Paul Verlaine

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Paul Verlaine

Paul Marie Verlaine (born March 30, 1844 in Metz , † January 8, 1896 in Paris ) was a French poet of symbolism .

Life and work

The younger years

Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud (seated left; painting by Henri Fantin-Latour , 1872)

Paul Verlaine was the only child born alive to his parents. He spent his childhood in Metz, Montpellier , Nîmes and then again in Metz, where his father, an officer, was always stationed. After the latter had resigned in 1851, the well-to-do family settled in Paris. Here Verlaine became a boarding school student in a private school (pension) in 1853 and later attended the Lycée Bonaparte (today Condorcet) at the same time . He was a good student at first, but slacked off a lot around the age of 14 and began to write poems, the oldest known of which dates from the end of 1858 and has been preserved thanks to being sent to Victor Hugo . After completing the Baccalauréat in 1862, Verlaine enrolled as a law student, but frequented Parisian literary cafes and literary circles. In this ambience he got to know practically all authors of his generation and wrote mostly poetry. In August 1863 a poem by him appeared for the first time in a magazine. However, he also began to drink. His now ailing father was worried and forced him after a long period of house arrest (he was underage) to take a job with an insurance company. From there, Verlaine switched to the middle salaried career with the Paris city administration in early 1864.

In addition to his professional activity, he was also active in literature. At the age of 16 he came across the volume of poetry Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire , which became his most important role model. In 1865 an essay on him was Verlaine's first lengthy text to appear in print. In 1866 Théodore de Banville printed seven of his poems in his epoch-making anthology Le Parnasse contemporain . In the same year Verlaine published a first anthology of his poems as a private print under the title Poèmes saturniens . Baudelaire's influence is clear, but Verlaine's poems are more elegiac, melodic, softer. In the Fêtes galantes collection (1869) he tried to lyrically capture the playful figures and the melancholy, cheerful mood of the paintings by Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), which had fascinated him in the Louvre . At the same time, however, he also wrote socialist-oriented political poems that should result in a collection entitled Les Vaincus ( Eng . The vanquished).

His mental state at that time was not stable: Since the death of his father (1865), he repeatedly fell into excessive alcoholism, which in July 1869 even led to two attempts to murder his mother.

Shortly before, he had fallen in love with Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville, the 16-year-old half-sister of a friend. The relationship then apparently stabilized him, and as a wealthy heir-to-be, he was allowed to get engaged to her at the end of the year despite the strong reservations of Mathilde's father and to marry her in June 1870 (with a dowry consisting only of lease income as a precaution). Almost on the same day, the La bonne chanson collection , which reflects the happiness of his love and temporary abstinence and which he dedicated to Mathilde, appeared.

After 1870

The short, halfway bourgeois phase of his life ended the following year. In March 1871, after France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, he joined the Marxist-inspired revolutionaries of the Paris Commune and lost his post in the city administration after the Commune was defeated in July.

In September he took in Arthur Rimbaud , who was almost 17 , who had sent him poems and whom he had invited to Paris. At the end of October he had a son, but at around the same time he began a homosexual relationship with Rimbaud. Long confused months followed, during which he shuttled back and forth between Mathilde (whom he often threatened and abused and drove to flee to her parents), his mother and Rimbaud (who resigned for a few weeks in the spring of 1872). On July 7, 1872, Verlaine left Paris with him. Then he wandered around with him through northeast France, England and Belgium, separating and reconciling several times, often depressed and suicidal. Here he was visited again and again by his mother and supported financially. His attempts to get in contact with Mathilde were in vain.

