Shards, Sweepings, Stealings, Sayings, Secrets

Tag: Paul Verlaine

Enfant Terrible

“One is born a poet and one dies a businessman.” Romanian Proverb

I’ve just finished reading Graham Robb‘s magnificent biography of Rimbaud (1854-1891), the enfant terrible of French literature. There have been other biographies of him before, but many have distorted or misinterpreted the true facts of Rimbaud‘s amazing life. In his revisionist biography Robb sets the record straight about Rimbaud in all his delinquent, drunken, drugged, dishevelled glory. We all know little clichéd titbits about his life — the homosexual relationship with Verlaine, which culminated in Verlaine firing two pistol shots at Rimbaud, one shot wounding him in the wrist; the absinthe drinking; the drug taking; the debauchery — but Robb‘s biography is the first to reach a fair approximation of the truth.

Rimbaud wrote his extraordinary poems between his mid-teens and early twenties. After that he rejected poetry and applied himself to relentless journeying, taking short-term colonial posts in north-east Africa: hazardous occupations such as gun-running and other dubious trades. He could be cruel, egocentric, self-serving and duplicitous — but that’s artists for you. He also happened to be a genius — or, at least, he was for a short while in his youth.

In his lifetime Rimbaud saw hardly a collection of his verse published. Though charismatic, he often provoked suspicion, confusion and envy among his artist friends and contemporaries — he was misunderstood  because his uniquely imaginative way of thinking and writing was way ahead of what everyone else was doing. Now, of course, he’s become a legend, a poetic god venerated like some Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain rock-idol who died “before he got old”.

After turning his back on poetry, he did a lot of walking…

“By now his body was tuned to long distances, though not always capable of covering them. Like verse or music, walking was a rhythmical skill, a combination of trance and productive activity. Delahaye’s description of the athletic pedestrian suggests a special state of existence, a happy delegation of responsibility to blood and muscle: ‘His long legs calmly took formidable strides; his long, swinging arms marked the very regular movements; his back was straight, his head erect, his eyes stared into the distance. His face wore an expression of resigned defiance, anticipating everything, without anger or trepidation.'” Graham Robb Rimbaud

… and always had the urge to travel on…

“If I had the means to travel without being forced to stay and work for a living, I’d never be seen in the same place for more than two months. The world is very big and full of magnificent lands that would take more than a thousand lives to visit.” Arthur Rimbaud

150 years ago it seemed easier to travel with little money, easier to make do with less. There were fewer formalities — border controls and bureaucracy was more lax — and you could “get away with things” more than you can today, eg adopt aliases, and find work without lengthy interviews and carefully-crafted CVs. Some people always seemed willing to take pity on you, take you in, look after you for a while — or they did with the young, charismatic Rimbaud, at any rate.


The roots of “Symbolism” can be found in Baudelaire, but this style of French poetry found its apogee in later poets such as Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé. Symbolist poets rejected plain meanings and matter-of-fact descriptions, and commonly used dream-like images in order to express the spiritual or the Ideal. These writers were often “Decadent” poets too, or poètes maudits — cursed, lonely, self-destructive, and obsessed with death and decay.

As well as poetry, music also was undergoing radical changes. It may seem difficult to believe now, but Claude Debussy‘s impressionistic compositions were completely revolutionary at the end of the nineteenth century. (Incidentally, his piece Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was inspired by  one of Mallarmé‘s poems, and his piece Clair De Lune by one of Verlaine‘s.) Music and poetry — and indeed painting — were very much interlinked in the salons of the Symbolists.

Another Symbolist preoccupation was with synesthesia, or the intertwining and deliberate confusion of the senses — a process no doubt aided by drinking copious amounts of absinthe, that deadly and mind-altering alcoholic bomb widely available at the time. Baudelaire‘s poem Correspondences drips with synesthesia: “Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants, / Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies…” (“There are perfumes that are fresh like children’s flesh, / Sweet like oboes, green like meadows…”)

However, the wildest and most original poet of them all, who led the most extraordinary life and wrote two of the most startling poems to emerge from that time — Le Bâteau Ivre (The Drunken Boat) and Une Saison En Enfer (A Season In Hell) — was Arthur Rimbaud. But more of Rimbaud in the next post…

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.

Paul Verlaine