Arthur Symons



Paul Verlaine.


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THE art of Paul Verlaine is something new, absolutely new, to poetry. Romances sans Paroles — songs without words — is the name of one of his volumes, and his poetry at its best might almost be called disembodied song. It is an art of impressionism — sometimes as delicate, as pastoral, as Watteau, sometimes as sensitively modern as Whistler, sometimes as brutally modern as Degas. It is all suggestion, evocation — "des beaux yeux derrière des voiles" — the suggestion and evocation of sensations, a restless, insistent search for the last fine shade of expression. "Car nous voulons," he says in that famous poem dedicated to Charles Morice, "L'Art Poetique," —

"Car nous voulons la Nuance encor,
Pas la Couleur, rien que la Nuance!
Oh! la Nuance seule fiance
Le rêve au rêve et la flûte au cor!"

La nuance — the something evanescent which haunts and teases the artist's brain, the something which cannot, which must, be expressed! "And all the rest," says Verlaine, with supreme contempt, "is literature!" Literature means the prose of things: and is that worth expressing? Is anything, when we come to consider, worth expressing except this quintessence of things — perhaps an impossible task? Verlaine has gone farther than any other poet in the direction of an art which suggests, with close-lipped, pausing reticence, "things too subtle and too sweet for words." But, having done this, having perfected an art in which the tinge of personal feeling was only a glow of richer colour in the verse, he has gone on, he has modified or developed his art, unconsciously, inevitably, as the years had their way with him.

Verlaine's first volume, published in 1867, when he was twenty-three, the Poèmes Saturniens, is a book of charming Parnassian verse, not without touches of personal originality, but, both in form and substance, very definitely under the influence of Baudelaire and of Leconte de Lisle. In the Fêtes Galantes, two years later, there is nothing but Verlaine — Verlaine in his first and purely decorative stage. This lovely little book of fifty pages is well-nigh perfect from first line to last. Parnassian it is, in a sense; but it is more than [502] Parnassian — this diaphanous little comedy of masks in a park à la Watteau. It is the very soul of the eighteenth century — the art of Watteau in words and cadences, with that tone as of old rose-leaves, that same evanescent charm, that same happy sense of exquisite moments; and, also, the dainty melancholy, the consciousness of fleeting time and passing beauty and the death of roses — that haste to gather the rose-buds while we may.

"Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L'amour vainqueur et la vie opportune,
Ils n'ont pas l'air de croire a leur bonheur,
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune."

Next year came La Bonne Chanson, a wedding-bouquet of songs for a young wife. It is delicate, sweet, pure; it is very pretty, but one sees too clearly that the poems were written to please a woman. The emotion is too near nature, not being poignant enough to support poetic treatment. The verse reminds one of Coppée. It is an episode, a step in life. The tone is so gay, tuneful, and happy, that one <instinctively> forsees storms. Nor were they long in coming. One need only see Verlaine for a moment to realize that no long continued tranquillity could be possible for a man with so radically disharmonized a face — a face in which so much of the brute waits the bidding of so fitful and furious a power for good or evil. I have heard Verlaine talk of that period — in the most simple and matter-of-fact way. The details are not all clear. The marriage, certainly, was an unhappy one; nor is that wonderful, for the disorder of Verlaine's life passed all bounds. He defied civilization, started on a mad vagabondage with his friend, the "marvellous boy" Arthur Rimbaud; and after two years' wanderings, now in England, now in Belgium, there was a quarrel, a happily ill-directed pistol-shot, and Verlaine was condemned to eighteen months' imprisonment at Mons. It was during this tumultuous time — "en plein ouragan," as he says — that Romances sans Paroles appeared: Verlaine's masterpiece, as I think, of sheer poetry. There is all the magic of the Fêtes Galantes, and how much deeper a personal note, how individual a grasp of the whole art of poetry! There is a new directness, a rhythm which is more surely the rhythm of heart-beats. Here is the first stanza of the second of the "Ariettes Oubliées," a stanza which would have been impossible in French before Verlaine. —

"Je devine, à travers un murmure,
Le contour subtil des voix anciennes,
Et dans leurs lueurs musiciennes,
Amour pâle, une aurore future!"

The words sing themselves, as only English verse had hitherto sung [503] — with that perfect freedom, that absolute liberty, which not even Victor Hugo quite succeeded in achieving. Here is another of the "Ariettes," the third, which I have translated in the measure of the original, though I cannot pretend to have done more than reproduce on the piano a melody for the violin. I copy it from the Academy, where it was printed last year. —

"Tears in my heart that weeps,
Like the rain upon the town.
What drowsy languor steeps
In tears my heart that weeps?

O sweet sound of the rain
On earth and on the roofs!
For a heart's weary pain
O the song of the rain!

Vain tears, vain tears, my heart!
What, none hath done thee wrong?
Tears without reason start
From my disheartened heart.

This is the weariest woe,
O heart, of love and hate
Too weary, not to know
Why thou hast all this woe."

