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Title: Paul Verlaine
Author: Zweig, Stefan, 1881-1942
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Paul Verlaine" ***

produced from images generously made available by The
Internet Archive/American Libraries.)

  [ Transcriber's Note:
    Every effort has been made to replicate this text as faithfully as
    possible, including inconsistencies in spelling and hyphenation;
    changes (corrections of spelling and punctuation) made to the
    original text are listed at the end of this file.

    Italic text has been marked with _underscores_.

[Illustration: PAUL VERLAINE, 1895 (Zorn)]

                             PAUL VERLAINE

                            By STEFAN ZWEIG

                       Authorized Translation by
                              O. F. THEIS

                            LUCE AND COMPANY
                         MAUNSEL AND CO., LTD.
                           DUBLIN and LONDON

                            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

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.


  [1] In French _Pauvre Lelian_, an anagram of Paul Verlaine, which
  Verlaine often used when speaking of himself.

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

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

    "Certes oui pauvre maman était
    Bien, trop bonne, et mon coeur 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

    "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

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.

The sense of shame was exceptionally strong in him, as it is in every
case where it is repressed. All his life long it made itself heard in
the form of yearning for clarity and purity. Afraid of mockery, cynicism
and indifference were put forward as a protection until at length these
evil influences overgrew it entirely. Were it not unwise to reflect in
directions which his life disdained to follow, it might be interesting
to attempt a portrait of Verlaine as he might have been if he had
continued on the luminous path of his childhood under the guidance of
kind hands. For surely and also according to his own opinion, those
years were the humus for the _fleurs du mal_ of his soul.

In these formative years of ungainly figure and uncertain dreaming the
poet grows out of the boy. A malign influence, puberty, forces the
creator in him. "The man of letters, let us say rather, if you prefer,
the poet was born in me precisely toward that so critical fourteenth
year, so that I can say proportionately as my puberty developed my
character too was formed." This is surely a womanly and feminine trait,
for in women the entire spiritual development usually trembles as the
resonance of the inner shock. Physical crises are transformed into
catastrophes of the soul, and the pressure of the blood and its beating
waves are spiritualized into the soft melancholy and sweet dreams from
which his verses rise like tender buds.

It is not out of intellectual growth or out of the persistent impulse
to link the universal to his personality, as in the cases of Schiller,
Victor Hugo or Lord Byron, that these soft notes rise. They have their
origin in a sultry restlessness of the nerves, in the well-springs of
fruitful impulse, in emotions and shadowy presentiments. They are the
early outpouring of creative masculinity and youthful yearning. They
are half a question and half an answer to life. They are melancholy
and vague, filled with uncertain gleaming and a rustling darkness.

If poetry consists in a certain sensitiveness of soul and reaction to
slight and cautious stimulation, and not in an active, wild, subduing
force, Verlaine certainly has sensed the deepest fount of the orphic
mysteries. If poetry is so understood, the boy who wrote the _Poèmes
Saturniens_ on his school benches, already saw the reality of life and
even the future mask. His acute ear heard the oracle which foretold his
destiny, but he did not know how to interpret what the Pythian voice
had whispered until everything was fulfilled. To understand this,
sensitiveness must not be confused with sentimentality. Sentimentality
may grow out of a pessimism which has been acquired intellectually.
Sensitivity is not only the child of emotion but at the same time the
sum and substance of all feelings. It is both an inherent tendency and
an innate possession, and is primæval and indestructible as is the gift
of poetry itself. The gift of poetry implies the power of distilling
emotions into that form in which they are already essentially existing
and fixing the fleeting and ephemeral permanently as by a chemical
process which knows no law but only presentiment and chance.

There is, of course, no art without its technique, understanding
technique not in the derogatory sense of a mere implement but somewhat
in the sense of the material which the painter uses, who must apply it
individually and thus adds something unknown and unique to what he has
acquired by education and copying. Verlaine learned his technique early,
and he never wrote a line in which his own guidance could be felt. His
earliest teachers were Baudelaire, Banville, Victor Hugo, Catulle Mendès
and other Parnassiens, cool idealists or frosty exotics, measured and
stiff even in their melancholy, but wise architects of slender and
firmly founded verse-structures, artists in language, chisellers of
form. The pliant, soft yielding manner of Verlaine quickly embraced
their influences. The student is already master of the _métier_. Even
the relentless and unhappy rhymester into which "poor Lelian" turned,
late, very late in his career, retained this eminent skill of
reproducing forms smoothly and precisely, and writing verses of an
agreeable, melodic flow and a beautiful rhythmic movement.

The years of puberty were the time of the production of the _Poèmes
Saturniens_. Sexuality had not yet developed sufficiently and was not
strong and self-willed enough to operate destructively. Its influence
was only felt in slight impacts and produced the feeling of sweet
unrest. This unrest, somewhat veiled and turning toward melancholy,
trembles through these early poems and lends them the unique beauty of
sad women. All the art of Verlaine's poetry is already found in these
first poems.

The book appeared, thanks to the assistance of his cousin Eliza, under
Lemerre's imprint, curiously enough on the same day as François Coppée's
first work, and had a "_joli succès de hostilité_" with the press. The
great writers--Victor Hugo, Leconte de Lisle, Theodore de Banville, and
others--wrote him encouraging letters, but the public at large did not
overburden the young man with its admiration.

At that time Verlaine was a clerk in the Hôtel de Ville and lived a
quiet, almost well-to-do life, with his mother. All the indications were
in favor of a smooth, unclouded future. But there was a conflict in him,
which he could not master. It is like raising and lowering two weights
which he never succeeds in balancing. On the one hand is the passionate,
wild, sexual element, the impure glow and the blind surrender, the
"black ship which drags him to the abyss," and, on the other, the pure,
simple, tender mode of his child-like heart, which, a stranger to all
passion, yearns for soft, womanly hands.

In normal sexuality the yearning of the senses and the soul unite during
the seconds of intoxication and become the symbol of infinity, through
the passionate absorption of contrasts and the permeation of spirit with
matter, and form with substance, elements which in their turn are the
creative symbols of all life. In Verlaine, however, there was always a
cleft: now he is pure pilgrim of yearning, now roué; now priest, now
gamin. He has wrought the most beautiful religious poems of Catholicism,
and at the same time has won the crown of all pornographic works with
perverse and indecent poems. As the flux of his blood went, so was he--a
_pure reflex of his organic functions_. That is to say he was infinitely
primitive as a poet, and infinitely complicated and unaccountable as a
human being.

Whenever his impulses were elastic and his senses sharpened or stimulated,
the untamed and wild beast of sensuality is unchained in his life,
turbulent after satisfaction, incapable of restraint by intellectual
deliberation. After the crisis physical exhaustion disengaged the
psychic elements of penitence, consideration and tender longing, which
later became piety.

Verlaine was a poet of rare candor and shamelessness, both in the best
and worst sense. This is the essentially great element in his otherwise
feminine, weak and absolutely _negative_ personality. The primæval
powers of the body and soul are the eternal elements of all humanity
and the starting-point of all philosophies; the conflict between them,
betrayed in the accusing and self-revealing manner of his verse, is
transferred unchanged into his poetry, filling it with the force of life
and the tragedy of the universally human.

