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PAUL VERLAINE




THE LIFE OF OSCAR WILDE.

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PAUL VERLAINE



HIS LIFE HIS WORK



BY

EDMOND LEPELLETIER

TRANSLATED BY E. M. LANG



ILLUSTRATED



LONDON

T. WERNER LAURIE

CLIFFORD'S INN, FLEET STREET






\



L



INTRODUCTORY NOTE

PAUL VERLAINE, in one of the most critical hours
of his troubled existence, a prey to melancholy,
only too well justified, isolated, forgotten, or
remembered by comrades and contemporaries only
to be contemned, calumniated, and disowned, wrote
from his cell in the prison at Mons on the margin
of a letter addressed to his mother this despairing
appeal to the one whom he knew to be always
his friend :

" . . . Let Lepelletier defend my reputation.
He is able to clear what will soon be my memory.
I rely upon him to make me known as I was in
reality, when I am no longer here. ..."

EDMOND LEPELLETIER.

BOUGIVAL.



328027



TRANSLATOR'S NOTE.

It has been found necessary, for purposes of space,
to abridge a few passages in this volume.



CONTENTS



CHAP. PAGE

INTRODUCTORY NOTE . . . .... v

I. THE LEGEND OF PAUL VERLAINE . \. . . I

II. CHILDHOOD THE PARENTS OF PAUL VERLAINE

SCHOOL DAYS . . . . ...*.. 19

III. YOUTH COUNTRY PLEASURES FIRST POETICAL

ESSAYS 45

IV. VERLAINE THE CLERK SENTRY DUTY ON THE RAM-

PARTSTHE COMMUNE DOMESTIC LIFE IN THE

RUE NICOLET . . . '.''. t . . 74

V. LITERARY BEGINNINGS THE SALON OF THE
MARQUISE DE RICARD THE POEMES SA TURNIENS
THE FETES GALANTES . . . . . 105

VI. AT NINA'S THE CONTEMPORARY PARNASSUS . 138

VII. MARRIAGE LA BONNE CHANSON . . . . 176

VIII. THE RUPTURE ARTHUR RIMBAUD . . . 2o8

IX. TRAVELS LONDON SKETCHES . . . . . 232

X. IN THE NORTH ATTEMPTS AT RECONCILIATION-
PLANS FOR WORK 266

XI. THE TRIAL CONDEMNED 280

XII. IN PRISON MES PRISONS ROMANCES SANS

PAROLES ' . . 298

XIII. VERLAINE A SCHOOLMASTER IN ENGLAND AND
IN FRANCE LUCIEN LETINOIS VERLAINE A
FARMER 33 s

ix



x CONTENTS

CHAP. PAGE

XIV. RETURN TO PARIS AND THE LITERARY WORLD
SAGESSE LES POETES MA UDITS LES MEMOIRES
LTVN VEUF 362

XV. A SECOND ATTEMPT AT FARMING THE VOUZIERS

AFFAIR FINAL RETURN TO PARIS . . . 387

XVI. JAD1S ET NAGUERE IN HOSPITAL DEATH OF

VERLAINE'S MOTHER MES ndpiTAux AMOUR

PARALLELEMEWrAlX-LRS-BAlXS . . . 404

XVII. LAST YEARS EUGENIE KRANTZ DEATH IN THE
RUE DESCARTES FUNERAL A MONUMENT TO
PAUL VERLAINE 432

INDEX 457




EDMOND LEPELLETIER.
Deputd de Paris.









