Paul Verlaine

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A. E. Carter (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2339

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 techniques to poetry and helped free it from traditional rules. Critics of the period were forever stressing this point. Their articles almost give the impression that before Verlaine verse was so fettered with regulations that little of any value was written.1 Yet his much-advertised novelties were hardly extensive—experiments of one kind or another with the prosody of the time. It was strict: whatever political and social changes France went through after the Renaissance, the rules of versification remained constant. The language has no tonic accent, and certain techniques were therefore judged necessary to distinguish poetry from prose: a rigid scheme of alternate masculine and feminine rhymes, and a steady, pulsing beat, obtained by lines in equal numbers of syllables. Four, six, eight, and ten were common, but the standard measure was twelve: the famous alexandrine, skewered on a median caesura like a butterfly on a pin. Here are a few examples chosen at random over a period of two hundred and fifty years:

… France, mère des arts, / des armes et des lois …
… Rendre le ciel jaloux / de sa vive couleur …
… Beauté, mon beau souci, / de qui l’âme incertaine …
… Je le ferais encor, / si j'avais à le faire …
… Je commence à rougir / de mon oisiveté …
… Périssent tes serments / et ton Dieu que j'abhorre! …
… Elle a vécu, Myrto, / la jeune Tarentine …

From mid-sixteenth century until the dawn of the nineteenth, in short, most French poets used the same prosodic machinery to express themselves.—Surely one of the strangest examples of literary conservatism on record.

The Romantics claimed emancipation. But though they lived at a time when traditional values had been challenged or over-thrown, they used their opportunity timidly. Victor Hugo was the most revolutionary of them all: he liked to boast that he had put a red cap of liberty on the dictionary and “dislocated” the alexandrine:

… J'ai mis un bonnet rouge au vieux dictionnaire …
… J'ai disloqué ce grand niais d'alexandrin …(2)

By which he meant that he had enlarged the vocabulary and placed the caesura elsewhere than at the sixth syllable, a proceeding known as enjambement sur la césure. This was not much. He was also fond of rejet—overflow of sense and rhythm from one line to the next:

Mais c'est affreux d'avoir à se mettre cela
Dans le tête …(3)

Baudelaire too liked stylistic tricks of this kind; examples of both may be found in his work, and they interested Verlaine as we know from the essay he wrote on his predecessor. When he wanted authority to justify his own tinkering with Classical machinery, he found it in Hugo and Baudelaire. In this sense his verse is a further development in the direction of twentieth-century vers libre.

He also liked to compose in lines of five, seven, nine, eleven, and thirteen syllables:

… Une aube affaiblie …
… C'est l'extase langoureuse …
… Tournez, tournez, bons chevaux de bois …
… Dans un palais, soie et or, dans Ecbatane …
… Il faut, voyez-vous, nous pardonner les choses …

It was the impair he recommended in “Art poétique,” “vaguer and more soluble in the air, with nothing in it of heaviness and pose.” But how much importance did he really attach to the formula? He later advised his disciples “not to take ‘Art poétique’ too seriously, it's only a song”4; and much of his best verse, with less of heaviness or pose than anything else he wrote (most of the ‘Ariettes oubliées’ in Romances sans paroles, for example) is not always composed in impair.5

He also liked to rhyme weakly or adequately instead of richly, according to another precept enunciated in “Art poétique”: “You'd do well, as you spend your efforts, to make Rhyme behave: if we don't watch it, where will it lead?”

Vous ferez bien, en train d’énergie,
De rendre un peu la Rime assagie:
Si l'on n'y veille, elle ira jusqu'où?

For the benefit of those not familiar with these minutiae, a rhyme between “fidèle” and “nouvelle,” where only one syllable echoes the other, is “weak”; “tige”and “vertige” (final vowels supported by identical consonants) are “adequate”; and “destinée” and “matinée,” where each word has two sounds of equal value, are “rich.” A great deal of noise was made over this point even before Verlaine's time, and I doubt very much whether any poet worthy of the name paid it much attention. Victor Hugo even turned the matter to ridicule with an extreme example of rich rhyme—where every syllable echoes the other:

Gall, amant de la reine, alla, tour magnanime,
Galamment de l'arène à la tour Magne, à Nîmes.(6)

If poets used only rich rhymes, they would not write much; most of Racine's rhymes are adequate at best and often weak; and the Romantics, in the long run, did as they pleased, using whatever rhymes came to hand—weak, adequate, or rich. So did Verlaine. Weak rhymes were part of his recipe for blurring the contours of meaning and creating a vague and dreamy impression: a specious theory which, again, he did not always practice. The rhymes of some of his most suggestive verse are frequently adequate. And while a few of the experiments he made with half-rhyme and assonance are mildly interesting—

Les variations normales
De l'esprit autant que du coeur
En somme témoignent peu mal
En dépit de tel qui s’épeure …

—at his most revolutionary in this respect he was clearly being facetious:

Pour les deux en même temps … ni ne
Dis mot …(7)

On this point as well he did not wish to be taken too seriously, and when his disciples began carrying “Art poétique” to its logical extreme and discarding rhyme completely, he was filled with misgivings: “The poem in question is carefully rhymed. … Use weak rhymes or assonance if you will, but use one or the other: French verse is impossible otherwise.”8

More important was his treatment of the caesura. In numerous cases he ignored the sixth-syllable rule:

L'inflexion des voix chères qui se sont tues.
Laisse-la trompeter à son aise, la gueuse!
De la douceur, de la douceur, de la douceur!
Amour qui ruisselais de flammes et de lait …
Il faut m'aimer! Je suis l'universel Baiser …
Ces passions qu'eux seuls nomment encore amours …

Occasionally he even bridged it with a single word:

Et la tigresse épouvantable d'Hyrcanie …
D'une joie extraordinaire: votre voix …

Most striking of all, however, was the way he used rejet from one line to the next. The effect of rapt ecstasy throughout “Mon Rêve familier,” “Mon Dieu m'a dit,” and later poems like “Parsifal” is one result:

Car elle me comprend, et mon coeur, transparent
Pour elle seule, hélas! cesse d’être un problème
Pour elle seule, et les moiteurs de mon front blême …
Je ris, je pleure, et c'est comme un appel aux armes
D'un clairon pour des champs de bataille où je vois
Des anges bleus et blancs portés sur des pavois …
Parsifal a vaincu les Filles, leur gentil
Babil et la luxure amusante—et sa pente
Vers la Chair de garçon vierge que cela tente
D'aimer les seins légers et ce gentil babil …

It is not too much to say that in this respect he was the most accomplished of French poets. None of the others ever used the technique with such consummate art—certainly not Hugo, not even Baudelaire.

There is little more to say of him as an innovator. He owed his reputation in that respect less to any real changes he introduced than to the fact that he was dealing with so rigid a structure that the least alteration appeared revolutionary. And here too the admiration of his disciples somewhat disconcerted him. “I'm having trouble with my Decadents,” he wrote Dr. Jullien in 1888: “I'm very much inclined to drop gently all those brats, who are decidedly compromising.”9 Three years later he expressed his disapproval in even stronger terms: “To have poetry you've got to have rhythm. Nowadays people are writing lines of a thousand feet! It's no longer verse, it's prose and sometimes mere gibberish!”10 He drew back from the new schools in consternation: refused to write for their manifestoes, refused to admit that he even knew what Symbolism was. “Symbolism? I don't understand. Must be a German word, eh? What the devil can it mean?”11 A coolness resulted: the young men were offended and began looking elsewhere for a master. “He's too much under Baudelaire's influence,” Jean Moréas declared in 1891, adding that he had nothing further to teach contemporary poetry, and that far from being an initiator, he was the end of a line, the last word of a dead tradition.12

Verlaine, indeed, was not the sort of man to found a school—even when tempted to it by the flattering imitations of other poets. He had taste enough to see that the imitations were usually mediocre. When Ghil, Kahn, Vièlé-Griffin, Samain, Moréas himself tried to write like Verlaine they labored infelicitously: the attentuated effects of Fêtes galantes and Romances sans paroles explain much of the epicene posturing and masturbatory languour of Symbolism and Decadence. But he can scarcely be held accountable for these aberrations. He had no desire for disciples and, despite “Art poétique,” his talent was too spontaneous to bother with rules and regulations. “I've formulated no theory,” he declared in 1890, underlining the words to make his intention clear. “Perhaps that sounds naive, but naiveté seems to me one of a poet's most precious qualities.” And again: “Let me dream if I want, weep when I like, sing when the idea comes to me.”13 It was a good definition of his work. Whenever he adopted a program or paid lip service to some esthetic creed or other, he labored in vain. His poetry (as he told Mallarmé) was “an effort to render sensation”14; and sensation is wholly personal, all the more so when the writer is a Verlaine, tied to a world of memory and illusion: childhood and his mother's affection, the Metz years, the long holidays with Elisa Dujardin at Lécluze. Throughout his existence, this sinking fund of regret and recollection dominated him; now subconsciously, now openly: each of his sentimental escapades was less an effort to relive the past than to impose it on the present, remarking life according to the data memory supplied. Mathilde, Rimbaud, Létinois, Cazals: each was expected to perform the same role—shielding him from reality, allowing him to inhabit a dream world of his own invention. Which meant carrying out the functions his mother had once assumed. Small wonder that in the long run they all lost patience. Hence the sexual and emotional failure of his life and (paradoxically) hence the success of his art. He was capricious, unstable, uncontrollable, forever on the sensual qui-vive, a man impossible in any normal context. But poetry is hardly a normal context, and when he began to write the very qualities that prevented rational adjustment gave his verse its peculiar beauty. He could never transcend himself: his inspiration obeyed nervous impressions, not the summons of conscious will. He had to wait until conditions were right; but when they were, when no preconceived idea or self-conscious theorizing intervened between him and sensation, he commanded one of the most seductive styles in the history of poetry. True enough, his key was minor and his tone low. But these are limitations, not defects, and we could easily make out a case in their favor. Subdued harmonies are often the most alluring of all. They speak to us more urgently and more intimately than other music, and for that reason we listen to them longest.


  1. “He broke the cruel shackles of versification,” “he opened a window,” he sought “novelty, and an art that would be a combination of poetry, painting and music … a concert in color or a painting in music—a deliberate confusion of genres, a sort of Tenth Muse”: opinions expressed by Moréas, Rachilde, etc.; quoted by Martino in Verlaine, 188, 193, 201, 189. Mallarmé's opinion was: “The father, the true father of all the young poets, is Verlaine, the magnificent Verlaine, whose attitude, as a man, I find as splendid as his attitude as a writer. Because it is the only possible one at a time when the poet must live outside the law: accept all suffering with so much pride and such a splendid swagger.” Conversation with Jules Huret in 1891, reprinted in the Pléiade Mallarmé, p. 870.

  2. “Réponse à un acte d'accusation,” Les Contemplations, 1856.

  3. Quoted by Verlaine himself in an essay on Barbey d'Aurevilly, 1865. CML, I, 1422.

  4. Pléiade, p. 1074.

  5. Of the nine pieces in Ariettes oubliées, four are in impair (I, II, IV, VIII), and in another IX, pair and impair alternate.

  6. Ernest Raynaud, Poetae minores (Garnier Frères, 1931), p. 324. He quotes two other lines of the same kind, dealing with the poets who interest us:

    Les Rimbaud et les Verlaine,
    Les reins beaux, ailés vers l'aine.
  7. “Vers en assonances,” Chair, Pléiade, p. 891; and “A la seule,” Invectives, p. 958.

  8. CML, I, 1265, letter to Ernest Raynaud of September 30, 1887.

  9. CML, I, 1297.

  10. To Jules Huret, CML, II, 1761.

  11. Ibid., p. 1760.

  12. Quoted by Huret in his Enquête, p. 80.

  13. Pléiade, 1074, and Martino, op. cit., p. 188.

  14. “J'ose espérer … que vous y reconnaîtrez, sinon le talent, du moins un effort vers … la Sensation rendue,” letter of November 22, 1866. CML, I, 929.


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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.

Stella Revard (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3192

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, direct influence is usually denied. Yeats, however, has recorded in his autobiography his fascination with the French Symbolists, noting that Symons read Mallarmé and Verlaine to him, both in French and in the translations Symons was working on.1 Yeats, himself involved in working out a symbolist system, admired the poetic principles of Mallarmé and the subtleties of his verse. To Verlaine Yeats was attracted in quite a different way, for the French poet's lyric simplicity, his complete absorption in the poetic moment. It is not unlikely that Yeats would have shared Symons's opinion that Verlaine's language made a “passive flawless medium for the deeper consciousness of things.”2 In Verlaine, it may be that Yeats saw the way in which to achieve penetration into the symbolic significance of experience without sacrificing the simplicity, directness, and literalism of pure lyric.

Verlaine occupied for Yeats a special place among the French Symbolist poets. Yeats was undoubtedly first attracted to Verlaine by the musical qualities of his verse, for Verlaine began as an impressionistic poet intent on portraying in poetry the subtleties of visual and tonal experience.3 In his “Art poétique,” written in 1874, he had prescribed music before everything as the prime ingredient of poetry.4 Words in poetry should, by the nuances of their rhythm and by shadings of their muted colors, convey an impressionistic surface as delicate as air and as subtle as veiled light so that the verse produced thereby should move upward in a kind of joyous liberation of spirit.

De la musique encore et toujours!
Que ton vers soit la chose envolée
Qu'on sent qui fuit d'une âme en allée
Vers d'autres cieux à d'autres amours.(5)

Verlaine, however, was among the first of the French Symbolists to criticize pure impressionism. As the biographer and critic Antoine Adam has reported, he felt that a poet must do more than record impressions: “He must penetrate beyond, into the mysterious core of things, he must, by way of appearances, pierce through to reality which is spirit.” The poet undertakes to “apprehend within himself the tragedy of man” and depict the “heartbreaks, hopes for freedom, and the failures that comprise the pathos of our fate.” He is to define and “discover the mysterious correspondence between the secret life of the soul and that of things.” Such, Verlaine felt, was to be the true work and meaning of symbolism.6

It was only after his conversion to Catholicism in 1874 that Verlaine felt able finally to capture in poetry the essence of man, which he thought the poet must seek to distill. In his volume Sagesse, he celebrates the humility of spirit, the delight experienced by the sinner as he acknowledges his essential humanity, is accepted by Christ, and reaffirms himself in virtue.7

Such, undoubtedly, was the doctrine of poetry which Verlaine was expounding upon during his lecture tour to England in November 1893 when he met the young Yeats.8 Verlaine has insisted, Yeats records, “that the poet hide nothing of himself,” though he must speak it all with “a care of that dignity which should manifest itself, if not in the perfection of form, in all events with an invisible, insensible, but effectual endeavor after that lofty and severe quality, I was about to say, this virtue.” Yeats felt that the image that Verlaine presented, both through himself as he appeared on the lecture stage at Oxford, and through his doctrine and practice of poetry, was that of essential man. He strove, said Yeats, “to be his ordinary self as much as possible, not a scholar or even a reader, that was certainly his pose.”9 What Yeats, however, probably saw in Verlaine was not the severity and humility of the Christian convert, whose life of degraded Bohemianism and alcoholic abandon was, particularly at that period, often at odds with the doctrine he expounded in Sagesse.10 Instead Yeats thought Verlaine a poet at peace with self, a kind of reincarnation of the medieval poet Villon, whose simple lyricism Yeats admired: “It was this feeling for his own personality, his delight in singing his own life, even more than that life itself which made the generation I belong to compare him to Villon” (270–71).11

The impact, however, of the doctrine of personality which Verlaine spoke of was delayed, for, as Yeats recounts, he did not then understand “the meaning his [Verlaine's] words should have for [him]” (271). Yeats says that he was absorbed in “nothing but states of mind, lyrical moments, intellectual essences.” He had not yet come to revaluate, as Verlaine had, the symbolist movement, to question its loss “in personality, in … delight in the whole man—blood, imagination, intellect, running together.” Nor was he yet to dissent from the “new delight,” held by the French Symbolists, apart from Verlaine, “in essences, in states of mind, in pure imagination, in all that comes to us most easily in elaborate music” (266). During his search for aesthetic systems in the 1890s, Yeats says that he “had not learned what sweetness, what rhythmic movement there is in those who have become the joy that is themselves.” He does affirm that he had begun as a poet “with the thought of putting [his] very self into poetry.” But while searching for the pure aesthetic experience, he had “cut away the nonessential”; thus he had come at last to care for “nothing but impersonal beauty.” His imagination, says Yeats, “became full of decorative landscape and of still life”; trying to make his art “deliberately beautiful,” he found he was following the opposite of himself (271).

Yeats's rediscovery of the whole personality and his rejection of those Symbolists who denied its value occur at precisely the same moment. The deliberate search for beauty, which was the aim of many of the Symbolists, seemed to Yeats a mistake, for it resulted in abstractions and overrefinement.12 Moreover he found that as a poet he most achieved beauty as his result in his poetry when he “was not seeking [it] at all, but merely to lighten the mind of some burden of love or bitterness thrown upon it by the events of life” (272). There were, thought Yeats, two ways before literature—“upward into ever-growing subtlety, with Verhaeren, with Mallarmé, with Maeterlinck, until at last, it may be, a new agreement among refined and studious men gives birth to a new passion, and what seems literature becomes religion; or downward, taking the soul with us until all is simplified and solidified again” (266–77).

For Yeats it was the second way which prevailed: “We are only permitted to desire life.” Poetry was finally to seem to him a by-product of life, personified as “that exacting mistress who can awake our lips into song with her kisses.” Even with life, however, we must be cautious “not to give her all, we must deceive her a little. … Our deceit will give us style, mastery, that dignity, that lofty and severe quality Verlaine spoke of” (272).

After 1900, as Yeats began in his poetry to cast aside his elaborate coat of embroideries, to delight in the selfhood of the poet, to declare there was “more enterprise / In walking naked,” he was arguing in his essays that poetry must be grounded in the intense vision of life. He had come to see that Verlaine as poet was a singer not of abstract beauty, as he had first appeared to him, but of the simple delight of life and self; he had come to view Verlaine the man, the irrepressibly gay old vagabond, as a representation of the union of intellectual insight with an acceptance of full, passionate life. In Verlaine, the forces of intellect and emotion were one.

At this time in Yeats's poetry, moreover, the passionate figure of the vagabond—the fool, crazy Jane, Tom O'Roughley—appears side by side with the earlier figure of the ethereal lover-poet or the intellectual seeker, Michael Robartes. Not, however, until the later poetry does Yeats attempt to unite in one figure—and it is to be in his representation of himself as poet—the tattered vagabond body of man with the aspiring intellect. This is the union which he understood finally Verlaine to have meant. So understanding, he proposes, “we should ascend out of the common interest, the thoughts of the newspapers, of the market place, of the men of science only so far as we can carry the normal passionate, reasoning self, the personality as a whole. We must find some place upon the tree of Life for the Phoenix nest” (272).

Most clearly perhaps it is in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” that Yeats achieves the reunion of intellect and passion.13 In part 1 of that poem the Soul proposes the hard ascent of intellect out of body; it urges that the Self set all its mind upon the “breathless starlit air,” and “fix every wandering thought upon / That quarter where all thought is done.” Finally, it says, the Self is to achieve that high darkness where the soul becomes indistinguishable from the darkness. The Self, however, lingers over life, symbolized by the consecrated blade wrapped in “that flowing, silken, old embroidery,” things which it sees as “emblems of the day against the tower / Emblematic of the night.” The Soul brands that pursuit of self as debilitating, for as the imagination becomes bound to the earth, the intellect wanders unable to be liberated from “the crime of death and birth.”

The man is stricken deaf and dumb and blind,
For intellect no longer knows
Is from the Ought, or Knower from the Known.

The resolution, which the Self proposes in part 2 of the poem, recalls the proposal which in his Essays, twenty years earlier, Yeats had made for poetry, the reuniting of the man, who is not to refine himself upward with the soul but is to distill imagination downward with the body, to become again whole man, “blood, imagination, intellect running together.” To do so, one must accept the essential imperfectibility of life, not to compromise with life but to rejoice in it and to be content with one's own humanity. “A living man,” says the Self, “is blind,” impure because the very sources of life are impure; forced to “endure that toil of growing up,” placed finally in the focus of society, the man becomes defiled and disfigured by the “mirror of malicious eyes” so that he no longer knows himself or his true shape. Yet to struggle against this fact is only to distort himself far more; the true self will only survive in turning back to life and not in turning away from it.

I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch,
A blind man battering blind men.

Having confessed the miseries and indignities of life, the Self, as it seeks to achieve integrity, cannot try to escape. Instead, with the kind of dignity which Verlaine so highly extolled, the Self acknowledges follies and pretensions alike and comes to peace with what it has become. With that final and total acceptance comes the surge of transcendent joy.

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

The response to life which Yeats records here is the dramatization of a principle which he had learned earlier, one which he credits to the example and the words of Verlaine as teacher. Yeats celebrates his discovery, in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” of the sweetness “there is in those who have become the joy that is themselves.” Like Verlaine he finds that the poet must appear in simplicity and honesty in his own poetic creation.


  1. William Butler Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats (Garden City, N.Y., 1958), p. 213. Yeats remarks that he would never know “how much [his] practice and [his] theory owe to passages that he [Symons] read [him] from … Verlaine and Mallarmé.” Later, however, he was to disclaim that the Symbolists had had great impact upon him. Writing to C. M. Bowra in 1934 (in response to Bowra's having posted him a copy of his essay on the symbolist poets), Yeats says: “I don't think I was really much influenced by French Symbolists. My development was different, but that development was of such a nature that I felt I could not explain it, or even that it might make everybody hostile. When Symons talked to me about the Symbolistes, or read me passages from his translations from Mallarmé, I seized upon everything that at all resembled my own thought; here at last was something I could talk about. … There was however one book which influenced me very greatly, it has just been edited by Le Galienne [sic], it was the younger Hallam's essay on Tennyson. It was only the first half of the essay which influenced me, and in that he defined what he called ‘aesthetic poetry’. By ‘aesthetic poetry’ he meant exactly what the French mean by ‘pure poetry’. It may interest you that an English critic was probably the first to make that definition.” See C. M. Bowra, Memories 1898–1939 (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), pp. 240–41.

  2. Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (New York, 1919), pp. 214–15.

  3. On October 15, 1892, Yeats wrote in United Ireland:

    “In France a man may do anything he pleases, he may spend years in prison even, like Verlaine, and the more advanced of the young men will speak well of him if he have but loved his art sincerely, and they will worship his name as they worship Verlaine's life if he have but made beautiful things and added to the world's store of memorable experiences. … Poetry is an end in itself; it has nothing to do with life [my italics], nothing to do with anything but the music of cadences, and beauty of phrase”

    (quoted from Norman Jeffares, W. B. Yeats, Man and Poet [London, 1962], pp. 91–92).

  4. There is some dispute about dating the “Art Poétique”: Verlaine dates it in 1874, but the poem did not appear until 1882, when Verlaine was formulating his system. There is even some hesitancy about according the poem the status of a true “art of poetry.” Eléonore Zimmermann, in Magies de Verlaine (Paris, 1967), p. 113, remarks that it is at variance with the stated “system,” and Jacques Robichez, in his edition of the Oeuvres Poétiques de Verlaine (Paris, 1969), pp. 637–38, argues that it is too whimsical to have been intended as a serious statement of principle. Verlaine himself said, “Don't take my ‘Art Poétique’ literally—it is only a song” (Antoine Adam, The Art of Paul Verlaine, trans. Carl Morse [New York, 1963], p. 106).

  5. Robichez, p. 261; this edition is the one I use throughout my text.

  6. Adam, p. 103.

  7. Ibid., pp. 34–35; pp. 108–09. Sagesse VI (Robichez, p. 192) is perhaps the best example of Verlaine's song of the repentant sinner. There he says farewell to the bleeding heart he possessed yesterday and welcomes the heart that flames with love. Dismissing alike joy and sorrow, the good and the bad of his former life, he announces the immense sense of peace come to the soul sufficient to itself.

    O vous, comme un qui boite au loin, Chagrins et Joies,
    Toi, coeur saignant d'hier qui flambes aujourd'hui,
    C'est vrai pourtant que c'est fini, que tout a fui
    De nos sens, aussi bien les ombres que les proies.
    Vieux bonheurs, vieux malheurs, comme une file d'oies
    Sur la route en poussière où tous les pieds ont lui,
    Bon voyage! Et le Rire, et, plus, vieille que lui,
    Toi, Tristesse, noyée au vieux noir que tu broies,
    Et le reste!—Un doux vide, un grand renoncement,
    Quelqu'un en nous qui sent la paix immensément,
    Une candeur d'une fraîcheur délicieuse. … 
    Et voyez! notre coeur qui saignait sous l'orgueil,
    Il flambe dans l'amour, et s'en va faire accueil
    A la vie, en faveur d'une mort précieuse!
  8. Adam, p. 56.

  9. William Butler Yeats, “The Cutting of an Agate,” Essays and Introductions (New York, 1961), p. 270; future references are to this edition and are cited by page numbers in my text.

  10. Yeats, in his Autobiography (pp. 228–29), recording a later meeting in Paris with Verlaine in 1896, within a few months of Verlaine's death, remarks upon Verlaine's alternation between “the two halves of his nature with so little apparent resistance that he seemed like a bad child, though to read his sacred poems is to remember perhaps that the Holy Infant shared His first home with the beasts.” The contradictions which Yeats observed in the joining of the spiritual opposites in the person of Verlaine are evident also in Yeats's poetic figure of Crazy Jane. If we understand the manger as a submerged image in “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop,” Jane's reply to the Bishop's exhortation, “Live in a heavenly mansion, / Not in some foul sty,” becomes a kind of plea for the union of seeming opposites, the divine and the animal instincts of man: “Fair and foul are near of kin, / And fair needs foul.” Yeats surely is seeking in this poem to effect a union of the spiritual and physical impulses of man, remarking that the highest essence of love sought to manifest itself in the bestial stable: the “uncontrollable mystery” (as Yeats had phrased it in “The Magi”) “upon the bestial floor.”

  11. Both Verlaine's vagrancy and his lyricism are implicit, of course, in this comparison with Villon. Paul Valéry (quoted in Verlaine, Selected Poems, trans. C. F. MacIntyre [Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1948], p. xiv) remarks in his essay “Villon et Verlaine” upon the two poets: “How could one imagine that this vagrant—so brutal in appearance and speech, sordid and yet perturbing and pathetic—could be the writer of the most delicate music in our poetry.”

  12. Bernard Levine, in The Dissolving Image (Detroit, 1970), p. 15, has commented on how Yeats differs from the French Symbolists in his approach to the place of self in the creative experience: “Yeats did not subscribe to the ‘pure art’ as practiced by Mallarmé and Valéry, but he did want an art that was purified of everything that did not lead to a realization of Self and to an awareness of ‘spiritual reality.’ Yeats thought of creative power and artistic discipline as a means of discovering the energy of ‘pure life.’”

  13. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York, 1955), pp. 230–31.

Principal Works

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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

Hallam Walker (essay date 1972)

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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 poems they possess a thematic unity based largely upon the relationships between recurrent ideas and spatial effects. Before elucidating these aspects of Fêtes galantes, I wish to review briefly the general impressions produced by these poems and some typical critical efforts to deal with them.1 Upon that criticism a new approach can be built.

Most observations on Fêtes galantes stress the atmosphere of dream which mingles hints of despair with sensual delights, all in stylized Rococo settings à la Watteau. The surface lightness of these poems is underscored by a shadow of doom, and a cold wind moves through the empty spaces of dream (Œuvres poétiques, p. 106). Jacques Borel terms the eighteenth-century settings of the pieces Verlaine's personal “monde du songe et de la mort” (Œuvres poétiques, p. 102), perceiving that the poet discovered the world of Watteau's paintings as a configuration of a realm existing within his own spirit. The poet's soul dwells for a while in a world that is embodied in the Rococo style yet somehow transmuted by his presence and the peculiar order he imposes. “Ce décor, c'est le rêve de l’âme” (Œuvres poétiques, p. 101). The phantoms which inhabit the gardens are part of Verlaine, and the final bleak emptiness is intensely his own.

The principle of personal projection within an established art form is very important. The poems are not merely imitations of Watteau paintings but rather the result of Verlaine's discovery of existing forms congenial to his visions. The value of the eighteenth-century decor is that it remains always itself, with strict limits and conventions, and simultaneously lends itself to being infused with the poet's spiritual presence. The relationship between landscape and soul is announced immediately in the first line of the initial poem, “Clair de lune,” “Votre âme est un paysage choisi.”2 In an analysis of the poem Marcel Schaettel says, “Certes, son ‘Clair de lune’ est bien un tableau et un spectacle, mais c'est aussi une âme à l'intérieur de laquelle le poète a pénétré, et ces ‘grands jets d'eau sveltes parmi les marbres,’ qui ‘sanglotent d'extase’ sont un des aspects essentiels de cette âme étrange, frivole et mélancolique, superficielle en apparence et cependant tourmentée par le spleen et l'idéal.”3

The esthetic scheme of Fêtes galantes is certainly based upon the tensions between keen feelings and the settings into which they are projected. Jean-Pierre Richard sees Verlaine seeking “un instant à la fois très vague et très aigu.”4 An equivocal state of suspension is always sensed, for the poet is neither wholly immersed in his dream nor solidly fixed in reality. This general effect of absence mixed with presence, of intense detachment, is often described by critics in impressionistic terms. I believe that some precise sources for this effect can be identified, particularly in the visual and spatial images of the poems under consideration here. Before examining this imagery, however, we must note some criticism concerned with the musicality of Verlaine's works.

Octave Nadal, writing of Verlaine's vagueness, sees him seeking “songe sensation sentiment pur qui n'ont ni limites ni contours, ni existence formelle.”5 Despite an awareness of contour, Nadal says that Verlaine works “le plus volontiers dans la durée; le spatial semble être beaucoup moins son domaine” (Paul Verlaine, p. 88). He observes that the early works of Poèmes saturniens show elements of pictorial impressionism but that the ultimate choice by the poet was the use of musicality for the desired vagueness. Parnassian concern with plastic imagery is soon replaced by Verlaine's exploration and development of musicality to add a new poetic dimension. The whole matter of musical effects as the key to understanding of the special nature of this poet's creations is here broached, and much interesting work has been done along these lines.6 “Le spatial” is often neglected for “la durée” in critical concerns, however.

The article by Alfred J. Wright, “Verlaine and Debussy: Fêtes galantes,” may be noted because of its direct juxtaposition of poetic and musical creations, with an assumption of similar esthetic aims in the two arts.7 Wright shows that the composer often used techniques different from those of poetry to achieve similar effects, and it is helpful to see that many compositions in the mode of the “fêtes galantes” achieve a vagueness by means unlike those used by Verlaine. I single out this study because it keeps distinct the natures and resources of the two arts, avoiding the implication that one really can explain the other.

Attempts to explain the qualities of Verlaine's poetry (or of Watteau's paintings) largely by generalities borrowed from music can do little beyond suggesting a certain atmosphere in the works studied.8 Without close analysis of analogous modulations of time and tone with their subtle irregularities in the several art forms, this critical technique is limited in its success. Some attention has been given to another means of understanding Fêtes galantes, also with limited results, and this is the study of paintings by Watteau and Lancret as direct sources of inspiration for Verlaine.

Since the time of publication of Fêtes galantes, when it was generally assumed that the Goncourts's study of eighteenth-century art provided subjects or inspiration for Verlaine, there has been considerable effort to equate poems and paintings according to subject matter. Jacques-Henry Bornecque has put an end to such speculations by bringing forth the facts of Verlaine's slight knowledge of the actual paintings and his familiarity with later engravings, a feeble source of color and atmosphere.9 The common body of knowledge about Rococo style and “fêtes galantes” is well treated in his first chapter, showing how much Verlaine drew from contemporary poetry on such subjects. Bornecque's conclusion is, in brief, that it is pointless to try to fix exact pictorial sources for the poems. A few engravings are reflected in certain poems, but it is more vital to see that Verlaine had sensed and absorbed an essence of Rococo tone from various sources and that he shaped it to his own ends.

To proceed by analogies between the arts which treat a like subject matter is basically to study just these analogies, and little light is cast upon the themes and structures of the poems as literary art. The observation of similarities between poems and paintings can be followed, however, by analysis of the principles of form in one art which suggest that a similar phenomenon may be at work in the other. Thus, the essential musicality of Verlaine's poems probably emerges best in studies such as that by Guy Michaud rather than in comparisons with Debussy's music.10 He examines the patterns of vowels and consonants along a time line, applying as seem appropriate some aspects of musical form to the poetry. Now, the sequence of patterns of things seen in Fêtes galantes lends itself to this sort of analysis. We can profitably seek out some of the principles of visual and spatial imagery in Watteau's paintings and inquire how they may apply to the sequential verbal creations of Verlaine's Fêtes galantes, those poetic landscapes with figures. The current study is intended to increase understanding of some of the form which produces Verlaine's characteristic vagueness and which also is a definite framework for the expression of some important and unifying themes in the group of poems.

Our approach to the matter supposes, of course, that Verlaine had a great visual sensitivity; that such was the case is the strong conclusion reached by Eléonore Zimmerman in her Magies de Verlaine. She documents his keen visual awareness throughout his life and writings, noting the frequent verbal renderings of things perceived by the eye. An important point is made that the imprecise images of the poems start with sharp observations of the external world; “le vague de Verlaine, comme de tout grand artiste, est créé à partir de notations précises” (p. 281). Sharpness of vision is equaled by the ability to capture the characteristic gesture or tone in a few words. Both the intentional blur and the intensity of focus on detail are techniques of painting which have their parallels in Verlaine's poetic imagery, and, in Fêtes galantes, the relationships between the visually vague and the precise are of especially great importance.

Transposing the general effect of vagueness into temporal terms we may say that Verlaine's poems give an impression of suspension in time, of the fleeting moment which achieves its immortality, caught in the art work like the fly in amber. The world of the Rococo parks is at once past and present, and this duality in time is an essential part of Verlaine's technique. Momentary poses or words are in a sense frozen so they may be in both their past and our present. This temporal phenomenon is scarcely dynamic, however, and creates little in the way of tensions, which are certainly to be sensed in his poems. Viewing these works in terms of the psychological or emotional imagery, we find it easier to identify the vague quality than to explain the intensity of feeling implicit in the stylized situations of love. The conventional desires and despairs of the lovers are given in detail in the poems, yet Verlaine makes us feel that for him the trite conventions suggest some more subtle aspects of love. The depths of meaning hinted at call for study, but our present task is to elucidate the artistic form. Let us just observe that the overall esthetic scheme of the work involves many ways of shifting back and forth between the precise and the imprecise, the acute and the anodyne. In “Art poétique” the poet expresses his predilection for “la chanson grise où l'Indécis au Précis se joint.” Applying the principle of juxtaposition of the vague and the precise to the visual and spatial imagery of Fêtes galantes, I believe we find a vital form which undergirds the entire work.

By employing shifts between sharp and indistinct focus Verlaine creates the marked sense of instability and uncertainty which basically keys our impressions of the poems. It is this principle of shifting which is of particular interest because it furnishes us with a definite structural form to use in analyzing the works, a task which tends to bog down in the “vague” when criticism concentrates only upon the hazy zone where one thing becomes another. Since the fluctuations of spatial structures seem to be tied in subtle ways to the intellectual and emotional variations within Fêtes galantes, this can serve as a future means of approach to a study of the relationships between form and content.

I conclude from examination of Verlaine's poems and Watteau's paintings that the poet understood, despite limited pictorial sources, an essential part of Watteau's techniques with two-dimensional visual images, and that he furthermore found ways to use analogous verbal techniques. In simple terms we may call the images found in Watteau those of “detachment” and “merging” to indicate the relationships between the human figures and the backgrounds in the paintings. The figures either stand isolated from the background in quite sharp focus, or else they tend to flow into the background and disappear. In a given painting both effects may occur, but one tendency will usually predominate and give the basic tone of the work. An excellent and well-known example of the effect of merging is found in “L'Embarquement pour l’île de Cythère,” while “Gilles” shows the effect of detachment.11 One's reactions to a painting are influenced by the handling of the virtual space depicted on the canvas, and the reactions are primary. In like fashion in Fêtes galantes Verlaine rapidly gives the reader visual imagery characterized by either sharp or dissolving focus in depth. On this basis much of the poem is apprehended.

Although detailed commentary on all of the poems is beyond the scope of this study, I shall examine each one for the spatial effects described above. The individual works are strongly marked by them, while as a whole the collection displays a unifying pattern based on the shifts between merging and detachment. The placement of the individual poems in the ensemble assumes great importance in this light, for the overall scheme of alternations and reinforcements of effects is a carefully composed sinuous line dependent upon a certain sequence of imagery.

Apparent in the first poem, “Clair de lune,” is the strong impression of fusion induced by the moonlight. We have already noticed the merging of ideas of “votre âme” and “paysage,” and a scene briefly peopled by hazy figures dominates the first stanza. Ambiguity of appearance and feeling is stressed; “ils n'ont pas l'air de croire à leur bonheur.” They and their song blend into the visual images, “se mêle au clair de lune,” as Verlaine employs the characteristic verb “mêler.” Emphasis upon fading back into the vague background is evident in the final stanza in which the birds, invisible and silent, dream among the dim trees. The human figures slip away to leave only the play of the waters which now contain the disembodied emotions, “sangloter d'extase.” The focus at the last is upon “les grands jets d'eau sveltes parmi les marbres,” while we lose all sight of the dancing maskers. There is no mistaking the tone or the significance of Verlaine's placing this poem at the head of his suite of Fêtes; visual and spatial effects are far more numerous than those of sound (singing and sobbing), and the impression of figures merging into background serves as the keynote of the work as a whole.

In the next three poems we discover a shift toward a clear focus upon the figures so dimly glimpsed in the first work. “Pantomime,” “Sur l'herbe,” and “L'Allée” show us the cast of characters, first called “masques et bergamasques” in “Clair de lune,” to be figures from the Italian commedia dell'arte. These stylized players, such as Arlequin, Colombine, and Pierrot, possess a clarity of delineation which will be as great as any in the world of the Fêtes, but we must note that they are by their very nature insubstantial, having reality only as stock literary types. Verlaine catches each one in characteristic gesture.

The choice of the title “Pantomime” is interesting because of the stress upon the visual as opposed to the suggestion of sound in the original ideas for a title, “En aparté” and “A-parté” (Bornecque, p. 154). Verlaine evidently wished to direct our attention to the silent miming so clearly visualized; “Pierrot qui n'a rien d'un Clitandre / Vide un flacon sans plus attendre,” or “Ce faquin d'Arlequin … pirouette quatre fois.” Only the final stanza moves slightly toward the effect of merging of figure into scene; “Colombine rêve, surprise / De sentir un cœur dans la brise / Et d'entendre en son cœur des voix.” Here, of course, it is feeling which blends with the setting and its mood, while the general effect remains that of distinct pictures of the characters, each framed in a portrait stanza.

Title is again important in the third poem, for “Sur l'herbe” makes us see an elegant gathering of ladies and their admirers in a park-like decor. We may mentally supply a Watteau landscape, yet there is truly no description of background other than a final reference to the moon. Instead, all emphasis is upon the neat portraits of abbé, marquis, and feminine characters, all achieved through snatches of their conversation. The poem is thus a clever companion piece for “Pantomime.”

We may note here that a certain correspondence between states of feeling and visual imagery has already been established by Verlaine. The implied significance of the visual effects in terms of the psychological and the spiritual must be touched upon briefly, if far from deeply. Let us say for now that sharpness of focus seems indicative of a tendency to remain on the surface emotionally and physically, with shallowness of feeling evident in the neatly drawn figures. The depths of love are not to be realized when all remains in a superficial mode and individual detachment is dominant. “Clair de lune,” on the other hand, suggests that “extase” lies only in the fusion of sensual experience with the beauty of the setting. We are struck especially by the constant mood of solitude, either physical or psychological, which is present in both types of poems; Verlaine is creating variations on this theme with visual images, for different sorts of spiritual solitude are suggested by the figures' merging with the backgrounds and by their standing detached, even in group scenes. The poet composes a suggestive total pattern by such means, and it will be helpful to plot the line of development he traces, shifting back and forth in his focus visually and psychologically. The whole sequence of Fêtes galantes must be surveyed rapidly before we attempt to see the total pattern.

The fourth poem “L'Allée” continues the formation of the pattern by offering a detailed description of a single figure sharply separated from the background. Verlaine directs our gaze to certain aspects of the woman, framing each detail by punctuation, a practice not used in works of the character of “Clair de lune” in which all is flow and merging.12 The superficial and shallow beauty is indicated by words like “façons” and “afféteries” to typify the manner of the woman. We see her “fardée” and with an “éclat un peu niais de l’œil.” The painted, doll-like figure stands alone in a sort of mindless sensual beauty; she seems to mark one extreme of visual imagery used to convey graphically Verlaine's modulations between the sensual and the spiritual. In the following poem the movement is toward effects of fusion, both visual and sentimental.

“A la promenade” is built with an easy flow of images which tend to merge the characters, their feelings, and the natural setting at the start. This is followed by a more distinct visualization of the lovers' gestures and looks, which then become conventional flirtation. The most important aspect of the spatial imagery in this work is the direction of motion of focus, with our eyes being led from hazy background to distinct foreground. “Le ciel si pâle et les arbres si grêles / Semblent sourire à nos costumes clairs” are the opening lines. In the second stanza an attenuated light “nous parvient bleue et mourante à dessein.” The spiritual collaboration of nature in the love scene is suggested by visual images qualified by affective touches. From “ciel pâle” which is the deepest background the poem moves to a sharp focus upon the expression of eye and mouth at the end. We compare this technique with that of “Clair de lune” and note the skillful variations on use of visual imagery in depth.