From a poetic point of view it was (as for Rimbaud) a fertile time. a. the Ariettes oubliées (German: little forgotten arias) and the Romances sans paroles (German: romances without words, both published in 1874). On July 4, 1873, after leaving Rimbaud in London in an argument a few days earlier, he was alone in Brussels. There he wrote farewell letters to his wife (who had meanwhile filed for divorce), to his mother and to Rimbaud. The latter two arrived immediately, but Rimbaud wanted to finally break with him. This led to an argument between the two men, in the course of which Verlaine got drunk, finally got assaulted and even shot Rimbaud in the presence of his mother. His wrist was only slightly injured. When Verlaine threatened to shoot Rimbaud again after going to an ambulance together, Rimbaud fled to a police officer. Verlaine was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison.

He had already written many more poems while in custody. In prison (1873/75) he became pious with the help of the prison pastor and wrote religious poems, which he combined in 1880 in the volume Sagesse (German wisdom, serenity). The poem Art poétique (dt. Poetry ), which became a kind of manifesto of symbolism, comes from the imprisonment.

After being released early in 1875, Verlaine visited Rimbaud in Stuttgart . There was again violence and the hoped-for reconciliation failed to materialize. In March Verlaine went to England, where she kept her head above water with French and drawing lessons, but was also briefly employed as a teacher. In 1877 he received a substitute teaching position in Rethel , which was not extended in 1878 because of suspected homosexual relationships with a student, the 18-year-old Lucien Létinois. Verlaine went to England with him, whom he considered his foster son, but returned at the end of 1879.

1880 to 1896

At the beginning of 1880, thanks to a grant from his mother, he took over a lease with Létinois and his parents and tried his hand at farming. In 1882 the farm was financially at an end. Verlaine returned to Paris to live with his mother. His efforts to become a teacher again failed. He then continued to live with his mother, first in Paris, then on a small property in Coulommes that she had bought from the parents of Létinois, who died of typhus in 1883. However, he drank again and tried one more time to strangle his mother, earning him a new prison sentence, a fine and a temporary rift (1885). Towards the end of the year he fell ill and never completely recovered due to progressive syphilis .

When Verlaine's mother died in early 1886, the remainder of her fortune went to his son by will. He himself was now finally impoverished. He spent the next few years miserably in poor asylums in Paris, in hospitals, in dorms or, if he had some money, with prostitutes or in small hotels.

Paul Verlaine's grave

As an author, however, he was now beginning to become better known. In 1883 he had published a series of poet portraits under the title Les Poètes maudits (Eng. "The Ostracized Poets"), and in 1884 the volume of poetry Jadis et naguère ( Eng . "Once and Young "). He wrote poetry, essays, autobiographies, author portraits, travelogues, etc. In addition, he published works by Rimbaud, which he had in his own copies or in autographs, and thus saved them from oblivion. In 1892 he was invited to Holland for the first time to give a series of lectures, and in 1893 to Belgium, Lorraine and England. Also in 1893 he tried to run for the Académie française , but met strong opposition in advance. The Ministry of Education awarded him several prizes and honors. A group of friends paid him a monthly pension of 150 Frs. A street in Nancy was also named after him.

In 1893 the art critic Octave Maus (1856-1919) succeeded in engaging Verlaine to give a few lectures in Belgium . During his stay, Henry van de Velde took care of its well-being.

In 1894 Verlaine was elected to succeed the recently deceased lyric poet Leconte de Lisle as “Prince des poètes”, and in 1895 he set up a household with a long-time friend. At the end of the same year he fell ill and wrote two last poems: Mort! (Ger. "Death!") and Désappointement (Ger. "Disappointment"). He died on January 8, 1896. The funeral procession on January 12 to the Cimetière des Batignolles was followed by several thousand people. Well-known authors gave funeral speeches for him.

Literary meaning

Paul Verlaine (portrait of Frédéric Bazille )

Verlaine joined the Parnassiens , where he learned his poetic craft. He became the leading poet of Symbolism and influenced many later French poets. His highly musical verses express the finest emotions and nuances. Verlaine's maxim was: “De la musique avant toute chose.” (“Music, music above all.”) The subject matter ranges from morbid eroticism to ecstatic piety. He particularly influenced the art of neo-romanticism .

