Paul Marie Verlaine is considered one of the greatest and most popular of French poets. Born in Metz on March 30, 1844, he was educated at a 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, Poemes saturniens, though criticised by Sainte-Beuve, established him as a poet of promise and originality. Verlaine’s private life spills over into his work, beginning with his love for Mathilde Mauté¬ who became his wife. Mathilde Maute is referred to as a disciple of Louise Michel.
At the proclamation of the French Third Republic, 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 the “Semaine Sanglante” and went into hiding in Pas-de Calais.
He returned to Paris in August. In September 1871 he received the first letter of Arthur Rimbaud.
He had lost interest in Mathilde, and effectively abandoned her and their son, preferring the company of his lover, the poet Arthur Rimbaud. Verlaine was a heavy drinker, and shot Rimbaud in a jealous rage, fortunately not killing him. As an indirect result of the incident, he was arrested and imprisoned at Mons, where he underwent a religious conversion, which again influenced his work. Romances sans paroles was the poetic outcome of this period. Following his release, Verlaine travelled to England, where he worked for some years as a teacher and worked on another successful collection, Sagesse.
From that time also dates his Romances sans paroles, which shows Verlaine as one of the first of the symbolists . The sensitive appreciation of the common incidents and sights of life and the haunting and simple music of his verse, combined with the melancholy and unreal disillusion of the decadents, distinguish his poetry. More striking, however, is the candor of Verlaine himself. Through the degrading incidents of his later life, which was marked by drunkenness, poverty, and debauchery, he preserved his honesty and inverted naïveté.
He returned to France and, while teaching English at a school in Rethel, became infatuated with one of his pupils, Lucien Letinois, who inspired further poems. Verlaine was devastated when the boy died of typhus. Verlaine’s last years witnessed a descent into alcoholism, and poverty. Yet even in his lifetime, his poetry was recognised as ground-breaking. Perhaps the best-known of Verlaine’s poems is Chanson d’automne, largely thanks to its use as a code message for the Allies during the Second World War. Verlaine’s poetry was also popular with musicians, such as Gabriel Faure who set several of his poems to music, including La bonne chanson, and Claude Debussy, who set his entire Fetes galantes collection. Verlaine in cafe. Numerous portraits of Verlaine were left by French artists. Among the most illustrious: Henri Fantin-Latour, Antonio de La Gandara, Eugene Carriere, Frederic Cazals, and Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen.
Verlaine’s turbulent marriage broke up as a result of his liaison with his young protege, Arthur Rimbaud . The two poets traveled in Belgium and England; their relationship ended in tragedy when Verlaine shot and wounded Rimbaud and was imprisoned in Belgium for two years. In prison he was brought back to the Catholic faith of his childhood and wrote some noble religious poetry that appeared in Sagesse.
On his death on January 8, Paul Verlaine was interred in the Cimetiere des Batignolles in Paris.
1 The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition 2006