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Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)

 

French poet and leader of the Symbolist movement in poetry. Paul Verlaine's life style wavered between criminality and naive innocence; he married a young girl in 1870 but after a year fell in love with the young poet Arthur Rimbaud, who was seventeen. With Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire he formed the so-called Decadents. In Verlaine's works two impressions predominate: that only self is important, and that the function of poetry is to preserve moments of extreme sensation and unique impressions. In spite of the 'vagueness' of his poetry, Verlaine showed a careful craftsmanship in his compositions, using simple, musical language. He maintained the outward form of classical poetry, but his work opened the way for free verse.

"There is weeping in my heart
Like the rain falling on the city."

(from Romances sans Paroles, 1874)

Paul Verlaine was born in Metz, northeast France, where his father, an infantry captain, happened to be stationed. Paul was the only child, but there lived also with the family an orphan cousin, Elisa Déhee, whom the young poet later loved passionately. In 1851 the family moved to Paris, where he was sent to the lycée. At the age of 14 he read Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal, which influenced deeply his writing aspirations. He studied law, but gave up after two years and entered the civil service at the City Hall. In 1862 Verlaine received his bachelor's degree.

Among Verlaine's friends were a number of Parnassian poets, Leconte de Lisle, Théodore de Banville, Louis Xavier de Ricard, Catulle Mendès, and François Cippée; he also imitated their classical grandeur in his early works. At the ale houses of the rue Soufflot he found company for long discussions and for drinking absinthe – the drink that was eventually to lead him to a hospital bed. Eventually Verlaine's father refused to finance his son's extravagances.

In his first book, Poèmes saturniens (1866), Verlaine asked, "Est-elle en marbre ou non, la Vénus de Milo?" Fêtes galantes (1869), which had a 18th-century setting, was published after the death of his beloved cousin. Although Verlaine had homosexual tendencies, he married in 1870 Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville, and shared the same dwelling sometimes with his wife, his in-laws, and with the younger poet Arthur Rimbaud. For Mathilde Verlaine wrote La Bonne Chanson (1870), revealing his anxieties and hopes for happiness, but he also showed a violent temper, attacked his wife and once he hurled his infant son Georges against a wall. When Verlaine began an affair with Rimbaud, the marriage was shattered. In this impossible situation Verlaine left his family to live a Bohemian life with his poet friend in London and Brussels. Their relationship ended on July 12, 1873 when Verlaine, drunk and desolate, tried to shoot Rimbaud in the wrist after a quarrel. He was jailed for 18 months. When he was examined by the court physicians they noted that his "anus can be dilated rather significantly by a moderate separation of the buttocks," and he "bears on his person the signs of active and passive pederastic habits." Verlaine was visited by a priest who interrupted his confession and asked: "You've never been with animals?" During his imprisonment Verlaine studied Shakespeare and Don Quixote and wrote Romances sans paroles (1874). "And here is my heart which beats only for you." The collection is considered the masterpiece where he finally found his poetic voice, the music of the lines.

After being released, Verlaine again met Rimbaud, who soon found out that his former friend was a Catholic. Rimbaud first proceeded to get Verlaine drunk and make him blaspheme against his faith. According to one story he then knocked him down with a club. Verlaine moved to England where he taught French before returning to France in 1877 to teach at the college of Rethel. From this period date most of the poems in Sagesse. It contains verse of religious sentiment that reflects the poet's conversion to Roman Catholicism. In 1879 he gave up teaching, adopted a pupil, Lucien Létinois, and they ran a farm together. The farm went bankrupt, and Verlaine returned to Paris. His second attempt to live in the country, this time at Coulommes, also ended in bankruptcy.

In 1883 Verlaine's favorite pupil died of typhus, and his mother died in 1886. Amour (1888) looked back to Lucien's death. Although relapsing into drink, Verlaine was celebrated at the same time as the leading poet of France. He published such critical works as Les Poètes maudits (1884), short biographical studies of poets, short stories and sacred and profane verse. On many occasions, he utilized old poems, which he earlier had not regarded worthy of publication. Verlaine was for long periods in public hospitals, continued to drink, slept in slums, and spent a month in prison. He also suffered from rheumatism, cirrhosis, gastritis, jaundice, diabetes, and cardiac hypertrophy. At Broussais Hospital he was visited by André Gide and told him that he was at the moment working on a "series of masturbatory poems".

GREEN
Voici des fruits, des fleurs, des feuilles et des branches
Et puis voici mon coeur, qui ne bat que pour vous,
Ne le déchirez pas avec vos deux mains blanches,
Et qu'à vos yeux si beaux l'humble présent soit doux.
J'arrive tout couvert encore de rosée
Que le vent du matin vient glacer à mon front.
Souffrez que ma fatique, à vos pieds reposée,
Réve des chers instants qui la délasseront.
Sur votre jeune sein laissez rouler ma tête
Toute sonore encor de vos derniers baisers;
Laissez-la s'apaiser de la bonne tempête,
Et que je dorme un peu puisque vous reposez.

