Posted on:Wednesday 23rd September, 2020
On 25 February 1890, the Irish writer, George Moore took readers of The Hawk magazine on a journey down the backstreets of Paris, near to the location of the old Bastille:
‘we traversed curious streets, inhabited apparently by people who in dressing never got further than camisoles and shirt sleeves; we penetrated musty-smelling and clamorous court yards, in which lingered Balzacian concièrges; we climbed slippery staircases upon which doors stood wide open, emitting odours and permitting occasional views of domestic life – a man in his shirt hammering a boot, a woman, presumably a mother, wiping a baby’.
The object of his quest was the poet, Paul Verlaine, in his lodgings at the cour Saint-François in the 12e arrondissement. Moore’s vivid and detailed evocation of this social setting belongs to the broader story his article was telling. For Verlaine and his work was, Moore asserts, ‘unknown in England’ and ‘known only to the élite’ in France. His safari through passages and court yards is not just a literal journey through the lesser-known side of Parisian life, it is also a figurative journey towards the discovery of ‘a great poet’ (which is the title he gave to the article).
Moore was not alone. His guide on the trip to visit Verlaine was his friend and literary collaborator, the novelist Edouard Dujardin and the purpose of their visit was to retrieve a manuscript from Verlaine, who had promised to deliver a sonnet, to be published in the Revue Wagnérienne during January 1886. Upon their arrival, they discovered the poet recuperating in bed – in his later years, Verlaine was wracked by gout and rheumatism, exacerbated by alcoholism and living in poverty. On Moore’s account, their host teased his two visitors: ‘in the grossest language, he told us of the abominations he had included in the sonnet’. Moore and Dujardin left empty handed. But the punchline to the anecdote, is that the poem in question was indeed delivered and turned out to be ‘Parsifal’, one of Verlaine’s best known and widely appreciated works (with nary an explicit ‘abomination’), a poem I discussed previously in this blog feed in relation to John Gray’s English translation (see my piece of 13 April 2020).
The publication of ‘Parsifal’ in January 1886 would date this visit to Verlaine around December 1885 (curiously there is no record of Moore being in Paris at that time). Moore’s account of these events in the Hawk four years later, however, represents a very specific juncture in Verlaine’s reputation amongst the English-speaking public. As he explains: ‘for many years hardly any newspaper dared to print his name’: Verlaine had scandalised literary Paris by leaving his wife for a younger man, the fellow-poet, Arthur Rimbaud in 1871. Their stormy relationship took them around France and Belgium to London where they spent some time living in the house at No 8 Royal College Street, now the subject of a legacy gift in favour of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation. But in July 1873 it culminated in a drunken row at a hotel in Brussels where Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist. The two men were already under some surveillance by the police, a trial and conviction followed, after which Verlaine spent some 15 months in a series of Belgian prisons. This proved too much for many of his contemporaries, already fearful of repercussions from the authorities in the wake of the Paris commune. Hence the boycott of Verlaine in the press, described by Moore, which seems to have extended across the Channel too.
Although subject to surveillance, homosexuality was not illegal in France, but it was in Britain and the Labouchère amendment of 1885, under which Oscar Wilde was prosecuted for ‘gross obscenity’ in 1895, intensified this. Perhaps this explains the euphemistic manner in which Moore alludes to this aspect of Verlaine’s life: ‘He has lived the prey of strange passions that have ruined and dishonoured him’. Despite this, Moore’s article heralded an important turning point in the French poet’s reputation in Britain that would eventually lead to him being invited to speak in London, Oxford and Salford during 1894. Verlaine’s rehabilitation in Parisian circles had begun in the 1880s around the time of the visit described in the Hawk. Moore doesn’t name Dujardin in the article; instead, he refers to him as ‘a young enthusiast décadent et symbolist’ and this is significant. For Dujardin belonged to a younger literary generation that sought to recruit Verlaine (who was reluctant) to a burgeoning Decadent movement. Moore’s description of his visit to Verlaine in the Hawk seems to have encouraged similar visits by other younger British writers. Within a year, Arthur Symons would complain in a new periodical, Black and White that the subject of the French poet, was ‘in danger of becoming positively commonplace. Persons who are not in the least fin de siècle enquire if one has read VERLAINE’.
As well as Symons, Verlaine became a compulsory fixture for other British literary tourists in Paris in the 1890s, including W.B. Yeats, Havelock Ellis and Katharine Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper (the two poets known as ‘Michael Field’), and each of them wrote their own account of visiting him. Despite his poor circumstances – or perhaps because of them – by the time of his death in 1896 Paul Verlaine had become something of a literary celebrity. Looking back in January 1896, the man of letters, Edmund Gosse envisaged himself as a butterfly hunter on a trip to Paris in April 1893, seeking out ‘that giant hawk-moth, Paul Verlaine’. The comparison is telling: an interest in Verlaine never quite became as ‘commonplace’ as Symons thought, but Moore’s unlikely dive into the underworld of Paris may have had much larger consequences than expected. It might even be fair to say that it was the starting point for the spectacular albeit brief-lived British Decadent movement of the 1890s.
Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Glasgow
Edmund Gosse, ‘A First Sight of Verlaine’, The Savoy 2, April 1896, pp. 114-16.
George Moore, ‘A Great Poet’, The Hawk 25 February 1890. pp. 223-24.
Arthur Symons, ‘Paul Verlaine’, Black and White, 20 June 1891, pp. 649-50.