ILLUSTRATIONS

PAUL VERLAINE (from a Drawing by CAZALS) . . Frontispiece

EDMOND LEPELLETIER (Deputd de Paris) . . . To face p. x

PAUL VERLAINE'S MOTHER 18

PAUL VERLAINE (aged 2 years) 44

PAUL VERLAINE (Territorial, 1879) 72

PAUL VERLAINE (at 22, when clerk at the H6tel-de-

Ville) 72

GEORGES VERLAINE (son of the Poet) 208

PAUL VERLAINE (at the Cafe Francois, Quartier Latin,

1889) 404

PAUL VERLAINE at the Hospital (from a Drawing

by CAZALS) 418

GEORGES VERLAINE and his Friends 422



$tAu**'&e^f'$*-?>




PAUL VERLAINE



CHAPTER I

THE LEGEND OF PAUL VERLAINE

IT was at the Lyce*e Bonaparte, formerly known
as Bourbon, later as Fontanes, which is now under
the republican patronage of the Marquis de
Condorcet, that my friendship with Paul Verlaine
began ; it lasted without a single break for thirty-
six years, from 1860 until the fatal 9th of January
1896. I was concerned in the most decisive events
of his troublous career ; and although we were
separated for various periods by the exigencies of
life I never lost touch nor ceased to correspond
with him. His real confidences were for my ear
alone. It is true the poor fellow loved open con-
fession, to pour out his heart in prose and verse.
A table in a cafe would serve him as confessional,
and there to any chance acquaintance he would
reveal what appeared to be the inmost secrets of
his soul in long, long talks far into the night
particularly during his later years. But, as a
matter of fact, these statements of his about himself
were mostly exaggerations. He would accuse,
judge, and condemn himself with naive humility



2 PAUL VERLAINE

and unnecessary frankness. Seldom did he make
excuses, and never did he cast the responsibility
for his misdeeds on other shoulders save in the
case of the woman, whom in one breath he would
curse and regret, that Delilah who had delivered
him over, helpless, unarmed, unready, to vice and
temptation. In such moments of excitement, when
the sting of his secret sorrow grew unbearable, he
would lash himself into a passion of self-condemna-
tion that was only half genuine. These confessions,
begun in the flaring gaslight of the Cafe Rouge
or Frangois Premier, continued into the grey light
of dawn, and not ended till a final halt was made
at some wine-shop just taking down its shutters,
were doubtless partly for effect whether his listeners
were sceptics or so-called disciples.

Verlaine was gifted with the romantic tempera-
ment. Victor Hugo, Calderon, Petrus Borel, and
Barbey d'Aurevilly were the literary influences
of his most impressionable years. Gongora he
admired to the extent of desiring to translate him,
but the elements of Spanish grammar proved a
stumbling - block ; contact with this exuberant
genius, however, fostered in him a tendency to
exaggeration and reckless bravado. His religious
emotions, which were little more than a pose, for
Verlaine's faith was more theoretical than practical,
were the result of the deep draughts he had drunk
from the intoxicating founts of romanticism ; and
the avowals he made in those wanderings of his
among the drinking-shops of the Quartier Latin,
punctuated by the tap of his stick on resounding
pavements, across piles of saucers on stained
marble-topped tables, or in the precious pages of



THE LEGEND OF PAUL VERLAINE 3

delightful but fictitious autobiography, must be
accepted not without reservation, and largely dis-
counted. The confession is often objective and
the fault imaginary. Fancy played a large part
in these outpourings of his. There was something
of the playhouse in this pose of Verlaine's, not
that he wished to create a sensation, his taste was
too good for that, but he enjoyed the dramatic
effect of himself as a past master of vice, a St
Augustine of the wine-shop, who did not lack a
St Monica, for he frequently invoked the name
of his good and pious mother.

Thus a legend grew up around him ; all the more
persistent and enduring from the fact that Verlaine
himself was largely its author, and dug the grave of his
own reputation. His disciples widely disseminated
the gospel of depravity it amused him to preach ;
some even transformed into realities his literary
parables, and the public have taken too literally the
creed of the master, paraphrased by the apostles of
fantasy, and denounced by emphatic hypocritical
pharisees. It ought to be revised, and its com-
mentators kept within bounds. Verlaine's signature
at the foot of his numerous printed confessions is no
proof of the correctness of the facts. Before every-
thing else, he was a poet ; therefore he exaggerated,
amplified, enlarged. Sentiments and sensations
alike he peered at through a microscope. Under
the eyes of a too credulous public he advanced
into the lists of publicity, sounding his trumpet
and presenting himself as a knight of depravity.
He beat a drum around the imaginary debaucheries
with which he publicly reproached himself, while
regretting in his inmost heart that he was utterly



4 PAUL VERLAINE

innocent of them. He boasted of impurities that
existed solely in his own imagination. In fact he
was a great romancer.

It is far from my desire to present Verlaine as
a saint, an exemplary citizen, and model husband.
He was not, as will presently appear, even a good
patriot; the banalities of ordinary epitaphs are
not for him. At the same time he was not the
graceless vagabond, the licentious reprobate that
the middle-class public, who have literary pre-
tensions, imagine to themselves, with interest or
disgust, as best suits their varying temperaments.

