chantait dans les bouteilles" (One evening the soul of the wine was singing inside the bottles). From the five wine poems, in other words, the one line that Verlaine cites is one that gives a voice to a nonhuman entity. And from the "Tableaux parisiens" section, likewise, Verlaine singles out this passage:
Et, voisin des clochers, écouter en rêvant
Leurs hymnes solennels emportés par le vent . . .
Je verrai l'atelier qui chante et qui bavarde.
(And, next to the bell towers, to listen dreamily / To their solemn hymns carried off by the wind / ... / I shall see the workshop singing and chattering.)
After beginning the essay with the declaration that "le public est un enfant mal élevé qu'il s'agit de corriger" (the public is a badly brought up child: you have to chastise it), Verlaine gives as examples of appropriate behaviors instances of silencing: the poem "Semper eadem" with its repeated "Taisez-vous!" (Quiet!) and elsewhere the command to the beloved, "Sois charmante, et tais-toi" (Be charming, and be still). Far more is at stake here than mere playfulness.
Whereas narrative and drama represent what is meaningful to at least several people or to a collective culture, the lyric represents what is meaningful to only one person. Poetry is half a conversation, a soliloquy or apostrophe to a being that is nonhuman, absent, or dead, and therefore incapable of responding in words. When we say "Rose, thou art sick," we don't expect an answer. In those instances where the interlocutor is not suppressed, poetry becomes "dramatic lyric" that shades into theater. In the lyric situation, where the single speaking voice is the norm, Verlaine sometimes imposes one of two marked choices. Either he uses free direct discourse—a conversation that does not identify the speakers—to multiply the sources of meaningfulness to the point where each interferes with the other and they blur; or else he introduces nonverbal elements so as to subvert meaningfulness at its source; or he does both at once, as in the paradigmatic "Sur l'herbe" of the Fêtes galantes.
When Verlaine does depict the normal one-sided conversation, he undermines its meaningfulness as much as he can without sacrificing coherence. He tries to express his radical skepticism regarding the power of words to signify by undermining their status and seeming to replace them with something else. For him this something else is musicality: not a flight into a balmy vagueness, but the cutting edge of his satiric attack on the verbal ground of our relationships. By using uncommon "rythmes impairs" (five-, seven-, nine-, eleven-, or thirteen-syllable lines) instead of the octosyllables, decasyllables, or alexandrines that were to dominate French poetry through the 1920s, Verlaine again makes a "marked choice"; he selects a form of expression that violates our expectations through the absence or the excess of a certain quality. He foregrounds the supreme musicality of rhythm at the expense of the other elements of poetry. Since the essence of music lies in rhythm more than in melody, harmony, intensity, or timbre, a poetry that calls attention to its rhythm makes that element a rival of the verbal poetry rather than its adjunct. Similarly, from the Fêtes galantes on, internal rhyme and assonance become more common in Verlaine's poetry, constituting a marked choice of sound repetition in excess of what one would ordinarily expect and thus suggesting, once again, an antiverbal musicality. More obviously, of course, words seem to become ancillary in Verlaine's texts when he uses them to denote, connote, or describe music and the visual arts. He subverts language by using words to evoke indefinable states of vagueness and confusion; to designate situations in which the words themselves are trivial, insincere, or absurd; and to characterize acts whereby words cancel themselves or serve to impose silence. To produce a mere catalogue of such devices would be a facile and not very enlightening exercise. But as it happens, examining them in context can illuminate the structure of individual collections of verse and clarify the trajectory of Verlaine's entire career.
The section titled "Melancholia" in Verlaine's first collection of verse, the Poèmes saturniens (1867), presents the dilemma of the breakdown of signification thematically, by depicting the lyric self's nostalgia for a past time when love language was still meaningful. Distancing himself from his nostalgia in the last section of the Poèmes saturniens, the lyric self shifts to a parody of love language from "La Chanson des ingénues" on; such parody persists to the end of the Fêtes galantes (1869). As the historical Verlaine strives to return to a conventional life, La Bonne Chanson (1870) transiently adopts a conventional, affirmative poeticizing. The Romances sans paroles (1872) revert to undermining signification, but they show rather than tell. A supreme discursive prise de conscience affirming vagueness and musicality as the highest poetic goals appears in "L'Art poétique" of 1874 (published only when Jadis et naguère appeared in 1882). This statement itself, however, is subverted by verbal excess, for there is a fundamental paradox in specifying how to be allusive.
Verlaine's Symbolist crisis, then, as I would define it, lasted from 1866 to 1874. After his conversion in prison, he seems to have become dedicated to betraying his earlier self. He reverts to a wholly conventional prosodic practice and to a thematic questioning, typical of Romanticism, of the codes and contexts of traditional beliefs rather than a questioning of the efficacy of the communicative process itself. Some thirty-two poems from his earlier years, previously unpublished in collections, appear in the later collections (notably in Jadis et naguère, which contains twenty-seven of them) but without exception they lack the critical bite of those already published—the reason Verlaine had set them aside in the first place. A few pieces in Parallèlement (1889), composed probably between 1884 and 1889, again present a lyric self alienated from love and his own words and sinking into a preoccupation with mere physicality. But these poems appear superficial; they degenerate into self-parody; and they convey none of the fundamental questioning of signification characteristic of Verlaine's "Symbolist" period. Verlaine's 1890 article "Critique des Poèmes saturniens" rejected everything he had written before Sagesse in 1881—in other words, nearly everything most critics still find important. . . .
Our faith in the referentiality of language—that there exists a real link between the signifier and a signified—depends upon our faith in intersubjectivity, the belief that we share a common code and that each signifier means the same thing to us as to the significant others in our lives. Once Verlaine had experienced "l'incommunicabilité," the impossibility of communication, he attacked the belief in referentiality in three distinct ways in his poetry. At times, as in the theater of the absurd, he depicted a dialogue of the deaf, as in "Colloque sentimental," where each signifier has different referents for different people. At other times he exalted "musicality" over verbality: thus he was attracted to the libretti of Favart, which he studied with Rimbaud, because they provided the model for a form intermediate, so to speak, between language and music, insofar as the importance of the words was minimized by the necessity of tailoring them to the prepotent musical form. Verlaine's marked choice of unusual rhythms augmented the ostensible importance of the "musical"—that is, the rhythmic—dimension of his verse by calling attention to its rhythms so they could not be taken for granted. As Verlaine, like the other Symbolists, was not himself musical and was in fact rather unfamiliar with music, the inspiration that music could provide for his verse had to remain limited. Yet his fascination with musicality represented a positive response to the experience of the emptiness of language, for it implied that one can shift out of an unreliable system into another system that is self-contained. When you name musical notes, for example, your referents are elements of a preexisting structure independent of language; their "meanings" are precisely non-referential, consisting as they do in internal relationships between the parts of a musical composition.
The pessimistic mode of Verlaine's assault on signification, the one with which he ended, was the specular, narcissistic short circuit in which all signifiers voiced by the poet refer back to the poet himself. In his earlier collections of verse, images of the moon symbolize this condition. The heavenly body corresponds to the poet's body (e.g., the Pierrot's white face explicitly mimics the appearance of the moon), and the moon also recalls the fantasized maternal breast, surviving in the preconscious as the dream screen and existing only to gratify the needs of the imperial self. In the weaker later verse, the confessional tradition back into which Verlaine sinks narrativizes this pessimistic solution of narcissism. If you cannot communicate with others, then you must commune with your own emptiness.