‘Bien affectueusement … yours, P. Verlaine.’ So, in its gay and friendly mingling of French and English, ended the last letter I had from Verlaine. A few days afterwards came the telegram from Paris telling me of his death, in the Rue Descartes, on that 8th January 1896.

‘Condemned to death,’ as he was, in Victor Hugo’s phrase of men in general, ‘with a sort of indefinite reprieve,’ and gravely ill as I had for some time known him to be, it was still with a shock, not only of sorrow, but of surprise, that I heard the news of his death.1 He had suffered and survived so much, and I found it so hard to associate the idea of death with one who had always been so passionately in love with life, more passionately in love with life than any man I ever knew. Rest was one of the delicate privileges of life which he never loved: he did but endure it with grumbling gaiety when a hospital-bed claimed him. And whenever he spoke to me of the long rest which has now sealed his eyelids, it was with a shuddering revolt from the thought of ever going away into the cold, out of the sunshine which had been so warm to him. With all his pains, misfortunes, and the calamities which followed him step by step all his life, I think few men ever got so much out of their lives, or lived so fully, so intensely, with such a genius for living. That, indeed, is why he was a great poet. Verlaine was a man who gave its full value to every moment, who got out of every moment all that that moment had to give him. It was not always, not often, perhaps, pleasure. But it was energy, the vital force of a nature which was always receiving and giving out, never at rest, never passive, or indifferent, or hesitating. It is impossible for me to convey to those who did not know him any notion of how sincere he was. The word ‘sincerity’ seems hardly to have emphasis enough to say, in regard to this one man, what it says, adequately enough, of others. He sinned, and it was with all his humanity; he repented, and it was with all his soul. And to every occurrence of the day, to every mood of the mind, to every impulse of the creative instinct, he brought the same unparalleled sharpness of sensation. When, in 1894, he was my guest in London, I was amazed by the exactitude of his memory of the mere turnings of the streets, the shapes and colours of the buildings, which he had not seen for twenty years.2 He saw, he felt, he remembered, everything, with an unconscious mental selection of the fine shades, the essential part of things, or precisely those aspects which most other people would pass by.

Few poets of our time have been more often drawn, few have been easier to draw, few have better repaid drawing, than Paul Verlaine. A face without a beautiful line, a face all character, full of somnolence and sudden fire, in which every irregularity was a kind of aid to the hand, could not but tempt the artist desiring at once to render a significant likeness and to have his own part in the creation of a picture. Verlaine, like all men of genius, had something of the air of the somnambulist: that profound slumber of the face, as it was in him, with its startling awakenings. It was a face devoured by dreams, feverish and somnolent; it had earthly passion, intellectual pride, spiritual humility; the air of one who remembers, not without an effort, who is listening, half distractedly to something which other people do not hear; coming back so suddenly, and from so far, with the relief of one who steps out of that obscure shadow into the noisier forgetfulness of life. The eyes, often half closed, were like the eyes of a cat between sleeping and waking; eyes in which contemplation was ‘itself an act.’ A remarkable lithograph by Mr. Rothenstein (the face lit by oblique eyes, the folded hand thrust into the cheek) gives with singular truth the sensation of that restless watch on things which this prisoner of so many chains kept without slackening.3 To Verlaine every corner of the world was alive with tempting and consoling and terrifying beauty. I have never known any one to whom the sight of the eyes was so intense and imaginative a thing. To him, physical sight and spiritual vision, by some strange alchemical operation of the brain, were one. And in the disquietude of his face, which seemed to take such close heed of things, precisely because it was sufficiently apart from them to be always a spectator, there was a realisable process of vision continually going on, in which all the loose ends of the visible world were being caught up into a new mental fabric.

