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literature

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Verlaine, Paul (1844-1896)  
 
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In his article, "Visions of Violence: Rimbaud and Verlaine," Paul Schmidt describes their sometimes sadomasochistic relationship as at once a laboratory for "new loves" and new poetry.

Verlaine's Rimbaud years were turbulent and impassioned. With other poets, they formed a group called the "vilains bonshommes"; and in cafés, they filled a notebook with bawdy poems that survived as the Album zutique.

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"Le sonnet du trou du cul" was penned by both of them, with Verlaine contributing the quatrains and Rimbaud the tercets. This poem in praise of the anus begins, "Dark and puckered like carnation, it breathes, humbly hidden among the froth, still humid from love that follows the soft slope of a white ass down to its deepest rim."

After leaving Mathilde to travel with Rimbaud in Belgium, Verlaine lived with his lover for a while in London. Enamored of Rimbaud but determined to preserve his marriage, Verlaine was torn between the two.

His relationship with Rimbaud ended violently when Verlaine shot him during a quarrel in Brussels. Although the wound was not serious, Verlaine was sentenced to two years in a Belgian prison, after having been forced to undergo a humiliating rectal examination that determined the nature of his sexual relationship with Rimbaud.

Prison and a Religious Conversion

The months spent in prison allowed Verlaine time for reflection and time to write. While composing poems for a collection to be entitled Cellulairement (1875, but not published intact until 1962), he also underwent a religious conversion.

His post-prison years, although no less disorderly, were nonetheless punctuated with bouts of piety and mysticism. Verlaine met with Rimbaud only once after his release from prison. The meeting proved frustrating, for his attempt to effect his former lover's religious conversion met with mockery.

In many ways, the "scandalous" relationship between Verlaine and Rimbaud has overshadowed Verlaine's contributions as a poet who helped revolutionize French verse.

Verlaine's attempts to reconcile with Mathilde failed, and on returning to Paris, he was greeted as a pariah by his former literary colleagues. Unable to find a publisher for Cellulairement, he began again to wander, teaching for a while in France and in England.

Verlaine and Létinois

In 1878, he met and fell in love with a student, Lucien Létinois, and this relationship stabilized him for a time. The two men traveled to England and then settled with Lucien's parents on a farm in the Ardennes, where Verlaine continued to write. He published Sagesse in 1880, the first in a series of religious collections.

Verlaine's periods of serenity and sobriety were always short-lived. When he returned to Paris in 1882 where he began to attract attention from the younger generation of poets, he was nearly destitute and relied on his mother, Stéphanie, for financial as well as emotional support.

Reestablishing His Reputation in Paris

After Lucien's death in 1883, Verlaine and his mother returned to the country where he scandalized their small community with his drunkenness, violence, and seductions of farm boys. Writing all the while, he gradually reestablished his name in Paris, with his notoriety now actually enhancing rather than sullying his reputation.

Jadis et naguère (1884), a heterogeneous collection of old and new poems, did not have much success, but his Poètes maudits (1884), a series of literary portraits that introduced Rimbaud's work to the new generation of symbolists and decadents, was well received.

A second series of Poètes maudits followed in 1888, including the portrait of "Pauvre Lélian." With this anagram of his name, Verlaine concretized a sense of self that he projected in future writings as a poor, misunderstood, occasionally guilty but essentially naive and well-meaning person.

In the Ardennes, Verlaine was arrested for violence against his mother and sentenced to a month in a country prison. On his release, he returned definitively to Paris where he lived in a small and dank apartment.

Confined there for months, immobilized by a rheumatic leg that would plague him for the rest of his life, he composed poems destined for future collections, including two more religious works, Amour (1888) and Bonheur (1891), as well as the quite lusty Parallèlement (1889).

After their reconciliation, his mother joined him in this tenement only to die there the following year, a loss that Verlaine suffered deeply.

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