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The sensual vertigo of a receding reality

Whilst the era of COVID continues to be marked by a tragic and unconscionable loss of life, by poor mental health and by the loss of income and work opportunities, for the more fortunate amongst us it is characterised mainly by a boring and monotonous daily routine, in which we see only the people we live with and only go out for a swift route march around a nearby public park. Whilst it is not physically threatening, this boring routine needs to be watched carefully. It can only too easily develop into the darker form of philosophical boredom known as ennui, which is an existential challenge to a person’s whole sense of purpose and meaning. The outside world can begin to appear false, unreal, even lacking in substance. Inevitably, perhaps, the work of the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine can also be seen through this darker prism…


It has always surprised me that, even whilst they were lovers and housemates, the poetry written by Verlaine and Rimbaud should operate in such different registers. One way of diagnosing and analysing this difference may be through their attitude to ennui. In his acclaimed book The Demon of Noontide (first published in 1976) the American academic Reinhard Kuhn examined the role of ennui in western literature. He starts with the acedia of the ancient Greeks and Romans and then the sinful midday depression of the early Christian desert saints (the Demon of the title), before cataloguing the dramatic increase in accounts of ennui during the Enlightenment (including the important contributions of the philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau). The early 19th century, he says, was characterised by various forms of aristocratic ennui, experienced by individuals who were both affluent and bored with life. However, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries the languor, depression and sense of loss had spread to wider bourgeois society and reached epidemic proportions. It had spread to more marginal figures too, epitomised by the unremarkable and provincial character of Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s novel (Madame Bovary).

The reasons for this plague of philosophical boredom are unclear, although Kuhn does suggest some possible explanations. Most plausibly he wonders whether the rise of a rational and scientific world view during this period mirrors precisely the loss of purpose and meaning experienced by sensitive and artistic individuals. Put a different way, perhaps the grasping and getting of a progressively weaponised Left-brain function has left modern society with a residual sense of loss and emptiness in those areas of perception formerly occupied by mystery and the making of transcendental meanings (the earth-bound Right brain). It is precisely this cold and barren emptiness that is revealed in a crisis of boredom, when our normal psychological props fall away. Indeed, much of Kuhn’s book consists of literary accounts of the attempts of stricken individuals to find a cure for their malaise using a range of different approaches, ranging from frantic work activity, through erotic or sadomasochistic adventures, to mystical religious transports and conversions. Despite the enormous variety of suggested remedies, the general sense is that ennui is a potentially deadly spiritual enemy which, once it has taken root in a person’s soul, is hard to ever completely exorcise.

Portrait of Paul Verlaine (1890) by Eugène Carrière

Of the two poets, Paul Verlaine is the person who might be said to have placed ennui at the centre of his world view. His poetry is often said to be characterised by a sort of vague and melancholic nostalgia for a prelapsarian world. It is a melancholy caused by the impossibility of achieving ill-defined goals, by a vague longing, a failure that leads to the paralysis of ennui. It is a sorrow without reason, inchoate and delirious. There is certainly an element of affectation in this poetic world weariness, and even some indolent pleasure to be gained from allowing oneself to sink into self-pitying lassitude. Verlaine was not the first or the last poet to extract literary gold from a posture of disillusionment and fatigue. As Kuhn puts it:

‘An erotic lassitude and an undefined sense of the impossibility of being leads to the sensual vertigo of a receding reality, to which Verlaine succumbs’.


Indeed, Kuhn sees the confrontation with ‘the demon of nothingness’ as a key theme for all of the leading poets of the Decadent Movement. In Verlaine’s case it is perhaps a rather attenuated form of confrontation, closer to sensuous laziness than it is to terrifying anguish. Verlaine’s Poèmes saturniens (1866) are not characterised by spleen but by a ‘wistful nostalgia’ and the poems in his Fêtes galantes (1869) do not conjure up despair but a ‘sorrowful longing’. Sometimes, as in Verlaine’s poem ‘Il pleure dans mon cœur’ published in Romances sans paroles (1874), the effect is even rather soothing:

O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits!
Pour un cœur qui s’ennuie
O le chant de la pluie!

Oh sweet sound of the rain
On the ground and the roofs!
For a heart that is bored
Oh the song of the rain!

Everything dissolves in rain, as if in a dream. Human beings are mere shadows, drifting through the world, and their suffering and yearning leads to an abolition of external reality. It is tempting to read into this the character of a man who could abandon his young wife and child to impetuously run away to London with Arthur Rimbaud, almost in a fit of lustful absent-mindedness. More accurately, perhaps, this elegiac decadent style is a characteristic feature of the Parnassian poets, a group of which Verlaine was a prominent member. Originally known for their precision and technical restraint, their carefully constructed poems tend towards a neoclassical fatalism and world weariness, influenced by their interpretation of Late Antiquity and by Schopenhauer, the archetypal philosopher of ennui.


Rimbaud despised the vague sufferings of his ‘companion in hell’. He draws grotesque pictures of Verlaine as characterised by an absurd grief. In his poem ‘Le Cœur supplicié’ (My Tortured Heart) Rimbaud appears to reject ennui too: 

‘Mon triste cœur bave à la poupe…
Mon cœur est plein de caporal!

‘My sad heart slobbers at the poop,
My heart is full of cheap tobacco’.

Instead of sorrowing, the heart slobbers. It is heavy, not with suffering, but with cheap tobacco. Rimbaud refuses the poetic image and the plaintiveness of his ‘pitiful brother’. He will cleanse himself of this malaise, by vomiting if necessary. Kuhn argues that this strong strand of vitalism exists in Rimbaud’s poetry right from the start, marking it out as entirely different in atmosphere to the poetry of his friend. Rimbaud constantly affirms that there is a hard external reality beyond his poetic dreams. There is also a strong ‘I’, infusing all his poems with the angry energy of life, an ‘I’ which resounds through his famous poem Le Bateau ivre (The Drunken Boat). The vessel of the poem does not drift aimlessly in the seductive gloom of Verlaine’s poetry, but frees itself to brave the adventures of the world. Instead of the nothingness of Verlaine, Rimbaud presents a violent and adventurous mystery:

‘La douceur fleurie des étoiles et du ciel et du reste descend en face du talus, comme un panier, contre notre face, et fait l’abîme fleurant et bleu là-dessous’.

‘The gentleness in bloom of the stars and the sky and of all the rest sinks down opposite the embankment, like a basket, against our face, and makes the abyss below aromatic and blue’.

(An extract from ‘Mystique’ from Illuminations, translated by Martin Sorrell)

Thus, Paul Verlaine the holy drinker, sunk in self-pity, can be readily distinguished from the nihilistic adventurism of Arthur Rimbaud. Whilst both acknowledge a philosophical despair of boredom, they react to it in quite different ways, one content to go with the flow of melancholy, crafting it into beautiful classical forms, the other determined to rail against it and to energise himself through mystical prose poems, full of danger and exploration. The void in Rimbaud’s poem does not dissolve into grey rain. In contrast, it is filled with flowers and colours.


Graham Henderson


Posted on:Thursday 18th February, 2021