And along with this fierce subjectivity, into which the egoism of the artist entered so unconsciously, and in which it counted for so much, there was more than the usual amount of childishness, always in some measure present in men of genius. There was a real, almost blithe, childishness in the way in which he would put on his ‘Satanic’ expression, of which it was part of the joke that every one should not be quite in the secret. It was a whim of this kind which made him put at the beginning of Romances sans Paroles that very criminal image of a head which had so little resemblance with even the shape, indeed curious enough, of his actual head. ‘Born under the sign of Saturn,’ as he no doubt was, with that ‘old prisoner’s head’ of which he tells us, it was by his amazing faculty for a simple kind of happiness that he always impressed me. I have never seen so cheerful an invalid as he used to be at that hospital, the Hôpital Saint-Louis, where at one time I used to go and see him every week. His whole face seemed to chuckle as he would tell me, in his emphatic, confiding way, everything that entered into his head; the droll stories cut short by a groan, a lamentation, a sudden fury of reminiscence, at which his face would cloud or convulse, the wild eyebrows slanting up and down; and then, suddenly, the good laugh would be back, clearing the air. No one was ever so responsive to his own moods as Verlaine, and with him every mood had the vehemence of a passion. Is not his whole art a delicate waiting upon moods, with that perfect confidence in them as they are, which it is a large part of ordinary education to discourage in us, and a large part of experience to repress? But to Verlaine, happily, experience taught nothing; or rather, it taught him only to cling the more closely to those moods in whose succession lies the more intimate part of our spiritual life.

It is no doubt well for society that man should learn by experience; for the artist the benefit is doubtful. The artist, it cannot be too clearly understood, has no more part in society than a monk in domestic life: he cannot be judged by its rules, he can be neither praised nor blamed for his acceptance or rejection of its conventions. Social rules are made by normal people for normal people, and the man of genius is fundamentally abnormal. It is the poet against society, society against the poet, a direct antagonism; the shock of which, however, it is often possible to avoid by a compromise. So much licence is allowed on the one side, so much liberty foregone on the other. The consequences are not always of the best, art being generally the loser. But there are certain natures to which compromise is impossible; and the nature of Verlaine was one of these natures.

‘The soul of an immortal child,’ says one who has understood him better than others, Charles Morice, ‘that is the soul of Verlaine, with all the privileges and all the perils of so being: with the sudden despair so easily distracted, the vivid gaieties without a cause, the excessive suspicions and the excessive confidences, the whims so easily outwearied, the deaf and blind infatuations, with, especially, the unceasing renewal of impressions in the incorruptible integrity of personal vision and sensation. Years, influences, teachings, may pass over a temperament such as this, may irritate it, may fatigue it; transform it, never – never so much as to alter that particular unity which consists in a dualism, in the division of forces between the longing after what is evil and the adoration of what is good; or rather, in the antagonism of spirit and flesh. Other men “arrange” their lives, take sides, follow one direction; Verlaine hesitates before a choice, which seems to him monstrous, for, with the integral naïveté of irrefutable human truth, he cannot resign himself, however strong may be the doctrine, however enticing may be the passion, to the necessity of sacrificing one to the other, and from one to the other he oscillates without a moment’s repose.’4

It is in such a sense as this that Verlaine may be said to have learnt nothing from experience, in the sense that he learnt everything direct from life, and without comparing day with day. That the exquisite artist of the Fêtes Galantes should become the great poet of Sagesse, it was needful that things should have happened as disastrously as they did: the marriage with the girl-wife, that brief idyl, the passion for drink, those other forbidden passions, vagabondage, an attempted crime, the eighteen months of prison, conversion; followed, as it had to be, by relapse, bodily sickness, poverty, beggary almost, a lower and lower descent into mean distresses. It was needful that all this should happen, in order that the spiritual vision should eclipse the material vision; but it was needful that all this should happen in vain, so far as the conduct of life was concerned. Reflection, in Verlaine, is pure waste; it is the speech of the soul and the speech of the eyes, that we must listen to in his verse, never the speech of the reason. And I call him fortunate because, going through life with a great unconsciousness of what most men spend their lives in considering, he was able to abandon himself entirely to himself, to his unimpeded vision, to his unchecked emotion, to the passionate sincerity which in him was genius.


