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Verlaine: The Poet of Contradiction

Paul Verlaine, the master of Symbolism, was born in Metz (France) in 1844. The epitome of the poète maudit, Verlaine was part of the school of Parnassianism. The name comes from the journal Parnasse contemporain, where these poets published their works. For them, poetry had to be pure, impersonal, and conform to the principle of “art for art’s sake”. After a turbulent life of crime and excess, Verlaine developed a different kind of lyric, more personal, melodic and hermetic. This new phase of his literary production corresponds to his collection Romances sans paroles, published in 1874.

Verlaine’s heterogenous career reveals a diverse poetic production: his poems can hardly fit under one label. This complexity affects both the form and the content of his works: he follows tradition and pursues innovation; he depicts the external world to project his interiority; he seeks musicality while destroying the rhythm. These three components - tradition vs renewal of topics and structures, the representation of space, and, musicality, will be the common threads of the subsequent analysis.

Verlaine’s ambiguity is manifest in various of his themes and forms: love is both idealized and sensual, and his poems can be comical or melancholic, sophisticated or simple. For example, his first anthology, Poèmes Saturniens, is characterized by the presentiment of a tragic destiny, a wistful feeling and a need for love. This wish is personified in the figure of Elisa, who satisfies the poet’s longing for protection.

For she knows me! My heart, clear as a crystal beam

To her alone, ceases to be inscrutable

To her alone, and she alone knows to dispel

My grief, cooling my brow with her tears' gentle stream.

(Verlaine, 2009. “Mon rêve familier”)

Contrary to that, in the collection Fêtes galantes, inspired by the rococo painter Watteau, sadness is reduced and the description of love becomes ironic.

Does still your heart at mention of me glow?

Do still you see my soul in slumber?" "No!"

"Ah, blessed, blissful days when our lips met!

You loved me so!" "Quite likely, I forget."

(Verlaine, 2009. “Colloque sentimental”)

This tension culminates in his best-known collection, Romances sans paroles, where the feelings for a woman, in this case, his wife Mathilde, are both positive and negative.

It was an evil lie, you used to swear,

And your glance, which was lying, dear, would flame,

Poor fire, near out, one stirs to make it flare!

And in your soft voice you would say, "Je t'aime!"

(Verlaine, 2009. “Birds in the night”)

Allow my head, that rings and echoes still

With your last kiss, to lie upon your breast,

Till it recover from the stormy thrill,

And let me sleep a little, since you rest.

(Verlaine, 2009. “Green”)

Author, professor and researcher of the 19th century Philippe Dufour (2008) affirms the duality of the poet in terms of “sentimental poetry” and “naïve poetry”. The first one corresponds to the poems where Verlaine reflects on the effects and the impressions that the world has on him. In the second case, he describes what he sees, without focusing on the consequences. Still, as the title of his article suggests – “Naïveté de Paul Verlaine”- one of the two attitudes prevails. An interesting example is the poem “Walcourt”, which he describes as a “praise of naivety”. All the elements listed in it suggest a feeling of joy and plenitude, but the overall meaning of the text, which becomes clear in the last stanza, is one of hatred. “Walcourt” is also interesting for its style. To convey a genuine, almost child-like, sense of joy, derived from the observation of his surroundings, Verlaine’s language is literal and immediate; he does not use metaphors, comparisons or complex figures (Dufour, 2008). As will be shown, this procedure does not appear in the other compositions.

Figure 1: "Portrait of Paul Verlaine" (Unknown, n.d.).

One of Parnassianism’s main concerns was the correctness of language. Not only was Verlaine a Parnassian, but he also won an award during a grammar competition in high school. Professor Olivier Bivort (1991) found six-hundred examples of metalinguistic reflection in prose and poetry. Ultimately, his relation to language does not appear to be spontaneous. He masters the language with such precision that he can decide whether to convey the primary meaning of words or imply their connotation. That is why his verses are characterized by a diverse register and a rich vocabulary. This vitality is counterbalanced by extreme attention for the traditional use of language. His creativity never exceeds. Curiously enough, this very feature of his poetry makes it a unique case in French symbolist poetry, whose aim is to transform literature through the renewal of language uses (Bivort, 1991). Verlaine’s specific treatment of language becomes evident in the 1860s. Some titles from Romances sans paroles, like “Ariette VIII” exemplify his method well. The very title, "Romance without words", suggests that the text is not particularly relevant because the meaning is vague (Baudot, 1968). In his production of the 1880s, language is conceived as a tool to create musicality, an utterly symbolist approach. Thus, form prevails and content is secondary. As can be seen in the following citation, the structure reminds that of a song, with the quoted stanza being repeated like a chorus:

The sky is copper

Devoid of any light,

You might almost gather

The moon had lived and died.

