Paul Verlaine: His Absinthe Tinted Song, Page 1
by Bergen Applegate (1916).
WANDERING from lupanar to lupanar, and from wine-shop to wine-shop, he seems to have staggered out of the pages of Petronius — some vague, indefinite creature, half beast and half man — a veritable satyr — and who, in the glitter of modern Paris, fared as fatuitously as in a fable.
Indeed, well might he be likened to the mythical old Eumpolus, the drunken brawling poet of the Satyricon, reappearing after so many centuries, with a fresh stock of mock-heroic verses and amplifying in some dingy cafe of the Quartier Latin, his tale of the Ephesian matron.
His life from early youth appears to have followed the course of a Rake's Progress, as though, during adolescence, he had chosen Hogarth's hero for model. And to what depths this primrose path finally led him — to a felon's cell, an exile's garret, and the pauper's bed of death.
Let us look at this singular genius in one of his favorite haunts. It is the year 1893. A basement cafe, Place St. Michel, Paris. The air is fetid with tobacco smoke, mixed with the pungent, acrid odor of absinthe. It is two o'clock in the morning. Some Parisian night birds, souteneurs, filles de joie, and the like, have dropped in to moisten their gullets and look for prey. At a table in the center of the room a group of young men are sipping bocks and petits verres and listening to the rabelaisien ejaculations of a drunken man who looks to be sixty-five years old but who, in reality, is not yet fifty. The drunkard is Verlaine — the listeners some of his self-styled disciples. But the master?
"A face," to use the words of Jules Huret, "like that of a wicked angel grown old, with a thin untrimmed beard and abrupt nose; his bushy, bristling eyebrows resembling bearded wheat, hiding deep set green eyes; his wholly bald and huge long skull, misshapen by enigmatic bumps — all these give to his physiognomy a contradictory appearance of stubborn asceticism and cyclopean appetites." He is dressed in a cheap ill-fitting suit of gray, evidently of English make. His cane and a greasy hat are lying beside him. His linen, if such it may be called, appears to have been resurrected by a ragpicker — a chiffonnier of the Quartier — and sold to some ambulatory Hebrew vendor who in turn passed it on to Verlaine for a few sous.
He is drinking absinthe. The wan, purplish light shed by the gas jets from the walls, mingled with the more ruddy glow from a large oil lamp hanging above the group, throws into his glass some rays of iridescent splendor. Half curiously, half questioningly his sunken, glowing eyes peer into the greenish opalescent liquid. The look is that of a man not altogether certain of his identity — the fixed gaze of a somnambulist taking on a puzzled expression at the moment of awakening. Well might he question, for into that devil's chalice he had poured all his youth, all his fortune, all his talent, all his happiness, all his life.
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The group had been discussing literature earlier in the night, as always. Poets had been dragged by their feet, so to speak, tossed in imaginary blankets or exalted beyond the gods. Then the hated bourgeois were driven into the arena where they were martyred, individually and in groups, with all the ingenuity of a band of Bohemians — or Apaches. The night wearing, they had turned to that subject with which men frequently (if not habitually) regale their empty cups and stimulate senses already jaded by drink — to the subject of sex. And the master, with a nonchalance altogether Gallic, was giving vent to obscenities that would have made blush a haberdasher's manikin.
In such a manner were Verlaine's evenings usually spent at this period. It was about this time that Edmund Gosse, the English writer, met the poet. "I was looking," says he in French Profiles, "for that vaster lepidopter, that giant hawkmoth, Paul Verlaine . . . who uncoiled his proboscus in the same absinthe corollas," as other of the butterfly creatures of tinkling rhyme. It was late at night when, with a party of friends, the poet had been sought in vain at his familiar haunts. Suddenly the word was passed that he had been seen at the Café Soleil d'Or. No Verlaine. But "where I sat, by the elbow of Moreas," says Gosse: "I was opposite an open door, absolutely dark, leading down by oblique stairs, to a cellar. As I idly watched this square of blackness, I suddenly saw some ghostly shape fluttering at the bottom of it. It took the form of a strange bald head, bobbing close to the ground. Although it was so dim and vague, an idea crossed my mind. Not daring to speak, I touched Moreas, and so drew his attention to it. "Pas un mot, pas un geste, Monsieur!" he whispered, and then, instructed in the guile of his race, insidias Danaûm, the eminent author of Les Cantilènes rose, making a vague detour toward the street, and then plunged at the cellar door. There was a prolonged scuffle and a rolling down stairs; then Moreas reappeared triumphant; behind him something flopped up out of the darkness like an owl, — a timid, shambling figure in a soft black hat, with jerking hands, and it peeped with the intention to disappear again."
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