French poetry, before Verlaine, was an admirable vehicle for a really fine, a really poetical, kind of rhetoric. With Victor Hugo, for the first time since Ronsard (the two or three masterpieces of Ronsard and his companions) it had learnt to sing;5 with Baudelaire it had invented a new vocabulary for the expression of subtle, often perverse, essentially modern emotion and sensation. But with Victor Hugo, with Baudelaire, we are still under the dominion of rhetoric. ‘Take eloquence, and wring its neck!’ said Verlaine in his Art Poétique; and he showed, by writing it, that French verse could be written without rhetoric. It was partly from his study of English models that he learnt the secret of liberty in verse, but it was much more a secret found by the way, in the mere endeavour to be absolutely sincere, to express exactly what he saw, to give voice to his own temperament, in which intensity of feeling seemed to find its own expression, as if by accident. L’art, mes enfants, c’est d’être absolument soi-même, he tells us in one of his later poems;* and, with such a personality as Verlaine’s to express, what more has art to do, if it would truly, and in any interesting manner, hold the mirror up to nature?6

For, consider the natural qualities which this man had for the task of creating a new poetry. ‘Sincerity, and the impression of the moment followed to the letter’: that is how he defined his theory of style, in an article written about himself.

Car nous voulons la nuance encor,

Pas la couleur, rien que la nuance!

as he cries, in his famous Art Poétique. Take, then, his susceptibility of the senses, an emotional susceptibility not less delicate; a life sufficiently troubled to draw out every emotion of which he was capable, and, with it, that absorption in the moment, that inability to look before or after; the need to love and the need to confess, each a passion; an art of painting the fine shades of landscape, of evoking atmosphere, which can be compared only with the art of Whistler; a simplicity of language which is the direct outcome of a simplicity of temperament, with just enough consciousness of itself for a final elegance; and, at the very depth of his being, an almost fierce humility, by which the passion of love, after searching furiously through all his creatures, finds God by the way, and kneels in the dust before him. Verlaine was never a theorist: he left theories to Mallarmé. He had only his divination; and he divined that poetry, always desiring that miracles should happen, had never waited patiently enough upon the miracle. It was by that proud and humble mysticism of his temperament that he came to realise how much could be done by, in a sense, trying to do nothing.

And then: De la musique avant toute chose; De la musique encore et toujours! There are poems of Verlaine which go as far as verse can go to become pure music, the voice of a bird with a human soul. It is part of his simplicity, his divine childishness, that he abandons himself, at times, to the song which words begin to sing in the air, with the same wise confidence with which he abandons himself to the other miracles about him. He knows that words are living things, which we have not created, and which go their way without demanding of us the right to live. He knows that words are suspicious, not without their malice, and that they resist mere force with the impalpable resistance of fire or water. They are to be caught only with guile or with trust. Verlaine has both, and words become Ariel to him. They bring him not only that submission of the slave which they bring to others, but all the soul, and in a happy bondage. They transform themselves for him into music, colour, and shadow; a disembodied music, diaphanous colours, luminous shadow. They serve him with so absolute a self-negation that he can write romances sans paroles, songs almost without words, in which scarcely a sense of the interference of human speech remains. The ideal of lyric poetry, certainly, is to be this passive, flawless medium for the deeper consciousness of things, the mysterious voice of that mystery which lies about us, out of which we have come, and into which we shall return. It is not without reason that we cannot analyse a perfect lyric.

With Verlaine the sense of hearing and the sense of sight are almost interchangeable: he paints with sound, and his line and atmosphere become music. It was with the most precise accuracy that Whistler applied the terms of music to his painting, for painting, when it aims at being the vision of reality, pas la couleur, rien que la nuance, passes almost into the condition of music.7 Verlaine’s landscape painting is always an evocation, in which outline is lost in atmosphere.

C’est des beaux yeux derrière des voiles,

      C’est le grand jour tremblant de midi,

      C’est, par un ciel d’automne attiédi,

Le bleu fouillis des claires étoiles!§

He was a man, certainly, ‘for whom the visible world existed,’ but for whom it existed always as a vision.8 He absorbed it through all his senses, as the true mystic absorbs the divine beauty. And so he created in verse a new voice for nature, full of the humble ecstasy with which he saw, listened, accepted.

Cette âme qui se lamente

En cette plaine dormante

      C’est la nôtre, n’est-ce pas?