The next poem, “Dans la grotte,” achieves an almost theatrical illusion with the stylized, précieux posing of the lovers against the background of an artificial grotto, dear to Rococo taste in landscaping. As every detail of the protestation of eternal love is conventional and literary, we see only two figures frozen in fixed attitudes and cut off from any natural background. Verlaine has elected to insert here in the Fêtes a small gem of pastiche which swiftly pulls us back from our impression of the fusion of love and nature in “L'Allée.” Such rapid shifts of mode continue in “Les Ingénus” which again stresses images of merging, with a natural setting playing a key role.

The use of the imperfect tense is noteworthy in “Les Ingénus,” for with the title, it suggests a departed experience of youth which remains as a disturbing memory; “notre âme, depuis ce temps, tremble et s’étonne.” The hints of sensual love are given through the agency of nature when terrain and wind cause skirts to lift or when an insect causes exposure of “nuques blanches.” The scene fades into evening and the past as Verlaine introduces the temporal dimension into what has been a spatial pattern; the line “Le soir tombait, un soir équivoque d'automne” sounds a familiar note of visual vagueness, but this time it is not written in the present tense.

“Cortège” then follows with sharp visual effects much like those of “L'Allée,” adding further suggestions of sensuality in a similar context. A beautiful woman passes “par les escaliers” (the only background stated) accompanied by a “singe” and a “négrillon” who are described as minutely as she. They cast lascivious glances at her charms while she remains remote and unobtainable, and the whole scene thus becomes a rather grotesque parody of the lover pining for his lady. Her “animaux familiers” are visualized both through details of description and through characteristic gestures, a technique observed in Verlaine's “Pantomime.” The movement in the poem is across one plane of foreground with everything in the same clear focus.

The ninth piece in Fêtes galantes, “Les Coquillages,” at once echoes “Dans la grotte,” repeating these words in the second line, and shifts away from its rigidly posed formality and pastiche. Using images linking physical passions and beauties with the colors and forms of the shells in the grotto, the poet suggests the merging of the lovers into the setting. The highly contrived imagery which culminates in the sexually suggestive last line tends to create a brittle effect, however, and we find that the fragility of the shells surpasses any reality in the passion. The work is interesting in the terms of our study because of its purely ideational variations on the theme of relationships between figures and setting.

Verlaine has now conducted us almost to the midpoint of the Fêtes, following a zigzag path which produces a sense of fluidity in space, time, and thought. The visual imagery has reflected the ambiguities and shifts of focus in the sentimental lives of the inhabitants of the Rococo setting. There is the suggestion that nothing has permanence except the fleeting moment of sensual joy and that this permanence is achieved only through a fusion with the lasting beauty of the landscape, or rather its artistic rendering. So far, the summit of love has not been attained, but in “En patinant” Verlaine approaches it at a pivotal point in the development of his suite of poems.

The unusual length of this poem, sixteen stanzas, strikes our attention after the preceding brief works, as does the variety of scenes evoked. These characteristics seem to mark some sort of departure because the narrator speaks to his love not about one moment together but rather about the temper of their past meetings in each season of the year. The poem thus reinforces the theme of love's joy recalled in association with settings. The tone of the lovemaking is set first by summer's “émoi” or by the more delicate perfumes of spring's flowers. “Les cinq sens / Se mettent alors de la fête, / Mais seuls, tout seuls, bien seuls et sans / Que la crise monte à la tête.” These lines follow three stanzas which present the effects of the settings, swiftly pulling the figures back from dissolving sentimentally and visually into the background. The cerebral approach to passion is far from a fusion with nature's mood, and detachment is the rule. There is no moonlight here but rather a clear light; “Ce fut le temps, sous de clairs ciels / (Vous en souvenez-vous, Madame?) / Des baisers superficiels / Et les sentiments à fleur de l’âme.” Such phrasing stresses the idea that all remains on the surface, and it is interesting to note that an early title for the work was “Sur la glace” (Bornecque, p. 124). “En patinant” is a title which preserves some of this sense yet adds the idea of motion.

Verlaine seems to deal in this central work with the established pattern of alternating merging and detachment in space; the seasonal backgrounds wait ready to absorb the figures from the foreground, toward which they regularly step and remain in clear focus. Nature aids and abets each scene of love, although there is no real assimilation of the characters into nature until the very end, and even this has a superficial tone. After summer's mood of abandon (“un bien ridicule vertigo”), autumn finds the lovers disciplined and controlled. The movement from one scene to another is particularly to be noted in “En patinant,” since this movement produces a strong sense of continuity which heretofore has been supplied by the reader in his progress from poem to poem. With a shift into the present tense the final two stanzas show the couple gliding over the ice to disappear from view into a flower-filled chamber. “Et bientôt Fanchon / Nous fleurira—quoi qu'on caquette!” The verb “fleurir” brings us full circle back to the flowery scene of spring and effectively suggests a merging at last into a natural cycle. We retain a strong impression, nevertheless, of the figures as “irréprochable amant” and “digne aimée” which are the stereotypes inhabiting the world of the Fêtes. The visual images connected with such figures suffice to typify them as distinct and detached. Wonderfully ambiguous in this way, “En patinant” exploits the principal spatial effects and succeeds in combining them in one poem. The superficial and the merging, bearing the connotations we have noted before, are together in one work to an extent that Verlaine will not attempt in the poems to follow. Resuming a vacillating and shifting pattern of spatial imagery, the total movement in the rest of the suite will lead ever farther away from the suggestion of fusion with and fulfillment in nature found in “En patinant.” The function of this work in the middle of the Fêtes is that of a psychological and formal dividing point in the overall pattern.

The title of the next poem, “Fantoches,” signals a return to the figures from the Italian comedy encountered in “Pantomime.” The scene is lit by the moon but the illumination is not that of “Clair de lune” since we see “Scaramouche et Pulcinella” silhouetted “noirs sur la lune.” The doctor and his daughter (Colombine of poems two and nineteen) pose detached and sharply visualized in the portrait stanzas, while the natural setting is limited to references to “herbe brune” and “charmille.” A nightingale plays a mediating role between the “fantoches” and the moonlit background, making its presence known through its singing, first “langoureux” then noisy when the song “clame la détresse à tue-tête.” The theatrical effect of the composition is striking and clearly the intent of this poem about characters who are only puppets. The superficial quality of “Fantoches” is so marked that we must conclude that Verlaine placed it here in his Fêtes to stress this very effect.

“Cythère” comes next, followed by four other poems with consistent images of merging, and it seems as if the poet wished to balance “Fantoches” against this movement. In a group of succeeding poems, numbers seventeen through twenty, the tendency will be to resume strongly the spatial effects of sharp detachment, so that we perceive the zigzag pattern of motion back and forth in visual depth and focus is now composed of more pronounced swings and pauses. The almost alternate shifting of focus from one poem to the next in the first half of the collection is not the model for the second half. Let us see how the entire composition is carried through by Verlaine.

“Cythère” has images like “abrite doucement” and “l'odeur des roses … se mêle aux parfums qu'elle a mis.” Nature's mood blends with that of the lovers throughout most of the poem, while at the end there is a witty and ironic touch which undoes a bit the idyllic atmosphere; “Et, l'Amour comblant tout, hormis / La Faim, sorbets et confitures / Nous préservent des courbatures.” The title brings to mind Watteau's painting, but instead of showing the lovers moving off into a hazy setting of natural beauty, Verlaine's final focus is all upon foreground detail. The next poem, “En bateau,” seems to combine effects of detachment and fusion into background in a new way, although the material used is by now quite familiar to us.

We recognize here the group of figures encountered in “Sur l'herbe,” this time on a moonlight boating party. The technique of depiction through speeches and visual images is coupled with a setting reminiscent of “Clair de lune.” As the “abbé” and “ce vicomte déréglé” talk and gesticulate, the whole group moves off into the dim moonlight which is stressed at the beginning and end of the work; “L’étoile du berger tremblote / Dans l'eau noire” and “la lune se lève / Et l'esquif en sa course brève / File gaîment sur l'eau qui rêve.” The personification of the water recalls that in “Clair de lune,” serving to remind us again of the means often used by Verlaine to suggest emotion, embodiment of feeling in the natural background rather than in the human figures. The total effect is one of strong merging.

“Le Faune” is the fourteenth of the Fêtes galantes, which now shows us two shadowy characters appearing upon the “boulingrins” for “ces instants sereins” before “cette heure dont la fuite / Tournoie au son des tambourins.” The ephemeral and hazy atmosphere of this meeting of lovers is emphasized by these final lines. The statue of the faun mocks them with his laughing expression “présageant sans doute une suite mauvaise.” A moment of love is suspended in space and time, just on the brink of swirling away to the sound of the music, and amidst all the fading scene the most definite image is that of the ironic face of the faun. The last poem of the suite, “Colloque sentimental,” will seem like a ghostly repetition of this fleeting tryst of “mélancoliques pèlerins.”

The next work is a companion piece to “Le Faune,” sharing not only the principle of merging of figures into vague setting but also the same sort of final images to create such an effect. “Mandoline” does not stress music, despite its title, for there is only a subtle suggestion of musical accompaniment. At the start the characters are called “donneurs de sérénades” and “belles écouteuses,” but then the images become visual and we proceed from a slight reference to background (“les ramures chanteuses”) to a depiction of “Tircis” and other conventional figures from pastoral. The focus in the third stanza moves to fix upon details of dress, but this is seen clearly only in passing as the characters shift into “molles ombres bleues.” The final stanza shows these shadows dissolving, dancing away into the night, this time to the music of the mandolin. The ending is an excellent example of Verlaine's procedure in mingling emotions, sound, characters, and natural setting, all on a basis of visual perceptions.

Leurs courtes vestes de soie,
Leurs longues robes à queue,
Leur élégance, leur joie,
Et leurs molles ombres bleues
Tourbillonnent dans l'extase
D'une lune rose et grise,
Et la mandoline jase
Parmi les frissons de brise.

The adjectives of color are to be noted, as is the identification of “extase” with the moonlight. A keynote from “Clair de lune” continues to sound.

“A Clymène” is characterized by the mingling of senses and states of feeling, a technique highly evocative of the Baudelairean synesthesia and its poetic forms. The stanzas in praise of the beauty include visual images, but they are merely part of the total impression of Clymène's charms. The residual picture we possess of the typical object of devotion, so often portrayed in these poems, permits us to visualize her, indeed makes us do so. The very conventional nature of the language of the “irréprochable amant” signals that we are in the superficial plane of the world of the Fêtes; the atmosphere of posed pastiche such as that of “Dans la grotte” is handled with more subtlety, however, and there is a slight movement toward the fusion of senses seen in “Mandoline.”

The logic of the arrangement of the Fêtes galantes has been based thus far upon a constant shifting of visual and spatial focus, with attendant intellectual and emotional effects. The poet has so prepared the way that he now can profit from a foregoing stock of images and refer to them merely by the tone of the poem. We see the fixed and superficial pose of the lover in the stylized love letter of the piece “Lettre,” and we also recognize in it the suggestion of the mode of detachment. “Lettre” is of interest as well in its foreshadowing of the end of the whole suite, when the ghosts of the lovers return. The letter writer declares his intention of dying and joining his love in a phantom embrace; “Mon ombre se fondra à jamais en votre ombre.” The trite phrasing (“En attendant, je suis, très chère, ton valet”) underscores the brittle superficiality here, yet we apprehend the principle of fusion of the lovers into a hazy space and time as one of the keys to Verlaine's “paysage de l'âme.” In a detached and ironic mode the poet is actually presenting the same theme so often observed in his poems characterized by imagery of merging. Some more somber variations on this theme and mode are to be seen in the next two works.

“Les Indolents” resembles “Le Faune” in that the lovers are mockingly observed by “deux silvains hilaires,” statues of grinning demigods of the woods. Through the medium of these statues we hear the empty and conventional words of passion uttered by the man, who suggests a dramatic death for love to the lady amused by his pretensions. In visual terms the focus is wholly upon foreground figures, a technique consistently associated with irony of tone and theme. The idea of death, even though treated ironically here, persists and comes to dominate the last poems of the Fêtes.

“Colombine” is a reprise of the earlier images of characters from the commedia dell'arte and the “fantoches,” but now the treatment assumes a tone of dark fatality. Pierrot, Arlequin, and the others become a procession of “dupes” led by a perverse enchantress, “l'implacable enfant.” The familiar cast of “Pantomime” is shown again, each in typical gesture, so that we visualize the scene down to details such as the “yeux luisants” and “rose au chapeau.” Despite the singing and dancing reminiscent of “Clair de lune,” the “troupeau de dupes” moves off toward some “mornes ou cruels désastres” in a “fatidique cours,” led by lust for Colombine. The movement of the figures is a procession across a sharply depicted foreground without any suggestion of fading into the natural setting.

“L'Amour par terre” is a logical continuation of the theme of love cast down seen in the two preceding poems; “le vent de l'autre nuit a jeté bas l'Amour.” The destruction of the statue of Eros by the forces of nature foreshadows for the poem's narrator his own “avenir solitaire et fatal.” The empty pedestal is shown to us with the repeated lament “c'est triste,” while words such as “tout seul” and “solitaire” stress heavily the impression of objects and characters standing isolated in the garden damaged by the storm. The last stanza is particularly effective in its visual images of detachment. The narrator appeals to his companion who is amusing her “œil frivole” with a purple and gold butterfly, a sharply visualized detail placed against a background which is no longer the typical Rococo garden but rather a “dolent tableau” of “débris dont l'allée est jonchée.” The storm seems to have destroyed all hope of ever again merging into the world composed of natural beauty, moonlight, and love. The narrator senses this, but his beloved remains heedlessly indifferent.

Gloom and darkness, and the impossibility of recapturing the joys of love, are pervasive in the two final works, which also have an interesting modification of the imagery dealing with fusion of figures and setting. Accompanying the loss of love is a resigned despair which seems to linger on forever, haunting the world of Fêtes now inhabited by the phantoms of the lovers. “En sourdine” is characterized by very strong images of merging, but it is now into darkness and death that all dissolves. In a “demi-jour” invaded by black shadows there is deep silence; “pénétrons bien notre amour / De ce silence profond.” The second stanza is almost a summation of the whole scheme of fusion of figures and setting, both visually and spiritually:

Fondons nos âmes, nos cœurs
Et non sens extasiés,
Parmi les vagues langueurs
Des pins et des arbousiers.

With use of branches, trees, wind, russet grass, and oaks, Verlaine stresses the background scene, while the verbs “pénétrons” and “fondons” are in dominant positions. The last stanza leaves no doubt about the tone of dark despair which permeates:

Et quand, solennel, le soir
Des chênes noirs tombera
Voix de notre désespoir,
Le rossignol chantera.

The two lovers seem at last assimilated into the scene, but their final appearance in “Colloque sentimental” makes it evident that they exist now only as disembodied spirits haunting neglected gardens. The cold wind of death has swept through the moonlit land of the Fêtes galantes.

With the cruel transformation by time of both setting and characters in “Colloque sentimental,” this final poem lays heavy stress on the fugitive nature of the dreams of love in an enchanted world. The promised bliss still seems to elude the lovers who turn back in memory in search of it; “deux spectres ont évoqué le passé.” The dark sky, the ruined park, the “avoines folles” which fill the former gardens, all stand in sharp contrast with the gentle beauty visualized in the earlier poems. The couple, cut off now from the visible world, is as vague as “deux formes,” and we recognize them only by their voices. To the lover's reiteration of the old pleas the beloved replies that “l'espoir a fui, vaincu, vers le ciel noir.” Emptiness of setting, “le vieux parc solitaire et glacé,” and the dissolution of the human figures constitute the last image of visual fusion in the Fêtes. This ending seems like a grim joke after the idylls suggested before, but it is hardly unexpected. Time has elapsed despite the brilliant evocation of the world of the past; the inhabitants have faded into death while the park has reverted to weeds. Night swallows all; “la nuit seule entendit leurs paroles.”

In his Fêtes galantes Verlaine creates a suite of poems unified and articulated to a great extent through the use of visual and spatial imagery. The subtly varied stress, first upon sharp foreground figures and then upon fusion into dim setting, produces a rhythmic pattern in time as one poem follows another. If we sense an unsteadying zigzag motion in reading the suite, it is because of the gentle modulations or swift changes of focus called for to visualize things. In effect, the poet's handling of visual and spatial aspects of his work is of prime importance in his creation of a musicality. It is truly through visualization that we first feel the rhythms and modes which have an ultimately musical effect in the Fêtes, both individually and as a total composition.

Synchronous harmonies or the effects of chords are, of course, part of Verlaine's poetic musicality, and these we have not tried to analyze. The essential form of these poems appears to be keyed to things seen as detached or merged (with their attendant accretions of meaning) which are arranged in a particular time sequence. The use of such means of expression is only part of Verlaine's great poetic capability, and an oversimplified explanation of his techniques is not intended. This study of verbally expressed visual patterns in space, which are also musical patterns in time, should suggest lines for future investigation. The pictorial in poetry surely finds one of its great masters in Verlaine, whose skill in handling essential artistic form is evident in Fêtes galantes.


  1. For the text of the poems my source is the Pléiade edition of Verlaine's Œuvres poétiques complètes, ed. Y.-G. Le Dantec and Jacques Borel (Paris: Gallimard, 1962).

  2. Eléonore M. Zimmermann, Magies de Verlaine (Paris: José Corti, 1967), examines the meaning of “paysage” for Verlaine in Ch. x.

  3. “Images formelles dans Clair de lune de Verlaine,” Revue des Sciences Humaines, Fasc. 130 (April-June 1968), pp. 259–66.

  4. Poésie et profondeur (Paris: Seuil, 1955), p. 166.

  5. Paul Verlaine (Paris: Mercure de France, 1961), p. 94.

  6. A selection of critical studies concerned with the relationships between Verlaine's poetry and music should include the following: Antoine Adam, Verlaine, l'homme et l’œuvre (Paris: Hatier-Bovin, 1953); Albert Béguin, Poésie de la présence (Neuchâtel: La Baconnière, 1957); Pierre Fortassier, “Verlaine, la musique et les musiciens,” Cahiers de l'Association Internationale des Etudes Françaises, 12 (June 1960), 143–59; V. P. Underwood, “Sources théâtrales de Verlaine,” Revue d'Histoire Littéraire de la France, 57 (April-June 1957), 196–203.

  7. French Review, 40 (April 1967), 627–35.

  8. An interesting use, or abuse, of musical terms by art historians is found in Pierre d'Espezel and François Fosca, Histoire de la peinture (Paris: Somogy, 1958), p. 130; they write of Watteau's paintings, “Le véritable sujet d'un tableau de Watteau est une nuance de sensibilité que le langage serait incapable de préciser. Au lieu de leurs titres vagues, ses œuvres devraient être désignés par des indications de nuances musicales: dolce, allegretto, appassionato, etc.”

  9. Etudes verlainiennes: Lumières sur les Fêtes galantes de Paul Verlaine (Paris: Nizet, 1959), passim.

  10. L’œuvre et ses techniques (Paris: Nizet, 1957), pp. 71–84.

  11. For paintings by Watteau and other artists, see François Fosca, The Eighteenth Century: Watteau to Tiepolo (New York: Skira, 1952), esp. the chapter “Watteau's Dreamworld.”

  12. Bornecque notes that Verlaine originally wrote this poem without interior punctuation, p. 156.

Philip Stephan (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7054

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 unaware that one day they will be the rackets and their lovers, ‘les pauvres coeurs torturés’, the shuttlecocks they hit back and forth. It is obvious that his poem copies Verlaine's ‘La Chanson des ingénues’:1 both contrast the frivolity of young girls with their amorous maturity when they have grown into women, both use similar language and identical form. While in Verlaine's poem it is the girls who feel their hearts beat harder, ‘… / A des pensers clandestins, / En nous sachant les amantes / Futures des libertins’, in Guy-Valvor's it is the poet-observer who is so moved: ‘Sous l'enfant trouvant la femme, / Mon coeur se sentait frémir / A voir ces jeunes coquettes, / … / Se renvoyer le volant.’ One stanza of ‘Raquettes et volants’ could serve as a summary of Verlaine's poem, as well:

Mais elles, insouciantes,
De l'amour encor lointain,
Avec leurs grâces riantes
Eblouissaient le jardin.

In both the girls wear white, airy dresses and shepherdess hats, in both they have blue eyes. The stanza

Quand les blanches mousselines
S'envolaient en plis bouffants,
Les brises semblaient câlines
Ravir les belles enfants!

recalls Verlaine's lines ‘Et nos robes—si légères— / Sont d'une extrême blancheur’, and the third line, with câlines seemingly out of place (‘Les brises câlines semblaient …’) recalls the difficult vont charmant construction which opens ‘Clair de lune’ (p. 107). Turns of a phrase suggest Verlaine's very language: ‘[le volant] … / Par leurs prodiges d'adresse / Contrarié sans pitié’, to choose from many possible examples, echoes the préciosité of much of the language of Fêtes galantes.2 Guy-Valvor need not have gone to Verlaine for the eighteenth century theme (although his equating an historical period with a subject for erotic revery is Verlainean), which was popular during the 1880's quite independently of Fêtes galantes. As for the heptasyllabic line, Guy-Valvor's other poems are in alexandrines or other vers pair rhythms, and vers impairs in fact begin to appear only as such imitations of Verlaine become prevalent. Apparently ‘Art poétique’ introduced a metre which Verlaine himself probably took from Baudelaire.

A year later Georges Khnopff has a dozen poems entitled ‘XVIIIe siècle’ in La Jeune Belgique,3 a magazine which otherwise did not usually reflect decadent trends. In one (‘III’, pp. 436–7) Pierrot, with his flask of claret and his pâté, the word group ce faquin d'Arlequin, and the presence of Cassandre suggest Verlaine's ‘Pantomime’; the line ‘La brise ride les bassins’ recalls ‘Et le vent doux ride l'humble bassin’ of ‘A la promenade’ (p. 109). Another poem (‘IX’, p. 439) has numerous verbal similarities of this order, most of which echo ‘Clair de lune’—a further indication that Khnopff probably imitated Verlaine is the mingling of gaiety with melancholy, and the sad hearts hidden by carnival masks, which characterise Fêtes galantes:

La belle Colombine …
… songe
Que toute joie, au loin, n'est que mensonge
Et que tous ces railleurs élégants et fantasques
Déguisant leur ennui sous le blanc de leurs masques
Et le satin brodé de leurs basquines roses
Raffinent la tristesse adorable des choses.

[p. 439]

It should be borne in mind that devices which remind us of Verlaine's verse were often in fact clichés of the period which he himself got from Victor Hugo, the Parnassians, or Baudelaire. This is true of the verbal music and the metric variations which became more and more common in poetry during the season 1883–84. The increasing popularity of the impressionist style must have been due to the Goncourts' prose rather than to Verlaine. Traits which are peculiar to Verlaine, and thus exclude his predecessors as possible sources, are echoes of his diction, his distinctive mood of dream and melancholy, his vagueness, and his taste for pale, muted colours. Such distinctions can be made in Emile Michelet's ‘In votis’:

Ce serait par un soir doux et calme d’été,
A l'heure où les lueurs et les rumeurs dernières
S’éteignaient mollement dans la sérénité.
Elle aurait dix-huit ans et des mines câlines,
Et me raconterait des riens, niaise un peu,
D'une voix douce comme un choeur de mandolines,
Blonde et blanche dans son peignoir de satin bleu.

[Lutèce, 15–22 March 1884]

Although the opening line is an obvious echo of ‘Donc, ce sera par un clair jour d’été’ in La Bonne Chanson (p. 153), the various assonances and alliterations of the second line were in common use before Verlaine's poems began appearing in La Nouvelle Rive Gauche. In the last stanza, to the contrary, the conditional tense, the inversion of niaise and un peu, the simile based on aural correspondances, and the pairing of colours which are close to each other in hue or value (‘Blonde et blanche’) are most likely derived from Verlaine. Equally reminiscent of him is Charles Vignier's ‘Dans le [sic] rose’:

Errants au pays falots
Mes rêves, berceuses yoles,
Ont arboré pour falots
Deux yeux bleus, deux lucioles.

[Lutèce, 27 April–4 May 1884]

As with Guy-Valvor's poem, the vers impair of seven syllables can be attributed only to Verlaine, and the vocables falots and berceuses are also typical of his verse. Additional poems by Vignier (‘Paysage’ and ‘Vision’, Lutèce, 18–25 May 1884; ‘Retour de Cythère’ and ‘Tristesses’, 1–7 September 1884) bear out the judgement of reviewers who commented on the Verlainean tenor of his collection of verse Le Centon in 1887.

A facetious, but revealing, commentary on the extent of Verlaine's influence is made by a parody which appeared in Lutèce in the fall of 1884:

Las! la fleur qui fleure, effleure
L'ultime heure, la meilleure,
Et pleure;—oh! combien subtils
Les sanglots en les pistils.(4)

Jean Laurent's poem does not seem too different from some of Vignier’s serious verse; apparently, in the year since Guy-Valvor's poem appearred, ceratin of Verlaine's mannerisms had become platitudes of minor decadent verse! An accompanying letter has an epigraph from Verlaine consisting simply of two lines of suspension points, thus suggesting that a few poems were so honoured ad nauseam, and perhaps poking fun at the ineffableness of Verlaine's verse:

Monsieur le Directeur,

La très niaise humanitairerie musagète se meurt. D'aucuns pionniers, humbles mais fiers, installent audacieusement la poésie enfin vraie, celle du transcendantalement intime vertige (Obliquitas somnorum). Il faut les suivre, sinon les imiter. (Interroga virtutem tuam.) J'ai travaillé dans ce sens. Je vous envoie une de mes meilleures oeuvres. Son insertion dans Lutèce sera l'irréfragable sanction de mon enrôlement définitif. J'ose attendre.

Salut dans l'art,

Jean-Charles Laurent

As in this letter, the decadents' sometimes pompous literary theories and their Latinate prose style were common targets for parody. More interesting is the reference to d'aucuns pionniers, which implies that Verlaine and others had been accepted as guides.

At the end of 1884 and the beginning of 1885 the Belgian periodical La Basoche published two poems showing Verlaine's influence: ‘Lune d'avril’, by Adolphe Ribaux:

La lune de printemps, sur les amandiers roses,
Sur le vert chèvrefeuille et les pruniers en fleur,
Glisse, comme un baiser, sa laiteuse pâleur,
Et dans l'air musical flotte l’âme des choses.

[1, 2 December 1884, p. 82]

and ‘Sur la plage’, by Jacques Madeleine:

Blanches ailes des barques frêles,
Vois ces taches d'un ton plus clair
Sur le vert sombre de la mer:
Sont-ce des voiles ou des ailes?

[11, 3 January 1885, p. 120]

This highly impressionistic first stanza (dated, appropriately enough, at Etretat on the Channel coast) could have been imitated from Verlaine, or it could be cognate with Verlaine's landscapes. The date of the poem, the polish of its impressionism, and perhaps the interrogation in the fourth line, argue for Verlaine as the source. Almost certainly derived from Verlaine are the dream-like quality of the tercets and their apostrophe to an unreal, inaccessible woman. They duplicate the tone of love poems like ‘En Sourdine’ (p. 120) and ‘Circonspection’ (p. 329):

Rêveuse qui les suit des yeux,
Veux-tu regarder tous les deux
La même voile, au loin qui tremble?
La seule extase sans rancoeurs,
Le plus délicat des bonheurs,
C'est encor, de rêver ensemble.

Verlaine's influence is also apparent in the verse of his friend Jean Moréas, some of whose poems appeared in Lutèce (‘Rythme boîteux’ and ‘Les Bonnes Souvenances’, 29 June–6 July 1884; ‘Remembrances’, 10–17 August 1884), and whose first collection, Les Syrtes, came out at the end of the year. Reviewing the volume in La Revue Contemporaine, Gabriel Sarrazin praised it (‘Ceci est un exquis volume de vers, et qui nous a complètement séduit’),5 but with major reservations. Some poems, he says, are resonant and meaningless, others repeat, perhaps unintentionally, some of Baudelaire's mystic poems: ‘Bref, Les Syrtes ne dégagent pas une pensée poétique vraiment originale, et en outre, l'art—si remarquable—de l'auteur va se perdre et s'enliser parfois dans le byzantisme [synonym for decadence].’ Then—at least, implicitly—he compares Moréas to Verlaine: ‘Son vers est le plus musical de l'heure actuelle et la suavité de sa mélodie métrique dépasse celle de M. Verlaine lui-même. … Puis la plastique de M. Moréas rivalise sa musique; en lui, comme en M. Verlaine, fusionnent avec science un peintre et un lyrique. …’ In La Basoche a reviewer states bluntly: ‘Jean Moréas est de ceux qui prennent pour devise les vers de Paul Verlaine: “Car nous voulons la nuance encore, / Pas la couleur, rien que la nuance”,’6 thus indicating not only Moréas' debt to Verlaine but also the importance which ‘Art poétique’ was beginning to have for the younger generation.

At the end of 1884 Léon Vanier published Jadis et naguère in an edition of 500 copies printed by Léo Trézenik, presumably on the same hand press he used for Lutèce. This was Verlaine's first collection of verse since his return to Paris, and it contained poems from all stages of his career, as well as ‘Art poétique’; it could therefore serve as an anthology for those who were just now beginning to read his poetry. In his review for La Revue Contemporaine Sarrazin is distinctly uncharitable; while granting ‘l'adorable et musicale suavité’ of some poems he states ‘… peut-être l'oeuvre entière de M. Verlaine relèverait-elle plus de la psychologe que de l'esthétique. … Pour le moment’ nous nous contenterons de recommander à ceux qui se croient obligés d'aimer qu'on dépasse les limites permises de l’énervement et de la déliquescence de la pensée certaines pièces à cet égard très réussies, dans Jadis et naguère, et de vrais modèles du genre: ‘Sonnet boîteux’, ‘A Albert Mérat’, ‘Langueur’, ‘Madrigal’, etc.’7 It is significant that Sarrazin devotes most of his remarks to the decadence of Verlaine's poems.

What distinguishes the year 1885 from the preceding one is a growing awareness, both in little magazines and in the grande presse, of the existence of a decadent school of poetry, with Verlaine and Mallarmé at its head. Thus in an article by Paul Grandet in Le Cri du Peuple (quoted in Lutèce) we notice the matter-of-fact way in which Grandet describes Verlaine as the leader of the new poetry:

De la poésie! mais cela n'est pas de la poésie, s’écrieront ceux pour qui M. Paul Verlaine est un grand homme et aux yeux desquels M. Laurent Tailhade (???!) est assez près d’égaler Victor Hugo. Sans doute, ce n'est pas de la poésie telle qu'ils la comprennent; assemblage de mots sans signification précise; petit jeu de patience à l'usage des fils de famille; idées: néant; rimes riches. …8

Writing in Les Débats, Paul Bourget observes that French literature is becoming increasingly like that of northern Europe, and that the place to look for the works of promising new poets is in the newspapers and magazines where they publish. Neither realism, nor pictorial verse, nor even Victor Hugo influence these young writers any longer; the only modern writer whom they revere as a master is Baudelaire, and then it is not the etcher of Tableaux parisiens but the mystic poet whom they esteem. He goes on to describe the influence of Verlaine:

De tous les poètes de talent qui firent partie du groupe du Parnasse, un seul paraît avoir fait école parmi cette jeunesse, M. Paul Verlaine. Cet écrivain étrange, et dont le grand public ignore jusqu'au nom, a essayé de réproduire avec ses vers les naunces qui font le domaine propre de la musique, tout l'indéterminé de la sensation et du sentiment. Parfois il a échoué dans cette tentative presque impossible, parfois il a réussi à composer des poèmes d'une originalité délicieuse, comme celui-ci tiré de ses Fêtes galantes, et qui fait tenir en deux strophes tout un infini de rêveries: [quotes ‘Le Faune’, p. 115].

Inégal et heurté, parfois exquis et parfois insaisissable, M. Paul Verlaine a une popularité de cénacle qui est un des signes les plus particuliers de cette époque. Il est aimé les par mêmes jeunes gens qui, du premier jour se sont reconnus dans les romans traduits de ce douleureux Dostoïewski! … de ces jeunes gens qui se passionnent pour la peinture de M. Gustave Moreau, pour les dessins de M. Odilon Redon, pour tout ce qui est suggestion, demiteinte, recherche de l'au-delà, clair-obscur d’âme. Après la débauche de réalisme à laquelle se sont livrés les écrivains de 1870, voici venir l'inévitable réaction; après l'idolâtrie de la vie, le culte du rêve. A Rebours, ce roman de M. Huysmans, où se trouvaient analysées les sensations d'un homme uniquement épris d'artifice, n'est pas loin d’être un livre de stricte exactitude …9

Bourget states Verlaine's ascendancy over younger writers in stronger terms than ‘Jean Mario’ did two years previously; for Bourget, Verlaine has ‘fait école parmi cette jeunesse’ and he enjoys ‘une popularité de cénacle’. While heretofore decadence was seen as characterising a few obscure but worthy authors, for Bourget, as for subsequent observers, it is a widespread style among the young generation. Finally Bourget describes decadence not as a curious literary style but in aesthetic terms: dark introspection, Dostoievskian intricacy, and highly imaginative paintings. Although Bourget acknowledges the public's ignorance of Verlaine, he gives the impression of Verlaine presiding over substantial numbers of literate youth, a youth imbued with a coherent esthétique. The picture is not yet that of a school of poets, but it is closer to it than previous treatments of Verlaine as an unjustly neglected author only now beginning to receive his due.

Beside an edited version of Bourget's article in the 19–26 April issue of Lutèce appeared Trézenik's regular ‘Chronique lutécienne’ column, devoted to ‘Les Décadents de l'allitérature’: ‘Ils ont longtemps porté les cheveux longs “à la Musset”. Aujourd'hui les ciseaux de la décadence ont passé par là. Ils s'enorgueillissent d'une tête rase et se vantent d'un menton glabre “à la Baudelaire”.’10 After indicating Verlaine's influence on the decadents, he predicts that they will go on to new excesses: already Verlaine is insufficiently obscure, and the day is not far off when Mallarmé will be too clear and Poictevin too bourgeois. Trézenik's article is a practical, facetious counterpart of Bourget's; with the good-humoured mockery which was his trademark, he shows what decadent literature will be like when Bourget's aesthetics have been put into practice by the minor writers who, by and large, composed the decadent movement.

The publication in Lutèce of two of Jules Laforgue's Complaintes in March (8–15 March) and in June the first instalment of the second series of Verlaine's ‘Poètes maudits’, on Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (7–14 June), was illustrative of a new tone. Laforgue, who was to die prematurely of tuberculosis after composing a few slim volumes of ironic, pungently moribund verse, was an epitome of decadence; thanks to T. S. Eliot's and Ezra Pound's adoption in English of his techniques, he is also a principal link between decadence and contemporary poetry. When we see four of Verlaine's ‘Limbes’ literally beside Laforgue's ‘Complainte de mon Sacré-Coeur’, as we do in the issue of 19–26 July 1885, we can appreciate how much poetic sensibility had changed in less than three years.

During the spring of 1885 Lutèce published facetious comments under the rubric ‘Lettre d'un bourgeois’, which purported to show the reactions of the typical conservative bourgeois to the new poetry, although, in a double-edged sort of way, the letters also indicated weakness of decadent verse. With reference to Mallarmé's ‘Prose pour des Esseintes’, recently published in La Revue Indépendante, one such letter complains that the writer is sick of ‘Des Esseintisme’ and its quest for the unusual at any cost (1–8 March 1885), and another observes, ‘Et bien, en vérité, toute cette école actuelle, tous ces bons petits jeunes qui ne font qu’éclore à la littérature, sont des—oh! je vous en prie, M. Mostrailles, accordez-moi d'imprimer ce mot, qui rend si bien ma pensée—sont des emmerdeurs.’11 The same writer protests that the decadents' philosophical pessimism is a German import unworthy of young Frenchmen.

The outstanding event of 1885, which brought the various confused notions of the new poetry into sharp focus, was the publication in May and June of Les Déliquescences of Adoré Floupette.12 This was simply a collection of silly poems parodying the decadent manner, but even parody illustrated the decadent style, and, as with A Rebours the previous year, the furor attracted the attention of the general public and of the grande presse. Of course, it also brought fame to Etienne Arsenal and Bleucoton, as Mallarmé and Verlaine were dubbed in the book.

Like several other documents the importance of which in the history of decadence outweighs their intrinsic literary worth, Les Déliquescences appeared first in Lutèce. On 1–8 February there were two poems, obvious parodies of Mallarmé's style, over the signature of Etienne Arsenal: ‘Le Petunia sauveur’ and ‘Cantique avant de se coucher’. The issue of 19–26 published under the title of ‘Les Déliquescences’ three ‘Fragments d'une symphonie en vert mineur’: ‘Andante’, ‘Scherzo’, and ‘Pizzicati’. The issue of 3–10 May carried four more poems: ‘Platonisme’, ‘Pour être conspué’, ‘Madrigal’, and ‘Rhythme claudicant”. On 2 May these poems, and ten more, were published in a small brochure on luxury paper, one of Vanier's limited editions for bibliophiles.13 In keeping with the parody, the title page gave ‘Lion Vanné’ as the publisher and Byzantium as the place of publication. This edition was so promptly bought up that a second one of 1,500 copies, augmented with a preface by Marius Tapora, pharmacist second-class, was published the following month. (The preface appeared in Lutèce for 14–12 June.) Even this edition was sold out in a fortnight, and copies soon became collector's items. ‘Adoré Floupette’ was the pseudonym of two Lutece contributors, Henri Beauclair and Gabriel Vicaire, both very minor poets who continued to publish conventional verse long after the Déliquescences affair. Ironically, the poems of Les Déliquescences are their best-known work, and, just as ironically, what began as another joke for the amusement of staff and readers mushroomed into the publication which brought more notoriety to the decadents than their serious literary efforts.

The ‘Préface’ describes the life of Adoré Floupette, his literary evolution from romantic to decadent, and how Tapora finds him in Paris. The two men go to a café, the Panier fleuri, where a decadent meeting is taking place, and where Floupette gets wonderfully drunk. In the course of the evening Bleucoton-Verlaine is positively identified by an allusion to one of his poems. The next day Floupette and Tapora visit Floupette's mentor, M. Poulard des Roses; Floupette recites Mallarmé's ‘La Mort de la pénultième’, and Tapora, too, decides to become a decadent. With much effort and goodwill he succeeds in understanding some of the decadent poets, but not all: if Bleucoton is comprehensible, Arsenal continues to elude him.

After the introduction, or ‘Liminaire’, which continues the satirical tone of the ‘Préface’, there follow the eighteen poems, some of them nonsense, others parodies of individual styles, and all of them exaggerations of decadent vocabulary and versification: ‘Les Enervées de Jumiège’, ‘Platonisme’, ‘Pour etre conspué’, ‘Suavitas’, ‘Avant d'entrer’, ‘Idylle symbolique’; four poems comprising the movements of ‘Symphonie en vert mineur: variations sur un thème vert pomme’, ‘Madrigal’, ‘Rhythme claudicant’, ‘Pour avoir péché’, ‘Le Sonnet libertin’, ‘Catique avant de se coucher’, ‘Remords’, ‘Bal décadent’, and ‘Décadent’.

The response from the philistine press was so prompt and voluminous that suddenly articles on Verlaine and the new poets were no longer a rarity. We shall, therefore, comment only on a few of the more representative ones. Gabriel Mermeix, writing in Le XIXe Siecle on 17 May, seems, to the merriment of the decadents, to have taken the whole thing seriously. In Gil Blas (‘Le Décadent’, 17 May 1885), Paul Arène merely questions the decadents' originality, pointing out that young poets have always sought novel effects. The Revue Contemporaine describes the decadent school, recognises the Déliquescences as a timely parody, and suggests that the parody hurts the minor followers more than it does the two leaders, Verlaine and Mallarmé.14 Before undertaking to discuss ‘Les Poètes impressionnistes et Adoré Floupette’ the Bibliothèque Universelle et Revue Suisse felt obliged to explain, ‘La langue des vers change si vite en France, à notre époque, qu'il suffit de la délaisser pendant quelques mois pour n'y plus rien comprendre du tout.’15 It then approaches Les Déliquescences by way of Banville, Maurice Vaucaire (Arc-en-ciel, Lemerre 1885, in verse; prolific author of comedies and novels), and Mallarmé, after whom ‘il n'y a plus qu’à tirer l’échelle’ (p. 389). Sutter Laumann (‘Les Déliquescences’, La Justice 19 July 1885) ridicules the Déliquescences, and he seems to have originated the theory that decadent poetry could be composed simply by choosing words at random, in a dictionary or a hat, and arranging them according to the number of syllables. In Le Figaro (22 September 1885) Labruyère draws a humorous portrait of the typical decadent. Paul Armon, after some delay, discusses ‘Les Poètes maudits’, or decadents, in La France Libre for 3 October 1885.

In June appeared two articles which addressed themselves to the general question of philosophical pessimism among the youth of the country, rather than specifically to Les Déliquescences. Both seek to determine the causes and to describe the effects of the mood which prevailed among the young generation.

