Paul Verlaine  

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"THE art of Paul Verlaine is something new, absolutely new, to poetry. Romances sans Paroles — songs without words — is the name of one of his volumes, and his poetry at its best might almost be called disembodied song. It is an art of impressionism — sometimes as delicate, as pastoral, as Watteau, sometimes as sensitively modern as Whistler, sometimes as brutally modern as Degas. It is all suggestion, evocation — "des beaux yeux derrière des voiles" — the suggestion and evocation of sensations, a restless, insistent search for the last fine shade of expression."---Arthur Symons on Paul Verlaine in the National Review (1892)

"Yes, there is no doubt about it, this is an age which has a liking for unsavoury conduct. Who, after all, are the idols of the youth of today? They are Baudelaire, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Verlaine: three men of talent admittedly, but a sadistic Bohemian, an alcoholic, and a murderous homosexual."-- The Goncourt Journal (January 27, 1895)

"I love this word decadence"--Paul Verlaine

"Paul Verlaine [...] , the poetic "souse" and lyric deadbeat [...] had died in January of the same year, 1896. I had often gone to Leon Vanier's book shop on the Quai de Notre Dame, with the hope of meeting the most extraordinary poetic apparition since Baudelaire, but without success. Unsuccessful, too, were my visits to the Cafe Francois Premier on Boulevard St. Michel. [...] I never met Paul Verlaine. Indeed, I may boast that I am the only living writer who didn't lend money to that poet. "--Steeplejack (1921) by James Huneker

"L’âme antique était rude et vaine…"

"De la musique avant toute chose"

"The book contains a careful estimate of Paul Verlaine , the impressionist poet , who died during the year and was so much ... In connection with the unrest of the times may also be mentioned the reply to Max Nordau's " Degeneration ..."--Literary News (1897) by Frederick Leypoldt

"Max Nordau would object to this expressionthe gratification of his senses prompted by atheism -and would tell us that atheism ought to have implanted into Verlaine ... I When Paul Verlaine invokes the Virgin Mary , a form "--Regeneration: A Reply to Max Nordau (1895) by Alfred Egmont Hake

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Paul Verlaine (1844 – 1896) was a French poet best-known for poetry collections such as Poèmes saturniens (1866) and the anthology of accursed poets Les Poètes maudits (1884).

The famous affair of Rimbaud and Verlaine was the subject of the film Total Eclipse (1995). He was photographed at the café François 1er in Paris.



Early life

Born in Metz, he was educated at lycée in Paris and then took up a post in the civil service. He began writing poetry at an early age, and was initially influenced by the Parnassien movement and its leader, Charles Leconte de Lisle. Verlaine's first published collection, Poèmes saturniens (1867), though adversely commented upon by Sainte-Beuve, established him as a poet of promise and originality.

Marriage and military service

Verlaine's private life spills over into his work, beginning with his love for Mathilde Mauté, a disciple of Louise Michel. Mauté became Verlaine's wife. At the proclamation of the Third Republic in 1870, Verlaine joined the 160th battalion of the Garde nationale, turning Communard on March 18, 1871. He became head of the press bureau of the Central Committee of the Paris Commune. He escaped the deadly street fighting known as the Bloody Week, or Semaine Sanglante, and went into hiding at Pas-de-Calais.


Verlaine returned to Paris in August 1871. In September he received the first letter from the poet Arthur Rimbaud. By 1872 he had lost interest in Mathilde and effectively abandoned her and their son, preferring the company of his new lover. Rimbaud's and Verlaine's stormy love affair took them to London in 1872, and on July 10 1873 he shot Rimbaud in a drunken, jealous rage, wounding him, but not mortally. As an indirect result of this incident, he was arrested and imprisoned at Mons, where he underwent a conversion to Catholicism, which again influenced his work (and earned him the vicious mockery of the inconstant Rimbaud.) Romances sans paroles was the poetic outcome of this period.

Following his release from prison, Verlaine traveled to England, where he worked for some years as a teacher and produced another successful collection, Sagesse. He returned to France in 1877 and, while teaching English at a school in Rethel, became infatuated with one of his pupils, Lucien Létinois, who inspired Verlaine to write further poems. Verlaine was devastated when the boy died of typhus.

Final years

Verlaine's last years witnessed a descent into drug-addiction, alcoholism, and poverty. Yet his poetry was admired and recognized as ground-breaking, and served as a source of inspiration to famous composers, such as Gabriel Fauré, who set many of his poems to music, including La bonne chanson, and Claude Debussy, who set five of the Fêtes galantes poems to music, forming part of the mélodie collection known as the Recueil Vasnier.

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

On his death in 1896, Paul Verlaine was interred in the Cimetière de Batignolles in Paris.


The French poetry of much of the literature in the latter half of the century (or "fin de siècle") was often characterized as "decadent" for their lurid content or moral vision. In a similar vein, Verlaine used the expression "poète maudit" (accursed poet) in 1884 to refer to a number of poets like Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud who had fought against poetic conventions and suffered social rebuke or had been ignored by the critics.

But with the publication of Jean Moréas "Symbolist Manifesto" in 1886, it was the term symbolism which was most often applied to the new literary environment. Along with Verlaine, poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Arthur Rimbaud, and Albert Samain (amongst others) were called symbolists. The symbolist poets often share themes that parallel Schopenhauer's aesthetics and notions of will, fatality and unconscious forces, and used themes of sex (such as prostitutes), the city, irrational phenomena (delirium, dreams, narcotics, alcohol), and sometimes a vaguely medieval setting.

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


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


The life of Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud was the subject of the 1995 film Total Eclipse, directed by Agnieszka Holland and with a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on his play. Verlaine was portrayed by David Thewlis.

See also

Le poète Paul Verlaine au café François

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