Verse like this goes as far as mere verse can go — I speak of the original — to become a bird-note, the note of a bird with a human soul. Then there are the "Aquarelles," with their English names ("Green," "Spleen," "Streets"), where the rhythm undulates in a vague, dreamy dance, like the very spirit of the hour and place in certain twilight moods. Then there are the "Paysages Belges," marvellous little silhouettes struck off during those wanderings with the boy-poet Rimbaud — impressionist studies of railways, of the wooden horses at the fair of St. Gilles, of "le demi-jour de lampes," of Walcourt, where the Kobolds dance in the darkness of the grass. And then there is that pitifully personal poem, "Birds in the Night," in which the heart speaks straight out — and so strangely! He addresses his wife; but it is not in tones of remorse — in a sort of childlike astonishment. "Vous n'avez rien compris à ma simplicity," he says elsewhere. He complains like a child — Verlaine, all his life, has been a big, unmanageable child — that he has not been understood — his good intentions, his helplessness. There is the same half-piteous, half-defiant protest that looks out of his suffering and exultant face. He is conscious that he has done wrong; but he is conscious, too, that it is nature which has been too much for him. Homo duplex, he feels himself condemned to oscillate eternally between the poles of good and evil. Well, he accepts [504] the fact, he proclaims his unworthiness; but it surprises him, it distresses him, if you do not see the "simplicity," as he calls it, which lies at the root of his nature. Something of this comes out in the poem I have named; but it is in the volume published after a seven years' silence, Sagesse, which appeared in 1881, that these personal confessions are mainly to be found.

The conversion of Paul Verlaine — a most important fact in his life — took place while he was in prison. The circumstance was quite natural. He had gone as far in one direction as it was possible to go, and then came these solitary eighteen months in company with his thoughts, an enforced physical inactivity which could but concentrate all the energies of the man on the only kind of sensation then within his capacity — the sensation of the mind and the conscience. The question of religion — which can be so subtly distinguished from the question of conduct — naturally forced itself upon him. Probably it had never occurred to him before. With his astonishing promptitude and sincerity, he grasped feverishly at the succour of God and the Church. With an inverted sensuality, he adored the immaculate purity of the Virgin Mary. In no Church but the Catholic could he have found refuge, and he has never been a conventional Catholic. I remember one day at his wretched little lodging he showed me a Bible, a French Bible — the only book in his possession besides one or two of his own works. It was a Protestant translation, he pointed out; but for himself, "Je suis catholique!" he said, over and over again, as he lifted the glass of rum to his lips; "mais," he added, with a sudden flash of his shifting Faun's eye, "catholique du moyen-âge!" No epithet could give a finer definition. His religion is indeed the Catholicism of the middle ages; the simple, picturesque, sensuous, Quixotic faith, which we realize mainly from those marvellous epics in stone, the great cathedrals.

"Guidé par la folie unique de la Croix
Sur tes ailes de pierre, ô folle Cathédrale!"

he sighs, in one of his mystic aspirations.

The conversion, and that long solitude in the prison, alone with his thoughts, had a very considerable effect upon Verlaine's art. For seven years he published nothing. During all this time he was wandering from country to country, from city to city, teaching French in England (at Leamington, Bournemouth, and elsewhere); teaching English in France; now at Douai, now at Stuttgart, now at Paris, now in the country; finally, and for good — may one say for good? — at Paris, where he is now living, where he has lived for the last ten years, a life of [505] cabarets and hospitals — this fervent Catholic who is the most unreclaimable of sinners.

Sagesse, the book of religious poems, came out in the midst of this lamentable Odyssey, with its profession of faith, its declaration: "The author published at an early age, that is to say ten or twelve years ago, sceptical and sadly trifling verses. He dares rely that in those he now publishes there is no dissonance that can shock the delicacy of a Catholic ear: that would be his highest reward, as it is his proudest hope." And, indeed, the book is full of religious poetry which is second to scarcely any religious poetry in the world. With this change of mood there is a corresponding change of style. Sincere to himself Verlaine was from the beginning. But from this point he had convictions to be sincere to. He had a new feeling of duty, of religious obligation — the obligation of confession. In the Fêtes Galantes he had to express a troubled, exquisite beauty; in Romances sans Paroles, a beauty which was still more troubled, which was poignant, perverse, but still able to be expressed by an art of delicately depraved æsthetic charm. Sagesse is written mainly in long lines, with a graver, more measured note — certainly not so fascinating. The language is not so choice, so carefully selected; it has not the flickering, luminous quality of the earlier work. The words used seem often to be the first words that come: there is a strenuous quest after extreme sincerity of speech, sincerity being now a religious duty. "Sincerity, and the impression of the moment followed to the letter," — that is how Verlaine defines his rule of preference ("Je dis préferée, car rien d'absolu") in a criticisim on the Poèmes Saturniens published a year or two ago in the Revue d'Aujourd'hui. The result of this new attempt has a naturally varying success. There are poems in Sagesse which are merely dull arguments, where simplicity is tiresome, where the language of everyday speech has no sort of poetic effect. There are other poems where this simple, intense language becomes sublime. Perhaps the finest thing that Verlaine has written is the series of ten sonnets beginning "Mon Dieu m'a dit." It is a dialogue between God, claiming the tribute of love, and the Sinner, refusing out of very humbleness. I will quote the first sonnet, which I can compare only with what seem to me the finest religious poems in English — some of Christina Rossetti's. —

"Mon Dieu m'a dit: 'Mon fils, il faut m'aimer. Tu vois
Mon flanc percé, mon cœur qui rayonne et qui saigne,
Et mes pieds offensés que Madeleine baigne
De larmes, et mes bras douloureux sous les poids

De tes péchés, et mes mains! Et tu vois la croix,
Tu vois les clous, le fiel, l'éponge, et tout t'enseigne
A n'aimer, en ce monde amer où la chair règne
Que ma Chair et mon Sang, ma parole et ma voix.

