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he did in his writings. I have never known any
human being with such childlike, perfect frankness,


such transparent sincerity in thought and being.
After a couple of hours spent with him I found my-
self wondering whether everyone by mere frankness
could be so charming. Of course it was the absence
of malice in Verlaine, the absence of all spite, envy
and hatred, the lovingkindness of the man which
was so engaging, and a touch of gay ironic humor
lent an ineffable fascination to his childlike good

The first evening he dined with me he told me of
an adventure which seems to me characteristic.
After he came out of prison in Belgium he made his
way to England. In London poverty forced him to
offer himself as a teacher of French.

"I was engaged," he said, "almost immediately
by a clergyman at Bournemouse at seventy pounds
a year, sans blanchissage. 'No washing' was won-
derful to me," he added, "because I use so little"
— and he smiled.

"Ze train was arranged for me and everything,
and I was met at ze station by a big man, a clergy-


Are you Mr. Verlaine?' he asked.
"I say 'Yes,' and he shake me by the hand, and
talk to me the most terrible French I have ever
heard. His accent was more than an accent; it was
a new language. One had to guess at his meaning.
I had to tell him I could understand him better if
he would talk English, though I only knew half a


dozen words. He took me to his house, which was
the school, and treated me splendidly. He showed
me ze room that was to be mine, and asked me to
dinner. His wife was charming to me, and they
both told me they were sure I should succeed. I
could only say, 'I will do my best.'

"After dinner ze clergyman told me he thought
it better I should rest ze next day, and get to know
ze place and school and everything. He was kind
to me and thoughtful. There were colored texts
in my room, very beautiful texts, and time-tables —
the time to post letters, time to get up, time to go
to bed — and there was a Bible on my table de niiit;
the clergyman was very English, I told him I was
willing to begin work at once, but he would not hear
of it, so I rested the whole day. Next morning he
came into my room to introduce me to the boys.

" 'Your first class will be a drawing class,' he

" 'Drawing!' I cried. *I know nozzing of draw-

'Every Frenchman,' he said, 'can draw.'
'But I cannot draw,' I exclaimed in an agony,
'not at all; I have never held a pencil in my life. I
came to teach French; I really know French.'

" 'Yes,' he say to me, smiling and putting his
hand on my shoulder, 'but you do not know much
English yet, and until you do know a little more
English I think I had better go on teaching French!'



" 'Mon Dleu, mon DIeu,' I said to myself, but I
could not find words to answer him. He took me
into the class and put a wooden cone on the table
and told the boys to draw It. I was to correct zere

"What I teach the boys I do not know. I taught
myself more than I ever taught myself In my life.
In a fever I studied light and shade for an hour.
Of course I was a little better than the boys; but I
was no more master of drawing than he was master
of French. Oh, his French, it was horrible ! He
talked out ze verbs In a loud voice, and ze class had
to repeat zem after him, and no Frenchman could
have understood what he was saying. Such a lan-
guage I never heard In my life. He was very Eng-
lish, but he was kind to me always. I had to go
out long walks with the boys. Some of the older
boys were Interesting and ze country about Bourne-
mouse was beautiful. That English life was new
to me. It was strange and it absorbed me : It healed
me. It was like an oasis In the burning desert of my
life. I got quite well In Bournemouse, but why was
it — seventy pounds a year, sans hlanchissage?" and
he murmured to himself, shrugging his shoulders,
"sans hlanchissage, et je m'en sers de si pen!"
Again and again — "Seventy pounds a year, sans

"I am glad you liked English life," I said to him,
"and Bournemouth."


"It was healthy," he replied, "and ze clergyman
he meant well with his texts and time-tables; and I
learned a good deal of English, and read some
Shakespeare. Quel divine poete! I could never
understand how that clergyman and Shakespeare
could be of the same race."