In his entire life there seem to have been only two brief periods of
cessation in the struggle; during the short honeymoon or period of
normal sexuality and during his first religious epoch, when he was
sincere, and enthusiasm and yearning, transfused in the symbols of faith
and religious veneration, interpenetrated and inflamed each other.

The _Fêtes Galantes_ were published soon after the _Poèmes Saturniens_.
Artistically they are far superior, because their form is more
individual, their structure more original, and their architecture more
compact. Yet they do not appear to me to represent balance, but rather
the short trembling, to-and-fro wavering of the scales of his impetuous
and sensitive character.

They are coquettish; and coquetry is sensuality with style, tamed
accordingly, but not conquered. They are at the same time modest and
impudent, attack and careful retreat. They are not pure sensuality, but
desire, masked by a demand for modesty.

It is the most characteristically French of his books, drawn as with
the maliciously kind brush of Watteau. In these poems, in which
Verlaine's muse trips on high-heeled shoes through gardens which shimmer
in the gleam of a mocking moon, in these whispering dialogues between
Pierrots and Columbines, in these gallant landscapes, an anxious
presentiment weeps plaintively in the bushes. This sad mode makes the
dallying faces gleam underneath tears. The true voice of the yearning
soul is poured out and dies away in the imperishable _Colloque
Sentimental_, a dark pearl of indefinite, infinite sorrow. Out of masks
and pantomimes, the poet's face stares sadly bewildered into the black
mirror of reality.

At that time an evil influence had broken into his life, perhaps the
most destructive, "the one unpardonable vice," as he himself confesses.
Verlaine began to drink. At first it was bravado, recklessness,
persuasion; later it was desire, torture, flight from the qualms of his
conscience, "the forgetfulness, sought in execrable potions."

He drank absinthe, a sweetish, greenish liquid, which is false as cat's
eyes and treacherous and murderous like a diseased harlot. Baudelaire's
hashish is comprehensible. It was the magician who raised fantastic
landscapes, it quieted the nerves, it was the poet of the poet.
Verlaine's absinthe is only destructive and obliterating, a slow poison
which does not kill but unnerves and undermines like the white powders
the dreaded secret of which the Borgias held. Absinthe wrought silently
and inexorably in Verlaine's life. By degrees it absorbed the tender,
soft, yearning, vague qualities of his heart of a child; it made the
hard, passionate, depraved man strong, and awakened the sensualist and
cynic in him. Even when the high-arched churches and the figures of the
Madonnas no longer offered him a place of refuge, "the atrocious green
sorceress" was still his only comforter, into whose arms he willingly
cast himself.

He himself tells regretfully how at the time of his cousin Eliza's
death, soon after the appearance of his first book, he joined sorrow
and vice in tragic manner. For two days he had not touched food. But
he drank, drank without interruption, restlessly, and returned to the
offices a drunkard, drowning the reproof of his superior in a new
absinthe. Everything that was hard, bitter, wild, which later broke
loose in him so tempestuously, compelling the law to step between him
and his wife, his mother and his friends, was called forth by the green
poison in the silent, kindly nature which loved soft words and was
inclined even to his last years to the power of hot tears. With pitiless
force this most dangerous of his vices drew taut the chain, by which the
passions and sudden catastrophe of his destiny dragged him on to the
road of misery.

For a moment it seemed as if everything were to come to a good end. He
fell in love with the explosive vehemence and despairing persistence
with which the weak are accustomed to cling to an idea. The step-sister
of his friend, de Sivry, had fascinated him. As a matter of fact the
engagement came about. In these days, separated from his bride, Verlaine
wrote the slender volume of songs, _La Bonne Chanson_. It is his most
quiet and balanced book. According to his own repeatedly expressed
opinion, he considered it the most beautiful of his works and the one
dearest to him. In the best and noblest sense they are "occasional
verses." Almost daily one is written and sent to his beloved. It was
only in small selection that they were united in print.

Here the idea of modesty subdues passion like a wonderful sordine, and
surrender and tenderness intertwine with the ideals of modesty. The
cleft in Verlaine's personality closes in the consonance of a soul
which has found peace. It represents the first period of peace in his
life and career and is humanly his most perfect moment and poetically
his purest. Vice and passion have disappeared in a hesitating yet
desirous surrender, melancholy has dissolved in melody.

Victor Hugo, the sovereign coiner of great phrases, called the _Bonne
Chanson_, "_une fleur dans un obus_." There are poems in this slim
volume which seem as if they had been woven out of the gushing flood
of moonlight. There are poems which gleam like pale pearls and lonely
pools. Word and sense, form and emotion, foreboding and being, life
and dreams, are their woof. Here appeared that marvel of French lyric
poetry, the wonderful poem.

    "La lune blanche
     Luit dans les bois;
     De chaque branche
     Part une voix
     Sous la ramée....

    "Oh bien-aimée!

    "L'étang reflète,
     Profond miroir,
     La silhouette
     Du saule noir
     Où le vent pleure ...

    "Rêvons: c'est l'heure.

    "Un vaste et tendre
     Semble descendre
     Du firmament
     Que l'astre irise ...

    "C'est l'heure exquise."

From this point on the life-story in which the germ and seed of such
wonderful fruit ripened is painful. The descent was not sudden. Verlaine
was one of those wavering characters who require energetic impulsion for
good as well as for evil. He never slid as on an inclined plane, but he
sank like a scale weighed down by something unsuspected. Thus it is
possible to name the catastrophes and to set the milestones of his

The great wrench which in 1870 shook his country, also affected his life
and tore it apart. His wedding occurred during the days of the war.
The fever of political over-excitement seized him and he, the almost
bourgeois government clerk who never troubled about politics, became
a communist as a favor to several friends. The anecdote that he once
wished to assassinate Emperor Napoleon III was a hoax which he told his
comrades for the sake of the sensation, something like the story which
Baudelaire told of the "savoriness" of embryonal brains.

His work consisted in reading the articles on the Commune which appeared
in the newspapers and marking them whether they were favorable or
unfavorable. Nevertheless this insignificant part, which he himself did
not take seriously and spoke of as "This stupid enough rôle which I
played during two months of illusions," cost him his position. This was
the break with well-ordered life and the sign-post which showed him the
way into the Bohème.

The old wounds re-opened. Verlaine began to drink again during his
activities in the Commune. Recriminations and scenes rose as the result
of this relapse. Suddenly came the decisive act of the drunkard; he
struck his wife the first blow. New misunderstandings followed, but the
household still held together, soon to be increased by the arrival of a

The final element is still lacking. Abstractions are weak against
realities, things that have happened may change men but they cannot
vanquish them. So far everything has been only inchoate power and a
foreshadowing threat, but not enchantment. It is only the magic of a
passion, an elemental and unfathomable magnetic power which links one
human being to another, the intangible, which can conquer a poet. He
can overcome want and life because he despises them; he can make evil
powerless because he repents; chance he can bridge; but he cannot hold
back destiny, nor win battles with the incomprehensible.