[506] Ne t'ai-je pas aimé jusqu'à la mort moi-même,
O mon frère en mon Père, ô mon fils en l'Esprit,
Et n'ai-je pas souffert, comme c'était écrit?

N'ai-je pas sangloté ton angoisse suprême
Et n'ai-je pas sué la sueur de tes nuits,
Lamentable ami qui me <cherche> où je suis?"

Only in Christina Rossetti is there such abasement of spirit, such elevation of imagination, as in these marvellous sonnets — a scalding heat of sincerity, and a personal passion wholly fused in art. Nor are these sonnets alone. There is the solemn litany of penitence: "O mon Dieu, vous m'avez blessé d'amour" — as fine, as simple, as Villon's ballad for his mother. Throughout the book — not unaccompanied, as I have said, by dull treatises, like that which proves that "Le seul savant, c'est encore Moïse" — there are poems in the same note of passionate humility. Often the note is less intense, but with a wonderful penetrating quality in its charm. "Beauté de femmes, leur faiblesse, et ces mains pâles," "Les chères mains qui furent miennes," "L'espoir luit comme un brin de paille dans l'étable," "Ecoutez la chanson bien douce" — need one quote more than the first lines to show the charm there is in these sensuous, perverse, troubled evocations of hours and impressions? Appendage or antithesis to the religious feeling, a strangely perverse strain of emotion comes into Yerlaine's poetry. It is the voice of the flesh, repressed, but crying out against the spirit: the voice of bewitching temptations, which could never have been possible — in just that savour of deadly delight — without the consciousness of sin, the desire to repent, the desire of salvation. Here is a sonnet — depraved in its very structure — which seems to me the most delirious and depraved bit of verse imaginable, and so admirably characteristic of Verlaine where he is most complex and surprising. —

"Parfums, couleurs, systèmes, lois!
Les mots ont peur comme des poules,
La chair sanglote sur la croix.

Pied, c'est du rêve que tu foules,
Et partout ricane la voix,
La voix tentatrice des foules.

Cieux bruns où nagent nos desseins,
Fleurs qui n'êtes pas le calice,
Vin et ton geste qui se glisse,
Femme et l'œillade de tes seins,

Nuit câline aux frais traversins,
Qu'est-ce que c'est que ce délice,
Qu'est-ce que c'est que ce supplice,
Nous les damnés et vous les Saints?"

This is the other side of the Catholic poet; and that other side, as [507] we shall see, has had farther and even frightful developments. In a sort of apologia under the name of "Pauvre Lélian" (an ingenious anagram), Paul Verlaine has rather subtly, and very legitimately, defined and defended the essential unity of his two-fold later work. "I believe, 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 delight me with or without remorse, sometimes under the very form of sin, and hedged with all its 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 free-thinker. This delight — I, you, he, writers — it pleases us to put it to paper and publish it more or less well or ill-expressed: we consign it, in short, into literary form, forgetting all religious ideas, or not letting one of them escape us. Can anyone in good faith condemn us as poet? A hundred times No."

I take this extract from a prose book — one can scarcely say a book of essays — called Les Poètes Maudits, which Verlaine published in 1884. In its final edition the volume contains papers on six unknown poets, as they might almost be called, underrated, at all events misunderstood, among whom one is surprised to find the unoffending and not profoundly interesting Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. The others are Tristan Corbière, a Breton sea-captain, who wrote a marvellous book of poems, Les Amours Jaunes, in a crabbed and compressed language, which Huysmans well likens to the language of telegrams; Arthur Rimbaud, to whom I have already referred, a precocious genius, really a genius, who disappeared from the world, no one knew whither, at the age of twenty, leaving behind him astonishing fragments of verse and prose; Stéphane Mallarmé, a poet who holds a vague and mystical headship over young French poetry, having printed, in a facsimile of his very neat handwriting, some exquisite poems, merely by way of interim to the great work on which he has been engaged all his life; Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, one of the rarest and most singular writers of the century, but more of a prose-writer than a poet; and, finally, Pauvre Lélian, or Paul Verlaine. The book is interesting, as an explosive scrap of Verlaine's talk is interesting: it is neither more nor less than that. Never was a poet more generous, nor, one may say, more capricious and uncritical, in his admirations. Verlaine's prose — he has written some tales, more or less autobiographical — is exclamatory, and so vivid with gesture and accent that one seems to hear it spoken. But it goes beyond all reasonable bounds of suggestion, and simply drops to pieces — little angular pieces. [508] In the same year as Les Poètes Maudits, Verlaine published a new collection of poems, Jadis et Naguère, a volume, as the title indicates, made up of early and recent work. It makes no pretence to unity, but has something in it of every variety of his style, with certain poems, here and there, which rank among his special triumphs. Thus, the first section, "Sonnets et Autres Vers," is the dying echo of the Parnasse — exquisite pieces of decorative work, some of them subtly evocative, with lines like this: —

"L'été, dans l'herbe, au bruit moiré d'un vol d'abeilles."

Others presage the loose later manner, in which the sensation of the moment, and the imperious need to express it, anyhow, are the poet's only considerations. Here are some lines which should interest an English public. —

"Tout l'affreux passé saute, piaule, miaule et glapit
Dans le brouillard rose et jaune et sale des sohos
Avec des indeeds et des all rights et des hâos."

