Rimbaud and Verlaine  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Paul Verlaine (1844 – 1896) and Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891) are known for their stormy love affair. The life of Verlaine and Rimbaud was the subject of the 1995 movie Total Eclipse. Verlaine was portrayed by David Thewlis, Arthur Rimbaud by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Life with Verlaine (1871–1875)

Rimbaud wrote to several poets but received no replies, so his friend, office employee Charles Auguste Bretagne, advised him to write to Paul Verlaine, an eminent Symbolist poet. Rimbaud sent Verlaine two letters with several of his poems, including the hypnotic, finally shocking "Le Dormeur du Val" (The Sleeper in the Valley), in which Nature is called upon to comfort an apparently sleeping soldier. Verlaine was intrigued by Rimbaud, and replied, "Come, dear great soul. We await you; we desire you," sending him a one-way ticket to Paris. Rimbaud arrived in late September 1871 and resided briefly in Verlaine's home. Verlaine's wife, Mathilde Mauté, was seventeen years old and pregnant, and Verlaine had recently left his job and started drinking. In later published recollections of his first sight of Rimbaud at the age of seventeen, Verlaine described him as having "the real head of a child, chubby and fresh, on a big, bony, rather clumsy body of a still-growing adolescent", with a "very strong Ardennes accent that was almost a dialect". His voice had "highs and lows as if it were breaking."

« C'était une vraie tête d'enfant dodue et fraîche sur un grand corps osseux et comme maladroit d'adolescent qui grandissait encore et de qui la voix, très accentuée en ardennais, presque patoisante, avait ces hauts et ces bas de la mue." (Verlaine, quelques mois avant sa mort, évoque de façon précise et exacte le souvenir de sa rencontre avec Rimbaud (Œuvres posthumes[1], t. II, p. 275).

Rimbaud and Verlaine began a short and torrid affair. Verlaine had probably engaged in prior homosexual experiences, but it is uncertain whether this relationship was Rimbaud's first. They led a wild, vagabond-like life spiced by absinthe and hashish. The Parisian literary coterie was scandalized by Rimbaud, whose behaviour was that of the archetypal enfant terrible, yet throughout this period, he continued to write striking, visionary verse. Their stormy relationship eventually brought them to London in September 1872, a period over which Rimbaud would later express regret. During this time, Verlaine abandoned his wife and infant son (both of whom he had abused in his alcoholic rages). In England they lived in considerable poverty in Bloomsbury and in Camden Town, scraping a living mostly from teaching, plus an allowance from Verlaine's mother. Rimbaud spent his days in the Reading Room of the British Museum where "heating, lighting, pens and ink were free". The relationship between the two poets grew increasingly bitter.

Shooting

In late June 1873, Verlaine returned to Paris alone, but quickly began to mourn Rimbaud's absence. On 8 July, he telegraphed Rimbaud, asking him to come to the Hotel Liège in Brussels. The reunion went badly, they argued continuously and Verlaine took refuge in heavy drinking. On the morning of 10 July, Verlaine bought a revolver and ammunition. About 16:00, "in a drunken rage", he fired two shots at Rimbaud, one of them wounding the 18-year-old in the left wrist.

Rimbaud initially dismissed the wound as superficial, did not immediately file charges, and decided to leave Brussels. About 20:00, Verlaine and his mother accompanied Rimbaud to the Gare du Midi railway station. On the way, by Rimbaud's account, Verlaine "behaved as if he were insane", causing Rimbaud to "fear that he might give himself over to new excesses [...] It was then I asked a police officer to arrest him." Verlaine was charged with attempted murder, then subjected to a humiliating medico-legal examination. He was also interrogated about his correspondence with Rimbaud and the nature of their relationship. The bullet was eventually removed on 17 July and Rimbaud withdrew the complaint. The charges were reduced to wounding with a firearm and, on 8 August 1873, Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison.

Rimbaud returned home to Charleville and completed his prose work Une Saison en Enfer ("A Season in Hell")—still widely regarded as a pioneering example of modern Symbolist writing. In the work he referred to Verlaine as his "pitiful brother" (frère pitoyable) and the "mad virgin" (vierge folle), and to himself as the "hellish husband" (l'époux infernal). He described their life together as a "domestic farce" (drôle de ménage).

See also





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