A new influence enters Verlaine's life--Arthur Rimbaud.


No matter how much a writer may have striven for the unusual or have
tried to order confusing ways with intelligence and form, his fiction
does not reach the depths nor is it as tragic as this one which life
devised. The beginning is simple, the climax grandiose, of such wildness
and rising to such heights, that the end no longer could be pure
tragedy. It turned into tragi-comedy, that grotesque sensation which we
feel when destiny grows beyond human beings and over-towers them, while
they are still struggling with pigmy hands to master a monstrous force
which has long gone beyond their control.

The beginning was conventional. One day Verlaine received a letter from
an acquaintance in the provinces, in which poems by a fifteen-year-old
boy were enclosed. Verlaine's opinion was asked. The poems were:
_Les Effarés_, _Les Assis_, _Les Poètes de sept ans_, _Les Premières
communions_. Every one knows they were Arthur Rimbaud's, for the poems
of this boy are among the most precious of French literature. He began
where the best stop and then, at twenty, threw literature aside as
something irksome and unimportant. Verlaine read them and was filled with
enthusiasm. He wrote to the boy in a tone of glowing admiration. In the
meantime the poems made the rounds in Paris. Words of characteristically
French emphasis are quickly coined. Victor Hugo with his regal gesture
declared the author to be "_Shakespeare enfant_."

The provincial associations of Charleville filled Rimbaud with disgust
and unrest. Verlaine in his enthusiasm wrote to him "Come, dear great
soul, we are waiting for you, we want you." He himself was without a
position and his own life in Paris at that time was threatened with
chaos and uncertainty, but with the marvellous folly of yielding and
emotional natures he invited a stranger as guest into his shaken

Rimbaud came. He was a big, robust fellow filled with a demonic physical
force like that which Balzac has breathed into his Vautrin types. He was
a provincial with massive red fists and the curious face of a child that
has been corrupted early in life--a gamin, but a genius. Everything in
him is force, over-abundant, wild, exceptional virility, without aim and
turned toward the infinite.

He is one of the conquistador type, who first lost his way in
literature. He pours everything into it, fire, fulness, force, more,
much more than great creators spend. Like a crater he throws out his mad
fever dreams and visions of life such as perhaps only Dante has had
before him. He hurls everything up into the infinite as if he would
shatter it to bits. Destruction teems in this creation, a force ardent
for power, a hand that would seize everything and crush it.

His poems are only sudden gestures of wrath. They resemble bloody
tatters of raw flesh that have been torn with wild teeth from the body
of reality. It is poetry "outside and above" all literature. Has there
ever been a poet of modern times who thus threw poems on paper and then
let the scraps flutter to the four winds? Without pose, unlike Stefan
George or Mallarmé, who calculate carefully, he despised the public and
literature. He never had a single line printed by his own efforts, he
was utterly regardless of the fleeting examples of his gigantic power.
At twenty he left his fame and companions behind to wander through the
world. In Africa he founded fantastic realms, he sat in prison and
there played a part in world history preparing under King Menelik for
the struggle which cost Italy her provinces. But in three years he wrote
many poems full of power and fire, including the eternal poem _Le bateau
ivre_, a staggering fever dream, into which all the colors, sounds,
forms and forces of life seem to have been poured, bubbling in curious
forms and seething in the glow of a feverish moment. His life was like a
dream, as wild, as mighty and as little subject to time.

Verlaine gladly sheltered the awkward boy. Madame Verlaine was less
enthusiastic and never concealed her dislike. Perhaps, with a woman's
instinct, she unconsciously foresaw the danger which threatened Verlaine
in this new companion.

The bond of friendship grew closer and closer. Verlaine's _gaminerie_
which was ever in contrast with his sensitivity, awakened suddenly.
His tendency toward strong, cynical and lascivious conversation met a
genial match in Rimbaud. The primitive element in Verlaine was suddenly
enchained by the primæval, purely human and brutal masculinity of
Rimbaud's personality. The feminine in his nature was feeling for
completion. As if predestined for each other for years, their
personalities dovetail. Without any affection, by necessity rather than
by friendship, their union becomes closer and closer. One day in 1872
Verlaine leaves wife, child and the world in which he lived to wander
with Rimbaud into the unknown.

Without doubt there was an element of the abnormal in the relations
between Verlaine and Rimbaud, but to understand their friendship it
is neither necessary nor essential to know whether the dangerous
potentialities that inhere in so strong a personal enthusiasm ever
became material facts.

Their path led over the highways and also through prisons. "An evil
rage for travelling" had seized the two. Through Belgium, through
Germany and England they wandered; usually they were without means.
They stayed in London for a while, supporting themselves by teaching
languages and delving deeper than ever into social politics. Rimbaud
left and returned just in time to convey the sick Verlaine home. The
terrible life which he had led had broken him down. He himself has
concealed the tragic incidents of those days in a novelette, "_Louise

There he wrote: "The few half-crowns which he earned daily in giving
lessons, they spent in the evening on Portuguese wine and Irish beer.
The stomach was forgotten, the head became affected and the lessons were
not given, and thus hunger and nervosity overcame the reason of this
brave fellow."

The patient is taken to Bouillon, a small town in the Ardennes, where
Charles van Lerberghe, the great Belgium poet, lived, but he has hardly
half recovered when he plunges out into the world again with Rimbaud.
Mental unrest is transformed into physical unrest. The lack of stability
which operated most impulsively in that crisis, appears in his external
life. There is nothing definite for which he is seeking yet he is
unsatisfied. Verlaine, man of moods _par excellence_, adjusts himself to
life in his own manner. He becomes boorish, subject to fits of passion,
violent and unaccountable. His tenderness seems to have been strangled
by hunger, drunkenness and wild destiny. The friendship for Rimbaud also
assumes evil shapes. More and more frequently they quarrel; almost every
hour Rimbaud's foaming temperament and Verlaine's temporary hard, wild
manner come in conflict. Of course, as a rule, they were drunk. Rimbaud,
who was strong, drank because of his feeling of strength and because he
yearned for the intoxication in which colors glowed, in which impulses
became wilder, and association more rapid, acute and bolder. Verlaine
fled to absinthe to drown out repentance, anguish and weakness; and from
this sweetish drink, in which all the evil forces of life seem to be
distilled, he drew brutality and feverish disorders.

Once Verlaine ran away, but became repentant and asked Rimbaud to join
him. Rimbaud followed him to Belgium. All difficulties were about to be
solved. Madame Verlaine was ready to forgive and was on her way to meet
the penitent. Then Rimbaud too declared that he would leave him. No one
knows how it happened, whether it was jealousy, anger, hatred, love or
only drunkenness, at any rate the disaster followed on the public street
of Brussels. Verlaine pursued Rimbaud and shot at him twice with a
revolver, wounding him once. The police came, and though Rimbaud
defended and excused Verlaine, the latter was arrested. The sentence
was two years in prison, and these Verlaine spent at Mons. The immediate
result was a divorce, upon which Madame Verlaine insisted with every
possible emphasis and in spite of Victor Hugo's intervention.

