Paul Verlaine

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Authorized Translation by


Copyright, 1913,
By L. E. Bassett
Boston, Mass., U. S. A.




The works of great artists are silent books of eternal truths. And thus it is indelibly written in the face of Balzac, as Rodin has graven it, that the beauty of the creative gesture is wild, unwilling and painful. He has shown that great creative gifts do not mean fulness and giving out of abundance. On the contrary the expression is that of one who seeks help and strives to emancipate himself. A child when afraid thrusts out his arms, and those that are falling hold out the hand to passers-by for aid; similarly, creative artists project their sorrows and joys and all their sudden pain which is greater than their own strength. They hold them out like a net with which to ensnare, like a rope by which to escape. Like beggars on the street weighed down with misery and want, they give their words to passers-by. Each syllable gives relief because they thus project their own life into that of strangers. Their fortune and misfortune, their rejoicing and complaint, too heavy for them, are sown in the destiny of others—man and woman. The fertilizing germ is planted at this moment which is simultaneously painful and happy, and they rejoice. But the origin of this impulse, as of all others, lies in need, sweet, tormenting need, over-ripe painful force.

No poet of recent years has possessed this need of expressing his life to others, more imperatively, pitifully, or tragically than Paul Verlaine, because no other poet was so weak to the press of destiny. All his creative virtue is reversed strength; it is weakness. Since he could not subdue, the plaint alone remained to him; since he could not mould circumstances, they glimmer in naked, untamed, humanly-divine beauty through his work. Thus he has achieved a primæval lyricism—pure humanity, simple complaint, humbleness, infantile lisping, wrath and reproach; primitive sounds in sublime form, like the sobbing wail of a beaten child, the uneasy cry of those who are lost, the plaintive call of the solitary bird which is thrown out into the dusk of evening.

Other poets have had a wider range. There have been the criers who with a clarion horn call together the wanderers on all the highways, the magicians who weave notes like the rustling of leaves, the soughing of winds and the bubbling of water, and the masters who embrace all the wisdom of life in dark sayings. He possessed nothing but the sign-manual of the weak who have need of another, the gestures of a beggar. But in all their accents and nuances, in him, these became wonderful. In him were the low grumbling of the weak man, sometimes closely akin to the sorrowful mumbling of the drunkard, the tender flute notes of vague and melancholic yearning, as well as the hard accusing hammering against his own heart. There were in him the flagellant strokes of the penitent as well as the intimate prayers of thanksgiving which poor women murmur on church steps. Other poets have been so interwoven with the universal that it is impossible to distinguish whether really great storms trembled in their breasts, whether the sea rolled within them, or again, whether it was not their words, which made the meadows shudder, and which, as a breeze, went tenderly over the fields. They were the vivifying poets, the synthesizers—divinities by the marvel of creation, and its priests.

Verlaine was always only a human being, a weak human being, who did not even know how “to count the transgressions of his own heart.” It was this very lack of individuality, however, which produced something much rarer—the purely and entirely human. Verlaine was soft clay without the power of producing impresses and without resistance. Thus every line of life crossing his destiny has left a pure relief, a clear and faithful reproduction, even to the fragrance-like sorrows of lonely seconds which in others fade away or thicken into dull grief. The tangled forces which tempestuously shook his life and tore it to tatters crystallized in his work and were distilled into essences.

This, together with the fact that he has enriched and furthered literary development by his poetry, is the highest and noblest meed of praise that can be given to a poet. Yet such an estimate seems too low to many of his followers, especially the more recent French literati who celebrate in Verlaine the unconscious inventor of a new art of poetry and the initiator of new lyric epochs, unknowing of the folly of their proceeding. Verlaine, the literary man, was a sad caricature distorted by ribald noise and Quartier-Latin cafés. Even as such he indignantly denied this intention. The greatness and power of his lyricism takes its root in eternity, in the wonderful sincerity of its ever human and unalterable emotional content, and above all in the unconsciousness of its genesis.

Intellectuals alone create “tendencies.” Verlaine was as little one of these as he was on the other hand the bon enfant, the innocently stumbling child into whose open and playful hand verses fell like cherry blossoms or fluttering leaves. He was a lyric poet. Lyricism is thinking without logic (although not contrary to logic), association not according to the laws of thought but according to intuition, the whispering words of vague emotions, hidden correspondences, darkly murmuring subterranean streams. Lyricism again is thought without consequence, instinct and presentiment, leaping quickly in lawless synthesis; it is union but not a chain formed of individual links, it is melody but not scales. In this sense he was an unconscious creator who heard great accords.