That is most expressive; but it is scarcely poetry. It reminds one of the astonishing American which Walt Whitman occasionally used. But turn from this to the triumphantly and terribly beautiful sonnet "Luxures," which chants the flesh with all the mystic fervour of the Christian. Turn to "L'Art Poétique," that confession of faith which is only a song, and so all the more a confession of faith. A little comedy, "Les Uns et les Autres," fills forty pages, fills them deliciously — though indeed the dramatic form is only an acquirement with Verlaine. Beautiful shadows pass in a twilight: it is a company out of Watteau, under his trees: there is some delicate entanglement and disentanglement, resolved into song. In the section called "A la Manière de Plusieurs" — I suppose because it is so characteristic of Verlaine — there is some of his most finely chiselled "Byzantine" work, such as that languid sonnet, with its "contour subtil," "Je suis l'Empire à la fin de la Décadence." So far we have had "Jadis;" "Naguère" consists in four contes, and the famous "Crimen Amoris," which, for a certain diabolical beauty, for an effect of absolute sublimity, must be placed at the head of Verlaine's work. The march of the verse has the thunder of a whole orchestra. —

"Dans un palais, soie et or, dans Ecbatane,
De beaux démons, des Satans adolescents,
Au son d'une musique mahométane,
Font litière aux Sept Péchés dc leurs cinq sens."

The four contes are as much of an experiment as the little comedy. That was not unsuccessful; but these are quite masterly. There is nothing in Coppée nearly so fine as "L'Impénitence Finale;" it is as fine, as "My Last Duchess." To know all [509] the rest of Verlaine, and not to know these four contes, is to ignore quite a distinct section of his poetic work, a section which is the strangest of exceptions.

Jadis et Naguère is a step aside in Verlaine's progress. In Amour (1888) he resumes his course, and the poet of Sagesse re-appears, the personal note still further developed. "Lucien Létinois," a poem in twenty-four sections, in varying metres, can be compared only with "In Memoriam," which, as Yerlaine has an immense admiration for Tennyson, probably suggested it. It is a poem written to the memory of a young friend; and it tells, in broken snatches, the idyl of their friendship, and the sad and sordid way in which death came and turned the idyl into a tragedy. It is singularly fine in its extreme simplicity and closeness to life — the direct, unadorned, yet poetic way in which little details are brought back out of the past, just in the simple, naked way in which they really recur to the mind — the walks they took together, the meals in little inns, the meetings at railway-stations. —

"Ame, te souvient-il, au fond du paradis,
De la gare d'Auteuil et des trains de jadis
T'amenant chaque jour, venus de La Chapelle?"

Just these things, just such thoughts as these, without any sort of remoteness, or the veil of an elaborately chosen language, Verlaine has strung together, as if casually, yet with how certain, how immediate an effect! Here and there, as in No. XII., which has the very note of George Herbert, is a magical little poem. —

" Le petit coin, le petit nid
    Que j'ai trouvés,
Les <grands> espoirs que j'ai couvés,
    Dieu les bénit.
Les heures des fautes passées,
    Sont effacées
Au pur cadran de mes pensées."

How curious to turn from this sweet and fresh simplicity to one of those pieces — No. IV, for example — in which he has revealed, in words that absolutely burn and scorch, all the "fury of love," as he well calls it, that possesses his insatiable heart. —

"J'ai la fureur d'aimer. Mon cœur 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 s'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 <où> chair. . . . .
J'ai la fureur d'aimer. Qu'y faire? Ah, laisser faire!"

[510] What can be done, indeed, with a man of Verlaine's temperament, but "laisser faire"? To preach moderation, and the virtues of a temperate middle course, is to waste breath. It is reasonable to say, "The pity of it!" but it is wholly unreasonable to suppose that amid any conceivable circumstances Verlaine could have escaped from his temperament, could have acted sagely, could have avoided shipwreck. Had he done so — done the impossible — at all events the best of his poems would have remained unwritten.

Besides the elegy to Lucien Létinois, there is a whole crowd of sonnets and poems addressed to friends and companions, some of them not very interesting for any but personal reasons. One of the most pleasing is that addressed to Fernand Langlois — a young artist with a somewhat womanish charm and appeal — in which a note of gracious and passionate friendship is very frankly and simply struck. Among the sonnets there are some which triumph by an amazing virtuosity — the sonnet on Parsifal, for example, to which Mr. George Moore has given such just and eloquent praise — and a "Sonnet Héroïque," which is like the music of gongs and cymbals. A cluster of poems at the beginning of the volume, mainly in long lines, might have found their place in Sagesse, of which they have the simple, naïve piety, the personal pre-occupation, the graver, more measured verse. There is a "Prière du Matin," —

"Père, considérez le prix de votre enfant," —

a hymn to the Virgin, confessions and aspirations. Then there are English sketches — "Bournemouth," "There," &c. — in which one misses, as one could not but miss, the iridescent charm, the evanescent delicacy, of the earlier work in that kind. The gaiety of life has become more sordid, the charm more severe, the grace of things has been soiled; and for these things, which happen in life, there is no redemption in art. "La chute des cheveux et celle de certaines illusions, mêmes si sceptiques," says Verlaine, in that article to which I have referred before, "defigurent bien une tête qui a vécu, et intellectuellement aussi, parfois même, la dénatureraient." This loss of illusions, with its inevitable effect upon art, we have seen in Sagesse, more distinctly still in Amour, and we see it nakedly — naked and hideous — in Parallèlement, which followed Amour in the subsequent year, 1889.

