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Verlaine, Paul

Category: Poet

Paul-Marie Verlaine (1844 –1896) was a French poet associated with the Symbolist movement. He is considered one of the greatest representatives of the fin de siècle in international and French poetry. 

He began writing poetry at an early age. Verlaine's first published poem was published in 1863 in La Revue du progrès, a publication founded by poet Louis-Xavier de Ricard. Verlaine's first published collection, Poèmes saturniens (1866), established him as a poet of promise and originality.

His poetry served as a source of inspiration to Gabriel Fauré,  Claude Debussy, who set  Clair de lune and six of the Fêtes galantes poems to music, and the Belgian-British composer Poldowski (daughter of Henryk Wieniawski).

But it is his private life that had the most influence on his poetry.  It begins with his love for Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville. Mauté became Verlaine's wife in 1870.

Verlaine returned to Paris in August 1871, and, in September, he received the first letter from Arthur Rimbaud.  By 1872, he had lost interest in Mathilde, and effectively abandoned her and their son, preferring the company of his new lover.

Rimbaud and Verlaine's stormy affair took them to London in 1872. In July 1873 in a drunken, jealous rage, he fired two shots with a pistol at Rimbaud, wounding his left wrist, though not seriously injuring the poet. As an indirect result of this incident, Verlaine was arrested and imprisoned at Mons.

The poems collected in Romances sans paroles (1874) were written between 1872 and 1873, inspired by Verlaine's memories of his life with Mathilde on the one hand and the roller coaster emotional relationship he was having with Rimbaud.   Romances sans paroles was published while Verlaine was imprisoned. Following his release from prison, Verlaine traveled to England, where he worked for some years as a teacher, teaching French, Latin and Greek.  While in England he produced another successful collection, Sagesse. He returned to France in 1877 and, while teaching English at a school in Rethel, fell in love with one of his pupils, Lucien Létinois, who inspired Verlaine to write further poems. Verlaine was devastated when Létinois died of typhus in 1883.

Verlaine's last years saw his descent into drug addiction, alcoholism, and poverty. He was a heavy absinthe user.  He lived in slums and public hospitals, and spent his days drinking absinthe in Paris cafes. Fortunately, the French people's love of the arts was able to garner support and bring in an income for Verlaine: his early poetry was rediscovered, his lifestyle and strange behavior in front of crowds attracted admiration, and in 1894 he was elected France's "Prince of Poets" by his peers.

His drug dependence and alcoholism caught up with him and took a toll on his life. Paul Verlaine died in Paris at the age of 51 on 8 January 1896.

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