This conclusion, however, was too banal and trite for so heroic a
tragedy. The friendship persisted. Verlaine and Rimbaud corresponded.
Verlaine sent occasional poems from prison and told Rimbaud of his
conversion. The latter hardly pleased Rimbaud, who was at that time
cold and indifferent toward everything except that he was filled with
a thirst for something unique and infinite and looking forward to new
adventures. Verlaine had hardly been released before he tried to convert
Rimbaud to this religious life in order to link their lives anew. "Let
us love each other in Jesus Christ," he wrote in his proselyting ardor
and with the enthusiasm which in the beginning he always felt for
everything. Rimbaud smiled mockingly and finally declared that "Loyola"
should visit him in Stuttgart.

Now the moment arrived when comedy outdid the tragedy of the reunion.
Verlaine arrived at Stuttgart and attempted the conversion--unfortunately
in an inn, a place little adapted for proselytes and prophets, for both
the saint and the mocker still had in common their passion for drink. No
one witnessed the scene; only the result is known. On the way home both
were drunk, and a quarrel ensued and a unique incident in the history of
literature followed.

In the flooding moonlight by the banks of the Neckar the two greatest
living poets in France fell upon each other in wild rage with sticks and
fists. The struggle did not last long. Rimbaud, athletic, like a wild
animal, a man of passion, easily subdued the nervous, weakly Verlaine,
stumbling in drunkenness. A blow over the head knocked him down.
Bleeding and unconscious, he remained lying on the bank.

It was the last time they saw each other. Verlaine disappeared on the
next day. The episode had come to an end, but nevertheless several
letters passed back and forth. Then Rimbaud's grandiose Odyssey through
the entire world began. For many years his friends in Paris believed him
dead, and even to-day relatively little is known of his life

  [2] A Biography and a volume of Rimbaud's correspondence have recently
  been published by his brother-in-law, Paterne Berrichon. They throw
  much light upon his remarkable career.

In Vienna he was under arrest as a vagrant, in the Balkans he was a
merchant. Then fulfilling his early prophecy in the _Bateau ivre_ he
said farewell to Europe and in Africa became discoverer, general,
conqueror. In these unexpected fields he spent to the last limits his
titanic energy, which in youthful crises had been expended on the
fragile and for him too weakly material of language and rhyme. Until the
day of his death, he, _the only true despiser of literature of these
days_, never wrote another line, and endeavored only to give form to his
wild and fantastic dreams in the material of life, dying in fever as
feverishly he lived.

For Verlaine it was an episode--the most important, it is true, in a
life which was torn to many tatters. After his conversion, which will
be discussed more fully later, he returned to Paris and literature, and
died in harness, physically in 1896, as artist much earlier.


It is well known that at the moment when he left the prison at Mons,
Paul Verlaine, the prisoner, entered the ranks of the great Catholic
poets. A complete transformation took place in his life. He turned from
the material to the spiritual. The penitent mood of his childhood days
glimmered again when he thought of the Nazarene. The soft early
yearnings which were forgotten in his years of wandering became
symbolized into a definite idea. Nor is this surprising in one who never
could understand his intellectual processes, but who was moved entirely
by the ebb and flow of emotion, and who always wavered unsteadily in all
the crises of life.

In general it is almost a necessity among poets that poetic feeling
should be transmuted into religious feeling. But the creative poets of
active mentality and intellectuality build their own religion, while the
sensitive or passive poets pour out their flood of feeling for God in
the form of existing rites and symbols. Balzac clearly shows this
relationship when he says in _The Thirteen_:

"Are not religion, love and poetry, the threefold expression of the same
fact, the need for expression which fills every noble soul? These three
creative impulses rise up toward God, who concentrates in himself all
earthly emotions."

Religion is only a certain form of association in which things are
placed in relationship with each other. Similarly the sensation of
evening, of the cool pure air after rain, of the whispering of the winds
and the play of clouds, or whatever else is caught up in the nervous
fever of poetic sensibility, hearkens back to the infinite after it
has been permeated by the poet's own sorrow or joy. He feels that the
infinite has a soul which understands and atones for all sorrows, and
thus he conceives it as divinity. The poet's religion is derived from
the one great faith with which he must be filled, which is the necessity
for being understood. It is only one step further when he finds that his
soul's outflow must lead somewhere, and then he gives a name, a form and
an interpretation to what has been incomprehensible.

But a more definite element in Paul Verlaine drove him into the arms of
Catholicism. It was his _impulse to confession_, which I have tried to
show was the most intensive element in his personality. A soul which
lacks ethical authority for self-control, in its helplessness must turn
with accusation and pleading toward others, toward something outside of
the self.

Cry and sigh are the original forms of all lyricism, and just as they
are a sweet compulsion to expel an inner overflow by utterance, so
confession is only deliverance from an inner pressure, from guilt and
penitence, from mighty forces, accordingly, which the confessor wishes
to transmit to others. It is a need for explanation, a marvellous
deception, a means to tame forces by trust, a trust which is not felt
toward one's self. Goethe's much-quoted words of the fragments of the
"great confession" are still to the point, no matter how often they
have been used. As he wrote to rid his mind of incidents which he had
experienced, so Verlaine told of himself, now to the public, now to the
confessor. The fundamental process, however, is identical.

Many other things coöperated. There was the great antithesis between
flesh and spirit, between body and soul; contempt for the sensual and
continual fall into sin--the immanent conflict of childish and animal
feeling which flooded forever wildly through Verlaine's years of
manhood. This also has been for centuries the symbol of the Catholic
Church. In it sensitive and mystical emotion found a dogmatic form,
through the fundamental principle of the antithesis between the earthly
and the transcendental. In the same way the consciousness of the value
of the sensual as sin and of the pure as virtue is only a reflex of the
subjective impressions of pure souls. Here Verlaine found a definite
form for the warning which flickered unsteadily in him. By confession
he was able to place his sins into the dreamy hands of the immaculate
Virgin; in her form he was at last able worthily to give substance to
the dream-like shadows of the soft unsensual women, which glimmered like
stars over his life. It was the need for quiet after storms, confession
after sins.

Childhood bells called him back to the church. Pale ancient memories
led him--the pomp of the solemn great processions which he saw in
Montpellier. The _bon enfant_ awoke in him again. The memory of his own
folded hands, of his timid child's voice lisping prayers, and of his
sacred soft baptismal name, _Marie_, rose in him. The dark mysticism and
the wonderful blue half-lights of Catholic faith called the dreamer. The
same incense shadow of vague violent emotion led the romantic dreamers,
Stolberg, Schlegel and Novalis, from the cool, clear and transparent air
of Protestantism into a foreign faith. The _leitmotiv_ of Verlaine's
poetry was his yearning and the infinitely beautiful and persistent
impulse of the unhappy toward childhood and the magic of a primitively
reverent life close to God. These wrought the miracle.

