Poetry Wednesday: The Life and Loves of Paul Verlaine

Ars Poetica
(Paul Verlaine — translation by Norman R. Shapiro)

for Charles Morice

Music first and foremost! In your verse,
Choose those meters odd of syllable,
Supple in the air, vague, flexible,
Free of pounding beat, heavy or terse.



Choose the words you use—now right, now wrong—
With abandon: when the poet’s vision
Couples the Precise with Imprecision,
Best the giddy shadows of his song:

Eyes veiled, hidden, dark with mystery,
Sunshine trembling in the noonday glare,
Starlight, in the tepid autumn air,
Shimmering in night-blue filigree!

For Nuance, not Color absolute,
Is your goal; subtle and shaded hue!
Nuance! It alone is what lets you
Marry dream to dream, and horn to flute!

Shun all cruel and ruthless Railleries;
Hurtful Quip, lewd Laughter, that appall
Heaven, Azure-eyed, to tears; and all
Garlic-stench scullery recipes!

Take vain Eloquence and wring its neck!
Best you keep your Rhyme sober and sound,
Lest it wander, reinless and unbound—
How far? Who can say?—if not in check!

Rhyme! Who will its infamies revile?
What deaf child, what Black of little wit
Forged with worthless bauble, fashioned it
False and hollow-sounding to the file?

Music first and foremost, and forever!
Let your verse be what goes soaring, sighing,
Set free, fleeing from the soul gone flying
Off to other skies and loves, wherever.

Let your verse be aimless chance, delighting
In good-omened fortune, sprinkled over
Dawn’s wind, bristling scents of mint, thyme, clover . . .
All the rest is nothing more than writing.

Paul Verlaine loved poetry. He adored it. He thought it was better to die for poetry than to live for anything else . . . and that’s pretty much what he did.

He was one of the first French Symbolists, the mascot of the 19th Century Decadent Poets,* and , in my Twenty-First Century American opinion, an emo jerk with the attention span of a toddler and a decided lack of healthy coping mechanisms—aside from his poetry.

Granted, they’re pretty good poems.  But Verlaine’s life was, on the whole, a train wreck of his own steering.

He didn’t want to go to school or find work, because he wanted to live and breathe poetry—this isn’t uncommon among poets, but apparently, there were tantrums about it and an absolute refusal to budge and failure to launch.

His father, who no doubt had a different opinion about the honor of indefinitely supporting his Son the Poet, found him a job at the local city hall and cut him loose to discover for himself that poetry may be a feast for the mind and spirit, but unless you write it on a baguette, your body is gonna raise a few objections.

Thus, Verlaine took his first few steps into the Real World™ and fell deeply in love with a young lady named Mathilde, and successfully wooed her with poems about how her love would give him peace and stability and an anchor of reality for his imaginings.

In Muted Tone
(Paul Verlaine — translation by Norman R. Shapiro)

Gently, let us steep our love
In the silence deep, as thus,
Branches arching high above
Twine their shadows over us.

Let us blend our souls as one,
Hearts’ and senses’ ecstasies,Trees
Evergreen, in unison
With the pines’ vague lethargies.

Dim your eyes and, heart at rest,
Freed from all futile endeavor,
Arms crossed on your slumbering breast,
Banish vain desire forever.

Let us yield then, you and I,
To the waftings, calm and sweet,
As their breeze-blown lullaby
Sways the gold grass at your feet.

And, when night begins to fall
From the black oaks, darkening,
In the nightingale’s soft call
Our despair will, solemn, sing.

He married Mathilde in 1870, moved in with her parents, and dedicated a collection of poems to her that reflected his thanks for her calming presence.

And then, two years later, he received a fan letter and verses from a seventeen-year old poet named Arthur Rimbaud.  Verlaine liked Rimbaud’s style—and his admiration—and invited him to visit.

Peace, stability and common sense went right out la fenêtre.

(Paul Verlaine — translation by Norman R. Shapiro)

Your soul is like a landscape fantasy,MoonShot
Where masks and Bergamasks, in charming wise,
Strum lutes and dance, just a bit sad to be
Hidden beneath their fanciful disguise.

Singing in minor mode of life’s largesse
And all-victorious love, they yet seem quite
Reluctant to believe their happiness,
And their song mingles with the pale moonlight,

The calm, pale moonlight, whose sad beauty, beaming,
Sets the birds softly dreaming in the trees,
And makes the marbled fountains, gushing, streaming—
Slender jet-fountains—sob their ecstasies.

Whew—go, symbolism!

