The French poet Paul Marie Verlaine (1844-1896), one of the most exquisite lyric poets in the history of French literature, ranks with Rimbaud and Mallarmé as one of the major French symbolists of the 19th century.
Paul Verlaine was born in Metz on March 30, 1844. He was the son of an army captain. Verlaine attended the Lycée Bonaparte (today Lycée Condorcet) in Paris, where his favorite subjects were French and Latin. At the age of 14, he sent Victor Hugo his earliest known poem, La Mort. By 1862, the year he received his baccalaureate degree, Verlaine had already developed a disastrous taste for drink that marred his life. In 1866 he published his first collection of verse under a title apparently borrowed from Baudelaire: Poèmes saturniens. Nevermore, Mon rêve familier, and especially Chanson d'automne revealed the lovely lyricism and delicate sadness characteristic of many of Verlaine's best poems.
Verlaine's succeeding volumes contained many exquisite lyrics. Fêtes galantes of 1869 (inspired in part by French painters of the 18th century whose work he had seen at the Louvre) included Clair de lune, Mandoline, and Colloque sentimental. La Bonne chanson (1870/ 1872), intended as a sort of epithalamium for his illstarred marriage to Mathilde Mauté, contained La Lune blanche. Romances sans paroles (1873) included Il pleure dans mon coeur and O triste, triste était mon âme, lyrics that brought poetry close to music. Sagesse (1880), Verlaine's best-known collection, included a sonnet sequence beginning "Mon Dieu m'a dit: 'Mon fils il faut m'aimer … "' that affords some of the finest religious verse in the French language. The same volume included a poem describing his lonely sensation at entering the prison of Mons after shooting Arthur Rimbaud in the wrist ("Un grand sommeil noir tombe sur ma vie") and his most famous poem ("Le ciel est par-dessus le toit"), which analyzed his perceptions and thoughts in his prison cell.
In 1884 Verlaine published a volume of criticism (Les Poètes maudits) that helped bring the emerging symbolists to the attention of the public. He produced more than a dozen further collections of verse before his death, none of them comparable to his earlier volumes. Jadis et Naguère (1885) included Langueur, a poem seen as a sort of manifesto of decadence, and Art poétique, a poem that expresses some of his essential ideas on poetry. In it he proclaimed the beauty of le vers impair (the verse of an uneven number of syllables: 5-7-9-11, instead of the usual 6-8-10-12) and urged that poetry be fugitive and intangible like mint and thyme on the morning wind.
Verlaine spent his last years as a moral and physical derelict, moving in and out of hospitals until his death in Paris on Jan. 8, 1896. But in 1894 he had been elected Prince of Poets, and he was given a public funeral.
Verlaine was known during his lifetime for the beauty and delicacy of his finest verse, for his association with Arthur Rimbaud, and for his generally dissipated and vagabond existence. In his last years "le Pauvre Lèlian, " as he called himself from an anagram of his name, was considered a picturesque incarnation of the decadent poet.
Further Reading on Paul Marie Verlaine
English translators of Verlaine's poetry include Ashmore Wingate and C. F. Maclntyre. Harold Nicolson, Paul Verlaine (1921), and Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson, Verlaine: Fool of God (1957), are biographies. Antoine Adam's fine study of Verlaine was translated by Carl Morse and published as The Art of Paul Verlaine (1963). Marcel Raymond, From Baudelaire to Surrealism (trans. 1950; new ed. 1970), is an authoritative study of the forces that shaped modern French poetry and includes a useful critique of Verlaine.
Additional Biography Sources
Nicolson, Harold George, Sir, Paul Verlaine, New York: AMS Press, 1980.
Verlaine, Paul, Confessions of a poet, Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1979.