"Parallèlement," Verlaine explains, to Sagesse, Amour, and Bonheur. In these others he has interpreted the spiritual side of his nature; here, with the same frankness, and in the spirit of that dialectic of "Pauvre Lélian" which I quoted, he gives us the flesh. Few poets have ever been so direct and sincere in the expression of religious emotions as Verlaine; but certainly no poet ever gave such sincere and direct expression to "the lust of the [511] flesh, the lust of the eye, the pride of life," as he has done in Parallèlement. The book is full of a gross hilarity, a frantic impetuosity, a wild and conscious perversity. It is as perverse as Baudelaire; but it has none of Baudelaire's subtlety, a corruption less intricate and comprehensive — more naïve, spontaneous, explosive. The style undergoes the same depravation as the ideas; it becomes almost as unintelligible as the thieves' argot in Villon. Slang swamps the precise and exquisite poetic language of the earlier work; the rhythms, still marvellously agile, are handled with dexterity rather than charm.

But Verlaine would tell us that he did not intend to be charming: that he intended to give voice to certain instincts, which his determined sincerity forbade him to silence. The question is whether many of these pieces come within any possible limits of art. A poem like "Laeti et Errabundi" — the story of that strange vagabondage with Rimbaud — is most certainly a work of art. A piece like "L'Impénitent" seems to me simply disagreeable without justifying its existence by any artistic quality. Psychologically, pathologically, the whole volume is of immense interest; artistically, of much less. Yet the book is not without delicious touches, turned obstinately perverse, of the poet who can still write lines that sing themselves like this one: —

"Le clair de lune quand le clocher sonnait douze."

Two years after Parallèlement, in 1891, came Bonheur, the third part of the trilogy. Written very much in the style of Sagesse, part of it might have been assigned, on internal evidence, to a period anterior to Amour and Parallèlement. It has none of the perversity, moral and artistic, of the latter book, despite a few experiments upon metre and rhyme. Nor is space devoted, as occasionally in Amour, to the mere courtesies of literary friendship. The verse has an exquisite simplicity, a limpid clearness; there is a strenuous rejection of every sort of literary "dandyism" — the word is Yerlaine's:

                "et que cet arsenal,
Chics fougueux et froids, mots secs, phrase redondante,
Et cætera, se rende à l'émeute grondante
Des sentiments enfin naturels et réels."

I take these lines from a poem which may be considered a new "Art Poétique." In that delicate and magical poem — itself the ideal of the art it sang — Verlaine said nothing about sincerity, except, inferentially, to the fleeting impression of something almost too vague for words. Music first of all and before all; and then, not colour, but the nuance, the last fine shade. Poetry is to be something intangible, a winged soul in flight "towards other skies and other loves." To express the inexpressible, he speaks of [512] beautiful eyes behind a veil, of the full palpitating sunlight of noon, of the blue swarm of clear stars in a cool autumn sky; and the verse in which he makes this confession of faith has the exquisite troubled beauty — "sans rien en lui qui pèse ou qui pose" — which he commends as the essential poetry. Now in this new poem of poetical counsel, he tells us that art should, first of all, be absolutely clear and sincere; it is the law of necessity, hard, no doubt, but the law.

"L'art, mes enfants, c'est d'être absolument soi-même.
Foin! d'un art qui blasphème et fi! d'un art qui pose,
Et vive un vers bien simple, autrement c'est la prose."

The verse in Bonheur is indeed "bien simple." There is a poem addressed to a friend — "Mon ami, ma plus belle amitié, ma meilleure" — which even Verlaine has hardly excelled in a kind of plaintive sincerity, full of the beauty of simple human feeling, seeking and finding the most direct expression. —

"Aussi, précieux toi plus cher que tous les moi
Que je fus et serai si doit durer ma vie,
Soyons tout l'un pour l'autre en dépit de l'envie,
Soyons tout l'un à l'autre en toute bonne foi."

Verlaine speaks to his friend as if he would say more for friendship than has ever been said before. He would fain find words close and gracious enough to express all the intimacy and charm of their friendship. —

"Elle verse a mes yeux, qui ne pleuriront plus,
Un paisible sommeil, dans la nuit transparente
Que de rêves legers bénissent, troupe errante
De souvenirs futurs et d'espoirs révolus."

"Remembrances to be, and hopes returned again" — how lovely a verse, French or English! And the emotion, temperate and restrained through most of the poem, rises at the end into exaltation. —

"Afin qu'enfin ce Jésus-Christ qui nous créa
Nous fasse grâce et fasse grâce au monde immonde
D'autour de nous alors unis — paix sans seconde! —
Définitivement, et dicte: Alleluia."

I quote this stanza, not only because of its place in the poem — its expression of the culminating emotion — but because it is an excellent example of Verlaine's most characteristic technique. Note the rhyme at the beginning of the first line and at the end of the second, the alliteration, the curious effect produced by the repetition of "fasse grâce" (itself an assonance), the tormented rhythm throughout, the arbitrary and extraordinary position and transposition of accents. In Bonheur, for the first time in his work, there is one short poem written in irregular unrhymed verse: verse, [513] however, which is still verse, and not (as with the real Decadents) delirious prose. There are also two poems in assonant verse, one of them in lines of fourteen syllables, metrically quite regular. It is difficult to see any reason for the rejection of rhymes; but at all events they are rejected without disdain — frankly for a caprice.