I was eager to find out how much Verlaine knew
of Shakespeare; whether he had divined him at all.
But when I pressed him he took refuge in generali-
ties; and when I tried to get to my end by compari-
sons he would not be netted. He likened Shake-
speare to Racine for beauty of phrase; and when I
tried to say that there was no magic in Racine, no
word or thought comparable to Shakespeare's best,
he accepted what I said with smiling good humor.
His acquiescence was evidently of politeness and not

It was difficult to get at the soul of the man, dif-
ficult to reconcile this charming faun-like creature
with the hero of a strange and tragic story. Yet
I felt that the two were identical ; behind Verlaine's
openness and sincerity were deeps on deeps of feel-
ing. Every one who has read his early lyrics must
have heard of the tragedy, of his passionate ad-
miration for the youth Arthur Rimbaud and the ter-
rible outcome of it. It may all be told here very
briefly. Verlaine left his wife and child and went
to Brussels with Rimbaud. After living together
some time they quarrelled, and Verlaine followed


his friend one night to a brothel and in a fit of mad-
jealousy shot him. While Rimbaud lay wounded
in hospital, Verlaine was sentenced to a year's im-
prisonment. It was in prison that the poet first
came to repentance and the humility of the Chris-
tian faith, and thus reached the apparent dishar-
mony of his dual existence. For all through his
life afterwards he floated from passion to repent-
ance, from the lust of the flesh to sorrow for sin in
perpetual alternation. And his poetry falls natu-
rally into one or other of these categories. Never
was there such a sinner and such sincerity of sorrow.

But few know more than the bare outline of the
tragic story, though Madame Verlaine is still alive,
and her account of what happened forty years ago
is easily obtained. She is, I believe, about to pub-
lish her "Memoirs" and to relate in detail her rela-
tions with "Verlaine," as she always calls her hus-
band. Meanwhile it is of interest to psychologists
just to consider what she has to tell of that almost
accidental meeting with Rimbaud which had such a
profound effect on Verlaine's life. Madame Ver-
laine is now a comfortable-looking old lady, who has
long lost the "thin arms" the poet sung, though "the
merry eyes" of her youth are still to be divined. She
is anything but diffident, and talks of her past life
with complete frankness and a curious detachment.

"We had just returned from the country," she
began, "we had been staying at my husband's place


at Fampoux. We called at Lemerre's (the pub-
lisher's). Verlaine was given a letter with some
verses signed Rimbaud. 'They're very good!' he
said, and showed them to my mother, to Charles
Cros, and to Banville. 'Astoundingly good,' they
all agreed. 'You must ask the poet to come to see
you.' And on the spot they subscribed to pay the
expense of the journey. At that time we were liv-
ing with my father and mother in a little hotel in
the Rue Nicolet. In the linen-room there was a
little iron camp-bed, which my brother Charles de
Sivry used to put at the disposal sometimes of any
student friend who might be hard up. We decided
to let Rimbaud have it. . . . Verlaine went to meet
him at the station; while he was absent Rimbaud
arrived: a great mane of untidy hair, fat cheeks,
skin tanned by the sun, fine eyes though, and short
trousers : he seemed shy and sulky. He must have
been about my own age," Madame Verlaine went
on meditatively, "about seventeen. Verlaine re-
turned: we all began to talk. . . . From that mo-
ment Verlaine altered to me. He went back to the
life of the Cafe and the morning drink, and used
often to come home in a bad temper. ... I was
very young and in my innocence put Verlaine's liking
for Rimbaud down to the beautiful things Rimbaud
wrote; for every one admired him, but all the same
I said to myself that his influence on Verlaine was a
bad one. . . . Then my son Georges was born,, and


he made up to me for the constant scenes. . . . One
morning I awoke with dreadful neuralgia. Verlaine
went out as he said to fetch Dr. Cros. At noon he
had not come back. Night came and no Verlaine.
For four whole days my father searched Paris for
him : he had gone away with Rimbaud and had taken
all his money with him (I had only a small in-
come). . . .

"At first I was completely overwhelmed. Then
my courage returned: I wouldn't give my husband
up without a struggle. I managed to find his ad-
dress. I wrote to him in Brussels; finally he con-
sented to see me. Off I went with my mother, leav-
ing my child in Paris. I met Verlaine in the morning
in a little hotel, I think it was called L'Hotel
Liegois. I begged him to return with me. He re-
fused. I proposed that we should travel: he re-
fused. A new idea came to me. What if we went
to New Caledonia, he had friends there, Louise
Michel and others: we should see new countries?
The idea appealed to him. He said he'd meet me
that afternoon and tell me. ... At five o'clock that
evening we met in the public garden near the sta-
tion. He seemed sulky, as he often was after drink-
ing coffee. 'Well?' I asked.