If trust were to be put in the corrupt man of letters who wrote the
_Confessions_, it was a true miracle, like that in the cell of Saint
Anthony, which brought him into the arms of the Church.

In his narrow room, in which he read Shakespeare and other worldly
books, hung a simple crucifix, unnoticed at first. Of it he wrote:

"I know not what or Who suddenly raised me in the night, threw me from
my bed without even leaving me time to dress, and prostrated me weeping
and sobbing at the feet of the crucifix and before the supererogatory
image of the Catholic Church, which has evoked the most strange, but in
my eyes the most sublime devotion of modern times."

On the following day he asked for a priest and confessed his sins. At
that hour, Verlaine, the Catholic poet, was born. He was wonderfully
primitive, like the early poets of the Church, and his verses were as
full of profound mystic poetry as those of the saints, Augustine and
Francis of Assisi, and those of the German philosopher poets, Eckart and

During these two years the neophyte wrote _Sagesse_, a volume which
appeared later under the imprint of an exclusively Catholic publisher.
It is the deepest and greatest work of French poetry, "the white crown
of his work," Verhaeren calls it in his brilliant study of Verlaine.
Here again, as once in the _Bonne Chanson_, the divergent forms of his
character unite. In the unrestrained solution of everything personal in
the divine, in "the melting of his own heart in the glowing heart of
God," impulse and yearning are purified. Eroticism becomes spiritualized
into fervor; hope, into sublime enlightenment; passion, devouring
earthly dross, takes the form of mystic surrender. Thus the impulsive in
Verlaine, permeated by hours of pure emotion, obtains its wild power of
beauty, and trembles in the inexplicable mystery and in the stream of
visionary light, so that his entire life now seems illumined.

In his religion likewise it is the purely human element which is so
wonderful. Verlaine does not possess the seraphic mildness of Novalis,
nor the consumptive, girl-like, sickly-beautiful inclination of the
pre-Raphaelites toward the miraculous image. He is passionate and
vehement. He is masculine where the others become feminine. Like a timid
girl, Novalis dreams of Jesus as his bride. "If I have Him only, if He
only is mine," he says and his words become a chaste love song.

Verlaine, however, is a reverberating echo of the great seekers after
God, of the church fathers, of St. Augustine and of the mystics, and
he wrestles for an almost physical love of God. His passion is often
impious in its earthiness; his yearning, sacrilege.

In his sonnet cycle, _Mon dieu m'a dit_, is a place where the soul,
wounded by the lighting of divine love, cries out, unconscious whether
in joy or pain:

    "Quoi, moi, moi pouvoir Vous aimer.
       Êtes-vous fous?"

In these impious words God is humanized vividly, and yet, by the very
bitterness of the struggle with His all-goodness, the poet imbues Him
with an absolute perfection.

Here Verlaine's tormented soul is entirely cast out of himself, and
plunges in a sudden flood into the infinite. Ecstasy overcomes the
feminine element in him, just as in his life vulgar drunkenness roused
his hard, coarse and brutal qualities. For a moment Verlaine is not only
a genuine and marvellous, but also a truly strong and creative poet; no
longer elegiac and sensitive, but creative.

In the reflux of enthusiasm come silent tender hours with songs in which
the notes are muffled. They are the poems he wrote in the prison which
gave him quietude and shelter, and in the silence of which the soft
voices of his childhood rose again. Each one of these poems is noble,
simple, and chaste. It is only necessary to name the titles to hear the
soft violin note of their mild sadness--"Un grand sommeil noir," "Le
ciel, est, par dessus le toit," "Je ne sais pas pourquoi mon esprit
amer," "Le son du cor," "Je ne veux plus aimer que ma mère Marie."

It is truly "_le coeur plus veuf que toutes les veuves_" that speaks in

When the "_guote suendaere_" again went out into life which he had never
been able to master, and the wild restlessness and torment began which
tore his heart into tatters, nothing remained of the two years in prison
except his pious faith and a sorrowful memory. The four walls which had
enclosed him also had protected him. "He was truly himself only in the
hospital and in prison," says Huysmans.

Poor Lelian's longing plaint is for this silence. "Ah truly, I regret
the two years in the tower." His song says "Formerly I dwelt in the best
of castles." His yearning for the elemental, "far from a curbed age,"
never left him since those hours, and least of all in Paris, the city
of his crowning fame as a poet. Faith he soon lost, but never the
yearning for faith.

In addition Verlaine wrote a long series of Catholic poems. As will be
shown later, he outraged his unique qualities and thus destroyed them.
The unconscious portion, the wonderful fragrance of his early religious
poems, which were entirely emotional, soon dissipated. He constructed
an infinite number of pious verses, verses for saints' days, religious
emblems, and compiled volumes of poetry for Catholic publishers. At the
same time he edited pornographica and all manner of indecencies. His
conversion had created a sensation. He had been thrust into a rôle and
felt it his duty to play the part and to retain the costume. This was
the reason for the antithesis. I do not believe the faith of his later
years to have been genuine. He has called himself "the ruin of a still
Christian philosopher already pagan," and in his obscene books turned
the rites of Catholic faith, which he elsewhere glorified, into phallic
and other sexual symbols.

He was unable to escape the realization of the comedy of this situation.
In his autobiography, _Hommes d'aujourd'hui_, he attempted a very
ingenious but exceedingly unsatisfactory justification. "His work," he
explains, speaking of poor Lelian, "from 1880 took on two very sharply
defined directions, and the prospectuses of his future books indicated
that he had made up his mind to continue this system and to publish, if
not simultaneously, at least in parallel, works absolutely different in
idea--to be more exact, books in which Catholicism unfolds its logic and
its lures, its blandishments and its terrors; and others purely modern,
sensual with a distressing good humor and full of the pride of life."

Can this be the program of the "unconscious?" A few lines further on he
has given another explanation. "I believe, and I am a good Christian at
this moment; I believe, and I am a bad Christian the instant after. The
remembrance of hope, the evocation of a sin, delight me with or without
remorse." This is the truth. Verlaine was a man of moods, he was always
only the creature of the moment. After a few seconds the movement
of his will contracted limply and momentary desires overflooded his
consciousness of personality. His faith may have been as capricious
and restless, as each one of his tendencies of passion. Great poems,
however, in the sense of great in extent, are not conceived in a moment.
Moods spread like a fine mist over the poet's hours, they permeate them
and fill them through and through for a long time before a poem takes

Verlaine, the man of letters and poet according to program, is a
hateful shadow limping behind his great works. Consciously and with
feverish eagerness and a productivity forced by need, he rhymed in what
he thought his unique manner. The poor old man whom interviewers sought
in the hospital was no longer the poet, Paul Verlaine.

It is impossible to tell how long the flame of personal faith still
glowed in him. Probably it was as little extinguished as his soft dream
of childhood. In the dusk of his last years it often struggled upward
with tears, as a symbol of sorrow over his broken life.

As all his thought began to tend toward senile mistiness, his emotions
also slowly deteriorated in indifference and drunkenness. It was not his
companions in his cups who understood him best, but the poets who saw
his life in the illuminating perspective of distance.