Verlaine ditched his pregnant wife and fell into a torrid, scandalous, and illegal affair that had him thrown in jail for two years, after a lover’s tiff turned ugly and officials couldn’t plausibly ignore the nature of their relationship.**  Which was, by the time Verlaine was released, over and done.

Verlaine traveled to England to start afresh . . . but soon fell head-over-heels in love with Lucien Létinois, with whom he returned to France.  He was so devoted to his new lover, he forgot to promote his poetry—or watch his budget—and fell into deep debt.

Scrambling to recover, he distanced himself from Rimbaud and the scandal and  published a new collection—that failed.***   Then, upon hearing that Rimbaud was gaining fame, he tried to capitalize on their connection with another collection—and failed.  He even tried to get his old, despised job back at city hall.  But  he’d burnt his bridges, and no one was much interested in helping him anymore.

And then Lucien died.  And his mother, whose financial support had been crucial.

He attempted to drown his depression in alcohol, with about as much success as you’d expect.  That is to say, he successfully turned himself into an incurable alcoholic.

Destitute, and with nothing left to lose, he managed to find a few old friends who allowed him to do a reading or two.

Last Hope
(Paul Verlaine — translation by Norman R. Shapiro)

Beside a humble stone, a tree
Floats in the cemetery’s air,Grave
Not planted in memoriam there,
But growing wild, uncultured, free.

A bird comes perching there to sing,
Winter and summer, proffering
Its faithful song—sad, bittersweet.
That tree, that bird are you and I:

You, memory; absence, me, that tide
And time record. Ah, by your side
To live again, undying! Aye,

To live again! But ma petite,
Now nothingness, cold, owns my flesh. . .
Will your love keep my memory fresh?

 His new poems, which were an exploration and comparison of the profane and sacred—what his life was, and what it should, perhaps, have been, or so I’m told, because it’s in French—began to connect with the listeners.  He was invited to more readings, in front of increasingly attentive and influential crowds.

His next three collections—including one inspired by his affair with a Parisian prostitute—did exceedingly well.  He was invited to major conferences all over Europe and was, in 1895, considered The Poet of France.  He was being given all the recognition and praise a poet could want. . . but was no longer in any condition to enjoy it.

Now that everyone wanted to hear his words, Verlaine, ravaged by alcohol and sickness, and self-neglect, could no longer speak clearly enough to be understood.

He died in 1896, one year after being appointed Prince des Poètes of France.  Thousands of people attended his funeral.

Epilogue, Part II
(Paul Verlaine, translator unknown)

So, then this book is closed. Dear Fancies mine,
That streaked my grey sky with your wings of light,
And passing fanned my burning brow, benign—
Return, return to your blue Infinite!

Thou, ringing Rhyme, thou, Verse that smooth didst glide,
Ye, throbbing Rhythms, ye, musical Refrains,
And Memories, and Dreams, and ye beside
Fair Figures called to life with anxious pains,Perchance to dream

We needs must part. Until the happier day
When Art, our Lord, his thralls shall re-unite,
Companions sweet, Farewell and Wellaway,
Fly home, ye may, to your blue Infinite!

And true it is, we spared not breath or force,
And our good pleasure, like foaming steed
Blind with the madness of his earliest course,
Of rest within the quiet shade hath need.

For always have we held thee, Poesy,
To be our Goddess, mighty and august,
Our only passion,–Mother calling thee,
And holding Inspiration in mistrust.


*That lot of selfish, arrogant brats who found poetry and symbols—and themselves—far superior to nature or social conventions or other people.  Unless it was decaying, and then it was beauty incarnate.  I mean, I like some of the work the Decadents produced, and I can’t argue that the establishment needs shaking up now and again, but I honestly hate people whose major argument is to inform everyone else that they’re too stupid to see how wrong they are.  Screaming sheeple! until you drown out the sound of everyone else’s opinion isn’t enough, sorry.

**About a year into his sentence, his collection of poetry, Romances sans Paroles—a title that I think works better read as-is by English-speakers, than in actual translation—was released.  He’d meant to dedicate the book to Rimbaud, mostly because the majority of the poems are about his feelings for his lover, but also because Rimbaud, himself a poet, had a definite influence on Verlaine’s style.  His publisher, however, refused to allow it, for propriety’s sake.

I might not approve of how Verlaine treated his wife—I have the same problem with Robert Browning and George Cram Cook, in case you were wondering—and I doubt their affair would have lasted much longer than it did, even without the added homophobia-induced stress and the lengthy separation, but I can’t help thinking that this denial of what they meant to each other, even just as fellow poets, is complete crap.

***Sagesse, or “Wisdom,” which was different from anything he’d done before—pun totally intended.  Later, it was considered one of his best works, but that didn’t help him then.


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