He was never a thinker. His quick power of observation, flashing electrically, his Gallic wit, and his exquisite feeling for style were able to illumine splendidly, narrow circles, but he lacked, as in everything, the power and ability of logical sequence. He knew how to seize and throw light upon waves that came to touch his life, but he could not make them reflect in the dark mirror of the universe, nor could he throw out into the world rays of curious and tormenting desire for life. He could not construct a world vision, revolution, and a sense of distance. This wild and heroic trait of the great poets was never his. He preferred, fleeting and weak spirit as he was, the indefinite, not quiet and possession, nor understanding and power, which are the elemental factors of life. He surrendered himself completely to the efflorescence of things, to the sweetness of becoming and the sadness of evanescence, to the pain and tenderness of emotions that touch us in passing; in short, to the things that come to us and not to those which we must seek and strive to penetrate. He was never a drawn bow ready to fling himself as an arrow into the infinite; he was only an æolian harp, the play and voice of such winds as came. Unresistingly he threw himself into the arms of all dangers—women, religiosity, drunkenness and literature. All this oppressed him and rent him asunder. The drops of blood are magnificent poems, imperishable events, primæval human emotion clear as crystal.

Two factors were responsible for this: an unexampled candor in both virtue and vice, and his complete unconsciousness, which, however, was unfortunately lost in the first waves of his fame. As he never knew how to weed, his life forced strange blossoms and became a wonderful garden of seductively beautiful, perversely colored flowers, among which he himself was never entirely at home. In middle life he found the courage, or rather an impulse within him mightier than his will forced him to do so, and with relentless tread he left civilization. He exchanged the warm cover of an established literary reputation for the occasional shelter along the highways. With the smoke of his pipe he blew into the air the esteem he had acquired early. He never returned to the safe harbor. Later, as “man of letters,” he unfortunately exaggerated this as well as every other of his unique characteristics, in an idle exhibitionism, and made literary use of them.

Far distant from academies and journals, he retained his uniqueness uninterruptedly for many years. He has described in his verses the errant and passionate way of his life with that noble absence of shame which is the first sign of personal emancipation from civilized humanity, in contrast to the primitively natural.

Much has been said and written as to whether happiness or unhappiness was the result of the pilgrimage. It is an unimportant and idle question, because “happiness” is only a word, an unfilled cup in strange hands, and an empty tinkling thing. At any rate, life cut more deeply into his flesh than into that of any other poet of our time. So tightly and pitilessly was his soul wound about that nothing was kept silent, and it bled to death with sighs, rejoicings, and cries. A destiny which has accomplished such marvels may be rebuked as cruel. But we in whom these pains re-echo in sweet shudderings—for us, it is fitting that we should feel gratitude.


Whenever Verlaine speaks of his childhood, there is a gleam like a bittersweet smile. This hesitant, plaintive rhythm appears ever, and ever again, whether in sorrow, musing sigh, or plaintive reproach. It appears in the tender and so infinitely sad lines which he wrote in prison, and likewise in the Confessions, a vain, exaggeratedly candid and coquetting portrait in prose. Gentle memories, fresh and tender like white roses, creep loosely through all his work, scattering pious fragrance. For him childhood was paradise, because his poor weak soul, needing the tenderness of faithful hands, had not yet experienced the hard impacts of life, but only the soft intimate cradling between devoted love and womanly mildness—a lulling, sweet unforgettable melody.

All impulses are still pure and bud-like. Love is unsullied, sheer instinct, entirely without desire and restlessness. It is silence, peaceful silence, cool longing which assuages, and so all of life is kind and large, maternal and womanly—soft. Everything shines in a clear, transparent, shimmering light like a landscape at daybreak. Even late, very late, when his poor life had already become barren and over-clouded, this yearning still rises and trembles toward these days of youth like a white dove. The “guote suendaere” still had tears to give. Gleaming pure like dew drops, and still fresh, they cling to the most fantastic and wildest blooms.

The first dates tell little. Paul Marie Verlaine was born in 1844 at Metz—he did not remember his second name until the appropriate time of his conversion. His father was a captain in the French engineer corps. Verlaine, however, was not of Alsatian extraction but belonged to Lorraine, close enough to Germany to bear in his blood the secret fructification of the German Lied. Early in his life the family removed to Paris, where the attractive boy with inquisitive, soft face (as is shown on an early photograph) soon turns into a gosse and finally into a government official with skillful literary talents.