La mienne, dis, et la tienne,

Dont s’exhale l’humble antienne

      Par ce tiède soir, tout bas?

And with the same attentive simplicity with which he found words for the sensations of hearing and the sensations of sight, he found words for the sensations of the soul, for the fine shades of feeling. From the moment when his inner life may be said to have begun, he was occupied with the task of an unceasing confession, in which one seems to overhear him talking to himself, in that vague, preoccupied way which he often had. Here again are words which startle one by their delicate resemblance to thoughts, by their winged flight from so far, by their alighting so close. The verse murmurs, with such an ingenuous confidence, such intimate secrets. That ‘setting free’ of verse, which is one of the achievements of Verlaine, was itself mainly an attempt to be more and more sincere, a way of turning poetic artifice to new account, by getting back to nature itself, hidden away under the eloquent rhetoric of Hugo, Baudelaire, and the Parnassians. In the devotion of rhetoric to either beauty or truth, there is a certain consciousness of an audience, of an external judgment: rhetoric would convince, be admired. It is the very essence of poetry to be unconscious of anything between its own moment of flight and the supreme beauty which it will never attain. Verlaine taught French poetry that wise and subtle unconsciousness. It was in so doing that he ‘fused his personality,’ in the words of Verhaeren, ‘so profoundly with beauty, that he left upon it the imprint of a new and henceforth eternal attitude.’9


J’ai la fureur d’aimer, says Verlaine, in a passage of very personal significance.

J’ai la fureur d’aimer. Mon coeur si faible est fou.

N’importe quand, n’importe quel et n’importe où,

Qu’un éclair de beauté, de vertu, de vaillance,

Luise, il s’y précipite, il y vole, il y lance,

Et, le temps d’une étreinte, il embrasse cent fois

L’être ou l’objet qu’il a poursuivi de son choix;

Puis, quand l’illusion a replié son aile,

Il revient triste et seul bien souvent, mais fidèle,

Et laissant aux ingrats quelque chose de lui,

Sang ou chair ….

J’ai la fureur d’aimer. Qu’y faire? Ah, laissez faire!||

And certainly this admirable, and supremely dangerous, quality was at the root of Verlaine’s nature. Instinctive, unreasoning as he was, entirely at the mercy of the emotion or impression which, for the moment, had seized upon him, it was inevitable that he should be completely at the mercy of the most imperious of instincts, of passions, and of intoxications. And he had the simple and ardent nature, in this again consistently childlike, to which love, some kind of affection, given or returned, is not the luxury, the exception, which it is to many natures, but a daily necessity. To such a temperament there may or may not be the one great passion; there will certainly be many passions. And in Verlaine I find that single, childlike necessity of loving and being loved, all through his life and on every page of his works; I find it, unchanged in essence, but constantly changing form, in his chaste and unchaste devotions to women, in his passionate friendships with men, in his supreme mystical adoration of God.

To turn from La Bonne Chanson, written for a wedding present to a young wife, to Chansons pour Elle, written more than twenty years later, in dubious honour of a middle-aged mistress, is to travel a long road, the hard, long road which Verlaine had travelled during those years. His life was ruinous, a disaster, more sordid perhaps than the life of any other poet; and he could write of it, from a hospital-bed, with this quite sufficient sense of its deprivations. ‘But all the same, it is hard,’ he laments, in Mes Hôpitaux, ‘after a life of work, set off, I admit, with accidents in which I have had a large share, catastrophes perhaps vaguely premeditated – it is hard, I say, at forty-seven years of age, in full possession of all the reputation (of the success, to use the frightful current phrase) to which my highest ambitions could aspire – hard, hard, hard indeed, worse than hard, to find myself – good God! – to find myself on the streets, and to have nowhere to lay my head and support an ageing body save the pillows and the menus of a public charity, even now uncertain, and which might at any moment be withdrawn – God forbid! – without, apparently, the fault of any one, oh! not even, and above all, not mine.’ Yet, after all, these sordid miseries, this poor man’s vagabondage, all the misfortunes of one certainly ‘irreclaimable,’ on which so much stress has been laid, alike by friends and by foes, are externalities; they are not the man; the man, the eternal lover, passionate and humble, remains unchanged, while only his shadow wanders, from morning to night of the long day.