In a short story, _Gestas_, Anatole France has marvellously described
in his insistent, quiet, dignified fashion the mingling of purity and
depravity in this life of curious piety. It is merely an anecdote.
Stumbling, a drunkard enters church in the early morn to confess his
sins. The priest has not yet arrived. The drunkard begins to grow noisy,
beats the prayer desks; he rages and weeps, he has so endlessly many
sins to confess, he wants only a little priest, a very, very little one.

In these few pages everything is compressed, "the prodigal child with
the gestures of a satyr." All the traits of Verlaine are here, the
accusing one of the penitent which he never lost, the angry one of the
drunkard, the yearning tenderness of the poet, all the childishly wise,
and yet in its simplicity so marvellously wonderful, faith of the good


One hesitates to relate the last years of this curious life. From the
moment that Verlaine returned to Paris the tragedy lacks æsthetic
significance. There are no longer sudden descents and elevations, but
his life is slowly stifled in _camaraderie_, lingering disease and
depravity. His poetic force crumbles away, his uniqueness becomes
extinguished. It is no longer a foaming wave crest that carries him
away, but dirty little waves.

When he came to Paris, he had been forgotten. His books were lying
unsold with the publishers; the majority of his friends avoided him,
evidently because their frock coat of the Academy made recognition
difficult, until suddenly the younger generation began to noise about
his name; and now more people quarrel over starting this movement than
there were cities to claim Homer's cradle.

It was a period of development. French lyric poetry was passing through
a revolutionary crisis. For the first time the marble image of "_beauté
impassible_" trembled in the hands of the poets. But not one of them was
a strong enough artist to create a new ideal. At this moment the younger
men began to remember Verlaine. His Bohemian life, the soft, fluctuating
dreamy manner of his art, the frenzy of his life, his recklessness,
loyalty and elementalness were a marvellous antithesis to the well-bred
"_impassibilité_" of the Academy. His name was used as a battering-ram
against the Parnassians. In kindly fashion, without choice, Verlaine,
the old man, who was beginning to feel chill, accepted the late
enthusiasm and veneration.

Literature alone is not yet sufficient to create fame in France. It was
only when the great journals began to take an interest in his life that
he became popular. And at that time a mass of paltry legends began to
gather around his name. He became the "naive child of modern culture,"
the "Bohemian," the "Unconscious," the "New François Villon," and even
to-day these stereotyped phrases are industriously repeated.

Indeed his life was strange. In hospitals the poet sought shelter. With
a white cloth wound like a turban around his bald, Socrates-like head,
he was always surrounded by contemporary literature, which strove to
rise with the aid of his name. He received interviewers, and wrote his
poems on prescription blanks and smeary tatters. When he was well, he
wandered from café to café, holding forth and gesticulating, getting
drunk, and associating with lewd women, always with a certain
ostentation whenever he noticed that the public was watching him. As a
senile Silenus, he presided over the most remarkable bacchanalia. Like
a second Victor Hugo, he patronized the younger men with benevolent
gesture. A forced merriness seemed in those days to tremble electrically
through his nerves. Yet never before had his life been filled with
deeper tragedy and yearning, and there were many hours when he himself
felt this keenly. Crushed and torn by the teeth of life, he, like all
Bohemians, at last desired only peace. Never was the sweet dream of his
childhood days more poignant than in just this period of dissolute
play-acting and vain exhibitionism.

Taine has very accurately shown that creative art consists in the
automatization of the creative individuality, in overhearing and
imitating inherent qualities, and in objectifying the personal elements.
This process too became operative in Verlaine's life, more markedly
because in him life and personality were immanent interaction.

He caricatured himself and re-drew the delicate lines of his soul with
crude pencil. Consciously he tried to make the unconscious elements take
plastic form again by way of reflection. He was no longer elemental,
but he strove hard to be. He prayed to God "to give me all simplicity,"
because he knew it was expected of him. Since he was counted among the
Catholic poets, he tried again to pass through the storm of sacred
emotion. The effort resulted in pompous, well-constructed religious
poems, plump like botched Roman churches.

He attempted to show the unconscious in himself by striving to explain
the creative impulse and placing mirrors behind his juggler's tricks.
The wonderful gesture of surrender which destiny and sorrow had taught
him, he learned by heart like an actor who reproduces a gesture
mechanically at the seventy succeeding performances, though he is truly
an artist only at the moment when he first discovers and understands
its significance in studying the part. Thus Verlaine carefully
reconstructed all the characteristics which the journals declared were
his own. Coquettishly he exhibited the "poor Lelian" and the "_bon
enfant_"--mere costumes of a poetical fire that had long died out. His
manner became more and more childlike; he was trying to enter entirely
into the rôle of "_guileless fool_," while his sharp but unlogical
intelligence never gave way.

The poet retired further and further into him. The more he rhymed (and
in the last years with morbid frequency), the fewer poems were produced.
Now and then one came, when pose and impulse joined in minutes of
sad (or drunken) melancholy, and when the mysterious fluid of the
unconscious and great indefinite emotions made him silent, simple and

Otherwise he alternately turned erotic incidents and adventures in
alcoves into rhyme, and wrote literary mockeries and parodies of Paul
Verlaine, and for purposes of contrast, verses in praise of Catholic
saint days. Every artistic pride was soon forgotten in the need for
money. He sold his poems at one hundred sous apiece to his publisher
Vanier, who cruelly printed them often against the active protest of the
poet; recently again a volume of "Posthumous Works," which easily may be
denominated as one of the most disagreeable and worst books published in
France. This portion of the tragedy of his life no one has as yet fully

During his last years he wrote two books which must not be ignored even
though they do not fit in the customary picture of the _bon enfant_.
These were _Femmes_ and _Hombres_. They could not appear publicly but
were sold in five hundred numbered copies each. In them Verlaine broke
abruptly with the tradition of agreeable nastiness of a Grecourt, in
order to produce works of an unheard-of subjective shamelessness. In
form the poems are smooth and in structure they are clever, but their
subject matter and the poet's self-revelation is such as to place these
volumes among the most unhappy that have ever been produced. They are
naked and obscene.

From an æsthetic point of view this publication, even if it was
clandestine was without excuse, and it was the deepest descent of the
poet. The effect of this depravity of an old man writing down with
unsteady hand vices and nakednesses on prescription blanks for the sake
of a few francs with which to buy an absinthe, is tragic. The existence
and the spread of these books must destroy absolutely the legend of the
"guileless fool." This is the only value which can be attributed to

The carnival comedy took place before Ash Wednesday. When Leconte de
Lisle died, the younger generation advertised and arranged for the
choice of the king of poets, never realizing to what extent they were
guilty in bringing about the artistic degeneration of the chosen poet.
The faun-like, mockingly sagacious head of Paul Verlaine, who was ill
and growing old, received the crown. Poor Lelian became "king of the
poets," a mark of great affection on the part of the younger men, but
only a title after all, which was unable to give Paul Verlaine the
necessary dignity and strength of personality. After Verlaine, Stéphane
Mallarmé inherited the imaginary crown, and after him it was worn in
obscurity by Leon Dierx,[3] a not very distinguished, but agreeable and
dignified poet of the former Parnassus. The coronation was only a pose
and voluntary choice, and would hardly be worth considering were it not
for the fact that this admiration for Verlaine's work indicated an
underlying tendency in modern French poetry.