"He replied casually that he'd go with me.

"All trembling with joy I crossed the square to
my mother : *He accepts.'

"'What?' she cried.


" 'Don't let us waste time talking,' I said, 'let's

"We all went to the station and got into the train
for Paris. After It started we ate some cold
chicken. Verlalne didn't speak a word: he pulled
his hat down over his eyes and went to sleep. We
reached the frontier, and had to get down for the
Customs. Afterwards we went to the train. But
Verlalne wasn't with us. We hunted everywhere
for him high and low — In vain. The train was
starting: the porters pushed us In: I was almost
out of my mind. Suddenly, there before me on the
platform was Verlalne. 'Jump in, jump In,' cried
my mother to him. 'Come,' I cried, 'the train's
starting.' 'I'm not going,' he replied, and he pulled
his soft felt hat down over his eyes resolutely. I
never saw him afterwards. . . .

"At first I was dreadfully unhappy. Verlalne
talks In a poem of my voice as 'weak,' that of a con-
sumptive. It was true : regret made me ill. For five
years I was as near death as could be. It was only
the thought of my son that gave me the strength to
struggle. Once the child got measles and was very
ill. I'll never forget my anxiety: I was desperate.

"Well, just then Verlalne wanted to see him. My
mother consented, hoping to bring about a reconcilia-
tion. I had no hope, hardly the wish. Indeed; Ver-
lalne was so weak, so changeable. I stayed in the
next room and would not see him. I did right: he


never came back again. . . . Oh, he wrote me — in-
terminable letters, innumerable! For three years I
kept them without opening one. I remember getting
one letter from him in which he said:

" 'If you're not back with me by noon I'll kill

"I only read it three years later. ... I suppose
he loved me still, or thought he did. He was kind;
but so weak, so unstable, untrustworthy — like water,
terrible ! I wanted to forget him, I succeeded at
length, I had to."

How natural the scenes, how lifelike the actors !
Can one ever forget Verlaine on the platform,
moody, pulling his hat down over his eyes, "I'm
not going."

And then the child-wife frantic with anxiety about
her boy; but resolved not to see the father, and wait-
ing in the next room till he should go : he had hurt
her too deeply: "I wanted to forget him, I had
to . . ." What a picture of life etched in by suf-
fering !

I was in constant relations with Verlaine, both as
editor and friend, for the last few years of his life.
I published some poems of his in The Fortnightly
Review, though I had a good deal of difficulty with
my directors in getting adequate payment for poetry,
and French poetry was anathema to them. When I
sent Verlaine his cheque he used to reply in a letter


thanking me, and at the end of a month or so he
would write me another letter saying he hoped I
liked his poem, and would I send the money for it
to the above address. Of course I wrote to him say-
ing I had already sent the money and held his re-
ceipt for it. He wrote back admitting the fact and
excusing himself, saying he was so hard up that he
liked to think he had not been paid. Of course I
did what others would have done, and sent him more
than I owed. There was something of the wisdom
of the serpent mingled with his childlike frankness.

In those latter days Verlaine was to be seen at his
best in a restaurant on the Boul' Mich', where he
often spent his evenings. He used to sit in a corner
drinking and talking of poetry and literature with a
little crowd of fervent admirers about him. Every
student who came in made a point of passing his
corner and of bowing to him in greeting with a
^'cher maitre."

Verlaine accepted the homage with a child's un-
feigned delight. It was to him a sort of apotheosis,
the reward of much suffering. One night some one
begged him to recite "Le pauvre Gaspard," a most
characteristic poem, as characteristic perhaps of Ver-
laine as "The Last Word" is of Matthew Arnold.
The poem was suggested, I imagine, by a word of
Alfred de Musset — "Je suls venu trop tard dans un
monde trop vieux?" But the question Is brought


to Intenser significance by Verlaine. The last verse

Suis-je ne trop tot ou trop tard?
Qu'est-ce que j e f ais en ce monde !
Ohj vous tous, ma peine est profonde:
Priez pour le pauvre Gaspard.

He recited the verses perfectly, bringing out all
the pathos of them, while marking the rhythm with
a slight beat of his left hand. A silence as of un-
shed tears followed, and in the silence he repeated
the last verse again, as if to himself, slowly, sadly,
and then suddenly his mood changed and in the last
line he substituted "payez" for "priez," smiling at
us the while mischievously. Of course we were all
too eager to pay for this poor Gaspard.

