Paul Verlaine

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Paul Verlaine
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Paul Verlaine
Born(1844-03-30)30 March 1844
Metz, France
Died8 January 1896(1896-01-08) (aged 51)
Paris, France
Genre Decadent, Symbolist
SpouseMathilde Mauté (1870–1871)
Partner Arthur Rimbaud (1871–1875)
Signature Paul Verlaine signature.svg
The House of Verlaine, Verlaine's birthplace in Metz, today a museum dedicated to the poet's life and artwork Maison natale de Verlaine.jpg
The House of Verlaine, Verlaine's birthplace in Metz, today a museum dedicated to the poet's life and artwork

Paul-Marie Verlaine ( /vɛərˈlɛn/ ; [1] French:  [vɛʁlɛn(ə)] ; 30 March 1844 – 8 January 1896) was a French poet associated with the Symbolist movement and the Decadent movement. He is considered one of the greatest representatives of the fin de siècle in international and French poetry.



Early life

Born in Metz, Verlaine was educated at the Lycée Impérial Bonaparte (now the Lycée Condorcet) in Paris and then took up a post in the civil service. He began writing poetry at an early age, and was initially influenced by the Parnassien movement and its leader, Leconte de Lisle. Verlaine's first published poem was published in 1863 in La Revue du progrès, a publication founded by poet Louis-Xavier de Ricard. Verlaine was a frequenter of the salon of the Marquise de Ricard [2] (Louis-Xavier de Ricard's mother) at 10 Boulevard des Batignolles and other social venues, where he rubbed shoulders with prominent artistic figures of the day: Anatole France, Emmanuel Chabrier, inventor-poet and humorist Charles Cros, the cynical anti-bourgeois idealist Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Théodore de Banville, François Coppée, Jose-Maria de Heredia, Leconte de Lisle, Catulle Mendes and others. Verlaine's first published collection, Poèmes saturniens (1866), [3] though adversely commented upon by Sainte-Beuve, established him as a poet of promise and originality.

Marriage and military service

Mathilde Mauté became Verlaine's wife in 1870. At the proclamation of the Third Republic in the same year, Verlaine joined the 160th battalion of the Garde nationale , turning Communard on 18 March 1871.

Verlaine became head of the press bureau of the Central Committee of the Paris Commune. Verlaine escaped the deadly street fighting known as the Bloody Week, or Semaine Sanglante , and went into hiding in the Pas-de-Calais.[ citation needed ]

Relationships with Rimbaud and Létinois

Plaque in Brussels Arthur Rimbaud plaque.JPG
Plaque in Brussels
Paul Verlaine in 1893; photograph by Otto Wegener Paul Verlaine.jpeg
Paul Verlaine in 1893; photograph by Otto Wegener

Verlaine returned to Paris in August 1871, and, in September, received the first letter from Arthur Rimbaud, who admired his poetry. Verlaine urged Rimbaud to come to Paris, and by 1872, he had lost interest in Mathilde, and effectively abandoned her and their son, preferring the company of his new lover. [3] Rimbaud and Verlaine's stormy affair took them to London in 1872. In Brussels in July 1873, in a drunken, jealous rage, he fired two shots with a pistol at Rimbaud, wounding his left wrist, though not seriously injuring the poet. As an indirect result of this incident, Verlaine was arrested and imprisoned at Mons, [4] where he underwent a re-conversion to Roman Catholicism, which again influenced his work and provoked Rimbaud's sharp criticism. [5]

The poems collected in Romances sans paroles (1874) were written between 1872 and 1873, inspired by Verlaine's nostalgically colored recollections of his life with Mathilde on the one hand and impressionistic sketches of his on-again off-again year-long escapade with Rimbaud on the other. Romances sans paroles was published while Verlaine was imprisoned. Following his release from prison, Verlaine again traveled to England, where he worked for some years as a teacher, teaching French, Latin, Greek and drawing at William Lovell's school in Stickney in Lincolnshire. [6] From there he went to teach in nearby Boston, before moving to Bournemouth. [7] While in England he produced another successful collection, Sagesse. Verlaine returned to France in 1877 and, while teaching English at a school in Rethel, fell in love with one of his pupils, Lucien Létinois, who inspired Verlaine to write further poems. [8] Verlaine was devastated when Létinois died of typhus in 1883.

Final years

Monument to Paul Verlaine, sculpted by Rodo in 1911, in the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris Erected in 1911 is a bust monument to Verlaine, sculpted by Auguste Rodo, in the Luxembourg Gardens.jpg
Monument to Paul Verlaine, sculpted by Rodo in 1911, in the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris
Grave. Sepulture de Paul Verlaine.jpg

Verlaine's last years saw his descent into drug addiction, alcoholism, and poverty. He lived in slums and public hospitals, and spent his days drinking absinthe in Paris cafés. However, the people's love for his art resurrected support and brought in an income for Verlaine: his early poetry was rediscovered, his lifestyle and strange behaviour in front of crowds attracted admiration, and in 1894 he was elected France's "Prince of Poets" by his peers.

Verlaine's poetry was admired and recognized as ground-breaking, and served as a source of inspiration to composers. Gabriel Fauré composed many mélodies, such as the song cycles Cinq mélodies "de Venise" and La bonne chanson , which were settings of Verlaine's poems. [9] Claude Debussy set to music Clair de lune and six of the Fêtes galantes poems, forming part of the mélodie collection known as the Recueil Vasnier; he also made another setting of Clair de lune, and the poem inspired his Suite bergamasque. [10] Reynaldo Hahn set several of Verlaine's poems as did the Belgian-British composer Poldowski (daughter of Henryk Wieniawski), and German composer Anna Teichmüller.