  [3] Leon Dierx died in 1912 at the age of 74, and Paul Fort, the
  author of the famous _Ballades Françaises_, was chosen as "king of the
  poets" to succeed him.

To the younger generation Verlaine represented not only a great poet,
but to them he was also the regenerator of French lyric poetry. The
legend that Verlaine consciously changed poetic valuations is entirely
due to a single poem, the "_Art Poétique_." It is absolutely necessary
to quote it, because on the one hand it is characteristic of Verlaine's
instinct concerning his own work, and because on the other hand it is
the basis of all the formulas which became dogmas among the verse
jugglers. (An English translation of this poem is given on page 90.)

    "De la musique avant toute chose,
    Et pour cela préfère l'Impair
    Plus vague et plus soluble dans l'air,
    Sans rien en lui, qui pèse ou qui pose.

    "Il faut aussi que tu n'ailles point
    Choisir tes mots sans quelque méprise:
    Rien de plus cher que la chanson grise
    Où l'Indécis au Précis se joint.

    "C'est des beaux yeux derrière les voiles,
    C'est le grand jour tremblant de midi,
    C'est, par un ciel d'automne attiédi,
    Le bleu fouillis des claires étoiles!

    "Car nous voulons la Nuance encore,
    Pas la Couleur, rien que la nuance!
    Oh, la nuance seule fiance
    Le rêve au rêve et la flûte au cor!

    "Fuis du plus loin la Pointe assassine,
    L'Esprit cruel et le Rire impur,
    Qui font pleurer les yeux d'Azur
    Et tout cet ail de basse cuisine!

    "Prends l'éloquence et tords-lui son cou!
    Tu feras bien, en train d'énergie,
    De rendre un peu la Rime assagie,
    Si l'on n'y veille, elle ira jusqu'où?

    "Oh! qui dira les torts de la Rime?
    Quel enfant sourd ou quel nègre fou
    Nous a forgé ce bijou d'un sou
    Qui sonne creux et faux sous la lime?

    "De la musique encore et toujours!
    Que ton vers soit la chose envolée
    Qu'on sent qui fuit d'une âme en allée
    Vers d'autres cieux à d'autres amours.

    "Que ton vers soit la bonne aventure
    Éparse au vent crispé du matin
    Qui va fleurant la menthe et le thym ...
    Et tout le reste est littérature."

Without question certain words in these lines, somewhat veiled by the
poetic form of expression, harmonize with the fundamental conceptions of
modern impressionistic lyric poetry. France never was the land of pure
emotional poetry. There is too much sense of the formal, too much of
a keen-sighted almost mathematical type of intellect mingled with a
gallant pleasure in pointedness among the French, and these make them
turn into logic the elements of mysticism which must be in every poem,
whether in its emotional content or its vague form of expression. Goethe
has proclaimed the incommensurable as the material of all poetry, but
among the French the tendency to crystallize it in the solution of their
positivist habit of thought is ever imperceptibly betrayed. The feeling
for the line and style shows through. For them poetry is architecture;
intuition, their intellectual formula; the marble of conceptions is
their material, and rhyme the mortar.

Clarity and orderly arrangement are the preliminary conditions for
Victor Hugo, for the Parnassians and even for Baudelaire, even though
the latter, by his visionary form and the opiate of his dark words,
created for the first time solemn, that is to say poetical, impressions
instead of those of pomp alone. It seems therefore an error to look for
the revolutionary tendency and literary importance of a Verlaine in the
looseness of his verse structure and more careless (or intentionally
careless) use of rhyme. His merit is rather that he was able to illume
chaos, darkness, and presentiments by the very indefiniteness and the
vague music of his soul. This enabled him to endue his poems with
their mystical trembling melody, not by abstracting his inner music in
definite melodies, but by fixing it in assonance, rhymes and rhythmic

Unconsciously he recognized that lyric art is the most immaterial
of all and is most nearly related to music. Its aërial trembling
and immateriality may meet the soul in waves of glowing fire, but
intellectually it is unseizable. He tried to preserve this musical
element by means of harmony and assonance, but it was not he himself
so much as the unconscious gift of poetry that played mysteriously in
him and made him find the fundamental secret of lyric effects. Émile
Verhaeren, the only other French poet who is a more vehement and
constructive character, sought and found the musical element of lyric
poetry by the only other way, that is, in verbal rhythm or consonantal
music. Thus to volatilize the material simultaneously in the form and to
join the technical with the intuitive elements is the highest quality
of lyric poetry. It makes it immediate, organic, that is to say, its
spiritual elements permeate the material in immanent reaction, and thus
the mystery of life is renewed in individual artifacts. Self-evidently
this intuitive recognition is no discovery. It has been present in
the great lyric poets of all time, a mystery like that of sexual
reproduction, which awakens only at the age of ripeness. It was new in
France only because, besides Villon, Verlaine was the first lyric genius
of the French.

The mystery of the German folk-song with its simple, sweetly mysterious
essence became realized in him, perhaps because there was an
undercurrent of national relationship. Because of the weakness,
submissiveness and child-like confusion of his emotionality, the
vibrations became tonality, sound and, because he was a poet, music,
instead of intellectual structures.

Such art must be more effective as contrasted with all intellectualism
because it springs from deeper sources, just as simple weeping is more
eloquent than passionate wailing aloud. Surely it also contains an
artificial element, not artistry, but magic art, or the "alchemy of the
word" which Rimbaud believed to have discovered, a relationship between
colors, vowels and sounds depending on idiosyncrasy. It is a secret
touching of the ultimate roots of different stems. It is always
necessary to assume an inter-relation between lyricism and the lawless,
enigmatic and magic elements of the human soul and to associate vague
threshold emotions with soft music.

Verlaine's poetry during his creative period possesses this vagueness,
which is like a voice in the dark or music of the soul. It also has the
lack of coherence which emotions must have when they sweep in halting
pain through the body. This element must remain incomprehensible to
commercially sharp intelligences of the type of Max Nordau, who try in
a way to subtract the net value of purely intellectual elements and
"contents" which could be reduced to prose from the gross value of
poems. Lyricism is magic and the precious possession of a spiritual
communion which finds its deepest enjoyment in just these almost
impalpable elements.

