Émile Verhaeren  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Emile Verhaeren (Sint-Amands May 21 1855Rouen November 27 1916) was a Belgian poet who wrote in the French language, and one of the chief founders of the school of Symbolism.

He was born in a Flemish, but French-speaking, middle-class family. Nevertheless Emile Verhaeren also spoke the local dialect (Dutch was not taught at school at that time). At the age of eleven, he was sent to a strict boarding school in Ghent, run by Jesuits, where he became completely Frenchified. He then went to study law at the University of Louvain. Here he produced his first literary efforts in a student paper. During those years, he became acquainted with like-minded students. They would later become his collaborators on the revolutionary artistic magazine "La Jeune Belgique".

Having gained his PhD in Law, he became a trainee (1881-1884) with Edmond Picard, a renowned criminal lawyer, who also played a pivotal role on the Brussels artistic scene. Emile Verhaeren came in frequent contact with young, radical writers and artists at a time of artistic renewal. He tried only two cases before a court before deciding to dedicate his life to poetry and literature.

He soon became the mouthpiece for the artistic revival at the turn of the century. Fascinated by the works of the painters of the artistic circle "Les XX", he wrote many articles in La Jeune Belgique and L'Art Moderne, with flamboyant criticism on the artistic-literary works of the Brussels art world. His articles brought many promising young talents, such as James Ensor, to the attention of the public.

Through these articles, he became a lifelong friend of the Neo-impressionist Belgian painter Théo van Rysselberghe, resulting in a vast body of letters. In one of these letters, he was described by Maria van Rysselberghe, as "a unique personality, a whirlwind with an indomitable character, who didn't bother himself about bourgeois rules and who provoked or overwhelmed everybody by his straightforward directness".

He was one of the most prolific poets of his era. His first collection of poems "Les Flamandes" was published in 1883. Inspired by the paintings of Jacob Jordaens, David Teniers and Jan Steen, Verhaeren described in a direct and often provocative, naturalistic way his country and the Flemish people. It was an immediate success in avant-garde milieus, but caused a great deal of controversy in Catholic circles. His next book "Les Moines" (1886) was not the success he had hoped for. This, and his health problems, led to a deep crisis. In this period he published Les Soirs (1888), Les Débâcles (1888) and Les Flambeaux noirs (1891).

On 24 August 1891 he married Marthe Massin, a talented artist from Liège. His new-found happiness found expression in three poetry books : Les Heures Claires (1896), Les Heures d’Après-midi (1905) and Les Heures du Soir (1911).

He wrote his first play "Les Aubes" in 1898. Here he waged a fight against social injustice and the decline of life in the countryside.

In 1898 he moved to Saint-Cloud, near Paris. By the turn of the century, he had become world-famous. His works were translated into more than twenty languages. He travelled, giving lectures, throughout Europe. The outbreak of World War I had a devastating effect on the poet's deep pacifist feelings.

When Emile Verhaeren died on 27 November 1916 at Rouen station (by falling under a train), it was Théo van Rysselberghe and his friend, the famous French writer (and later Nobel Prize winner) André Gide who had to inform Marthe Verhaeren of the tragic death of her husband.

His vast body of work shows him as one of the most prominent figures in Belgian literature. He narrowly missed the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911 (awarded to his friend Maurice Maeterlinck).

St. Amands, his native city, has dedicated a museum to this giant of Belgian literature, showing many original manuscripts of his works and letters and also works of his artistic friends Théo van Rysselberghe, Leon Spilliaert, Constantin Meunier, Paul Signac and Ossip Zadkine.

Principal works


Et ce Londres de fonte et de bronze, mon âme,
Où des plaques de fer claquent sous des hangars,
    Où des voiles s'en vont, sans Notre-Dame
Pour étoile, s'en vont, là-bas, vers les hasards.
---Londres, from Les Soirs

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