Paul Verlaine

Paul Verlaine
Author: Zweig Stefan
Title: Paul Verlaine
Release Date: 2010-11-15
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 26 March 2019
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Transcriber's Note:

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Authorized Translation by


Copyright, 1913,
By L. E. Bassett
Boston, Mass., U. S. A.




The works of great artists are silentbooks of eternal truths. And thus it isindelibly written in the face of Balzac,as Rodin has graven it, that the beautyof the creative gesture is wild, unwillingand painful. He has shown thatgreat creative gifts do not mean fulnessand giving out of abundance. On thecontrary the expression is that of onewho seeks help and strives to emancipatehimself. A child when afraidthrusts out his arms, and those that arefalling hold out the hand to passers-byfor aid; similarly, creative artists projecttheir sorrows and joys and all theirsudden pain which is greater than theirown strength. They hold them out likea net with which to ensnare, like a rope by which to escape. Like beggars onthe street weighed down with miseryand want, they give their words to passers-by.Each syllable gives relief becausethey thus project their own lifeinto that of strangers. Their fortuneand misfortune, their rejoicing andcomplaint, too heavy for them, aresown in the destiny of others—manand woman. The fertilizing germ isplanted at this moment which is simultaneouslypainful and happy, and theyrejoice. But the origin of this impulse,as of all others, lies in need, sweet, tormentingneed, over-ripe painful force.

No poet of recent years has possessedthis need of expressing his life to others,more imperatively, pitifully, or tragicallythan Paul Verlaine, because noother poet was so weak to the press ofdestiny. All his creative virtue is reversedstrength; it is weakness. Sincehe could not subdue, the plaint aloneremained to him; since he could notmould circumstances, they glimmer in naked, untamed, humanly-divinebeauty through his work. Thus he hasachieved a primval lyricism—purehumanity, simple complaint, humbleness,infantile lisping, wrath and reproach;primitive sounds in sublimeform, like the sobbing wail of a beatenchild, the uneasy cry of those who arelost, the plaintive call of the solitarybird which is thrown out into the duskof evening.

Other poets have had a wider range.There have been the criers who with aclarion horn call together the wandererson all the highways, the magicianswho weave notes like the rustling ofleaves, the soughing of winds and thebubbling of water, and the masters whoembrace all the wisdom of life in darksayings. He possessed nothing but thesign-manual of the weak who have needof another, the gestures of a beggar.But in all their accents and nuances, inhim, these became wonderful. In himwere the low grumbling of the weak man, sometimes closely akin to the sorrowfulmumbling of the drunkard, thetender flute notes of vague and melancholicyearning, as well as the hard accusinghammering against his ownheart. There were in him the flagellantstrokes of the penitent as well as the intimateprayers of thanksgiving whichpoor women murmur on church steps.Other poets have been so interwovenwith the universal that it is impossibleto distinguish whether really greatstorms trembled in their breasts,whether the sea rolled within them, oragain, whether it was not their words,which made the meadows shudder, andwhich, as a breeze, went tenderly overthe fields. They were the vivifyingpoets, the synthesizers—divinities bythe marvel of creation, and its priests.

Verlaine was always only a humanbeing, a weak human being, who did noteven know how “to count the transgressionsof his own heart.” It wasthis very lack of individuality, however, which produced something much rarer—thepurely and entirely human. Verlainewas soft clay without the powerof producing impresses and without resistance.Thus every line of life crossinghis destiny has left a pure relief, aclear and faithful reproduction, even tothe fragrance-like sorrows of lonelyseconds which in others fade away orthicken into dull grief. The tangledforces which tempestuously shook hislife and tore it to tatters crystallized inhis work and were distilled into essences.

This, together with the fact that hehas enriched and furthered literary developmentby his poetry, is the highestand noblest meed of praise that can begiven to a poet. Yet such an estimateseems too low to many of his followers,especially the more recent French literatiwho celebrate in Verlaine the unconsciousinventor of a new art of poetryand the initiator of new lyric epochs,unknowing of the folly of their proceeding. Verlaine, the literary man,was a sad caricature distorted by ribaldnoise and Quartier-Latin cafs. Evenas such he indignantly denied this intention.The greatness and power ofhis lyricism takes its root in eternity,in the wonderful sincerity of its everhuman and unalterable emotional content,and above all in the unconsciousnessof its genesis.

Intellectuals alone create “tendencies.”Verlaine was as little one ofthese as he was on the other hand thebon enfant, the innocently stumblingchild into whose open and playful handverses fell like cherry blossoms or flutteringleaves. He was a lyric poet.Lyricism is thinking without logic (althoughnot contrary to logic), associationnot according to the laws ofthought but according to intuition, thewhispering words of vague emotions,hidden correspondences, darkly murmuringsubterranean streams. Lyricismagain is thought without consequence, instinct and presentiment, leapingquickly in lawless synthesis; it isunion but not a chain formed of individuallinks, it is melody but not scales.In this sense he was an unconsciouscreator who heard great accords.

