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Verlaine, Paul (1844-1896)  
 
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The poetry of Paul Verlaine celebrates both heterosexual and homosexual activity, including lesbian relationships.

Born into a bourgeois family in Metz, France, Verlaine was the pampered only child of a military father and doting mother. As a young boy, he moved with his parents to the outskirts of Paris, later the city of departure and return for an errant poet; and yet his calm early years did not presage the tempestuous and disorderly adulthood that was to follow.

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Leaving the refuge of the familial bosom, this "fearful and spoiled child" grew mischievous and bold, and devoted himself to his Parisian education, one both literary and erotic. When Verlaine described the early period of his life in his Confessions (1895), he characteristically minimized his homosexual attractions and interactions while nonetheless relating pubescent gropings with younger classmates.

Verlaine recounted more straightforwardly his blossoming literary interests. By the time he received his baccalauréat in 1862, he was an avid reader of the contemporary poets he would soon befriend in literary salons and cafés.

After abandoning law school, he became a civil servant for the city of Paris, all the while continuing to write poetry and literary criticism. His first collection of poetry, Poèmes saturniens (1866), was strongly marked by the influence of the Parnassian movement and the poetry of one of his idols, Charles Baudelaire.

Les Amies

Verlaine's first erotic work, Les Amies (1868), described lesbian sexuality. Inserting himself in a tradition of poetry that Baudelaire helped inaugurate, he published this collection pseudonymously in Brussels in order to escape French censorship. The first five of the six sonnets, all written in feminine rhymes, evoke rather innocently the couplings of adolescent girls.

In darkly warm, perfumed and languorous settings, naive and delicious young creatures speak of and make love, wearing thin robes of cotton and surrounded by muslin drapes. "Sappho," the final, inverted, sonnet, describes the suicide of this ancient mistress of lesbians and patron of poetry. She devotes her last thoughts to sleeping virgins before jumping into the sea.

Fêtes galantes

Fêtes galantes (1869) followed, a more original collection of delicate, pastoral poems inspired by the eighteenth-century painter Watteau. This work made evident some of the contradictions that characterized Verlaine, a sensitive writer of refined and musical poems who was also prone to alcoholic excess and bouts of violence.

These contradictions served to diminish Verlaine's reputation relative to the other great symbolist poets, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud. On one hand, some critics saw him as an almost effeminate poet of light verse unequal to the profundity of Baudelaire or the obscurity of Mallarmé. On the other, the "vulgarity" of his life and some of his subsequent works were deemed unseemly.

Paul Valéry, for example, later wrote of his fascination at seeing the aging Verlaine saunter from one café to the next, but also of his distaste that prevented him from greeting a poet he deeply admired.

Verlaine's Conflicted Sexuality

Verlaine's conflicted sexuality also became manifest in the late 1860s. Although taken with a friend and literary collaborator, Lucien Viotti, whose "ephebic body's exquisite proportions" he later described, Verlaine pursued a relationship with Mathilde Mauté, whom he married in 1870.

La Bonne chanson (1870), dedicated to his new wife, sang with chaste sensitivity of her youthful beauty and of the marriage of their souls. He was nonetheless deeply distraught when Viotti died in combat the same year.

The Arrival of Rimbaud

With his early publications, Verlaine gained renown and respect from other writers, including a young schoolboy and aspiring poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who wrote him admiring letters from the provinces. The convergence of Verlaine's marriage to Mathilde and the arrival of Rimbaud in Paris the following year exacerbated the conflict within Verlaine between bourgeois respectability and scandalous rebellion.

The bond between the two poets was nearly instantaneous. Verlaine spent less and less time at home with his pregnant wife and disapproving in-laws, and more and more time with Rimbaud, whose aesthetic project was to "discover the unknown through the unsettling of all the senses."

The younger, more audacious poet found a pliable and willing partner in Verlaine; together they scandalized their literary colleagues and the Mauté family. Often coming home drunk and occasionally abusing his wife, now the mother of the infant George, Verlaine was also experiencing new sensual delights with Rimbaud, and writing some of his most original poetry, which would later be collected in Romances sans paroles (1874).

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Top: A portrait of Paul Verlaine by Gustav Courbet.
Above: A photograph of Verlaine.

  
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