History of Literature

Paul Verlaine




Paul Verlaine


Paul Verlaine

French poet

born March 30, 1844, Metz, France
died January 8, 1896, Paris

French lyric poet first associated with the Parnassians and later known as a leader of the Symbolists. With Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire he formed the so-called Decadents.

Verlaine was the only child of an army officer in comfortable circumstances. He was undoubtedly spoiled by his mother. At the Lycée Bonaparte (now Condorcet) in Paris, he showed both ability and indolence and at 14 sent his first extant poem (“La Mort”) to the “master” poet Victor Hugo. Obtaining the baccalauréat in 1862, with distinction in translation from Latin, he became a clerk in an insurance company, then in the Paris city hall. All the while he was writing verse and frequenting literary cafés and drawing rooms, where he met the leading poets of the Parnassian group and other talented contemporaries, among them Mallarmé, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, and Anatole France. His poems began to appear in their literary reviews; the first, “Monsieur Prudhomme,” in 1863. Three years later the first series of Le Parnasse contemporain, a collection of pieces by contemporary poets (hence the term Parnassian), contained eight contributions by Verlaine.

The same year, his first volume of poetry appeared. Besides virtuoso imitations of Baudelaire and Leconte de Lisle, Poèmes saturniens included poignant expressions of love and melancholy supposedly centred on his cousin Élisa, who married another and died in 1867 (she had paid for this book to be published). In Fêtes galantes personal sentiment is masked by delicately clever evocations of scenes and characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte and from the sophisticated pastorals of 18th-century painters, such as Watteau and Nicolas Lancret, and perhaps also from the contemporary mood-evoking paintings of Adolphe Monticelli. In June 1869 Verlaine fell in love with Mathilde Mauté, aged 16, and they married in August 1870. In the delicious poems written during their engagement (La Bonne Chanson), he fervently sees her as his long hoped-for saviour from erring ways. When insurrectionists seized power and set up the Paris Commune, Verlaine served as press officer under their council. His fear of resultant reprisals from the Third Republic was one factor in his later bohemianism. Incompatibility in his marriage was soon aggravated by his infatuation for the younger poet Arthur Rimbaud, who came to stay with the Verlaines in September 1871.

Verlaine abandoned his wife and infant son, Georges, in July 1872, to wander with Rimbaud in northern France and Belgium and write “impressionist” sketches for his next collection, Romances sans paroles (“Songs Without Words”). The pair reached London in September and found, besides exiled Communard friends, plenty of interest and amusement and also inspiration: Verlaine completed the Romances, whose opening pages, especially, attain a pure musicality rarely surpassed in French literature and embody some of his most advanced prosodic experiments; the subjects are mostly landscape or regret or vituperation of his estranged wife. The collection was published in 1874 by his friend Edmond Lepelletier; the author himself was then serving a two-year sentence at Mons for wounding Rimbaud with a revolver during an emotional storm in Brussels on July 10, 1873.

Contrition, prison abstinence, and pious reading (some in English, along with admiring study of Shakespeare and Dickens) seem to have produced a sincere return to Roman Catholicism in the summer of 1874, after his wife had obtained a separation. Leaving prison in January 1875, he tried a Trappist retreat, then hurried to Stuttgart to meet Rimbaud, who apparently repulsed him with violence. He took refuge in England and, for over a year, taught French and drawing at Stickney and Boston in Lincolnshire, then at Bournemouth, Hampshire, impressing all by his dignity and piety and gaining an appreciation of English authors as diverse as Tennyson, Swinburne, and the Anglican hymn writers. In 1877 he returned to France.

From this period (1873–78) date most of the poems in Sagesse (“Wisdom”), which was published in October 1880 at the author’s expense (as were his previous books). They include outstanding poetical expressions of simple Catholic Christianity as well as of his emotional odyssey. Literary recognition now began. In 1882 his famous “Art poétique” (probably composed in prison eight years earlier) was enthusiastically adopted by the young Symbolists. He later disavowed the Symbolists, however, chiefly because they went further than he in abandoning traditional forms: rhyme, for example, seemed to him an unavoidable necessity in French verse.

In 1880 Verlaine made an unsuccessful essay at farming with his favourite pupil, Lucien Létinois, and the boy’s parents. Lucien’s death in April 1883, as well as that of the poet’s mother (to whom he was tenderly attached) in January 1886, and the failure of all attempts at reconciliation with his wife broke down whatever will to “respectability” remained, and he relapsed into drink and debauchery. Now both famous and notorious, he was still writing in an attempt to earn a living but seldom with the old inspiration.

