Paul Verlaine was a French poet associated with the Symbolist movement and the Decadent movement. He is considered one of the greatest representatives of the fin de siècle in international and French poetry.
Born in 1844 in Metz, Verlaine was educated at the Lycée Impérial Bonaparte 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, Leconte de Lisle.
Verlaine’s first published poem was published in 1863 in La Revue du progrès, a publication founded by poet Louis-Xavier de Ricard.
Verlaine’s first published collection, Poèmes saturniens (1866), established him as a poet of promise and originality.
Marriage and military service
Mathilde Mauté became Verlaine’s wife in 1870. At the proclamation of the Third Republic in the same year, Verlaine joined the 160th battalion of the Garde nationale, turning Communard on 18 March 1871.
Verlaine became head of the press bureau of the Central Committee of the Paris Commune.
Relationships with Rimbaud and Létinois
Verlaine returned to Paris in August 1871, and, in September, received the first letter from Arthur Rimbaud, who admired his poetry. Verlaine urged Rimbaud to come to Paris, and by 1872, he had lost interest in Mathilde, and effectively abandoned her and their son, preferring the company of his new lover.
Rimbaud and Verlaine’s stormy affair took them to London in 1872. In Brussels in July 1873, in a drunken, jealous rage, he fired two shots with a pistol at Rimbaud, wounding his left wrist, though not seriously injuring the poet. As an indirect result of this incident, Verlaine was arrested and imprisoned at Mons, where he underwent a re-conversion to Roman Catholicism, which again influenced his work and provoked Rimbaud’s sharp criticism.
The poems collected in Romances sans paroles (1874) were written between 1872 and 1873, inspired by Verlaine’s nostalgically coloured recollections of his life with Mathilde on the one hand and impressionistic sketches of his on-again off-again year-long escapade with Rimbaud on the other. Romances sans paroles was published while Verlaine was imprisoned.
Following his release from prison, Verlaine again travelled to England, where he worked for some years as a teacher, teaching French, Latin, Greek and drawing at William Lovell’s school in Stickney in Lincolnshire. From there he went to teach in nearby Boston, before moving to Bournemouth. While in England he produced another successful collection, Sagesse. Verlaine returned to France in 1877 and, while teaching English at a school in Rethel, fell in love with one of his pupils, Lucien Létinois, who inspired Verlaine to write further poems. Verlaine was devastated when Létinois died of typhus in 1883.
Verlaine’s last years saw his descent into drug addiction, alcoholism, and poverty. He lived in slums and public hospitals, and spent his days drinking absinthe in Paris cafés. However, the people’s love for his art resurrected support and brought in an income for Verlaine: his early poetry was rediscovered, his lifestyle and strange behaviour in front of crowds attracted admiration, and in 1894 he was elected France’s “Prince of Poets” by his peers.
Verlaine’s poetry was admired and recognised as ground-breaking, and served as a source of inspiration to composers.
Verlaine’s drug dependence and alcoholism took a toll on his life. He died in Paris at the age of 51 on 8 January 1896; he was buried in the Cimetière des Batignolles.
A bust monument to Verlaine sculpted by Rodo was erected in 1911. It sits in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.
Much of the French poetry produced during the fin de siècle was characterised as “decadent” for its lurid content or moral vision. In a similar vein, Verlaine used the expression poète maudit (“cursed poet”) in 1884 to refer to a number of poets like Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, Aloysius Bertrand, Comte de Lautréamont, Tristan Corbière or Alice de Chambrier, who had fought against poetic conventions and suffered social rebuke, or were 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, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Paul Valéry, Albert Samain and many others began to be referred to as “Symbolists.” These poets would 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 through the magic of words and repeated sounds and the cadence of verse (musicality) and metrical innovation.