Last reviewed: June 2018
French poet of the nineteenth-century decadent movement.
March 30, 1844
January 8, 1896
Paul-Marie Verlaine was the son of a former captain of engineers of Napoleon’s army. He was educated in Paris and then secured a minor position with an insurance company, a job that provided a small salary while leaving him time for creative work. In 1870 he married Mathilde Mauté. In the following year he formed the friendship with Arthur Rimbaud that would affect his life so profoundly. His close relationship with Rimbaud, with whom he was infatuated, would prove extremely important to the development of Verlaine’s mature poetry. With Rimbaud, a much younger man, Verlaine wandered through England, France, and Belgium. He had long been drinking heavily, and the journey ended disastrously when he tried to shoot Rimbaud in an altercation over Verlaine’s wife. This act cost Verlaine two years in prison at Mons, during which time he converted to Catholicism; Rimbaud went to North Africa to begin a dissolute life of drugs and gun-running, eventually contracting syphilis. After his relationship with Verlaine, he never wrote again. When Verlaine returned to France in 1875, his wife divorced him. He then went to England again to earn his living as a teacher of French. Paul Verlaine
Verlaine had begun his poetic career in the Parnassian school, led by Leconte de Lisle, whose members aimed for a severity in poetry. Soon he slipped away from them into the eighteenth-century fantasies of Fêtes galantes (1869; Gallant Parties, 1912). This phase was not Verlaine’s most important work; his greatest significance lies in his contribution to the symbolist movement, beginning with Romances sans paroles (1874; Romances without Words, 1921).
The poets included in this general movement were at first known as the “decadents,” a term that Verlaine was willing to accept. The name “symbolists” was suggested by Jean Moréas, and the school derived primarily from Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences,” in which nature is described as a “forest of symbols.” Symbolism was a reaction against the austere impersonality of the Parnassians and can perhaps best be described by quoting Stéphane Mallarmé’s comment: “To name an object is to suppress three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem . . . to suggest it, there is the dream.” Thus symbolist poetry consists largely of vague suggestions and half-hints, by which the poet tries to express “the secret affinities of things with his soul.” Verlaine wrote, in his poem “Ars Poetica,” “No color, only the nuance,” and “Take eloquence and wring its neck”—a protest against the sonorous declamations of poetry such as Victor Hugo’s. Symbolist practice led inevitably to poetry that became more and more “private” as each poet developed a personal set of symbols, the ultimate, perhaps, being Rimbaud’s insistence that for him each vowel had a different color. Poetry, then, finally came to resemble music; its purpose was the evocation of a mood, and the subject was unimportant. Behind the symbolists clearly stood the figure of Edgar Allan Poe, whom Baudelaire had introduced to France in the 1860s. In France the symbolist movement led to Mallarmé and finally to Paul Valéry; in England it influenced the young William Butler Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The symbolists’ concept of developing a private language has had a profound influence on modern poetry.
Although Verlaine regained sufficient respectability to be invited to lecture in England in 1894, his later years were marked by poverty, drunkenness, and debauchery. He alternated between cafés and hospitals until his death in 1896.