The poems to Rimbaud, to Lucien Létinois, to others, the whole volume of Dédicaces, cover perhaps as wide a range of sentiment as La Bonne Chanson and Chansons pour Elle. The poetry of friendship has never been sung with such plaintive sincerity, such simple human feeling, as in some of these poems, which can only be compared, in modern poetry, with a poem for which Verlaine had a great admiration, Tennyson’s In Memoriam.11 Only, with Verlaine, the thing itself, the affection or the regret, is everything; there is no room for meditation over destiny, or search for a problematical consolation. Other poems speak a more difficult language, in which, doubtless, l’ennui de vivre avec les gens et dans les choses [the boredom of living with people and things] counts for much, and la fureur d’aimer for more.

In spite of the general impression to the contrary, an impression which by no means displeased him himself, I must contend that the sensuality of Verlaine, brutal as it could sometimes be, was after all simple rather than complicated, instinctive rather than perverse. In the poetry of Baudelaire, with which the poetry of Verlaine is so often compared, there is a deliberate science of sensual perversity which has something almost monachal in its accentuation of vice with horror, in its passionate devotion to passions. Baudelaire brings every complication of taste, the exasperation of perfumes, the irritant of cruelty, the very odours and colours of corruption, to the creation and adornment of a sort of religion, in which an eternal mass is served before a veiled altar. There is no confession, no absolution, not a prayer is permitted which is not set down in the ritual. With Verlaine, however often love may pass into sensuality, to whatever length sensuality may be hurried, sensuality is never more than the malady of love. It is love desiring the absolute, seeking in vain, seeking always, and, finally, out of the depths, finding God.

Verlaine’s conversion took place while he was in prison, during those solitary eighteen months in company with his thoughts, that enforced physical inactivity, which could but concentrate his whole energy on the only kind of sensation then within his capacity, the sensations of the soul and of the conscience. With that promptitude of abandonment which was his genius, he grasped feverishly at the succour of God and the Church, he abased himself before the immaculate purity of the Virgin. He had not, like others who have risen from the same depths to the same height of humiliation, to despoil his nature of its pride, to conquer his intellect, before he could become l’enfant vêtu de laine et d’innocence [the child clothed in wool and innocence].12 All that was simple, humble, childlike in him accepted that humiliation with the loving child’s joy in penitence; all that was ardent, impulsive, indomitable in him burst at once into a flame of adoration.

He realised the great secret of the Christian mystics: that it is possible to love God with an extravagance of the whole being, to which the love of the creature cannot attain. All love is an attempt to break through the loneliness of individuality, to fuse oneself with something not oneself, to give and to receive, in all the warmth of natural desire, that inmost element which remains, so cold and so invincible, in the midst of the soul. It is a desire of the infinite in humanity, and, as humanity has its limits, it can but return sadly upon itself when that limit is reached. Thus human love is not only an ecstasy but a despair, and the more profound a despair the more ardently it is returned.

But the love of God, considered only from its human aspect, contains at least the illusion of infinity. To love God is to love the absolute, so far as the mind of man can conceive the absolute, and thus, in a sense, to love God is to possess the absolute, for love has already possessed that which it apprehends. What the earthly lover realises to himself as the image of his beloved is, after all, his own vision of love, not her. God must remain deus absconditus, even to love; but the lover, incapable of possessing infinity, will have possessed all of infinity of which he is capable. And his ecstasy will be flawless. The human mind, meditating on infinity, can but discover perfection beyond perfection; for it is impossible to conceive of limitation in any aspect of that which has once been conceived as infinite. In place of that deception which comes from the shock of a boundary-line beyond which humanity cannot conceive of humanity, there is only a divine rage against the limits of human perception, which by their own failure seem at last to limit for us the infinite itself. For once, love finds itself bounded only by its own capacity; so far does the love of God exceed the love of the creature, and so far would it exceed that love if God did not exist.

