BORN: 1844, Metz, France
DIED: 1896, Paris, France
GENRE: Fiction, poetry
Saturnine Poems (1866)
Gallant Feasts (1869)
A poet renowned 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. Highly 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 contributor to the French symbolists, who believed the function of poetry was to evoke and not 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.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Student of Life Born in Metz to religious middle-class parents, Paul Marie Verlaine's youth was guarded and conventional until he became a student at the LycéeBonaparte (now Condorcet). While he never truly excelled in his studies, Verlaine did enjoy a certain success in rhetoric and Latin. Despite winning a number of prizes in these areas, however, Verlaine was not a highly respected student—one of his instructors claimed he looked like a criminal and was the filthiest and most slovenly pupil in school—and he barely managed to obtain the baccalaureate. Upon graduation, Verlaine enrolled in law school, but because of his tendency to frequent bars and to associate with women of questionable morals, he was quickly withdrawn from his academic pursuits. His father secured a clerical position for his son at a local insurance company, and while the work was mundane, it allowed Verlaine time to patronize the Café du Gaz, a gathering spot for the literary and artistic community, and to develop his poetic talents.
The Parnassians Verlaine made his literary debut with the publication of Poèmes saturniens (Saturnine Poems) in 1866. At this time, Verlaine began to associate with a group of young poets known as the Parnassians. This poetic movement, which had adopted Théophile Gautier's doctrine of “art for art's sake,” included François Coppée, Charles Leconte de Lisle, and Charles Baudelaire. While Verlaine's Saturnine Poems, a volume true to the Parnassian ideals of detached severity, impeccable form, and stoic objectivity, was well received by his fellow poets, it took twenty years to sell five hundred copies, leaving Verlaine virtually unknown to general readers following its publication. Verlaine began to move away from the tenets of the Parnassians with his third volume, Fêtes galantes (Gallant Feasts). In this collection, Verlaine uses 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 Verlaine as a precursor to the symbolist movement.
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 liquor flavored with wormwood that was believed to cause hallucinations. 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 Maute, who was sixteen in 1869, the year of their engagement. Following their marriage in 1870, Verlaine published La bonne chanson (The Good Song), a volume that contains verse inspired by his young wife. This was Verlaine at his happiest; he seemed to truly believe that love and marriage would save him from his dangerous lifestyle.
Arthur Rimbaud Verlaine's hopes and good intentions, however, were shattered when he received a letter from the then unknown poet Arthur Rimbaud in 1871. Verlaine urged Rimbaud, a precocious and unpredictable seventeen-year-old genius, to visit him in Paris. Tempted by the anarchic and bohemian lifestyle the young poet represented, Verlaine abandoned his wife, home, and employment for Rimbaud. The two poets traveled throughout Europe, a journey punctuated by drunken quarrels, until Verlaine shot and wounded Rimbaud during an argument in 1873. Verlaine was arrested and later sentenced to serve two years at Mons, a Belgian prison. During this time he wrote Romances sans paroles (Songs Without Words), a collection of verse strongly influenced by his affair with Rimbaud. 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 speak for many when he called this volume “Verlaine's masterpiece of sheer poetry.”
While in prison, Verlaine turned from atheism to a fervent acceptance of the Roman Catholic faith into which he had been born. While some observers have questioned the sincerity of Verlaine's conversion, others have pointed to Sagesse (Wisdom), a volume of poems that depicts his religious crisis, as evidence of his depth of feeling and moral commitment. Critical response to Wisdom was somewhat mixed. Following Wisdom, Verlaine produced a trilogy exemplifying his religious genesis: Amour (Love) was to represent religious perseverance, Parallelement (In Parallel) moral relapse, and Bonheur (Happiness) repentance and consolation. In all three collections, Verlaine continued to develop his personal voice and to progress toward simple and graceful accentuations.