He was never a thinker. His quickpower of observation, flashing electrically,his Gallic wit, and his exquisitefeeling for style were able to illuminesplendidly, narrow circles, but helacked, as in everything, the power andability of logical sequence. He knewhow to seize and throw light uponwaves that came to touch his life, but hecould not make them reflect in thedark mirror of the universe, nor couldhe throw out into the world rays ofcurious and tormenting desire for life.He could not construct a world vision,revolution, and a sense of distance.This wild and heroic trait of the greatpoets was never his. He preferred,fleeting and weak spirit as he was, theindefinite, not quiet and possession, nor understanding and power, which arethe elemental factors of life. He surrenderedhimself completely to the efflorescenceof things, to the sweetnessof becoming and the sadness of evanescence,to the pain and tenderness ofemotions that touch us in passing; inshort, to the things that come to us andnot to those which we must seek andstrive to penetrate. He was never adrawn bow ready to fling himself as anarrow into the infinite; he was only anolian harp, the play and voice of suchwinds as came. Unresistingly he threwhimself into the arms of all dangers—women,religiosity, drunkenness andliterature. All this oppressed him andrent him asunder. The drops of bloodare magnificent poems, imperishableevents, primval human emotion clearas crystal.

Two factors were responsible forthis: an unexampled candor in bothvirtue and vice, and his complete unconsciousness,which, however, was unfortunately lost in the first waves of hisfame. As he never knew how to weed,his life forced strange blossoms andbecame a wonderful garden of seductivelybeautiful, perversely coloredflowers, among which he himself wasnever entirely at home. In middle lifehe found the courage, or rather an impulsewithin him mightier than his willforced him to do so, and with relentlesstread he left civilization. He exchangedthe warm cover of an establishedliterary reputation for the occasionalshelter along the highways.With the smoke of his pipe he blew intothe air the esteem he had acquiredearly. He never returned to the safeharbor. Later, as “man of letters,” heunfortunately exaggerated this as wellas every other of his unique characteristics,in an idle exhibitionism, andmade literary use of them.

Far distant from academies andjournals, he retained his uniqueness uninterruptedlyfor many years. He has described in his verses the errant andpassionate way of his life with thatnoble absence of shame which is thefirst sign of personal emancipationfrom civilized humanity, in contrast tothe primitively natural.

Much has been said and written as towhether happiness or unhappiness wasthe result of the pilgrimage. It is anunimportant and idle question, because“happiness” is only a word, an unfilledcup in strange hands, and anempty tinkling thing. At any rate, lifecut more deeply into his flesh than intothat of any other poet of our time. Sotightly and pitilessly was his soulwound about that nothing was keptsilent, and it bled to death with sighs,rejoicings, and cries. A destiny whichhas accomplished such marvels may berebuked as cruel. But we in whomthese pains re-echo in sweet shudderings—forus, it is fitting that weshould feel gratitude.


Whenever Verlaine speaks of hischildhood, there is a gleam like a bittersweetsmile. This hesitant, plaintiverhythm appears ever, and ever again,whether in sorrow, musing sigh, orplaintive reproach. It appears in thetender and so infinitely sad lines whichhe wrote in prison, and likewise in theConfessions, a vain, exaggeratedly candidand coquetting portrait in prose.Gentle memories, fresh and tender likewhite roses, creep loosely through allhis work, scattering pious fragrance.For him childhood was paradise, becausehis poor weak soul, needing thetenderness of faithful hands, had notyet experienced the hard impacts of life, but only the soft intimate cradlingbetween devoted love and womanlymildness—a lulling, sweet unforgettablemelody.

All impulses are still pure and bud-like.Love is unsullied, sheer instinct,entirely without desire and restlessness.It is silence, peaceful silence, cool longingwhich assuages, and so all of lifeis kind and large, maternal and womanly—soft.Everything shines in aclear, transparent, shimmering lightlike a landscape at daybreak. Evenlate, very late, when his poor life hadalready become barren and over-clouded,this yearning still rises andtrembles toward these days of youthlike a white dove. The “guote suendaere”still had tears to give. Gleamingpure like dew drops, and still fresh,they cling to the most fantastic andwildest blooms.

The first dates tell little. PaulMarie Verlaine was born in 1844 atMetz—he did not remember his second name until the appropriate time ofhis conversion. His father was a captainin the French engineer corps.Verlaine, however, was not of Alsatianextraction but belonged to Lorraine,close enough to Germany to bear in hisblood the secret fructification of theGerman Lied. Early in his life thefamily removed to Paris, where the attractiveboy with inquisitive, soft face(as is shown on an early photograph)soon turns into a gosse and finally intoa government official with skillful literarytalents.

Several pleasing episodes and a fewkind figures are found within this simpleframe of his external life. Two inparticular are drawn in subdued delicatecolors and veiled with a tenderfragrance. Both were women. Hismother, all goodness and devotion,spoiling him with too much tendernessand forgiveness, passes through his lifewith uniformly quiet tread; she is awonderfully noble martyr. There is hardly a more poignant story than theone he tells regretfully in the Confessionsof the time when he first began todrink and how his mother never voicedher reproach. Once when with hat onhis head he had slept out the remainderof a wild night, her only comment wasthe silent one of holding a mirror beforehim.

And there is no more tragic incidentamong the many sentences of thedrunkard than the verdict of the tribunalat Vouziers, which condemned himto a fine of five hundred francs forthreatening to kill his mother. Eventhen, though absinthe had changed thesimple child always ready for penanceinto a different man, her gesture wasstill the noble and inimitable one offorgiveness.

There were also other tender handsto watch over his youth. His cousinEliza, who died early, is a figure so mildand transparent and of so light a treadthat she appears like one of Jacobsen's wonderful creations who wander andspeak like disembodied souls. She hadthe unique beauty of early illness, andon that account perhaps turned moretoward the absorbed but not melancholychild, excusing his escapades.She was loved tenderly, with a child'slove that was without desire and danger.

“Certes oui pauvre maman tait
Bien, trop bonne, et mon cœur la voir palpitait,
Tressautait, et riait et pleurait de l'entendre
Mais toi, je t'aimais autrement non pas plus tendre
Plus familier,
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