Authors: Paul Verlaine

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

French poet of the nineteenth-century decadent movement.

March 30, 1844

Metz, France

January 8, 1896

Paris, France


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

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Poetry: Poèmes saturniens, 1866 Les amies: Sonnets par le licencié Pablo de Herlagnez, 1868 (as Pablo de Herlagnez) Fêtes galantes, 1869 (Gallant Parties, 1912) La bonne chanson, 1870 Romances sans paroles, 1874 (Romances Without Words, 1921) Sagesse, 1881, 1889 Jadis et naguère, 1884 Amour, 1888 Parallèlement, 1889, 1894 Dédicaces, 1890, 1894 Femmes, 1891 (Femmes / Hombres, 1977) Choix de poésies, 1891 Bonheur, 1891 Chansons pour elle, 1891 Liturgies intimes, 1892, 1893 Odes en son honneur, 1893 Élégies, 1893 Dans les limbes, 1894 Épigrammes, 1894 Chair, 1896 Invectives, 1896 Hombres, 1903 (Femmes / Hombres, 1977) Biblio-sonnets: Poèmes inédits, 1913 Selected Poems, 1948 (C. F. MacIntyre, translator) Selected Poems, 1965 (R. C. D. Perman, editor) Short Fiction: Louise Leclercq, 1886 Histoires comme ça, 1903 Drama: Les uns et les autres, pb. 1884 (in Jadis et naguère), pr. 1891 Madame Aubin, pb. 1886 (in Louise Leclercq) Nonfiction: Les poètes maudits, 1884 Les mémoires d’un veuf, 1886 Mes hôpitaux, 1891 Mes prisons, 1893 Quinze jours en Hollande: Lettres à un ami, 1893 Confessions: Notes autobiographiques, 1895 (Confessions of a Poet, 1950) Charles Baudelaire, 1903 Critiques et conférences, 1903 Souvenirs et promenades, 1903 Voyage en France par un français, 1903 Bibliography Blackmore, A. M., and E. H. Blackmore, editors. Six French Poets of the Nineteenth Century: Lamartine, Hugo, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé. Oxford UP, 2000. A poetry anthology that also includes an introduction, notes on text and translations, a select bibliography, and a chronology. Ivry, Benjamin. Arthur Rimbaud. Absolute Press, 1998. A biography of Rimbaud that delves deeply into his two-year relationship with Verlaine. Lehmann, John. Three Literary Friendships: Byron & Shelley, Rimbaud & Verlaine, Robert Frost & Edward Thomas. 1983. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984. An examination of the way these friendships influenced each poet’s work. Lepelletier, Edmond Adolphe de Bouhelier. Paul Verlaine, His Life—His Work. Translated by E. M. Lang. 1909. AMS Press, 1970. The only English translation of Lepelletier's hefty biography of Verlaine. Nicolson, Harold George. Paul Verlaine. 1921. AMS Press, 1980. A venerable and still useful biography. Robb, Graham. “Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Their Season in Hell.” New England Review, Fall 2000, pp. 7–20. Academic Search Complete, Accessed 7 Sept. 2017. An excerpt from Rimbaud (2000), Robb's biography of Arthur Rimbaud, featuring a violent altercation between Rimbaud and Verlaine. Sorrell, Martin. Introduction. Selected Poems, by Paul Verlaine, translated by Sorrell, Oxford UP, 1999, pp. xi–xxvii. A useful introduction for beginning students.

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