W. Berger, who has also transmitted a selection of Verlaine's poems, writes: “Influenced by Baudelaire and the Parnassians, Verlaine was one of the pioneers of symbolism, of which he himself was the first important representative. His musical verse, tuned to the most sophisticated sound effects, won the French language unheard-of euphonic possibilities. His poem Art poétique became the poetological manifesto of the symbolists ... "

The sound of his poems is mostly more important than their content, which makes them difficult to translate. Hermann Hesse ("Mon Rêve Familier"), Rainer Maria Rilke ("Agnus Dei"), Stefan George ("Chanson d'Automne") and Paul Zech , for example, dared to undertake this difficult task .

Notes on the most important works

Most of the poems in the first collection are not very indicative of Verlaine's later peculiarity. The Poèmes saturniens - the title is linked to a group of poems from the Fleurs du Mal - are heavily influenced by Baudelaire in the choice of topics and thought , while the verse structure reveals the Banville school . The Baudelaire motifs are dissolved into the delicate and playful; the melancholy does not arise from the bitterness of loneliness, but rather from mental exhaustion that offers the poet new sensations and enables him to see everyday things in a new light.

In the Fêtes Galantes , Verlaine tried, in line with Baudela’s demand that lyric poetry should be a collective experience of the senses, to poetically reproduce Watteau’s painting , which at that time was experiencing a renaissance through the art-critical work of the Goncourts and its own hall in the Louvre. The poems do justice to the spirit of the painter as well as that of the 18th century and of the Rococo epoch in general by conveying thoughts of death and transience with flirting irony into the mood of the “carpe diem”. To the playful, frivolous content of the poems, the still strictly Parnassic form stands in a - deliberate - contrast. Over this collection and the Poèmes saturniens weigh down the feeling of threat, the premonition of doom and, as a compensatory measure, the experience of the unrealisability of dreams ( Mon rêve familier ) and the bitterness of memory ( Colloque sentimental ). The early Verlaine stands between decadence and symbolism.

The La Bonne Chanson collection contains love poems to his bride and future wife Mathilde Mauté and is characterized by spontaneous happiness and the longing for a bourgeois existence. At the same time, it marks the end of Verlaine's writing period, in which he still followed conventional paths.

Paul Verlaine (photography by Dornac )

It was only when he met Rimbaud, who was ten years his junior, that the powers of his intellect and his imagination unfolded to the highest degree. He was looking for a way of life that had nothing in common with his previous life, his time, with everything that was called average and middle-class. But this also meant that he gradually lost the ability to differentiate between reality and madness. In the Romances sans Paroles Verlaine first applied the theory that he laid down in a later (1882) published poem Art poétique (composed in 1874): The verse should be music, a harmony of tones, a fleeting intoxication that pushes the boundaries of form blurs and reproduces the colors only as nuances (“Pas la couleur, rien que la nuance!”). The rhyme is pushed aside as a cheap means of effect; the poem should be entirely free in its structure and seek to achieve its effect only through the skillful composition of sounds. This loosening up of the traditional structure of verses and stanzas, as found for the first time in the Romances , in no way appears to be formless, because musical harmony proves to be just as strong a constructive principle as a prescribed number of syllables or sequences of rhymes. In this manifesto he calls for the "vers impair". He understands less the verse with an odd number of syllables than the unequal syllabary of the verses within a stanza. In addition, there is the intended ambiguity in the choice of words. The poem, which remains in a state of limbo, becomes the counterpart of a conceptually no longer comprehensible world. Rhetorical devices such as punch lines, satire and irony are banned. In contrast to the rational, clear-cut, cool lyric poetry of Parnassia , but also against the emphatic rhetoric of Romanticism , Verlaine postulates a poem in which the form - understood in the broadest sense - gains autonomy at the expense of the content.

