One hundred years ago, on the 30th of March, 1844, in the city of Metz, the great lyric poet of France Paul Verlaine was born. How can he interest us now, in our fiery days, amidst our distinct lack of humor and in light of our stunning victory?
He bequeathed a brilliant record of what he saw and experienced, similar in spirit and expression to the later works of Blok, Rilke, Ibsen, Chekhov, and other modern writers, yet connected in places by a deep kinship with the newest wave of impressionist painting in France, the Scandinavian countries, and Russia.
These artists were surrounded by a new urban reality quite different than that of Pushkin, Mérimée, and Stendhal. The sun was setting on the nineteenth century and it drifted to its end with all its whims intact, the high-handedness of its industry, its monetary storms, and a society composed of victims and mischievous children. The streets had just been paved with asphalt and lit by gas. There factories took hold and grew like mushrooms just like the excessive spread of daily papers. Railways enjoyed enough expansion to become a part of every child's existence, the only difference being whether he spent his childhood years speeding by a sleeping town on such a train, or whether such night trains sped by the town's outskirts of his own impoverished childhood.
On this newly lit street the shadows did not lie the way they did in Balzac's time, and these streets were walked in a new way; we wished to draw them in this same new way, in accordance with nature. The main novelties of this street were not, however, the lamps or the telegraph poles, but the vortex of an egoistic element which bore with it the clarity of an autumnal wind and chased away poverty, tuberculosis, prostitution, and other niceties of that era like leaves off a sidewalk. This vortex caught everyone's eye and became the center of the picture. With its gust the labor movement moved into its cognitive phase. Its breath in particular provided the viewpoint of a group of new artists.
They wrote in smears and dots, in hints and half-tones, not because they wanted to do so or that they were symbolists. Reality for a symbolist was that dimension in which everything was in transition and development; this reality in its entirety meant, if not comprised something, as well as served if not fulfilled a symptom and a sign. Everything was mixed and jumbled, old and new, the Church, the village, the city, and the people. Everything was a spinning whirlpool of conventions, between the absoluteness of what remained and what had yet to be achieved, that distant presentiment of the century's most important happening – socialism – and its actual embodiment, the Russian Revolution.
And just as Blok the realist provided us with an elevated picture of Petersburg singular in its symbolic gleam, so too did Verlaine the realist, in his impermissibly personal confessions, play the main role for that time and place from where his fall and repentance would arise.
Verlaine was the son of a lieutenant who would die young. The lieutenant was his mother's favorite as well as the favorite of all the estate's servant women, and thus Verlaine was sent at the age of four from the provinces to Paris to an exclusive institute of learning. There is something akin to Lermontov's life in his dove-like cleanliness begotten from the circle of women, as well as in his subsequent fate among his debauched Parisian comrades. Upon finishing school he became an official at city hall. The events of 1870 led to his becoming a militiaman amidst the Parisian fortifications; he got married; an uprising broke out; he took part in the tasks of the Commune by working in printing; and once order had been restored, he was discharged. It was then that he began to drink. And fate sent him an evil genius in the form of a freak of immense talent, however surly, the eccentric adolescent poet Arthur Rimbaud.
He himself dug up this "novice" in Charleroi and summoned him in writing to Paris. Once Rimbaud moved in with the Verlaines, their normal life came to an end, and Verlaine's subsequent existence was drowned in the tears of his wife and child. With Verlaine's family abandoned for good, Rimbaud and Verlaine began their wanderings on the longer roads of France and Belgium in a mutual haze of alcohol, leading them to London and semi-starvation where they did menial work to stay alive, to brawling in Stuttgart, and to prisons and hospitals.
Finally, in Brussels, after a terrible row, Verlaine raced after the absconded Rimbaud and fired twice, wounding him. Verlaine was then arrested and sentenced to a two-year prison term in Mons.
After all this Rimbaud took off for Africa to fight for the new territories of Menelik II of Ethiopia, and came into the King's service. Meanwhile, in prison, Verlaine would write one of his greatest books.
He died in the winter of 1896, not having added anything astonishing to his long-held fame and surrounded by the reverent attention of some youths and admirers.
Verlaine began to write quite early on. The Poèmes saturniens of his first book were written when he was still in high school. His deceptive poetry, like the titles of some of his books such as Romances sans paroles (a rather impudent term for the production of literature), provokes false notions of aesthetics. One might have thought that the disregard for style with which he named his works was imbued with a desire for a pre-verbal "musicality" (something few if any understand), and that he is sacrificing the logical and visual aspects of poetry in favor of its sound. This is not so; quite the opposite, in fact. Like any great artist he needed "not words, but deeds," even from the art of words; that is, he wanted poetry to contain the actually experienced or witnessed truth of the observer.
This is precisely what he states in his brilliant work "Art poétique," incorrectly having become the manifesto of both Zaum and "melodiousness":
Tu feras bien, en train d'énergie (You would do well, in thrall's ado,)
De rendre un peu la Rime assagie. (To give your rhymes a conscience, too.)
And then later:
Que ton vers soit la chose envolée (May your verse be that thing in flight)
Qu'on sent qui fuit d'une âme en allée (We see depart a soul so light,)
Vers d'autres cieux à d'autres amours. (Towards other skies and other loves.)
Que ton vers soit la bonne aventure (May your verse be that fortune pure,)
Eparse au vent crispé du matin (Strewn tense against the morning wind)
Qui va fleurant la menthe et le thym... (On which shall bloom both thyme and mint,)
Et tout le reste est littérature. (And all the rest is literature.)
Verlaine had the right to speak in this way. He was able in his poetry to imitate bells, seize and augment the scents of the prevailing flora of his homeland, successfully mimic birds, and reproduce in his works all the flows of silence, internal and external, from winter's starry wordlessness to summer's torpor during a hot sunny midday. He like no one else expressed the long, engulfing and irrepressible pain of lost possession, be it the loss of a god who was and then died, a woman who changed her mind, a place which became dearer than life itself but which had to be forsaken, or the loss of peace.
Who would one have to be to imagine a great and defeated artist as a spiritual crumb, a spoiled child who doesn't know what he's creating. Our notions likewise underestimate the eagle-like sobriety of Blok, his historical tact, his feelings of earthly pertinence, inseparable from genius. No, Verlaine knew perfectly well what he needed and what French poetry lacked in order to convey this new vortex present in the soul and in the city I previously mentioned. And at any stage of drunkenness or mischief-induced scribbling, having expanded the sensation to the desired limit and led his thoughts into sublime clarity, Verlaine granted the language in which he wrote that boundless freedom which was his discovery in lyric poetry and which can be found only in the novels and plays of the masters of prose dialogue. Parisian speech and cadence in all its untouchable and captivating keenness flew in from the street and slipped in its entirety into every line without the slightest crack, like the melodic material for all that was to be constructed thereafter. This progressive ease is the finest thing about Verlaine. Idiomatic French was impossible for him to shed. He wrote not in words but in entire locutions, without shattering or transposing them.
Many things are simple and natural, if not all things; and yet they are simple only at their initial level, when they remain a matter of one's conscience, and one wonders only whether they are truly simple or whether one has misinterpreted them. Such simplicity is an uncreative quantity and bears no relationship whatsoever to art. What we are talking about is idealistic and endless simplicity, and Verlaine was simple in precisely this regard. In comparison to naturalness, M. Verlaine is unexpectedly natural and does not give any ground: in colloquial parlance we would say that Verlaine is supernaturally natural, that is, he is simple not so that we might believe him, but so that the voice of life roaring out from within him might not be hampered in any way. And this is all, as it were, that we can say given our limitations of time and space.