Paul Verlaine Verlaine, Paul (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Paul Verlaine 1844-1896

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

The following entry presents criticism of Verlaine from 1971 to 1998. For further information on Verlaine's poetry, see PC, Vol. 2.

Admired for the fluidity and impressionistic imagery of his verse, Verlaine succeeded in liberating the musicality of the French language from the restrictions of its classical, formal structure. Influenced by the French painter Antoine Watteau, Verlaine was fascinated by the visual aspects of form and color and attempted to capture in his poems the symbolic elements of language by transposing emotion into subtle suggestions. As a member of the French Symbolists, who believed that the function of poetry was to evoke and not to describe, Verlaine created poetry that was both aesthetic and intuitive. Although his verse has often been overshadowed by his scandalous bohemian lifestyle, Verlaine's literary achievement was integral to the development of French poetry.

Biographical Information

Born in Metz, France, to deeply religious middle-class parents, Verlaine spent his youth in a guarded and conventional atmosphere until he became a student at the Lycée Bonaparte (now Condorcet). While he never excelled in his studies, Verlaine did enjoy some success in rhetoric and Latin. But despite winning a number of prizes in these areas, Verlaine was not a respected student, and he barely managed to obtain the baccalaureate. Upon graduation Verlaine enrolled in law school, but because of his heavy drinking and patronage of prostitutes he was quickly withdrawn from his academic pursuits. His father was able to secure a clerical position for him at a local insurance company, a position that allowed him time to frequent the Café du Gaz, then the rendezvous of the literary and artistic community, and to develop his literary talents. Around 1866, Verlaine began to associate with a group of young poets known as La Parnasse, or the Parnassians, which had adopted the doctrine of “art for art's sake.” While Verlaine's poetic style was taking shape and setting precedents, his personal life was slowly dissipating due to his increasing consumption of absinthe, a liqueur flavored with wormwood. Despite his growing addiction and sometimes violent temperament, Verlaine's family encouraged him to marry, believing it could stabilize his raucous life. Verlaine sought out a young girl, Mathilde Mauté, who was sixteen in 1869, the year of their engagement. In 1871 Verlaine received a letter from a young poet named Arthur Rimbaud. Verlaine urged Rimbaud, a precocious and unpredictable seventeen-year-old genius, to visit him in Paris. Verlaine abandoned his wife, home, and employment to travel throughout Europe with Rimbaud. Their journey was punctuated by drunken quarrels, until Verlaine shot and wounded Rimbaud during an argument in 1873. Verlaine was arrested and sentenced to serve two years at Mons, a Belgian prison. While in prison, Verlaine turned from atheism to a fervent acceptance of the Roman Catholic faith in which he had been raised, which influenced much of his poetry of that period. After his release from Mons, Verlaine traveled to England to become a teacher of French, Latin, and drawing. In 1878 Verlaine moved to Ardennes, France, with one of his former students, Lucien Létinois, whom he called his fils adoptif (adoptive son). Létinois died of typhoid in 1886. For the remainder of his life, Verlaine lived in poverty and reverted to alcoholism. After a number of hospital stays that allowed him to recuperate from his excesses, Verlaine died in humble lodgings in 1896.