Verlaine's temporary return to faith during his imprisonment found expression in the poems in the Sagesse Collection ("Wisdom"), the theme of which is the struggle between good and evil. Medieval motifs can be heard; the poem becomes a prayer, the praise of God, and the tenderest Marian songs reach him at this time, because he actually believed in his repentance. The Sagesse poems also show a return to tradition in form; most of them are sonnets written in Alexandrians .

In 1884 he continued in the volume Les Poètes maudits (Eng. The ostracized poets ) a. a. Rimbaud and Mallarmé a monument. Amours is mainly about his student Létinois, who died in 1883. In the later years he wrote several autobiographical prose writings such as Mes hôpitaux , Mes prisons and Confessions .


Chanson d'automne
wall poem in Leiden
  • The verses of the following poem Chanson d'automne (1866), in particular the rates as a signal the second stanza, the French became the Resistance in World War II on the transmitter Radio Londres the BBC on the evening of 5 June on the date of within 48 hours informs about the upcoming landing in France (June 6, 1944, Operation Overlord ).

Chanson d'automne

Les sanglots longs
des violons
de l'automne
Blessent mon coeur
d'une langueur

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l'heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure

Et je m'en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m'emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

translated by Gert Pinkernell to aid understanding :

The long sobs of
the violins
of autumn
wound my heart
with a monotonous

Completely suffocating
and pale when
the hour strikes,
I remember
the days of
yesteryear and I cry.

And I go away
with the evil wind that
carries me away,
here, there,
like the
withered leaf.

The poetic adaptation
by Stefan George reads:

Sighs glide
The strings of
autumn along,
meet my heart
With a pain,
dull and fear .

At the stroke of the bell
I think hesitantly
And painfully of
the time,
which is now far,
And must cry.

In the bad wind
I go and find
none ...
Drift away,
Soon there, soon there,
A withered leaf.

  • The weapon with which the French poet Paul Verlaine once at his colleague Arthur Rimbaud, shot a 6-schüssiger easier Lefaucheux - revolvers , caliber 7 mm, was estimated in 2016 at 50,000 to 60,000 euros. A piece of literary history, the revolver was bought by a stranger in 2016 at Christie's auction house for 434,500 euros. According to Christie's and the Belgian judiciary, the revolver had been returned by the police to the owner of the Belgian arms shop Montigny in Brussels , where it had been in a safe until 1981 . Then it was given as a gift to the tax advisor of the arms business, who first made it available for exhibitions in the 2010s and then put it up for auction in 2016.


Verlaine statue by Rodo in the Jardin du Luxembourg
  • Poèmes of Saturnia , 1866
  • Fêtes galantes , 1869
  • La Bonne Chanson , 1870
  • Romances sans paroles , 1873
  • Sagesse , 1880
  • L'Art poétique , 1882
  • Les Poètes maudits , 1884; Rimbaud
  • Jadis et naguère , 1885
  • Mémoires d'un veuf , 1886
  • À Louis II de Bavière , 1888
  • Amour , 1888
  • Parallèlement , 1889
  • Dédicaces , 1890
  • Chansons pour elles
  • Bonheur
  • Mes hôpitaux , 1891
  • Liturgies intimate
  • Chansons grises , 1892
  • Elégies. Odes en son honneur
  • Mes prisons
  • Quinze jours en Hollande , 1893
  • Epigram
  • Dans les limbes , 1894
  • Confessions , 1895
  • Invectives
  • Chanson d'automne , 1866
  • Chair , 1896

Settings (selection)

Verlaine is one of the most widely set French poets ever.

Other composers:


Individual evidence

  1. Bibliothèque nationale de France ( Entry on Paul Verlaine
  2. ^ Henry van de Velde: 1893, Henry van de Velde, pp. 71-75. Retrieved April 17, 2020 .
  3. ^ Tehzeeb Sandhu: The Secret History of an Intimate Portrait. Retrieved May 9, 2017 .

Web links

Wikisource: Paul Verlaine  - Sources and full texts
Commons : Paul Verlaine  - collection of images, videos and audio files