I contradicted the legend when I stood by
the grave which swallowed up my friend ; but
in the little cemetery of the Batignolles I was too
much overcome for a set speech. I had followed
the bier, which bore away with it a part of my own
being, with heart oppressed and mind charged with
sad memories, without having taken the precaution
of furnishing myself with a little bouquet of the
flowers of rhetoric, conventionally arranged in
accordance with the taste of the day, such as is
usually placed on the tombs to which oratorical
access is afforded. In the sorrowful and sincere
little speech I improvised, I endeavoured to refute
all idle tales, and present Verlaine as he really
was, the son of a provincial family, his father an
officer in the army, his mother a landed proprietress
educated as beseemed his condition, provided with
diplomas, the possessor of a competency from his
cradle, having led a conventional existence for
twenty years, and, in fact, having adopted the
Bohemian habits of his later days solely because
his income had vanished, and literature provided



THE LEGEND OF PAUL VERLAINE 5

him with but an intermittent and insufficient liveli-
hood. He held in horror and contempt the poets
of old who, miserable, suffering, and destitute,
knocked at the doors of friends, and clamoured
for admittance to hospitals. He escaped the
lamentable reputation of the Malfilatres and the
Gilberts. Certainly he was a poet, and unlucky,
but never a beggar. If, in the last stage of his
life, he was helped, it was quite voluntarily by some
friends, and if Paris furnished him with a refuge,
was she not bound to help him or any other of
her children attacked by illness and misfortune ?
He never sought a permanent dependence on the
hospital, and experienced profound relief in his
last hours in that they were not spent on a
pauper's bed.

When his resources were exhausted, and his
patrimony consumed partly by his own extra-
vagance, and partly by the fault of others he
intended to earn his own living. He imagined
that his poems, books, and articles would yield
the equivalent of the capital that had been so
easily dissipated, believing, perhaps, in his artistic
unworldliness, that they represented a competency
which would endure till he died or grew rich.
He was rapidly disillusioned. The capital upon
which he had imprudently subsisted, instead of
contenting himself with its dividends, was not to
be replaced by the daily use of his pen. That
instrument was a marvel, but the work it produced
unremunerative to the astonishment and dis-
comfiture of the poet ; fame not money resulted
from the furrow he had laboriously traced. It
was then that he resolved to tear himself away



6 PAUL VERLAINE

from the famine-struck hazardous path of litera-
ture and the futile quest for a price for his copy ;
to quit the paltry battlefield whereon fights are
waged for 100 sous. The painful bargaining he
had already endured with the publisher Vanier ;
the entreaties, delays, and humiliations attendant
on literary commerce filled him with apprehension.
He begged me, most wisely, to endeavour to
obtain his re-installation in Government employ.
Was not this an indication of his desire for decency
and order? It was only when official hostility shut
this door of escape in the face of the anxious poet,
that Verlaine, feeling himself caught in the toils
of fate and misery, ceased to aspire after that life
of conventional regularity in which the table is laid
every day, and money comes in as if by clockwork
at the end of the month. Disheartened, he allowed
himself to drift into disorder and drunkenness,
aimlessness, and unproductiveness. To this extent
and no more was the legend founded on fact, and
comparison made between one " poor Lelian " and
Villon, poet and rascal.

Verlaine the modern Villon ! It is one of those
coined phrases which, having apparently been cast
in the mint of observation and truth, is passed from
hand to hand, and accepted without being subjected
to the test which would have proved its falseness.
Yet from a literary point of view the comparison is
not unkindly, but even flattering.

Frangois Villon, that poet most human and
original, who first sounded the note of melancholy
among the frivolities, satires, and insipid allegories
of the meaningless songsters and arid and argu-
mentative poets of the fifteenth century, heads the



THE LEGEND OF PAUL VERLAINE 7

magnificent dynasty of our monarchs of wit. He
was the Pharamond, the ancestor, the father of our
poetical noblesse. To be ranked with him is to be
placed at the summit of the aristocracy of letters.
But with the gratifying literary comparison is an
unpleasant hint of resemblance in life and habits ;
Villon was the king of vagabonds, and from this
point of view, rather than that of his poetical
talent, has Verlaine been confounded with him.