Jadis et naguère (“Yesteryear and Yesterday”) consists mostly of pieces like “Art poétique,” written years before but not fitting into previous carefully grouped collections. Similarly, Parallèlement comprises bohemian and erotic pieces often contemporary with, and technically equal to, his “respectable” ones. Verlaine frankly acknowledged the parallel nature of both his makeup and his muse. In Amour new poems still show the old magic, notably passages of his lament for Lucien Létinois, no doubt intended to emulate Tennyson’s In Memoriam, but lacking its depth. Prose works such as Les Poètes maudits, short biographical studies of six poets, among them Mallarmé and Rimbaud; Les Hommes d’aujourd’hui, brief biographies of contemporary writers, most of which appeared in 1886; Mes Hôpitaux, accounts of Verlaine’s stays in hospitals; Mes Prisons, accounts of his incarcerations, including the story of his “conversion” in 1874; and Confessions, notes autobiographiques helped attract notice to ill-recognized contemporaries as well as to himself (he was instrumental in publishing Rimbaud’s Illuminations in 1886 and making him famous). There is little of lasting value, however, in the rest of the verse and prose that Verlaine turned out in an unsuccessful effort to keep the wolf from a door shared usually with aging prostitutes such as Philomène Boudin and Eugénie Krantz, prominent among the muses of his decadence. During frequent spells in hospitals, doctors gave him devoted care and friendship. He was feted in London, Oxford, and Manchester by young sympathizers, among them the critic Arthur Symons, who arranged a lecture tour in England in November 1893. Frank Harris and Cranmer Byng published articles and poems by Verlaine in The Fortnightly Review and The Senate. Relief pensions from admirers (1894) and the state (1895) were also recognition, however tardy or insufficient, of the esteem he attracted as a poet and a friend. He died in Eugénie Krantz’s lodgings in January 1896.

One of the most purely lyrical of French poets, Verlaine was an initiator of modern word-music and marks a transition between the Romantic poets and the Symbolists. His best poetry broke with the sonorous rhetoric of most of his predecessors and showed that the French language, everyday clichés included, could communicate new shades of human feeling by suggestion and tremulous vagueness that capture the reader by disarming his intellect; words could be used merely for their sound to make a subtler music, an incantatory spell more potent than their everyday meaning. Explicit intellectual or philosophical content is absent from his best work. His discovery of the intimate musicality of the French language was doubtless instinctive, but, during his most creative years, he was a conscious artist constantly seeking to develop his unique gift and “reform” his nation’s poetic expression.

Vernon Philip Underwood




Translated by Gertrude Hall






A La Promenade

The milky sky, the hazy, slender trees,
Seem smiling on the light costumes we wear,—
Our gauzy floating veils that have an air
Of wings, our satins fluttering in the breeze.

And in the marble bowl the ripples gleam,
And through the lindens of the avenue
The sifted golden sun comes to us blue
And dying, like the sunshine of a dream.

Exquisite triflers and deceivers rare,
Tender of heart, but little tied by vows,
Deliciously we dally ’neath the boughs,
And playfully the lovers plague the fair.

Receiving, should they overstep a point,
A buffet from a hand absurdly small,
At which upon a gallant knee they fall
To kiss the little finger’s littlest joint.

And as this is a shocking liberty,
A frigid glance rewards the daring swain,—
Not quite o’erbalancing with its disdain
The red mouth’s reassuring clemency.







Chanson D’Automne

Leaf-strewing gales
Utter low wails
Like violins,—
Till on my soul
Their creeping dole
Stealthily wins….

Days long gone by!
In such hour, I,
Choking and pale,
Call you to mind,—
Then like the wind
Weep I and wail.

And, as by wind
Harsh and unkind,
Driven by grief,
Go I, here, there,
Recking not where,
Like the dead leaf.







Tis The Feast Of Corn

Tis the feast of corn, ’tis the feast of bread,
On the dear scene returned to, witnessed again!
So white is the light o’er the reapers shed
Their shadows fall pink on the level grain.

The stalked gold drops to the whistling flight
Of the scythes, whose lightning dives deep, leaps clear;
The plain, labor-strewn to the confines of sight,
Changes face at each instant, gay and severe.

All pants, all is effort and toil ’neath the sun,
The stolid old sun, tranquil ripener of wheat,
Who works o’er our haste imperturbably on
To swell the green grape yon, turning it sweet.

Work on, faithful sun, for the bread and the wine,
Feed man with the milk of the earth, and bestow
The frank glass wherein unconcern laughs divine,—
Ye harvesters, vintagers, work on, aglow!

For from the flour’s fairest, and from the vine’s best,
Fruit of man’s strength spread to earth’s uttermost,
God gathers and reaps, to His purposes blest,
The Flesh and the Blood for the chalice and host!








