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|Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)|
French poet and leader of the Symbolist movement in poetry. Paul Verlaine's life style wavered between criminality and naive innocence; he married a young girl in 1870 but after a year fell in love with the young poet Arthur Rimbaud, who was seventeen. With Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire he formed the so-called Decadents. In Verlaine's works two impressions predominate: that only self is important, and that the function of poetry is to preserve moments of extreme sensation and unique impressions. In spite of the 'vagueness' of his poetry, Verlaine showed a careful craftsmanship in his compositions, using simple, musical language. He maintained the outward form of classical poetry, but his work opened the way for free verse.
"There is weeping in my heart
Paul Verlaine was born in Metz, northeast France, where his father, an infantry captain, happened to be stationed. Paul was the only child, but there lived also with the family an orphan cousin, Elisa Déhee, whom the young poet later loved passionately. In 1851 the family moved to Paris, where he was sent to the lycée. At the age of 14 he read Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal, which influenced deeply his writing aspirations. He studied law, but gave up after two years and entered the civil service at the City Hall. In 1862 Verlaine received his bachelor's degree.
Among Verlaine's friends were a number of Parnassian poets, Leconte de Lisle, Théodore de Banville, Louis Xavier de Ricard, Catulle Mendès, and François Cippée; he also imitated their classical grandeur in his early works. At the ale houses of the rue Soufflot he found company for long discussions and for drinking absinthe – the drink that was eventually to lead him to a hospital bed. Eventually Verlaine's father refused to finance his son's extravagances.
In his first book, Poèmes saturniens (1866), Verlaine asked, "Est-elle en marbre ou non, la Vénus de Milo?" Fêtes galantes (1869), which had a 18th-century setting, was published after the death of his beloved cousin. Although Verlaine had homosexual tendencies, he married in 1870 Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville, and shared the same dwelling sometimes with his wife, his in-laws, and with the younger poet Arthur Rimbaud. For Mathilde Verlaine wrote La Bonne Chanson (1870), revealing his anxieties and hopes for happiness, but he also showed a violent temper, attacked his wife and once he hurled his infant son Georges against a wall. When Verlaine began an affair with Rimbaud, the marriage was shattered. In this impossible situation Verlaine left his family to live a Bohemian life with his poet friend in London and Brussels. Their relationship ended on July 12, 1873 when Verlaine, drunk and desolate, tried to shoot Rimbaud in the wrist after a quarrel. He was jailed for 18 months. When he was examined by the court physicians they noted that his "anus can be dilated rather significantly by a moderate separation of the buttocks," and he "bears on his person the signs of active and passive pederastic habits." Verlaine was visited by a priest who interrupted his confession and asked: "You've never been with animals?" During his imprisonment Verlaine studied Shakespeare and Don Quixote and wrote Romances sans paroles (1874). "And here is my heart which beats only for you." The collection is considered the masterpiece where he finally found his poetic voice, the music of the lines.
After being released, Verlaine again met Rimbaud, who soon found out that his former friend was a Catholic. Rimbaud first proceeded to get Verlaine drunk and make him blaspheme against his faith. According to one story he then knocked him down with a club. Verlaine moved to England where he taught French before returning to France in 1877 to teach at the college of Rethel. From this period date most of the poems in Sagesse. It contains verse of religious sentiment that reflects the poet's conversion to Roman Catholicism. In 1879 he gave up teaching, adopted a pupil, Lucien Létinois, and they ran a farm together. The farm went bankrupt, and Verlaine returned to Paris. His second attempt to live in the country, this time at Coulommes, also ended in bankruptcy.
In 1883 Verlaine's favorite pupil died of typhus, and his mother died in 1886. Amour (1888) looked back to Lucien's death. Although relapsing into drink, Verlaine was celebrated at the same time as the leading poet of France. He published such critical works as Les Poètes maudits (1884), short biographical studies of poets, short stories and sacred and profane verse. On many occasions, he utilized old poems, which he earlier had not regarded worthy of publication. Verlaine was for long periods in public hospitals, continued to drink, slept in slums, and spent a month in prison. He also suffered from rheumatism, cirrhosis, gastritis, jaundice, diabetes, and cardiac hypertrophy. At Broussais Hospital he was visited by André Gide and told him that he was at the moment working on a "series of masturbatory poems".
In his last years, Verlaine wasted whatever royalties he earned on two middle-aged women prostitutes he lived with alternately, while remembering to praise the beauty of each. He also frequented a gay man, Bibi-la-Purée, who was an occasional thief. Bibi had become especially famous for stealing umbrellas. "For me, Rimbaud is an ever-living reality," Verlaine once said to his friend, "a sun that burns inside me that does not want to be put out..." However, in his autobiographical writings he denied any sexual relationship with Rimbaud. Verlaine's life style started to attract reluctant admiration, his early collections of poetry were rediscovered and in 1894 he was elected France's Prince of Poets, after the death of Leconte de Lisle. Verlaine died in Paris two years later, at the age of 52, on January 8, 1896. His funeral was a public event, with thousands of Parisians following the casket to the Batignolles cemetery. Despite his fame, Verlaine died in poverty.
For further reading: Paul Verlaine by Stefan Zweig (1913); Verlaine by Ernest Delahaye (1919); Paul Verlaine by Stefan Zweig (1913); Paul Verlaine by Harold Nicholson (1921); Paul Verlaine, sa vie, son oeuvre by Edmond Lepelletier (1923); Verlaine by P. Martino (1924; 1951); A Poet Under Saturn by Marcel Coulon (1932); Mémoires de ma Vie by Mathilde Mauté (1935); Verlaine: Prince of Poets by Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson (1958); Magies de Verlaine by E. Zimmerman (1967); Verlaine: A Study in Parallels by A.E. Carter (1969); Verlaine by J. Richardson (1971); Verlaine by C. Chadwick (1973); English Interludes by Cecily Mackworth (1974); Paul Verlaine by Stefan Zweig (1980); Paul Verlaine: His Life - His Work by Edmond Lepelletier (1993); Paul Verlaine: Histoire d'un Corps by Alain Buisine (1995); Arthur Rimbaud et Paul Verlaine, ed. by Joon-Oh Lee (1996); Paul Verlaine by Harold G. Nicolson (1997); Arthur Rimbaud by Benjamin Ivry (1998) - Décadents: a term applied narrowly to the group of French poets whose leaders were Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Mallarmé. The group became known for their interest in the morbid, perverse and bizarre, their freedom of morals and often sensational social behavior, and hyperaesthetic temperaments. In their writings, they placed emphasis upon creative self-expression and underlined the principle of art for art's sake. Their review Le Décadent, whose title consecrated a label originally coined by hostile critics, was founded in 1886. See also: Oscar Wilde, the English counterpart of this phenomenon. Film: Total Eclipse (1995), a hysterical dramatization of the famous literary conjunction, the destructive love affair of Verlaine and Rimbaud, dir. by Agnieszka Holland, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, David Thewlis. Suom.: Verlainelta on suomenettu mm. valkoima Paul Verlainen runoja (1965) sekä runoja teokseen Tuhat laulujen vuotta, toim. Aale Tynni (1974).