Later Life After being released from Mons, Verlaine traveled to Stickney and Bournemouth in England to become a teacher of French, Latin, and drawing. Although he called his stay in Stickney an enchantement, Verlaine decided in 1878 to take up a rustic life in the Ardennes with one of his former students, Lucien Letinois, whom he termed his adoptive son. Many of the elegies of Love refer to Letinois, who died in 1886 of typhoid, two years after the death of Verlaine's mother. For the remainder of his life, Verlaine lived in poverty and reverted to drink. Although he managed to publish a few works during this time, among them the tragic and brutal Chansons pour elle (Songs for Her), most critics contend that Verlaine's best and most original work can be found in his earlier volumes. After a number of hospital stays that allowed him to recuperate from his excesses, Verlaine died in humble lodgings in 1896.
Works in Literary Context
Symbolism While many critics consider Verlaine one of the harbingers of the French symbolists due to the impressionistic and evocative nature of his poetry, Verlaine 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. Stéphane Mallarmé declared that “to name an object is to suppress three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem … to suggest it, there is the dream.” This statement, often considered the credo for the symbolist movement, can be used to describe much of Verlaine's poetry. As C. F. Keary suggests: “If there is one note which occurs more frequently than any other in [Verlaine's] poems, it is the longing for repose, a love of half-lights and the minor key.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Verlaine's famous contemporaries include:
Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891): A lasting influence on innumerable poets to follow, Rimbaud had given up poetry by the age of twenty-one, having already produced a handful of enduring classics.
Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898): A major French symbolist poet, Mallarmé was part of the Paris intellectual society in the latter half of the nineteenth century and hosted a weekly salon for writers and poets every Tuesday night.
Thomas Hardy (1840–1928): Though he considered himself a poet first and foremost, and his poetry has come to be highly regarded since his death, Hardy was best known in his lifetime for his novels, most of which were set in the semifictional county of Wessex.
Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904): Born in Greece and raised in Ireland, Hearn moved to America to work as a journalist; this work took him to Japan, and his subsequent writings provided some of the West's first insights into Japanese culture.
Victor Emmanuel II (1820–1878): In 1861, Victor Emanuel, king of Piedmont, Savoy, and Sardinia, assumed the throne of Italy, becoming the first king of the newly unified state, despite the fact that several states, including Rome, would remain as holdouts over the next decade.
Anthony Trollope (1815–1882): Like Thomas Hardy, Trollope was a successful Victorian author who set many of his stories in a fictional county. His novels were notable for their sharp observations of political and social issues of the time.
Sensuous Beauty Out of the Ordinary Since the turn of the twentieth century, Verlaine has been noted for the sensuality and beauty he evokes with his poetic imagery and language. In 1922, Irène Dean Paul called Verlaine a “painter, a musician, and a remarkable philosopher” with the talent “to create out of old material new worlds, new sounds, new sights.” Paul, like other critics to follow, praised Verlaine for his ability to take the reader along on his journeys; his detail is striking, vivid, and tangible. “Through his personality,” Paul wrote, the reader sees landscape, and objects develop a “significance and personality of their own.” Verlaine is known for his ability to draw the reader inside of everything he sees, touches, or experiences. With this technique, he takes the reader within himself, offering a new way in which to view and feel the world.
Works in Critical Context
Arthur Symons asserts that Verlaine's place in literary history rests on the fact that he “made something new of French—something more pliable, more exquisitely delicate and sensitive, than the language ever before has been capable of.”
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. “Remember,” Anatole France wrote as early as 1891, “this lunatic has created a new art, and there is a chance that some day it will be said of him…. [‘]He was the greatest poet of his time.”’
“Art poetique” When Paul Verlaine wrote his “Art poetique” in 1874, he was protesting against two traditions firmly rooted in the poetry of the time: the tradition of pictorial description and the tradition of rhetoric. Some poets followed Verlaine in creating melodious verse in which the logical and intellectual content was reduced to a minimum and the outside world was used simply as a means of expressing by analogy the poet's inner world. For example, the first three lines of the last stanza are a good example of this kind of allusive imagery, in which the two terms of the comparison—”le vers” and “la bonne aventure”—are equated, while the reason for the equation is left unspoken. Other poets, with Mallarmé chief among them, took a more complex and more abstract view of music as a system of inter-locking relationships of sound, on which poetry could superimpose a system of relationships of sense and imagery. A few, led by Rene Ghil, attempted to construct a theory of “instrumentism,” which postulated rigorous correspondences between instrumental timbres, vowel sounds, and colors. Almost all of them would have agreed with Verlaine in shunning clear, direct statement and proceeding instead by allusion, suggestion, or symbol.
