On This Gay Day: Poet Paul Verlaine was born in 1844

Poet Paul Verlaine was born on this day in 1844 

Paul Verlaine is remembered as one of the greatest representatives of the ‘fin de siécle’ in French poetry, and for his passionate love affair with fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud.

Verlaine worked in Paris in the civil service but he’d always written poetry since a young age. In 1866 his first collection of poems was published, and he gained a reputation as poet of promise and originality.

In 1871 he became a Communard, joining the working-class group that attempted to overthrow the government in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. The uprising was quashed in a bloody fight that lasted a week, but Verlaine went into hiding and escaped the slaughter.

Not long after he returned to Paris in late 1871 he received a letter from a young poet named Arthur Rimbaud who admired his poetry. Verlaine encouraged Rimbaud to come to Paris, and the two embarked on a passionate love affair. Verlaine abandoned his wife of two years, and infant son for the 16-year-old Rimbaud.

In 1872 Verlaine and Rimbaud travelled to London, and the to Brussels. Here the pair had a argument which resulted in the older man firing two shots at his younger lover. One of the bullets wounded Rimbaud’s wrist, but it was not a serious injury. Verlaine was imprisoned in Mons, charged with sodomy and grievous bodily harm. While serving his sentenced he underwent a re-conversion to the Catholic faith.

Rimbaud stopped writing, and travelled the world as a merchant and explorer. He travelled over Europe, visited the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), and visited the Middle East and Africa.

In 1891, while living in Aden, Rimbaud began to experience a pain his leg, doctors at mistakenly diagnosed him with tubercular synovitis and recommend amputating his right leg. He returned to France had had the operation, only then did doctors realise the true cause of his pain was bone cancer. He died on the 10th December 1891, aged 37.

After being released from prison Verlaine moved to England where he worked as an teacher, and continued publishing his poetry. He returned to teach English at a school in France in 1877, here he fell in love with one of his pupils Lucien Létinois, who inspired him to write more poetry. He was devastated when Létinois died of typhus in 1883.

His later years saw him struggle with drug addiction and alcoholism, and he lived in squalor. He died on the 8th January 1896 aged 51.

Verlaine’s poems were a major influence on classical composers, his poem Clair de lune inspired both Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy. Author Boris Pasternak, who wrote the novel Doctor Zhivago, was also a big fan of Verlaine, he translated many of his works into Russian.

Musician Léo Ferré set many of Verlaine and Rimbaud’s poems to music, New Zealand indie band The Verlaines is named after the poet, and Tom Verlaine the lead singer of Television chose his stage name in tribute to the French poet too.

Bob Dylan sung about Verlaine and Rimbaud in his 1974 track You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go. The tune has been covered by Miley Cyrus, Elvis Costello, Madeline Preyroux, Shawn Colvin, and many others.

The story of Verlaine and Rimbaud was also brought to the screen in 1995 film Total EclipseHarry Potter actor David Thewlis played Verlaine, and Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed Rimbaud.

OIP Staff, this post was first published in 2022. 

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