Such confusion cannot withstand analysis,
although personal virtues have nothing in common
with poetical talents. The misdeeds of a man
of genius ought not to prejudice us ; even his
crimes should not be taken into account when
his work only is in question. A literary critic is
not a criminal jury. What matters an error of
conduct on the part of the artist to the egotistical
public who delight in his masterpiece? They
suffer no inconvenience, have incurred no injury,
be he ever so debauched, violent, covetous or
dishonest. The artist must be judged by his
work alone, quite apart from his responsibilities
as a man. If he sets an example of all the
domestic virtues, do the public obtain any advan-
tage ? Should he not, in the interests of humanity,
set himself apart from common morality, if by so
doing his brain is stimulated, rather than leave
behind him the best of reputations and the worst
literature. He may have committed all the sins
in the decalogue, and yet have made both his
own and the generations which follow him heirs
of a marvellous and immortal kingdom. And it
is well. Around him the shadow may lie deep,
but he has illuminated the world. For mankind



8 PAUL VERLAINE

as a whole this is clear gain. Our sympathy
and gratitude should not be confined to the light-
house keeper in Maeterlinck's tale, who, too
virtuous to permit his neighbours to suffer, divided
among them the oil from his lamps, thus neglect-
ing the illumination of the ocean in order to light
a few cabins. Virtue may or may not be allied
with genius. If Verlaine had been worthy of the
Monthyon prize, or if he had merited the halter
Villon so narrowly escaped, it would not have
altered one verse of Sagesse nor modified one
stanza of the Fetes galantes.

But one is not necessarily a rascal in order to
be classed with the great artists, and there is no
reason why offences from which Verlaine was quite
free should be attributed to him. That is what
happens when he is lightly compared to Villon;
for the author of the Grand and the Petit
Testament left behind him a most unenviable
reputation besides his superb literary renown. It
is well known to all he consorted with shameless
highwaymen; that he swindled trusting innkeepers;
that even to theft by violence he was no stranger.
In our day he would have been counted a hooligan
and an apache. Caught redhanded in a highway
robbery, he was tried and condemned to be hanged
with his comrades; and to this we owe the fine
epitaph: " In the rain have we been washed and
made clean ..."

Verlaine, too, had his moods of melancholy
and remorse, in which he mournfully 'asked himself
"what he had done with his youth"; but he had
no highway robbery on his conscience; he had
never committed the smallest act of dishonesty;



THE LEGEND OF PAUL VERLAINE 9

by birth, breeding, instinct, and inclination he
was absolutely upright. Family tradition, early
influences, the scrupulously detailed accounts kept
by his mother, the untarnished record of his
father, all combined to protect him against the
temptations of cupidity, the degrading effects of
want. No doubt he sought to materialise the
pure gold of his verses, and practised the art
of dedication to moneyed friends, but this was
only following the example of the greatest writers
of the time of Louis XIV., who unblushingly
dedicated their work to. the most influential nobles.
But his life might be examined through a micro-
scope, and although it will be found to contain
plenty of faults, follies and weaknesses, and also
many sufferings, with fate at the bottom of them
all, nothing shameful, not one really vile nor un-
worthy action, would be discovered. The true
friends of the poet may therefore rightly claim
for him the epithet of honest man, commonplace
enough perhaps, but yet, in the eyes of many,
of sterling value ; and with it may be coupled,
even as Leon Cladel united the two on the tomb
of Albert Glatigny, that of great artist, of which
he was equally worthy.

Verlaine never came within an ace of the halter
like the poet bandit with whose memory he has
been associated. Villon escaped the gallows simply
through the favour of Louis XL, who chanced to
be passing through Meung ; Verlaine incurred the
anger of the law through an accident that could
hardly be regarded as criminal. If he were con-
strained to stand in the prisoner's dock, it was in
a foreign land, and at a most unpropitious moment.



10 PAUL VERLAINE

The independent air and French nationality of the
aimless traveller who followed no regular calling
at the police station in Brussels he stated that he
was " lyrical poet to his country " and above all
information from Paris representing him as a
dangerous republican who had served under the
Commune, prejudiced the Brabangon jury against
him, and he received a heavy sentence several
years' imprisonment. It all arose out of a slight
quarrel with a comrade, Arthur Rimbaud the
result of too liberal libations of gin. A revolver,
imprudently carried, foolishly produced and pointed
threateningly by way of emphasising an argument,
unfortunately exploded, the ball grazing Rimbaud's
hand. This insignificant injury would perhaps in
France have entailed a week's imprisonment, or
more probably a police summons for carrying arms
prohibited by law, and a sentence of two or three
days' "hard labour"; the maximum for small injuries
which do not incapacitate for work.

