Posted on:Monday 1st June, 2020
In Graham Henderson’s recent blog, we see Marcel Proust travel to the Bois de Boulogne, at the end of ‘Swann in Love’, where he cherishes his recollections of that well-known Parisian landmark. Many a Parisian child’s memories of this pandemic will no doubt include the relative freedom afforded by this large park. Proust is both the disillusioned adult and the enchanted child, in other words, a divided soul in search of something too ephemeral to be certain, or, at least, retrievable. The reference to the Bois de Boulogne brought to mind an anecdote about Verlaine in Phil Baker’s The Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History1 and the divided soul of Paul Verlaine.
It was a chore for anyone to drag Verlaine away from his cafés, particularly as alcohol could bring out the violent side of Verlaine’s nature. Some of his better known eruptions include: throwing his new born son, George, across a room; setting fire to his young wife, Mathilde; shooting his lover, Rimbaud, and, in a brilliantly Freudian gesture, smashing the jars containing the embryos of his overbearing mother’s three miscarriages before she had Paul. If his mother’s coddling played a role in his adult problems, much of his behaviour was self-destructive.
After a night of drinking, Verlaine and his lifelong friend and future biographer, Edmond Lepelletier were walking home from the grandiose Napoléon III style restaurant, the Pré Catelan in the Bois de Boulogne, which had opened in 1856. Suddenly, Verlaine decided he wanted to return to the restaurant for one more drink. Lepelletier, who later wrote that absinthe ‘undermined [Verlaine’s] moral and cerebral stamina, and eventually led to his social and even intellectual downfall’, tried to restrain him2. Verlaine became maniacal, taking out his swordstick and chasing Lepelletier across the Bois. Since Lepelletier fought 17 duels in his life (becoming best friends with his surgeon in the process)3, it must have been some rage.
Of course, any discussion of Verlaine’s drinking comes back to the ‘green demon’, absinthe. You might have in mind those photos of Verlaine by Mondadori and Dornac of the prince of poets (thus crowned, in 1894, two years before his death), sitting, far from regally, in the Café Procope with his inkwell and a glass of absinthe. Rimbaud in contrast did not drink absinthe before meeting Verlaine and only mentions the drink once, in his poem ‘Les Amis’ from 1872.
Viens, les Vins vont aux plages,
Et les flots par millions !
Vois le Bitter sauvage
Rouler du haut des monts !
Gagnons, pèlerins sages,
L'Absinthe aux verts piliers...
Come on, the wines are going to the beach,
And waves by the millions!
See the wild Bitter rolling
From the mountaintops!
Wise pilgrims, let us reach
The Absinthe with its green pillars... (Translation by Markus Hartsmer)
What Rimbaud and Verlaine did have in common from the start was their admiration of Baudelaire, who had died only four years before their famous meeting in Paris in 1871. Many a thesis has been written on Baudelaire’s influence on both poets, especially Verlaine, who began writing poetry at a young age, inspired by Baudelaire. Baudelaire’s beautiful poem ‘Autumn Song’ inspired Verlaine’s ‘Autumn Song’, (‘Chanson d’automne'), a poem so engrained in French culture that lines from the poem were used to send messages from the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to the French Resistance about the timing of the Normandy Invasion4. Rimbaud wrote that Baudelaire was a genius, a visionary, and in his famous ‘seer’ letters of 1871, he affirms that a true poet must be a visionary. As a young student, he claimed the only poets worthy of that title were Baudelaire and Verlaine, whom he was soon to meet. Rimbaud had little time for bourgeois moral outrage, either. He shared Baudelaire’s incomprehension at the persecution for indecency of Les Fleurs du mal (the verdict only lifted in 1949). ‘Morality is the weakness of the brain,’ Rimbaud wrote.
In the 1890s, the cult of Baudelaire turned into the cult of absinthe, although Baudelaire did not write specifically about absinthe, using the generic ‘wine’ for his references to alcohol. Les Fleurs du mal contains five poems with wine in the title, grouped together under that rubric. That said, he did write a lot about altered states, and the alterations were, as Coleridge famously discovered in writing ‘Kublai Khan’, often dependent on drugs. Baudelaire translated De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and, in his own version, the booklet Les Paradis artificiels (Artificial Paradises), the poet described the effects of opium and hashish on his creativity and the motivations for addiction. Hashish was a drug which Verlaine and Rimbaud used regularly when living at Royal College Street in London in 1873, whether to help them reach Baudelaire’s ‘ideal world’ or help them escape the cold, the hunger and their bickering.
Baudelaire does make a reference to absinthe in his beautiful poem ‘Poison’, in Les Fleurs du mal. After extolling the virtues of wine and then opium on a kind of sliding scale of intensity, he writes, ‘But that is nothing to the poison that flows/Out of your eyes, your green eyes’. In the 1890s the colour green was linked to absinthe in England, too. Robert Smythe Hichens highlights this connection in his anonymously (and self) published 1894 satire on Oscar Wilde’s circle, The Green Carnation.
But in Baudelaire’s famous (posthumously published) prose poem from Paris Spleen, ‘Enivrez-vous’ or ‘Be drunk’, when he advises, ‘It is necessary to be drunk all the time’, he is not necessarily referring to alcohol. Being drunk is, he prescribes in the poem, the only cure for mortal fear:
‘If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weighing on your shoulders and crushing you to the earth be drunken continually.’
But Baudelaire’s use of the word drunk, is not literal, as is apparent in the text that follows:
‘But drunk on what? On wine, poetry, or virtue, it’s up to you!’
In Rimbaud’s letter of 13 May 1871 to his former schoolteacher, Izambard, he writes: ’Now, I am degrading myself as much as possible. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself a seer…It is a question of reaching the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but one has to be strong, one has to be born a poet, and I know I am a poet.’
The ever-suffering Baudelaire’s equivalent to Rimbaud’s ‘derangement of all the senses’ was, possibly, his theory of ‘correspondences’. In any event, his call for perpetual inebriation is not binge-drinking, but a portal through which certain courageous souls will become visionaries (Baudelaire) – or seers (Rimbaud).
It is significant that in Rimbaud’s poem, ‘Le Bateau ivre’, the boat is ‘drunk’ on sea water, and (in one of the great lines of lyrical poetry) the seer/boat is ‘bathed in the Poem of the Sea.’ Rimbaud was choosing to become permanently drunk on poetry in his youthful manifest, not alcohol. At the end of his life, Verlaine, who lacked the will, or the strength, to leave the Pré Catelans restaurant behind, just remained drunk.
1 Barker, Phil, The Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History. New York, Grove Press 2003
2 Lanier, Doris (2004-03-22), Absinthe--The Cocaine of the Nineteenth Century: A History of the Hallucinogenic Drug and Its Effect on Artists and Writers in Europe and the United States, McFarland, ISBN 978-0-7864-1967-8, retrieved 2018-02-12 p. 47
3 Jolly, Jean, ed. (1960), ‘Lepelletier (Edmond)’, Dictionnaire des parlementaires français de 1889 à 1940, Presses universitaires de France, retrieved 2017-12-08
4 Musée du 5 juin 1944 « Message Verlaine »