Almost all the poems in Bonheur are closely personal — confessions of weakness, confessions of "l'ennui de vivre avec les gens et dans les choses," confessions of good attempts foiled, of unachieved resolutions. One of the finest pieces tells the story of that endeavour to rebuild the ruined house of life which Verlaine made at the time of his conversion, after those calm and salutary eighteen months of seclusion. Elsewhere he writes of his life in hospital —" last home, perhaps, and best, the hospital;" — of his child-wife, for whose memory he has so strange a mixture of regretful complaint and unassuaged self-reproach; and always he returns to the burden of "Priez avec et pour le pauvre Lélian!"

"Mais, hélas! je ratiocine
Sur mes fautes et mes douleurs,
Espèce de mauvais Racine
Analysant jusqu'à mes pleurs": —

that is how he describes himself, with a certain injustice, a certain measure of truth. Here, as in Sagesse, there are times when confession becomes analysis, not to the advantage of the poetry. But here, as in Sagesse, the really distinguishing work is an outpouring of desires that speak the language of desire, of prayers that go up to God as prayers, not as literature; of confessions that have no reticences.

In Chansons pour Elle, which followed Bonheur in the same year, almost simultaneously with a book of unimportant prose sketches, Mes Hôpitaux, Verlaine has relapsed into the mood of Parallèlement. It represents, indeed, a lower depth — a dead level of animal contentment which has never, perhaps, been expressed in literature since the "Grosse Margot" of Villon.

"Tu n'<es> pas du tout vertueuse,
Je ne suis pas du tout jaloux,"

says this cynical, satisfied lover. There is a sort of tragic brutality in this record of a life which has come to accept so sordid a condition of things, simply, without disguise, without revolt, gratefully even. No matter, he says to the casual heroine of his verses, what the past of both of us may have been: let us unite our two miseries: let us be happy, after the only manner that is left to us, together. In these naïve, often trivial, poems we touch the bottom of Bohemia. There is not even the distinction of perversity. The singing-voice is somewhat thickened: it comes to us from the tavern, from the dubious garret, in the turbulent hours [514] after midnight. It is the end of all, one would have supposed — especially after so absolute an epilogue as this:

"Je fus mystique et je ne le suis plus,
(La femme m'aura repris tout entier)
Non sans garder des respects absolus
Pour l'idéal qu'il fallut renier.

Mais la femme m'a repris tout entier!

J'allais priant le Dieu de mon enfance,
(Aujourd'hui c'est toi qui m'as à genoux)
J'etais plein de foi, de blanche espérance,
De charité sainte aux purs feux si doux.

Mais aujourd'hui tu m'as à tes genoux!

La femme, par toi, redevient Le maître,
Un maître tout-puissant et tyrannique,
Mais qu'insidieux! feignant de tout permettre
Pour en arriver a tel but satanique . . .

O le temps béni quand j'étais ce mystique!"

Absolute as this is, there is still the sigh, the sigh coming unawares, after that other life, that other side of life; and it is, after all, not surprising — when one has realized the extraordinary simplicity of Verlaine's nature, its sincerity of alternations, of temporary exclusions — to find that Chansons pour Elle has already been followed by a tiny pamphlet, privately printed in a "Bibliotheque du Saint Graal," of Liturgies Intimes, a collection of devotional pieces addressed solely to Catholics. "This quite small book," says the preface, "is intended for a quite small and select public, and is indeed the complement — dare I say the crown? — of a work of some extent, which the author believes to be correct in regard to the Faith. This work is in four volumes: Sagesse, the conversion; Amour, the perseverance; a backsliding deliberately confessed, Parallèlement; and Bonheur, conclusion sorrowfully calm in the supreme consolation." Chansons pour Elle is not referred to: no doubt that, too, is to be regarded as "a backsliding deliberately confessed." In these Liturgies Intimes Verlaine has endeavoured to recapture the note of Sagesse — not altogether with success. Simplicity there is indeed, a simplicity sometimes verging on childishness; but some lack of that distinction which Verlaine's simplicity has rarely lacked. The metrical experiments are not always quite fortunate: the naïveté not always quite convincing. But there is an evident sincerity in that curious humbleness which can pray —

"D'avoir l'ignorance infinie
Et l'immense toute-faiblesse
Par quoi l'humble enfance est bénie;

De n'agir sans qu'un rien ne blesse
Notre chair pourtant innocente
Encor même d'une caresse."

[515] The book is not a record of repentance; it is a collection of liturgies, in which there is devotion but no misgiving. There has always been a touch of fatalism in Verlaine's piety and licence. "Je compte parmi les maladroits," he says in Parallèlement, in a personal confession that gives the key to at all events his own view of himself: —

"J'ai perdu ma vie et je sais bien
Que tout blâme sur moi s'en va fondre:
A cela je ne puis que répondre
Que je suis vraiment né Saturnien."

Born under that unlucky star! no doubt Verlaine owes so much to destiny; and we can well imagine him really saying, with that curious helplessness which underlies all his violence, the words that Charles Morice has put into his mouth. —

" Je ne sais trop quelle route j'ai suivie,
Comme j'y suis entré ni comme on en sort, —
Je ne sais trop ce que j'ai fait de ma vie . . .
Qu'est-ce que je pourrais faire de la mort?"