In La Revue Bleue for 6 June 1885 Dionys Ordinaire treats the question in a light, sarcastic, and mocking tone; while correctly identifying the phenomenon of pessimism, he refuses to take it seriously: ‘Il souffle d'Allemagne, depuis quelques années, sur notre jeunesse française, un vent aigre et malsain qui nous apporte une épidémie nouvelle, inconnue à notre vieille Gaule: celle du pessimisme.’16 He proceeds to describe, always in bantering terms, the effects of this malady and to discuss its Teutonic origin. The disease is all the more redoubtable in that the French, outranciers by nature, tend to overdo new ideas. Thus Teutonic pessimism has taken root in France, even among young men who have not read the German philosophers. These youths reject all the gifts of Mother Nature and long for death and even for complete annihilation of being. Such is the case of a few young writers who act like wits and wish to shock the bourgeoisie. Every school has its antecedents, and those of the pessimists are ‘… les moroses comme Stendhal, comme Mérimée, comme Flaubert, l’écrivain le plus surfait de notre siécle’ (p. 707), and the ‘… poètes désespérés: Musset, le chantre de l'hystérisme; Baudelaire, l'esprit le plus gâté, le plus méchamment raffiné de notre temps, un solide écrivain toutefois; Richepin, l'auteur des Blasphèmes’ (p. 708). Their psychologist is Bourget, and although Ordinaire dislikes him, he correctly describes his style: ‘Ce style est métaphorique, plaqué de couleurs, précieux jusqu’à l'obscurité, plein de soleils couchants et de clairs de lune, imité, assez habilement d'ailleurs, de Taine, de Flaubert, des Goncourt, de ceux qu'on appelle coloristes parce qu'ils confondent la plume et le pinceau’ (p. 708). Ordinaire compares Bourget's L'Irréparable to Les Liaisons dangereuses for its crass immorality, a comparison which he feels Bourget and his followers would welcome, since they are the decadents (and here is Ordinaire's first use of the term) of their century, as Crébillon fils and Laclos were of theirs. Expanding on this notion, he states:

Ce mot de décadent sonne dans les pages de M. Bourget avec une fanfare si éclatante qu'il a piqué ma curiosité. Je me suis informé, et c'est ainsi que j'ai appris, non sans stupeur, que la maladie du pessimisme n'a pas atteint seulement quelques excentriques, mais qu'elle fait rage et infecte une notable partie de notre jeunesse.

[p. 709]

Ordinaire ridicules the decadents for their unwarranted despair and contrasts them with the generous youth of previous times. As for himself, he sees cause only for optimism in the challenges that lie ahead, concluding:

Pour moi, quand tous les autres motifs d'exister me manqueraient, quand je me sentirais menacé de choir en désespérance, je regarderais, si j’étais jeune comme vous, du côté de l'Allemagne, par la trouée des Vosges, et ce n'est pas Shopenhauer [sic] que je verrais.

[p. 710]

(This patriotic note is less gratuitous than might be supposed: it was common to trace the pessimism of the younger generation to the defeat of 1870 and profess astonishment that such a Teutonic philosophy should have taken root in France. Fifteen and seventeen years after the defeat, anti-Prussian sentiment was again rising. Articles and cartoons in Le Chat Noir were so virulently anti-Prussian that French authorities seized the 13 January 1883 issue at the request of the German ambassador.)

The following week the same magazine published an article by the distinguished critic, Jules Lemaitre: ‘La Jeunesse sous le Second Empire et sous la Troisième République’. A propos of a new edition of Poésies de Jacques Richard, a minor poet who flaunted his hostility to the Second Empire, Lemaitre dwells at length on the enthusiasm and generosity of the generation which was finishing its studies around 1860. At the same time, however, another literature was growing up, ‘… celle de la seconde moitié du siècle, une littérature d'observation morose et de recherche plastique … qui est devenue l'expression la plus exacte de notre tristesse et de notre détraquement. Flaubert écrivait son premier roman et Taine ses premiers livres de critique. Les Goncourt suivaient. …’17 In contrast to that enthusiastic generation, today's youth is profoundly pessimistic, at least that portion of it which is engaged in creative writing. Perhaps this pessimism is justifiable, considering both the defeat of 1870 and recent political events: both the empire and the republic have failed them. Lemaitre now examines the literary expression of this pessimism, developing a point he first made in his article on J.-K. Huysmans a few months before: as literature shifts its emphasis from content to style it inevitably becomes sordid and amoral. His thesis is of real interest to us, because he does go to the heart of the decadent aesthetic:

Et à mesure que, par une philosophie superbe et courte, les romanciers s'enfermaient dans la réalité fatale et brutale, ils attribuaient au style plus d'importance qu'on n'avait jamais fait. D'ordinaire, ce qui intéresse dans l'oeuvre d'art, c'est à la fois l'object exprimé et l'expression de cet object; mais, quand l'objet est vil, on est bien sûr que ce qu'on aime dans l'oeuvre d'art, c'est l'art tout seul. Voilà pourquoi le ‘naturalisme,’ loin d’être, comme quelques-uns le croient, un art grossier, est un art aristocratique, un art de mandarins égoistes, le comble de l'art. Et l'on voit aussi comment le naturalisme, et la poésie parnassienne, et l'impressionnisme s'appellent et s'engendrent. Quand on renonce à ce qui avait été presque le tout de la littérature classique et de la littérature romanesque, à la peinture de la vie morale et à l'idéalisation de l'homme, que reste-t-il que la sensation, l'impression pittoresque et sensuelle? L'art nouveau se réduit peut-être à cette recherche inventive de la sensation rare. Mais cette recherche implique ou amène une indifférence absolue à l’égard de tout, morale, raison, science. De plus, la sensation toute seule est un abîme de tristesse; le désir qui l'appelle et qu’à son tour elle provoque est de sa nature inassouvissable.

[pp. 742–3]

The decadents themselves would have agreed with his characterisation of them: ‘Ils sont ravis de se sentir décadents; ils se complaisent dans leur névrose et savourent leur déliquescence; et leur âme jouit profondément d’être pareille à un cadavre aux nuances changeantes et très fines qui se vide lentement’ (p. 743). In conclusion he asks whether, in the final analysis, pessimism is an organic sickness of society or simply a literary style, and he replies that only time will tell.

Finally we come to Paul Bourde's article in Le Temps for 6 August 1885, in which he surveys the decadent phenomenon with stinging sarcasm:

D'après les oeuvres de l’école, et Floupette nous venant en aide, voici comment nous nous représentons le parfait décadent. Le trait caractéristique de sa physionomie morale est une aversion déclarée pour la foule considérée comme souverainement stupide et plate. Le poète s'isole pour chercher le précieux, le rare, l'exquis, Sitôt qu'un sentiment est à la veille d’être partagé par un certain nombre de ses semblables, il s'empresse de s'en défaire, à la façon des jolies femmes qui abandonnent une toilette dès qu'on la copie.

He mentions the decadents' Parnassian origins, he calls Verlaine and Mallarmé the two columns of the school, and he lists Moréas, Laurent Tailhade, Charles Vignier, and Charles Morice as members. He discusses their aversion to the natural, their religious attitudes, metric innovations, vocabulary, use of correspondances and analogy, and so on. In conclusion Bourde points out that decadence offers nothing new, since it is just a continuation and exaggeration of ideas already put forth by the Jeunes-France of Romanticism: ‘Le romantisme épuisé a donné cette dernière petite fleur, une fleur de fin de saison, maladive et bizarre. C'est sûrement une décadence, mais seulement celle d'une école qui se meurt.’

Jean Moréas' rebuttal in Le XIXe Siècle for II August was ‘Les Décadents', the first of his manifestoes defining the successive goals of current poetry.18 He begins by quoting Vigny to the effect that ‘les esprits paresseux et routiniers’ find anything new ridiculous and barbarous, and he counters with his own sarcasm Bourde's attacks on the personal life of the decadents. He adduces the examples of Baudelaire and Poe to justify the decadent cult of art for art's sake and their use of symbolism and suggestion, Littré in defence of their neologisms. He concludes with another quotation from Vigny, urging the poet to remain well ahead of his public.

To the glee of the decadents, Bourde's name lent itself to a pun, since bourde in French means lie, ‘poor excuse; frivolous tale’. L.-G. Mostrailles (Léo Trézenik) in Lutèce replies in an article entitled ‘Bourde's bourdes’.19 using the English possessive to emphasise the double meaning. With delightful wit Trézenik merely contests the passage in which Bourde ‘… accuse la rédaction de Lutèce … de se “pâmer” sur les élucubrations de M. Mallarmé’, citing several articles in Lutèce which had criticised Mallarmé's obscurity, and he demands a retraction from the editor of Le Temps; Bourde's reply was to quote Verlaine's laudatory remarks on Mallarmé in his ‘Poètes maudits’ article.20

In his regular ‘Chronique lutécienne’ Trézenik congratulates himself on having obtained from the grande presse more publicity than it would ever have deigned to bestow on a more serious literary effort, confesses that the whole thing was not a parody but a joke made up by Beauclair and Vicaire, and accuses the whole press, particularly Mermeix and Bourde, of having fallen for it. Finally, he explains that décadent is a misnomer:

Il n'y a pas plus décadence aujourd'hui qu'il n'y eut décadence alors qu’à l'Art classique s'essaya à succéder le romantisme, alors qu'Hugo détrona Ponsard, alors qu'on acclama, en 1830, les Burgraves [sic] au détriment de Lucrèce. Il y a une simple transformation. Il y a tendance de la jeune littérature à faire neuf, et pour cela à faire autre. Les étiquettes ne signifient si bien rien que les prétendus décadents ont déjà été affublés de l’épithète de néoromantiques, parce que ‘romantisme,’ au fond, au temps de sa gloire et de son audace, ne voulait que dire changement. Et c'est encore faire du romantisme, aujourd'hui, mais du néo-romantisme que de s'essayer à sortir, littérairement, de la routine et de l'ornière.21

In basing their appeal on the examples of established writers of the past and on the naturalness of constant, evolutionary change in literature, Moréas and Trézenik display good common sense and reduce the polemic to its just proportions; indeed, most decadent criticism is more sensible and down-to-earth than either the attacks of conservative critics or the practices of decadent writing which stirred up controversy in the first place!

The last article we shall consider was published outside France. From May to November Vittorio Pica published a series of articles in La Gazzetta Letteraria of Turin, entitled ‘I moderni bizantini’—Francis Poictevin, Huysmans, and Verlaine.22 The first article, on Poictevin, observes the flowering in France of opere bizantine, whose roots are to be found in the strange and pessimistic works of Edgar Poe and of Arthur Schopenhauer, and which, too refined for the general public, are intended for ‘un pubblico ristretto di artisti et di iniziati, capaci d'intenderne et gustarne le squisite bellezze’ (2 May 1885, p. 137). The essay on Huysmans is devoted largely to A Rebours and its analysis of Des Esseintes' literary and ecclesiastical tastes. The Verlaine article is remarkable: consisting of twenty newspaper-size columns, it made an unusually complete and intelligent study of his verse. A résumé would simply repeat what is now generally known, but we should mention Pica's detailed history of the Parnasse, his mention of Amour and Les Poetes maudits, and his references to the articles of ‘Jean Mario’ and Desprez. Pica emphasises decadence in Verlaine's poetry (‘Langueur’ is quoted in its entirety) and discusses the liberating influence of his metrics on French versification. Three years later Félix Fénéon translated the article for La Cravache.23 Even in France Pica's insights would have been precocious for the period; his familiarity with current French literature must have been due to his contacts with Paris, for in the spring of 1885 he was foreign correspondent for La Revue Contemporaine. Otherwise, ‘I moderni bizantini’ anticipates by five years or more the spread of Verlaine's fame and that of decadence beyond the borders of France and Belgium.

Léo Trézenik came closer to the truth than anyone else when he observed that their joke had obtained for the decadents more publicity from large-circulation periodicals than their serious writing ever had. The decadents did not childishly seek publicity for its own sake; rather, reviewers in the grande presse had consistently overlooked their verse, so that when the clamour surrounding. A Rebours and Les Déliquescences brought their names and discussions of their verse—even hostile ones!—before the literate public, they made the most of the opportunity. Obviously people can only buy books that they have heard about, and now they were hearing about Verlaine, Mallarmé, Moréas, and the others. If the poetry esteemed by des Esseintes and parodied by Beauclair and Vicaire had really been inconsequential or a hoax, it would have gone no further; but because some poetry of real worth did exist behind the façade parodied by Les Déliquescences and ridiculed by a Bourde, sensitive readers who had first looked at it out of curiosity came to appreciate it for its real value. In this way, the nonsense and buffoonery of Les Déliquescences served a worthy purpose.

Les Déliquescences did not create a school of poetry where none had existed before, any more than Les Poètes maudits transformed minor poetasters into major poets; what the parody did achieve was to indicate the existence of a group of poets with common ideals and to name specific individuals among them. In their café discussions and social gatherings the decadents were probably more aware of comprising a ‘school’ than they had been two or three years previously. Lethève states that the press campaign against Les Déliquescences obliged the poets to group together and to define their goals.24 Perhaps the fact that Jean Moréas was moved to compose his first manifesto by press treatments of Les Déliquescences, and not by those of A Rebours the previous spring, indicates that their sense of community had increased during the intervening year.

As for Verlaine, his position after Les Déliquescences can be appreciated in terms of his publications. Although he would never succeed in living from his pen, by the end of 1885 his poems were appearing frequently in magazines, and, what is more, henceforth Vanier would publish his earlier works, as well as his current ones, at his own expense, not Verlaine's! In 1886 Fêtes galantes was reissued in an edition of 600 copies, in 1887 Romances sans paroles; the new volumes Amour (1888, 651 copies) and Parallèlement (1889, 600 copies) were followed in 1889 by a second edition of Sagesse in 1,100 copies; in 1891 Vanier brought out the first Choix de poésies in an edition of 1,500 copies. During the 1890's Verlain published at least one new volume of verse each year, in addition to placing poems in magazines.


  1. Oeuvres poétiques complètes, Y.-G. Le Dantec and Jacques Borel, eds. (Gallimard, 1962), p. 75. Further references to poems by Verlaine will be identified in the text by title and page number in this edition.

  2. For the text of the poem and additional information on Guy-Valvor, see our article ‘Paul Verlaine and Guy-Valvor’, Romance Notes, XI, 1 (autumn, 1969), 41–5.

  3. III (1883–84), 435–40.

  4. Jean-Charles Laurent, ‘Les Fleurs blêmes’, 28 September–5 October 1884. Laurent was actually Louis Marsolleau, a contributor to Le Chat Noir. See Noël Richard, A L'Aube du symbolisme (Nizet, 1961), pp. 171–2.

  5. ‘Poésie: Les Syrtes’, I, 2 (25 February 1885), 290.

  6. ‘Chronique de l'art et du livre: les nouveaux-nés’, I, 4 (February 1885), 169–70.

  7. ‘Poésie: Jadis et naguère’, I, 1 (25 January 1885), 131–2.

  8. ‘Paul Verlaine et J.-B. Clément’, 15–22 March 1885.

  9. Quoted in ‘La Poésie contemporaine’, Lutèce, 19–26 April 1885.

  10. Ibid.

  11. 5–12 July 1885. See also ‘Lettre d'un bourgeois’ in the issue of 10–17 May.

  12. Since few copies of the Déliquescences are available, it is useful to note where, besides Lutèce, extracts can be found. André Barre, Le Symbolisme (Jouve, 1912), gives the ‘Liminaire’ (pp. 149–50), followed by a description of all eighteen poems, with a few brief quotations (pp. 150–54). Richard, A l'Aube du symbolisme, quotes the ‘Préface’ in toto (pp. 281–315). G. L. van Roosbroeck, The Legend of the Decadents (New York: Columbia University Press, 1927), gives the complete texts of ‘Les Décadents’, ‘Platonisme’, ‘Scherzo’, and ‘Remords’, as well as brief passages from other poems. Adolphe Van Bever and Paul Léautaud, Poétes d'aujourd'hui (Mercure de France, 1947), III, pp. 396–9, give the texts of ‘Les Enervés de Jumiège’, ‘Platonisme’, ‘Suavitas’, and ‘Idylle symbolique’. Finally, Albert Schinz, Nineteenth Century French Readings (New York: Holt, 1939), II, pp. 777–9, gives the texts of ‘Cantique avant de se coucher’, ‘Décadents’, and ‘Scherzo’.

  13. Here are the two original editions of Les Déliquescences: (a) 2 May 1885, 110 copies. This contains only the ‘Liminaire’ and the eighteen poems, and was printed by Trézenik on the press of Lutèce. Ten copies only carried the names of Vicaire and Beauclair on the cover. (b) 20 June, 1,500 copies. ‘La Vie d'Adoré Floupette’ by Marius Tapora is found on pages v-xlvii, ‘Liminaire’ and ‘Déliquescences’ occupy pages 49–80. This edition is incorrectly listed in Journal de la librairie (1885, second series, p. 492) as having appeared on 1 August; the first edition is not listed at all. In this edition Léon Vanier is correctly identified in the achevé d'imprimer, although elsewhere (i.e. on the title and first pages) he is still called Lion Vanné.

    There have been two reprints: (c) Crès edition, 15 May 1911, 635 copies. No. 1 of the collection ‘Les Maîtres du livre’, (d) Jonquières edition, 20 April 1923, 825 copies. See Richard, A L'Aube du symbolisme, pp. 174, 188 and 281.

  14. ‘Poésie: Les Déliquescences’, II, 2 (25 June 1885), 266–7.

  15. ‘Chronique parisienne’: ‘Les Poètes impressionnistes et Adoré Floupette’, XXVII, 80 (August 1885), 388.

  16. ‘La Jeune Génération’, Revue Politique et Littéraire (Revue Bleue), XXXV, 23 (6 June 1885), 706. Further references to this article will be given in the text by page number.

  17. Ibid., XXXV, 24 (13 June 1885), 740. Further references to this article will be given in the text by page number.

  18. Also in Les Premières Armes du symbolisme (Vanier, 1889), pp. 25–30.

  19. Lutèce, 16–23 August 1885.

  20. Bourde's confusion is understandable. Even today Guy Michaud lists Lutèce for November 1883 as the first publication of ‘Don du poème’ and ‘Sainte’, without indicating that they appeared as quotations in Verlaine's ‘Poètes maudits’ article (Mallarmé, Hâtier-Boivin, 1953, p. 187). These were, as a matter of fact, the only poems of Mallarmé to appear in Lutèce. Trézenik's hostility to Mallarmé's verse seems all the more incongruous in view of his efforts to promote Verlaine's, Corbière's, and Laforgue's.

  21. 16–23 August 1885.

  22. Gazzetta Letteraria, Artistica e Scientifica, IX, 18, 30, 46, 47, 48 (2 May, 25 July, 14, 21 and 28 November 1885), 137–9, 233–5, 361–2, 369–71, 378–9.

  23. La Cravache Parisienne, 3 November 1888. See Jacques Lethève, Impressionnistes et symbolistes devant la presse (Colin, 1959), p. 282, n. 38.

  24. See ibid., p. 179.

Further Reading

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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 Scripting in Verlaine's Hombres.” Articulations of Difference: Gender Studies and Writing in French, edited by Dominique D. Fisher and Lawrence R. Schehr, pp. 119–35. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Examines Verlaine's construction of an erotic consciousness in his poetry.

Porter, Laurence M. “Meaning in Music: Debussy and Fauré as Interpreters of Verlaine.” Topic: A Journal of the Liberal Arts 35 (Fall 1981): 26–37.

Examines Verlaine's poetry and themes as interpreted in the music of Claude Debussy and Gustave Fauré.

Schmidt, Paul. “Visions of Violence: Rimbaud and Verlaine.” Homosexualities and French Literature: Cultural Contexts/Critical Texts, edited by George Stambolian and Elaine Marks, pp. 228–42. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1979.

Discusses the poetic dialogue between Verlaine and his lover, the poet Arthur Rimbaud, created by the fetishistic use of certain words and phrases in their poetry.

Stone, Alan. “Introduction.” Royal Tastes: Erotic Writings, by Paul Verlaine, pp. vii-xiv. New York: Harmony Books, 1984.

Explains the publication history of Verlaine's erotic writings.

Additional coverage of Verlaine's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; and Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 2 and 51.

Russell S. King (essay date 1975)

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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 diverse technical features including versification, uneven line-length, enjambement and sound patterns. Valuable though these analyses are to an understanding of Verlaine's poetic technique, they only incidentally isolate and explain certain linguistic choices which characterize Verlaine's impressionistic poetry. Jean-Pierre Richard has described Verlaine's poetry as that of “le pur sentir.”2 Though most critics readily agree, they fail to amplify this description by showing how sense and sensation in some measure control linguistic choices and thereby become significant structures within the language of the poem.

There is a close relationship between the nature of the senses and the function of the verb within the sentence. Despite the “names” of the five senses being nouns—sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch in English and vue, ouïe, odorat, goût and toucher in French—they are in fact abstract, nominalized forms of their equivalent verbs. Sensory perception remains an abstract concept until it is actualized through the verb, which links the “je” or person experiencing the sensation and the object which provokes it. Just as the verb links subject and object within the sentence, so do the senses link the person and the world:

I smell the water.

This schema is useful too for demonstrating the shifting focus of the different poetic trends in nineteenth-century French poetry:

Romantic “je-moi” nouns and adjectives
Parnassian the object nouns and adjectives
Verlaine senses verbs and adverbs.

The object of this present essay is to examine the nature and stylistic implications of the centrality of the verb in Verlaine's poetry. Particular reference will be made to the poem, “Le piano que baise une main frêle,” in the “Ariettes Oubliées” of Romances sans paroles, Verlaine's most characteristic and, probably, most original collection of poems, though frequent mention will be made of other characteristic poems from the same collection, Poèmes saturniens and Sagesse.

Le piano que baise une main frêle
Luit dans le soir rose et gris vaguement,
Tandis qu'avec un très léger bruit d'aile
Un air bien vieux, bien faible et bien charmant
Rôde discret, épeuré quasiment,
Par le boudoir, longtemps parfumé d'Elle.
Qu'est-ce que c'est que ce berceau soudain
Qui lentement dorlote mon pauvre être?
Que voudrais-tu de moi, doux chant badin?
Qu'as-tu voulu, fin refrain incertain
Qui vas tantôt mourir vers la fenêtre
Ouverte un peu sur le petit jardin?

The importance of the verb lies not only in the choices and its frequency, but also, indirectly, in the consistent erosion of the two other areas of focus, the person and the world. Therefore the poem can be broken down in this way:

mon pauvre être baise le piano
moi luit une main
rôde le soir
épeuré un bruit
parfumé un air
dorlote le boudoir
voudrais Elle
as voulu ce berceau
vas mourir chant
ouverte refrain
la fenêtre
le jardin.

If the reader accepts, in a general manner, currently accepted criteria for isolating the stylistic fact, he soon discovers that in Verlaine's poetry the “deviations from the norm,” the elements which arrest the reader's attention, for the most part concern choices and forms of verbs. Certainly the most arresting linguistic features in “Le piano que baise” are precisely the choices of verbs:

Le piano que baise une main …
un air … rôde …
par le boudoir …
un air … épeuré
quasiment …
ce berceau … qui lentement dorlote
mon pauvre être.
refrain incertain qui vas tantôt mourir …

Part of the “surprise” of these verbs lies in their metaphoric value as personification. The human presence is therefore introduced not directly through nouns and pronouns as much as through sensations and feeling implied by the verbs. It is precisely these verbal choices which underline the sense experience: touch in the “hand kissing the piano,” sight in the “piano shining vaguely,” sound in the “tune prowling through the boudoir,” and smell in the “boudoir for long perfumed by Her.”

It would appear that the importance of the verb is further enhanced by the unusual (in poetry) frequency of adverbs:

luit vaguement
rôde discret
épeuré quasiment
longtemps parfumé
lentement dorlote
tantôt mourir
ouverte un peu

In one way these adverbs serve a similar function to the adjectives like vague, pâle and incertain in contributing to the imprecision and suggestiveness of the linguistic reference. But also they extend the size and importance of the verbal unit, as opposed to the nominal and phrasal elements of the poem. Moreover the verb, along with certain adverbs of time, permits the mingling of tenses, and therefore a blurring of past, present and future. In this poem there is a mingling or interplay among all three:

un air bien vieux baise que voudrais-tu
longtemps parfumé d'Elle luit qui vas tantôt mourir.
Qu'as-tu voulu rôde

This imprecision in time, the merging of present sensation with hazy memory of the past does not however detract from the significance of the verbs which communicate these notions, but further underlines their central function in Verlaine's impressionistic style.

Verlaine's preference for verbs as the central medium for conveying feeling and sensation is frequently illustrated by arresting choices and forms, for example, the pun in

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville,

or displacement and choice in

Dans l'herbe noire
Les Kobolds vont.
Le vent profond
Pleure, on veut croire.
Quoi donc se sent?
L'avoine siffle.
Un buisson gifle
L'oeil au passant.


Elsewhere, verbs tend to be reflexive or intransitive:

Le son du cor s'affige
vers les bois …
La bise se rue à travers …
Mon coeur qui s’écoeure …
Où se dorlote un paysage lent.
La cloche … doucement tinte.

The effect of these reflexive and intransitive forms is to make the verb less like a linking verb between two other more important units (subject and object of the sentence or clause) and to make it the principal point of focus.

Much of the poet's skill is expended on the use of verbal forms. In addition to unusual choices and reflexives, he had some predilection for unusual past participial forms:

automne attiédi
une âme en allée
au vent crispé
une aube affaiblie
ville gothique éteinte

Such participles serve, like adjectives and adverbs, to modify and obscure. But because of their strange form and choice they divert attention in some measure from the noun to which they are attached to themselves. They signify the feeling or sensation which is the poet's principal concern: not the autumn itself but the feeling of warmth, not the dawn but its pale light. It would appear then that there is a fusion of what may well have been the poet's skill in manipulating verbs effectively and expressively, and the function of the verb as the significant conveyor of feeling and sensation.


In “Le piano que baise” the “subject” is referred to explicitly on only two occasions—mon pauvre être and moi—and cannot possibly be considered the central point of focus. No information is provided as to his nature or identity, nor is he present in the first two tercets, although it is clearly he who sees and hears the piano in the pale evening light.

The “dissolution” and concealment of the poet's identity and presence are illustrated in two characteristic ways in this poem. The “je-moi,” when it does occur, is expressed in an oblique case, rather than in the more active nominative case. J.-P. Richard emphasizes the poet's passivity and examines the tension between the person “qui accueille la sensation” and the thing “qui la produit.” Despite the number of poems which begin with the nominative “je,” like Je devine, à travers un murmure and J'ai peur d'un baiser, the usual pattern is to suggest a landscape, to introduce sound, and this reinforcement of the senses of sight and hearing induces a state of reverie in which there is a fusion of the external world and interior feeling and sensation. The poet does not appear to perceive actively, but receives passively through the senses. He is like the autumn leaf in “Chanson d'automne.” This pattern of sight-sound-reverie is illustrated in “Soleils couchants”:

Une aube affaiblie
Verse par les champs
La mélancolie
Des soleils couchants.
La mélancolie
Berce de doux chants
Mon coeur qui s'oublie.

Here, as in “Le piano que baise,” where the poet uses mon pauvre être instead of me, mon coeur is used to achieve a kind of expressive but metonymic distancing, which further diminishes the presence of the person. In these two poems the reader is not aware of an active personality merely using a landscape as a means of conveying personal melancholy; rather, a special landscape subsumes a passive, almost absent person.

The second device illustrated by “Le piano” in dissolving the clear identity of the subject is the use of questions. The poem concludes with a sequence of three questions:

Qu'est-ce que c'est que ce berceau …?
Que voudrais-tu …?
Qu'as-tu voulu …?

They are rhetorical only in that no answer is provided or expected, but they do not presuppose a particular reply. In this way the poet avoids providing answers of fact and information—though, in “Le piano,” a link between the poet's past and the tune he now hears is obviously implied. Many of Verlaine's most celebrated poems contain, or conclude with, similar non-rhetorical questions:

Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur?
O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits!

(“Il pleure dans mon coeur”)

Qu'as-tu fait, ô toi que voilà
                                                  Pleurant sans cesse,
Dis, qu'as-tu fait, toi que voilà,
                                                  De ta jeunesse?

(“Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit”)

These two examples both imply that there is some past reason for the present state of melancholy. But psychological, explanatory detail is suggested without being elaborated, thereby keeping the focus on the present mood rather than the past cause.

It is precisely in this aspect of causality that Verlaine's poetry differs most from that of his romantic predecessors. Simply by suggesting, often through unanswered questions, that there exists a reason for his present mood, but by refusing to give detail, the poet places the emphasis on effect. Thus, in these two following examples,

Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
                    Et je pleure.

(“Chanson d'automne”)

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi! nulle trahison?
Ce deuil est sans raison.

(“Il pleure dans mon coeur”)

the romantic poet would either have provided a “picture” of the past or would have attempted to fill in some of the facts or experiences from the past contributing to the present. Thus, for the romantic poet, poetry becomes a vehicle for projecting his own identity. A more detailed analysis of past experience and present emotion, with a greater emphasis on causality and psychology, inevitably contributes to a fuller portrayal of the subject's identity. But Verlaine resolutely rejects the romantic pattern and focus. The subject's identity is concealed behind the effect rather than the cause, for, it would seem, causality—which implies logic, intelligence and facts—would provide those precise details which would allow a more “real” recognizable personality to emerge.

Yet another way in which the subject's identity is obscured is through a shift in language registers. “Le piano” reflects this shift less clearly than a poem like “La bise se rue” (in Sagesse): after the description of the landscape, the introduction of “sound,” the language abruptly becomes more familiar and humorous. This is surprising, for it coincides with the first explicit appearance of the subject. One might expect the tone to be more serious, befitting the feeling of despair and hope. In “Le piano” the three questions expressed in a more familiar language with little that is unusual in the lexical choices—with the exception of fin refrain incertain and doux chant badin—introduce a certain verbal playfulness. Humor, unlike irony, always serves to divert attention away from the person.


In “Le piano” the outside world appears to play a more significant part than the “je-moi” of the poet. But Verlaine is not a realist or a Parnassian. Alain Baudot has rightly drawn a distinction between the early “representative” poetry of Verlaine and the later “suggestive” less visible, less tangible world.

Verlaine achieves what he describes as “imprecision” of the contours in his “Art Poétique” through the use of adjectives. Almost all the nouns are qualified, not to provide more precise detail, but to blur the edges and make the object less clear:

une main frêle
le soir rose et gris
un très léger bruit
un air bien vieux, bien faible et bien charmant
fin refrain incertain
le petit jardin.

Many such adjectives occur in the bulk of Verlaine's impressionistic poetry (pâle, blême, blafard, vague, délicat, étrange, inconnu) which serve to erode the outlines and modify the precise contour. In “Le piano” the only two nouns that are not closely qualified by adjectives are le piano at the beginning and vers la fenêtre near the end. But, even here, the piano is “blurred” by the adverb vaguement modifying the verb. Likewise, in the second instance, the eye focuses not on the window itself, but on some less determined area “in the direction of the window.”

There is yet another manner in which the sharp outline is blurred. This relates more to the function of the senses. It has already been suggested that a frequent pattern in Verlaine's poetry is to progress from something seen to something heard, and, with the consequent interaction and fusion of the two senses, to a vague state of reverie and reminiscence. This pattern is seen in “Le piano”: in the first two lines the words (the piano, a hand, shining, and the color of the light) contribute to the picture that is seen. The seen piano then becomes something less tangible, a heard tune: un air bien vieux, a doux chant badin, a fin refrain incertain. Indeed, one of the reasons for the importance of music for the poet seems to be precisely that it is some vague emanation from the real world which comes to “cradle” or “soothe” the poet. Interestingly, the same pattern of sight, sound and reverie is apparent in almost all the most celebrated “musical” poems of Verlaine: “Soleils couchants,” “Il pleure dans mon coeur,” “Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit,” and “La bise se rue à travers.”

It is impossible to determine whether this “dissolution” of the subject and object, of personal identity and representation of the real world, causes, or results from, the enhanced function of the verb in Verlaine's poetic universe. Just as the verb cannot exist without subject and (usually) object, so sensation cannot exist without a person receiving it and a world or object producing it. However, for the verb and sensation to predominate, subject and object, that is, person and world, must be modified, reduced, blurred, and sometimes even suspended. Verlaine's poetic universe is not the romantic vehicle for projecting his own self and identity, nor is it the Parnassian re-creation in words of the precise physical, visible world; rather, it occupies a vague, indeterminate space somewhere between the two. Verlaine's poetry of sensation seeks to recreate, largely through the verb, that territory between the romantic “je” and the Parnassian “chose.”


  1. Octave Nadal, “L'Impressionnisme Verlainien,” Mercure de France (May, 1952), pp. 59–74. Alain Baudot, “Poésie et Musique chez Verlaine,” Etudes Françaises (February, 1968), pp. 31–54. See also Maurice Got, “‘Art Poétique’: Verlaine et la technique impressionniste,” La Table Ronde, CLIX (March, 1961), pp. 128–36.

  2. Jean-Pierre Richard, “Fadeur de Verlaine,” in Poésie et Profondeur (Paris, 1955).

Richard P. Whitmore (essay date 1976)

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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 does contrasts markedly with the traditional personality evolved for his role by the Italian comedy, especially as it had developed in France.

Divergency is a keynote of “Pantomime,” objectified by the clean and separate focus in which each scene is presented. Normally, the members of a commedia troupe improvised in concert. Yet here Cassandre is clearly off in the distance “au fond de l'avenue” (line 4), and the others also seem to execute their turns apart, almost simultaneously, in different sections of the rococo park in which the Fêtes galantes are set.

The disjunction of the scenes is further emphasized by the poem's form. Not only is each three-line stanza a separate, complete sentence, but each also begins by naming its particular focal personage. The full stops of the syntax are reinforced by the rhyme scheme. The first two lines of each verse are bound together with rich feminine rhymes, all the more remarkable for being built twice on proper names—“tandre,” “tendre” (lines 1–2, very rich), “ombine,” “ombine” (lines 7–8, also very rich), and “rise,” “rise” (lines 10–11)—varied once by a pair of sufficient rhymes—“nue,” “nue” (lines 4–5). In contrast, the final lines are masculine and do not rhyme at all with the others of their own stanzas. They rhyme only with the concluding line of the next verse and, even then, are either weak—“ois,” “oix” (lines 9 and 12, no pronounced consonant) or sufficient—“té,” “té” (lines 3 and 6). Each stanza is thus like a short film strip, its frames closely joined within, only to run out suddenly. Each clip is then followed by a different one, internally cohesive, too, but tangentially linked at best with no more than one of the other three.

But these personages are not only detached from one another by the form and the rhyme. They are also divorced from their own traditional, characteristic identities by their actions. The very first line, “Pierrot, qui n'a rien d'un Clitandre,” establishes the tone of paradox which permeates the work. It is startling to hear that Pierrot has no resemblance to the lover Clitandre. True, Pierrot may be awkward and his love unsuccessful, but tender feelings dominate his life too. He and Clitandre are both devoted to something other than their bellies and Pierrot should be the antithesis of a simple glutton.

Yet in “Pantomime” Verlaine has Pierrot downing a stoup of wine, and then cutting into a rich meat pie (lines 2–3). The phrase “sans plus attendre” (line 2), emphasizing the close sequence of these actions, offers a further meaning—that of expecting nothing more, nothing better. Where is the Parisian Pierrot here, especially the Pierrot the whole capital had flocked to see in Deburau's brilliant mimes at the Théâtre des Funambules throughout the 1830's and ’40's? Singularly emaciated in his white costume and make-up, Deburau had defined the figure as a naïf, always seeking what he could not attain, never satisfied with the ready-to-hand or down-to-earth. A Pierrot who is “pratique,” as Verlaine terms his in line 3, is a self-contradiction.

Cassandre, too, is playing a false role. Typically a whining and scolding old miser, he seems here to show unselfish pity, weeping over “son neveu déshérité” (line 6). Most significantly, however, he sheds a “larme méconnue” (line 5), that is, one not recognized at its true worth. While “méconnue” normally indicates unappreciated merit, it may also designate what is overprized. The true value of a Cassandre's tear is nil. What is one nephew more among a skinflint's numerous disinherited kin? A secondary meaning of “méconnue” suggests that the tear may be disavowed, repudiated. Clearly, the actions of these figures cannot unquestioningly be taken at face value.

In the commedia, Harlequin, though often faced with obstacles, is always the wooer. His resourcefulness is used to please his Columbine. But what Verlaine underscores in his Arlequin is egotism, not tenderness or devotion. Here, he is from the first a knave, “ce faquin d'Arlequin” (line 7). He may take Colombine away, but the verb “combine” as used here is part of the familiar language with much the flavor of “pulls off the job” in English. The level of discourse equates Verlaine's Arlequin with a self-serving cozener. Furthermore, his concluding quadruple pirouette (line 9) brings the focus exclusively onto himself. Colombine is at the most a pretext for his celebration of his own skills.

Then what of Colombine? While the first three figures in “Pantomime” are superficial in their emotions, she shows depth. She senses a heart's presence in the breeze and is attentive to unnamed voices in her heart (lines 11–12). She seems to be a trusting ingénue, astonished (“surprise”) at her discovery of deep feeling (line 10). But her naivety and sincerity here contrast with the fuller personality of the commedia figure. There she is often a clever young beauty whose schemes lead men a merry dance. Indeed, Verlaine, in “Colombine,” the next to the last of these Fêtes galantes, evokes her as a “belle enfant / Méchante” (lines 17–18) whose “yeux pervers” (line 19) lead even Arlequin toward “mornes ou cruels / Désastres” (lines 29–30).

While none of these characters is true to his traditional identity, each is well suited to the dissimulation omnipresent in the world of the Fétes galantes. Here, expediency reigns, “la vie opportune” as the first poem, “Clair de lune,” puts it. Here, role-playing is the way of life for all, aristocrats or entertainers alike. By introducing characters at variance with their normal personalities, “Pantomime” informs the whole Fêtes galantes' tone of sadness. The “vie opportune” carries a risk. One may feign so many roles that only that of illusionist will remain. Then, like Colombine, one may well be astonished at the possibility of perceiving authentic voices in one's heart.

Robert Storey (essay date 1979)

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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
Des signes fous auxquels personne ne répond.
Ses yeux sont deux grands trous où rampe du phosphore
Et la farine rend plus effroyable encore
Sa face exsangue au nez pointu de moribond.(1)

The sleeves of his blouse rippling like a shroud in the wind, his mouth gaping in mute and inexplicable anguish, the “holes” of his eyes gleaming with a phosphorescent fire—the unearthly specter of Verlaine's early sonnet has reached, for at least one of its admirers, “a stage of decomposition for which neither precedent can be found nor sequel imagined.”2 But “Pierrot” is by no means a poem without precedent; it is likely, moreover, that it was inspired by a single curious source. Although the Pierrot of spiritual angoisse was a familiar of the 80's and 90's (Verlaine's poem was published in 1882—but written in 1868), he was a godchild of the popular Parisian pantomime. “Ce personnage pâle comme la lune, mystérieux comme le silence, souple et muet comme le serpent, droit et long comme une potence”—so Baudelaire had described the Pierrot of the great Baptiste Deburau.3 Indeed, long before Michel Carné was to romanticize this mime's career in Les Enfants du Paradis, Deburau was fetching darkly Faustian epithets from a number of his impressive contemporaries. “C'est Satan naïf et bouffon,” declared Charles Nodier;4 “C'est le Misanthrope de Molière,” wrote Jules Janin;5 and Gautier observed that “Pierrot, pâle, grêle, vêtu d'habits blafards, toujours affamé et toujours battu, [représente] l'esclave antique, le prolétaire moderne, le paria, l’être passif et déshérité qui assiste, morne et sournois, aux orgies et aux folies de ses maîtres.”6 Deburau's stage genius was, on the surface, utterly without pretension (“le Deburau de M. Janin n'est pas moi,” he complained to George Sand; “il ne m'a pas compris”),7 but it was, however unconsciously invoked and expressed, of an intoxicantingly malevolent kind. “La bouteille dont il montrait en souriant l’étiquette laudanum quand Cassandre avait fini de la boire, le dos du rasoir qu'il lui passait sur le cou,” writes Deburau's biographer, “étaient des jeux auxquels il ne fallait pas donner l'occasion de devenir sérieux en mettant à l’épreuve sa patience, sa réserve, son sang-froid.” 8When, in 1836, the mime's discipline gave way beneath the jeers of a street-boy and he clubbed the urchin a fatal blow with his cane, his stage role assumed, inadvertently, an even more sinister air.

In a forgotten novella by Henri Rivière, published in 1860, this air provides the motive for Romantic melodrama—for a tale of madness, murder, and revenge. Rivière's story, Pierrot, describes the unhappy career of Charles Servieux, a young man who is witness to a disturbing pantomime at the Théâtre des Funambules just after recovering from two fits of insanity. The audacity and sinister gaiety of Deburau's jeu make an immediate and lasting impression, and Servieux comes to be obsessed by the idea of Pierrot as “l'ange déchu”: “C'est ainsi que se dessina lentement dans mon cerveau un génie du mal, grandiose et mélancolique, d'une irrésistible séduction, cynique et bouffon par instants, afin qu'il se relevât plus haut après être tombé.”9 Servieux gives flesh to this vision by himself assuming the white blouse and mask, and not long after having picked out his Colombine from a company of poor saltimbanques, he is performing before an enthralled public on the stage of the Funambules. The young soubrette begins to play more true to type than Servieux would have wished: she soon abandons her pallid lover—now importunate both on and off the boards—for the company's Harlequin. And when the jealous Pierrot can no longer brook her unfaithfulness, he decapitates his rival in the full face of his audience during one of his own little macabre productions. Servieux dies of a fever shortly after his crime, having recovered, in his final hours, from his long delirium.

A single scene from this wonderfully improbable piece is worth summarizing in more detail. Soon after resolving to incarnate his conception of Pierrot satanique, Servieux goes on a retreat to Brittany. There, in a little house that is bordered on one side by a wall of “hautes montagnes boisées” and that gives out on the other “sur un torrent que grossissent les pluies d'hiver, et sur une plaine sans végétation,” he passes his nights in perfecting his mute art. One evening, after imagining himself dismissing a host of wretched suppliants, one begging a few francs to make restitution for a petty crime, another to save her starving child, still another to escape total destitution on her hospital deathbed, Servieux pushes himself back from his table (which is heaped high with imagined wealth) to judge the effect of his diabolic performance:

Ce soir-là, il y avait au ciel un orage splendide. J'avais en face de moi une glace où je me voyais. Je ne pensais plus aux misères humaines qui continuaient à passer, et je me regardai moins en acteur qu'en spectateur de cette scène lugubre. Ma taille me parut grandie. Ma main blanche, aux doigts effilés, continuait, d'un mouvement facile, à jouer avec la masse d'or qui était là présente, bien qu'elle n'existât pas. J'avais sur les lèvres un fatal sourire. Mes yeux enfoncés brillaient d'un éclat insupportable; pas une écaille de ma farine n’était tombée. Au moment où je me regardais le plus attentivement et avec une sorte d'admiration pleine d'horreur, un éclair d'une largeur surprenante, pareil à une bande de feu, illumina mes fenêtres, et il me semble que tous les petits diables de la plaine qui, selon les superstitions bretonnes, hantent les pierres druidiques, noirs, aux ongles crochus, m'applaudissaient en riant, accroupis derrière mes carreaux. Je me fis peur et me dressai sur mes pieds; mais, au même moment, le roulement de tonnerre qui suivait l’éclair ébranla la maison tout entière; les vitres se brisèrent en mille éclats, et une lourde rafale de vent et de pluie éteignit les candélabres.10

In this final tableau we encounter Verlaine's “spectre”—that Pierrot who “aujourd'hui nous hante, mince et clair.”11 But even more interesting than Verlaine's probable use of this “source” is what seems to be his extreme condensation of Rivière's chief themes to compose a densely allusive portrait. Servieux himself admits that his Pierrot is condemned “fatalement” to “faire le mal”; but it is only after his crime that he realizes he is, in fact, doubly cursed: his inevitable mission is also quite literally a fatal one. So we may account, in part, for the preternatural moribundity in Verlaine's prophetic vision. And Servieux's madness, his ineluctable estrangement from men (and his Colombine)—these, too, find expression in one line of the sonnet, in those “signes fous auxquels personne ne répond.”

Verlaine's poem is not, of course, simply a réconstruction: his reassembling the materials of Rivière's conte has an expressive as well as a rhetorical design. The young poète saturnien would naturally have been drawn to Servieux, as to a brother in malheur. Verlaine's fatal addiction to alcohol (a failing to which Servieux succumbs) and his homosexuality had, by 1862, thrust themselves on le petit; and however casually they were regarded by the author of Confessions,12 they were probably met, by the younger man, with disquiet and self-disgust. Shame at his physical ugliness, at his visage of an “orang-outang,” could only have exacerbated these feelings. Rivière's hero is not ugly: he is “un beau jeune homme au front vaste, avec de longs cheveux bruns bouclés et rejetés en arrière, au nez d'aigle, à la bouche spirituelle.”13 But this Christ-like beauty is little more than an emblem of Servieux's beauty of soul—and such beauty the precocious disciple of Baudelaire certainly did have, with all that was attendant upon it: sensitivity shading into weakness, self-reproach, dread and guilt; idealism decaying into arrogance, contempt, monomania, and cruelty. And unlike the Parnassian Pierrot glimpsed vaguely among the Fêtes galantes, who leaps over bushes with flealike alacrity and, “pratique,” slices into meat pies, the Pierrot of the sonnet has pushed through the impassable to emerge on the darker side of his spirit. He has crossed what the narrator of Rivière's tale calls—familiarly—“cette limite si faible qui sépare parfois le génie de la folie”:14 the poète saint of “Don Quichotte” has become a poète maudit.

When, in 1886–87, the poet again turned to Pierrot, it was not as a youthful analyst of the soul but, parallèlement, as an aging celebrant of the body. And once more he was drawing upon Pierrots of obvious precedent. Huysmans and Hennique had published their Pierrot sceptique in 1881, its black-frocked railleur inspired by a troupe of Pierrots from the “pays du spleen”;15 and two years later, Sarah Bernhardt had pulled on the clown's casaque to animate, at the Trocadéro, Richepin's all too fleshy Pierrot assassin. In both of these pantos the Pierrot of spiritual faiblesse gives way to a creature of appetite—but it would probably be a mistake to see in Verlaine's later portraits the zanni of these productions. The “Pierrot gamin” of Parallèlement, of Motif de pantomime in the Mémoires d'un veuf, is neither dandiacally mordant (like Jules Laforgue's) nor neurotically macabre (like Paul Margueritte's). In the first four panels of Motif de pantomime, he is an “enfant chétif”: “Douze ans, palôt, grandelet, maigrichon.” His “jeu principal” is to walk along the gutters, gently squeezing the mud over his shoes. His other diversions are equally puerile: he trips up a “gâte-sauce” peddling his wares through the street and surreptitiously samples his gravy; he filches the curé's surplice and skull-cap and decks himself out for the mardigras; he courts Colombine with pralines and prunes—until Harlequin sends him packing. “N'importe,” Verlaine generously concludes in his “Epilogue”: “il a joui, ri, souri. Et puis nul souci.” An enfant who loiters outside obligation, responsibility, and law, this later Pierrot plays the fool with the irrepressible abandon of a street-waif.

But in this he is not alone. The Pierrots of the artist Adolphe Willette stand clearly behind Verlaine's gamin. In Willette's illustrations and histoires sans paroles, cartoons and watercolors that he produced by the score in the ’80s and ’90s, innumerable Pierrots of child-like insouciance flânent the streets of Paris. In a sketch of 1885, for example, later reproduced in Feu Pierrot, 1857–19?, a young Pierrot with a guitar slung on his back abducts a winged child from a park. They both get tipsy on wine, and Pierrot leaves the boy sitting dazed beneath a streetlamp to dance under three indulgently smiling moons. When, several panels later, they are reunited, the child skips into Pierrot's arms to kiss him passionately on the lips; but suddenly a dark figure steps into the sunlight and plunges a knife into the clown's back, leaving him dead and bleeding on the pavement.16

Except for his bathetically melodramatic demise—rare in Willette's histoires pierrotiques—the Pierrot that we meet here is nearly indistinguishable from Verlaine's. The latter, it is true, is still a schoolboy, packing a booksatchel instead of a guitar, but his endearing méchanceté, his naïve egoism, his obliviousness to bourgeois exactitude (he roams the streets in “gros souliers aux cordons sans cesse dénoués”), all suggest, in embryo, the careless bohemian of Willette. And both, of course, recall Verlaine's versified portrait of the “Pierrot gamin”:

Bien qu'un rien plus haut qu'un mètre,
Le mignon drôle sait mettre
Dans ses yeux l’éclair d'acier
Qui sied au subtil génie
De sa malice infinie
De poète-grimacier.
Lèvres rouge-de-blessure
Où sommeille la luxure,
Face pâle aux rictus fins,
Longue, très accentuée,
Qu'on dirait habituée
À contempler toutes fins,
Corps fluet et non pas maigre,
Voix de fille et non pas aigre,
Corps d’éphèbe en tout petit,
Voix de tête, corps en fête,
Créature toujours prête
À soûler chaque appétit.

(p. 520)

But, though obvious, the similarities here are superficial: this Pierrot has an aggressiveness that evaporates the nostalgia of Motif de pantomime—and, with it, Willette's sentimentality. The image of the poet as impenitent libertine, vagabond, and spiritual naïf has been pushed to the edge of parody, and what emerges is clearly a grotesque, a “Caricature, … / La grimace et le symbole / De notre simplicité!” Perrot gamin is thus both a jeer and a deliriously mad declaration of self-abandonment. Now “l’âme / Vile, haute, noble, infâme / De nos innocents esprits,” he offers an oddly poignant reply to the austere angst of the earlier Pierrot-specter. By tripling his “riche amertume,” by exaggerating his gaiety, the poet as zanni has become one with his grimacing mask and, through a kind of frenzied, comic intoxication, has lost himself in order to gratify all the more gluttonously his forbidden appetites.

A mirror and a mask: Pierrot functions as both for the poet. To look upon the one was to see the other, the reflection within the disguise, and vice-versa. That Verlaine, like Hamlet, could both conceal and reveal himself within an antic disposition goes far towards explaining Pierrot's immense appeal to the artists of the late nineteenth century. Mediating as he does between public truth and private fantasy, comedy and pathos, the Self and the Other, he offers one small but effective key to this parade sauvage. “Je pourrais risquer sous cet avatar d'intermittentes apparitions,” said Mallarmé of his nephew's Pierrot, “et, pour le plaisir de quelques délicats, être ‘le monsieur en habit noir qui, à l'improviste, tire du fourreau ce glaive blanc.’”17 To draw Pierrot out of Hamlet, a giddy clown out of a wraithlike victim of conscience: this was also Verlaine's wish—and accomplishment.


  1. Paul Verlaine, “Pierrot,” Œuvres poétiques complètes (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade; Paris: Gallimard, 1962), pp. 320–21. All citations from Verlaine's poems will be from this edition with page references in parentheses in the text.

  2. A. G. Lehmann, “Pierrot and fin de siècle,” in Ian Fletcher, ed., Romantic Mythologies (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), p. 216. The present essay is, in part, an answer to Mr. Lehmann's article, which is riddled, inexplicably, with errors and inaccuracies. He misleadingly implies, for example, that Verlaine's sonnet is part of the “the mature writing of Jadis et naguère” (p. 221), and, working from this misapprehension, he suggests that it is a more technically accomplished restatement of Grotesques (1866) in the Poèmes saturniens. (Little more than two years separate the dates of the two poems.) My own researches have revealed that Mr. Lehmann's “prehistory” of Pierrot is distressingly unreliable.

  3. Charles Baudelaire, “De l'essence du rire et généralement du comique dans les arts plastiques,” Le Portefeuille, July 8, 1855; in Œuvres complètes, ed. Marcel A. Ruff (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1968), p. 376.

  4. In an article in the Pandore, July 19, 1828; cited in Louis Péricaud, Le Théâtre des Funambules, ses mimes, ses acteurs et ses pantomimes, depuis sa fondation jusqu’à sa démolition (Paris: Sapin, 1897), p. 78.

  5. Deburau, Histoire du théâtre à quatre sous pour faire suite à l'histoire du théâtre français (1832; rpt. in 1 vol., Paris: Librairie des Bibliophiles, 1881), pp. 155–56.

  6. Histoire de l'art dramatique en France depuis vingt-cinq ans, V (Paris: Magnin, Blanchard et compagnie, 1859), 24.

  7. In George Sand, Histoire de ma vie (Paris: Lévy Frères, 1856), VIII, 248.

  8. Tristan Rémy, Jean-Gaspard Deburau (Paris: L'Arche [Le Théâtre et les Jours], 1954), p. 143.

  9. Henri Rivière, Pierrot/Caïn (Paris: Hachette, 1860), p. 27.

  10. Ibid., p. 32.

  11. Mr. Lehmann remarks that Rivière's conte is “one of the more naïve testimonies to the Funambules vogue” (p. 223), but he does not note its influence upon Verlaine—probably because he has not read the tale. According to his footnote, the “central figure, Pierre,” is “a neurotic retired sea-captain” who imitates “Debureau's [sic] career fairly closely.” Servieux is never referred to as “Pierre” in Rivière's story; although he suffers a near-drowning at sea, he is not a retired sea-captain, nor does he imitate Deburau's career, in any of its details.

  12. Verlaine notes in his Confessions that, with the onset of puberty, “mes ‘chutes’ se bornèrent à des enfantillages sensuels, oui, mais sans rien d'absolument ‘vilain’—en un mot, à des jeunes garçonneries partagées au lieu de rester … solitaires” (Œuvres en prose complètes [Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1972], p. 484).

  13. Rivière, p. 4.

  14. Ibid., p. 71.

  15. The troupe was the Hanlon-Lees, from England. See Huysmans' account of one of their performances in his Croquis parisiens: Œuvres complètes de J.-K. Huysmans, VIII (Paris: Crès, 1929), 21 ff.

  16. In Adolphe Willette, Feu Pierrot, 1857–19? (Paris: H. Floury, 1919), pp. 90–91.

  17. Mallarmé's remark was in response to a performance of Paul Margueritte's Pierrot assassin de sa femme (1881) (see Paul Margueritte, Le Printemps tourmenté [Paris: Flammarion, 1925], pp. 26–27).

Enid Rhodes Peschel (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4993

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 tormented life and poetry. On the one hand, there is charm—gentle, attractive and captivating; and there are the innocent strengths and lovable weaknesses one associates with childhood—like purity, spontaneity, vulnerability and naïveté.2 On the other hand, however, there are anger, passion and viciousness, and a depression so devastating that it seeks relief in drunkenness. The tale of the contradictions in Verlaine's life is like a prelude that prepares one to understand, to accept—and to listen for—the contradictions in his poetry. For beneath the musical charm of his melodies, an anger and an anguish seep, or rend their way through.

Paul Verlaine was born in Metz on March 30, 1844. His father, Nicolas-Auguste, an adjutant battalion captain, was forty-six. His mother, Élisa, was thirty-five. She had had three miscarriages before Paul was born. He would be their only child.

In 1851, Captain Verlaine resigned his military commission and moved his family to Paris. Paul grew up adored by his mother and by his cousin whose name, like his mother's, was Élisa. Élisa Moncomble, an orphan eight years older than Paul, was being reared by Paul's mother.

When Verlaine was nine, he began attending boarding schools. Although he was a good student at first, by the time of his baccalauréat he had dropped to the bottom of the class.

At eighteen or nineteen, he began drinking. Around this time, in 1863, his first poem was published and he became friends with other writers in Paris, including Théodore de Banville, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Louis-Xavier de Ricard, Léon Valade, Albert Mérat, Catulle Mendès, Charles Cros and Sully Prudhomme.

During the next few years, two events deeply upset Verlaine: his father's death in 1865 (Captain Verlaine had been quite sick since 1862), and his cousin Élisa's unexpected death in February 1867, after a difficult childbirth. When Verlaine arrived for her funeral in Lécluse, where she had been living with her husband, the funeral procession was just leaving her house. Verlaine got so drunk for three days after this that he scandalized his entire family and the town. This pattern of grief followed by obstreperous drunkenness would recur.

Verlaine's first book, Poèmes saturniens (Saturnine Poems), was published in 1866. The press, Verlaine would later say, accorded it “a fine succès d'hostilité.”3 Although strongly influenced by the Parnassians, the book shows that Verlaine was already beginning to find his own voice. Thus, landscapes in several of these poems are already soulscapes. For example, “Nevermore,” which takes its title from Poe's “The Raven,” blends ideas of love and loss, harmony and discord, happiness and nostalgic sadness, health and sickness, perfumed flowers and their inevitable demise: the beginning of love, therefore, and its end. And the melodious “Autumn Song” is a sad and sensuous merging with nature, with evil and with death.

Verlaine's next book, Fêtes galantes (Gallant Festivals), “whose title belies the deep sadness often found in the verses,” as Diana Festa-McCormick notes,4 appeared three years later, in 1869. This lyrical and disturbing medley of poems inspired by love and its loss takes its inspiration from the gallant festivals depicted in eighteenth-century painting (one thinks, for example, of Watteau's “The Embarcation for Cythera”). In the poems, maskers and figures from French pantomime and Italian comedy, phantoms and phantomlike people act out the gallantries that live and die beneath the moon's bewitching, but often less than beneficent, gaze.

Off and on around this time, Verlaine was drinking. Twice in July 1869, he tried to kill his mother. His relatives thought that married life might calm him down, and they proposed one of his cousins for his mate. Instead, Verlaine asked his friend Charles de Sivry if he could marry Sivry's half-sister, the sixteen-year-old Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville. Verlaine courted Mathilde with poems that he composed for her (e.g. “Before you depart, / Pale morning star …” and “The moon shines white …”). These lyrics would go into his next book, La Bonne Chanson (The Good Song), which was printed in 1870 but not distributed until 1872, because of the Franco-Prussian War.

On August 11, 1870, when Mathilde was seventeen (she was a year and a half older than Rimbaud) and Verlaine was twenty-six, they were married. At first, they lived in their own apartment and Verlaine was a clerk in the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall). But a few months later, Verlaine participated in the Paris Commune of 1871; and when the Commune was overthrown, he lost his job. Since they could no longer afford their own apartment, Verlaine and his pregnant wife moved in with her parents at 14, rue Nicolet in August 1871. Rimbaud would arrive there one month later. …

On July 7, 1872, Mathilde was feeling ill. Her husband said that he would go out to find Dr. Cros. Verlaine did go out … and found Rimbaud. And on that day the poets began their travels together that would terminate one year later with two pistol shots in Brussels. During all this time of cruelty and callousness towards Mathilde, of drunkenness and of impassioned seeking for a “new love” with Rimbaud, Verlaine was writing one of his most beautiful and lyrical, and original, collections of poetry, Romances sans paroles ([Sentimental] Songs without Words). It would be published in 1874, when the poet was in prison.

After the events in Brussels on July 10, 1873, Verlaine spent a year and a half in prison. There, he wrote many memorable and moving poems, including “My God said to me …,” “Hope shines like a blade of straw …,” “A great dark drowsiness …” (composed on August 8, 1873, the day on which he was sentenced), “Kaleidoscope,” “Art of Poetry,” and his vision of Rimbaud and of their “crime of love,” “Crimen amoris.” In Mes Prisons (My Prisons), Verlaine evokes the atmosphere of “The sky is, above the roof …”: “Above the front wall my window (I had a window, a real one! provided, the idea! with bars that were side by side … and I used to see, it was in August, the top swaying, with its voluptuously shivering leaves, of some tall poplar of a nearby boulevard or square. At the same time faraway noises, softened, would reach me, of a festival …” (p. 1131). These poems would be included in his next two books: Sagesse (Wisdom), published at Verlaine's expense, in 1881; and Jadis et naguère (Long Ago and A Short While Ago), published by Vanier in 1885.

In the spring of 1874, when Verlaine was in prison, Mathilde received an official separation from him and custody of their child. The court also ordered Verlaine to pay 100 francs per month for child support. The poet was distraught. In June he reconverted to Catholicism, the religion of his youth, and in August he received communion. Sagesse is imbued with religious inspiration and symbols, sometimes explicit and sometimes extremely delicate and subtle. Verlaine's faith—and this is scarcely surprising to anyone who knows his life—is not simple, nor is it exuberantly joyous. Instead, it is a constant struggle, a full acceptance of man's fallen state, sufferings and weaknesses with all of which, the poet believes, Christ empathizes and, through the crucifixion, embodies. Thus, “God” tells the “pitiable friend” in “My God said to me …”: “Haven't I sobbed your utmost anguish, and haven't / I sweated the sweat of your nighttimes, pitiable friend / Who seeks for me where I am?”

Upon his release from prison in January 1875, Verlaine was expelled from Belgium. In late February, in Stuttgart, he saw Rimbaud for the last time. For some months after that, he corresponded with his former lover. But Rimbaud was now importuning him for money. On December 12, 1875, Verlaine sent Rimbaud a final letter: he said that he would not send him any money and also that he did not want Rimbaud to have his address. But he added that Rimbaud could write to him at Ernest Delahaye's. And over the years, when Verlaine no longer heard from Rimbaud, he would continue to ask Delahaye about the man whose poetry he would begin to reveal to the public in 1883 and 1884, in Les Poètes maudits (The Accursèd Poets), ten and more years after their liaison had ended.

From 1875 to 1879, Verlaine found teaching jobs: first in England—at a grammar school in Stickney (Lincolnshire), where he taught French and drawing, and then at a secondary school in Bournemouth. He taught French, English and history in France, from October 1877 to June 1879, at the Institution Notre-Dame de Rethel. The students and staff there thought him strange. “He kept his arms crossed on his chest, his hands spread out. The ecclesiastical staff thought this layman was overdoing it, and the students, with their lively sense of ridiculous, called him Jesus Christ.”5 Verlaine was drinking again and was finally dismissed from the school.

One of his pupils in Rethel was a nineteen-year-old peasant named Lucien Létinois. Verlaine became closely attached to him, and they traveled to England together. When they returned to France, Verlaine bought a farm in Juniville and lived on it with Lucien and Lucien's parents. Farming, however, proved a financial disaster for them, and so in 1882, Verlaine tried to get his job back at the Hôtel de Ville, from which he had been dismissed after the Paris Commune of 1871. But records of his trial, prison term and impending divorce arrived, and he was denied reinstatement in April 1883. It was a devastating blow. So was another event that occurred that month. For on April 7, Lucien died suddenly of typhoid fever. From this time on, although Verlaine's literary fame and acclaim were increasing, his style of living was becoming more and more degraded and desperate.

In September 1883, Verlaine moved with his mother onto a farm in Coulommes. Not only was farming a failure for him once more, but this time he led such a debt-plagued, drunken and degenerate life that he horrified the inhabitants of the environs. He spent a month in jail from April 13 to May 13, 1885, for having nearly strangled his mother when he was in a drunken rage. The month of his release from jail, Mathilde obtained her official divorce from him.

Destitute, Verlaine returned to Paris, and his mother moved into the building where he was living. He was suffering at this time from hydrarthrosis of the knee. Often he could not even get out of bed. When his mother died in January 1886, his hydrarthrosis prevented him from attending her funeral.

Four days after Verlaine's mother died, Mathilde's family insisted on getting money from him for his son, Georges, because Verlaine had never paid the child support required by the separation decree. “When the sheriff arrived, Verlaine handed over to him the bundle of twenty thousand francs worth of bonds that his mother had left, and which had been concealed under a mattress. A gesture at once noble and insane. For when he had paid Madame Verlaine's burial expenses and settled his bills, the poor man was left with exactly eight hundred francs.”6

From 1886 until his death almost ten years later, Verlaine was constantly in and out of hospitals. … Often he was in great pain. In September 1887, he nearly died of hunger, and he contemplated suicide.

But his literary fame was growing. In 1888, the Decadents considered him a leader, but he soon disassociated himself from their doctrines. Every Wednesday, his admirers came to his room. Among them were Villiers de l'Isle—Adam, Maurice Barrès, Jean Moréas and Paterne Berrichon (who would later marry Rimbaud's youngest sister, Isabelle). In 1888, Verlaine's collection Amour (Love) was published, and in 1889, Parallèlment (In a Parallel Direction).

All this time, Verlaine was drinking a lot. He frequented homosexual prostitutes (his collection Hombres [Men] was published posthumously). “I'm a feminine gender [un féminin], which would explain a great many things,” Verlaine wrote F. A. Cazals on August 26, 1889.7 Verlaine also frequented female prostitutes. …

In 1891, Verlaine was living at 15, rue Descartes, in a hotel frequented by prostitutes and pimps. Over the next years, he would be earning money both from his books, which were selling well, and from the lectures he was invited to give (e.g. in Nancy, London, Oxford, Manchester, Holland and Belgium). But whenever he had some money, he spent it wildly, inviting his friends on drunken sprees. …

Respect for Verlaine's poetry kept growing. He was elected “Prince of Poets” in 1894, succeeding Leconte de Lisle. The poet who would succeed him would be Mallarmé.

Just before Verlaine died, on January 8, 1896, he lived in some kind of quiet with Eugénie Krantz. At his graveside, speeches were given by several literary luminaries of the day, including François Coppée, Maurice Barrès, Gustave Kahn, Catulle Mendès, Jean Moréas and Stéphane Mallarmé.

“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 “Mandolin” and “Brussels: Merry-Go-Round”).

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, “Mandolin,” “With Muted Strings” and “Sentimental Colloquy”). 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.8

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.”9 “‘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” (as we pointed out at the end of Rimbaud's “Drunken Boat”) 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.”10 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 other-worldly 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.”11


  1. According to their mutual friend Ernest Delahaye, in Delahaye témoin de Rimbaud, p. 187, n. 52.

  2. For an excellent study of naïveté in Verlaine's art, see James R. Lawler, The Language of French Symbolism (note 1 above), pp. 21–70.

  3. Les Poètes maudits, in Oeuvres complètes de Paul Verlaine, Vol. IV (Paris: Vanier, 1910), p. 79.

  4. “Verlaine: Meditation within Shimmering Sketches,” in French Symbolist Poetry: Sou'wester, p. 93.

  5. Antoine Adam, The Art of Paul Verlaine, trans. Carl Morse (New York: New York University Press, 1963), p. 39.

  6. Ibid., p. 47.

  7. In Henri Peyre, Rimbaud vu par Verlaine, p. 186.

  8. “Verlaine: Symbolism and Popular Poetry” in French Symbolist Poetry: Sou'wester (note 28 above), p. 24.

  9. Henri Peyre, Rimbaud vu par Verlaine (note 20 above), pp. 172–73.

  10. Diana Festa-McCormick, “Y a-t-il un impressionnisme littéraire: Le cas Verlaine,” Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. II, Nos. 3 & 4 (Spring-Summer 1974), 152–53.

  11. See Verlaine's sonnet beginning “The hunting horn grieves towards the forest. …”

Carol de Dobay Rifelj (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6118

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 possible: je m'ennuie for je m'emmerde, catin for putain, does there come into existence a different kind of figure, a figure of register. On the next level of signification, coursier for horse carries the message “I am poetry” just as much as does voile for ship. But it stands only for a certain kind of poetry. In Verlaine's time, such usage was the norm: French poetry had a highly restricted set of conventions for poetic diction, distinguishing between high or “elevated” and low diction; between the sublime and the médiocre or burlesque; between noble and common, or “roturier.” The first terms of these sets are obviously highly valorized. Those 19th century poets, including Hugo, Rimbaud, Corbière, and Verlaine, who breached this code—using colloquial or familiar words and even vulgar and slang expressions—were clearly setting their poetry against the accepted, almost sacred canon. In doing so, they implicitly recognized that the language of this canon was now too familiar, in the sense of commonplace, and they were led to new delimitations of acceptable diction.

Theoreticians from Aristotle on have linked a specialized vocabulary like that of French neoclassical verse to the use of metaphor. But in Verlaine, the use of familiar diction does not lead to a lessening of the importance of figure; in a sense, it allows for even greater, or at least different, possibilities of figural language. If conventionally “poetic” words and their opposite can be shown to be marked registers in poetic texts, it is because their existence permits a kind of movement that can be called tropological; the use of familiar diction calls attention to the surface of the work, preventing its language from being simply referential. Its very “earthiness” prevents it from being “down-to-earth” in the sense of being stabilized or giving the reader a more direct link to the outside world. Rather, it plays on the estrangement implied by its identification as an element of a specific register. As metaphor has been considered the breaking of the semantic rules of a language, register-shifts constitute a breaching of its pragmatic rules.2 And this breach is one aspect of the figural dimension of language.

Whether the gap between such terms and their conventional counterparts is called parody or humor or opposition to poetic tradition, the reader must attempt to integrate it into some kind of structure. By examining the role of informal or colloquial diction in the figural structure of Verlaine's poems, we can see the different ways in which they exploit its possible stylistic motivations. Incorporating such language into coherent interpretations of the texts does not prove to be simple, however, and such an analysis reveals the complexity of a poet whose works have often been seen as direct, univocal, and even simplistic.

Given the entrenchment of neo-classical diction, it is not surprising that Verlaine's use of familiar language has had a varied critical response, ranging from hailing him as a revolutionary to condemning his later works, (in which such language is more prevalent), as vulgar or “prosaic.” One critic tries to excuse his use of low language by referring to his low life:

Avec Verlaine, nous avons affaire à un pauvre brave type, qui sort du bistrot ou de l'hôpital, trainant la patte, et qui nous raconte des choses très simples, ou très délicates, ou très élevées, dans la langue de tous les jours. Alors que les Parnassiens, en redingote et haut de forme, sont juchés tout en haut d'un trépied, Verlaine est sur l'asphalte du trottoir parisien.3

But Claude Cuénot, in his study of Verlaine's style, is much less indulgent: “Une étude complète du vocabulaire argotique de Verlaine aurait une importance lexicographique, mais ne comporterait guère d'intérêt esthétique, puisque la poésie est absente.”4 “Unpoetic” words, then, cannot constitute a poem. Verlaine himself seems to support this view when he writes:

Tu n'es plus bon à rien de propre, ta parole
Est morte de l'argot et du ricanement,
Et d'avoir rabâché les bourdes du moment.
Ta mémoire, de tant d'obscénités bondée,
Ne saurait accueillir la plus petite idée …

Sagesse I, iv

Verlaine said that he wrote these lines about Rimbaud, but added, “Après coup je me suis aperçu que cela pourrait s'appliquer à ‘poor myself.’” He had introduced language of varying degrees of familiarity during the whole of his poetic career, and especially so after Sagesse, where these lines appear. And indeed, he does so in this very passage: tu n'es plus bon à …, la plus petite idée and rabâché are certainly casual, familiar expressions. His word, then, rather than being destroyed by slang, receives a new impulse forward.

In order to make sense of such discourse, in order to make poetry of it rather than rejecting it out of hand, the reader must try to “naturalize” it, that is, to justify its use within the context of the poem. This naturalization can operate in various ways, on various levels. First, familiar language can be integrated by assigning the text to a “low” genre, where such diction would be the norm rather than an intrusion. On another level, it can be naturalized as appropriate to the poem's subject-matter: the signified might be “low” life (i.e. a popular subject) or “modern life,” calling forth signifiers which mirror the level of the signified. Many examples of such motivation can be found in Verlaine. In texts which escape such categorizations, familiar diction must be incorporated at another level. “Art poétique” provides an example of a text whose self-referentiality leads to taking its unconventional language as signifying a rejection of conventional poetry. Other texts seem unmotivated even at this level and present a challenge to readability itself. In all these texts we must examine to what extent Verlaine's work justifies the naturalizations imposed on it by the urge to legibility and to what extent it defies any such analysis.

“Monsieur Prudhomme” is an example of a poem whose satirical quality helps to motivate the use of “low” language, satire being a genre characterized by the low style.

Il est grave: il est maire et père de famille
Son faux col engloutit son oreille. Ses yeux
Dans un rêve sans fin flottent, insoucieux,
Et le printemps en fleur sur ses pantoufles brille.
Que lui fait l'astre d'or, que lui fait la charmille
Où l'oiseau chante à l'ombre, et que lui font
les cieux,
Et les prés verts et les gazons silencieux?
Monsieur Prudhomme songe à marier sa fille
Avec monsieur Machin, un jeune homme cossu.
Il est juste-milieu, botaniste et pansu.
Quant aux faiseurs de vers, ces vauriens,
ces maroufles,
Ces fainéants barbus, mal peignés, il les a
Plus en horreur que son éternel coryza,
Et le printemps en fleur brille sur ses pantoufles.

The title already makes it status clear: Joseph Prudhomme, the main character in Henri Monnier's novels, was the archetypical bourgeois. The lampoon begins with the very first line, with the words “il est grave” and the stock expression “père de famille” heightened by the homonym maire/mère. M. Prudhomme is deaf, his ears “engulfed” in his collar (the word faux is also relevant here), as well as blind to the beauties of nature—spring is reduced to the level of his slippers. The rest of the poem confirms this description of his anti-esthetic, anti-poetic sentiments. Even the insults he addresses to poets are consummately bourgeois in the attitude they reveal (poets are unshaven, unkempt, and lazy), and in diction—maroufles or vauriens are perfectly acceptable terms. It is curious to note, however, that in order to form a contrast with his insensitivity, a conventionally poetic diction is used: not only is the subject nature and flowers, but the periphrase l'astre d'or for the sun is eminently neo-classical. It seems that when Verlaine wants to signal “poetry,” he needs the easily recognizable “poetic” expression to do so.

Features of other registers conflict with this diction, like coryza and cossu. Machin is “très trivial” (Littré) and doubly comical here, recalling the word machine and indicating that the prospective fiancé is so conventionally bourgeois as to have lost all identity. The succession of adjectives in line 10 is funny, too, the physical epithet pansu following two nouns used as adjectives. Botaniste in this series indicates the only interest nature might have for him.

If the use of a conventionally poetic signifier is itself a sign, whose message is “I am poetry;” than slang expressions, used here to ridicule the de-humanized characters should be a sign of opposition to this language, and often they do have this role. But, in this text, where poets are referred to explicitly, and a traditionally “poetic” subject, the flowered spring, appears twice and ends the poem, where rêve sans fin is contrasted with M. Prudhomme's thoughts of a profitable marriage for his daughter, the traditional diction is valorized and paradoxically opposed to the characters who would be likely to approve only such language, who would surely say of this text: that isn't poetry.

Even in a text that would be considered more conventionally lyrical, one might consider “low” diction to be motivated by subject-matter. An example of such a poem is “L'Auberge.”

Murs blancs, toit rouge, c'est l'Auberge fraîche
au bord
Du grand chemin poudreux où le pied brûle et saigne,
L'auberge gaie avec le Bonheur
pour enseigne.
Vin bleu, pain tendre, et pas besoin de passe-port.
Ici l'on fume, ici l'on chante, ici l'on dort.
L'hôte est un vieux soldat, et l'hôtesse, qui
Et lave dix marmots roses et pleins de teigne,
Parle d'amour, de joie et d'aise, et n'a pas tort!
La salle au noir plafond de poutres, aux images
Violentes, Maleck Adel et les Rois Mages,
Vous accueille d'un bon parfum de soupe aux choux.
Entendez-vous? C'est la marmite qu'accompagne
L'horloge du tic-tac allègre de son pouls.
Et la fenêtre s'ouvre au loin sur la campagne.

Here the popular milieu calls forth many elements usually excluded from poetry: vin bleu (cheap wine), cabbage soup, and so on. The pictures of the wise men and Maleck Adel, the hero of a popular novel, would be typical in such an inn. In its homely and banal elements, the text resembles the poetry of Coppée or the Parnassian poets who treated rural subjects or even the descriptive poetry of Delille; and it is analogous to the realist/naturalist novel and its portrayal of lower-class life.

Since everything about this milieu is valorized and opposed to the dusty, painful road, familiar words in reported speech should be neither pejorative nor startling: the casual tone they create is in harmony with the place described, where one can obviously be at ease. But what differs in Verlaine's treatment of the subject is, in fact, the intrusion of familiar diction in the language of the poem. It contains elements from the speech one might expect to hear in a country inn: shortened forms like the elliptical first and fourth lines, including “pas besoin de passe-port” and familiar expressions—n'a pas tort, entendez-vous, marmots (“kids”), and teigne (“scabby”).

These expressions play a role in the figural structure of the text as well, which is built on a correspondence between inside and outside. It is a poem concerned with signs, or language. “Ici l'on fume” and so forth, of course, imitate the messages on signs in shop windows, i.e. linked with the life inside the inn. Thus they recall the sign in the first stanza: “Happiness” is or should be the inn's name, since that is what is to be found within. And of what does this happiness consist? Of talking about happiness and comfort and love. So it is removed to yet another level, as the designatum of the inhabitants' conversation. The images or prints on the other hand are metaphors for the life outside; and they are called violent to underline the contrast. Thus, in the last line, the opening window is yet another “image” of the exterior world, framed by the window sill. The language of the poem functions as an imitation (another metaphor) or as another sign of the language of the environment.

In such a context, the speaker is placed in an ambivalent position: he is allowed, even invited within, but an inn is only a temporary lodging, a contingency of his travels. His link with it is an arbitrary one, as the phrase “pas besoin de passe-port” shows; he is just an observer. The poem has been compared to a genre painting; and indeed, it is like a print hung on the wall of a city person's apartment, with a title like “The Pleasures of the Simple Life.” But the “simple life” has turned out to be another signifier, or another metaphor; and the language of the text, rather than grounding it in a correspondence between subject and register-level, serves to de-stabilize the depiction of a world that seemed attractive in its stability.

In other poems, the link between the signified and the “low” register level of the signifier can be naturalized in different ways, serving a variety of stylistic functions. In the sixteenth poem of La Bonne Chanson, “low” language is linked with imagery of lowness and contrasted with “paradise,” the presence of the loved one. In Sagesse III, xix, (“Parisien, mon frère”) it is the country-side which is opposed to the city. The two speakers in “Qu'en dis-tu, voyageur” (I,iii) are distinguished by the levels of language they use. “Sonnet boiteux,” from Jadis et naguère, uses low diction to denigrate the city it describes; and in conjunction with repetitions, unfamiliar sounds and unusually long verses, it creates an effect of irritation and frustration. In “Nocturne parisien” (Poèmes saturniens), familiar diction sets modern Paris apart from the conventional subjects of Romantic and Parnassian poetry, as well as from the diction characteristic of such verse.

In a letter to Delahaye, Verlaine himself spoke of “ma poétique de plus en plus moderniste” (26 October 1872). There is an element of “modernism” in much of his poetry, from the Poèmes saturniens onward, in the sense of portraying 19th-century life as Baudelaire did, especially in his Tableaux parisiens, where the latter had himself introduced a certain amount of familiar discourse. Much of Verlaine's verse, and particularly “Croquis parisien,” which echoes Baudelaire's title, recalls this section of Les Fleurs du mal. Dedicated to François Coppée, whose sentimental verse treated emotional moments in ordinary banal lives, usually in Parisian settings, it thematizes the opposition between the contemporary and the past:

La lune plaquait ses teintes de zinc
                                        Par angles obtus
Des bouts de fumée en forme de cinq
Sortaient drus et noirs des hauts toits pointus.
Le ciel était gris. La bise pleurait
                                        Ainsi qu'un basson.
Au loin, un matou frileux et discret
Miaulait d’étrange et grêle façon.
[Le long des maisons, escarpe et putain
                                        Se coulaient sans bruit,
Guettant le joueur au pas argentin
Et l'adolescent qui mord à tout fruit.]
Moi, j'allais, rêvant du divin Platon
                                        Et de Phidias,
Et de Salamine et de Marathon,
Sout l'oeil clignotant des bleus becs de gaz.

Although the third stanza was omitted in Poèmes saturniens, this poem was the target of several critical attacks. It was said to be “impressionistic,” cacophonous, its images supposedly impossible to understand. Jules Lemaître wrote, “Il y a dans tout cela bien des mots mis au hasard.—Justement. Ils ont le sens qu'a voulu le poète, et ils ne l'ont que pour lui.”6 He criticized especially the first stanza, which contains elements like zinc and par angles obtus which Robichez calls “inédits” (p. 513). Indeed, the use of artistic terminology, unusual images, elements from modern life, and familiar expressions, in their novelty, constitute a metaphor for modern life itself. In other words, new forms of expression are to traditional poetry as the new age is to the old.

Like the artist's vocabulary, angles obtus is an unexpected lexical item, an intrusion from mathematical terminology. Elements normally considered low are included in the poem—gas jets, the meowing tomcat. Colloquial expressions like bouts de fumée and moi, j'allais also stand out in this manner, while giving the impression of a casual, conversational style. In the eliminated stanza, escarpe, a slang word for thief, and putain, which Littré calls a “terme grossier at malhonnête” are even stronger and are surely at least part of the reason for the stanza's suppression. The poem's rhythm contributes to its conversational tone: the five-syllable second line of each stanza throws off its regularity. And the short, declarative sentences, without the inverted syntax characteristic of traditional poetry, tend to negate their division into verses. The rhymes are all masculine, another unusual procedure; and the false rhymes—zinc/cinq and Phidias/gaz—reinforce this effect. These devices heighten the contrast set up between 19th-century Paris and ancient Greece. The sculptor Phidias is opposed to the aquafortists and sketchers of modern times, the battles of Salamis and Marathon to those between the prostitute and her clients, the thief and his victims; and, by implication, Plato's city state to the modern city of Paris. The winking gas-jets are the guiding lights of a new age; and their mention in the last line of the poem brings us back to the everyday world.

The familiar expressions in such a poem, then, can be naturalized as appropriate to their subject, Parisian street-life, a subject or field that is itself unusual. But also, the thematization of the modern, explicitly in opposition to the classical world, is paralleled in its language: the “divine” Plato is no more as the word divin is no longer in everyday use. And the poem's protagonist does not ponder his philosophy; he is dreaming as he travels through the city. A conversational language and tone, then, are doubly appropriate to the text.

It is interesting to note that the artistic vocabulary employed here refers primarily to etching, as the title of the section in which it appears, “Eauxfortes,” would lead one to expect. Plaquer, teintes, angles, and en forme de refer to art work in general, while zinc and even argentin recall the metal engraving plates, and mordre is the expression used for the corrosive action of the acid's inscription in the metal.7 The line “Des bouts de fumée en forme de cinq” makes explicit the link between such inscription and writing: written figures are analogous to engraved figures (or shapes); and this analogy is itself a figure, in yet another sense of the word. It is not the city which the poem describes (or which is inscribed in the poem), but rather, a sketch, an etching of the city. The text, then, is the representation of a representation. The scene is similarly presented as a series of unrelated impressions; and the line “Moi, j'allais …” underlines the speaker's detachment from what he sees. In his preoccupation with ancient Greece, he makes no attempt to comprehend what he sees and hears around him. But the final line makes clear the specular relation between him and his surroundings: he is himself observed by the gas jets: he is part of the picture. This integration by means of the eye incorporates the world of Greece as well, as the analogies between it and modern Paris show. And yet, the final line does not accomplish altogether a metaphoric totalization of the disparate images in the text. Plato and the famous Greek battles are known to the speaker and to us only through books, or, as here, through his dreams. The scene is that of a sketch; and even the rain is likened to music, rather than being a natural sound. So this written text cannot be said to describe the real world, but only another text; it is the metaphor of a metaphor, opening on to the possibility of a limitless play of relations characteristic of figural language.

As poems like “Monsieur Prudhomme,” “L'Auberge,” and “Croquis parisien” show, even texts whose familiar diction would seem to be motivated by genre or subject-matter can be seen to resist the totalization imposed upon them by the process of naturalization. Such resistance can be seen even more clearly in “Art poétique,” which calls for analysis at another level: as a metalinguistic text, it has often been taken as a description of Verlaine's poetics. It exhibits a characteristic trait of the ars poetica genre: the tending toward the limit of performative, toward what Austin in How to Do Things with Words called the coincidence of action and utterance. Of course, there is no explicit performative “I hereby poeticize correctly” but the poem itself comes to represent such an utterance, and its theory/illustration model can bring into play a certain amount of self-referential discourse.

In this text, there are moments of theoretical statement simply followed by illustration. The second stanza, for instance, can be taken as a reading of the third, where the juxtaposition of the “indécis” and the precise is demonstrated. The reference to beautiful eyes, presumably clear and bright (on the level of the signified), is followed by derrière des voiles, which blurs the effect of the first part of the line as veils might do eyes. The word tremblant annuls the effect of grand jour (broad daylight) in the same way, as does attiédi for ciels d'automne. Similarly, the last line incorporates the contrast between fouillis and clair, while bleu gives the impression of their fusion, since it contradicts the whiteness of claires étoiles.

There are several examples of what could be called “méprises” in the text as well. Soluble en l'air contradicts the meaning of soluble, which refers to a liquid; assassine is used as an adjective; and not only is the jewel said to be forged, but it conflicts with “d'un sou.” Vent crispé is another example: crispé means “dont la surface est un peu crispée par le souffle de quelque vent” (Littré); and there is an added resonance of the English “crisp air.” But there are always instances of “méprises” in the choice of words; for the confusion of words, the taking of one for the other, is just another way of designating figural language. Bijou d'un sou, for example, can be called an oxymoron; vent crispé a kind of hypallage.

The last two stanzas present themselves as a summa of the precepts set forth in the poem. It incorporates vague expressions like la chose, d'autres, and plural nouns. There is a “méprise” in la bonne aventure, which here has the sense of “adventure” as well as its usual meaning of “fortune” (telling); it can also be taken as a metonymy for “fortune teller” or gypsy. That its epithet is éparse is another instance of a turning away from normal usage. Only aventure/littérature is a rich rhyme. But there are moments where precept and illustration coincide more directly. First, with reference to the rhythm: “préfère l'Impair” is part of a 9-syllable line. Second, there is an instance of onomotopoeia in which the coincidence of sound and sense parallels the precept enunciated: “sans rien en lui qui pèse ou qui pose.” The stanza on rhyme, a critique of Parnassian verse and its extremely rich and rare rhymes and the funny, tricky rhyme of Banville, incorporates a mixture of internal rhyme and alliteration in f and s to a degree that has been called cacophonous. The two interior lines—where ou is repeated six times and echoes the rhyme in the preceding stanza—are difficult to read aloud, and their exaggerated rhyme has a comic effect. And the phrase “sans quelque méprise” itself illustrates imprecision.

But perhaps the clearest example of self-referentiality is the line “Prends l’éloquence et tords-lui son cou”: the expression is itself the antithesis of eloquence, both as signified and as signifier, since the use of “tords-lui” and son rather than le are markers of a more casual style. This “neck-wringing” takes place throughout the poem in the conversational rhythm and the use of familiar expressions. Fouillis is a colloquial expression, and this status underlines its contrast with claires étoiles. Grise, while obviously representing the indécis/précis distinction, carries with it a resonance of its familiar meaning, “tipsy.” Other elements from conversational speech include the tutoiement; “c'est des beaux yeux,” tu feras bien, and elle ira jusqu'où, where the omission of the interrogative inversion is reinforced by its position as the rhyming word. Elements from situational registers usually avoided in poetry can be found here, too: assagie carries a connotation of childishness; and ail de basse cuisine is highly unusual in poetry. The use of familiar speech and elements from everyday life serve to create a contrast with the title, which would have led one to expect an elevated style like that of Boileau. And in this contrast itself resides the “message” of the art poétique. There is a reversal of the hierarchy: “la pointe” or eloquence, which should have been “elevated” is “basse” here. And it is music, which is “before everything else,” which lets verse fly away and the soul go off to “other skies.”

But, curiously enough, there are parts in the poem which are self-contradictory rather than self-referential. Cou/jusqu'où is an example of the exaggerated rhyme censured. Though impure laughter is to be avoided, “cet ail de basse cuisine” is used to refer to it. And the most curious instance of this procedure occurs in the fourth stanza, where nuance is repeated three times, contrasted with color to render it even clearer and creating an internal rhyme like that decried in the seventh stanza. The harping tone created by all this is reinforced by the demanding “nous voulons”; and pas, rien que and seul are also pleonastic. All this thwarts the nuance so expressly called-for. This circumventing of the theory/illustration model can be seen again in the relation of the lyrical last two stanzas to the rest of the poem. The didactic tone—though at times a comic one—of the first section is absent here; the imperatives have become much more gentle subjunctives; there are no traces of familiar vocabulary; (in fact, vont fleurant is an obsolete, literary construction); the garlic has been transmuted into much more delicate seasonings. This poem, then, might seem to repeat the pattern of a text like Hugo's Réponse à un acte d'accusation: polemical passages using familiar discourse followed by a relapse into the elevated style. In that case the last two stanzas would represent ideal poetry, while the preceding explanations could be dismissed as didactic theorizing. But this poem cannot be called a simple statement of Verlaine's poetics—nor a “simple” statement” at all. Verlaine himself said of it: “Puis—car n'allez pas prendre au pied de la lettre L'Art poétique de Jadis et naguère, qui n'est qu'une chanson, après tout, JE N'AURAI PAS FAIT DE THEORIE” (Préface aux Poèmes saturniens).

The last line, relapsing into the casual mode, forestalls an interpretation which would divide the poem into a theoretical first part followed by a contradictory application. The Petit Robert gives as one meaning of the word littérature: “ce qui est artificiel, peu sincère,” and uses this line as the example. But there was no such meaning of the word at the time: it is this poem itself which turns littérature into a pejorative word. The use of familiar discourse in this poem, then, because it is a “song” and in its deviation from conventional diction constitutes a sign denoting a rejection of traditional “literature.” Verlaine has taken Boileau's title for a poem that, in its shiftings of style and tone, is distinctly anti-classical. The text's awareness of itself as language, as indicated by the title, leads to its disruption as simple assertion. Each time it seems to refer to something outside itself, beautiful eyes, for instance, it refers instead to its own language: here, the words “beaux yeux” and what follows. The signs become the referents; and the poem itself refers to this referring, or deferring. This va-et-vient between the surface of the text and its referent puts into action the figural movement of the text, a circular motion indicated by the imagery of joining and the figure of the sun. It seems to be a text about poetry; but it can only be “about,” and turning about, itself.

Other texts likewise play on the reader's recognition of the stylistic incongruity of familiar language and invite interpretations which can take it into account. “Paysage,” from the section called “A la manière de plusieurs,” parodies the dixains of Coppée, turning around the familiar Romantic topos of a day in the country with a lover and using familiar expressions and constructions to push Coppée's platitude to the extreme. Poems like “Charleroi,” “Jean de Nivelle” (Romances sans paroles), and “Images d'un sou” (Jadis et naguère), combine elements from different milieux and several registers to produce a humorous tone or the disorienting effects prized so greatly later on by the decadents. Another text in which familiar language is at odds with rather than justified by its context is “Un Pouacre,” where insults, slang, and repugnant details produce a comic effect in their juxtaposition with the cliché of seeing the spectre of one's past, the figure of remorse.

Sometimes it seems that such contradictions in tone and level are impossible to incorporate at any level whatever. An example of such an instance is “Nouvelles Variations sur le Point du Jour” (Parallèlement) where a description of Paris calls up familiar language with no contrasting elevated moments.

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 diction ranges from casual (“Il a raison le vieux,” voyez donc) to slang (birbe, “old man,” type, bec épatants, je t'en ratisse) to vulgar expressions like metteurs-au-vent de tripes, (murderers, who disembowel their victims), and especially ce cas. This last word has two slang senses: “excrement” and “penis” and whichever applies in this case is highly improper in poetry. This poem appears in the section of Parallèlement called “Lunes,” which has the same slang meaning as mooning does in English. Robichez finds such usage an “aveulissement du language” (p. 697). Since there is no opposition of such language to a different milieu, it cannot be naturalized in the same way as in the earlier poems. It seems that the language of the poem is taking over, responding to the impulses of sound and figure rather than logic. Word play is evident, as in the phrase “Sur le point de” in the title. “Point du Jour de Paris” calls forth “aurore de paris;” and it is related to the gambling imagery in the text, paris, bonneteau, and je t'en ratisse, meaning to “take” someone in a card game. As in a card game, the relations between the words are purely arbitrary or metonymic; they have only their sound in common. Thus le bonneteau becomes “la bonne tôt …”; Paris calls up paris; tant, t'en. The name of the quarter, “Point du Jour” has no relation to its referent either, since it is situated at the west of Paris. Verlaine had noted this fact earlier in the poem “Aube à l'envers,” evidently referred-to indirectly in the title “Nouvelles variations.” The manuscript of the later poem shows an alternative title, “Couchants,” which makes this explicit and which contains another twist because of the meaning of coucher, “to sleep with.” Grâce à rather than par la faute de is another shift from what would be expected; as épatants seems an unlikely epithet for “metteurs-au-vent de tripes.” Car has lost its function of drawing a conclusion from evidence: the countryside has no obvious connection with the maid's virginity. Besides, we have already been told she is corrupted and that the old man is in fact wrong. The poem seems carried along by its words as by the river it describes: the accumulation of disparate nouns and contradictory adjectives joined by et's, puis, and avec, the repetitions of the first stanza, all seem purely gratuitous. There is no consciousness ordering experience, no totalizing power. Attempts to link the white color of the dawn to the virginity of the maid or to her apron in a metaphoric process are futile: only metonymic relations of sound and contiguity seem to apply. The use of vulgar diction contributes to this contravention of the traditional mode of poetry, indeed of language in general. The only element joining this fragmented assemblage together is the poem's rhythmic structure, its rhyme, and its disposition into stanzas on a printed page. “Variations” could lead one to expect a theme in which the variations would be grounded. But the point of “Le Point du Jour” is its pointlessness: that where there should be a theme there is a hole or rather, a river, carrying the unordered detritus of the life in the city.

“Nouvelles Variations” is only an extreme example of a process seen in the poems discussed earlier: familiar discourse can play an important role in the texts where it appears, but it is an intrusion into conventional poetry and it does not let itself be dismissed with easy generalizations. It reminds us of its otherness, and as such, improper language becomes im-propre, figural, standing for a message not carried by its surface signification. In taking its place in the figural structure of the text, it escapes our attempts to account for it fully. The texts in which Verlaine uses familiar discourse, then, are far from lacking “poetry;” they are not to be excused by referring to his low life: from Les Poèmes saturniens on, they exploit important stylistic resources and take their place among the innovations in poetic language during the course of the 19th century. It is through the practice of such poets as Verlaine that the use of familiar language, slang, technical words, and so on have come to be more predictable in poetry. Because of the resistance these texts oppose to the reader's efforts to incorporate them into seamless, totalizing interpretations, they show Verlaine to be a much more complex, innovative, and interesting poet than the “naïf” versifier he is often taken to be.


  1. Figures (Paris: Seuil, 1966), p. 210.

  2. Charles Morris defines pragmatics as “that portion of semiotic which deals with the origin, uses, and effects of signs within the behavior in which they occur.” Signs, Language, and Behavior (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1946), p. 219. See also his Foundations of the Theory of Signs, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, I, 2 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1938).

  3. Charles Bruneau, Verlaine: Choix de poésies (Paris: Centre de Documentation universitaire, 1950), p. 24.

  4. Claude Cuénot, Le Style de Verlaine (Paris: Centre de Documentation universitaire, 1963), p. 137.

  5. Paul Verlaine, Oeuvres poétiques, ed. Jacques Robichez (Paris: Garnier, 1964), p. 600. Poems quoted are from this edition or, when so noted, from the Y.-G. le Dantec Pléiade edition of the Oeuvres poétiques complètes, revised by Jacques Borel (Paris: Gallimard, 1962).

  6. Quoted in Jacques-Henry Bornecque, Les Poèmes saturniens de Paul Verlaine (Paris: Nizet, 1952), p. 166.

  7. I am endebted to Stephen Spector for this last remark.

Robert Greer Cohn (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2610

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.
Midi sonne. De grâce, éloignez-vous madame.
Il dort. C'est étonnant comme les pas de femme
Résonnent au cerveau des pauvres malheureux.
Midi sonne. J'ai fait arroser dans la chambre.
Va, dors! L'espoir luit comme un caillou dans un creux.
Ah! quand refleuriront les roses de septembre!

This touching, humming, summery poem from Verlaine's Sagesse has been familiar to many of us since adolescence, when we came upon it in textbook anthologies or whatever. Does it really need another elucidation? Probably not, but “on a touché au vers”, in modern criticism like that of Michel Serres, who has offered a Lucretian reading of it in his usual genetic way. Well, one may agree with fusions of science and art in such approaches generally, but there is a terribly important question of emphasis, dosage, tone. I think Serres, who is usually stylish and interesting, hit extremely wide of the mark in this instance, and his misreading points to a great deal that is wrong in contemporary criticism.

The poem does imply a descent toward the origins of life in nature, womb, infancy, but the accent is not on numbers, pace Serres, or even the multiple, or his familiar “bruit de fond” (and “acousphènes”) and the like, which are rather too cold for art and certainly Verlaine's.

I'd say the poem steeps “baptismally” in utter humility and humble rural beginnings, with Christian undertones—at least subtle ones—befitting Verlaine's complete abjection and spiritual rebirth, after his prison experience, expressed notably in Sagesse. We recall the simplicity and childlike faith of “Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit” from the same collection, or “Je suis venu, calme orphelin”.

The nativity scene in a stable—sermo humilis—is to the point of the straw shining in the farm-shed here. The constant theme of Verlaine's yearning for the peace, the lost paradise, in the mother or her presence—he had a remarkably intense relation with her, we know—has an important clear overtone in Mary, the fountain of feminine grace which pervades, nostalgically, the sonnet, and has to do, for example, with the drinking of water from the well. The roses at the end of the poem are, as in traditional symbolism, Hers, “full of grace”. The whole of Sagesse is permeated with Her presence: “Je ne veux plus aimer que ma mère Marie”. (II,II).

Midi sonne, in a Catholic country, is well understood—this end-of-cycle moment of repose, of reconciliation, of Being—from a comparison with Claudel's finest poem, “La Vierge à midi”, at which calming instant he weeps with her “grand pardon”, her generous maternal gift of self: “Parce que vous êtes là pour toujours, simplement parce que vous existez …”

The sheer Being is the whole point as in Verlaine's “Le ciel est, pardessus le toit” (the comma brings out the isolated purity of the est); “Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, la vie est là” …

Claudel, of course, owed an immense debt to this Verlaine, and said so. Don't we all.

Hope which shines in the lowly stable like a wisp of straw, then, is the miracle of faith (in life, in love, in Being going on, which is woman's essence to a needy male) rising out of despair, de profundis, and out of the most ordinary everyday experience or wild, random (“fou”) nature in the raw countryside. True life “flows from the source”, like mother milk or a glass of water from the well.

Serres sees the wasp buzzing erratically as an originary chaos from which number will arise, then the subtler rhythms of art, in a developmental scheme. But true art like Verlaine's doesn't follow linear patterns of progression: it tends to be circular, like the whole and fluid patterns of the metaphoric dimension, the visionary and imaginative realm, altogether. The tone is primarily that of static “epiphany” in the Joycean sense: the divinely maternal, the sensuous, earthy, childish, primitive, rural, natural. As in Plato's Symposium or D. H. Lawrence's view of feminine temperament, there is little split between high and low, past and future …1

So Serres' emphasis on number in connection with Midi sonne—the advent of the alexandrine with the stroke of twelve—misses the simple peaceful tone, maternal in that sense, reconciliatory with Her and the world in this still end-of-cycle moment (as in Valéry's “midi le juste” in the contemplative air of Le Cimetière Marin).


Serres raises a major question when he sees number as being prior to language. This is an entirely arbitrary and one-sided scientific view. I see no reason to settle for anything other than an undecidable here, as Mallarmé did with his polar pair of music and letters, stemming from a vibrant mystery including them both. I see no grounds for accepting original “structures” (I do not quite like the word) which are more analytic than synthetic, more numerical than pre-linguistic.

I quote from “The Structure of Ancient Wisdom” by Harvey Wheeler (J. Social Biol. Struct. 1982 5, 223–32):

“Although Giorgio de Santillana thinks that numbers came before letters (de Santillana, 1961) and Mary Danielli holds that mandalic ideograms predated both (Danielli, 1974), it is generally assumed that naming and counting have almost equally remote symbolic and notational origins. The earliest Sumerian texts show that skills in these two idioms were taught in roughly coordinated sequences …”

Wheeler gives many examples, including one from Leibnitz. But it is really a matter of common sense to throw up one's hands in a sort of “fifty-fifty” gesture in all such problematic cases (heredity-environment, freedom-necessity, order-disorder …) where a dialectic goes off into infinite regress, chicken-and-egg, to deep mystery rather than any specific historical documentation. Since Mallarmé and his “fiction” epistemology, we tend to keep such matters open, problematic …


Serres is likewise unconvincing on the notion of a progression from an even to an uneven rhythm. He sees a neat scheme of evolution from the regular bercement to the last line which features a sept and a rose pattern which he claims to be pentagonal and an eleven-syllable line following an “Ah”. This is far-fetched and forced. A bercement is regular but it is not at all monotonous; it is, rather, incantational, magic, as artistic as anything—one thinks of wonderful “Berceuses” like Stravinsky's in The Firebird. On the other hand, advanced music is very regular, as well as not. No, there is a circle, or spiral, here, not a scientist's line of progress.

So Mallarmé in his Tombeau d'Anatole saw a maternal bercement as the matrix of his poet's rhythm; before him, Baudelaire, in La Chevelure, wrote:

Et mon esprit subtil que le roulis caresse
Saura vous retrouver, ô féconde paresse,
Infinis bercements du loisir embaumé!

There is here, as in the Mallarmé text (or his two Eventail poems), a notion not so much of poetic evolution, but rather a paradoxical, ironic (oxymoronic) play, interchangeably between up and down, fecundity and laziness, etc.

Similarly, the “pas de femme” of our sonnet have nothing to do with an advance from rhythm to music; they are a pure lovely phenomenon in themselves, as Mallarmé knew in Le Nénuphar Blanc: “Subtil secret des pieds qui vont, viennent …”, with a fiercely tender erotic undertone, as in Valéry's canny Les Pas, accompanying a basically maternal tone: mother-sounds bringing comfort, or retreating in the night … The whole poem, as Henri Peyre comments, seems to be addressed by a mother to a sick child. But the poet's own viewpoint is intermingled: it is out of his own suffering self that this pietà is imagined. So there is a good deal of narcissistic feeling, self-accusation and self-pity, as so often in “le pauvre Lélian”. The epiphany of a sacrificial child is really his. To whom—a third party?—is addressed “De grâce, éloignez-vous, madame?” That is unimportant: it gives the familiar feeling of a caring woman tip-toeing or walking out from a room as a child falls asleep …

A similar unsureness is in the last line: who says it? Small matter: the feeling is of the elegiac poet, as so often in Verlaine, yearning for a lost innocence in his sinning older years, which is the tone of “septembre” in part, the autumn of life as of the year. And the rose, pace Serres, is not a “pentagon”, really, or not here; it is the symbol of woman and specifically the Virgin Mother. It ends the poem on another round note, that of plenitude and reconciled “womb” of Eden, (or beyond) as in Dante; the roundness of the o on the page has to do with this, as in Baudelaire's Le Balcon, addressed to a maternal muse; it begins with O and ends with a plunging into the globality of sky and ocean. Similarly, La Chevelure, likewise addressed, begins “O boucles” and ends with images of “l'azur du ciel immense et rond”, “océan”, and “oasis”. Note all the o's as in Verlaine's roses.

Much of what Serres said can be included in an adequate commentary;2 but the tone could hardly have been farther from the intimate musicality and intuitive art of Verlaine, which includes all sorts of drowzy echoes (dort-dorloter, arrose-rose, résonnent-sonne) and down-home visual effects, and altogether a great deal that is longingly personal, sentimental in a high sense, intensely human, desperately nostalgic, sinning and singing, freshly childlike under the prison dirt.

A more intimate look at details tells us:

In line 1: the image suggests a reminiscence of a nativity scene, pertinent to a Christian rebirth, and it is also what any sensitive child might see that is out of the way for his wayward glance alone. Little, he typically bends down to the little gleam in the hollow, below. Here, the light is coming down, like a blessing, through a chink in the stable wall, singles out an insignificant blade of straw, seen by “me”, who am maybe if not a favorite son, at least a comforted one. Later, in Rimbaud, the light, with the impartiality it has in Vermeer (e.g., on a loaf of bread), touches a pissotière gnat with glory; and “la lumière donne sur une merde”.

2: Verlaine instills in us pity for the vulnerable fearing “child”, himself, together with the balm of the soothingly maternal voice, which protects from all outside the circle of her love.

3: her on-going presence, like the river of Proust's mother's voice reading to him and following him far through life, is in “toujours” as it is in Baudelaire's “Longtemps! toujours” (La Chevelure) and Claudel's “là pour toujours”. Her affection is mingled with the sun's, a tender “Father's”.

4: the injunction to sleep extends the soothing note out from a hypothetical bed into the surroundings; the whole peasant scene is safe, at peace with the world, having said grace perhaps at table or just at home in the simple rural scene. One easily sees Verlaine in that posture, perhaps because of Le Coin de Table where he appears with Rimbaud leaning on his elbow. It is crisp, concrete, alive as a Van Gogh portrait, that touch.

5: The modesty of the glass of water “au moins” adds to our affectionate concern; perhaps the child is sick, can take no more than that. He is pale and poor, a near-ghostly “âme”.

6–8: dors-dorloter is incantatory, right for cradling a “child”. And the summery humming of chantonner is right for this near-nothing simplicity, almost as natural as the wasp's.

9: Midi is well coupled with grâce, suggestively, at this calming point at mid-day, a good time to fall asleep, at middling home in the cosmos. Catholic bells then take us to the core, lull, promise. The incantatory appeasement is partly in sonne-étonnant-résonnent-sonne (as it was in autumn-monotone of another langorous poem).

10: In dort, the light of summer (or) filters into sleep; the pas de femme were discussed in our earlier pages. It is astonishing what they do to penetrate to an early core and reassure. Baudelaire's Le Beau Navire lingers over the effect on our instincts of a woman's walking.

11: cerveau: just as the “tête sonore” of Green resonates with kisses, this modern and understatedly concrete “brain” communicates very directly with the abdomen of plunging sensation. Indeed, like the “tête sonore (qui roule)”, it is a loose-hanging, in this sense, as the soft head of a young elephant in Le Beau Navire. And it is sonorous as the image in Le Bateau Ivre: “plus sourd que les cerveaux d'enfants”.

12: arroser continues the tone of solicitude, summer refreshment, and chimes with roses; sonne seems “sunny” and “filial” appropriately, to us English or German readers and perhaps to this bummer-around-England and visitor to Germany.

13: the caillou has the comforting gleam and something of the round sufficiency of the “golden ball” of childhood myth (The Frog Prince), which anthropologists like Robert Bly connect with the radiant integrity of our quondam innocence. The creux may suggest a place of rebirth and at-homeness, the womb, whence the reintegrated self may emerge clean and fresh. Such was the “trou chaud qui souffle la vie” in Rimbaud's poem about desperate children, Les Effarés.

14: Baudelaire's two masterpieces chanting the maternal calm in Jeanne Duval's hair or “blotti dans tes genoux”—La Chevelure and Le Balcon—both end with a question mark. So does Verlaine's sonnet. The greater the bliss, the more anguishing the thought of losing it, and it is partly faced in this way, offering a more open and vibrant ending, consonant with the undecidables of modern art (Rimbaud's defeated closes are a more radical expression of this mood). Moreover, the septembre and the absence of the roses further the elegiac, wistfully hopeful note, very typical of Verlaine.

And yet, the plenitude of what is hoped-for is in the rondeur of the roses, as it is in Dante and, as in him, la boucle est bouclée, at least suggestively: the hope of the beginning (“L'espoir”) is restated. What progress is there then? We are obviously in an ultimately circular poetic universe, where Eden is lost and can be regained only at severe cost: winter, it is hinted, lies not far off ahead. We are not sure at all. Yet the promise is there, or far-out there, at least. Death seems less threatening in childlike faiths of this sort:

Qui cherche, parcourant le solitaire bond
Tantôt extérieur de notre vagabond—
Verlaine? Il est caché parmi l'herbe, Verlaine
A ne surprendre que naïvement d'accord
La lèvre sans y boire ou tarir son haleine
Un peu profond ruisseau calomnié la mort.



  1. The quiet tetrapolar pattern of this epiphany—like a croisée—is at play here as in typical Symbolist poetry (e.g. Mallarmé's Les Fenêtres).

  2. For example, one can see the floating between odd and even as in “Midi sonne”, thanks to the uncertainty of the mute e (Verlaine's Art Poétique itself plumps for the flottement: “l'indécis au précis se joint”); but one can find these aesthetic generalities at work in any good poem. That is not the gravamen of the sonnet at all.

Bernhard Frank (essay date 1988)

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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,
Tandis qu'autour de tous vos tournois
Clignotte l'oeil du filou sournois,
Tournez au son de piston vainqueur.
C'est ravissant comme ça vous soûle
D'aller ainsi dans ce cirque bête!
Bien dans le ventre et mal dans la tête,
Du mal en masse et du bien en foule.
Tournez, tournez, sans qu'il soit besoin
D'user jamais de nuls éperons,
Pour commander à vos galops ronds,
Tournez, tournez, sans espoir de foin.
Et dépêchez, chevaux de leur âme,
Déjà, voici que la nuit qui tombe
Va réunir pigeon et colombe,
Loin de la foire et loin de madame.
Tournez, tournez! le ciel en velours
D'astres en or se vêt lentement.
Voici partir l'amante et l'amant.
Tournez au son joyeux des tambours.

—Paul Verlaine

“Wooden Steeds”

Go round, go round, fine steeds of wood,
A hundred, thousand times go round,
Go round again and round for good,
And round about to the oboe sound.
The hefty soldier and heftiest maid
(For today her masters also wander
On a lark in the part at Cambre)
On your backs, as though in private, ride.
Go round, go round, steeds of their heart,
While all around your merry-go-round
Pickpockets wink their sly retort,
Go round to the conquering cornet sound.
Amazing how to turn like that,
In vicious cycle, intoxicates you!
Fine for the belly but hard on the head,
A lot of ill and a lot of good.
Go round, go round, without the need
Of using spurs on either side
To help govern your circular ride,
Go round, go round and forget the feed.
And steeds of their soul, come now, come,
Already here the falling night
The pigeon and the dove unites,
Far from the fair and far from Madame.
Go round, go round! The velvet sky
Slowly puts its gold stars on.
Here lover, beloved, say good-bye.
Go round to the sound of the merry drums.

—Translated by Bernhard Frank1

“Wooden Steeds” (“Chevaux de Bois”) was inspired by the St. Gilles fair in Brussels when Verlaine, accompanied by the younger poet, Rimbaud, was visiting there in August, 1872. It appeared first in Romances Sans Paroles, 1874 and later, in revised (and modified) form, in the first edition of Sagesse. To understand why it has been called “technically one of the most brilliant poems [Verlaine] was ever to write,”2 we must look at the subtle yet precise manner in which the poet replicates the motion of the carousel horses.

To establish the circular movement Verlaine opens the first and last line of all the odd-numbered quatrains with the word “tournez” (“go round”). In this fashion, the carousel completes a cycle at the end of every other stanza.

Yet the poet goes further. He succeeds in regulating the speed of the turns. Thus, in the opening stanza “tournez” appears twice in every line, providing the extra energy needed to overcome inertia. In the first and last lines of later odd-numbered stanzas, the word appears either once or twice-in-a-row, with the repetition giving an additional impetus.

In the final stanza, the second and third lines are end-stopped, halting the motion long enough for the lovers to get off the carousel. It resumes its turning, albeit a bit sluggishly—with only one “tournez” in the last line—now that the passion has gone out of it. Or has the passion gone out of the circus-crier/narrator who has been egging it on?

“Wooden Steeds,” it has been pointed out, alternates stanzas of masculine and feminine rhymes.3 The effect of this alternation is reenforced by another device: written in vers impairs of nine syllables, the stanzas also approximate, alternately, the English trochaic and iambic meters. Consequently, all the odd-numbered stanzas are imbued with a driving energy, while the even-numbered ones slacken markedly. Thus has Verlaine given us, in a splendid technical feat, not only the circularity and speed of the carousel, but also the see-saw motion of its steeds.


  1. Offering: Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke and Paul Verlaine (Buffalo: Goldengrove Press, 1986), p. 8.

  2. Lawrence and Elizabeth Hanson, Verlaine: Fool of God (New York: Random House, 1957), p. 175.

  3. E.g., Georges Zayed, La Formation Littéraire de Verlaine (Geneva: Librairie E. Droz, 1962), p. 363.

Laurence M. Porter (essay date 1990)

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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 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,”1 to say nothing of the all too familiar “musicality.” A fine recent collection of French essays is disparagingly titled La Petite Musique de Verlaine.2 Once one has described Verlaine's “music” by counting syllables and noting repetitions of sounds, there seems to be little more to say.3 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.4 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 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” (p. 15: 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.”5

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.”6 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 (cf. George Sand's “L'Orgue du Titan”), 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.7

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 “rhythmes 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.8 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 saturniens9 rejected everything he had written before Sagesse in 1881—in other words, nearly everything most critics still find important:

L’âge mûr a, peut avoir ses revanches et l'art aussi, sur les enfantillages de la jeunesse, ses nobles revanches, traite des objets plus et mieux en rapport, religion, patrie, et la science, et soi-même bien considérée sous toutes formes, ce que j'appellerai de l’élégie sérieuse, en haine de ce mot, psychologie. Je m'y suis efforcé quant à moi et j'aurai laissé mon oeuvre personnelle en quatre parties bien définies, Sagesse, Amour, Parallèlement—et Bonheur [1891]. … Puis, car n'allez pas prendre au pied de la lettre mon ‘Art poétique’ de Jadis et Naguère, qui n'est qu'une chanson, après tout,—Je n'aurai pas fait de theorie.

[pp. 1073–74]

(The age of maturity, and art as well, can take its revenge, its noble revenge, on the childishness of youth; it treats subjects closer and more appropriate to itself, religion, the fatherland, science, and itself examined carefully in every form, what I shall term the serious elegy, out of hatred for that word, psychology. As for me, I have striven to do so and I shall have left my personal work in four distinct parts, Wisdom, Love, In Parallel—and Happiness. … Moreover, for don't take literally my ‘Art of Poetry’ in Formerly and Not So Long Ago, which is only a song, after all—I shall have created no theories.)

With that disclaimer, Verlaine's self-betrayal was consummated. It had begun with the distribution of a “prière d'insérer” (publicity flier) for Sagesse in 1881, describing him as “sincèrement et franchement revenu aux sentiments de la foi la plus orthodoxe” (p. 1111: having sincerely and openly returned to the most orthodox sentiments of religious faith), including support of attempts to restore the monarchy.

Written from the time he was fourteen, Verlaine's earliest surviving poems reflect his admiration for the grandiosity of Victor Hugo. But from 1861 on (when he was seventeen) he initiates a thematic critique of poeticism in the manner of Musset and the late Romantics such as Corbière and Laforgue. “Fadaises” presents a series of conventional lover's homages in rhyming couplets (in French this sort of versification is called “rimes plates,” “plates” also designating what is trite and inexpressive), with a surprise ending revealing that all of these compliments have been addressed to Lady Death.10 The title (“Insipidities”) already dismisses the import of the verses that follow; the pointe of the conclusion dismisses life itself: “Et le désir me talonne et me mord, / Car je vous aime, ô Madame la Mort!” (p. 16: And desire spurs me on and bites me, / For I love you, O Mistress Death!). To equate love with death is a typically Romantic gesture. If the title works in conjunction with this equation to undermine the conventionality of the earlier verses, then Verlaine has done little new. But if the title can be held to dismiss the concluding Romantic cliché, as well as those clichés that the Romantic cliché is dismissing (with the implied topos of vanitas vanitatum), then Verlaine's world-weariness extends to and contaminates the verbal medium itself. Whether it actually does so, however, we cannot tell for certain from the text alone. But in the context of Romantic practice this poem stands out because Romantic poems do not usually appear under titles that make their protests, as well as the targets of those protests, seem frivolous from the outset. They do not do so, that is, until the ironic poetry of Corbière and Laforgue.

Additional albeit equally ambiguous evidence that Verlaine early adopted a skeptical attitude toward Romanticism appears in the early poem that most specifically comments on poetic creation, the “Vers dorés” of 1866 (p. 22). There he claims that poetry should be impersonal: “maint poète / A trop étroits les reins ou les poumons trop gras” (many a poet / Has loins too narrow or lungs too fat); only those who “se recueillent dans un égoïsme de marbre” (commune with themselves within an egoism of marble) are great. At first this statement seems simply to belong to the “second Romanticism” of Gautier or De Lisle, standing in opposition to the earlier belief that “Gefühl ist alles.” But like the title of “Fadaises,” the term “égoïsme” again renders suspect Verlaine's homage to the “Neoclassic Stoic.”

After the prologue, the first section of the Poèmes saturniens, titled “Melancholia,” expresses a nostalgic faith in the charms of past love: “Et qu'il bruit avec un murmure charmant / Le premier oui qui sort des lèvres bien-aimées!” (“Nevermore,” p. 61: And how it rustles with a charming murmur / The first yes that leaves beloved lips!).11 But this vision must not become too precise: in “Mon Rêve familier” the idealized woman speaks with the voice of the beloved dead “qui se sont tues” (who have fallen silent), but of her name the poet remembers only that it is “doux et sonore / Comme ceux des aimés que la vie exila” (p. 64: sweet and resonant / Like the names of loved ones whom life exiled). In the present time of narration, however—or more accurately, of lyricization—artistic self-consciousness begins to intrude. A poem such as “Lassitude,” for example, seems initially only to echo the Baudelairean taste for the illusion of love when it asks the beloved: “fais-moi des serments que tu rompras demain” (make me promises that you will break tomorrow; see, e.g., Baudelaire's “L'Amour du mensonge”). But Baudelaire never really loses faith in art, and Verlaine does. His epigraph from Luis de Góngora, “a batallas de amor campos de pluma” (for battles of love, fields of feathers), suggests by juxtaposition that not only the content of professions of love but perhaps even their verbal vehicle is false. The double meaning of pluma, feathers for lying on or writing with, implies that the falsity of the beloved's specious assurances may extend to and contaminate the verbal medium itself, where the cradling regularity of the verses reflects the sensuous pleasure of the caresses that the woman lavishes on the lyric self. Such a possibility, farfetched as it may initially seem, emerges blatantly in the poem “L'Angoisse” in the same section.

Nature, rien de toi ne m’émeut, ni les champs
Nourriciers, ni l’écho vermeil des pastorales
Siciliennes, ni les pompes aurorales,
Ni la solennité dolente des couchants.
Je ris de l'Art, je ris de l'Homme aussi, des chants,
Des vers, des temples grecs et des tours en spirales
Qu’étirent dans le ciel vide les cathédrales,
Et je vois du même oeil les bons et les méchants.
Je ne crois pas en Dieu, j'abjure et je renie
Toute pensée, et quant à la vieille ironie
L'Amour, je voudrais bien qu'on ne m'en parlât
Lasse de vivre, ayant peur de mourir, pareille
Au brick perdu jouet du flux et du reflux,
Mon âme pour d'affreux naufrages appareille.

[p. 65]

(Nature, nothing in you moves me, neither the nurturant fields, / Nor the crimson echo of Sicilian pastorals, / nor the splendor of dawn, / Nor the plaintive ceremony of the sunsets. // I laugh at Art, I laugh at Man as well, at songs, / Poetry, Greek temples and the spiraling towers / That the cathedrals stretch forth into the sky, / And I see the virtuous and wicked as the same. // I don't believe in God, I abjure and forswear / All thought, and as for that old irony, / Love, I'd rather you not speak to me of it at all. // Wearied of living, afraid of dying, like / The lost brig, a plaything of the ocean's ebb and flow, / My soul is being rigged for fearsome shipwrecks.)

The poet rejects art, the very activity that defines him, and its products of music and verse. He surrenders himself to the rocking, delusive movement of the alexandrine verses like a lost ship. This “musicality,” this hypnotic empty signifier, is reinforced by the pervasive additional regularity of verbal parallelisms. The first stanza is built around four successive clauses beginning in “ni”; the second begins by repeating “je ris de” and then lists four items each of which is preceded by “des”; the last verse of this stanza pairs “les bons et les méchants.” The third stanza deploys a fourfold anaphora of “je” associated with what the poet abjures. More verbal parallels in lines 9 (“j'abjure et je renie.”), 12 (“lasse de vivre, ayant peur de mourir”), and 13 (“du flux et du reflux”)—the last with an internal rhyme—create a countercurrent of soothing regularity beneath the explicit textual meanings of the negation of nature, art, God, and love. Ultimately, of course, such denials and a passive yielding to rhythmic flux lead to the same thing: the ultimate disaster for which the lyric self prepares in the last line; the loss of a personal identity, which can be expressed and maintained only through words.

Generally, then, during the course of the “Melancholia” section of the Poèmes saturniens the poet affirms that words once had a transcendent meaning that they now have lost: they expressed the eternity of love (see “Le Rossignol,” pp. 73–74). As “Lassitude” reveals, the poet prefers this willfully recreated illusion to the reality of sexual fulfillment in the present. But the illusion can be sustained not by specific words themselves but only by the idea of words, just as the name of the beloved in “Nevermore” can be preserved only as a general impression. Finally, in “L'Angoisse” the despairing poet will reject all talk about love—remembered, potential, or allusive—to surrender himself to the rocking rhythm of the hemistiches. Thus the self comes to be suspended between life and death, as it is more specifically in the concluding lines of “Chanson d'automne”:

Et je m'en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m'emporte
Deça, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

[p. 73]

(And I go off / On the evil wind / That carries me / Here and there / Like the / Dead leaf.)

For the historical Verlaine, alcoholism achieved a similar compromise between suicide and survival, preserving him as much as possible in a blurry, dreamy swoon that did not threaten immediate self-annihilation but offered the one advantage of that state—relief from pain. Such a narcissistic retreat into the self effaces the disappointments of the exterior world. And the incursions of the other arts into Verlaine's poetry obscure the meretricious words with which one attempts to communicate with that world. Not only is this poetry opposed to commitment—expressing “l'amer à la bouteille” rather than “la bouteille à la mer”—it also is anti-impressionist. For real impressionism opens itself to sensory experience; it does not exploit such experience as a narcotic.

The following section of the Poèmes saturniens, titled “Eaux-fortes” (engravings), moves away from the verbal toward the visual. But at the same time the relative impersonality of these descriptive poems added to the frequent marked choice of “rythmes impairs” makes them more nearly “musical” than the ordinary poem, in a context that allows us to recognize such musicality as antiverbal. “Croquis parisien” has one five-syllable line amid three decasyllabic lines in each stanza; “Cauchemar” has lines of seven and three syllables; “Marine” has five-syllable lines. These are the first three of five poems in this section. When Verlaine returns to conventional versification in the last two, he preserves the titles that suggest works of visual art: “Effet de nuit” and “Grotesques.” And as if to offset the return to rhythmical conventions, he treats subjects that make explicit his feelings of alienation: outcasts rejected by the elements and menaced with imminent death.

To the “musicality” of a marked choice of an unusual rhythm (pentasyllables again), the first of the “Paysages tristes,” “Soleils couchants,” adds the “musicality” of an exceptional amount of repetition. In sixteen lines there are only four rhymes—two in each group of eight lines. Line 3 is the same as line 5; 11 is the same as 16. The expression “soleils couchants” appears four times as well as in the title, while the word “défilent” occupies the first three of five syllables in lines 13 and 14.

Moreover, the flux of transition subverts the stability essential to allow representation, and this poem is liminal on many levels. Both dawn and sunset, passages between darkness and light, are evoked. The poem's beach stands between sea and land, as its dream stands between waking and sleeping and its phantoms between life and death. Furthermore, these diverse states interpenetrate. The poem literally begins with a weak dawn light that suggests a sunset; in the last eight lines this natural setting, in turn, becomes the stage for “d’étranges rêves” associated only by simile with the setting suns. The event of the title, “setting suns,” has been twice displaced, first to dawn and then to dream. The apparent history of the poem's composition thus moves backward: instead of the title serving as the pretext for the poem, the poem becomes, as it were, the pretext for the title. This multiplication of perspectives makes any particular sequence of associations appear arbitrary. The constellation of associations comes to seem rather like a musical theme that could equally well be played cancrizans (backward) or inverted. Verlaine is well aware of his poems’ resistance to interpretation, as we can see in the sardonic self-glossing of stanzas 8 through 10 of “Nuit du Walpurgis classique,” the fourth poem in “Paysages tristes”:

—Ces spectres agités, sont-ce donc la pensée
Du poète ivre, ou son regret, ou son remords,
Ces spectres agités en tourbe cadencée,
                              Ou bien tout simplement des morts?
Sont-ce done ton remords, ô rêvasseur qu'invite
L'horreur, ou ton regret, ou ta pensée,—hein?—tous
Ces spectres qu'un vertige irrésistible agite,
                              Ou bien des morts qui seraient fous?—
N'importe! ils vont toujours, les fébriles fantômes.

[p. 72]

(These agitated ghosts, now are they the thoughts / Of the drunken poet, or his regrets, or his remorse, / These ghosts stirred up in a rhythmical rabble, / Or are they quite simply the dead? // Now are they your remorse, day-dreamer courted / By horror, or your regrets, or your thoughts, eh? All / These ghosts agitated by an irresistible vertigo, / Or else might they be dead people gone mad? // No matter! They're moving still, the feverish phantoms.)

The tenor of the poem, visionary Romantic disorder, is negated by its triply Apollonian vehicle: the orderly alexandrines, the allusion to classical ancient Greece in Goethe's Faust, part II, and the regular French (rather than unkempt English) gardens of Le Nôtre, “correct, ridicule, et charmant” (proper, ridiculous, and charming). These words conclude and define the poem while repeating the last line and a half of stanza 1. The implied author retains a bit of playfulness by breaking the frame rather than affirming it, for example in the first stanza, when an excess of regularity creates dislocation because the vision is described as “un rhythmique [sic] sabbat, rhythmique, extrêmement / Rhythmique” (p. 71: A rhythmical Sabbath, rhythmical, extremely / Rhythmical). The word “extremely” forces the word “rhythmical” beyond the end of the line in an enjambment that disrupts rhythm. And again, at the beginning of stanzas 6 and 7, the word “s'entrelacent” (embrace) applied to the dancing specters literally obliges one stanza to carry over a sentence from the previous one. Thus, contrary to the classical norm, according to which each stanza contains one neat, complete sentence, these stanzas run over into each other, swept up in the grotesque, promiscuous dance of the dead.

It would be tempting to assume that Verlaine's mockery of conventional prosody in his Walpurgis Night functions to enhance by contrast his unconventional prosody, and that the latter's “musicality” offers us a haven of nonreferential innocence by challenging the false primacy of words. But Verlaine will not allow this impression to stand. The ensuing Saturnian poems will assail the innocence—both verbal and nonverbal—associated with love language and then insinuate this now-debased language into the “musical” world of purity so as to threaten the reassuring connotations of the orderly repetitions of “musicality” itself. The first move in Verlaine's parodic enterprise can be observed in “La Chanson des ingénues” of the section “Caprices.” From the outset, these ingénues are faced with extinction because they inhabit “les romans qu'on lit peu” (novels that are seldom read). Are they actual young women or sentences (“la phrase,” of feminine grammatical gender in French) in the text? The second stanza, beginning “Nous allons entrelacées” (p. 75), introduces a series of sentences that Verlaine has “interlaced” into one monstrously long sentence by replacing periods with semicolons for the remaining seven stanzas of the poem. The portrait of the ingénues also becomes textually “interlaced” with other suspect depictions of innocence, for the first phrase with which they characterize themselves—“Et le jour n'est pas plus pur / Que le fond de nos pensées” (And the daylight is no purer / Than the depths of our thoughts)—parodies Hippolyte's equivocal protestation to his father in Racine's Phèdre (IV, 2). The assaults of suitors are repulsed by “les plis ironiques / De nos jupons détournés” (the ironic folds / Of our averted skirts). These folds, ostensibly protective owing to the extra density of material that they interpose between female and male, also suggest both the folds of the female sexual organs and partially hidden thoughts. Such “pensers clandestins” emerge in the last two lines, where the ingénues imagine themselves as the future lovers of libertines. These young women were initially interchangeable from one novel to another. Now they have proven interchangeable in the roles of innocence and experience as well. They are unmasked as empty signs whose meaning is not innate or even fixed, but arbitrary and unstable.

“Sérénade” and “Nevermore,” near the end of the collection, intimately link the lulling reassurance of “musicality” to the falsity of words. “Sérénade” stresses rhythm by employing the unusual alternation of ten- and five-syllable lines we have already observed in “Croquis parisien.” The poem recalls the Baudelairean quasi-pantoum (see “Harmonie du soir,” where the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next), except that it uses stanzas rather than lines to achieve its lulling effect: the first of seven quatrains is also the fourth, and the second reappears as the seventh. The poem displays many other Baudelairean motifs: the beloved's onyx eyes, the Lethe of her breast, the Styx of her dark hair, her “parfum opulent.” But Verlaine condenses Baudelaire's alternatives of adoration and sadistic assault into single lines: the poem as “chanson” is both “cruelle et câline” (cruel and cajoling); the woman is “Mon Ange!—ma Gouge!” (My Angel!—my Whore!) Such laconism appears flippant, as if Verlaine were suggesting that he could easily replicate Baudelaire's tricks. The anticlimactic platitude of the poet's supreme appeal for contact—“Ouvre ton âme et ton oreille au son / De ma mandoline” (open your soul and your ear to the sound / Of my mandolin)—plus the humbleness of his instrument add up to a pungent satire of lyrical conventions and a devaluation of lyricism itself, both in the modern sense of an emotional effusion and in the medieval sense of a poem designed to be accompanied by music. Above all, Verlaine writes a gay mockery of heterosexual romance.

“Nevermore” again adopts a Baudelairean device by repeating the first line of a five-line stanza at its end. Given an appropriate context, repetition above and beyond the ordinary in the lyric usually creates a reassuring world of regularity and stability. In Verlaine's poem the motif of repetition introduced by the versification reflects the psychic condition of the subject: the lyric self's aging heart will attempt to rebuild and readorn the past monuments of its hymns. But the fundamental falsity of existence has now extended its domain to encompass prayer as well as love: “Brûle un encens ranci sur tes autels d'or faux. … Pousse à Dieu ton cantique. … Entonne, orgue enroué, des Te Deum splendides” (Burn a rancid incense on your altars of false gold. … Heave your canticle to God. … Thunder forth, hoarse organ, splendid Te Deums). Other voices join the poet's in chorus in a pseudo-elegiac movement, but only to mingle the ludicrous with the noble: “Sonnez, grelots; sonnez, clochettes; sonnez, cloches!” (Ring, sleigh bells; ring, hand bells; ring, bells!). And at the end, the almost breathless recital of Baudelairean motifs in condensed form—an impatient and halfhearted reenactment—robs them of the tragic grandeur they had in the original: “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, awaking in the dream, / And remorse is in love: such is the law). Finally, the title “Nevermore,” connoting the irretrievable uniqueness of an experience, is undercut from the beginning, for not only does it echo the refrain of Poe's “Raven,” it has also been previously used in the Poèmes saturniens themselves.

The concluding poems just before the Epilogue are, in the manner of Parnassianism, intrinsically false. The notes to the Pléiade edition misleadingly claim that Verlaine tried to profit from the current vogue of Leconte de Lisle (considered, as recently as the early years of the twentieth century, to be the second greatest poet of nineteenth-century France, after Victor Hugo) and that he was untrue to himself by imitating Leconte de Lisle; but the Epilogue clearly shows that Verlaine's homage of imitation is once again ironic. He mocks the specious sublimity of the Parnassian pantheon and neo-Hellenism by casting himself in the role of one of “les suprêmes Poètes / Qui vénérons les Dieux et qui n'y croyons pas” (we supreme Poets / Who venerate the gods and don't believe in them). The following lines that reject inspiration in favor of effort are obviously ironic and parody the movement of “l'Art pour l'Art” (headed by Théophile Gautier) as well as the Parnassian school of Leconte de Lisle: “A nous qui ciselons les mots comme des coupes / Et qui faisons les vers émus très froidement.” (Here's to us who chisel words like goblets / And write emotional verse quite in cold blood.) The truculence of Verlaine's parody, sharp as that of the young Rimbaud, has long been underestimated.

Verlaine's sense of the absurdity of language culminates in the Fêtes galantes. More radically than before he attacks the notion that language is the proud, unmatched achievement of humanity. He deprives humans of speech and bestows it on nonhuman entities. By means of cacophony, he further assails the assumption that what is poetic is what is harmonious. By having the names of musical notes invade the poems, he refutes the belief that only what is verbal signifies. Finally, his satire of love language in this collection undermines the conventional association of intensity with originality by stressing the conventional rhetorical nature of expressions of intense love feelings.12

According to J. S. Chaussivert in his fine study of the Fêtes galantes,13 the twenty-two poems in this collection are arranged in a cyclothymic movement, a mood swing rising to and then falling away from a manic episode. The first two poems express a certain sadness and hesitation before the lyric self embarks on the adventure of the festival. The latter, Chaussivert continues, affords an opportunity for what Mikhail Bakhtin calls “carnival,” episodic, ritualized, socially sanctioned transgression. The very title conveys this notion insofar as “galant” refers to flirtation and sex outside of marriage. (In classical French parlance, a “femme sensible” has had one lover; a “femme galante” has or has had several.) For Chaussivert, the poem “En bateau” sums up the irresponsible mood that colors the entire collection:

C'est l'instant, Messieurs, ou jamais,
D’être audacieux, et je mets
Mes deux mains partout désormais!

[p. 115]

(This is the time, Sirs, if ever there was one, / To be audacious, and I'm going to put / My two hands everywhere from now on!)

Poems 3 through 19 depict this “phase where flirtatious playfulness fully unfolds,”14 while the last three are impregnated with a postorgiastic melancholy.

Beneath the mounting and ebbing excitement of the festival, however, the Fêtes galantes follows a different trajectory, a steady devaluation of the word which is unaffected by the climax of the carnival mood. First, in “Clair de lune” and “Pantomime,” Verlaine invokes a silence that supplants conversation. Then music invades and disrupts the fragmented conversation of “Sur l'herbe.” Intensifying these shifts in the discourse of an unchanging set of characters in style direct libre (a sequence of conversational remarks whose speakers are unidentified), the more radical kaleidoscopic shifts of characters in “Fantoches” and “En bateau” totally destroy narrative coherence. “Mandoline” then simultaneously dehumanizes the lovers and strips them of significant discourse while attributing such discourse to things.15 Next, “Lettre,” “Les Indolents,” and “Colombine” show rather than tell (as “Mandoline” had done) that the language of lovers is a set of empty signifiers. But although these poems leave declarations of passion unanswered, or reject or banish them, they do so in a lighthearted vein. Beneath the superficial frivolity of the concluding poems, “L'Amour par terre” and “Colloque sentimental,” however, the tone turns serious; and the lyric self, having been introduced as a personified observer, now becomes implicated in the failure of the language of love.16

The title Fêtes galantes itself calls into question the primacy of words by evoking Watteau's painting of the same name. And the tone of the frolicking masquers in the first poem, “Clair de lune,” clashes with their message: “l'amour vainqueur et la vie opportune” (conquering love and a life of opportunity). For they celebrate love “in a minor key.” They themselves are “quasi tristes,” as is the moonlight in which they gambol. That moonlight mingles with their songs in the second stanza and then supersedes human words in the third with its omnipotent nonverbal message: “Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres / Et sangloter d'extase les jets d'eau” (p. 107: Which makes the birds dream in the trees / And the fountains sob with ecstasy). The birds become silent and immobilized; the inanimate fountains take on inarticulate human feelings in response to the moon's message. To be sure, in ordinary poetic prosopopoeia and apostrophe a real-life verbal exchange between two living, waking, neighboring human beings becomes an exchange between only one such human being and an addressee who could not actually respond. But one side of a conversation nevertheless remains. By the end of “Clair de lune,” however, the singing humans have been swept from the stage, and nature is left to commune wordlessly with itself.

The second poem, “Pantomime,” removes words from people altogether, except for the unspecified voices that Colombine hears in her heart. Each of the four stanzas presents a discrete character, totally cut off from the others in the present time of lyricization. People recapture words in the third poem, “Sur l'herbe,” but in a contextfree style direct libre that recalls Apollinaire's “Lundi rue Christine.” We cannot say precisely how many speakers are involved or who is saying what. At least four persons must be present because the text mentions “Mesdames” and “Messieurs” in direct address. Three individuals are specified: an abbé, a marquis, and the dancer La Camargo. Dashes reveal that at least two are talking. But Verlaine is not particular about the distribution of their lines. A variant of the initial verse had no dash at mid-line to indicate a change of speaker, whereas one appears in the definitive version. Lines 7 through 11 suggest at least three male speakers, although theoretically any of them could be women. The free-floating conversation consists of insults and bantering flattery. We cannot tell whether the final five syllables (“Hé! bonsoir, la Lune!”) constitute a facetious address to a celestial body or a comic sexual reference to an earthly one. (“Je vois la lune” in familiar parlance means “I see somebody's bare ass.”) As if all these features did not make the poem sufficiently incoherent, a series of musical notes invades it twice. Even as music the two series remain ambiguous. Both begin with an ascending major triad but finish unresolved, one ending on the double dominant, the other on the dominant. And as the added emphasis in the text cited below indicates, in the middle stanza the musical notes homophonically invade their immediate context. Their innate musicality elicits a further “musical” response in the form of the marked repetitions of assonance and alliteration. The musical term “croche” (eighth note) is embedded here as well. And the stability of individual signifiers is further weakened by homonyms of the rhyme—si and l'une—inserted in stanzas 2 and 3:

L'abbé divague.—Et toi, marquis,
Tu mets de travers ta perruque.
—Ce vieux vin de Chypre est exquis
Moins, Camargo, que votre nuque.
—Ma flamme … Do, mi, sol,
la si.
L'abbé, ta noirceur se
—Que je meure, Mesdames, si
Je ne vous décroche une étoile!
—Je voudrais être petit chien!
—Embrassons nos bergères l'une
Après l'autre.—Messieurs, eh bien?
—Do, mi, sol.—Hé!
bonsoir, la Lune.

(The Abbé is rambling.—And you, Marquis, / You put your wig on crooked. /—This old wine from Cyprus is exquisite, / Less, Camargo, than your nape. //—My love … Do, mi, so, la si. / Abbé, your evil scheme is exposed! /—I hope to die, ladies, if / I don't bring down a star for you! // I'd like to be a little dog! /—Let's kiss our shepherdesses one / After the other.—Well, gentlemen? /—Do, mi, so—Hi there! Good evening, Moon.)

Less radical, “A la promenade” exploits the semantic connotations of embedded homophony to underline the tone of pleasurable insincerity imposed on love language:

Trompeurs exquis et coquettes charmantes,
Coeurs tendres, mais affranchis du serment,
Nous devisions délicieusement …

[p. 109; emphasis added]

(Exquisite deceivers and charming coquettes, / Tender hearts, but freed from our vows, / We chatted deliciously …)

Both rhymes in this stanza end in a syllable that is a form of the verb mentir, to lie. This stanza, the middle one of five, is framed by notations of nonverbal communication far more significant than words, which thus are once again depreciated. The first stanza describes the indulgent, complicitous “smile” of the landscape; the last ends by conjuring up the provocative pout of a flirtatious mouth. Because words have been repressed, the suggestiveness of the sexual challenge in such details is all the broader. But predictably “La moue assez clémente de la bouche” (the rather lenient pout of the mouth) again contains a homonym of the verb mentir.

“Dans la grotte” further devalues words by superimposing banality on insincerity. The poem consists entirely of a tissue of clichés descending to what even in this context is an anticlimax, and the third line of each quatrain, an alexandrine among octosyllables, presents the objective correlative of the rhetorical excess that pervades the poem. In the first stanza the lover announces, “Là! je me tue à vos genoux!” (There! I'll kill myself at your knees!). The fearsome Hyrcanian tiger seems a lamb next to his cruel Clymène. But he moderates his outburst in the second stanza. His sword, which has felled so many heroes, will end his life. Not only has the act been safely postponed to an indefinite future but metonymy separates the potential suicide from the instrument of his death (he now says “my sword will kill me” rather than “I shall kill myself). This substitution of the instrument for the agent implies that the lover is now at some distance from the act and also that he has a choice of possible ways to do himself in—or indeed he might choose not to kill himself at all. And so, as we could have predicted, in the third stanza the hero prudently concludes he does not need a sword; did not love pierce his heart with sharp arrows the moment the beloved woman's eye shone on him? The equivocal device of a rhetorical question, whose vehicle expresses uncertainty while its tenor conveys certitude, brings the poem full circle from despair to flirtation.

Obsession with sexuality forms the fixed center around which Verlaine's badinage and verbal artifice circle in the next three poems. “Les Ingénus,” “Cortège,” and “Les Coquillages” first offer exciting glimpses of the woman's body: “Parfois luisaient des bas de jambes … c’étaient des éclairs soudains de nuques blanches” (Sometimes bare ankles twinkled … white napes suddenly flashed). These voyeuristic thrills are associated with specious words. In “Cortège” such glimpses become more overtly sexual, but they are not offered from the viewpoint of a poetic “nous”; instead, they are attributed to the lyric self's dissociated, projected primitivism and animality in the form of a monkey and of a “négrillon.” The female object's going up- and downstairs in this poem represents sexual intercourse with an archetypal symbolism of regular movement and increasing breathlessness as one “mounts” the stairway. As in a series of dreams where the inadmissible repressed moves gradually toward direct expression, in this series of poems the lyric self at last becomes a “je.” In “Les Coquillages” as in “Dans la grotte” the setting is again a cavern, but now the sexual symbolism—the lyric self enters the cave as a penis enters a vagina—is no longer masked by the reversal whereby the poet figure overtly imagines piercing himself with his sword rather than penetrating the desired woman. And the specious rhetoric of female “cruelty” (rejection) has disappeared. The cavern “où nous nous aimâmes” (where we once loved) is studded with shells. Each suggests part of the woman's complexion or body; one, particularly disturbing, suggests her vagina and thus reduplicates the entire rupestral setting. As the next poem, “En patinant,” implies with its scornful concluding cacophony “—quoi qu'on caquette!” (p. 113: whatever they may cackle!), only nature remains meaningful, and culture in the form of words may be dismissed entirely.

Here, midway into the collection, Verlaine moves beyond disparagement, mockery, cliché, hyperbole, and erasure to more radical ways of subverting words. Cacophony, the intimate enemy of lyric, gains reinforcement from structural incoherence, the enemy of context already apparent in “Sur l'herbe.” Each of the nine stanzas of “Fantoches” and “En bateau” introduces a different set of characters. Such composition by juxtaposition becomes pictorial rather than narrative or syntactical. “Fantoches” attributes no words to its human characters, only gestures and body movements. A nonhuman being assumes the task of verbal communication: on behalf of a lovesick Spanish pirate, “un langoureux rossignol / Clame la détresse à tuetête” (p. 114: a languorous nightingale / Yells out distress at the top of its lungs). Any musical delights the mention of the dreamy nightingale might lead us to anticipate are promptly canceled by the excessive loudness and harshness of its song, described with six stop consonants within eight syllables. Similarly, in “Le Faune” inhuman noises shatter the momentary serenity surrounding the silent humans. The sinister laughter of a terra-cotta faun ushers them in, and the clattering of tambourines making noise without players escorts them out.

The sounds of nature become agreeable in the next poem, “Mandoline,” only further to devalue faithless love and its empty words by contrast. Maids and swains “échangent des propos fades / Sous les ramures chanteuses” (exchange trite remarks / Beneath the singing branches). While the trees sing, the promiscuous multiplicity of the human messages voids them of meaning. Damis “pour mainte / Cruelle fait maint vers tendre” (writes many a tender verse for many a cruel lady). The characters, portrayed as “donneurs de sérénades” and as “écouteuses,” have no functions other than these idle diversions (p. 115). They are stock characters from pastoral, so familiar—like the “éternel [i.e., predictable and boring] Clitandre”—that they pall. Insubstantial as these phantoms already are, they will be further reduced: to their clothes, to their mood, and finally to their limp shadows, which whirl until they in turn are absorbed into the moonlight. The last word applicable to human speech in this poem, “jase,” refers to the empty background chatter of the mandolin. Not only the signifying power of the speakers' words but even the speakers themselves have been erased.

The major transition of the Fêtes galantes occurs when the next poem, “A Clymène,” shifts from presenting lovers in general, as the previous pieces have done, to dramatizing the lyric self as lover. This self thus becomes directly involved in the failure of love language to signify. When the phrase “romances sans paroles” (borrowed, of course, from the title of Mendelssohn's musical composition) denotes the effect that the beloved woman has on the poet, words have been altogether deleted from the love relationship. Described as an “étrange / Vision,” the woman's very voice is metaphorically robbed of sound as well as of words. The stripping away of its capacity for rational communication is represented by the violent enjambment that shatters the phrase placed in opposition to “voix.”

The six concluding poems in the Fêtes galantes call into question the signifying abilities of words even more thoroughly and explicitly than any of the preceding poems. Through incongruous juxtaposition, through a diaphoric alternation of mutually incompatible tones,17 “Lettre” presents a devastating critique of lovers' language which anticipates Roland Barthes or Nathalie Sarraute's satire of literary criticism in Les Fruits d'or. The verses in rhyming couplets (which in and of themselves suggest banality) begin by protesting the lover's total physical dependence on the presence of the beloved: “Je languis et me meurs, comme c'est ma coûtume / En pareil cas” (I'm languishing and dying, as my habit is / In such a case). The platitudinous iterative of the last three words promptly undercuts the melodramatic singulative. Undaunted by, and apparently unaware of, the breakdown of the illusion of devotion he is attempting to create, this unreliable narrator/lover continues with a pseudo-Platonic turn:

enfin, mon corps faisant place à mon âme,
Je deviendrai fantôme à mon tour aussi, moi,
Mon ombre se fondra pour jamais en votre ombre.

[p. 117]

(Finally, my body giving way to my soul, / I too will become a ghost in my turn, … / My shade will melt into yours forever.)

But this lofty assertion of selfless love is vitiated by the prosaic self-emphasizing disjunctive pronoun of the second line cited (moi); and in the line immediately following, the respectful distance of the “vous” is canceled by the presumptuous “tu” appearing in the flattest of homage clichés: “En attendant, je suis, très chère, ton valet” (Meanwhile, dearest, I am your humble servant). The typography itself emphasizes this presumption and triteness by isolating the line. The total effect is like that of the dialogue in a French classical play when the discourse of the master is interwoven with that of the servant, the master typically representing the superego and idealistic love, the servant embodying the id and the domination of bodily, materialistic impulses.

The third group of typographically distinct lines deploys the deliberate anticlimax (or, to use the more evocative French term, “rechute dans la banalité”) of inquiring prosaically about the beloved's pets and friends (the conjunction implying their shared animality), particularly

                                                  cette Silvanie
Dont j'eusse aimé l'oeil noir si le tien n’était
Et qui parfois me fit des signes, palsambleu!

[p. 117]

(That Sylvania, / Whose dark eyes I would have liked if yours had not been blue, / And who sometimes signaled to me, my word!)

By successfully tempting the poet to contemplate infidelity, Silvanie's nonverbal communication retrospectively nullifies all the exalted protestations of passionate fidelity that he had broadcast in his letter.

The fourth block of lines returns to the tone of exalted homage. The lyric self, more amorous than Caesar or Mark Anthony with Cleopatra, claims that he plans to conquer the whole world so as to lay its treasures at the beloved's feet as an unworthy token of his devotion. (That the woman as object of devotion is compared to a promiscuous historical figure, however, implicitly transforms her from a guiding star to a “femme galante” who is no better than she should be.) But then the last three lines intervene, impatiently breaking off the rhyming couplets in the middle of a pair. After repeating the mundane “très chère” of the isolated line, they blatantly dismiss as trivial and otiose all that has gone before,

                                                                                Car voilà trop causer,
Et le temps que l'on perd à lire une missive
N'aura jamais valu la peine qu'on l’écrive.

[p. 117]

(For that's too much chat, / And the time you lose reading a missive / Will never have been worth the trouble to write it.)

What we have learned from reading this poem, according to the lyric self, is that we should not have wasted our time on it in the first place. Rather than guide us to unknown heights of love, it has cast us down. By situating his metalanguage in final position, Verlaine has canceled his statement en bloc.

In the demonic world of the Fêtes galantes, the ultimate realities are lust and death. Such an interpretation may sound melodramatic, but it is borne out by the text of “Le Monstre,” a poem composed at the same time as the poems in this collection:

                                                                                et les victimes dans la gueule
Du monstre s'agitaient et se plaignaient, et seule
La gueule, se fermant soudain, leur répondait
Par un grand mouvement de mâchoires.

[p. 128]

(And the victims in the maw / Of the monster struggled and lamented, and only / The maw, suddenly closing, answered them / With a great movement of its jaws.)

In this Dantesque inner circle of Hell, the only response to words is annihilation. Words themselves, however, are false lust and false death, since they postpone both the gratification of lust and the consummation of death. In “Dans la grotte,” for example, the despairing homage of a promise of suicide functions to defer death; in “Les Indolents” the male's proposition of a suicide pact delays the fulfillment of lust until his practical lady friend interrupts: “Mais taisonsnous, si bon vous semble” (But let's stop talking, if you like). The implied author's mocking “Hi! hi! hi!” of conclusion then echoes the earlier laughter of the lady and of the watching fauns who serve as wordless advocates—so to speak—for the claims of nature against antinature.

Even the absence of words, however, does not guarantee sincerity in Verlaine's eyes. The false promises of a flash of exposed flesh are enough to dupe “Les Ingénus.” “Colombine” accords a more extensive treatment to the motif of the unreliability of nonverbal communication. The heroine of that poem, “une belle enfant méchante” (a beautiful, wicked child), leads her flock of gulls on to no one knows where. The etymological sense of “enfant”—“without speech”—is clearly relevant in this poem. The level of communication has already been reduced to nonsense when the antics of the clowns who try to impress Colombine are summed up by a series of musical notes: “Do, mi, sol, mi, fa.” But it degenerates further to an exchange among metaphorical animals. The tacit sexual promises made by Colombine's provocative clothes and seductive body are contradicted by her perverse feline eyes, which transmit the tacit command “A bas / Les pattes!” (Down, boy!).

The ominous title of the following poem, “L'Amour par terre,” announces at once the overthrow of the ideal of love. And it concludes with an unheard, unanswered question addressed to the lyric self's distracted female companion, who is engrossed in following the flight of a butterfly, itself an emblem of her inconstant attention. The twofold frustration of desire and art symbolized in the poem leaves her unaffected. She does not see the fallen statue of Cupid or the phallic pedestal standing sadly alone beside it, a pedestal on which the lyric self can scarcely decipher the sculptor's name. The topos of exegi monumentum has been superseded by that of disjecta membra poetae. And in each of the last three quatrains the lyric self's “c'est triste” contrasts jarringly with the playful, heedless mood of his insouciant female companion.

A rhetorical framework of six imperatives in “En sourdine,” the next-to-last poem, strains for a possible moment of happiness in love: “Pénétrons … Fondons … Ferme … Croise … Chasse … Laissonsnous persuader” (Let us imbue … melt together … close your eyes … fold your arms … banish every plan … allow ourselves to be persuaded). But in the final analysis the best these lovers have to hope for is the successful accomplishment of a speech act—in other words, that they will be persuaded. Paradoxically, they can achieve even that tenuous, imaginary triumph only by completely forswearing all verbal communication and, indeed, all purpose whatsoever (“tout dessein”). The couple's relationship survives only in the deep silence of a dark wood; there it is the gentle breeze rather than their own words that will “persuade” them to abandon themselves to languor; and when night falls, it must be the nightingale's song rather than their own voices that will convey their despair.

The final poem of the Fêtes galantes, “Colloque sentimental,” deploys an oxymoronic title to oppose feeling with debate. In French, moreover, the first word can convey an ironic nuance, suggesting a conversation whose participants exaggerate the importance of what is being discussed. The verbal exchange occurs between two specters in the icy wasteland of a deserted park. Four times in succession, one of them tries to evoke the love and ecstasy that they shared in the past, only to be flatly refuted by the other with retorts such as “Non” and “C'est possible.” Translating Baudelairean spleen into dialogue, this conclusion creates a verbal exchange at cross-purposes, like those in the theater of the absurd. By offering no scope for expansion or development, the eight isolated couplets of this poem reveal that there is no hope of escaping back into the past or forward into a happier future. Further, in the framework of the conversation, the partial repetitions of the first couplet in the third and the second in the last, instead of creating the reassuring effect of the stability of repetition, underscore the poem's drift toward entropy. “Two shapes” reappear as “two ghosts”; “you can hardly hear their words” in the last line becomes “and only the night heard their words” as the void engulfs them.18 As a country-and-western song says, “If love can never be forever, what's forever for?” Discourse and love perish together.19 Verlaine's greatest originality and achievement in the Poèmes saturniens and the Fêtes galantes was to combine the conventional Romantic motif of loss of faith in the permanence of love with the Symbolist's crisis of doubt regarding the transcendental permanence of any signified.

From this perspective La Bonne Chanson (1870), published the year after the Fêtes galantes, seems retrogressive.20 In the two earlier collections the poet, lacking faith in love, had also lacked faith in language. La Bonne Chanson, in contrast, represents a transient episode during which love and language are glorified together. The certitude of being loved restores and enhances the imagined value of all the ways in which the lyric self can communicate with the beloved. During this phase words, rather than being experienced as a source or token of spiritual impoverishment, become pregnant with promise. The eighth poem of the collection, “Une Sainte en son auréole,” for example, celebrates

Tout ce que contient la parole
Humaine de grâce et d'amour;
Des aspects nacrés, blancs et roses,
Un doux accord patricien:
Je vois, j'entends toutes ces choses
Dans son nom Carlovingien.

[p. 147]

(Everything that human speech contains of grace and love; … Pearly prospects, white and pink, / A sweet patrician harmony: / I see, I hear all of these things, / In her Carlovingian name.)

One detail in the text, however, makes this apparent triumph of signification seem suspect, transient, and unstable: an enjambment dissociates “parole” from “humaine” and introduces the latter term as if it expressed a limitation.

As the earlier collections have done, La Bonne Chanson establishes throughout a dichotomy of sincerity/insincerity, but places the lyric self squarely in the camp of sincerity, representing him as

                                                            témoignant sincèrement,
Sans fausse note et sans fadaise,
Du doux mal qu'on souffre en aimant.

[II, p. 143]21

(sincerely bearing witness, / Without a false note or insipidity, / To the sweet sickness one suffers from in loving.) And again he exclaims:

                                                                                ah! c'en est fait
Surtout de l'ironie et des lèvres pincées
Et des mots où l'esprit sans l’âme triomphait.

[IV, p. 144]

(ah! It's done with, / Especially the irony and the pursed lips / And words where wit used to triumph without soul.)

Bathed in the aura of a harmony of shared sentiments, the lovers will find that communication is assured: “elle m’écoutera sans déplaisir sans doute; / Et vraiment je ne veux pas d'autre Paradis” (IV, p. 144: No doubt she will listen to me without displeasure; / And truly I want no other Paradise.) When the poet finds himself flooded by the vertiginous impressions of the howling noise, acrid odors, and rushing movement of a railway carriage, he no longer feels, as he did before, that his being is dissolving,

Puisque le Nom si beau, si noble et si sonore
Se mêle, pur pivot de tout ce tournoiement,
Au rhythme [sic] du wagon brutal,

[VII, p. 146]

(Because the Name, so lovely, so noble and so resonant / Mingles, the pure hub of all this turning, / Sweetly, with the rhythm of the rough carriage.)

The untitled tenth poem refutes “Lettre” in the Fêtes galantes. Like its precursor, it is written in alexandrine rhyming couplets and divided into five blocks of lines. But in this poem the lyric self receives a letter rather than sends one. His tone remains consistent, and he is deeply moved. Even when at first glance his conversation with the loved one seems banal, the poet can read her expressions of love beneath the surface of the words (XIII). Her words and gestures are all-powerful (XV); the characteristic description of nonverbal communication, even here, represents an element of antilogocentrism that never entirely disappeared from Verlaine's poetry. The last five poems depict the poet and his fiancée united against the world. The couple is posited as a core of meaning (XVII, XVIII); the wedding day is eagerly anticipated (XIX), and the poet experiences exhilaration at the prospect of his union with his Ideal (XX, XXI). The beloved, in short, has become a signifier whose signified is the transformation of the poet: “tous mes espoirs ont enfin leur tour” (XXI, p. 155: all my hopes finally have their day). For the historical Verlaine, however, this attempt to metamorphose appears to have been an act of desperation. “So,” observes Jacques Borel, “it seems that Verlaine must have rushed into marriage, so to speak, largely in order to ward off his tendency toward homosexuality.”22

In the Romances sans paroles, whose original title was La Mauvaise Chanson, Verlaine's underlying sense of the inadequacy of the signifier reerupts. He is not just writing about being bad; writing itself is bad. These poems represent not only a rebellion against conventional social expectations but also the cancellation of Verlaine's recent praise of the “chanson” as verbal artifact. He now achieves the summit of his art by freeing himself from the former excesses of metalanguage, specifically from the continual need to depreciate words verbally, a need that had pervaded the Fêtes galantes. He now can evoke the indefinable without needing to dismiss the definable. But as a result, the poems in Romances sans paroles lack the thread of narrative continuity which had linked the various Fêtes galantes together into a progressive drama of the disintegration of the word.

The three section titles, “Ariettes oubliées,” “Paysages belges,” and “Aquarelles,” all denote a transposition of the arts which reinforces the word-canceling gesture of the collective title, Romances sans paroles. The nine poems of the first section are untitled; thus the ostensible pretext, which titles so often convey, has been suppressed in favor of impressionistic drift. In the Romances sans paroles as in the Fêtes galantes, words, removed from human beings and ascribed instead to natural entities, no longer provide a mocking, jarring contrast to human aspirations. We have returned to an elegiac mode wherein nature appears to echo human hopes and desires. The satiric edge of the Fêtes galantes is lacking.23

The pathetic fallacy impregnates the nine “Ariettes oubliées” with anthropomorphism. In the first one, the choir of little voices in the branches expresses the plaintive, humble anthem of two human lovers' souls (p. 191). A murmur of unspecified origin in the second of these poems allows the lyric self to intuit “le contour subtil des voix anciennes” (the subtle contour of ancient voices); “les lueurs musiciennes” (the musical gleams) reveal to him a future dawn. The subtle synesthesias (a singing voice compared to an outline drawn by an artist, light compared to music) imply an overarching network of horizontal correspondences of sense impressions that ultimately derive from the organic unity of nature. The poet's heart and soul become a double eye reflecting “l'ariette … de toutes lyres!” (p. 192: the arietta of every lyre!). In the third poem the rain on the town corresponds to the weeping in the speaker's heart. By dispensing with a human verbal message Verlaine restores the harmony of self and externality that had been shattered in the Fêtes galantes, although of course he must use words to do so.

Considered as a group, the “Ariettes oubliées” are what John Porter Houston percipiently identified as “mood poems” when he characterized them as the one clear innovation of French Symbolism.24 This innovation, however, has its ties to the past; it represents a further deterioration of the vestiges of the religious sentiment that survived, in degenerate form, in the lyric worldview of Romanticism. When at the turn of this century Romanticism was condemned as “split religion,” the accusation meant that Romanticism presented free-floating, invertebrate religious sentiment without any doctrinal, institutional, or dogmatic support. But Verlaine's “Symbolism” in these poems further debases the Romantics' material/spiritual correspondences to material/sentimental ones, to a harmony between the order of physical nature and the poet's feelings. Unlike the Christian and the Romantic modes of sensibility, moreover, Verlaine's lacks a social context and therefore entails no revelation, no “message,” nothing useful for humanity:

O que nous mêlions, âmes soeurs que nous sommes,
A nos voeux confus la douceur puérile
De cheminer loin des femmes et des hommes,
Dans le frais oubli de ce qui nous exile!

[IV, p. 193]25

(O let us mingle, kindred spirits that we are, / With our uncertain hopes the boyish sweetness / Of traveling far from women and men, / Newly oblivious of what is exiling us!)

The dreamy swoon so characteristic of the “Ariettes oubliées,” where the poet's feelings are in harmony with his surroundings, recalls the infantile bliss of being fed and cradled. These poems are indeed deeply regressive. “Le contour subtil des voix anciennes” in the second poem clearly evokes the voice of the mother recalled from infancy. And in the same poem, the “escarpolette” “balançant jeunes et vieilles heures!” (the child's swing, swaying young and old hours to and fro!) represents not—or at least not only—an alternation between homosexual and heterosexual feelings, as many critics have claimed. Instead, it reflects Verlaine's desire to move back and forth between a remembered infantile relationship with the loved woman and his present involvement with his wife Mathilde. What the poet weeps for in “Il pleure dans mon coeur” is the loss of this blissful past. The predominance of the infantile over the homosexual becomes apparent in the fifth poem when the “air bien vieux” in the “boudoir longtemps parfumé d'Elle” (p. 193: the ancient melody … the boudoir filled for a long time with her scent) is metaphorically transformed into “ce berceau soudain / Qui lentement dorlote mon pauvre être” (p. 193: that sudden cradle / Which slowly coddles my poor being). A tune from former days which elicits memories of the poet's past momentarily consoles him. More playfully and subtly, the same motif recurs in the sixth “Ariette” through the mediation of medieval and fairy-tale literature. There the “petit poète jamais las / De la rime non attrapée!” (the little poet who is never weary / Of chasing the rhyme he will never catch!) is a self-image, and rhyme figures the relationship between two separate entities, the first of which engenders the second as a mother engenders a child. The primordial loss of fusion with the mother is the source of the sense of exile and sadness in the seventh poem. This mood also generates the impression of the death of the moon (as a figuration of the mother-imago) and, in the ninth poem, the death of the shadows of trees and of smoke, which figure memories:

Combien, ô voyageur, ce paysage blême
                              Te mira blême toi-même,
Et que tristes pleuraient dans les hautes feuillées
                              Tes espérances noyées!

[p. 196]

(How much, O traveler, this pale landscape / Caught sight of you, pale yourself, / And how sadly among the high foliage were weeping / Your drowned hopes!)

Language disappoints because it reminds us of the need to earn and to sustain in adult relationships the positive regard the mother unconditionally grants to the infant. Therefore the “Ariettes oubliées” attempt to create the semblance of a regression to a preverbal state, an impression that contrasts sharply with the ostensible modernity of the short, unusual line lengths and the synesthetic network of associations with the other arts. “Regression in the service of the ego” this poetry may be, but it also foreshadows a historical forward movement, away from the antiverbal crisis that marks the first phase of French Symbolism to the second Symbolist generation, characterized by a renewed aspiration to found a unity of the arts and to invent a cosmic, totalizing discourse.

From this point on Romances sans paroles deteriorates. Superficially the “Paysages belges” section appears to offer an impressionistic series of vignettes in rapid movement, but in fact these vignettes gravitate as a group around the fixed center of a happy home—inn, nest, or château—explicitly mentioned by the first three poems of the group. One could characterize the impossible return to infancy as centripetal, the demands of adult life as centrifugal (in the absence of a coherent sense of identity), and the resulting movement as circular. This motion appears in the next two poems in the form of a merry-go-round and of weathervanes. “Malines” combines the poles of movement and immobility in the image of railway cars speeding through the night but each providing at the same time an intimate home:

Chaque wagon est un salon
Où l'on cause bas et d'où l'on
Aime à loisir cette nature …

[p. 201]

(Each railway car is a living room / Where you talk in low tones and from which you can / Love this nature at leisure.)

These first two groups of poems are dated from May through August 1872; the last seven poems of the collection, dated from September 1872 through April of the next year, revert to an anecdotal, self-justifying confessional tradition characteristic of Verlaine's later verse and illustrated here most starkly by “Birds in the Night” and “Child Wife.”

Written in prison in 1874 after Verlaine's drunken brutality and his escapades with Rimbaud had irrevocably ended his marriage, “L'Art poétique” reintroduces a corrosive subversion of the word through incongruous juxtaposition, self-contradiction, disunity of tone, pleonasm, and hyperpoeticism.26 Robert Mitchell has pointed out that, except for the nine-syllable lines corresponding to Verlaine's recommendation to use imparisyllabic meters, “the form of the poem is basically unfaithful, and even antithetical, to its substance.”27 Verlaine advocates weaving an airy creation “sans rien en lui qui pèse ou qui pose” (without anything in it that weighs down or comes to rest), but he creates a strongly didactic statement in which twelve exhortations to the reader fill up all but three of the nine stanzas. Repeated and therefore heavy-handed commands to seek “nuance” (the word occurs three times among the twenty-seven words of stanza 4) strikingly subvert the desired effect of delicacy.28 And from that point on the text is invaded by a decidedly antipoetic diction as in stanzas 5 and 6 the poem evokes that which it wishes to destroy: “tout cet ail de basse cuisine! … tords-lui le cou! … en train d’énergie … elle ira jusqu'où” etc. (all that greasy-spoon garlic! … wring its neck! … getting energetic … how far will it go). Condemning the mechanical repetition of rhyme (i.e., of the same sounds), stanza 7 itself accumulates six ou's in lines 2 and 3, and four s's and f's each in lines 2 through 4. The last two stanzas return to enunciating a “poetical” statement of the ideal described as a free ramble through the fresh morning air “vers d'autres cieux à d'autres amours” (p. 327: toward other skies, to other loves). But even here—if we are to assume that this concluding image of an aimless stroll corresponds to the “music” that Verlaine recommended “above all else” in his first line—Verlaine's putative “musicality” amounts to precisely the opposite of what a musician would understand by that word: the absence of structure and direction.

The jarring incongruity of prescribing a light touch in “L'Art poétique” in a language coarsened by pedestrian diction and crude excesses of alliteration and assonance not only conveys an ironic reflection on the claims of poetry but also betrays an inner conflict between faith in poetry and disdain for it as a vehicle for aspirations.29 Through the Romances sans paroles Verlaine's poetry—based on a fantasized relationship to an Other whose domain is language—alternates between vulnerable openness and wary mistrust. The losses of his wife Mathilde and of his lover Rimbaud, the shock of these failures of love, robbed love of its justification for Verlaine. No longer having the energy to mistrust, he regressed into a relationship with himself. For a time he tried to aggrandize himself through a religious conversion that seemed to hold the promise of associating his self with a greater self. But transcendence eluded him. Throughout his later collections of verse he remained inextricably entangled in self-justifications of various kinds. He tried to have something to show for his past; he yielded to the rhetoric that must accompany such a stance and sank back into a dilute reworking of the confessional strain of late Romantic elegiac poetry. As Jacques Borel observes, by the time of La Bonne Chanson Verlaine was already beginning to retreat from the full originality of his personal vision: “He will be impelled forward by Rimbaud, called on in a sense to pursue down to its ultimate consequences an experiment that he had been the first to initiate by having a presentiment of the liberating power of the dream, but away from which, suspecting the dangers that ‘Crimen Amoris’ and then ‘Mort!’ will denounce, he had already turned into the elegiac comfort of 1870.”30

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.31 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 nonreferential, 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.32 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.


  1. See James Lawler, The Language of French Symbolism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), chap. 2, “Verlaine's ‘Naiveté,’” pp. 21–70; and Jean-Pierre Richard, Poésie et profondeur (Paris: Seuil, 1955), “Fadeur de Verlaine,” pp. 165–85.

  2. La Petite Musique de Verlaine (Paris: SEDES [for the Société des Etudes Romantiques], 1982).

  3. For more sophisticated studies of Verlaine's “musicality,” however, see Nicolas Ruwet, “Blancs, rimes, et raisons: Typographie, rimes, et structures linguistiques en poésie,” Revue d'esthéthique, 1/2 (1979), 397–426; and Eléonore M. Zimmermann, Magies de Verlaine: Etude de l’évolution poétique de Paul Verlaine (Paris: Corti, 1967), pp. 11, 20–27, 65, and passim. A detailed data base for such studies has recently been provided by Frédéric S. Eigeldinger, Dominique Godet, and Eric Wehrli, comps., Table de concordances rythmique et syntaxique des Poésies de Paul Verlaine:Poèmes saturniens,” “Fêtes galantes,” “La Bonne Chanson,” “Romances sans paroles” (Geneva: Slatkine, 1985).

  4. Henri Peyre, “Poets against Music in the Age of Symbolism,” in Marcel Tetel, ed., Symbolism and Modern Literature: Studies in Honor of Wallace Fowlie (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1978), pp. 179–92.

  5. See Antoine Adam, The Art of Paul Verlaine (New York: New York University Press, 1963), pp. 63, 70, and 84.

  6. See Jacques-Henry Bornecque, Lumières sur lesFêtes galantesde Paul Verlaine (Paris: Nizet, 1959), pp. 50–59, 76–89, 97–103, and 109–10. This quotation appears on p. 50.

  7. See Paul Verlaine, Oeuvres en prose complètes, ed. Jacques Borel (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), pp. 77–79, 82, 57, 154–61, and 599–612.

  8. See the classic theoretical statement by Calvin S. Brown, Music and Literature: A Comparison of the Arts (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1948).

  9. Paul Verlaine, “Critique des Poèmes Saturniens,” Revue d'Aujourd'hui, 3 (March 15, 1890), reproduced in Verlaine, Oeuvres poétiques complètes, ed. Yves Le Dantec and Jacques Borel (Paris: Gallimard, 1962). Unless I have indicated otherwise, all subsequent references to Verlaine are from this edition and appear in the text, identified by page number only.

  10. In his informative edition of Verlaine's Poésies (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1980), Jacques Décaudin refers to “Fadaises” as “an anticipatory ‘Fête galante,’ which capsizes in anguish and the death wish, a poem of loneliness and sadness” (p. 10).

  11. Décaudin, Poésies, sees the title of the first poem in the collection, “Votre âme est un paysage choisi,” as a clue to the meaning of the entire collection: these are “paysages intérieurs” (p. 19). This observation is congruent with John Porter Houston's identification of the “mood poem” as Verlaine's greatest original creation (see below, n. 24). For a sprightly interpretation of the two poems titled “Nevermore” in the Poèmes saturniens, see Jefferson Humphries, Metamorphoses of the Raven: Literary Overdeterminedness in France and in the South since Poe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), pp. 60–68. Humphries reads the second poem as “an allegory of its own inadequacy” (p. 67).

  12. See Pierre Martino, Verlaine (Paris: Boivin, 1951), pp. 71–72 and note.

  13. J. S. Chaussivert, “Fête et jeu verlainiens: Romances sans paroles. Sagesse,” in Petite Musique de Verlaine, pp. 49–60.

  14. Chaussivert, “Fête et jeu verlainiens,” p. 49.

  15. For a fuller discussion see Laurence M. Porter, “Text versus Music in the French Art Song: Debussy, Fauré, and Verlaine's ‘Mandoline,’” Nineteenth-Century French Studies, 12 (Fall 1983-Winter 1984), 138–44; and the companion article (with musical examples) “Meaning in Music: Debussy and Fauré as Interpreters of Verlaine,” Topic: A Journal of the Liberal Arts, 35 (1981), 26–37.

  16. See Georges Zayed, “La Tradition des ‘Fêtes galantes’ et le lyrisme verlainien,” Aquila: Chestnut Hill Studies in Modern Languages and Literatures, 1 (1968), 213–46. This rich, sensitive article, which deserves to be much better known, shows how common the term “fêtes galantes” and its associated commedia dell'arte figures were before and during Verlaine's time. Zayed celebrates this collection as Verlaine's masterpiece and mentions as sources Victor Hugo's “Fête chez Thérèse” (often mentioned by others), “Passé,” and “Lettre”; Théophile Gautier's Poésies diverses of 1835; and Théodore de Banville's “Fête galante” in Les Cariatides. But none of the twenty-seven examples cited from precursors contains any direct discourse, which so typifies the imagination of Verlaine. Compare, e.g., Gautier's “Le Banc de Pierre” in the first Parnasse contemporain of 1866 with the “Colloque sentimental”:

    Ce qu'ils disaient la maîtresse l'oublie;
    Mais l'amoureux, coeur blessé, s'en souvient,
    Et dans le bois, avec mélancolie,
                                  Au rendez-vous, tout seul, revient.

    (What they used to say, the mistress forgets; / But the man who loved her, with a wounded heart, remembers; / And all alone, with melancholy mein, to the grove / Where they used to meet, returns.)

    Zayed, like Bornecque, stresses the presence of the memory of Elisa Moncomble: see pp. 237–45.

  17. See Philip Wheelwright, Metaphor and Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962), pp. 78–86.

  18. For sources, see Bornecque, Lumières sur les “Fêtes galantes,” pp. 179–83.

  19. Claude Cuénot, who also considers the Fêtes galantes to be Verlaine's masterpiece, comments on their conclusion:

    “The frail decor of these painted canvasses is torn apart at the end, no doubt deliberately, by the two pieces called ‘En sourdine’ [the renunciation of love in the ecstasy of the void] and ‘Colloque sentimental’ [the excruciating memory of a dead love]”: see “Un type de création littéraire: Paul Verlaine,”

    Studi francesi, 35 (May-August 1968), 229–45; the quotation appears on p. 235.

    In an interesting overview of Verlaine, R. A. York concludes:

    “Above all, Verlaine subverts the idea of a coherent and fully intended speech act. Hence his love of inapt register, of excessive pedantry, of implausible personae, of pastiche and irony. Hence his liking for disguised speech acts, most often for utterances which purport to be explanations or justifications of some previous remark, but which prove to be no more than rephrasings of it”

    (The Poem as Utterance [London and New York: Methuen, 1986], p. 77; see also pp. 61–78).

  20. J. S. Chaussivert, however, eloquently defends its artistic merits: see L'Art verlainien dansLa Bonne Chanson” (Paris: Nizet, 1973), pp. 7–8, 31–33, 115, and passim. Chaussivert provides a helpful diagram of the collection's structure (p. 31).

  21. The roman numerals that appear in citations from La Bonne Chanson refer to the numbers of individual poems.

  22. In Verlaine, Oeuvres poétiques complètes, p. 136 (editor's note).

  23. One would expect the contrary, owing to the constant presence of Verlaine's lover Rimbaud—whose own poetry is preeminently satiric—during the composition of Romances sans paroles. But cf. Charles Chadwick, Verlaine (London: Athlone, 1973), p. 51, who claims that Rimbaud's influence on Verlaine's poetry was negligible. More likely, sexual satisfaction made Verlaine lose his edge.

  24. John Porter Houston, French Symbolism and the Modernist Movement: A Study of Poetic Structures (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), pp. 19–40, esp. 22–23; reviewed by Laurence M. Porter in Comparative Literature, 36 (Winter 1984), 94–96.

  25. The roman numeral iv refers to the number of this poem in the series of “Ariettes oubliées.”

  26. See Carol de Dobay Rifelj, Word and Figure: The Language of Nineteenth-Century French Poetry (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1987), esp. pp. 120–25.

  27. Robert Mitchell, “Mint, Thyme, and Tobacco: New Possibilities and Affinities in the Artes poeticae of Verlaine and Mallarmé,” French Forum, 2 (September 1977), 238–54. On “Images d'un sou,” also from the “Jadis” section of Jadis et naguère, cf. Zimmermann, Magies de Verlaine, p. 133.

  28. Mitchell, “Mint, Thyme, and Tobacco,” pp. 240–43.

  29. See Michel Grimaud, “Questions de méthode: Verlaine et la critique structuraliste,” Oeuvres et Critiques, 9 (1984), 125–26, for detailed comments.

  30. Verlaine, Oeuvres poétiques complètes, p. 171 (editor's introduction).

  31. See once again Peyre, “Poets against Music,” cited in n. 4 above.

  32. See Jeanne Bem, “Verlaine, poète lunaire: Mythe et langage poétique,” Stanford French Review, 4 (Winter 1980), 379–94. For a recent discussion of the “Isakower phenomenon” (adult hallucinations of the mother's breast) and the related “dream screen” and “blank dream” experiences, plus a valuable bibliography, see Philip M. Brombert, “On the Occurrence of the Isakower Phenomenon in a Schizoid Disorder,” Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 20 (1984), 600–601 and 623–24; see also chap. 2, n. 40.

Gretchen Schultz (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7824

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 l'Indécis au Précis se joint.”1 It marks as well a pivotal event in the poet's life, for as its title suggests, Cellulairement was conceived and written in a prison cell in Belgium, between 1873 and 1875, where Verlaine was incarcerated after a dispute with his lover and literary colleague, Arthur Rimbaud. The work was named for the newly instituted “régime cellulaire” which separated prisoners from one another in separate cells, and which was opposed to the traditional “régime commun.” An innovation in the nineteenth-century penal institution and imported from the United States, the “régime cellulaire” was thought to be a harsher punishment, and so prisoners confined in this manner generally served shorter terms. Verlaine took this option: “Avec le système d'ici, j'ai, par le fait de mon emprisonnement dans une prison cellulaire, six mois de réduction.”2

Despite its importance both as a literary and as a personal event, Cellulairement never appeared as such, for Verlaine, unable to find a publisher, dismantled the collection and eventually distributed its poems among his subsequent volumes of poetry. We hope to retrieve the immediacy of the collection by reassembling some of its poems and studying them together as they existed in the 1875 manuscript. Specifically, in the pages to follow we offer a reading of the series of four sonnets which Verlaine entitled “Almanach pour l'année passée” in Cellulairement. To consider these poems at the crossroads of lived experience and formal experimentation is to find in them a parallel search for lyric form and identity.

Let us quickly sketch the history of Verlaine's poetic production up to this point, in order to trace the maturation of his writing and in order to present more clearly its constituent factors. His first collection, Poèmes saturniens, was published in 1866, the same year in which the first Parnasse contemporain came out. Eight of Verlaine's poems appeared in this anthology, and at this time he numbered himself among the adherents to the Parnasse. His next collection, Fêtes galantes (1869), continued in the Parnassian line. Inspired by Watteau's paintings, its pastoral pieces exhibited a préciosité which the sincerity of Verlaine's later works would belie. His contributions to the second Parnasse contemporain (dated 1869, but not released until after the war in 1871) mark the end of his association with the Parnasse. Ultimately, its rigid formality and requirement of objectivity clashed with Verlaine's appreciation of the vague and the imprecise. It was with his next collection, La bonne chanson (published in 1872, also after a two-year deferral), that he took a definitive step away from the rigidity of the Parnasse movement.

Although La bonne chanson was dedicated to Mathilde Mauté, his future wife, Verlaine initially intended that Romances sans paroles, his next work published in 1874, be dedicated to Rimbaud. Edmond Lepelletier, Verlaine's lifelong friend, but no admirer of Rimbaud, managed to suppress this dedication, and yet Rimbaud's mark on the work remains. It was Verlaine's unsettling encounter with him which inaugurated the poetic theory described in “Art poétique.” Together Verlaine and Rimbaud began their study of uneven meters and rhyme gender which would eventually lead them in different directions. Although Rimbaud abandoned verse for the poetic prose of Une Saison en enfer and the Illuminations, Verlaine continued his experiments with rhythm and rhyme. Uneven meters abound in Romances sans paroles, constrasting with the preponderance of even meters in La bonne chanson. These discoveries were like a poetic homecoming for Verlaine.

Romances sans paroles reflected an era of expansion for Verlaine, an era of real and poetic discovery, for he was continually roving with Rimbaud during the period between 1871–73 when he wrote its poems. They include images of these voyages: the second section of the collection, “Paysages belges,” contains poems describing their Belgian adventure. The poems of its third section, “Aquarelles,” are of English inspiration, written during their first trip to London, and their English titles (e.g., “Green,” “Child Wife,” “A Poor Young Shepherd”) mark Verlaine's apprenticeship of the English language. “Paysages” and “Aquarelles” are section titles that reflect the importance of the visual in the poems and suggest the classical metaphor of poetry as painting.

At the same time, Romances sans paroles speaks of pure melody, conveying a newfound sense of poetic freedom in the metaphor of poetry as music. “Sans paroles”: Verlaine abandoned the search for meaning in words and gave himself free rein to explore the most musical aspects of poetry, sound and rhythm. The first section of Romances sans paroles, “Ariettes oubliées,” also refers to the musicality of this verse. By dividing themselves between the two metaphors of poetry as music and poetry as painting, the section titles attest to the importance of both sound and image in the poems.

Gustave Kahn once said of Verlaine that he wrote “sans décors, ou en tel décor qui n'est qu'un rythme.”3 For Kahn, both poet and art critic (among others, he wrote a book on Fantin-Latour whose “Un Coin de table” captures Verlaine and Rimbaud together in 1872), decor was of the utmost concern not just for the visual arts, but for poetry as well. He called it “la pure mentalité du poète” (p. 86). It is a curious idea that the visual or spatial would somehow be made over into rhythm in the poetry of Verlaine, but one well worth pursuing. If the Fêtes galantes show Verlaine's sensitivity to the picturesque and La bonne chanson his predilection for the musical, then Romances sans paroles begins the marriage of decor and rhythm in his work. Without words, with no indication of scene, its title promises what Kahn would call a decor made of rhythm.

Against the background of the expansiveness, both creative and physical, of Romances sans paroles, Cellulairement resounds like a sudden and violent slamming of a door. If a good part of Western Europe comprised the contextual horizon of Romances sans paroles, Cellulairement had only the four small walls of a prison cell in which to germinate. But by opposing the expansiveness of Romances sans paroles to the confinement of Cellulairement, we do not mean to characterize it as representative of closure or poetic regression, for in the latter collection Verlaine continued his study of decor and rhythm. What Cellulairement reflects instead is the poet's passage from outward-bound discovery to introspection. A place of confinement and punishment, the prison also provides enclosure and security. Victor Brombert draws an analogy between the prison cell and the monastic cell, place of solitary reflection and meditation, both which played so strongly on the poetic imagination of the nineteenth century.4 Verlaine did in fact make his prison cell a kind of monastic cell, for it was there that he underwent conversion to Catholicism and was moved to compose religious poetry.

As Brombert suggests, the confinement of prison does not shut off movement toward the exterior. On the contrary, it adds to the conceptual opposition between inside and outside a desire for the outside as a real space, previously available and assumed, now denied and thus explicitly coveted. This place which favors contemplation, setting the scene for self-exploration, creates at the same time a scene of aspiration beyond present confines, either through physical escape or spiritual transcendence.

The word “cellulairement,” coined as an adverb by Verlaine,5 tells in what manner the poems were composed: in confinement and in solitude. But it also carries associations which go beyond describing the poetic space of production. Just as Romances sans paroles evokes lack of verbal impediment, so too does the title Cellulairement speak of poetic form as well as evoking the place and manner of composition. On the level of the poem, Kahn spoke of Verlaine's “cellules métriques”—those unexpected rhythms which so often clashed with traditional meters and cesuras in his poetry. In the unity which is a poem there are cells which are smaller still: the rhyming fragments at the end of the poetic line, or the syllable, the smallest constitutive element of French verse. The word “cell” resounds on the many levels of the poem, pointing to the smallest elements of the poem which Verlaine crafted, not in order to confine poetically, but in order to refine poetically. Here is some of his densest and most intropective poetry, different from the spirited élan characteristic of the Romances sans paroles.

The questions at issue for the poem are multiple and as complex as is the multiple self finding voice in the lyric subject. This subject at times seeks to be situated in space, at other times to escape that very confinement: the spatial contours of Verlaine's poetry run the gamut from frames clearly grounded in referential description to dreamlike musings free of representational images. And the music of his poetry is as unpredictable as the picture it paints: unconventional rhythms strain conventional meters; rarely used meters push for acceptance. Numerous critics have remarked on the formal variety in Verlaine's poetry of this period, where meters, strophic divisions and rhymes are continually found combined in new patterns. The subject acquires its materiality and its voice through the images and sounds of the poem. If lyricism revolves around the representation of the self, then this quest must also take place on formal terrain; as the poem literally takes shape, we discern the seeking self as well.

Let us now turn to the “Almanach” to consider these questions. This series poses not only a structural problem by presenting a group of poems sharing the same form, the sonnet, but varying wildly in the practice of that form, it also raises many interesting questions in its kaleidoscopic treatment of representation and subjectivity. Although united formally, these four sonnets offer astounding variety in every other way.

At the end of 1873, Verlaine wrote to Lepelletier from the prison at Mons, and with this letter included the four sonnets which he first entitled “Mon Almanach pour 1874.” The sonnets themselves were originally named for the four seasons, suggesting, as well as temporal change, a whole in the unity of the year. This aspect of coherence would not endure, for in the manuscript of Cellulairement, when Verlaine retitled the series “Almanach pour l'année passée,” he substituted the Roman numerals I-IV for its seasonal titles. And as we know, Verlaine eventually scattered the four seasons of Cellulairement to the four winds of his later collections, where all but the first sonnet underwent only minor revisions. It is this dispersal that we seek to reverse in order to return as near as possible to the scene of writing and to the constitution of the Verlainian lyric subject.

From the beginning, then, the “Almanach” was not only conceived as a series, but also presented in terms of a unity: the year. The original titles of its poems, “Printemps,” “Été,” “Automne,” “Hiver,” tell of the unfolding seasons, a linear, chronological progression. This forward movement in time, the principal aspect of traditional narrative, suggests to the reader that a story will be told. But when read together, the individual poems give little sense of a narrative progression: both in their “content” and their mode of expression they seem diverse and largely disconnected. Their metric makeup ranges from the octosyllables of “Printemps” to the highly unusual thirteen-syllable line of “Hiver.” No meter is repeated, and each sonnet has a different rhyme scheme. Likewise the pastoral scene of “Printemps” offers no apparent link to the noisy, smoky picture of London painted in “Hiver.”

The words we have just used, “scene” and “picture,” suggest a comparison with painting. Let us consider for a moment Monet's studies of the cathedral at Rouen, depicted periodically in the changing light of the evolving day. This series offers a skeletal narrative as if with a sequence of still shots: by capturing the same structure at discrete moments of the day, they chart temporal progression. The references to seasons in the titles lead us to expect such pictures or stories corresponding to points in time. But in the poems of the “Almanach,” even those descriptive elements that would characterize a season do not consistently appear. For although the country landscape of “Printemps” gives us springtime images, “Hiver” offers no element that is specifically hibernal. Even “Automne,” which can be characterized as an ode to drunken forgetfulness, presents no clear justification for its title. Verlaine changed the title to “Vendanges” before publishing it in Jadis et naguère, offering us a linking clue: the grape harvest supplies the intermediate term between autumn and drunkenness.

We must then conclude that the “Almanach” disappoints the promises in its titles of referentiality and narrativity. But let us suggest with Laurent Jenny that poetry, even of the most lyric and nonrepresentational sort, presents a narrative of its own kind. He writes: “Est-ce que les poèmes, si lyriques soient-ils, ne nous racontent pas aussi des ‘histoires’? Ce sentiment parfois, à leur lecture, que ‘c'est toute une vie’ qu'ils narrent en silence, scellée dans le métal de quelques mots. Ce qu'on appelle une ‘evocation’. Ou encore cette impression que c'est une histoire ‘à sa façon’.”6 He suggests that the broadest, most inclusive definition of narrative would be “un message qui énonce le devenir du sujet,” and that poetry as well as prose can be read for such a message. Even if a poem cannot be considered referential to external reality, it is narrative insofar as it carries an itinerary. Jenny is careful to nuance his discussion, to show the difference of lyric narration from prose narration. Although prose generally carries reference to historical time, its story enmeshed in the ticking of the clock and in the march of years, the poem, and above all the modern lyric, does not. The chronology of the poem relies on the order in which it presents its images and events, an order that is not necessarily conditioned by time as we know it. Thus in the sequence of the poem we find the subject in movement, but a movement which is oriented by the unfolding of the poem rather than by time or direction.

Is our conventional notion of the lyric poem not compatible with Jenny's definition of narrative as “le devenir du sujet”? We are conditioned to experience lyric and narrative as distinct modes with radically different principles of composition. Yet the lyric is, fundamentally, an adventure of the self. Its subject is that creature found so fascinating by each of us, the individual in search of self-integration and self-expression. But that fascination assumes different manners of expression, represented by the different genres. The manner of expression of lyricism is to inscribe the drama of the subject, not in the temporal framework of historical narration, but in another way: to experience the “devenir du sujet” through the “devenir du poème.” The stuff of the poem, its rhythms and its decor, conspire to situate the subject. Its unfolding images strive to shape the experience of subjectivity. Lyricism traces a certain story of the subject as it weaves itself into the fabric of its discourse. We can then expect to find a poetic itinerary in the “Almanach” coincident with the narrative of the subject's becoming.

In the title Cellulairement we discerned the evocation of a recueillement, a privileged word in the nineteenth-century poetic vocabulary which suggests a movement of interiorization. On the level of decor, the “Almanach” traces this same movement from without to within, for it begins with the pastoral scene of “Printemps,” next moving inside to the hazy interior of “Été,” and then shifting to the psychic interiorization of “Automne” where the space of the poem goes no farther than “dans la tête” of the speaking subject. If these three poems follow a consistent progression from outside to inside, the final sonnet, “Hiver,” takes a step beyond this progression, constituting a crossing-over to “another side” which we hope to clarify during the course of this analysis. This sonnet returns us to an outside scene, but a dream scene which breaks with the referentiality of the previous poems. There exist, on the many levels, representational and metrical, of the “Almanach,” parallel itineraries which journey from “Printemps” through “Été” and “Automne,” finally stepping off into uncharted territory with “Hiver.”

On a metrical level, the sonnets posit another progression which interacts with and sheds light on the narrative movement of the poems. Their different meters and rhyme schemes present a progression which tends from the traditional and regular towards the unconventional and irregular. The meter of these sonnets progresses toward longer and uneven lines. The first two, in octosyllables and alexandrines, are echoed by the last two, in lines of nine and thirteen syllables respectively. If the alexandrine was the conventional meter for the sonnet from Ronsard on and throughout most of the nineteenth century, Elwert tells us that there is also a historical precedent for the octosyllabic sonnet which enjoyed a certain success during the seventeenth century.7 On the other hand, the nine-syllable line, unusual in itself, had no precedent in the sonnet. And the thirteen-syllable line was practically unheard of before the generation of Banville. Its awkwardness is translated by the title which Verlaine gave to “Hiver” when he finally published it in Jadis et naguère: “Sonnet boiteux.”

We know from Verlaine's “Art poétique” that he considered uneven lines the most malleable and musical of poetic meters: “De la musique avant toute chose / Et pour cela préfère l'impair.” At the same time, he was not afraid to take liberties with rhythm in the alexandrine by displacing the cesura, liberties which contributed to the eventual downfall of this maître vers and the inauguration of vers libre. Thus in tending towards uneven meters in the “Almanach,” initially via innovative rhythms in the alexandrine, Verlaine was tending toward what he felt to be at the heart of his poetry, a supple and sinuous music, following no steady or preconditioned beat. With this in mind, we can read the “Almanach” as a résumé of the poetic itinerary charted by Verlaine from La bonne chanson through Romances sans paroles and Cellulairement, his straining of conventional meters with unusual rhythms and ultimately his experimentation with uncommon, uneven meters. As the first example of a thirteen-syllable line in his work, “Hiver” once again stands out as a singular poetic statement at the end of the “Almanach,” where Verlaine ventures onto an evocative horizon not previously explored.

Rhyme also divides the “Almanach” into two halves, the first two poems offering relatively conventional schemes, the last two more unusual ones. While “Printemps” and “Été” comply with the tradition of alternating masculine and feminine rhymes, in “Automne” all rhymes are feminine. And although there is alternation of rhyme gender in “Hiver,” it operates on the level of the strophe rather than on that of rhyme pair, such that the first quatrain and first tercet consist of solely masculine rhymes, and the second quatrain and second tercet of uniquely feminine rhymes. In the final tercet, rhyme breaks down altogether, making “Hiver” the only instance of blank verse in Verlaine's work.

We propose to trace the narrative of the “Almanach” as each poem unfolds and as each sonnet gives way to the next, paying particular attention to decor and rhythm. For these are the elements that will delineate the space in which the subject exists and show the modulations of a subjective voice.



La bise se rue à travers
Les buissons tout noirs et tout verts,
Glaçant la neige éparpillée
Dans la campagne ensoleillée.
L'odeur est aigre près des bois,
L'horizon chante avec des voix,
Les coqs des clochers des villages
Luisent crûment sur les nuages.
C'est délicieux de marcher
A travers ce brouillard léger
Qu'un vent taquin parfois retrousse.
Ah! fi de mon vieux feu qui tousse!
J'ai des fourmis dans les talons.
«Voici l'Avril!» Vieux cœur, allons!

“Printemps” has many prosaic elements. Although a sonnet, a fixed-form poem, it is written in rhymed couplets, a rhyme scheme that Verlaine, like many other poets, usually matched with nonfixed, or less lyrical, forms. Indeed, the rimes plates of “Printemps” seem to contradict the spirit of the sonnet, a highly constrained poetic form. Having no metrical figure of closure, couplets favor forward, linear (proselike) progression, rather than vertical patterns of equivalence expected from the traditional rimes embrassées of the sonnet. In fact, when Verlaine retouched “Printemps” for eventual inclusion in Sagesse (III, xi), the tendency of the rhymed couplet toward continuation got the better of him: he added three more distichs, removed strophic divisions, and published it as a twenty-line poem of no fixed form. The version of “Printemps” under consideration is significantly different from the published one.

“Printemps,” recounted in the third person, begins as pure description and is reminiscent of some of the pastoral travel poems of “Paysages belges,” of Romances sans paroles, that were unapologetically representational. Like “Simples fresques I,” for example, “Printemps” paints a colorful picture of a landscape: there the “verdâtre et rose / Des collines,” here the “buissons tout noirs et tout verts.” But “Printemps” contains more than just these visually descriptive elements; indeed, it runs the gamut of the senses. One feels the icy breeze, smells the bitter wood, hears the song of the horizon. Even taste is implied by the word “délicieux” in line nine. So although the first three strophes of “Printemps” form a highly scenic description of an unpeopled landscape, the sensory elements upon which the description depends imply a subject of these perceptions.

“Printemps” begins the subjective itinerary of the “Almanach” by charting a gradual progression from the impersonal to the personal, ending with the emergence of the speaking subject in the final tercet. “La bise” is the grammatical subject of the first strophe which contains strictly natural elements and whose objective description is indebted to the Parnasse. The second quatrain moves a step closer to human activity, for here a village enters the decor with its steeples and weather vanes. This strophe offers poetic animation as well, as the horizon is personified, engaged in the human activity of singing. But immediately thereafter, animation is put in question by the rooster, which turns out not to be living, but an inanimate copy. Who is present to smell the acrid underbrush or to see the steeple shining against a backdrop of clouds? Unlike the first strophe where the North wind acts as an agent and interacts with other inanimate natural elements, the second strophe alludes to human presence, a smelling, listening, seeing subject in a human landscape.

Strophe three begins with an echo of the first in the transversal movement signalled by “à travers” which, in both strophes, sets the scene for the enjambement between their first and second lines. But instead of the North wind rushing through the thicket, here there is the decidedly human activity of walking through a fog. The parallelism of the enjambements is bolstered by the repetition of the rhythm of the first two lines (divided into measures of 5/3 and 3/5). This combination forms a lively contrast to the otherwise regular division of the octosyllables of the sonnet into two even measures of four syllables. In retrospect, by virtue of these parallel constructions, an implicit metaphor between the North wind and the not-yet-visible subject is suggested. Although impersonal, perhaps this forceful wind is, after all, anything but inanimate. Indeed, anima, meaning breath, more aptly describes the wind which blows through this poem, from the powerful “bise” to the “vent taquin.” Figures of life, wind and breath are also figures for rhythm, the modulations of the human voice (represented by the singing horizon), and the gait of the subject wandering through the countryside. The subject, emerging from the blowing wind, follows its rhythm and the path it takes.

But who is the subject of the verb “marcher” and who might be the author of the observation “C'est délicieux”? The enjoyment which this phrase expresses is savored all the more by the dieresis in “délici-eux”: although we have yet to glimpse the subject cloaked in mist, this expression of pleasure suggests subjective presence. In line eleven the force of the North wind is mitigated: first a powerful agent, now the wind is seen as a playful companion (“vent taquin”). This personification offers another instance of the animation of impersonal nature against the backdrop of a largely depopulated landscape.

The final strophe erupts with the interjection “Ah!” followed quickly by the inaugurative use of the first person. Unique in this poem, a three-part rhythm divided into uneven measures of one, five and two syllables (“Ah! / fi de mon vieux feu / qui tousse!”) marks this turning point, introducing the speaking subject by recreating the unpredictable rhythms of spoken language. The scene moves indoors, if only momentarily, next to a “vieux feu.” Although this move inside presages the interior scene of the following sonnet, within the space of the present poem it forms the prelude to a voyage, perhaps preceding the cross-country journey just followed in the first three strophes. Thus the temporal chronology of the events of the poem does not necessarily coincide with its subjective itinerary, which follows the gradual shift in the poem from a landscape of absence to the immediacy of the speaking subject's voice. The spirit of vagabondage (the other side of incarceration) reigns in the penultimate line where the first person subject pronoun is uttered once and for all—“J'ai des fourmis dans les talons”—and is captured by the meandering spirit of the couplets of the poem and the unpredictable itinerary of the wind. Like them, the wandering subject has no other guide than forward progression: one foot placed in front of another, the advance of the poetic line.



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.
Midi sonne. De grâce, éloignez-vous madame.
Il dort. C'est étonnant(10) comme les
pas de femme
Résonnent(11) au cerveau des pauvres malheureux.
Midi sonne. J'ai fait arroser dans la chambre.
Va, dors!(12) L'espoir luit comme un caillou
dans un creux.
Ah, quand refleuriront les roses de septembre!

“Été” is a sonnet true to the tradition of Ronsard thanks to its alexandrines and rhyme scheme of two quatrains of rimes embrassées followed by two tercets composed of a distich and the four final lines in rimes croisées. Like “Printemps,” “Été” respects the rule of alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes. The only way it departs from classic sonnet structure is by not repeating the rhymes of the first quatrain in the second, but for Verlaine there was nothing new in this venial sin of versification, a practice tolerated since Baudelaire. Within this very conventional frame, the only regular sonnet of the series, Verlaine weaves a rather extraordinary web of unusual rhythms. His predilection is for a short measure followed by a long one, as in the first line which is broken after the third syllable: “L'espoir luit / comme un brin de paille dans l’étable.”

Much has been written on Verlaine's use of regular and irregular meters, with differing conclusions. Henri Morier, in his article on the “césure verlainienne,” counsels the reader to respect the traditional mid-alexandrine break when scanning Verlaine's poetry, in order to appreciate the tension created between the syntax of the poem and its meter.13 Other critics are moved to ignore the hemistich which Verlaine's alexandrines often seem to disregard themselves, instead scanning the measures of the lines based on syntax of the poem alone. Although these points of view are not necessarily mutually exclusive, Morier is certainly right to suggest that Verlaine was ever conscious of the traditional cesura, even when he chose not to honor it.

The alexandrines of “Été,” most of which can be scanned in the conventional manner at the hemistich, offer a relatively steady beat. But the syntax of the poem does battle with this beat, following its own lively rhythms. Michel Serres sees an emergence of order in the images of this poem and in its practice of the alexandrine which echos the insistent ringing of twelve o'clock in its twelve syllables. Order emerges from the erratic movement of the drunken wasp's flight and the disorder of the wisps of straw on the stable floor. At the same time undifferentiated, meaningless noise constitutes the unchanging background against which meter and rhythm come to form a meaningful order. Serres summarizes the movement of “Été” in this way: “… c'est l'ensemencement du quasi-périodique sur le multiple, de la redondance sur le chaos. … Du sommeil à l’éveil. … Et de l'inconscient au conscient. … Le rhythme apparaît sur le bruit de fond. … Midi sonne, advient le temps. … Un ordre se forme par le rhythme et la musique.”14 If there is a narrative in this poem, it is one which charts the emergence of regularity, beginning with images of incoherence and urging towards the regular chiming of high noon. Largely governed by the choppy rhythms which seek to imitate patterns of speech, the poem ends in rhythmic coherence with the countdown offered by the three short initial measures of the final tercet: “Midi sonne” (3 syllables), “Va, dors!” (2), “Ah” (1). The emergence of rhythm parallels the emergence of the conscious subject.

The luminous sunshine of “Printemps” pierces through a knothole in the decor of “Été” and is dispersed in this interior scene: “Vois, le soleil toujours poudroie à quelque trou.” It is a scene of interiors in a number of ways: this inside setting is also a highly intimate one, deriving from the subject's direct address, in tender, protective conversation, to an unidentified tu. The tone of this poem is quite different from the largely descriptive “Printemps.” The language of “Été” is at once more metaphoric, sprinkled with comparisons, and at the same time less literary thanks to its conversational tone. The concluding tercet of “Printemps” marks the transition to this conversational mode. Although “Été” is non-descriptive, it carries passing indications of setting: of a table, a room, water to drink and water sprinkled on the dry, dusty dirt floor of the barn. We are still in a country setting, but know not much more: this decor is a mystery that the few references of the speaking subject do as much to confound as they do to clarify. “Printemps” and “Été” are directly opposed to each other in the sense that the subject is as evasive in the first poem as physical description is in the second, whereas description is foregrounded in “Printemps,” as is the first-person speaking subject in “Été.”

Je is above all defined by verbal interactions, addressing a masculine tu in all but the first tercet, where the speaking subject brushes aside an intrusive, feminine vous. This subject is a conscious one, as opposed to the troubled sleeper. The continual critical interest in this poem focuses in particular on the mysteries of who and where, mysteries confounded by the direct address. For if direct address lends immediacy, it also sets the frame of the poem at such an intimate proximity to the conversation that reference to decor is relegated to the margins of the conversation. The speaking subject itself is delineated only in terms of its interlocutors.

Serres suggests that the resounding “pas de femmes” echo the feminine rhymes which are characterized by an additional mute e: “Alors la rime féminine ensemence partout son manque ou son supplément, elle produit çà et là l'impair, la musique: c'est étonnant comme les pas de femme résonnent. …” The image of these feminine footsteps reverberating in the unfortunate man's head also provides the thread which links “Été” to the following sonnet, “Automne,” composed entirely of feminine rhymes and confined to the subject's brain. This poetic space is similar to that found in Baudelaire's “Spleen” poems where, for example, “mon triste cerveau” supplies the terrain for intense thought or emotion.



Les choses qui chantent dans la tête
Alors que la mémoire est absente,
Ecoutez, c'est notre sang qui chante …
O musique lointaine et discrète!
Ecoutez! c'est notre sang qui pleure
Alors que notre âme s'est enfuie,
D'une voix jusqu'alors inouïe
Et qui va se taire tout à l'heure.
Frère du sang de la vigne rose,
Frère du vin de la veine noire,(15)
O vin, ô sang, c'est l'apothéose!
Chantez, pleurez! Chassez la mémoire
Et chassez l’âme, et jusqu'aux ténèbres
Magnétisez nos pauvres vertèbres.

With “Automne” begins the second pair of poems, both written in uneven meters. With the arrival of Verlaine's privileged nine-syllable line (also used in his “Art poétique”), we find the song, which was whispered in the first two sonnets, foregrounded. Let us recall the line from “Printemps,” “L'horizon chante avec des voix,” and this one from “Été”: “Et tu chantonneras comme un enfant bercé.” In the first case a distant accompaniment and in “Été” the low murmuring of a child being lulled to sleep, here in “Automne” decor has fallen away, giving way to pure music or rhythm: “Les choses qui chantent dans la tête.”

The subject that we have been tracing—or the subjects whose accumulation might have something to tell us about subjectivity—undergoes modulation once again in “Automne.” Here the play of light and visual imagery—the glittering snow of “Printemps” or the twig of hay gleaming in the summer sunlight—have disappeared, while voice and sound take over the register of subjectivity. In addition, the shift to plural pronouns tends to undo the effects of intimacy produced by “Été.” Je gives way to nous, and tu to the implied vous of the imperative. But it is unclear whether this nous is an authentic one, whether it includes another or others, such as the “frère du sang,” or simply serves to blur the identity of this speaking subject whose senses are already blurred by wine, whose blood runs red with le vin de l'oubli.

At the same time as plurality marks this subject, absence plays a role in its constitution. The absence of memory and soul is the condition for the song. Unlike the conscious subject of “Été,” this one rejects reason and the mental faculties: it is instead “notre sang qui chante.” While the referent or referents to nous are vague, subjectivity is literally incarnated by the body, and particularly the interior of the body. Beginning “dans la tête” we see this speaking subject from the inside: the blood, the veins, the vertebrae. This intimacy, whose etymological sense (from the Latin INTIMVS) is “the condition of being inmost or deepest,” and is of a wholly different kind from that of “Été.”

What is the route taken by the three speaking subjects encountered so far? The first, placed in a country setting, translated a sense of pleasure by following the path of the wind and describing the landscape. The second took shape through speech, establishing itself as a distinct, conscious subject in a nonspecific decor. From this conscious subject we shift to the irrationality and incoherence of “Automne.” Here the voice is highly subjective, for it speaks of its own experience, rather than responding to another's and refers to the sensations of its own body. In “Automne” inside is turned out; the most visible decor is all that is usually considered internal: psychological make-up, blood and bones. Its message is a supremely poetic one: the song counts for itself alone. That the subject's specificity gives way to vague plurality, that the song gives way to tears in the second strophe, that the voice in question is both unheard of and unhearable (“inouï”)—all this uncertainty and vagueness tell us that the distant music and the intermittent song, its emanation, count for all. The subject has in a sense made itself over into the multiplicity of song. Rhythm, the voice, incarnate in body, in turn make possible subjectivity. The subject's affliction is reminiscent of the anxiety of “tu” in the previous poem: subjective experience has moved to center stage. The song is allowed to represent the subject's distress, and in its conflict the multiple nature of subjectivity is revealed.

The rhythms of “Automne” divide the sonnet clearly in two. The changing rhythms of the quatrains are opposed to the consistent division of all the lines of the tercets into two measures of four and five syllables. This steady incantatory beat is reinforced by the repetition in the first tercet: “Frère du sang de la vigne rose, / Frère du vin de la veine noire.” Indeed, the content of these lines are as religious as is the litany which their form suggests. The images of the first tercet are clearly Christian: in the passage from wine to blood one reads the transubstantiation of Christ, and the apotheosis suggests another transformation, from human to god.

In fact, the more supernatural and therefore pagan reference to mesmerism in the final tercet continues to deal with transformations, here the transformation of states of consciousness. The starting point of the poem deals with the physiological changes caused by intoxication, changes such as the “seeing double” which leads, perhaps, to the pluralization of the subject pronouns. These final changes are of a more profound sort, operating on the boundaries of absence and presence, of the physical and the psychological.

The imperatives, “Chantez, pleurez! Chassez,” chase two enjambements through the final tercet to its enigmatic last command, “Magnétisez nos pauvres vertèbres.” “Vertèbre” comes from the Latin verb meaning to turn (VERTERE). From the spinning head of the drunken subject to the multiplication of conscious states, this poem turns, revolves, upon questions of subjectivity. The final plural rhyme, the only one in the poem, hints again at the multiple, if unstable, constitution of this subject.



Ah! vraiment c'est triste, ah! vraiment ça finit
trop mal.
Il n'est pas permis d’être à ce point infortuné.
Ah! vraiment c'est trop la mort du naïf animal
Qui voit tout son sang couler sous son regard fané.
Londres fume et crie. O quelle ville de la Bible!
Le gaz flambe et nage et les enseignes sont vermeilles.
Et les maisons dans leur ratatinement terrible
Epouvantent comme un sénat(16) de petites
Tout l'affreux passé saute, piaule, miaule et glapit
Dans le brouillard rose et jaune et sale des Sohos
Avec des indeeds et des all rights et des haôs.
Non vraiment c'est trop un martyre sans espérance,(17)
Non vraiment cela finit trop mal, vraiment c'est triste:
O le feu du ciel sur cette ville de la Bible!

If “Automne” offers the picture of a subject at once split between absence and presence, “Hiver” finds the subject completely shattered. The first person has disappeared in favor of the third person, and yet this poem is anything but impersonal, for it is sprinkled with repeated interjections (“Ah! vraiment c'est triste”) that point to a speaking subject. Distressed in the previous poem, here the speaking subject expresses something resembling sheer panic. Images of previous poems return in “Hiver,” but are made over to coincide with its violent, chaotic tone. The first word, the interjection, “Ah!,” introduced the speaking subject in “Printemps.” But rather than the carefree expression of the first sonnet, or the melancholic hopefulness of “Été”—“Ah, quand refleuriront les roses de septembre!”—here this interjection repeated three times in the first quatrain expresses unadulterated despair. Its replacement in the final strophe with the negative “Non vraiment c'est trop” [my emphasis] suggests complete resignation.

The repetition of these phrases in the first and final strophes reinforces the frame formed of a scene of violent martyrdom. The blood which sang and flowed freely through veins in “Automne” here is spilled under the watchful eye of a dying animal. The “vieux feu qui tousse” of “Printemps” is made over in the final image of a fiery sky in “Hiver.” What is framed in the two central strophes is a landscape, but an entirely different one from that found in “Printemps.” This cityscape is rendered vivid both visually and phonically in this fierce portrait of London. Colors jump from the page: “vermeille, rose, jaune.” The innocuous “brouillard léger” of “Printemps” is here transformed into the menacing “brouillard rose et jaune et sale” (reminiscent of Baudelaire's “brouillard sale et jaune” in “Les sept vieillards”).

On the level of sound, the song heard throughout the other sonnets has disappeared, giving way here to chaotic, incoherent noise. These noises come from inanimate sources, beginning with the city itself: “Londres fume et crie” and reaching a cacophonous climax with the horrid, shrieking past: “l'affreux passé saute, piaule, miaule et glapit.” This last line recalls Baudelaire once more, “Les monstres glapissants, hurlants, grognants, rampants” of “Au lecteur,” and along with them all the violence and despair associated with spleen. At the end of this litany of sounds comes perhaps the most incoherent sounds of all: the foreign words, simple interjections, listed in line eleven: “Avec des indeeds et des all rights et des haôs.”

It is fitting that “Hiver” carry so many references to the preceding poems in the “Almanach” (as well as Baudelairian echoes), since it is above all the weight of the past which afflicts its subject. The speaking subject of “Printemps” looks forward to the budding season and ends on a note of continuation with “allons.” This word is repeated in line six of “Été” which also closes with a look to the future: “Ah, quand refleuriront les roses de septembre!” In “Automne,” memory is absent and the past is thus effaced. Although these first three sonnets look to the future rather than to the past, “Hiver” ends the cycle of seasons and poems and can thus only look back. The past makes a violent return in line nine: “Tout l'affreux passé saute. …” This poem is conditioned by a memory which haunts the speaking subject. Irreversible closure blocks off the future: “cela finit trop mal.”

If the narrative of the subject throughout these sonnets traces its emergence, coming to consciousness, multiplication in misery and final breakdown, then in its own narrative, “Hiver” constitutes a final entropic movement, for the sonnet as well as for the subject. This sonnet, which would be retitled “Sonnet boiteux,” has become the unfortunate, limping, pitiful creature seen in the persecuted animal of the third line: “… [le] naïf animal / Qui voit tout son sang couler sous un regard fané.” The thirteen-syllable line, so close to the supremely symmetrical alexandrine, and yet so far from perfection, suffers from excess: one little syllable is much too much. The self-conscious poem tells us as much with the “trop” which it repeats four times. Likewise, as it is the final syllable that ruins the line, it is the final strophe which spoils the rhyme. The quatrains begin in a regular, if unconventional fashion with rimes embrassées alternating rhyme gender between strophes. In the first tercet all we find is the rather odd pairing of two English words (“Sohos” and “haôs”), the first misspelled with a final -s and the second barely decipherable to this native speaker. In the final tercet, rhyme has broken down altogether. Again the poem confesses: “cela finit trop mal.”

An odd sort of closure this is, for an itinerary ending in a dispersal which the ultimate dismemberment of the manuscript of Cellulairement irrevocably confirmed. One could speculate that Verlaine, a lost soul writing from a foreign prison, was moved to chart the emergence of his own despair and the disintegration of his sense of self through his speaking subject. And yet I hesitate to conflate the two, for parallel to this itinerary which seems to follow the unbecoming, rather than the “devenir du sujet,” exists another movement yearning toward poetic innovation which serves to confirm life rather than subjective death. Verlaine's experimentation with unusual meters, rhythms and rhymes went to the heart of poetry as he understood it: the too much or too little of the feminine rhyme and of the odd meter allowed him to experiment with limits and with margins. That the Verlainian poem might live and breathe, its subject must remain on the margins of representability, for ultimately it is the subject's hesitation between consolidation and dispersal that the poem captures in its own hesitations between precision and uncertainty.


  1. Originally collected in Cellulairement, published in Jadis et naguère. All references, unless otherwise indicated, are to Œuvres poétiques complètes (Paris: Pléiade, 1962).

  2. Letter to Lepelletier, dated from Mons, November 24, 1873. Correspondance de Paul Verlaine, ed. Ad. van Bever (Paris: Messein, 1922), I, 120–21.

  3. Kahn, Symbolistes et décadents (Paris: Vanier, 1902), p. 89.

  4. La prison romantique (Paris: Corti, 1975).

  5. Compare the adverbial form of the title of Verlaine's Parallèlement (1889).

  6. “Le poétique et le narratif,” Poétique 28 (1976): 440.

  7. Traité de versification française (Paris: Klincksieck, 1965), p. 178.

  8. This version is from the manuscript of Cellulairement, described by Ernest Dupuy in “Étude critique sur le texte d'un manuscrit de P. Verlaine,” Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France 20 (1913): 489–516.

  9. I have chosen to reproduce the published versions of the final three sonnets since the variations from Cellulairement are minor, intending to polish the poems as well as correct faulty grammar. Substantive changes from the earlier manuscript are indicated in the notes below. “Été” was eventually published as Sagesse, III, iii. Cf. Elénore Zimmermann's study of the final three sonnets of the “Almanach” as they illustrate the poetic system elaborated by Verlaine in prison. In Magies de Verlaine (Paris: Corti, 1967), pp. 92–109.

  10. In Cellulairement, read et c'est affreux for c'est étonnant.

  11. In Cellulairement, read Répondent for Résonnent.

  12. In Cellulairement, read Il dort! for Va, dors!

  13. Dictionnaire de poétique et de rhétorique (Paris: P.U.F., 1961), pp. 189–92.

  14. “Sciences exactes et littérature,” Dictionnaire historique, thématique et technique des littératures 2 vols. (Paris: Larousse, 1986), p. 1487.

  15. In Cellulairement, read Frère du vin de la vigne rose, / Frère du sang de la veine noire …

  16. In Cellulairement, read tas noir for sénat.

  17. In Cellulairement, read assurance for espérance.

Russell S. King (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5998

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 …

2. A cette bisexualité fusionnelle, effaçante, qui veut conjurer la castration, j'oppose l'autre bisexualité, celle dont chaque sujet non enfermé dans le faux théâtre de la représentation phallocentrique, institue son univers érotique.

C. Clément, H. Cixous, La Jeune Née (155)

Soyons deux enfants, soyons deux jeunes filles, Eprises de rien et de tout étonnées.

Verlaine, Romances sans paroles1

Paul Verlaine's Romances sans paroles (1874) can be described as a bisexual text in its autobiographical origins, in that the bulk of the twenty one poems are inspired by, or depict, however indirectly, either the heterosexual relationship with the poet's young wife, Mathilde, or the homosexual relationship with the poet Arthur Rimbaud. The immediate biographical context of the Verlaine/Mathilde/Rimbaud triangle, stretching from Rimbaud's arrival in Paris on 10 September 1871, thirteen months after Verlaine's marriage on 11 August 1870, to the birth of the son Georges on 30 October 1871, and to Verlaine's final meeting with Rimbaud in Stuttgart in January 1875, has been frequently reported, described, dramatized, and is the subject of this paper only as a preliminary.

Few questions, however, have been asked about how gender and Verlaine's sexuality are explicitly or implicitly inscribed into the language of his actual poetry. Can one hypothesize, for example, an “écriture masculine,” an “écriture bisexuelle” or an “écriture homosexuelle,” which transcends the purely biographical, and sex and sexuality as thematic content? To what extent can writing be defined as masculine, feminine, or, to use Cixous' term, bisexual? Attempts to isolate grammatical, syntactic or lexical features, like those of Robin Lakoff, to which we shall refer later, to define woman's writing have proved controversial and provocative. In an entirely different approach, Hélène Cixous, it would seem, uses the labels masculine and feminine, not as fixed and separate binary categories which relate to sexual difference, man and woman, but as coded metaphors for positions which transcend fixed sexual binaries. Cixous' two definitions of bisexuality are centered around two sorts of binaries: the first seeks to fuse the two sexes into a complete totality—a kind of androgynous bisexuality, whilst the second suggests an unstable, free inter-play between two non-fixed positions, outside of the “false theatre” of phallocentricity, which may be called masculine and feminine (that is, gender) which may or may not be related to the categories of male and female (that is, sex). The same question of bisexual identity has been brilliantly scrutinized and theorized more recently by Marjorie Garber's Vice Versa, and Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries & Visions, edited by Naomi Tucker. In the former Garber examines how the bisexual has been inscribed into a multiplicity of texts, whilst, in the latter volume of essays, many of the writers specifically challenge traditional binarism which underpins gender studies.

Verlaine's poetry has almost always been read in a largely biographical mode: his successive collections have been seen to relate to, and depict, the prevailing relationships, male or female, of the period of composition: for example Les Poèmes saturniens and his cousin Elisa, La Bonne Chanson and his fiancée Mathilde Mauté, Romances sans paroles and his wife and Rimbaud, Amour and Lucien Létinois, Chansons pour elle and Eugénie Krantz, and Odes en son honneur and Philomène Boudin. These people have always provided a primary context for reading and understanding each of his collections of poems. There is no denying that the increasingly mythicized life of the poet and his relationships contributed enormously to his reputation and fame as a poet in the last ten years of his life, and still today provides a powerfully pleasurable context for reading his poetry. It is however not our context.

Verlaine studies have frequently been forced into a straightjacket of binarism: in the intimate inter-textual reading between the two texts of life and poetry, heterosexuality and homosexuality, security and freedom, idealistic and pornographic writing, and good poetry and bad poetry. In other words few readers and critics have sought to study Verlaine's poetic practice, except with reference to binary structuring within some biographical context.

Before we turn specifically to the opening poems of the Romances sans paroles, it is useful to examine how various writers, namely novelist Francis Carco, academic critic E. A. Carter, and novelist/biographer Henri Troyat, have approached Verlaine.

Francis Carco, in his Verlaine: Poète maudit (1948), a “l'homme et l’œuvre” account of the poet, structures his analysis and account of the poet around the squalor of the life and the beauty of the poetry. His psychoanalyzing purpose is founded on the over-protectiveness of the mother and the poet's physical ugliness: “Cette faiblesse n'est que trop excusable. Elle provient de la façon dont l'enfant a été élevé, de sa laideur contre laquelle il n'a jamais rien pu” (233). I have no argument with the novelist's eminently readable and vivid account of the poet, but I contest the manner in which descriptive explanation and glib analysis are provided by a convenient dividing up of the personality into various conflicting selves, responding to different impulses of the traditional binary.

A similar binary approach is proclaimed by A. E. Carter in his choice of subtitle: Verlaine: a study in Parallels (1969). Carter begins with an account (a picture, an image) of young Verlaine, aged seven, playing with a young girl on the Esplanade at Metz:

Its Edenic quality is obvious. With the passage of forty years [when Verlaine wrote about it in his Confessions] the Esplanade represented his childhood, a paradise where evil could not enter.


Carter's analysis is established by contrasting the paradise of childhood with failures and evasions of adulthood. The crisis was already apparent during Verlaine's adolescence: “Already in the tormented adolescent of the Lycée Bonaparte we discover the first symptoms of the bisexual tendency which afflicted (my emphasis) Verlaine as a man.”(15) The visit to Belgium of Verlaine and Rimbaud is seen in the light of childhood and adulthood:

To Verlaine, the whole adventure was instinctive and sensuous, an abdication of responsibility: “Je nous voyais comme deux bons enfants,” are the words Rimbaud puts into his mouth in Une Saison en Enfer, “libres de se promener dans le Paradis de tristesse.” Childhood, freedom, Paradise: the three terms give us the essentials. Even the sexual factor played a secondary role by comparison. Emotionally trapped in memories of his first years, Verlaine was forever seeking to combine them with the brutal facts of adulthood. It was an obstinate tropism towards a security he never found.


Henri Troyat, in his Verlaine (1993), who too focuses on this interface of biography and poetry, deals extensively but in a fairly straightforward manner with the psychological make-up of the poet and how it fashioned his poetry. For example he writes of the association of Verlaine's liking for pornography, masturbation and writing. Consciousness of his ugliness was the source of his homosexual practices. In his chapter 10, entitled Déchiré entre Mathilde et “Rimbe,” Troyat writes:

Dans cette affaire, il est le faible, le mou, la femelle, Rimbaud, le mâle résolu et rude. Le bonheur de Verlaine est de se soumettre, celui de Rimbaud est de dominer. Comme ils se complètent bien, comme ils ont besoin l'un de l'autre! … Parfois cependant, las d’être dominé, pénétré, il inverse les rôles. Mais, la plupart du temps, c'est Rimbaud qui est le mâle dans leur accouplement. Le tempérament de Verlaine le pousse à la soumission. Il lécherait volontiers les pieds du vainqueur. Cela ne l'empêche pas d’être séduit, à ses heures, par l'anatomie féminine. Il apprécie autant un gars bien planté qu'une luronne à la poitrine opulente. Est-ce sa faute si ces deux exigences coexistent en lui, s'il est aussi troublé par les fesses d'un garçon que par celles d'une fille? … Il est tour à tour “il” et “elle,” un amant avec une sensualité féminine, une maîtresse avec un membre viril. En tout cas, Mathilde ne l'inspire plus. Rimbaud le tient à sa merci. Il lui dispense à la fois les clartés de l'esprit et les ténèbres de la chair.


This bisexual behavior is reported in best dramatic fashion for example in his account of Mathilde's meeting with her husband at the Grand Hotel Liégeois in July 1872:

En apercevant cette jeune femme à demi nue, il s'embrase de nouveau comme s'il ne l'avait pas dédaignée, rejetée, bafouée pour suivre un homme. Après des étreintes viriles qui l'ont comblé, il a un goût de revenez-y pour la chair lisse et pâle qu'il caresse. Elle lui semble même renouvelée par l'expérience qu'il a eue de l'autre sexe.


What is significant is that Troyat relies heavily on the poetry to substantiate much of his version of what happened, in this case, on lines from “Birds in the night”.

It is as if the warnings of the Anglo-American “new critics” of the 40's and 50's had never existed: against the construction of the life from the literary text, and the interpretation of the literary text from the biography:

The whole view that art is self-expression pure and simple, the transcript of personal feelings and experiences, is demonstrably false. Even when there is close relationship between the work of art and the life of an author, this must never be construed as meaning that the work of art is a mere copy of life. … The biographical approach actually obscures a proper comprehension of the literary process, since it breaks up the order of literary tradition to substitute the life-cycle of an individual.

(Wellek & Warren 78)2

As an interested party, even ex-Madame Verlaine, Mathilde, in her Mémoires d'une vie, written in 1907–08, argues that Verlaine's poetry is understandable only with reference to the poet's life: “L’œuvre de Verlaine est obscure pour ceux qui ne sont pas très au courant de sa vie, puisque, la plupart du temps, il fait allusion à des événements tout personnels.” (Troyat 461)

Yet Troyat paradoxically (given his extensive reliance on actual poems) concludes his biographical study of Verlaine, with the “new critical” stance that recognition of poetic value does not depend on the life, a view which became apparent when François Coppée published his Choix de poésie in 1896, which detached poems from the individual collections many of which seemed anchored to parts and persons of his life:

Et le public, en le lisant, n'a nul besoin, contrairement aux assertions de Mathilde, de connaître les péripéties de l'existence de Verlaine pour comprendre et aimer sa bouleversante confession. Par une mystérieuse magie, cette poésie, la plus individuelle qui soit, est aussi celle de chacun de nous. Comme si Verlaine, en ne parlant que de lui-même, avait exprimé les sentiments de tous.

(Troyat, 461, last paragraph)

Finally I now turn to Jean-Pierre Richard's chapter entitled “Fadeur de Verlaine” in his Poésie et Profondeur, in my estimation the most brilliant and insightful study there has been of Verlaine's poetry. As a phenomenologist, Richard's text or object of study is the writing of Verlaine, all poems and non-poetic writings just part of one large macro-text. Verlaine's life is almost entirely bracketed out, and sex/gender issues are never center stage. For our purposes the most relevant passage in his study is relegated to a footnote, probably because it transgresses the principles of phenomenological “new criticism” in speaking of the life of the poet, and also because sex/gender is never relevant to his thesis:

Cette équivoque [séductions équivoques de la fadeur] n'est peut-être pas sans relation avec cette autre ambiguité qui fit de Verlaine un être sexuellement ambivalent. Peut-être conviendrait-il alors de relier le goût du fané, des brumes et de la continuité sensible à certaines tendances féminines, et de rattacher au contraire le besoin de déchirure et de dissonance au côté viril de sa nature. En face de Verlaine, Rimbaud se situe tout entier du côté masculin du choc et de la dissonance: admirons-le d'avoir reconnu la féminité verlainienne, et d'avoir voulu la nourrir en faisant lire à Verlaine les poésies de Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, dont celui-ci aussitôt s'enthousiasma.


Indeed it now seems that this “supplementary” footnote allows us to “re-write” Richard's study of Verlaine's poetic universe, centered around notions of fadeur and le fané, as a profoundly gendered one: Verlaine is a “sexually ambivalent being,” and his “goût du fané” and taste for mists represent the feminine within him, whilst for Rimbaud, wholly male, the defining masculine traits are breaking (besoin de déchirure), dissonance and shock. Whether Richard is purposely resorting to gender stereotypes to define Verlaine and distinguish him from Rimbaud, there is no obvious hierarchy within the binary, for it is precisely what Richard identifies as the feminine which is valorized, thereby reversing the gender hierarchy and becoming the distinctive feature of what Richard calls “la poésie verlainienne la plus authentique”. Richard's study of Verlaine is, arguably, gendered from the outset, in that he focuses on those distinguishing qualities which are traditionally and stereotypically coded as feminine:

En face des choses l’être verlainien adopte spontanément une attitude de passivité, d'attente. Vers leur lointain inconnu il ne projette pas sa curiosité ni son désir, il ne tente même pas de les dévoiler, de les attirer à lui et de s'en rendre maître; il demeure immobile et tranquille, content de cultiver en lui les vertus de porosité qui lui permettront de mieux se laisser pénétrer par elles quand elles auront daigné se manifester à lui.[…] Repos, silence, détente, ouverture. L’œuvre verlainienne illustrerait assez bien un certain quiétisme du sentir.


Passivity of the subject and openness to the world and sensations are the two essential qualities which characterize this period of his poetry and are radically different from the later poetry which “devient didactique et bavarde,” (185) and is little more than rhymed anecdotal verse. They provide a useful point of entry into the gendered approach to Verlaine's writing.3

Romances sans paroles (1874) is a heterogeneous collection of poems: the first nine are grouped under the subheading of “Ariettes oubliées,” the next five are “Paysages belges,” followed by a longer—twenty one quatrains—“Birds in the Night,” and the final six poems are “Aquarelles.” Let us examine the first poem of the collection:

                                        Le vent dans la plaine
                                        Suspend son haleine.
C'est l'extase langoureuse,
C'est la fatigue amoureuse,
C'est tous les frissons des bois
Parmi l’étreinte des brises,
C'est, vers les ramures grises,
Le choeur des petites voix.
O le frêle et frais murmure!
Cela gazouille et susurre,
Cela ressemble au cri doux
Que l'herbe agitée expire …
Tu dirais, sous l'eau qui vire,
Le roulis sourd des cailloux.
Cette âme qui se lamente
En cette plainte dormante.
C'est la nôtre, n'est-ce pas?
La mienne, dis, et la tienne,
Dont s'exhale l'humble antienne
Par ce tiède soir, tout bas?

At first reading this is a most unpromising poem as an introduction to the gender issue in Verlaine. In the notes to the Garnier edition of Verlaine's Oeuvres poétiques, Jacques Robichez seems to dismiss (?) it as fairly inconsequential:

Poème sur rien, poème à personne, la première ariette s’écoute sans qu'il soit besoin de la comprendre. As you like it serait peut-être le titre qui lui conviendrait le mieux.


In The Athlone Press edition of the Romances sans paroles, D. Hillery concludes his excellent three page commentary in this way:

If a meaning has to be found for the poem then it derives from the way in which the poem, admittedly on a miniature scale, copies the patterns of normal existence: the insidious invasion of personal happiness by vague feelings of doubt, culminating in implied disillusion. Verlaine's expression of it is unique (and it is not necessarily a deliberate choice); but it is indeed this common pattern of experience which contributes in a large, and unacknowledged, degree to the special potency of this ariette.


Critics and commentators such as Robichez and Hillery only indirectly or implicitly address the matter of gender, unlike Jean-Pierre Richard. Let us look at two aspects: firstly who speaks and who is the poem's internal addressee? Sex and gender are not abstractions, but are attached to, and define, persons, characters, subjects. Secondly how do they respond to, perceive, accommodate themselves to, the physical world around them?

Je caresse l'idée de faire … un livre de poèmes … d'où l'homme sera complètement banni.

(Letter to Lepelletier, 16 May 1873, Lepelletier 323)

The subject/addresser/poetic voice must somehow be sought and identified before gender and sex can be attached to “him”. His (?) explicit presence is a matter of pronouns. In this poem the first specific reference to a person is delayed till line 11: but the “tu dirais” is largely a familiar, conversational expression, involving a person admittedly, perhaps a combination of addressee and reader. But the “dis” of line 16 would suggest that the “other person” and addressee are the same, and form the couple, “la nôtre,” of line 15.

As far as the subject is concerned, there is no “je,” or other first person singular form, except the “la mienne”. Thus the subject in terms of a first person singular is blurred, made obscure, relegated to an oblique case. This is produced in many grammatical forms: for example, instead of an active verb, that is, one with subject and object, a nominalisation is preferred which has the double effect of focusing on the nature of the action without involving persons. Thus “étreinte” instead of some form of the verb “étreindre.” Similarly the nouns of the preceding lines, “extase,” “fatigue” and “frissons” are stripped of pronominal associations.

The subject's relationship with the world is not one of stereotypical idealized masculinity—power, control, action—but the world seems to act on him: this is the notion of passivity which is at the core of Richard's thesis. The four times repeated formulaic opening—“C'est … c'est … c'est … c'est …,” like the “cela gazouille … cela ressemble …”—which would in Hugo have suggested rhetorical assertiveness—perhaps now, in Verlaine, connotes groping tentativeness. There is moreover a movement to the distancing, objective third person: “cette âme” instead of “Je me lamente” or even “Mon âme se lamente” at the beginning of the third stanza. In order for the physical sensations—extase, fatigue, frissons, exhale—to become emotion-laden—lamente, plainte, humble—and the focus of the poem, the actual persons must withdraw, be concealed. Though a human context is implied by all these italicized words, the human presence is merely suggested, through cette âme, la nôtre, la mienne, and no firm “persona,” character or clear identity emerges or is permitted. However much reading practice of romantic and post-romantic poetry may identify the addresser/speaker, the poetic voice, with that of the actual poet, a biographical reading which substitutes Verlaine for the unspoken “je” overloads the human presence and detracts from the other values (ariette, landscape, sensation, emotion) of the poem and the manner in which the past (ecstasy, love) has faded into the melancholic memory and experience in the present.

The same can be said of the poem's addressee, the partner of la nôtre, la tienne. Indeed what is most interesting is that the identity is so blurred that critics have been unable to decide whether this is a “Mathilde” poem or a “Rimbaud” poem:

Avec ces derniers mots le poème se dissout dans le silence, comme une conversation chuchotée de deux amants, la nuit. Antoine Adam ne doute pas que Verlaine s'adresse à Mathilde dont il implore le retour au foyer. Pourquoi pas à Rimbaud? Il semble qu'une hésitation demeure permise. Et même, faut-il choisir?

(Robichez 581)

Elsewhere, in Verlaine: Entre Rimbaud et Dieu, Jacques Robichez spelt out the two readings/contexts of Verlaine's Romances sans paroles, insisting that there is no need to provide the biographical referents:

Il y a deux façons de lire ces poèmes. La première consiste à les rattacher étroitement aux circonstances de la vie de l'auteur dans le temps de leur composition. On est alors amené à nommer, en marge de chacun d'eux, Rimbaud ou Mathilde, quelquefois Rimbaud et Mathilde. La seconde, sans négliger complètement ces circonstances, distend le rapport qui les relie à chacun des Ariettes. Chaque fois qu'il est possible, elle ne choisit pas entre les deux amours de Verlaine. Elle recherche, non pas l'identification d'un personnage, mais l’évocation volontairement brouillée d'impressions et d’états d’âme. Elle correspond mieux, semble-t-il, aux intentions du poète, et moins mal aux vues de Rimbaud.


Surely the poem's biographic referentiality—is it Mathilde or Rimbaud?—is not what is important but rather the presence of blurred, obscured personas, relegated to oblique cases, who could be male or female: “la mienne” and “la tienne” which suggest the feminine in French are of course ungendered as far as the persons are concerned. Gender is far more difficult to conceal in French since adjectives must normally reveal a feminine form. For example “Je suis content” and “Je suis contente” gender the subject. There is a quite normal expectation that the gender of the poetic “je” will be the same gender as that of the poet. In other words in Verlaine there is an expectation that the “je” will be male unless some grammatical form indicates otherwise. Part of the play in Baudelaire's “La Beauté” (“Je suis belle, ô mortels, comme un rêve de pierre”) derives from this fact. In Romances sans paroles, it is only in the seventh poem that there is any confirmation that the “je” is in fact masculine, and then the grammatical indicator is silent in speech: “Je ne me suis pas consolé.”

The same blurring of the personas characterizes te second ariette:

Je devine à travers un murmure,
Le contour subtil des voix anciennes
Et dans les lueurs musiciennes,
Amour pâle, une aurore future!

Perhaps the “voix anciennes” may relate to Mathilde, though the pluralization does remove the specificity, and the “aurore future” could either refer to a future new beginning or reconciliation with Mathilde, or a future free relationship with Rimbaud. Instead of being a solution to be solved by scholar and reader alike, I would argue, like Robichez above, that the absence of specificity, whatever the poem's pre-text, is what is at stake in this poem. It is rather the fused shading of emotion (amour) and sensation (sound and sight).

The fourth ariette is an even more problematic poem, especially with the future of the feminine plural to refer to the lovers:

Il faut, voyez-vous, nous pardonner les choses:
De cette façon nous serons bien heureuses
Et si notre vie a des instants moroses,
Du moins nous serons, n'est-ce pas, deux pleureuses.
Soyons deux enfants, soyons deux jeunes filles
Eprises de rien et de tout étonnées …

Who is addressed in line one? The conventional referential supposition is that it is Mathilde, but there is uncertainty about the identity of the “nous”—whether the “nous” of line 1 is the same as the “nous” of line 2—, the “deux pleureuses,” the “deux enfants,” the “deux jeunes filles”: whether it is Verlaine and Mathilde or Verlaine and Rimbaud:

Jacques Borel se ralliant à l'opinion d'Antoine Adam, estime que c'est un gros “contresens” de voir dans les “deux enfants” de l'Ariette IV, Verlaine et Rimbaud. A son avis il s'agit sans le moindre doute de Verlaine et de Mathilde. On pourrait être beaucoup moins affirmatif. L'hésitation, comme ailleurs, demeure permise, mais il semble que plusieurs présomptions trahissent ici le couple anormal dont une querelle (vers 1) a troublé l'union.


Again, along with the suggestive and very specific erasure of the masculine in favor of the feminine forms, what is significant is the blurring again of the identities of the personas, with pluralization, and conventional forms such as “âmes soeurs” and “deux enfants.” Though there is a glimpse of a narrative scenario, comprising persons and actions, specifics which might begin to constitute an identity are muffled and blurred.

The same can be said of the majority of the poems of Romances sans paroles: even the “Paysages belges” clearly based on, depicting, and written during, the Belgian visit of Verlaine and Rimbaud, with this specificity being signaled by the inclusion of date and place of composition at the end of four of them. “Walcourt” is distinguished not only by its absence of verbs, but also by the total absence of first person pronominal forms. The second, “Charleroi” hides behind the third personal “on”:

Le vent profond
Pleure, on veut croire.
On sent donc quoi?

In “Bruxelles,” the only explicit presence is the oblique “mes langueurs” in the penultimate line. This pattern extends to almost all the Romances sans paroles, whether the subject addresser's sexual and gender identity, like that of the “other” person. Masculine grammatical markers—“je” with masculine adjective for example—are minimized: in the first ariette the “la mienne et la tienne” are feminine in that they refer to the noun “âme” or possibly “plainte.” Nonetheless this is a non-masculine tone established throughout the poem, with the strong predominance of feminine nouns.

This poetry with its musical and pictorial expression of sensation and emotion, with the blurring of both subject and object differs enormously from the “other” style of writing of Verlaine, which characterizes most of his later collections, which is found in “Birds in the Night” and the “Child Wife,” which biographers will categorize as uncontroversially and unmistakably “Mathilde” poems:

Vous n'avez pas eu toute patience:
Cela se comprend par malheur, de reste
Vous êtes si jeune! Et l'insouciance,
C'est le lot amer de l’âge céleste!
Et vous voyez bien que j'avais raison
Quand je vous disais, dans mes moments noirs,
Que vos yeux, foyers de mes vieux espoirs,
Ne couvaient plus rien que la trahison.

The presence and gendered identity of personas in both these poems are more prominent, and the biographical critic has little problem situating them clearly and specifically within the biographical context. The grammatical pronouns of “je” and “vous” are frequent, focused strongly within the poem's narrative structure. These are poems with strongly identifiable actors, personas. Whether readers consider them to be good poems or not, they much more closely resemble the poetic practice of Verlaine's later and, in the general view, very much inferior poetry. (See Carter 111.)

But in what way is all this blurring of the subject and uncertainty about the identity of the addressee-object gendered and related to “bisexual writing”? I would like to juxtapose the first ariette quoted in full above and the section in Cixous' La Jeune Née, under the subheading “le masculin futur”:

Il y a des exceptions. Il y en a toujours eu, ce sont ces êtres incertains, poétiques, qui ne se sont pas laissés à l’état de mannequins codés par le refoulement impitoyable de la composante homosexuelle. Hommes ou femmes, êtres complexes, mobiles, ouverts. D'admettre la composante de l'autre sexe les rend à la fois beaucoup plus riches, plusieurs, forts et dans la mesure de cette mobilité, très fragiles. On n'invente qu’à cette condition: penseurs, artistes, créateurs de nouvelles valeurs, “philosophes” à la folle façon nietzchéenne, inventeurs et briseurs de concepts, de formes, les changeurs de vie ne peuvent qu’être agités par des singularités—complémentaires ou contradictoires. ça ne veut pas dire que pour créer il faut être homosexuel. Mais qu'il n'est pas d’-invention possible, qu'elle soit philosophique ou poétique, sans qu'en le sujet inventeur il y ait en abondance de l'autre, du divers, personnes-détachées, personnes-pensées, peuples issus de l'inconscient, et dans chaque désert soudain animé, surgissent de moi qu'on ne se connaissait pas—nos femmes, nos monstres, nos chacals, nos arabes, nos semblables, nos frayeurs. Mais qu'il n'est pas d'invention d'autres JE, pas de poésie, pas de fiction sans qu'une homosexualité (jeu donc de la bisexualité) fasse en moi oeuvre de cristallisation de mes ultrasubjectivités. Je est cette matière personnelle, exubérante, gaie masculine, féminine ou autre en laquelle Je enchante et m'angoisse. Et dans le concert des personnalisations qui s'appellent Je, à la fois on refoule une certaine homosexualité, symboliquement, substitutivement, ça passe par des signes divers, traits comportements, manières gestes, et ça se voit plus nettement encore dans l’écriture.


The relevance of Cixous' thesis of a homosexual or bisexual self which allows this “concert de peronnalisations qui s'appellent Je” would seem to apply more readily to the notion of self and others in Baudelaire, the “sainte prostitution de l’âme” formulated in the prose poem “Les Foules” and illustrated in many others. For Verlaine it rather permits the diminution of the strong male/masculine identity which seeks to know the world through its binary classifications and analyses, control others and the world, and to preserve and assert the self and identity of the strong, assertive, active, masculine “moi” and “je.” In the bulk of the Romances sans paroles therefore the strongly asserted self evaporates, not necessarily becoming others as in Baudelaire, but gives itself up, renounces itself, to allow the experience of sensation and emotion to emerge center-stage.

The other coded gendered feature of Verlaine's writing, consequent on the above renunciation of the assertive, identifiable self, is that the senses, body and the mind, become open and available to the world. This openness to the world, sensational and emotional receptivity, relates of course to the essential “passivity” of Verlaine which has formed the basis of Richard's and others' reading of Verlaine's “better” poetry.

If we turn back to the first ariette of Romances sans paroles, we have found, along with the almost total absence of the lovers, a similar dissolution of the objective world, now relegated to “bois, brises, ramures, voix, l'herbe, eau, cailloux,” the first four being a kind of generalized plural and the other singular nouns to a generalized amorphous pseudo-plural. What is now important is precisely bodily sensations: extase langoureuse, fatigue amoureuse, frissons, étreinte then followed by aural pleasures: the “chorus of small voices,” and the whole of the second stanza seeks to provide impressions of these invisible sounds:

O le frêle et frais murmure!
Cela gazouille et susurre,
Cela ressemble au cri doux
Que l'herbe agitée expire …
Tu dirais, sous l'eau qui vire,
Le roulis sourd des cailloux.

Adjectives (frêle, frais, doux, sourd) and verbs (gazouille, susurre, expire) have been made the principal vehicles of suggested meanings. This is part of a familiar pattern in Verlaine's poetry: a movement from visual sensation, or emotion-sensation within a seen context (woods) to one of sound and thence, in the final stage, to one of reverie: it has now become a spiritual (cette âme) plainte. Objects in themselves are not perceived with precision, specificity, but vaguely, impressionistically.

In a paper on “Synaesthesia in Cixous and Barthes,” Claire Oboussier explains how Cixous' thinking might illuminate the poetic practice of Verlaine's privileging of the body and its almost synaesthetic sensations in its openness to the world:

Fox Cixous, therefore, knowledge is never abstracted but always linked directly to the body. Moreover, the partitioning of the senses is both artificial and constraining and should be challenged through different paradigms in writing. In Illa ways in which this kind of knowledge should be acquired are developed; a rose should be felt in a rose way; things must be allowed to happen in their own modality instead of being appropriated and abstracted.


Verlaine's synaesthesia is not a cross-circuiting one, but a form which is founded most particularly on sight and sound, not as interchangeable senses: Verlaine focuses on that interface when sight blurs into an experience of sound/music, thus forming part of the fading, dissolving process formulated in his “Art poétique” and exemplified in many of his most celebrated poems.

This bodily and sensual openness to the world is not consistent with the strongly assertive sense of self and subjectivity, as we have seen above. It is also most specifically manifested in a number of syntactic and lexical features which, some years ago, Robin Lakoff4 analyzed, controversially and provocatively, as characteristic of woman's language in contemporary American speech: “tag” questions such as “C'est la nôtre, n'est-ce pas?” signifying tentativeness, seeking approval, as opposed to a confident masculine assertion or declaration; “empty adjectives” such as “petits,” “charmants”; epistemic modal forms such as “peut-être”; and “disfluency” in the form of hesitations, pauses, false starts. These features of feminine unassertiveness and hesitancy have been strongly challenged by some and defended by others as communication facilitators. In the case of Verlaine's poetry they are all strongly present, and are positively valorized. Indeed, in purely linguistic terms, they are at the center of Verlaine's poetic practice which cherishes the suggestive and imprecise, and abhors the declarative, the declamatory, and confidently assertive.

The inscription of gender in Verlaine's poetry differs considerably from the androgynous/hermaphroditic ideals—Cixous' first kind of bisexuality—which re-emerged in French poetry and writing generally in the late 19th century, from about 1860 onwards. Despite the youth of Rimbaud and others like Lucien Létinois, Verlaine's aesthetic ideal never took the form of the pretty boy who looked like a girl. Nor is Verlaine's bisexuality altogether that of Cixous' second category which recognizes sexual difference but operates a free play between the two sexes. Rather his bisexual writing is more characterized by the elimination of traditional masculine markers, both in terms of grammatical forms, and of the absence of the assertive, active subject who seeks mastery, knowledge and power. His partner, particularly in the so-called “Rimbaud” poems, likewise is similarly somewhat ungendered. In erasing the traditional markers of masculinity and masculine writing, Verlaine privileges and valorizes the feminine, submitting the body to sensation and emotion.


  1. Paul Verlaine, “Il faut, voyez-vous, nous pardonner les choses.” This is the fourth “ariette oubliée” (123) in Romances sans paroles, in Oeuvres Poétiques Complètes, Pléiade, 1951.

  2. Theory of Literature, first published in 1949.

  3. Questions of language in Verlaine's poetry have been addressed, in a totally ungendered way, in Russell S. King, “Le Paysage verbal verlainien,” and “Verlaine's Verbal Sensation.”

  4. Women's Studies: a Reader, edited by Stevi Jackson, Section 12: Language and Gender, 401–30.

Works cited

Carco, Francis. Verlaine—poète maudit. Paris: Albin Michel, 1948.

Carter, A. E. Verlaine: a study in Parallels. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1969.

Clément, Catherine and Cixous, Hélène. La Jeune Née. Paris: 10/18, 1975.

Garber, Marjorie. Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everday Life. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1995.

Jackson, Stevi, editor. Women’ Studies: a Reader. Hemel Hempstead, U.K.: Harvester, 1993.

King, Russell S. “Le Paysage verbal verlainien.” Europe (September-October, 1974): 96–107.

———. “Verlaine's Verbal Sensation.” Studies in Philology 72 (April 1975): 226–36.

Lepelletier, Edmond. Paul Verlaine: sa vie, son oeuvre. Paris: Mercure de France, 1907.

Oboussier, Claire. “Synaethesia in Cixous and Barthes,” in Women and Representation. Eds Diana Knight and Judith Still. Nottingham: WIF Publications, U of Nottingham, 1995.

Richard, Jean-Pierre. Poésie et Profondeur. Paris: Seuil, 1955.

Robichez, Jacques. Verlaine: entre Rimbaud et Dieu. Paris: SEDES, 1982.

Troyat, Henri. Verlaine. Paris: Flammarion, 1993.

Tucker, Naomi, ed. Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries & Visions. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995.

Verlaine, Paul. Oeuvres Poétiques Complètes. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard, 1951.

———. Oeuvres en Prose Complètes. Ed. Jacques Borel. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard, 1972.

———. Oeuvres Poétiques. Ed. Jacques Robichez. Paris: Garnier, 1969.

———. Romances sans paroles, Ed. David Hillery. London: Athone Press, 1976.

Wellek, René and Warren, Austin. Theory of Literature. London: Penguin, 1949.

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Verlaine, Paul (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)