I have left myself practically no space to speak
of Verlaine's achievement as a poet, but there is
less need for that, as his work is known and- loved
wherever French is read. There is no more beau-
tiful poetry in the language. Verlaine's name will
be coupled with Villon's in the future as a writer of
the best French lyrics. His religious poems de-
serve perhaps a higher place. He is the greatest
Christian singer since Dante and his passionate sin-
cerity of feeling brought new effects into French
poetry. There is a singular directness and sim-
plicity in his best verse :vhich is very rare, and he
uses a childlike repetition, common enough in Eng-


lish and German poetry, but almost unknown till
his time In French poetry, with extraordinary im-

Vous connaissez tout cela, tout cela,

Et que je suis plus pauvre que personne,

Vous connaissez tout cela, tout cela,

Mais ce que j'ai, mon Dieu, je vous le donne.


IS there any pleasure after forty like finding a
new book, meeting a new man! The gasp of
excitement, the hope, the flutterings of delight, the
growing conviction that the book has widened the
mental horizon, is a classic therefore, a possession
of the spirit for ever — all the joys soon merged in
curiosity as to the writer: who is he? How did
life treat him? To what qualities in him do we owe
this deathless work?

There before me is the book Insect Life, the
author's name, before unknown, now radiant — J.
H. Fabre. Where does Browning talk of the de-
light of seeing and naming a star? No shadow
of doubt in the recognition, no hesitation possible.
Fabre has revealed a new world to us; beneath
our very feet indeed — the world of the infinitely
littl-e, with its innumerable tiny Inhabitants, each
living his own life and dying his own death. The
comedies and tragedies of their existence are shown
us with simple, scrupulous care, and we realize at
once that this world, too, is all fashioned like our
own with purposes we cannot fathom, to ends in-
conceivable — all mysterious, indeed, and wonderful



to us; now Innocently beautiful as a June morning,
now grotesque and petty, now sublime, now hor-
rible: self-abnegation and love working through
blood and lust to some unknown goal or — to no
goal at all; for the darkness is impenetrable: the
doubt will not be laid.

The shallow, modern optimist is brought to
shame at once. Fabre, it appears, is already a very
old man — eighty-seven indeed; has worked as a
naturalist in a village in Languedoc for three-quar-
ters of a century; has written and published thirty
volumes, and was only discovered by the wise men
in Paris the other day, when, as he says himself a
little sadly, "I'm past work."

Yet there can be no question about his value.
Maeterlinck calls Fabre "one of the glories of the
civilized world . . . one of the most profound ad-
mirations of my life." Rostand talks of him as
a savant who "thinks like a philosopher and writes
like a poet," and RIchepIn joins In the chorus. For
the first time In my memory Frenchmen of all
schools are agreed that Fabre is one of the great
naturalists of the world, and yet if he had died at
eighty-five hardly one man in ten thousand of his
own countrymen would have known his name. So
much for popular appreciation of genius in a de-

Yet his life has been as noble as his work. The
son of a poor peasant, he taught himself to read


by the light of a pine-cone — a tallow candle being
too dear. After hours of study on winter nights
he used to He with the sheep in order to get warm,
and was often awakened by the howhng around the
fold of the savage wolves of the Rouergue. He
paid his way through the College at Rodez by his
services as a choir-boy, and then set himself to study
Nature on an empty stomach, but with a new book,
of poetry in his pocket. Poverty has been his com-
panion throughout his life: even now the house he
lives in with his wife and children Is a peasant's
cottage distempered rose-red with jalousies painted
pea-green, and his food and clothing are simple
in the extreme. Yet he looks on life bravely, fairly,
without affectation of triumph, or trace of bitter-
ness: "It's wretched luck," he says, "that now I've
got some good ideas I'm unable to carry them out.
... I can only think when I'm walking about,
and," he adds with regret, "my legs have given out."
I don't know how to begin telling all that Fabre
has done in his seventy-five years of labor; the
result is colossal. Ten volumes on insects and
their lives and instincts, and ten or twelve other
volumes with a practical lesson In each of them.
One on the domestic animals, one on the animals
useful to agriculture, another on Insects hurtful to
agriculture, another on botany, yet another on
"The Earth" and a companion volume on "The
Heavens." There are besides lectures on zoology,


lectures on history and agricultural chemistry,
chapters on coins and poetry — five thousand pages,
in which one finds everywhere the patient, loving
observations of the naturalist arranged by a most
sincere artist and set to words by a poet. Fabre,
it seems to me, has written the first book of the
new Bible, the Bible of Nature.