With what Verlaine has made of his life we are concerned only so far as the life has made or modified the artistic work; and in him the two are one, as surely as the two are one in Villon. From the date of Romances sans Paroles to the date of Liturgies Intimes, every stage of the "fever called living" has been chronicled and characterized in verse. The verse has changed as the life has changed, remaining true to certain fundamental characteristics, as the man, through all, has remained true to his strange and self-contradictory temperament. Verlaine has made something new of French verse — something more pliable, more exquisitely delicate and sensitive, than the language has ever before been capable of. He has invented this new kind of impressionist poetry — "la nuance, la nuance encor" — which seems to correspond so subtly with the latest tendencies in the other arts: the painting of Whistler, the music of Wagner. Himself a creature of passions and sensations, tossed to and fro by every wind, he has given voice to all the vague desires, the tumultuous impressions, of that feeble and ravenous creature, the modern man of cities. He has set them to music that is now exquisite, as the mood is exquisite, now dissonant, as the mood is dissonant, always an acute, a floating music, that had never been heard before. So modern, so typical, is this singer who has sung only of himself — of his sorrows, his faults, his distresses; of the times when he has been glad and believed himself happy; of the hours when the flesh has triumphed, and the hours of mystical communion with the spirit; of the colours, the sounds, that have delighted him, the hands that he has kissed, the tears that he has wept.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The National Review.
Bd. 19, 1892, Nr. 112, Juni, S. 501-515.

Gezeichnet: ARTHUR SYMONS.


Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien);
Korrektur der Akzentfehler nicht markiert.

The National Review   online

The National Review   inhaltsanalytische Bibliographie
The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900.
Hrsg. von Walter E. Houghton. Bd. 2. Toronto 1972.









Beckson, Karl u.a.: Arthur Symons.
A Bibliography.
Greensboro, NC: ELT Press 1990.

Symons, Arthur: Days and Nights.
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Symons, Arthur: Silhouettes.
London: Matthews & Lane 1892.
S. 13: Pastel.

Symons, Arthur: Paul Verlaine.
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Symons, Arthur: Mr. Henley's Poetry.
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1892, August, S. 182-192.

Symons, Arthur: The Decadent Movement in Literature.
In: Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
Bd. 87, 1893, Nr. 522, November, S. 858-867.

Symons, Arthur: Paul Verlaine.
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1893, Dezember, S. 609-617.

Symons, Arthur: London Nights.
London: Smithers 1895.

Symons, Arthur: Silhouettes.
Second edition. Revised and enlarged.
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Symons, Arthur: Studies in Two Literatures.
London: Smithers 1897.

Symons, Arthur: Mallarmé's "Divagations".
In: The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art.
Bd. 83, 1897, 30. Januar, S. 109-110.

Symons, Arthur: Le mysticisme de Maeterlinck.
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Bd. 22, 1897, 15. September, S. 531-536.

Symons, Arthur: Stéphane Mallarmé
In: The Fortnightly Review.
1898, November, S. 677-685.

Symons, Arthur: The Symbolist Movement in Literature.
London: Heinemann 1899.

Symons, Arthur: Jules Laforgue.
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London: Heinemann 1899, S. 105-114.

Symons, Arthur: Mr. Yeats as a Lyric Poet.
In: The Saturday Review.
Bd. 87, 6. Mai 1899, S. 553-554.

Symons, Arthur: A Book of French Verse.
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1899, 10. November, S. 413-414.

Symons, Arthur: Ernest Dowson.
In: The Fortnightly Review.
1900, Juni, S. 947-957.

Symons, Arthur: What is Poetry?.
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Bd. 92, 31. August 1901, S. 271-272.

Symons, Arthur: Poems.
Bd. 1. New York: John Lane 1902.

Symons, Arthur: Poems.
Bd. 2. New York: John Lane 1902.

Symons, Arthur: Lyrics.
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Symons, Arthur (Hrsg.): The Poems of Ernest Dowson.
With a Memoir by Arthur Symons, Four Illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and a Portrait by William Rothenstein.
London u. New York: Lane 1905.

Symons, Arthur: Qu'est-ce que la Poésie?
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Bd. 3, 1905, September-November, S. 29-33.

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London: Constable 1906.
PURL:   [New York 1906]

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Bd. 18, 1906, Nr. 1, Januar, S. 79-83.

Symons, Arthur: London. A Book of Aspects.
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Symons, Arthur: Plays, Acting and Music. A Book of Theory.
London: Dutton & Company 1909.

Symons, Arthur: Art. Goncourt, DE.
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Volume XII. Cambridge, England; New York 1911, S. 231.

Symons, Arthur: Art. Mallarmé, Stéphane.
In: The Encyclopædia Britannica. Eleventh Edition.
Volume XVII. Cambridge, England; New York 1911, S. 490.

Symons, Arthur: Art. Verlaine, Paul.
In: The Encyclopædia Britannica. Eleventh Edition.
Volume XXVII. Cambridge, England; New York 1911, S. 1023-1024.

Symons, Arthur: Figures of Several Centuries.
London: Constable and Company 1916.
PURL:   [New York o.J. (1916)]

Symons, Arthur: Colour Studies in Paris.
New York: Dutton & Company 1918.