Major Works

Verlaine made his literary debut with the publication of Poèmes saturniens in 1866. While the volume was true to the Parnassian ideals of detached severity, impeccable form, and stoic objectivity, and was well-received by Verlaine's fellow poets, it took twenty years to sell five hundred copies, leaving Verlaine virtually unknown to general readers following its publication. In 1870, Verlaine began to move away from the tenets of the Parnassians with the publication of Fêtes galantes. In this collection he used visual and spatial imagery to create poetry that has been described as “impressionistic music.” According to many critics, this volume first revealed Verlaine's poetic talents in their pure form and later established him as a precursor to the Symbolist movement. Verlaine's next volume, La bonne chanson (1870), contains verse inspired by his young wife. After he abandoned her and took up with Rimbaud, Verlaine published Romances sans paroles (1874), a collection of verse strongly influenced by his affair. Verlaine's masterful use of ambiguities, the smoothness and economy of his verse, and his usage of “half-light,” or vague but deeply suggestive visual imagery, led Arthur Symons to call the book “Verlaine's masterpiece of sheer poetry.” Following his time in prison, Verlaine wrote and published Sagesse (1881), a volume of poetry detailing his religious conversion. Later, he produced a trilogy exemplifying his religious genesis: Amour (1881) was to represent religious perseverance, Parallèlement (1889) moral relapse, and Bonheur (1891) repentance and consolation. In all three volumes, Verlaine continued to develop his personal voice and to progress toward simple and graceful accentuations. Although Verlaine published poetry in the later part of his life, including the tragic and brutal Chansons pour elle (1891), most critics contend that his best and most original work can be found in his earlier volumes. In the 1980s Verlaine's erotic poetry, which had been excluded from volumes of his complete works, was finally collected and published together under the title Royal Tastes: Erotic Writings. This volume includes the complete texts of Les Amies (1867), Femmes (1890), and Hombres (1891), also known as the Trilogie érotique, and is believed by many to help explain the dual nature of Verlaine's life and verse. Physically abusive, alcoholic, and sexually promiscuous with both women and men in his personal life, Verlaine also composed some of the most admired religious and spiritual verse in literary history. In the Trilogie érotique Verlaine wrote in great detail about his sexual excesses and debauchery, and many critics believe it was through these works that he attempted to reconcile his contradictory impulses.

Critical Reception

While many critics consider Verlaine to have been one of the harbingers of the French Symbolists due to the impressionistic and evocative nature of his poetry, he denied belonging to any particular poetic movement. Instead of labeling himself a Decadent or Symbolist, Verlaine preferred to call himself a “degenerate,” indicating his individualistic and anarchic tendencies. Much attention has been given to Verlaine's use of familiar language in a musical and visual manner and his ability to evoke rather than demand a response from his readers. Verlaine's well-documented personal life has often overshadowed discussion of the merits of his numerous volumes of verse and his poetic genius. In Verlaine's work, as in his life, there was a constant struggle between the soul and the senses; between debauchery and repentance. This prompted critics to call him everything from a “propagator of moral cowardice” to “a victim of his own genius.” Despite the many attacks on his character, Verlaine is considered a consummate poet whose extraordinary talents for fluid verse, figurative and suggestive language, and impressionistic imagery have assumed legendary stature. It was Verlaine, most critics agree, who was responsible for releasing French poetry from its technical severity and for bringing out the musicality inherent in the French language.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Poèmes saturniens 1866

Les Amies [as Pablo de Herlagñez] 1868

Fêtes galantes 1870

La bonne chanson 1870

Romances sans paroles 1874

Sagesse 1881

Jadis et naguère 1884

Amour 1888

Parallèlement 1889

Dedicaces 1890

Bonheur 1891

Chansons pour elle 1891

Femmes 1891

Hombres 1891

Liturgies intimes 1892

Elégies 1893

Odes en son honeur 1893

Dans les limbes 1894

Poems of Paul Verlaine 1895

Chair 1896

Invectives 1896

Royal Tastes: Erotic Writings 1984

Les poètes maudits (essays) 1884

Les Uns et les autres (one-act play in Jadis et naguère) 1884

Mes hôpitaux (essays) 1891

Mes prisons (essays) 1892

Confessions: Notes autobiographiques (autobiography) 1895

Oeuvres complètes. 5 vols. (short stories, essays, autobiography) 1899–1903

Oeuvres posthumes. 3 vols. (essays and letters) 1911–1929

A. E. Carter (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Summing-Up,” in Paul Verlaine, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971, pp. 117–22.

[In the following essay, Carter provides an overview of Verlaine's poetic life.]

A short life, less than fifty-two years; yet its output was considerable. From Poèmes saturniens until his death, Verlaine averaged one volume of poetry every eighteen months, plus a fair quantity of prose. Only the most prolific giants like Hugo have done better. What is its value?

Like all literary work, it must be judged by a double standard: what it meant to its age and what it means nowadays. Verlaine's contemporaries thought of him as an innovator: he had added new...

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Stella Revard (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Verlaine and Yeats's A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer, 1971, pp. 272–78.

[In the following essay, Revard explores the influence of Verlaine and the French Symbolists on William Butler Yeats's “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.”]