Several pleasing episodes and a few kind figures are found within this simple frame of his external life. Two in particular are drawn in subdued delicate colors and veiled with a tender fragrance. Both were women. His mother, all goodness and devotion, spoiling him with too much tenderness and forgiveness, passes through his life with uniformly quiet tread; she is a wonderfully noble martyr. There is hardly a more poignant story than the one he tells regretfully in the Confessions of the time when he first began to drink and how his mother never voiced her reproach. Once when with hat on his head he had slept out the remainder of a wild night, her only comment was the silent one of holding a mirror before him.

And there is no more tragic incident among the many sentences of the drunkard than the verdict of the tribunal at Vouziers, which condemned him to a fine of five hundred francs for threatening to kill his mother. Even then, though absinthe had changed the simple child always ready for penance into a different man, her gesture was still the noble and inimitable one of forgiveness.

There were also other tender hands to watch over his youth. His cousin Eliza, who died early, is a figure so mild and transparent and of so light a tread that she appears like one of Jacobsen’s wonderful creations who wander and speak like disembodied souls. She had the unique beauty of early illness, and on that account perhaps turned more toward the absorbed but not melancholy child, excusing his escapades. She was loved tenderly, with a child’s love that was without desire and danger.

“Certes oui pauvre maman était
Bien, trop bonne, et mon cœur à la voir palpitait,
Tressautait, et riait et pleurait de l’entendre
Mais toi, je t’aimais autrement non pas plus tendre
Plus familier, voilà.”

It was she too who staged his last youthful folly by giving him the money for printing the Poèmes Saturniens. Like a white flame her figure shines through the dense stifling fumes of his life. It is as if the soft tread of these two women had given many of his verses their seraphic sheen and lent the mother-of-pearl opalescence to his softest poems, in which there is a secret rustling as of the folds of women’s gowns. Even the Paul Verlaine of the later years, “the ruin insufficiently ruined,” who saw in woman the most ferocious enemy, and who fled to the wolves that they might protect him from “woman their sister,” even he still dreamed of the folded hands, of the forgiving innocent gesture of the earliest memories. This yearning for mild and pure women has found many incarnations. In the poems to his bride, Mathilde Manté, it is the tender song of the troubadour; in the hours of his mystical conversion it becomes a tender prayer and Madonna cult; in the years of his decadence it appears as a pathetic echo, a stumbling plaint and dreamy childhood desires—the precious hour between sin and sin. Sometimes this secret desire is placed tenderly and simply into lines of verse as into a rare, fragrant shrine where the dearest possessions are kept. These are pure, wonderful lines like the following, full of longing and renunciation:

“Je voudrais, si ma vie était encore à faire,
Qu’une femme très calme habitât avec moi.”

Verlaine soon left these mirror-clear days of beautiful youth. His father decided to put him into a boarding-school at Paris. The dreamy little boy, looking toward the gay school cap, gladly assented. This was the turning point. Here his life in a way was rent in two parts, and a wide gap appears in the weakly but not morbid character of the child. The somewhat spoiled, modest, and confiding boy is put among students who are already dissolute and overbearing. On the very first day he is sickened by the coldness and barrenness of the rooms, and frightened by the first contact with life he is instinctively afraid of the evil which was to overtake him after all. Filled with that mighty longing for tenderness and gentle shelter which even at fifty he did not lose, he fled to his home in tears. He was greeted there with cries of joy and embraces, but on the next morning he was taken back with gentle force.

This was the catastrophe. Verlaine’s weak character willingly submitted to foreign influences; it became dulled under the influence of his comrades, “and the overthrow began.” A foreign element entered his being, a materialistic cynical trait, for the present only gaminerie, while he was still a stranger to sex. The specific Parisian character, a mingling of vanity, insolence, scoffing wit (raillerie) and boastful bravado, tempted the soft dreamy boy, but conquered him only for short hours.

This conflict between feminine sensitivity and a gaminerie eager for enjoyment wages incessant warfare throughout his life. Sometimes it harmonizes for brief moments voluptuousness and idealism, but neither side ever wins and the struggle never ceases. The characteristics of Faust and Mephistopheles never became fully linked in Verlaine; they only interlaced. With the overpowering capacity for self-surrender which he spent on everything, he could combine the sensual alone or the spiritual alone completely with his life, but lacking will, he was unable to put an end to the constant rotation, which now dragged him in penitence from his passions only to hurl him back again into their hated hands. Thus his life consists not of an evenly ascending plane, but of headlong descents and catastrophes, of elevations and transfigurations, which finally end in a great weariness.

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