But if he does exist! if, outside humanity, a conscient, eternal perfection, who has made the world in his image, loves the humanity he has made, and demands love in return! If the spirit of his love is as a breath over the world, suggesting, strengthening, the love which it desires, seeking man that man may seek God, itself the impulse which it humbles itself to accept at man’s hands; if, indeed,


how much more is this love of God, in its inconceivable acceptance and exchange, the most divine, the only unending, intoxication in the world! Well, it is this realised sense of communion, point by point realised, and put into words, more simple, more human, more instinctive than any poet since the mediaeval mystics has found for the delights of this intercourse, that we find in Sagesse, and in the other religious poems of Verlaine.

But, with Verlaine, the love of God is not merely a rapture, it is a thanksgiving for forgiveness. Lying in wait behind all the fair appearances of the world, he remembers the old enemy, the flesh; and the sense of sin (that strange paradox of the reason) is childishly strong in him. He laments his offence, he sees not only the love but the justice of God, and it seems to him, as in a picture, that the little hands of the Virgin are clasped in petition for him. Verlaine’s religion is the religion of the Middle Ages. Je suis catholique, he said to me, mais … catholique du moyen-âge!†† He might have written the ballad which Villon made for his mother, and with the same visual sense of heaven and hell. Like a child, he tells his sins over, promises that he has put them behind him, and finds such naïve, human words to express his gratitude. The Virgin is really, to him, mother and friend; he delights in the simple, peasant humanity, still visible in her who is also the Mystical Rose, the Tower of Ivory, the Gate of Heaven, and who now extends her hands, in the gesture of pardon, from a throne only just lower than the throne of God.13


Experience, I have said, taught Verlaine nothing; religion had no more stable influence upon his conduct than experience. In that apology for himself which he wrote under the anagram of ‘Pauvre Lelian,’ he has stated the case with his usual sincerity.14 ‘I believe,’ he says, ‘and I sin in thought, as in action; I believe, and I repent in thought, if no more. Or again, I believe, and I am a good Christian at this moment; I believe, and I am a bad Christian the instant after. The remembrance, the hope, the invocation of a sin delights me, with or without remorse, sometimes under the very form of sin, and hedged with all its natural consequences; more often – so strong, so natural and animal, are flesh and blood – just in the same manner as the remembrances, hopes, invocations of any carnal freethinker. This delight, I, you, someone else, writers, it pleases us to put to paper and publish more or less well expressed: we consign it, in short, into literary form, forgetting all religious ideas, or not letting one of them escape us. Can any one in good faith condemn us as poet? A hundred times no.’ And, indeed, I would echo, a hundred times no! It is just this apparent complication of what is really a great simplicity which gives its singular value to the poetry of Verlaine, permitting it to sum up in itself the whole paradox of humanity, and especially the weak, passionate, uncertain, troubled century to which we belong, in which so many doubts, negations, and distresses seem, now more than ever, to be struggling towards at least an ideal of spiritual consolation. Verlaine is the poet of these weaknesses and of that ideal.


This essay draws upon Symons’ obituary article, ‘Paul Verlaine’, Saturday Review (11 January 1896), pp. 34–35, and incorporates material from his review of an exhibition by William Rothenstein in ‘The Portraits of Verlaine’, Saturday Review 85 (5 March 1898), pp. 319–20.

Symons’ note

Poèmes Saturniens, 1866; Fêtes Galantes, 1869; La Bonne Chanson, 1870; Romances sans Paroles, 1874; Sagesse, 1881; Les Poètes Maudits, 1884; Jadis et Naguère, 1884; Les Mémoires d’un Veuf, 1886; Louise Leclerq (suivi de Le Poteau, Pierre Duchatelet, Madame Aubin), 1887; Amour, 1888; Parallèlement, 1889; Dédicaces, 1890; Bonheur, 1891; Mes Hôpitaux, 1891; Chansons pour Elle, 1891; Liturgies Intimes, 1892; Mes Prisons, 1893; Odes en son Honneur, 1893; Elégies, 1893; Quinze Jours en Hollande, 1894; Dans les Limbes, 1894; Epigrammes, 1894; Confessions, 1895; Chair, 1896; Invectives, 1896; Voyage en France d’un Français (posthumous), 1907.

