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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Paul Verlaine (1844–1896)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Victor Charbonnel (1863–1927)
JUSTICE, for Paul Verlaine, came only with death. He was assuredly one of the greatest poets of France in the nineteenth century. But the strangeness of his life, and of some parts of his work, injured his glory. Severe critics treated him as “bohemian” and “decadent,” and believed they had thus fairly judged him. He was, according to his own expression, “a cursed poet.” Only now does time throw over the wrongs of the man and the errors of the writer the forgetfulness necessary to conceal what was not truly noble and glorious. And the name of Paul Verlaine has its place in the luminous train marked by the names of Victor Hugo, Lamartine, Alfred de Musset, Alfred de Vigny, Théodore de Banville, and Leconte de Lisle, across the history of French letters.  1
  Paul Verlaine was born at Metz in 1844. His father was officer of a regiment of engineers in that city. When, in 1851, he retired from the army, he established himself in Paris. The future poet followed him there, and then pursued his classical studies. He scarcely distinguished himself except for an impatient eagerness to read all the poets both ancient and modern. As soon as he had left school, he yielded to his poetic instinct, abandoned the different employments to which they wished to attach him, and joined a group of young poets who had published their first verses with conspicuous success, and who were forming a kind of literary association called the “Parnasse.” It was to the Parnasse that in 1866 he carried his initial work, ‘Les Poèmes Saturniens.’ The book was distinguished for the gracious and harmonious freedom of rhythm, and for a charm of tender melancholy.  2
  From that time the young author became the friend of the “Parnassians”: of Leconte de Lisle, of Sully Prudhomme, of Léon Diers, of Catulle Mendès, and especially of François Coppée.  3
  In 1867, the ‘Fêtes Galantes’ appeared. The novelty and the poetic daring of this work were warmly discussed. Then Verlaine went away from literary environments, and lived a life of mad debauchery. He returned to letters in 1870 with a volume entitled ‘La Bonne Chanson,’ in which are some of his best pieces.  4
  Married to a young girl of sixteen, he made her very unhappy by the eccentricities of his character. Moreover, having allowed himself to be drawn into the revolutionary movement of the Commune of Paris in 1871, he was obliged to leave France and take refuge in London. This separation completed the disunion between the poet and his young wife. Henceforth it was impossible for them to establish a good understanding with each other. This domestic misfortune certainly seems to have been the primary cause of all the miseries and disorders of Verlaine’s existence.  5
  In his forlorn condition he bound himself in close friendship with a young poet, Arthur Rimbaud. As the two friends were traveling together in Belgium, Paul Verlaine, carried away by a sudden inexplicable fit of wrath, drew a revolver and shot his companion twice. The court of Brussels condemned him to two years’ imprisonment.  6
  It was then, from 1873 to 1875, that he wrote in the prison of Brussels ‘Romances Sans Paroles’; (Romances Without Words); and that in the prison of Mons, he pondered over the poems which were to compose his masterpiece, ‘Sagesse.’ This last book was not published, however, until 1881. Meantime Verlaine had exiled himself in England, not having dared to revisit his friends in France, and had earned his living as a teacher of French and of the classics. These years were, he says in the preface of ‘Sagesse’ (Wisdom), “six years of austerity, of meditation, of obscure labor.” Converted by the good counsels of the chaplain of the Mons prison, there was revived in his spirit the Christian sentiments of his childhood.  7
  But, returned to Paris, he abandoned himself to debauchery again, and lived in the greatest distress. His friends gave him some assistance; and when he no longer had bread, or when disease succeeded long privations, he went to the hospital. For fifteen years he was the “poor Lélian.”  8
  His work since ‘Sagesse’ (1881) is quite considerable, and very confused. There are in verse—‘Jadis et Naguère’ (Days Past and Gone: 1885), ‘Amour’ (Love: 1888), ‘Parallèlement’ (In Parallels: 1889), ‘Dédicaces’ (Dedications: 1890), ‘Bonheur’ (Happiness: 1891), ‘Choix de Poésies’ (Chosen Poems: 1891), ‘Chansons pour Elle’ (Songs for Her: 1891), ‘Liturgies Intimes’ (Personal Liturgies: 1892), ‘Elegies’ (1893), ‘Odes en Son Honneur’ (Odes in Her Honor: 1893), ‘Dans les Limbes’ (In Limbo: 1894), ‘Epigrammes’ (1894), ‘Chair’ (Flesh: 1896); and in prose—‘Les Poètes Maudits’ (The Cursed Poets: 1884), ‘Memoires d’un Veuf’ (Memories of a Widower: 1892), ‘Mes Hôpitaux’ (My Hospitals: 1892), ‘Mes Prisons’ (1893), ‘Confessions’ (1895), ‘Quinze Jours en Hollande’ (A Fortnight in Holland: 1895), twenty-six biographies in ‘Les Hommes d’Aujourd’hui’ (The Men of To-day).  9
  Paul Verlaine died the 8th of January, 1896. His end was without suffering. Death was gentler than life had been to him. All the poets, and the poets only, accompanied his coffin to the church and to the cemetery. He received no official honors. And the noble simplicity of this funeral was a touching spectacle, well befitting “poor Lélian.”  10
  Before his tomb, the poet François Coppée thus began his address of farewell to the dead: “Let us bow over the bier of a child; let us respectfully salute the tomb of a true poet.” A child in his life, a true poet in his work: such indeed was Paul Verlaine. Like a child, he had a tender heart, a candid and changeable spirit, a weak and capricious character. According to chance, sometimes evil carried him away, and sometimes good. One might almost say that good and evil sprang up within him in a kind of dim half-consciousness, but that he did not do either good or evil. If he had a sinful life, it was a life without perversity. And his repentance, apparently childish, attained the grandeur of holy tears. He remained a child always; and a child whose natural goodness was better than its existence. Even by this he was the poet. Like all true poets, he spoke out the sincerity of his soul. His poetry is a cry of the soul. It is a song of faith, or a complaint; it is the free fancy of a being who is happy or who weeps. By a kind of art, involuntary, spontaneous, and yet refined and supremely delicate, he wrote exquisite little songs; and also the most serious, most Christian poems of this century.  11

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