Childhood & Early Life
Paul Verlaine was born on March 30, 1844, in Metz, France. In 1851, he and his family shifted to Paris. He was the only child of his parents.
Verlaine studied at the ‘Lycée Impérial Bonaparte’ (presently the ‘Lycée Condorcet’) in Paris. At 14, he sent his first poem, ‘La Mort,’ to Victor Hugo.
He obtained his bachelor's degree (baccalauréat) in 1862, with distinction in Latin (translation). He joined the civil service, as an infantry captain, according to the wishes of his father, who was an army officer. He then took up a job as a clerk in an insurance company.
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In his initial writing days, he was influenced by Leconte de Lisle and his Parnassien movement. In 1863, his first-published poem was released through Louis-Xavier de Ricard’s ‘La Revue du progress.’
Verlaine would often visit the salon of the Marquise de Ricard, where he came in touch with luminaries such as Anatole France, Charles Cros, Théodore de Banville, Emmanuel Chabrier, Leconte de Lisle, and Jose-Maria de Heredia.
One of his poems, ‘Monsieur Prudhomme,’ was published in a literary review in 1863. It was also part of his first-published collection, the 1866-released ‘Poèmes saturniens.’
The collection contained a combination of love and melancholy, possibly revolving around his cousin Élisa, and also included tones of Baudelaire.
The first series of ‘Le Parnasse contemporain,’ an anthology by several contemporary poets, had eight poems by Verlaine.
His ‘Fêtes galantes’ was published in 1869. It evoked characters from the Italian “commedia dell’arte” and 18th-century pastorals.
He then started courting Mathilde Mauté and married her. In his 1870 collection ‘La Bonne Chanson,’ he describes Mathilde as a savior of sorts.
After the ‘Paris Commune’ came into existence, Verlaine worked as a press officer for its ‘Central Committee.’
After the proclamation of the ‘Third Republic’ in 1870, Verlaine became part of the 160th battalion of the ‘Garde Nationale.’ On March 18, 1871, he became a “Communard.” Verlaine later escaped the Bloody Week, or “Semaine Sanglante,” and hid in the ‘Pas-de-Calais.’
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He then began an affair with poet Arthur Rimbaud in around 1871. In 1872, he abandoned his family to travel to northern France and Belgium with Rimbaud, where he created “impressionist” sketches for his ensuing collection, ‘Romances sans paroles’ (‘Songs without Words’).
They reached London in September. Verlaine’s ‘Romances’ was published by his friend Edmond Lepelletier in 1874.
After serving a prison sentence for wounding Rimbaud, and his separation from his wife, he went to England. There, he taught French and drew in Stickney and Boston in Lincolnshire. He then moved to Bournemouth, Hampshire.
After receiving the appreciation of literary geniuses such as Tennyson and Swinburne, he returned to France in 1877.
From 1873 to 1878, he wrote most of his poems of ‘Sagesse’ (‘Wisdom’), published in October 1880. The anthology had strong Catholic Christian undertones.
In 1882, his poem ‘Art poétique’ (which was probably written in prison earlier) inspired young Symbolists. However, he disassociated himself from the Symbolists, mainly because they went further away from traditional forms, such as rhyme, than him.
Soon, his beloved pupil Lucien’s and his own mother’s death made him sink into alcoholism.
His 1884-published volume ‘Jadis et naguère’ (‘Yesteryear and Yesterday’) was reminiscent of ‘Art poétique.’ His 1889-released ‘Parallèlement’ contained many erotic creations. In 1888, ‘Amour’ was published.
He also wrote prose, such as the 1884-released ‘Les Poètes maudits,’ which was a biographical study of six poets, including Mallarmé and Rimbaud.
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His contributions to the magazine ‘Les Hommes d’aujourd’hui,’ consisted of biographies of contemporary authors (mostly written in 1886).
The 1891-released ‘Mes Hôpitaux’ described his hospital stays, while his 1893-released ‘Mes Prisons’ detailed his prison days.
His 1895-published ‘Confessions, notes autobiographiques’ attracted attention to his works and those of his contemporaries.
Much of his later works reflect his associations with prostitutes such as Philomène Boudin and Eugénie Krantz, the muses of his decadent style.
Family, Personal Life & Death
As a young boy, Verlaine was infatuated with an orphan cousin of his, named Élisa Dehee, who had grown up with his family. Unfortunately, she had married another man and had later died.
Verlaine fell in love with 16-year-old Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville in June 1869. They got married in August 1870. They later had a son named Georges. He had dedicated ‘La bonne chanson’ to Mathilde.
However, in 1871, Verlaine received a letter from a young poet named Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud came to stay with him in September 1871.
They began a passionate affair soon. In July 1872, Verlaine abandoned his family and traveled to Belgium and Northern France with Rimbaud.
However, on July 12 (some sources mention July 10), 1873, a drunken Verlaine shot Rimbaud in a Brussels pub and wounded him in the wrist. Verlaine served an 18-month sentence for this crime and wrote ‘Romance sans paroles’ during this time.
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He converted to Catholicism, too, before his release from prison in January 1875. By then, his wife had separated from him. He later tried getting back with Rimbaud in Stuttgart but was rejected.
He then spent his days in England, mostly teaching. In 1877, he returned to France. While teaching in Rethel, Verlaine fell in love with his student Lucien Létinois. Lucien’s death due to typhus in 1883 inspired Verlaine to write ‘Amour.’
In the last decade of his life, Verlaine drowned in alcoholism and also suffered from many health issues. He stayed in hospitals and slums.
Verlaine is said to have met two prostitutes during this time. He met Philomene Boudin (also known as Esther) in 1887 (or 1889). She became his partner and muse in 1891. In May 1891, he became acquainted with Eugénie Krantz. In 1892, she left him, and Philomene returned to take care of him. They have been depicted in a few of his later works.
He eventually became bankrupt, spending all his money drinking in Paris. Fortunately, the French loved Verlaine’s works and gathered money for his sustenance.
In 1894, Verlaine’s peers made him France's "Prince of Poets." He died on January 8, 1896, in Paris, aged 52.
It is believed he had spent his final years in the house of Eugénie Krantz. He was initially buried in the 20th division of ‘Cimetière des Batignolles,’ but his grave was later moved to the 11th division.
Verlaine remains to be one of the most prominent contributors of the Decadent movement and the “fin de siècle,” characterized by a tone of pathos and cynicism in his poetry. His poems have inspired noted composers such as Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy.
Russian poet and author Boris Pasternak translated many of his works into Russian.
In 1964, French singer Léo Ferré chose 14 poems by Verlaine and a few by Rimbaud and set them to music, to be included in his album ‘Verlaine et Rimbaud.’
Guitarist and singer Tom Miller chose his pseudonym, “Tom Verlaine,” as a tribute to Verlaine.
New Zealand-based rock band ‘The Verlaines’ named their band after Verlaine. Their song ‘Death and the Maiden’ has references to the shooting of Rimbaud.
The 1995 film ‘Total Eclipse’ narrated details of Verlaine’s time spent with Rimbaud. The movie had David Thewlis playing Verlaine and Leonardo DiCaprio playing Rimbaud.
Bob Dylan's song ‘You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ mentions Verlaine and Rimbaud.
Singer Lydia Loveless’s album ‘Somewhere Else’ had a song titled 'Verlaine Shot Rimbaud.’