A Une Femme

To you these lines for the consoling grace
Of your great eyes wherein a soft dream shines,
For your pure soul, all-kind!—to you these lines
From the black deeps of mine unmatched distress.

’Tis that the hideous dream that doth oppress
My soul, alas! its sad prey ne’er resigns,
But like a pack of wolves down mad inclines
Goes gathering heat upon my reddened trace!

I suffer, oh, I suffer cruelly!
So that the first man’s cry at Eden lost
Was but an eclogue surely to my cry!

And that the sorrows, Dear, that may have crossed
Your life, are but as swallows light that fly
—Dear!—in a golden warm September sky.







Apres Trois Ans

When I had pushed the narrow garden-door,
Once more I stood within the green retreat;
Softly the morning sunshine lighted it,
And every flow’r a humid spangle wore.

Nothing is changed. I see it all once more:
The vine-clad arbor with its rustic seat. . . .
The waterjet still plashes silver sweet,
The ancient aspen rustles as of yore.

The roses throb as in a bygone day,
As they were wont, the tall proud lilies sway.
Each bird that lights and twitters is a friend.

I even found the Flora standing yet,
Whose plaster crumbles at the alley’s end,
—Slim, ’mid the foolish scent of mignonette.







Birds In The Night

You were not over-patient with me, dear;
This want of patience one must rightly rate:
You are so young! Youth ever was severe
And variable and inconsiderate!

You had not all the needful kindness, no;
Nor should one be amazed, unhappily:
You’re very young, cold sister mine, and so
’Tis natural you should unfeeling be!

Behold me therefore ready to forgive;
Not gay, of course! but doing what I can
To bear up bravely,—deeply though I grieve
To be, through you, the most unhappy man.

But you will own that I was in the right
When in my downcast moods I used to say
That your sweet eyes, my hope, once, and delight!
Were come to look like eyes that will betray.

It was an evil lie, you used to swear,
And your glance, which was lying, dear, would flame,—
Poor fire, near out, one stirs to make it flare!—
And in your soft voice you would say, “Je t’aime!”

Alas! that one should clutch at happiness
In sense’s, season’s, everything’s despite!—
But ’twas an hour of gleeful bitterness
When I became convinced that I was right!

And wherefore should I lay my heart-wounds bare?
You love me not,—an end there, lady mine;
And as I do not choose that one shall dare
To pity,—I must suffer without sign.

Yes, suffer! For I loved you well, did I,—
But like a loyal soldier will I stand
Till, hurt to death, he staggers off to die,
Still filled with love for an ungrateful land.

O you that were my Beauty and my Own,
Although from you derive all my mischance,
Are not you still my Home, then, you alone,
As young and mad and beautiful as France?

Now I do not intend—what were the gain?—
To dwell with streaming eyes upon the past;
But yet my love which you may think lies slain,
Perhaps is only wide awake at last.

My love, perhaps,—which now is memory!—
Although beneath your blows it cringe and cry
And bleed to will, and must, as I foresee,
Still suffer long and much before it die,—

Judges you justly when it seems aware
Of some not all banal compunction,
And of your memory in its despair
Reproaching you, “Ah, fi! it was ill done!”

I see you still. I softly pushed the door—
As one o’erwhelmed with weariness you lay;
But O light body love should soon restore,
You bounded up, tearful at once and gay.

O what embraces, kisses sweet and wild!
Myself, from brimming eyes I laughed to you
Those moments, among all, O lovely child,
Shall be my saddest, but my sweetest, too.

I will remember your smile, your caress,
Your eyes, so kind that day,—exquisite snare!—
Yourself, in fine, whom else I might not bless,
Only as they appeared, not as they were.

I see you still! Dressed in a summer dress,
Yellow and white, bestrewn with curtain-flowers;
But you had lost the glistening laughingness
Of our delirious former loving hours.

The eldest daughter and the little wife
Spoke plainly in your bearing’s least detail,—
Already ’twas, alas! our altered life
That stared me from behind your dotted veil.

Forgiven be! And with no little pride
I treasure up,—and you, no doubt, see why,—
Remembrance of the lightning to one side
That used to flash from your indignant eye!

Some moments, I’m the tempest-driven bark
That runs dismasted mid the hissing spray,
And seeing not Our Lady through the dark
Makes ready to be drowned, and kneels to pray.

Some moments, I’m the sinner at his end,
That knows his doom if he unshriven go,
And losing hope of any ghostly friend,
Sees Hell already gape, and feels it glow.

Oh, but! Some moments, I’ve the spirit stout
Of early Christians in the lion’s care,
That smile to Jesus witnessing, without
A nerve’s revolt, the turning of a hair!




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