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Impressions and opinions: A Great Poet (Verlaine), Page 4  
by George Moore (1913). Page protected by Copyscape DO NOT COPY

How simple and yet how subtle is the music of this poem — music that had lain for centuries dormant in the French language, and this music that some dead singer should have sung sounds strange in modern speech.

In considering Verlaine's claims to high poetic fame we are more concerned with his last two volumes, Sagesse and Amour than with the earlier ones, beautiful though they all most certainly are. For it is in Sagesse and Amour that we are most fully treated to the astonishing spectacle of a man writing purely devotional poetry while leading notoriously a more than profligate life. In the Middle Ages, when faith in God was firmer than it is now, it was not infrequent to find the devout Christian saying prayers in the morning and committing murder and robbery in the afternoon or evening. Villon is a case in point, and between Verlaine and Villon there is some analogy. In both lives there were terms of isolation from the world, though for different reasons; and to find the seed whence sprang the devotional verses of Verlaine, I look in vain through French poetry until I happen across Villon's Ballade to his Mother. Unconsciously and without suspicion of plagiarism, Verlaine has elaborated that beautiful poem into many volumes, and were Villon unknown to me and I were shown the refrain of the ballade in question: "Dans cette foi je veux vivre et mourir," I would stake my very existence that it was a line of Verlaine's, and probably to be found in Sagesse. But it must be remembered that in this ballade Villon is not speaking in his own person, but in that of his aged mother; and the note of complete humility which we find in this ballade is absent in nearly all his other poems, as it is absent in the poems of all other poets. Some poets write to tell how well women have loved them, others seek to record their exploits in the battle or the hunting-field, others desire to convince the reader of their excessive erudition; all show pride more or less hidden on some point, and they write with the object of acquainting the world with their excellence or their peculiarity in this or that respect; but I am not aware of any other poet except Verlaine who has written solely to tell how weak, helpless, and undistinguished he is in all ways and things. Nowhere do we find a trace of personal pride; even his afflictions he relates gently and without bitterness. He is in his books what the poor old woman is in Villon's ballade. She goes into the church to pray: in the painted windows she sees saints in heaven playing lyres, sinners in hell being boiled. She is only a poor, ignorant Christian woman, utterly unlearned; she knows only that one vision gives her pleasure, the other gives her pain, and in that faith she wishes to live and die. Verlaine in his poetry is no more than the poor woman of the ballade. He is a poor Christian, devoid of riches and all distinction, who believes and hopes to find grace hereafter with his sovereign Lord and Master.


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The whole man — his poetry, his life, his literary success, and his failure — is contained in an all-embracing sense of his own unworthiness; he keeps it continually before you; he tells you of it in a hundred different ways, for he is the most personal of poets. He writes of nothing but himself; his own life is his only theme. Sometimes he confides it by a personal narrative, sometimes it assumes some slight and obvious disguisement. His un worthiness is all he has to tell you, and it is most affecting, for it is the whole man. The conversation I had with him in his astonishing lodging, Cour Saint François, 6, Hôtel du Midi, swept away any doubts of the sincerity of his art which till then had lingered in my mind. He spoke of his miserable condition, but without adjectives or emphasis — just as the old woman in the ballade might have done; he deplored the discomfort that the lack of the very smallest sums of money involved, but without even suggesting that after all it was a man of genius who suffered. I remember we spoke of Tennyson. Verlaine knows English very well, and he deeply regretted that he had not the necessary money to take him straight to Lord Tennyson, so that he might obtain permission to publish a volume of translations. I went to the Macmillans, and asked them if the matter could be arranged, but I heard no more of it. Lord Tennyson has, therefore, missed being translated by one who is greater than he; and to convince Lord Tennyson of his loss I have only to quote one sonnet from a set of sonnets, each one of which is great even as Milton's sonnets are great:

"Mon Dieu m'a dit: Mon fils, il faut m'aimer. Tu vois
Mon flanc percé, mon cœur qui rayonne et qui saigne,
Et mes pieds offensés que Madeleine baigne
De larmes, et mes bras douloureux sous le poids

"De tes péchés, et mes mains! Et tu vois la croix,
Tu vois les clous, le fiel, l'éponge et tout t'enseigne,
A n'aimer, en ce monde amer où la chair règne,
Que ma Chair et mon Sang, ma parole et ma voix.

"Ne t'ai-je pas aimé jusqu'a la raort moi-même,
O mon frère en mon Père, ô mon fils en l'Esprit,
Et n'ai-je pas souffert, comme c'était écrit?

"N'ai-je pas sangloté ton angoisse suprême,
Et n'ai-je pas sué la sueur de tes nuits,
Lamentable ami qui me cherches où je suis?"


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Moore, George. "Impressions and opinions: A Great Poet (Verlaine)   
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        ).
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AUTHOR: Moore, George (1913).
TITLE OF WEBPAGE: "Impressions and opinions: A Great Poet (Verlaine):Page4".
TITLE OF WEBSITE: La Nouvelle Décadence.
PUBLISHER: Lannie Brockstein.
LAST UPDATED: December 31st, 2009.
URL: http://webspace.webring.com/people/tl
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