It is usually recognized that Yeats was interested in the French Symbolist poets during his London residence in the 1890s and that this interest was stimulated by his friend, Arthur Symons, then at work on his book, The Symbolist Movement in Literature. Yet, because Yeats could read little French and because of the complexity and obscurity of these particular poets,...

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Hallam Walker (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Visual and Spatial Imagery in Verlaine's Fêtes galantes,” in PMLA, Vol. 87, No. 5, October, 1972, pp. 1007–015.

[In the following essay, Walker argues that the visual and spatial imagery in Fêtes galantes make that volume distinctive from Verlaine's other works of poetry.]

Despite their display of certain characteristics, such as delicate suggestion and musicality, inherent in all his poetry, the poems in Paul Verlaine's Fêtes galantes stand apart from the main body of his works in two ways. First, they employ visual and spatial effects to an extent unusual in the rest of his poems, and second, as a total composition of twenty-two...

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Philip Stephan (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “1884–85: Verlaine's Influence and Les Deliquescences d're Floupette,” in Paul Verlaine and the Decadence, 1882–90, Manchester University Press, 1974, pp. 81–98.

[In the following essay, Stephan examines Verlaine's influence on the movement of young Decadent poets.]

As Verlaine receives favourable treatment in critical articles, verse appearing in magazines reveals his influence on younger poets. The earliest instance we have been able to find is Guy-Valvor's (Georges André Vayssière) ‘Raquettes et volants’, which appeared in Lutèce on 7–14 September 1883. Guy-Valvor describes two girls playing badminton: oblivious to love, they are...

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Russell S. King (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Verlaine's Verbal Sensation,” in Studies in Philology, Vol. 72, No. 2, April, 1975, pp. 226–36.

[In the following essay, King examines the importance of grammar and verb choice to the meaning of Verlaine's poetry.]

Recent studies of Verlaine's impressionistic style have been primarily “stylo-technical” rather than stylo-linguistic. Such studies, including notably Octave Nadal's “L'Impressionnisme Verlainien” and Alain Baudot's “Poésie et Musique chez Verlaine,” have taken as their point of departure Verlaine's “Art Poétique.”1 Intent on examining the “musicality” of Verlaine's poetry, they demonstrate the contribution of...

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Richard P. Whitmore (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of “Pantomime”, in The Explicator, Vol. 34, No., May, 1976, p. 71.

[In the following essay, Whitmore discusses the irony of Verlaine's character studies in the poem “Pantomime.”]

In “Pantomime,” the second of Paul Verlaine's Fêtes galantes (1869), we are shown four sharply etched vignettes of stock characters from the commedia dell'arte, each performing in a miniature scene. In general, commentators treat these skits as if they were appropriate for their respective personages. But what is particularly revealing and yet requires detailed explication is the distinct irony behind Verlaine's choices. For here what each player...

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Robert Storey (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Verlaine's Pierrots,” in Romance Notes, Vol. 20, No. 2, Winter, 1979, pp. 223–30.

[In the following essay, Storey explores the Pierrot figure in Verlaine's poetry.]

Ce n'est plus le rêveur lunaire du vieil air
Qui riait aux aïeux dans les dessus de porte;
Sa gaîté, comme sa chandelle, hélas! est morte,
Et son spectre aujourd'hui nous hante, mince et clair.
Et voici que parmi l'effroi d'un long éclair
Sa pâle blouse a l'air, au vent froid qui l'emporte,
D'un linceul, et sa bouche est béante, de sorte
Qu'il semble hurler sous les morsures du ver.
Avec le bruit d'un vol d'oiseaux de nuit qui passe,
Ses manches blanches font vaguement par l'espace

(The entire section is 2939 words.)

Enid Rhodes Peschel (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Introduction: Verlaine: Soulscapes of Quiet and Disquiet,” in Four French Symbolist Poets: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé, translated by Enid Rhodes Peschel, Ohio University Press, 1981, pp. 33–46.

[In the following essay, Peschel presents an overview of Verlaine's life and career.]

It's beautiful eyes behind veils,
It's the full noon's trembling light,
It's the blue jumble of bright
Stars in a tepid autumn sky!