To limit the most important element of Verlaine's significance to his
neglect of rhyme is showing poor judgment. In the first place it is
unimportant and secondly incorrect, for he never wrote a poem without
rhyme, except in the later unworthy years, when now and then he
substituted assonances. In addition he has himself protested in
_L'Hommes d'Aujourd'hui_:

"In the past and at present too I am honored by having my name mingled
with these disputes, and I pass for a bitter adversary of rhyme because
of a selection published in a recent collection.--Besides absolute
liberty is my device if it were necessary for me to have one--and I
find good everything which is good in despite and notwithstanding

To many it was insufficient to celebrate Verlaine as one of the marvels
of a nation, a truly elemental human being whose soul uttered the finest
and most tender lyric moods and who, as if awakened out of bell-like and
clear dreams, produced true and melodic poetry out of the darkness of
his life. His admirers have also praised him as a prose writer. But the
prose-writer must be an intellectual creator, and know how to master
form. This Verlaine was unable to do. He never really understood the
world, and knew only how to tell of himself, and accordingly his
novelettes are for the most part concealed autobiographies. They have
brilliant portions of characterization. His intellect, which is
paradoxical, self-willed, lyrical, and abrupt, flashes up and then

His _Confessions_, which have been highly praised, remind one of
Rousseau's all too confidential and hypocritical confessions. They are
only documents of personal sharp-sightedness, unfortunately much
over-clouded by literary pose. He also tried the theatre. His comedy,
_Les Uns et les Autres_, has Watteau-like style and Pierrot elegances,
as well as flexibility, but is of no importance. Another play,
_Louis XVI_, remained a fragment. All Verlaine's literary productions,
like biographies, introductions, etc., give a painful impression because
they are forced and have sprung from evil _camaraderie_.

He has also been called a great draftsman. It is true that an excellent
and characteristic skill in the figures and scribblings which he
sprinkled throughout his letters cannot be gainsaid. There is even a
pathetic element in their self-confessed technical imperfections. The
caricatures are playful, without malicious or serious intent, jotted
down with childish self-satisfaction, but, of course, they need not be
taken seriously. They are little marginalia to his life, and addenda to
the numerous sharp and bright sketches with which his intimate friend
and artistic Eckermann, F. A. Cazals, has fixed him for posterity.
They show Verlaine in all his moods--in his bonhomie, despair, grief,
"_gaminerie_," sexuality, disease, even to the last sketches which
show him in death. They form a gallery of his life from childhood to
childhood along the dark way of his destiny. And as in his poetry,
notwithstanding all the exuberant passages, the final impression is a
wailing note of sadness--the stroke of melancholy's bow.


The only thing which now remains is to ascertain whether Paul Verlaine's
life-work, beginning in Metz and ending in a small lodging-house room
in Paris on a January day in 1896, contains the elements which we would
call "lasting" because we are afraid of the proud and resounding word
"eternal." The significance of great poets passes the boundaries of
literature and ignores what is known as "influences" and "artistic
atmosphere." The eternal element of great works of poetry reaches back
toward eternity. For humanity poetry is infinity which it joins with the
ether, and the great poets are those who were able to help in
elaborating the wonderful bond which stretches from the distant darkness
to the red of the new dawn.

It does not diminish Verlaine's stature if we do not count him among
the heroes of life. He was an isolated phenomena, too significant to be
typical and too weak to become eternal. There was beauty in his pure
humanness, but not of the kind which remains permanent. He has given
nothing which was not already in us. He was a fleeting stream of life
passing by; he was the sublime echo of the mysterious music which rises
within us on every contact of things, like the ring of glasses on a
cupboard under every footstep and impact.

His effect is deep, but yet on that account not great. To have become
great it would have been necessary for him to conquer the destiny which
he could not master and to liberate his will from the thousand little
vices and passions which enwrapped it. He is one of the writers who
could be spared, whom nevertheless no one would do without. He is a
marvel, beautiful and unnecessary, like a rare flower which gives
sweetness and wonderful peace to the senses, but which does not make us
noble, strong, brave and humble.

He was, and herein lies his greatness and power, the symbol of pure
humanity, splendid creative force in the weak vessel of his personality.
He was a poet who in his works became one with the poetry of life, the
sounds of the forest, the kiss of the wind, the rustling of the reeds
and the voice of the dusk of evening. Humanly he was like us who love
him. He was one of those who, no matter how great a chaos they have made
of their own life, are yet inappeasable, and drink the stranger's pain
and the stranger's bliss in the precious cup of glorious poetry. They
manifold their being and their emotions because of a blind and
uncreative yearning for the universal and infinity.


    No laws should rule by force or guile,
    But let your verse go singing soft,
    And in the solvent air aloft
    Find music, music all the while.

    Nor be too diffident in phrase,
    But let your song grow drunk with wine
    Where mystic unions vaguely shine
    In luminous and errant ways.

    Like veilèd eyes your song should be,
    Like noondays trembling in the sun,
    Like autumn dusks when days are done
    And stars and sky join secretly.

    Not vivid colors should adorn,
    But shades alone when dream to dream
    Is wed, and tender shadows gleam
    Like flute notes mingled with the horn.

    The "point" which slays and cruel wit,
    And smile impure you should despise,
    For like base garlic they arise
    To spoil the poem exquisite.

    Take eloquence and twist its neck!
    And sophist rhyming which would lead
    You headlong into sing-song speed
    'Tis well for you to hold in check.

    Oh, who shall tell of evil rhyme!
    A trinket coin with hollow ring,
    A barbarous or childish thing
    Passed downward idly to our time.

    Music, music, evermore,
    The burden of your song should be,
    Inherent like the melody
    Of souls a-wing to distant shore;

    Or like the brave emprise and pure
    Of morning breezes which imbue
    The thyme and mint with honey dew--
    The rest belongs to literature.

  [ Transcriber's Note:

    The following is a list of corrections made to the original. The
    first line is the original line, the second the corrected one.

  fragrance For him childhood was paradise, because his poor weak soul,
  fragrance. For him childhood was paradise, because his poor weak soul,

      Plus familier, voila."
      Plus familier, voilà."

      "Je voudrais, si ma vie était encore a faire,
      "Je voudrais, si ma vie était encore à faire,

      Qu'une femme très calme habitat avec moi."
      Qu'une femme très calme habitât avec moi."

  first work, and had a "_joli succés de hostilité_" with the press. The
  first work, and had a "_joli succès de hostilité_" with the press. The

  passion, yearns for soft, womenly hands.
  passion, yearns for soft, womanly hands.

  transferrel unchanged into his poetry, filling it with the force of life
  transferred unchanged into his poetry, filling it with the force of life

  Sentimentale_, a dark pearl of indefinite, infinite sorrow. Out of masks
  Sentimental_, a dark pearl of indefinite, infinite sorrow. Out of masks

         Etez vous fous?"
         Êtes-vous fous?"

  It is truly "_le coeur plus veuf que tout les veuves_" that speaks in
  It is truly "_le coeur plus veuf que toutes les veuves_" that speaks in

      "C'est des beaux yeaux derrière les voiles,
      "C'est des beaux yeux derrière les voiles,

      "Prends l'eloquence et tords-lui son cou!
      "Prends l'éloquence et tords-lui son cou!

  word" which Rimbaud believed, to have discovered, a relationship between
  word" which Rimbaud believed to have discovered, a relationship between

  colors, vowels and sounds depending on idiosyncracy. It is a secret
  colors, vowels and sounds depending on idiosyncrasy. It is a secret


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