Verlaine & Rimbaud: The Poète Maudit and the Homme Fatale
Verlaine is, with Mallarmé and Baudelaire, one of the major figures of the Symbolist and Decadent movements in poetry in late 19th century France. His work, like his life, alternated between a romantic innocence, and criminality, debauchery, and hallucination. He was typical of the figure of the poète maudit, the tortured rebel and misunderstood outsider, template for rock stars and sulky teenagers ever since. In his own critical essay, Les poètes maudits (1884), he applies the term to the life and work of other poets of the time, including Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud, the young poet with whom his personal life was inextricably linked, and perhaps cursed.
Born in Metz, where his officer father was garrisoned, in 1844, Verlaine grew up a spoilt only child, though his parents were later to adopt a niece, Elisa Déhee. Verlaine fell passionately in love with her as a young man, and was heartbroken at her early death. The family moved to Paris in 1951, where Verlaine pursued a less than brilliant academic career, before becoming an indifferent fonctionnaire at the Hôtel de Ville. Having discovered Poe and Baudelaire as a teenager, he now discovered absinthe and homosexuality, all of which were to prove significant influences in his later life. Following publication of his poetry in small reviews, he became, at 21, literary editor of L’Art, in which he wrote articles praising his heroes Baudelaire and Hugo. Carousing and talking poetry in the dives along the rue Soufflot, he fell in with the Parnassian poets François Coppée, Théodore de Banville, José-Maria de Heredia, and Leconte de Lisle. His disapproving father refused to finance this dissolute lifestyle, but died in 1865.
His first collection, Poèmes saturniens, appeared in 1866. Though remaining traditional in form, like his Parnassian contemporaries, he was already testing the limits of the Alexandrine, and the anguished, melancholy mood and dreamlike, crepuscular settings of Symbolism were evident. After continuing in this vein with Fêtes gallantes, inspired by Watteau’s hedonistic beau monde tableaux, and some privately printed erotic sonnets, he changed direction in 1869, when, at the age of 25, he met and fell in love with Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville. Verlaine began living a sober, industrious life, producing a set of poems published as La bonne chanson (1870), a heartfelt and moving hymn to love, anticipating a life of conjugal bliss with his sixteen year old wife. Their marriage quickly produced a son, Georges, but was not long to remain peaceful. The Franco-Prussian War and subsequent Paris Commune saw Verlaine serve in the armed forces, then on the side of the Communards, forced into hiding during its brutal suppression. An even greater upset was to follow, with the advent in the Verlaine household of the wild young bohemian poet, Arthur Rimbaud.
Rimbaud, a precocious, arrogant, sixteen year-old vagabond from Charleville, had already been caught dodging a train fare and crossing the Prussian lines to get to Paris without a pass during the war. He was imprisoned as a suspected spy, and molested by soldiers (an event which provoked both revulsion and sensual revelation in the young poet). He managed to return home to the Ardennes, where he outraged the locals with his extravagant tramp-like dress, and his penchant for parading up and down the main street at l’heure de l’apéritif, shouting pro-Commune slogans and (apparently even more shocking) smoking a pipe bowl downwards. His early work came to the attention of poets such as Paul Demeny, to whom he addressed his Lettre du voyant, in which he advocates a “long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses”. When he wrote an impassioned letter to Verlaine in 1871, enclosing several poems, he was quickly invited to escape his provincial surroundings and come to Paris to live with the older poet and his family.
Verlaine and Rimbaud soon embarked on a torrid, absinthe-fuelled affair. Mathilde, barely older than Rimbaud herself, repulsed the advances he made to her and fled to Périgueux with Georges. Verlaine had attempted to strangle her, and flung their infant son against a wall in a rage. Distraught at her departure, he begged her to come back, which she did on the condition that Rimbaud would be banished from their home. However, the infatuated Verlaine wrote to him as well, and persuaded him to return to Paris. Rimbaud soon headed for Belgium, threatening never to see his lover again unless he followed, which he duly did. Mathilde discovered their passionate correspondence and pursued the couple to Brussels to rescue her husband “from the claws of the demon”. An apparently contrite Verlaine promised to return with her, but slipped away at the last minute, taking the boat to London with Rimbaud.
For the next few months, Verlaine and Rimbaud lived in squalid lodgings in London, pursuing their taste for intoxicants such as absinthe and hashish, and expanding their range to include opium. Rimbaud revelled in uncleanliness, including body lice, which he liked to conserve to throw at passing priests, but Verlaine had a typically French disgust for English cuisine, especially “the abominable oxtail soup”: “Fie on such a horror! A man’s sock with a rotten clitoris floating in it.” They went back and forth between Brussels and London, their relationship becoming increasingly hysterical and abusive. Rimbaud, in his tortured, lurid prose-poem, which he began at the time, refers to Verlaine as “the Foolish Virgin”, and himself as “the Infernal Husband”. Ultimatums and knife-slashings on his part, as well as the exhausting divorce proceedings with Mathilde eventually convinced Verlaine to abandon Rimbaud, penniless, in London. Horrified, he attempted to catch up with Verlaine, and, failing to persuade him to disembark from the Ostend ferry, he wrote a letter threatening the extreme: he would enlist in the army or the navy if Verlaine didn’t return. Verlaine went further: if his planned reconciliation with Mathilde didn’t work, he would kill himself, or her. Rimbaud scoffed back that he knew he wouldn’t be able to.
Once more reunited in Brussels, their relationship finally exploded in dramatic fashion, with Verlaine pulling a pistol on Rimbaud, and firing at him twice. He hit him once, just grazing his wrist, but Rimbaud nonetheless called the police. Even though he didn’t press charges, Verlaine was arrested and convicted of attempted murder, his sordid relationship with Rimbaud exposed and raked over in public. The court physicians reported that his “anus can be dilated rather significantly by a moderate separation of the buttocks,” and that he “bears on his person the signs of active and passive pederastic habits.” A visiting priest interrupted his confession to ask if he had also committed bestiality.
Rimbaud finished Une saison en enfer, but couldn’t publish it due to lack of funds. Only a few copies were made, including one that he left at the prison for Verlaine. He wandered between Brussels, London, and his family home, finished another work, Illuminations, then stopped writing, burning his manuscripts and taking off for a vagabond life across Europe and Africa, with a spell in the Dutch Colonial Army, gun-running in North Africa, slave-trading in Ethiopia. He was to die of a cancerous tumour in his knee, aggravated by syphilis, in 1891 at the age of 37.
Verlaine, having embraced Catholicism during his prison sentence, attempted to convert Rimbaud in their final meetings. Rimbaud responded by getting him drunk, forcing him to blaspheme, then knocking him down with a club. Verlaine was to vacillate between spells of productivity and sobriety and periods of brawling, boozing, and chasing boys. An attachment to a young pupil of his in a Catholic lycée, Lucien Létinois, with whom he made an abortive attempt to retire to a quiet life of farming, ended in heartbreak when Létinois died of typhoid. Verlaine went back to his dissolute ways, and despite failing health and declining creativity, he began to gain some popular and critical acclaim. In 1893, though his application for membership of the Académie française was declined without a single vote, he was voted “Prince of Poets” by a readers’ poll in Parisian daily Le journal. He lived in dives, frequenting prostitutes and thieves, continued to drink, and was often hospitalised, suffering from rheumatism, cirrhosis, gastritis, jaundice, diabetes, and cardiac hypertrophy. To his friend Bibi-la-Purée, a noted homosexual and umbrella thief, he said: “For me, Rimbaud is an ever-living reality, a sun that burns inside me that does not want to be put out…”. Nevertheless, in his autobiographical writings, he denied ever having had a sexual relationship with Rimbaud.
He died in Paris in 1896, impoverished, impotent, and miserable. His funeral was a massive public event, the cortege followed by thousands of mourners to see him buried in the Batignolles cemetery.