(Verlaine, 2010)

Overall, Verlaine’s relationship with the tradition is complex, and at times antithetic. This has to do with his desire to honor his models while establishing a new poetic genre, whose name coincides with the title of one of his collections, “fêtes galantes”.

“Fête galante” recalls an 18th century art movement, led by the French painter Antoine Watteau and representing scenes related to nature and the pleasures of life. According to Baudelaire, the act of painting (or writing) a “fête galante” in the 19th century is paradoxical, because it refers to a completely different time in history (Mullier, 2015). Once again, Verlaine contradicts himself: the new genre is the imitation of an ancient art form. The following extract, “Her Retinue”, imitates the irony typical of this genre:

A monkey in brocaded vest

Gambols and cavorts for She

Who twists a lace handkerchief

In her hand gloved to the wrist,

While a small black slave in red

Holds the train, at arm’s length,

Of her heavy robe, intent

To see that no fold’s disordered.

(Verlaine, 2010)

This form of humor is called “esprit” by Voltaire, who defines it in his Encyclopédie: “esprit" is "what is called refinement and delicacy" (Diderot, Le Rond d’Alembert, 1751-1772. Translation mine). Thus, the word galant’s meaning, originally related to cheerfulness, comes closer to its modern denotation: gallantry. Similarly, Verlaine’s future poems become more subtle: they suggest the writer’s thoughts without making them too explicit:

Each shell, encrusted, we see,

In the cave where we sought love’s goal,

Has its own peculiarity.

One has the purple color of souls,

Ours, thief of the blood our hearts possess

When I burn and you flame, like hot coals.

That one affects your languorousness,

Your pallor, your weary form

Angered by my eyes’ mocking caress:

This one mimics the charm

Of your ear, and this I see

Your rosy neck, so full and warm:

But one, among all of them, troubled me.

(“The Sea-Shells”. Verlaine, 2010)

As the poem shows, Verlaine’s lyric is erotic, but its indirectness does not make it appear vulgar. The comical connotation comes from the allusion, making the reader imagine the message. Another influential factor is the meter. The structure of the French language favors specific procedures related to its system of accents and syllables (Mullier, 2015). Verlaine plays with this structure through unusual rimes and enjambments; he reinvents the classic Alexandrine and Decasyllabic verses. Similarly, verses are short and heterogeneous (Mullier, 2015). All these strategies allow the poet to reinvent the old artistic genre of the “fête galante” and create a new one.

Figure 2: "Pèlerinage à l'ile de Cythère" (Watteau, 1717).

Yet, art’s major influence on Verlaine’s lyric production is not limited to this. In his manifesto, "Ars poetica", he proposes an impressionist vision of poetry when he claims: “For Nuance, not Color absolute,/Is your goal” (Verlaine, 1999). Like impressionist painters, he is not interested in evoking a realist image, but its effects on his psyche. This attitude is particularly evident in the collection Paysage belges (Belgian landscapes), dominated by a subjective description of space (Erman, 1997). This feature makes it hard to understand whether the landscape is real or a projection of the poet’s mind.

The sky was too blue, and too tender,

The sea too green, air lacked force.

I always fear – it must be remembered,

Some atrocious act of yours.

(“Spleen”. Verlaine, 2010)

In the aforementioned poem, the natural elements act as a metaphor for his troubled relationship with a woman, who is physically far from him or simply indifferent to his feelings. This vagueness is at the heart of the contradiction between the external and internal world, which does not cease to divide critics. For instance, University professor Michel Erman (1997) refuses both the definition of an external and internal landscape and proposes that of “paysage verbal”, a verbal landscape. This theory focuses on the creation of the landscape through the poetic medium. In his view, the writer does not project himself into the landscape, but apprehends it, and tries to recreate it verbally. On the flipside, Professor Georges Zayed (1991), considers it a “landscape of the interiority” because of its depiction of the female character. In his analysis of Poèmes saturniens, the outer world expresses the absence of Elisa, his cousin, whom he loved in his youth and who married another man. Based on the last excerpt, it is possible to suppose that the woman also mediates between the poet and reality. In fact, it is through her and her gaze that he acknowledges the world. Pierre Canivenc (1982), a researcher at the University of Toulouse, designate it as a “regard-miroir”, a mirror through which the poet perceives his image reflected. Thus, the self too is the product of a dialogue between the interior and the exterior.

