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.