Paul Verlaine: His Absinthe Tinted Song, Page 10
by Bergen Applegate (1916).
"Paul Verlaine is a juggler by the grace of God." — Aline Gorren.
Time is the great purifier. It is now (1916) twenty years since the subject of this study was laid in the grave. Human charity has mantled with kindly forgetfulness the faults inherent in his clay. In accord with that process of nature which wills that a thing of beauty shall never die, his poems have taken their deserving place in the world's literature.
"By the grace of God Paul Verlaine was a juggler," and something more! To the critic of his day the tour de force of this literary necromancer was that of stringing a number of brightly colored words on a gossamer thread of thought and calling the display a poem. The trick was easy. It required neither skill nor talent. A slight rearrangement of words, and presto! a symbolist. A dash of diablerie and we have — a décadent. There is really nothing new — but genius. Schools of poetry come and go. Yesterday it was a Futurist today it is the Imagist. The cult is forgotten — the Poet alone lives.
The poems of Paul Verlaine fill three stout volumes. Owing to their subjective treatment and autobiographical character, they form a bewildering and contradictory index to his character. Save in his early verse, Verlaine was personal, first, last, and wholly.
Remy De Gourmont said the poet's first master was Banville; the second, Baudelaire, and the third himself. This characterization is probably the most accurate, briefly stated. However, the influence of Banville was not so pronounced as that of Baudelaire. The poet says in his Confessions that Les Fleurs du Mal was one of his earliest books, but that he pored over it without much comprehension.
Verlaine's literary activity extended through three distinct periods of French poetry — those of the Parnassiens, Symbolists, and Décadents. In common with all the Parnassiens, in his first literary expression, he was largely influenced not only by Baudelaire and Banville, but by Gautier and Leconte de Lisle. "The poets of this group sacrificed everything to form, seeking a sort of plastic beauty, replete with pictorial effect that charmed the ear although lacking in passion and ideas, and unable to reach the heart." Emaux et Camées and Poèmes Saturniens might be taken as the work of a single writer.
• • • • •Dearest Décadent, to read the eleventh page of this article,
However, Paul Verlaine is not, on the whole, to be classed with any school of French poetry, even that of the Décadents. He very early dropped the formal, objective style of verse — the Symbolist movement affected him only slightly — and it was not until nearly the end of his troubled life that the so-called Décadents took him up and declared him their master.
This was the beginning of the period of his most original (though not most pleasing) literary expression. The name Décadents, given to a group of young writers, who, in 1864-5, used to frequent the cafes in the Quartier Latin, was originally meant as an insulting appellation. However, they immediately seized upon it as a slogan. Applied to literature, the word has little significance. The writers to whom it was directed were, many of them, producing beautiful work and creating something worthy of preservation. The word was used as a sort of generic term to describe all those writers of Fin de Siècle literature whose work seemed displeasing to bourgeois puritanisme. The Parnassiens and Symbolists readily came under this characterization. The name persists.
Paul Verlaine transcends all schools. He might almost be called the first lyric voice in France. The French language, which lends itself to such surprising and charming prose, appears too formal and architectural for purely emotional poetry. However, at the hands of Verlaine the most beautiful results are obtained. "There are poems," says Arthur Symons, "which go as far as verse can go to become pure music, the voice of a bird with a human soul. . . With Verlaine, the sense of hearing and the sense of sight are almost interchangeable: he paints with sound and his line and atmosphere become music. . . His landscape painting is always an evocation, in which outline is lost in atmosphere."
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