It is true that alcohol that worst of devils
according to Edgar Allan Poe, a most competent
judge, had a malign influence over Verlaine, and
caused pernicious suggestions to enter his head.
Temperamentally inclined to excess and morbidity,
as he confesses in his preface to the Poemes
Saturniens, under the influence of alcoholic in-
toxication Verlaine became a caricature of himself.
Hence the aforesaid avowals of vice. He had
always a weakness for drink, but during his travels,
after his separation from his wife, he developed an
almost chronic drunkenness. Who will ever know
what mental hell he strove to escape by seeking at the
bottom of a glass for a satanically artificial paradise ?



THE LEGEND OF PAUL VERLAINE 11

It was in England especially, the land of whisky,
which overwhelms, and gin which stupefies, that he
acquired the habit of steady drinking, of hurried
glasses "on draught" at the bar, of fits of exalta-
tion followed by prolonged torpors. Far from all
he loved, his home broken up, exiled from his
native land, with the sole prospect of a wandering
life and its necessarily frequent stoppages at inns,
accompanied by Rimbaud who was a precocious
and steady drinker, what wonder that he sought
forgetfulness in heady liquids and their mental
stimulation. Alcohol had, as it were, the effect of
doubling his personality so that for the time being
he lived another life. The existence circumstances
had ordained for him was so melancholy, so un-
comfortable, that surely he may be excused for
endeavouring to construct another habitation for
his mind, foolish though it was. More than once
in his sober moments he thought of suicide. The
after-effect of intoxication is depression, when the
brain is often obsessed by the desire for annihila-
tion ; to rid himself of his temptation he would
raise the cheering cup again to his tremulous lips,
and like Anthea and the earth, contact with the
liquid re - invested him with an ephemeral but
brilliant vigour. In the union of cup and lips he
found life ; depression vanished, and, warming his
numbed will before the fire of alcohol he recovered
force to support destiny for yet another day. As
Baudelaire says, "alcohol made the universe less
hideous to him, and time hung less heavy on his
hands." Let us not reproach him overmuch for
these moments of forgetfulness. Perhaps to him
they were the most endurable of his sad life, the



12 PAUL VERLAINE

only ones, save those of work, in which he savoured
anything of happiness. At one time when immured
in the oppressive solitude of a Belgian prison he
sought and found both peace and excitement in
devotion, prayer, and religious exaltation. To this
we owe Sagesse; but once at liberty again he
returned to alcohol.

During the last phase of his life, in his years of
Bohemianism and want, was he not, in spite of him-
self, poor wanderer, almost irresistibly urged towards
cafe's and wine-shops ? Homeless, penniless, and
companionless save for fallen creatures like himself,
he found in them the parody of a home, company,
comparative comfort, and a shelter from rain, snow,
and especially solitude. They afforded a means of
escape from a miserable garret, and had almost the
semblance of a familiar sitting-room. A photograph,
one of a series of famous literary men in their well-
furnished homes, exhibits the poet of the Romances
sans Paroles lounging on a bench in a cafe evolving
verses, his elbow supported on the marble-topped
table, a glass of absinthe within reach, and under-
neath is written " Paul Verlaine at home."

It is surely the fault of a society which like ours
pretends to be literary, artistic, intellectual, and
refined when so gifted a poet has not at his
command a modest lodging and bread sufficient
for each day, while many a scandalous sinecure
is lavished upon writers, destitute of talent or
worth, but masters of intrigue, obsequious, and
distinguished.

One last word regarding the accusation of un-
natural vice which has been hurled against Verlaine.
He would foolishly joke on this dangerous subject,



THE LEGEND OF PAUL VERLAINE 13

smiling equivocally and cynically when allusions were
made to any of those notorious friendships of his
which were considered compromising, apparently
with the desire to brave public opinion. He gave
vent to paradoxical theories on the subject, and in-
dulgent, even favourable, appreciations, in audacious
conversations at table, which were borne out and
corroborated in more than one of his poems. Did
he confine himself to a theory which seemed to him
amusing, and one to be rather proud of, or did he
succumb to a desire to put it into practice ? I
emphatically assert the former. He made no con-
fession of such lapse to me ; on the contrary, on a
certain serious occasion, entirely laying aside his
usual pleasantries on the subject, he indignantly
protested against it, and his innocence was proved
in a letter he wrote to me at the time when his
wife was suing for a separation. I am compelled
to believe that any such licentiousness on his
part was purely cerebral. He surrounded it with
mystery. He wished to impress his contemporaries
by endowing himself with imaginary vices, and
clothing himself in a garment of depravity which
only existed in his imagination.

I have already enumerated his earliest literary



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