Verlaine, “Art of Poetry”

Rimbaud used to say about Verlaine, “He's a charming child, violent and dangerous when he's drunk.”1 These clashing qualities permeate Verlaine's troubled and...

(The entire section is 4993 words.)

Carol de Dobay Rifelj (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Familiar and Unfamiliar: Verlaine's Poetic Diction,” in Romance Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 4, 1982, pp. 365–77.

[In the following essay, de Dobay Rifelj explores neoclassical diction in Verlaine's poetry.]

In order for a figure to exist, a comparison must be possible between one form of expression and another which could have been used instead. As Gérard Genette notes, “l'existence et le caractère de la figure sont absolument déterminés par l'existence et le caractère des signes réels en posant leur équivalence sémantique.”1 This is the case not only with conventional tropes, but also with diction: only if another signifier is...

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Robert Greer Cohn (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Rescuing a Sonnet of Verlaine: ‘L'Espoir Luit …’,” in Romanic Review, Vol. 77, No. 2, March, 1986, pp. 125–30.

[In the following essay, Cohn provides a close reading of Verlaine's sonnet “L'espoir luit. …”.]

L'espoir luit comme un brin de paille dans l’étable,
Que crains-tu de la guêpe ivre de son vol fou?
Vois, le soleil toujours poudroie à quelque trou.
Que ne t'endormais-tu, le coude sur la table?
Pauvre âme pâle, au moins cette eau du puits glacé,
Bois-la. Puis dors après. Allons, tu vois, je reste.
Et je dorloterai les rêves de ta sieste,
Et tu chantonneras comme un enfant bercé.

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Bernhard Frank (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of “Wooden Steeds,” in The Explicator, Vol. 46, No. 2, Winter, 1988, pp. 29–31.

[In the following essay, Frank provides a brief explication of Verlaine's “Chevaux de bois.”]

“Chevaux de Bois”

Tournez, tournez, bons chevaux de bois,
Tournez cent tours, tournez mille tours,
Tournez souvent et tournez toujours,
Tournez, tournez au son des hautbois.
Le gros soldat, laz plus grosse bonne
Sont sur vos dos comme dans leur chambre;
Car, en ce jour, au bois de la Cambre,
Les maîtres sont tous deux en personne.
Tournez, tournez, chevaux de leur coeur,

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Laurence M. Porter (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

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

[In the following essay, Porter questions the “musicality” of Verlaine's poetry and discusses his use of language, which makes the reader consider reality in new ways.]

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...

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Gretchen Schultz (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lyric Itineraries in Verlaine's ‘Almanach pour l'annee passee,’” in Romance Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 2, May, 1991, pp. 139–55.

[In the following essay, Schultz explores the significance of “Almanach pour l'année passée”compared to the rest of Verlaine's poetic output.]

Paul Verlaine's collection of poems, entitled Cellulairement, contains some of his most compelling, indeed some of his most enigmatic, poetry. It marks the culmination of the poetic practice, which he identified as the contradictory cohabitation of dreaminess and precision, set forth in his poem “Art poétique”: “Rien de plus cher que la chanson grise / Où...

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Russell S. King (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Verlaine's Romances sans paroles: The Inscription of Gender,” in Nineteenth Century French Studies, Vol. 27, Nos. 1 & 2, Fall 1998 and Winter 1999, pp. 117–31.

[In the following essay, King discusses Verlaine's sexuality as it appears in the language of his poems.]

Je distinguerai donc deux bisexualités, deux façons opposées de penser la possibilité et la pratique de la bisexualité:

1. La bisexualité comme fantasme d'un être total qui vient à la place de la peur de la castration, et voile la différence sexuelle …


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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Lepelletier, Edmond. Paul Verlaine: His Life-His Work, translated by E. M. Lang. London: T. Werner Laurie, 1907, 463 pp.

Early biography of Verlaine, written by a close friend.

Richardson, Joanna. Verlaine. New York: The Viking Press, 1971, 432 pp.

Critical biography of Verlaine.


Harris, Frank. “Talks With Paul Verlaine.” Contemporary Portraits, pp. 269–82. New York: Brentano's Publishers, 1920.

Recounts discussions the author had with Verlaine.

Minahen, Charles D. “Homosexual Erotic...

(The entire section is 249 words.)