8 Royal College Street today, where Verlaine and Rimbaud spent a stormy three months before the flight to Belgium. Photo: Google Maps / Ham&High Property
Home of the French poets and lovers who inspired Leonardo di Caprio and Bob Dylan singled out to mark 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality
In order the mark half a century since the decriminalisation of homosexuality Historic England have listed or re-listed places that played a part in England’s Queer history.
“England has a rich and colourful history and yet there’s a gap when it comes to recording our LGBTQ heritage,” said Deborah Williams, Historic England’s listing team leader for the west.
“That’s why we want to uncover and share the untold stories of these buildings and places. They have a rightful place in our nation’s history.”
One of the 14 re-listed places is 8 Royal College Street in Camden Town, a building that hosted a particularly colourful chapter of Queer history.
The Grade II listed Regency property was briefly called home by French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud during their tempestuous love affair.
Verlaine is most associated with the Decadent movement, an artistic and literary movement that flourished in the late 19th century and, as the name suggests, was concerned with excess, perversity, moral decay and the attractions and ultimate disappointment of pleasure with a sprinkling of Satanic horror.
Inspired by Baudelaire, Rimbaud developed a symbolism style of poetry whose form and themes would inspire the Symbolism, Surrealist and Dadaist movements. His work was concerned with love, suffering, madness and the tortured soul of the poet.
The lovers relocated to London in September 1872 after scandalising the whole of Paris with their absinthe and hashish fuelled affair, eventually taking up lodgings on Royal College Street in May 1973.
Portrait of Verlaine painted by Frederic Bazille in 1867, five years before he met Rimbaud. Photo from: Ham&High Property
Verlaine, then 27, had left his wife and son for the 17 year old Rimbaud after the younger man had sent him a series of love letters.
Whilst living in London they wrote some of their most important works. Rimbaud completed his collected work ‘Romances sans paroles’ (Songs without words), and Verlaine wrote ‘Une saison en enfer’ (A season in hell) one of his most celebrated extended prose poems.
But the hard-living pair were as famed for their wild behaviour as much as they were their art.
At 16 Rimbaud had written: “I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet”. According to his biographer Graham Robb so great was the young poets’ commitment to the lifestyle he rarely bathed, spiked one friend’s drink with sulphuric acid and defecated under the pillow of another.
Verlaine meanwhile was an alcoholic who became abusive when he drank. He was particularly taken with idiosyncrasies of Victorian London, noting that it was “prudish, but with every vice on offer”, and Londoners to be “permanently sozzled, despite ridiculous bills on drunkenness.”
Together with Rimbaud he loved to explore the streets of London and haunt the absinthe bars of Soho, then known as the French Quarter.
If creatively fertile the relationship was by all accounts toxic. After getting on the gin and the absinthe the couple would fight, sometimes mutilating each other with knives.
Everything came to a head a few months after they moved in to their Camden Town lodgings. Hanging out of an upstairs window Rimbaud observed his lover coming back from Camden market with a bottle of cooking oil and a herring held between thumb and forefinger, presumably with the intention of a fish supper.
Sketch of Rimbaud and Verlaine in a London Street by Félix Régamey, 1972
The younger man called out a rude comment on the ridiculous figure Verlaine was cutting, and here accounts diverge. Some say the offended Frenchman slapped his boyfriend around the face with the offending fish.
According to another report Verlaine simply stormed into the house, put the food down, packed his bags without a word and jumped in a taxi to the docks and caught the next boat to Belgium.
Rimbaud chased him down but he refused to return to London, and it was in Belgium that their ultimately doomed love affair concluded. In a hotel in Brussels the pair had a drunken row that ended in Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the arm with a revolver. A second bullet ricocheted off the wall and into chimney. The 7mm six-shooter was auctioned by Christie’s last year for £54,000.
After seeking medical attention Rimbaud begged Verlaine not to leave him once more, upon which the latter pulled out his gun again in the middle of the street. Rimbaud begged a passing policeman to arrest Verlaine, who spent two years in jail where he wrote 32 poems and converted to Catholicism. During the trial the nature of their relationship was the subject of intense and humiliating scrutiny…