Verlaine's drug dependence and alcoholism took a toll on his life. He died in Paris at the age of 51 on 8 January 1896; he was buried in the Cimetière des Batignolles (he was first buried in the 20th division, but his grave was moved to the 11th division—on the roundabout, a much better location—when the Boulevard Périphérique was built). [11]

A bust monument to Verlaine sculpted by Rodo was erected in 1911. It sits in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.


Verlaine drinking absinthe in the Cafe Francois 1er in 1892, photographed by Paul Marsan Dornac Paul Verlaine.jpg
Verlaine drinking absinthe in the Café François 1er in 1892, photographed by Paul Marsan Dornac

Much of the French poetry produced during the fin de siècle was characterized as "decadent" for its lurid content or moral vision. In a similar vein, Verlaine used the expression poète maudit ("cursed poet") in 1884 to refer to a number of poets like Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, Aloysius Bertrand, Comte de Lautréamont, Tristan Corbière or Alice de Chambrier, who had fought against poetic conventions and suffered social rebuke, or were ignored by the critics. But with the publication of Jean Moréas' Symbolist Manifesto in 1886, it was the term symbolism which was most often applied to the new literary environment. Along with Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Paul Valéry, Albert Samain and many others began to be referred to as "Symbolists." These poets would often share themes that parallel Schopenhauer's aesthetics and notions of will, fatality and unconscious forces, and used themes of sex (such as prostitutes), the city, irrational phenomena (delirium, dreams, narcotics, alcohol), and sometimes a vaguely medieval setting.

In poetry, the symbolist procedure—as typified by Verlaine—was to use subtle suggestion instead of precise statement (rhetoric was banned) and to evoke moods and feelings through the magic of words and repeated sounds and the cadence of verse (musicality) and metrical innovation.

Verlaine described his typically decadent style in great detail in his poem "Art Poétique," describing the primacy of musicality and the importance of elusiveness and "the Odd." He spoke of veils and nuance and implored poets to "Keep away from the murderous Sharp Saying, Cruel Wit, and Impure Laugh." It is with these lyrical veils in mind that Verlaine concluded by suggesting that a poem should be a "happy occurrence." [12]


Numerous artists painted Verlaine's portrait. Among the most illustrious were Henri Fantin-Latour, Antonio de la Gándara, Eugène Carrière, Gustave Courbet, Frédéric Cazalis, and Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen.

Historical footnote

Chanson d'automne PaulVerlaineChansonDAutomneLeidenWallPoem.jpg
Chanson d'automne

- ‘Clair de lune’ by Claude Debussy, takes its title from an atmospheric poem by the French poet Paul Verlaine which depicts the soul as somewhere full of music ‘in a minor key’ where birds are inspired to sing by the ‘sad and beautiful’ light of the moon.

Works in French (original)

Verlaine's Complete Works are available in critical editions from the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.

Works in English (translation)

Although widely regarded as a major French poet—to the effect that towards the end of his life he was sobriquetted as "Le Prince des Poètes" (The Prince of Poets) in the French-speaking world—surprisingly very few of Verlaine's major works have been translated in their entirety (vs. selections therefrom) into English. Here is a list to help track those known to exist.

French Title (Original)English TitleGenrePublisher, &c.
Chansons pour elleSongs for Her & Odes in Her HonorPoetrySunny Lou Publishing, 2021. Translated by Richard Robinson. ISBN   978-1-73547-767-1
Poèmes saturniens Poems Under SaturnPoetryPrinceton University Press, 2011. Translated by Karl Kirchwey. ISBN   978-0-69114-486-3
Odes en son honneurSongs for Her & Odes in Her HonorPoetrySunny Lou Publishing, 2021. Translated by Richard Robinson. ISBN   978-1-73547-767-1
Romances sans parolesSongs Without WordsPoetryOmnidawn, 2013. Translated by Donald Revell. ISBN   978-1-89065-087-2
Mes hôpitauxMy Hospitals & My PrisonsAutobiographySunny Lou Publishing, 2020. Translated by Richard Robinson. ISBN   978-1-73547-760-2
Mes prisonsMy Hospitals & My PrisonsAutobiographySunny Lou Publishing, 2020. Translated by Richard Robinson. ISBN   978-1-73547-760-2
CellulairementCellulelyPoetrySunny Lou Publishing, 2020. Translated by Richard Robinson. ISBN   978-1-73547-764-0
Femmes/HombresWomen/MenPoetryAnvil Press Poetry Ltd, 1979. Translated by Alistair Elliot. ISBN   978-0856460449
Voyage en France par un FrançaisVoyage in France by a FrenchmanPoetrySunny Lou Publishing, 2021. Translated by Richard Robinson. ISBN   978-1-95539-215-0

See also

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  10. Rolf, Marie. Page 7 of liner notes to Forgotten Songs by Claude Debussy, with Dawn Upshaw and James Levine, Sony SK 67190.
  11. Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Locations 48689-48690). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.
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  13. Lightbody, Bradley (4 June 2004). The Second World War: Ambitions to Nemesis. Routledge. p. 214. ISBN   0-415-22405-5 . Retrieved 20 July 2013. The French Resistance ... was given 24 hours' warning of the invasion by a BBC radio broadcast. A single line from the poem "Chanson d'automne" by Paul Verlaine, "blessent mon coeur D'une langueur monotone" (wound my heart with a monotonous languor) was the order for action.
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  15. Hall, Anthony (2004). D-Day: Operation Overlord Day by Day. Zenith. p. 100. ISBN   978-0-7603-1607-8.
  16. Roberts, Andrew (2011). The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War . HarperCollins. p.  74. ISBN   978-0-06-122859-9.
  17. Olga Ivinskaya, A Captive of Time: My Years with Boris Pasternak, (1978). Page 34.
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