"De la musique avant toute chose" - The French Poet Paul Verlaine

30 March 1844, 170 years ago, the French poet Paul Verlaine was born in Metz.
"De la musique avant toute chose" (Music before everything else, Paul Verlaine)

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904) “Coin de table“ from 1872, showing Verlaine to the far left with Rimbaud sitting to his right.


Zigzagging between the yearning for a cosy bourgeois existence and the life of a complete social dropout and, if maybe not reaching the peaks of Parnassus then at least having them within sight, producing masterclass poetry are not an unusual traits for a 19th century lyricist, but few went to extremes as Verlaine did. His short marriage with the half-sister of a friend failed gloriously, he glamourised the time in later poems, fell in love with the poet Rimbaud, ten years his junior, they had quite a stormy relationship that ended with Verlaine trying to shoot him and bringing him to jail – along with several murder attempts on his mother, he found religion behind bars, ranging through Paris’ poorhouses and public hospitals or simply on the streets, alcohol and drug addicted and while he was elected “Prince des poètes“, the syphilis, what else, finally got him at the age of 52. Several thousand people followed his funeral procession to the Cimetière des Batignolles.



Verlaine drinking absinthe in the Café François 1er in 1892, photographed by Paul Marsan Dornac (Wikipedia)



Coming under the influence of Baudelaire at an early age and reading Schopenhauer on top of it usually does wonders in terms of believing oneself to be a poètes maudit, an accursed poet, like his generation was later dubbed. Not everyone has the ability to express his sensitivities in a perfect euphonic harmony, leading the French language to a musicality that was unheard of before. Verlaine became over the years the leading poet of symbolism with a sujet ranging from morbid erotic to ecstatic piety, portraying the impression of contemporary visual artists in a musical language, influencing poets, composers and writers from all over the world for the following decades, with suggestive images sans rhetoric in a language that is based on harmony, new metrics and the cadence of verse, leading the visionary poetry of the fin de siècle to a preliminary climax of the art form itself.


Gustave Courbet: "Portrait of Paul Verlaine"





Rooted deeply in other nations’ approach on being French and the Frenchs’ own identity in the following years, the allies chose verses from Verlaine to signal to the Resistance that the liberation was underway. Two weeks before “Operation Overlord”, the Normandy landings, began, the BBC broadcasted the opening lines of Verlaine’s "Chanson d'automne" and 48 hours before the invasion on 6 June 1944, the next lines were sent over the ether, signalling the beginning of the Resistance’s sabotage operations

Les sanglots longs - The long sobs - Seufzer gleiten
Des violons - Of the violins - Die saiten
De l'automne - Of Autumn- Des herbsts entlang
Blessent mon coeur - Wound my heart - Treffen mein herz
D'une langueur - With a monotonous - Mit einem schmerz
Monotone. - Languor. - Dumpf und bang

Tout suffocant - All choked - Beim glockenschlag
Et blême, quand - And pale, when - Denk ich zag
Sonne l'heure, - The hour chimes, - Und voll peinen
Je me souviens - I remember - An die zeit
Des jours anciens - Days of old - Die nun schon weit
Et je pleure, - And I cry - Und muss weinen.

Et je m'en vais - And I'm going - Im bösen winde
Au vent mauvais - On an ill wind - Geh ich und finde
Qui m'emporte - That carries me - Keine statt...
Deçà, delà - Here and there, - Treibe fort
Pareil à la - As if a - Bald da bald dort
Feuille morte. - Dead leaf. - Ein welkes blatt.


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