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.
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Verlaine enrolled in law school, but because of his heavy drinking and patronage of prostitutes he was quickly withdrawn from his academic pursuits.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.
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.
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.