If figurative art impacts mainly the content of Verlaine’s poetry, music regulates its form. At this point of the analysis, it would not be surprising to discover that the poet’s quest for musicality may produce antithetical effects. For instance, he uses both the alexandrine, a regular and rhythmic verse, and the irregular verse to achieve this objective. As a result, he destroys the rhythm. That explains why his style has been defined, although inappropriately, “arhythmic” (Baudot, 1968). However, as has been explained for his vocabulary, his manipulation of the rhythm is the product of a deep knowledge of stylistic techniques. The poet himself reckons that the excessive use of regular verses compromises the rhythm (Baudot, 1968). Therefore, in his view, it is a matter of balance. Musicality develops from the reconciliation of opposites.

Music first and foremost! In your verse,

Choose those meters odd of syllable,

Supple in the air, vague, flexible,

Free of pounding beat, heavy or terse.

(Verlaine, 1999. “Ars poetica”)

Figure 3: "Young Spanish Woman with a Guitar"(Renoir, 1898).

Often, he prefers words with long syllables to shorter ones because they allow him to achieve an equivocal rhythm, which can be soft or harsh (Baudot, 1968). An example is the rhyme “pâle” (pale) and “grêle” (skinny) in “Out walking”. Once again, while his colleagues of the School of Parnassianism refuse the rhyming structure for being too conventional, Verlaine manipulates it to achieve something unprecedented. The same goes for repetitions, which is another feature of music (Baudot, 1968): “Oh sad, sad forever my soul/Because, because of a girl.” (Verlaine, 2010). “Ariettes oubliées VII). Undoubtedly, music is omnipresent in his stanzas and it is the main source of contradiction. The poet turns to it to find comfort from his memories and to forget his past, but it is through music that he reminisces of the one he loved:

Open your soul and hear the sound

Of my mandoline:

For you I wrote this song, for you, I found

This cruel, tender thing.

(Verlaine, 2010. “Serenade”)

On the whole, Verlaine’s ambivalent poetry derives from his treatment of the same contents from different perspectives through his collections. An example is the topic of love and the equivocal description of the female figure. Similarly, the modulation of language (in a conventional or unconventional way) adapts to the variety of meanings that the poet intends to convey. However, it is through his conception of poetry that Verlaine shows his ambiguity best. As a matter of fact, he is the symbolist poet who is closest to tradition, but he shares the same desire for renewal as his colleagues. His literary environment is decisive and so is his cultural context at large. Indeed, the 18th and 19th centuries gave birth to some of the most significant artists and musicians of all time. Their impact can be perceived in Verlaine’s depiction of external yet subjective space and the quest for musical effects that can result in opposing effects. If his lyric never ceases to cause critics’ doubts and curiosity, there is one thing in which everyone agrees: Verlaine is the master of Symbolism and for good reason. Perhaps, his ambiguous yet daring approach led him to experiment with all the possibilities that literature gives.

Bibliographical References

Baudot, A. (1968). Poésie et musique chez Verlaine : forme et signification. Études françaises, 4(1), 31–54.

Bivort, O. (1991). Verlaine philologue. Cahiers de l'Association internationale des études françaises. 43, pp. 249-269.

Canivenc, P. (1982). Paul Verlaine et Pauvre Lelian. Littératures, 6, pp. 59-64.

Diderot, D., Le Rond d’Alembert, J.-B. (1751-1772). Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Paris: Briasson, D., Le Breton, D.

Dufour, P. (2008). Naïveté de Paul Verlaine. L’information littéraire. 1(60), pp. 51-58.

Erman, M. (1997). Les Romances sans paroles : une poétique du mouvement. Interfaces. Image-Texte-Langage. 11-12, pp. 241-248.

Mullier, S. (2015). Un singe à Cythère : Verlaine et la fête galante. Études françaises, 51(3), 53–75.

Verlaine, P. (2006). Poesie d’amore. Milan: Giunti

Verlaine, P. (2009). Poems of Paul Verlaine. EBook.

Verlaine, P. (2010). Selected poems in translation. Translated by A.S. Kline. Poetry in Translation. Ebook.

Verlaine, P. (1999). One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine: A Bilingual Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Zayed, G. (1991). La tradition des fêtes galantes et le lyrisme verlainien. Cahiers de l’Association internationale des études françaises, 43, pp. 281-299.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Portrait of Paul Verlaine. Project Gutenberg.

Figure 2: Watteau, A. (1717). Pèlerinage à l'ile de Cythère. Musée du Louvre.

Figure 3: Renoir, A. (1898). Young Spanish Woman with a Guitar. National Gallery of Art.

Author Photo

Debora Ricci

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