Symons, Arthur: Claude Debussy.
In: The Egoist.
Bd. 5, 1918: Nr. 6, Juni-Juli, S. 82-83; Nr. 7, August, S. 93-94.

Symons, Arthur: The Symbolist Movement in Literature.
Revised and enlarged edition. New York: Dutton & Company 1919.

Symons, Arthur: Letters to W. B. Yeats, 1892-1902.
Edited by Bruce Morris.
Edinburgh: The Tragara Press 1989.

Symons, Arthur: Selected Letters, 1880-1935.
Edited by Karl Beckson and John M. Munro.
Basingstoke: Macmillan 1989.

Symons, Arthur: Selected Writings.
Edited with an introduction by Roger Holdsworth.
Manchester: Fyfield Books 2003.

Symons, Arthur: The Symbolist Movement in Literature.
Edited by Matthew Creasy.
Manchester: Carcanet 2014.

Duclos, Michèle: Un regard anglais sur le symbolisme français.
Arthur Symons, Le mouvement symboliste en littérature (1899), généalogie, traduction, influence.
Paris: L'Harmattan 2016.

Symons, Arthur: Selected Early Poems.
Edited with an introduction and notes by Jane Desmarais and Chris Baldick.
Cambridge: Modern Humanities Research Association 2017.

Symons, Arthur: Spiritual Adventures.
Edited with an introduction and notes by Nicholas Freeman.
Cambridge: Modern Humanities Research Association 2017.

Palacio, Jean de (Hrsg.): Trois essais sur la décadence.
Charles Morice, Arthur Symons, Hermann Bahr.
Textes traduits et présentés par Jean de Palacio.
Tusson: Du Lérot 2020.




Literatur: Symons

Bivort, Olivier (Hrsg.): Verlaine. Paris 1997 (= Collection "Mémoire de la critique").

Bizzotto, Elisa / Evangelista, Stefano-Maria (Hrsg.): Arthur Symons. Poet, Critic, Vagabond. Cambridge 2018.

Boyiopoulos, Kostas: The Decadent Image. The Poetry of Wilde, Symons and Dowson. Edinburgh 2015.

Corbett, David P.: Symbolism in British 'Little Magazines': The Dial (1889-97), The Pageant (1896-7), and The Dome (1897-1900). In: The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines. Hrsg. von Peter Brooker u.a. Bd. 1: Britain and Ireland 1880-1955. Oxford 2009, S. 101-119.

Creasy, Matthew: 'The Neglected, the Unutterable Verlaine'. Arthur Symons, the Saturday Review, and French Literature in the 1890s. In: Victorian Periodicals Review 52.1 (2019), S. 103-123.

Creasy, Matthew: La Décadence à l'ère numérique. Paul Verlaine et les périodiques victoriens. In: Revue d'Histoire littéraire de la France 120.1 (2020), S. 59-75.

Ducrey, Guy: Arthur Symons et Verlaine au miroir de la danse. In: Paul Verlaine. Hrsg. von Pierre Brunel u.a. Paris 2004, S. 107-117.

Ducrey, Guy: Le passeur du symbolisme français, Arthur Symons. In: 'Curious about France'. Visions littéraires victoriennes. Hrsg. von Ignacio Ramos Gay. Bern u.a. 2015, S. 137-152.

Fox, C. Jay / Stern, Carol S. / Means, Robert S.: Arthur Symons, Critic Among Critics: An Annotated Bibliography. Greensboro, NC 2007.

Harris, Robert: 'Insane Thinking': The Impressionism of Arthur Symons. In: Victoriographies. A Journal of Nineteenth-Century Writing, 1790-1914 11.2 (2021), S. 126-147.

Higgins, Jennifer: English Responses to French Poetry 1880-1940. Translation and Mediation. Leeds 2011.

Scott, Clive: Channel Crossings. French and English Poetry in Dialogue 1550-2000. Oxford 2002.

Sorrell, Martin: Verlaine en anglais. In: Paul Verlaine. Hrsg. von Pierre Brunel u.a. Paris 2004, S. 119-130.

Thain, Marion: Arthur Symons's Impressionist Epistemology: Decadence and Embodied Cognition. In: English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920. 63.1 (2020), S. 48-72.

Wanlin, Nicolas: Comment se construit l'idée d'impressionnisme poétique (sur le cas de Verlaine). In: Impressionnisme et littérature. Hrsg. von Gérard Gengembre u.a. Mont-Saint-Aignan 2012, S. 143-151.

Warner, Eric / Hough, Graham (Hrsg.): Strangeness and Beauty. An Anthology of Aesthetic Criticism 1840–1910. 2 Bde. Cambridge u.a. 2009.



Literatur: The National Review

King, Andrew / Plunkett, Andrew (Hrsg.): Victorian Print Media. A Reader. Oxford 2005.

King, Andrew u.a. (Hrsg.): The Routledge Handbook to Nineteenth-Century British Periodicals and Newspapers. London u. New York 2019.

Palmegiano, E. M.: Perceptions of the Press in Nineteenth-Century British Periodicals. A Bibliography. London u.a. 2012.

Zwierlein, Anne-Julia: Viktorianische Zeitschriften als multimediale, polyvokale und außerparlamentarische Plattformen. In: Handbuch Zeitschriftenforschung. Hrsg. von Oliver Scheiding u. Sabina Fazli. Bielefeld 2023, S. 273-288.
DOI: 10.14361/9783839451137-018



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer