Verlaine & Rimbaud: A Torrid Affair
Posted on 7th February 2021
Paul Marie Verlaine, the leading poet of the Symbolist Movement was born in Metz, north-eastern France on 30 March 1844. His father was an Army Officer authoritarian in his manner, conventional in his ways and of strong conservative opinions who expected his son to follow in his footsteps. But the young Paul could not have been more different displaying little interest in the more rugged aspects of boyhood and being described as something of a dreamer and by some, a fantasist.
When he was just five years old the family moved to Paris which was to be a city much more to his liking and by his teenage years, he was already writing poetry. Even so, his education at the Lycee Imperial Bonaparte remained rigidly conventional but despite this and the constant promptings of his father to choose a military career the young Paul chose to go his own way though he went some way to placate him by taking a job in the Civil Service. Not that it was ever a career move merely a means to an end.
In 1863 he published his first poem which opened doors for him and he was soon mixing with other artists and writers in the more bohemian parts of town.
In 1866, he published his first book of verse called ‘Poemes Saturniens.’ It was not universally well received but he was recognised as a poet if a somewhat wild and unschooled one.
He was by now a regular in the bars and cafes of the Left Bank and encouraged by his friends to resign his post in the Civil Service and devote himself full time to writing. He did so, but there was little money in poetry, and he was soon reduced to pleading to his father for money, he received none. The old man disappointed at his son’s decision to forego respectability was not willing to fund his drinking and indolent lifestyle.
Verlaine’s preferred choice of alcoholic beverage was absinthe, an aniseed flavoured spirit known in France as Le Fee Verte, or The Green Fairy. It was the drink of choice among the artists of bohemian Paris but was frowned upon by the majority of overwhelmingly conservative France as the very epitome of decadence believed as it was to be the cause of psychotic behaviour and to induce brain-rot. Indeed, by 1915, it had been banned in most of Europe. But for the artist who believed that he had been cursed by his genius and that the only way to redemption was via the path of self-destruction it remained like manna from heaven.
Regardless of his increasing reliance upon alcohol and his often-irrational behaviour Verlaine’s reputation as one of the most original and influential poets of his day continued to grow and he became the leading spokesman for the Symbolist Movement.
The Symbolists believed that art in all its forms should represent absolute truth but that images not the word itself, best explain and depict the complexity of human emotion and physical frailty – snow was purity, black was death – in 1870, Verlaine fell in love.
He was always falling in love and this time it was with seventeen-year-old Mathilde de Fleurville, ten years his junior. They soon wed but it was not a happy marriage and Verlaine, for whom the word besotted could have been invented, treated his relationships as if they were taken from the pages of his own poetry which did not lend itself to emotional stability.
In September 1870, following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the capture of the Emperor Napoleon III at Sedan the Monarchy was abolished and the Third Republic established. When the new Government appeared to collaborate with its Prussian conquerors it was expelled from Paris and the Revolutionary Commune was proclaimed from the balcony of the Hotel de Ville to cheering crowds. Paris was now besieged once more not this time by the Prussians but their fellow Frenchmen and Verlaine, imbued with the revolutionary spirit, enlisted in the 160th Battalion of the Garde Nationale; but the Commune was to be a short-lived experiment in socialist working-class politics that was brutally crushed. Verlaine fought during La Saglante or the Bloody Week before managing to escape the massacres that followed and going into hiding glad just to be alive.
Jean Nicholas Arthur Rimbaud was born on 20 October 1854, at Charleville in the Ardenne region of France and like Verlaine before him was the son of an Army Officer though his father had deserted the family when he was aged just six and he was raised by his ambitious mother in a strict Catholic household. He had a restless spirit even as a child but always conformed to his mother’s demands.
He professed a hatred of school despite being a brilliant student and winning numerous awards. It was a false modesty on his part and it along with an arrogant and aloof manner did not make him popular with his fellow students; but described as being small of stature with light brown hair and as one friend declared – eyes of blue that irradiated with a darker blue. The loveliest eyes I have ever seen, he turned a few heads, however. And by the age of fifteen he had already published his first poem.
He felt constricted however by life in the provinces and his overbearing mother. They were, he thought, curtailing his genius. With the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War and excited by events he ran away from home determined to get to Paris but with no money he did not go far and after being briefly imprisoned for vagrancy was returned home.
Terrified of his mother’s wrath he again ran away with little more success than the first time and was returned once more with humiliation now heaped upon fear. Nonetheless, he remained determined to get to Paris and at last on 27 February 1871, he made it, but it was not a happy stay. Again, he had no money and with nowhere to live, cold and hungry on 10 March he walked back to Charleville.
His attempts to break free from his mother’s apron strings and suffocating embrace had failed but if he could not live the life of a poet then he would at least dress like one. So, he rebelled, grew his hair long, adopted a bohemian style, spoke in coarse tones, and spread outlandish stories about his stay in Paris such as being raped by drunken Communards.
Finally, he was persuaded by a friend to write directly to Verlaine, a man who might help him in his literary pretensions. Much to his surprise Verlaine, who had emerged from hiding in August, replied to the earnest young Rimbaud who had included several of his poems with his letter:
“Come, dear great soul, we await you; we desire you.”
Included with the letter was a one-way train ticket to Paris.
The seventeen year old Rimbaud arrived in Paris in September and Verlaine was smitten with the youth from the start describing him on their first meeting: “He has the head of a child, on a big bony rather clumsy body of a still growing adolescent whose voice with its Alsace accent, had highs and lows as if it were still breaking. He is almost athletic, with the perfect oval face of an angel in exile, with light brown hair and disturbing pale blue eyes.”
Verlaine ten years older, balding and not in the best of health was falling in love.
He had by now lost interest in his heavily pregnant wife Mathilde, who often drunk he had taken to beating. He was then quick to invite Rimbaud to live in his house and was equally quick to entice him into his bed. But their affair was to be a torrid one.
Both Verlaine and Rimbaud continued to write brilliantly vivid and visionary poetry and indeed for a time they seemed to inspire one another; but on their diet of absinthe and hashish they argued often and were regularly seen brawling in public. Rimbaud was coarse and loud-mouthed and seemed determined to offend as many people as possible whilst Verlaine’s behaviour was erratic and increasingly bizarre. Together they scandalised Parisian society.
In order to get away from the intense atmosphere of Paris in September 1872, they travelled together to London where staying in Camden Town they scraped a living doing translation work but there was no support mechanism for them in London as there was in Paris and rarely agreeing upon anything their fights no turned violent with Verlaine taking to slashing at Rimbaud with a knife - the young poet’s hands were criss-crossed with scars where he had tried to protect himself.
By June 1873, their relationship had soured to the point where Verlaine returned to Paris alone, but he soon realised that he could not live without Rimbaud. He wired him to arrange for a meeting in a hotel in Brussels, Rimbaud agreed. But there was to be no reconciliation, indeed Verlaine may well have had murder on his mind for on the morning of their meeting he purchased a revolver and ammunition. That night following another row a drunken Verlaine pulled out the gun and fired twice at Rimbaud with one bullet missing and the other striking him in the wrist. Rimbaud initially laughed the incident off, and things calmed down but as soon as Verlaine’s back was turned he left. The next time they met would be at the train station.
Rimbaud had only agreed to meet Verlaine because he said his mother would also be present which it was hoped would moderate his behaviour. It didn’t and Verlaine again threatened to kill Rimbaud who was so shaken by the violence of his language that he decided to report the shooting incident of the previous night to the police who aware of the poet’s reputation were eager to learn more about the intimacy of their relationship. Verlaine was arrested and questioned as to his sexual activities and was forced to undergo a humiliating medical examination.
Despite Rimbaud later withdrawing his accusations and refusing to testify the case went to trial and Verlaine was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison. Rimbaud, disillusioned with the bohemian life, returned to Charleville.
While in prison Verlaine converted to Catholicism something that Rimbaud readily mocked both to his friends and in his subsequent poetry.
They were to meet one last time following Verlaine’s release from prison, in Stuttgart in March 1875 where Rimbaud expressed contrition for what he had done but the passion had gone out of their relationship. They parted with little emotion and were never to see one another again.
Verlaine who had been damaged by his time in prison just wanted to get out of France. He travelled once more to England where he settled in Lincolnshire, a very rural area known as the Flatlands far removed from the madness of the city, a tender place for the melancholic mind where he and taught poetry and French in local schools.
In 1877 he returned to France to teach at a school in Rathel where he fell in love with one of his students, Lucien Letinois, who encouraged him to start writing again but in 1883, Lucien died of typhus a blow from which Verlaine would never truly recover and his final years were to see a descent into alcoholism and drug addiction. Effectively homeless sometimes he lived in a doss house, sometimes he slept on the streets.
Eventually his friends rallied around finding him a place to stay and providing him with a small income and he spent his last days drinking absinthe in the cafes of Paris. He died on 8 January 1896, aged 51.
Rimbaud had continued to refer to Verlaine in his poetry where he called their relationship a domestic farce with Verlaine as the pitiful brother and him as a mad virgin and the infernal groom. In truth he was embarrassed by his past and was constantly apologising for his errant behaviour, all he sought now was respectability and by the age of 21 his career as a poet was over.
In May 1876, he enlisted in the Dutch Colonial Army, but this was only to get a free ticket to Java. Once there he promptly deserted and worked for twelve years for a construction company first in the far east and then Cyprus before going on to be a merchant in Yemen and trading coffee and weapons in Ethiopia.
By 1891, suffering great pain in his right knee he returned to France where the problem was wrongly diagnosed, and his leg amputated. It was in fact advanced cancer and there was little that could be done. He died in Marseilles on 10 November 1891, aged 37.
When Verlaine was informed of former lover’s death he displayed no emotion and said nothing.
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