The complete works of Verlaine are now published in six volumes at the Librairie Léon Vanier (now Messein); the text is very incorrectly printed, and it is still necessary to refer to the earlier editions in separate volumes. A Choix de Poèsies, 1891, with a preface by François Coppée and a reproduction of Carrière’s admirable portrait, is published in one volume by Charpentier; the series of Hommes d’Aujourd’hui contains twenty-seven biographical notices by Verlaine; and a considerable number of poems and prose articles exists, scattered in various magazines, some of them English, such as the Senate; in some cases the articles themselves are translated into English, such as ‘My Visit to London,’ in the Savoy for April 1896, and ‘Notes on England: Myself as a French Master,’ and ‘Shakespeare and Racine,’ in the Fortnightly Review for July 1894 and September 1894. The first English translation in verse from Verlaine is Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s rendering of ‘Clair de Lune’ in Fêtes Galantes, under the title ‘Pastel,’ in Songs of a Worker, 1881. A volume of translations in verse, Poems of Verlaine, by Gertrude Hall, was published in America in 1895. In Mr. John Gray’s Silverpoints, 1893, there are translations of ‘Parsifal,’ ‘A Crucifix,’ ‘Le Chevalier Malheur,’ ‘Spleen,’ ‘Clair de Lune,’ ‘Mon Dieu m’a dit,’ and ‘Green.’ A complete translation of the Fêtes Galantes, together with poems from many other volumes, will be found in a small book which is meant to be a kind of supplement to this one.

As I have mentioned, there have been many portraits of Verlaine. The three portraits drawn on lithographic paper by Mr. Rothenstein, and published in 1898, are but the latest, if also among the best, of a long series, of which Mr. Rothenstein himself has done two or three others, one of which was reproduced in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1894, when Verlaine was in London. M. F. A. Cazals, a young artist who was one of Verlaine’s most intimate friends, has done I should not like to say how many portraits, some of which he has gathered together in a little book, Paul Verlaine: ses Portraits, 1898. There are portraits in nine of Verlaine’s own books, several of them by M. Cazals (roughly jotted, expressive notes of moments), one by M. Anquetin (a strong piece of thinking flesh and blood), and in the Choix de Poésies there is a reproduction of the cloudy, inspired poet of Eugène Carrière’s painting. Another portrait, which I have not seen, but which Verlaine himself calls, in the Dédicaces, un portrait enfin reposé [a finally relaxed portrait], was done by M. Aman-Jean. M. Niederhausern has done a bust in bronze, Mr. Rothenstein a portrait medallion. A new edition of the Confessions, 1899, contains a number of sketches; Verlaine Dessinateur, 1896, many more; and there are yet others in the extremely objectionable book of M. Charles Donos, Verlaine Intime 1898. The Hommes d’Aujourd’hui contains a caricature-portrait, many other portraits have appeared in French and English and German and Italian magazines, and there is yet another portrait in the admirable little book of Charles Morice, Paul Verlaine, 1888, which contains by far the best study that has ever been made of Verlaine as a poet. I believe Mr. George Moore’s article, ‘A Great Poet,’ reprinted in Impressions and Opinions, 1891, was the first that was written on Verlaine in England; my own article in the National Review in 1892 was, I believe, the first detailed study of the whole of his work up to that date. At last, in the Vie de Paul Verlaine of Edmund Lepelletier, there has come the authentic record.


1. Having learned of his death sentence, the narrator of Victor Hugo’s short novel, Le dernier jour d’un condamné [Last day of a condemned man] (1829) cites this as a proverbial phrase at the start of chapter three. A version of the same phrase is quoted by Walter Pater in his conclusion to The Renaissance (1873).

2. In November 1894 Verlaine travelled to England to give a lecture at Oxford; he stayed with Symons in his lodgings at Fountaincourt en route and gave a talk at Barnard’s Inn on French verse. Symons published his translation of Verlaine’s account of this visit in the Savoy 2 (April 1896). Verlaine had previously lived in London between September 1872 and March 1873, sharing lodgings with his lover, Rimbaud.