In his last years, Verlaine wasted whatever royalties he earned on two middle-aged women prostitutes he lived with alternately, while remembering to praise the beauty of each. He also frequented a gay man, Bibi-la-Purée, who was an occasional thief. Bibi had become especially famous for stealing umbrellas. "For me, Rimbaud is an ever-living reality," Verlaine once said to his friend, "a sun that burns inside me that does not want to be put out..." However, in his autobiographical writings he denied any sexual relationship with Rimbaud. Verlaine's life style started to attract reluctant admiration, his early collections of poetry were rediscovered and in 1894 he was elected France's Prince of Poets, after the death of Leconte de Lisle. Verlaine died in Paris two years later, at the age of 52, on January 8, 1896. His funeral was a public event, with thousands of Parisians following the casket to the Batignolles cemetery. Despite his fame, Verlaine died in poverty.

For further reading: Paul Verlaine by Stefan Zweig (1913); Verlaine by Ernest Delahaye (1919); Paul Verlaine by Stefan Zweig (1913); Paul Verlaine by Harold Nicholson (1921); Paul Verlaine, sa vie, son oeuvre by Edmond Lepelletier (1923); Verlaine by P. Martino (1924; 1951); A Poet Under Saturn by Marcel Coulon (1932); Mémoires de ma Vie by Mathilde Mauté (1935); Verlaine: Prince of Poets by Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson (1958); Magies de Verlaine by E. Zimmerman (1967); Verlaine: A Study in Parallels by A.E. Carter (1969); Verlaine by J. Richardson (1971); Verlaine by C. Chadwick (1973); English Interludes by Cecily Mackworth (1974); Paul Verlaine by Stefan Zweig (1980); Paul Verlaine: His Life - His Work by Edmond Lepelletier (1993); Paul Verlaine: Histoire d'un Corps by Alain Buisine (1995); Arthur Rimbaud et Paul Verlaine, ed. by Joon-Oh Lee (1996); Paul Verlaine by Harold G. Nicolson (1997); Arthur Rimbaud by Benjamin Ivry (1998) - Décadents: a term applied narrowly to the group of French poets whose leaders were Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Mallarmé. The group became known for their interest in the morbid, perverse and bizarre, their freedom of morals and often sensational social behavior, and hyperaesthetic temperaments. In their writings, they placed emphasis upon creative self-expression and underlined the principle of art for art's sake. Their review Le Décadent, whose title consecrated a label originally coined by hostile critics, was founded in 1886. See also: Oscar Wilde, the English counterpart of this phenomenon. Film: Total Eclipse (1995), a hysterical dramatization of the famous literary conjunction, the destructive love affair of Verlaine and Rimbaud, dir. by Agnieszka Holland, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, David Thewlis. Suom.: Verlainelta on suomenettu mm. valkoima Paul Verlainen runoja (1965) sekä runoja teokseen Tuhat laulujen vuotta, toim. Aale Tynni (1974). 

Selected works:

  • Poèmes saturniens, 1866
    - 'My Familiar Dream,' 'Marine,' 'Night Scene,' 'Sunsets,' etc., in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (selections, translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'Nevermore,' 'My recurring dream,' 'Anguish,' 'Sketch of Paris,' 'Nightmare,' etc., in Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, 1999)
    - Saturnisia runoja (valinnut ja suomentanut Einari Aaltonen, 2002)
  • Fêtes galantes, 1869
    - Gallant Parties (tr. 1912) / 'Moonlight,' 'Pantomime,' 'On the Grass,' 'The Lane,' etc., in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (selections, translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'On the grass,' 'Without guile,' 'Cortége,' 'Shells,' etc., in Selected Poems (translated Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • La Bonne Chanson, 1870
    - '"Morning star, before you pale...,"' '"Among the trees..."' etc., in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (selections, translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'It's languor and ecstasy,' 'Falling tears,' etc. in Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Romances sans paroles, 1874
    - Romances Without Words (tr. 1921) / '"It's the langruorous ecstacy..."' etc., in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (selections, translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999)
  • Sagesse, 1880 (rev. ed. 1889)
    - '"Beauty of women, weakness, pale soft skin..."', etc., in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (selections, translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'Beauty of women...' etc., in Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Jadis et naguère, 1884 - 'Pierrot,' 'The Skeleton,' 'Ars Poetica,' 'Allegory,' etc., in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (selections, translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'Pierrot,' 'Kaleidoscope,' 'Ten lines on 1830,' etc., in Selected Poems (translated Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Les Poètes maudits, 1884 (rev. ed. 1888) [The Accursed Poets ]
  • Les Mémoires d'un veuf, 1886
  • Illuminations / Rimbaud, 1886 (editor)
  • Louise Leclercq, 1886 (short stories and play, Madame Aubin)
  • Amour, 1888
    - 'Your voice was deep and low...' and 'For Georges Verlaine', in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'Written in 1875,' 'Bournemouth,' 'A widower speaks,' 'Adieu,' etc. in Selected Poems (translated Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Parallèlement, 1889
    - 'Allegory,' 'Spring,' 'Summer,' 'For Mademoiselle***,' 'False Impressions,' etc., in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (selections, translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'Allegory,' 'Boarders,' 'Spring,' 'Summer,' 'To Princess Roukhine,' etc. in Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Femmes, 1890
    - Femmes / Hombres (translated by William Packard and John D. Mitchell, 1977) / Femmes, Hombres = Women, Men (translated by Alistair Elliot, 1979)
  • Dédicaces, 1890
    - 'Recollection of Manchester,' 'For Edmond Lepelletier,' 'For Arthur Rimbaud,' 'For Bibi-Puree,' in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (selections, translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'Manchester remembered,' 'To Arthur Rimbaud,' etc., in Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Hombres, 1891
    - Femmes / Hombres (translated by William Packard and John D. Mitchell, 1977) / Femmes, Hombres = Women, Men (translated by Alistair Elliot, 1979)
  • Bonheur, 1891
    - 'In Mary's humbke ear...,' in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (selections, translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'Life's harsh,' 'Now, into the chasm...' ' Let's end it...' etc., in Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Les uns et les autres, 1891
  • Mes Hôpitaux, 1891
  • Choix de poésies, 1891
  • Chansons pour elle, 1892
    - Chanson pour elle (tr. 1926) / '"Yes, despite your cruel excess..."' etc., in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (selections, translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'Delectable companion,' 'Now, despite...' etc. in Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Liturgies intimes, 1892
    - 'For Charles Baudelaire', in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (selections, translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'To Charles Baudelaire' in Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Élégies, 1893
  • Mes Prisons, 1893
  • Quinze jours en Hollande, 1893
  • Odes en son honneur, 1893
    - 'You've often been unkind...' and 'That firm-fleshed belly that has never borne...', in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999); 'And now, buttock!', in Selected Poems (translated by Paul Shapiro, 1999) / 'And now, buttocks!' in Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Le livre posthume, 1893-1894
    - 'Last Hope', in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'Last hope' in Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Dans les limbes, 1894
    - 'Alas, you're no virgin,' 'Sometimes you liken me...,' in Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Épigrammes, 1894
    - '"When we go—if I see her yet again..."' etc., in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'I admire the ambitions...' 'At the bottom of a sketch,' in Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Confessions, 1894
    - Confessions of a Poet (translated by Joanna Richardson, 1950)
  • Poems, 1895 (translated by Gertrude Hall)
  • Poésies complètes / Rimbaud, 1895 (editor)
  • Chair, 1896
    - 'Song for the Ladies' and 'Fog!', in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'Assonantal compliments II,' 'Midnight,' 'Fog,' in Selected Poems (translated Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Invectives, 1896
    - 'Sonnet to Weep Over,' 'A Drink Song,' 'Another Drink Song,' etc., in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (selections, translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1999) / 'A madwoman,' 'To the only one,' 'Dream,' 'Awakening,' in Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Œuvres posthumes, 1903
  • Hombres, 1903/1904 (ed. by Huber Juin, 1977)
    - Femmes / Hombres (translated by William Packard and John D. Mitchell, 1977)
  • Voyage en France par un Français, 1907
  • Biblio-sonnets, 1913
    - 'By the Seine,' in Selected Poems (translated by Martin Sorrell, 1999)
  • Documents relatifs à Paul Verlaine; lettres, dessins, pages inédites recueillis et décrits, 1919
  • Correspondance, 1922-29 (3 vols., ed. by A. van Bever)
  • Hashish and Incense, 1925 (translated by François Pirou)
  • Œuvres oubliées, 1926-29 (2 vols.)
  • Hashish and Incense, 1929 (translated by F. Perou; drawings by Mahlon Blaine)
  • Oeuvres complètes, 1943
  • Selected Poems, 1948 (translated by C.F. MacIntyre)
  • Forty Poems, 1948 (translated by R. Grant and A. Claude)
  • The Sky above the Roof: Fifty-six Poems, 1957 (translated by Brian Hill)
  • Lettres inédites de Verlaine à Cazals, 1957 (ed. by Georges Zayed)
  • Oeuvres complètes, 1959-60 (2 vols., ed. by H. de Bouillane de Lacoste and Jacques Borel)
  • Poems, 1961
  • Oeuvres poétiques complètes;  Oeuvres en prose complètes, 1962-72 (2 vols., ed. by Jacques Borel)
  • Lettres inédites à Charles Morice, 1969 (ed. by Georges Zayed)
  • Paul Verlaine, œuvres poétiques, 1969
  • Selected Poems, 1974 (translated by Joanna Richardson)
  • Lettres inédites à divers correspondants, 1976 (ed. by Georges Zayed)
  • Femmes / Hombres, 1977 (translated by William Packard and John D. Mitchell)
  • Femmes, Hombres = Women, Men, 1979 (translated by Alistair Elliott)
  • Men and Women: Erotic Works, 1985 (translated by Alan Stone)
  • One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine: A Bilingual Edition, 1999 (translated by Norman R. Shapiro)
  • Selected Poems, 1999 (translated by Martin Sorrell)
  • Paul Verlaine Revisited, 1999


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