Let us take him as our guide in this new world
for a little while. He begins by talking about the
sacred beetle of the Egyptians, the common beetle
of the South of France, which every one has seen
on the road pushing an enormous ball ten times as
big as himself up hill and down dale with feverish
energy and indefatigable perseverance. Scarcely
one observer in a hundred cares to notice that the
booty is made up of cowdung or other excrement,
that the beetle is one of the most assiduous of Na-
ture's scavengers. Again and again the sturdy lit-
tle creature in its gleaming black armor pushes
the ball up some steep hill; half-way up a blade of
grass tree-like bars the way and suddenly ball and
Sisyphus-workman roll to the bottom over and over
again in hideous defeat. The beetle returns to his
task undismayed, and after inconceivable efforts
gets the ball where he wants it.

Often he has to fight as well as labor. Another
beetle will come down and perch on top of the ball
and annex it, and strike down the true proprietor as
soon as he advances to the attack. The beetle's


courage is beyond question; he attacks again and
again until he drives away the robber or until he is
convinced that the robber is the stronger, in which
case he hurries back to the dung-heap and begins to
form another ball, which he will again push to its

Worse even than the robber is to be met with in
the beetle's struggle for life. Sometimes another
beetle quietly joins the proprietor and at first makes
some show of aiding him by pulling the ball while
the proprietor pushes it. After a little while, how-
ever, the parasite usually tires of the work and
calmly climbs on top of the ball, and allows the in-
defatigable proprietor to push him as well as his
dinner to the common refectory.

When the beetle has got the ball where he wants
it, in some sunny, quiet corner, he immediately be-
gins to dig out a cave twenty times as large as him-
self, and ten times as deep. As soon as he is lost
to view the parasite seizes the opportunity and be-
gins pushing the ball away for himself. But the
proprietor, down in his cave, returns every now and
then to the surface, and as soon as he misses the
ball hurries after it and the parasite. Sometimes
the parasite will coolly pretend the ball is his, but,
as a rule, he does not want to fight, and therefore
becomes very officious indeed in pushing the ball
back to the refectory. When the proprietor has
carefully lowered the ball into the cave the two con-


struct a roof, and thus shut themselves out from
the world in a warm, half-dark cave. In solemn si-
lence and shade they begin the most extraordinary
banquet that has yet been recorded in the world.
For twenty or thirty days they will sit opposite each
other eating without intermission or pause day and
night till the last atom has been consumed, leaving
as proof of their powers a long thread of excre-
ment which runs into yards each day, and each day
weighs as much as the feasters. And this Gargan-
tuan banquet for private pleasure, subserves the
public health, for the excrement of the sheep and
cow is thus cleared away and prevented from In-
fecting the upper air.

But feeding is only one small part of the activity
of the beetle, Fabre looks not upon hunger, nor
upon love, but on maternity as the sovereign In-
splrer of Instinct. A male beetle will make a great
booty and eat It, but when the female wishes to
lay her eggs the two make a ball many times larger
composed of finest nutriment for the benefit of the
larva. They pick out a sunny bank and dig a large
subterranean chamber In which the immense ball
of food Is gradually formed Into the shape of a
pear, and pressed and patted and beaten till the
outside of It Is as smooth as silk. This outside plays
the part of a shell, and is soon hardened by the
heat of the summer sun to the firmness of terra-
cotta. This shell, so to speak, Is Intended to keep


the Inside soft and eatable for several weeks in
spite of the heat.

The female lays her eggs in the small end of the
pear, and round it she puts the finer milky nourish-
ment of her own body for the little worm to eat as
soon as it is born. With infinite care she closes
the aperture over the egg so that a certain amount
of air can penetrate to the larva, and then she and
her mate leave their work and go in search of food.
If the beetle is a glutton when it eats, it labors

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Online LibraryFrank HarrisContemporary portraits → online text (page 16 of 20)