3. Having studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, the English artist William Rothenstein (1872–1945) became associated with the New English Art Club, established in 1866 to counteract the influence of the Royal Academy. Rothenstein was famous for his literary connections and his associations with Paris.

4. Writing as ‘Karl Mohr’, Charles Morice published a hostile response to Verlaine’s verse statement of his aesthetics, ‘Art Poétique’, in La Nouvelle Rive Gauche, 8 December 1882. Verlaine’s reply (in the same paper) on 15 December converted Morice into an admirer, prompting him to write the first full-length study of his work in French (quoted here), Paul Verlaine (1888). When Verlaine published ‘Art Poétique’ in the collection Jadis et naguère, he dedicated it to Morice.

5. The most important French poet of the sixteenth century, Pierre de Ronsard (1524–85) is sometimes known as the Prince of Poets and led an influential group of humanist poets known as the Pléiade. He was neglected during the eighteenth century and rediscovered by the critic Sainte-Beuve during the nineteenth century.

6. Hamlet tells the actors visiting Elsinore that the aim of acting (and by extension, art) is ‘to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature’ (III. ii.20–21).

7. In ‘The School of Giorgione’, Walter Pater famously observed that ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.’ This essay was first published in the Fortnightly Review in 1877, then added to the third edition of The Renaissance in 1888.

8. Oscar Wilde was fond of quoting this phrase: it appears in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), attributed to Théophile Gautier, and can be traced to the journals of Jules and Edmond Goncourt (1 May 1857), where Gautier is said to have remarked ‘je suis un homme pour qui le monde visible existe’ [‘I am a man for whom the visible world exists’] in defence of his literary achievements.

9. The Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren made these remarks in ‘Paul Verlaine’, La Revue Blanche (15 April 1897).

10. Symons quotes from the opening lines and the last line of the fifth poem in ‘Lucien Létinois’, from Amour (1888). This sequence of poems is dedicated to the memory of one of Verlaine’s pupils at the college de Rethel, who died of typhoid fever in 1883, aged 22.

11. Alfred Tennyson started writing In Memoriam during the 1830s but did not publish it until 1850. This long poem in 132 sections describes his response to the death of his best friend Arthur Hallam in 1832 and the gradual accommodation of his grief with his religious views.

12. A misquotation from Sagesse (1880) – the child should be clothed in linen (‘lin’), not wool (‘laine’).

13. These phrases (‘mystical rose, tower of ivory, gate of heaven’) are all taken from the Catholic litany for the Virgin Mary.

14. Verlaine included an essay about his own life and career in the second volume of Poètes maudits (1888), using the name ‘Pauvre Lelian’ (an anagram of his own name).

* [‘The art, my children, is to be absolutely oneself’ – Poem XVIII (‘J’ai dit à l’esprit vain, à l’ostentation’) in Bonheur (1891).]

[‘For we still want nuance, / Not colour – nothing but nuance!’]

[‘Music before anything else; more music for evermore’ – ‘Art poétique’.]

§ [‘’Tis veils of beauty for beautiful eyes, / ’Tis the trembling light of the naked noon, / ’Tis a medley of blue and gold, the moon / And stars in the cool of autumn skies.’ – Symons’ translation of ‘Art poétique’.]

[‘What soul is this that complains / Over the sleeping plains, / And what is it that it saith? / Is it mine, is it thine, / This lowly hymn I divine / In the warm night, low as a breath?’ – Symons’ translation from ‘Ariettes oubliées I’, Romances sans paroles.]

|| [‘I have a rage for love. My feeble heart is mad / No matter when, no matter what and no matter where, / If a beam of beauty, of virtue, of courage / Shines forth, it rushes to it, it flies to it, it leaps to it, / And for the length of a clinch, it embraces one hundred times / The being or the object it sought as its choice; / Then, when the illusion has folded its wing, / It comes back sad and often alone, but faithful, / And leaving something of itself to the ingrates, / Blood or flesh … / I have a rage for love. What to do? Ah, let it happen!’10]

** [‘My God said to me: my son, you must love me’ – from Sagesse.]

†† [‘I am a Catholic, but … a Catholic from the Middle Ages!’]