Paul Verlaine  

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"I love this word decadence"--Paul Verlaine

"It was I who, in the year 1885, laid claim to the name of Symbolist. The Parnassians, and most of the romanticists, in a certain sense lacked symbols.... Thence errors of local colouring in history, the shrinking up of the myth through false philosophical interpretations, thought without the discernment of analogies, the anecdote emptied of feeling."--Paul Verlaine cited in Degeneration by Nordau

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Paul Verlaine (1844 – 1896) was a French poet best-known for his own collection Poèmes saturniens (1866) and the anthology of cursed poets Les Poètes maudits (1884).

The famous affair of Rimbaud and Verlaine was the subject of the film Total Eclipse (1995).



Early life

Born in Metz, he was educated at lycée in Paris and then took up a post in the civil service. He began writing poetry at an early age, and was initially influenced by the Parnassien movement and its leader, Charles Leconte de Lisle. Verlaine's first published collection, Poèmes saturniens (1867), though adversely commented upon by Sainte-Beuve, established him as a poet of promise and originality.

Marriage and military service

Verlaine's private life spills over into his work, beginning with his love for Mathilde Mauté, a disciple of Louise Michel. Mauté became Verlaine's wife. At the proclamation of the Third Republic in 1870, Verlaine joined the 160th battalion of the Garde nationale, turning Communard on March 18, 1871. He became head of the press bureau of the Central Committee of the Paris Commune. He escaped the deadly street fighting known as the Bloody Week, or Semaine Sanglante, and went into hiding at Pas-de-Calais.


Verlaine returned to Paris in August 1871. In September he received the first letter from the poet Arthur Rimbaud. By 1872 he had lost interest in Mathilde and effectively abandoned her and their son, preferring the company of his new lover. Rimbaud's and Verlaine's stormy love affair took them to London in 1872, and on July 10 1873 he shot Rimbaud in a drunken, jealous rage, wounding him, but not mortally. As an indirect result of this incident, he was arrested and imprisoned at Mons, where he underwent a conversion to Catholicism, which again influenced his work (and earned him the vicious mockery of the inconstant Rimbaud.) Romances sans paroles was the poetic outcome of this period.

Following his release from prison, Verlaine traveled to England, where he worked for some years as a teacher and produced another successful collection, Sagesse. He returned to France in 1877 and, while teaching English at a school in Rethel, became infatuated with one of his pupils, Lucien Létinois, who inspired Verlaine to write further poems. Verlaine was devastated when the boy died of typhus.

Final years

Verlaine's last years witnessed a descent into drug-addiction, alcoholism, and poverty. Yet his poetry was admired and recognized as ground-breaking, and served as a source of inspiration to famous composers, such as Gabriel Fauré, who set many of his poems to music, including La bonne chanson, and Claude Debussy, who set five of the Fêtes galantes poems to music, forming part of the mélodie collection known as the Recueil Vasnier.

Numerous artists painted Verlaine's portrait. Among the most illustrious: Henri Fantin-Latour, Antonio de la Gándara, Eugène Carrière, Frédéric Cazalis, and Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen.

On his death in 1896, Paul Verlaine was interred in the Cimetière de Batignolles in Paris.


The French poetry of much of the literature in the latter half of the century (or "fin de siècle") was often characterized as "decadent" for their lurid content or moral vision. In a similar vein, Verlaine used the expression "poète maudit" (accursed poet) in 1884 to refer to a number of poets like Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud who had fought against poetic conventions and suffered social rebuke or had been ignored by the critics.

But with the publication of Jean Moréas "Symbolist Manifesto" in 1886, it was the term symbolism which was most often applied to the new literary environment. Along with Verlaine, poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Arthur Rimbaud, and Albert Samain (amongst others) were called symbolists. The symbolist poets often share themes that parallel Schopenhauer's aesthetics and notions of will, fatality and unconscious forces, and used themes of sex (such as prostitutes), the city, irrational phenomena (delirium, dreams, narcotics, alcohol), and sometimes a vaguely medieval setting.

In poetry, the symbolist procedure - as typified by Verlaine- was to use subtle suggestion instead of precise statement (rhetoric was banned) and to evoke moods and feelings by the magic of words and repeated sounds and the cadence of verse (musicality) and metrical innovation.


Verlaine's Complete Works are available in critical editions from the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.


The life of Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud was the subject of the 1995 film Total Eclipse, directed by Agnieszka Holland and with a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on his play. Verlaine was portrayed by David Thewlis.


  • Paul Verlaine, Correspondance générale : [Vol.] I, 1857-1885 (edited and annotated by Michael Packenham). Paris : Fayard, 2005. 16 x 24 cm. 1,122 pages. ISBN 2-213-61950-6

See also

Le poète Paul Verlaine au café François

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