Jadis et naguère Hastily gathered, the poems of Jadis et naguère were born from the necessity for Verlaine to live on his writings and to capitalize on the poet's own growing fame. His sonnet “Langueur,” published in Le Chat Noir (May 1883), became the poetic model of the decadents, a group of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century writers who held that art was superior to nature and that the finest beauty was that of dying or decaying things, and who attacked the accepted moral, ethical, and social standards of their time. Arthur Symons wrote of the work in 1892 that “it makes no pretence to unity, but has something in it of every variety of his style, with certain poems, here and there, which rank among his special triumphs.”
Legacy After his death in Paris on January 8, 1896, friends and admirers of Paul Verlaine—including François Coppée, René Sully-Prudhomme, José Maria de Heredia, Jean Richepin, Jean Moréas, Catulle Mendès, and Edmond Lepelletier—gathered to pay their respects to the poet they considered “the Master.” Although Verlaine's literary reputation had declined later in his life—in part because of his scandalous behavior—in the 1890s he was closely identified with the younger poets of the symbolist movement, although he downplayed the association. Verlaine was also one of the models for the decadent movement that began in the 1870s. As much as for his literary reputation, however, his fame rests on his stormy personal relationship with fellow decadent Arthur Rimbaud.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Verlaine preferred to refer to his work as “degenerate.” Other works that have received a similar label, either from the authors themselves or from critics, include:
The Flowers of Evil (1857), a poetry collection by Charles Baudelaire. In this, the first volume of Baudelaire's poems, the decadent verses caused such a scandal that Baudelaire was brought up on criminal charges, even as they influenced countless other artists in France and abroad.
The Great God Pan (1890), a novella by Arthur Machen. A tremendous influence on later generations of horror writers, Machen used Pan as a symbol for the dark, forbidden power of nature in this novella.
The Torture Garden (1899), a novel by Octave Mirbeau. An allegorical attack upon the hypocrisy of European efforts to spread their idea of civilization, complete with its systematic institutions of murder and violence, around the world.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), a novel by Oscar Wilde. The only novel published by the infamous wit Wilde, this book's themes of aesthetic decay and homoeroticism made it controversial upon its initial publication; it has gone on to be regarded as one of the great works of nineteenth-century literature.
Responses to Literature
- Write a brief essay about how Verlaine views the past in Gallant Feasts. Discuss specific lines or imagery to support your ideas.
- With a classmate, use resources from your library or the Internet to research Verlaine's life. Discuss the following: Why does Verlaine focus on remorse in Wisdom? What life events occurring around the time of his composing that volume would have led him to discuss such an emotion?
- Read several selections from Verlaine's poetic canon. Write an essay explaining what role you think self-denial plays in Verlaine's poetry. Use specific examples from the poems you read to support your ideas.
- Like many French poets, Verlaine's poetry often has a musical flow to it. Read a few selections of Verlaine's poetic work and have a classmate read a few selections of Charles Baudelaire's poetic work. Together, write an informal report in which you contrast the musicality of Verlaine's verse to that of Baudelaire. Cite examples from specific poems to support your opinions.
Carter, A. E. Verlaine: A Study of Parallels. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969.
Coulon, Marcel. Poet Under Saturn: The Tragedy of Verlaine, translated by Edgell Rickwood. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1932.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 217: Nineteenth-Century French Poets. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Robert Beum. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999.
Hanson, Lawrence, and Elizabeth Hanson. Verlaine: Fool of God. New York: Random House, 1957.
Nalbantian, Suzanne. The Symbolist of the Soul from Holderlin to Yeats: A Study in Metonomy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.
“Paul Verlaine (1844–1896).” Poetry Criticism. Ed. Robyn V. Young. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991, pp. 411–34.
Richardson, Joanna. Verlaine. New York: Viking Press, 1971.