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Simple pleasures: Verlaine's poetry and prose

I first read Verlaine’s Romances sans paroles as an undergraduate in 1989 and they have stayed with me ever since. I have taught this slim volume of 22 poems to students at the University of Leeds for the last ten years as part of a course entitled ‘The Pleasures of French Poetry’, where Verlaine is sandwiched between Baudelaire and Rimbaud. The privilege of being able to lecture on these wonderful lyric poems every year and to watch students do seminar presentations on them, often beautifully illustrated with different images or pieces of music, is enhanced by the new insights each presentation brings. In this respect teaching literature is like the pleasure of the changing seasons: always familiar and always different.

Henry Longfellow

When I was working as an English assistant in Strasbourg two years later, a new French friend who liked Rimbaud turned up his nose when I mentioned Verlaine, making me wonder whether my affection for his poems was kitsch, naff, superficial or jejune. Years later I thought of this again when I discovered that ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’ owes a debt to Longfellow’s ‘The Rainy Day’:

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

The repetition, alliteration, simple lexis and accentuated end rhymes might make one think of hackneyed couplets in pop music (dreary/weary; dirty/thirty; waitin’/anticipatin’). But the other intertext is of course Ella Fitzgerald and The Ink Spots’ ‘Into each life some rain must fall’, which uses the penultimate line from Longfellow’s poem as the starting point for a sanguine take on life’s vicissitudes. The lyrics of ‘Into each life some rain must fall’ and other popular songs – such as Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais’, inspired by ‘Chanson d’automne’, or ‘Death and The Maiden’ by The Verlaines, a band from New Zealand – adapt Verlaine in new directions. These adaptations complement the wide variety of song settings, ranging from Debussy’s ‘Ariettes oubliées’ to Chlore’s synth pop versions of the same poems. Verlaine’s poetry anticipates the brevity, immediacy and poignancy of the chanson/pop lyric, attuned to the attractions of repetition, variation, rhythm and rhyme.

Verlaine by Paul Dornac

A few years later I read a quotation from Verlaine which made me consider his simplicity in a different light. It comes from the interview he gave to the journalist Jules Huret, which was published in 1891 as part of a general survey on literature, featuring 64 different writers. Huret interviewed Verlaine – I was about to slip into the present tense – in a café on Boulevard Saint-Michel; the poet was wearing his ‘ample mac-farlane’ over a smart white collar and yellow silk tie.

When asked to comment on the current vogue for symbolism, Verlaine’s reply culminated in this sentence:

Je ne vois rien dans mon instinct qui me force à chercher le pourquoi du pourquoi de mes larmes ; quand je suis malheureux, j’écris des vers tristes, c’est tout, sans autre règle que l’instinct que je crois avoir de la belle écriture, comme ils disent !

(I see nothing in my instinct that forces me to look for the reason for my tears; when I am unhappy, I write sad verse, that’s all, with no other rule than the instinct I think I have for beautiful writing, as they say!)

After a pause he adds:

N’empêche, continua-t-il, qu’on doit voir tout de même sous mes vers le… gulf stream de mon existence où il y a des courants d’eau glacée et des courants d’eau bouillante, des débris, oui, des sables, bien sûr, des fleurs, peut-être…

(That said […] all the same one should be able to see underneath my verse the… gulf stream of my existence where there are currents of frozen water and currents of boiling water, debris, yes, sandbanks, of course, flowers, perhaps…)

Joni Mitchell

Is Verlaine a superficial poet? He is certainly adept at describing surfaces: images, sounds, smells, impressions, sensations, perceptions, before considering what they might possibly mean, if anything at all. In recent years I have asked students to listen to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ before the series of lectures on Verlaine, drawing attention to her explicit revelation of the tenor of the clouds metaphor in the later verses (love/life). Sometimes Verlaine is similarly explicit, as in the case of the ninth poem in ‘Ariettes oubliées’, where the first stanza portrays the landscape, before the second makes an explicit metaphysical analogy:

L’ombre des arbres dans la rivière embrumée
  Meurt comme de la fumée
Tandis qu’en l'air, parmi les ramures réelles,
  Se plaignent les tourterelles.

Combien, ô voyageur, ce paysage blême
  Te mira blême toi-même,
Et que tristes pleuraient dans les hautes feuillées, -
  Tes espérances noyées!

(The shadow of the trees in the misty river / Dies like smoke / While in the air, among the real branches / the turtledoves lament. // O voyager, how much does this pale landscape / Reflect you in your own paleness / And how sadly weep in the high leaves / Your drowned hopes!)

This poem exemplifies Verlaine’s reference to looking underneath the surface – of the water, of the air – to see the debris of the drowned hopes. The surface is by definition superficial, but the simplicity of both the lexis and the poetic conceit does not affect the profundity of the emotion. Verlaine is both superficial and profound, although the relative qualities of deep (profond) and shallow (peu profond) will remain open to debate and preference.

The Savoy, April 1896

A few years ago I started reading some of Verlaine’s prose pieces, which are less known in both the Francophone world and beyond; they are certainly less familiar than Rimbaud’s Illuminations or Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris. But Verlaine wrote prose from 1867 to 1895, including some pieces written in English, such as the enjoyable ‘My visit to London’, published posthumously in The Savoy in April 1896. Many of these pieces can be classified as travel writing or autobiographical sketches; as for what we would call today creative writing, or short fiction, some are brief character sketches of one or two pages; others can be categorized as short contes or longer nouvelles. It is striking how conventional these texts often seem, usually narrated in either the first or third person and in the past tense, with setting, character, dialogue and plot all present and correct. In some ways they are reminiscent of Maupassant’s simpler tales; it would also be easy to believe that these works were by one of many now-forgotten writers who wrote for the myriad newspapers and journals at a time when print was the hegemonic mass medium.

The medium of prose allowed Verlaine to explore some of the themes in his poetry through discursive narrative exposition. The naturalist short story as practised by Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet and others frequently enables a form of succinct and trenchant social commentary that also appealed to Verlaine, who prefers this type of conte to the conte fantastique; there are few ghosts, hallucinations or doppelgänger to be found in Verlaine’s prose. Verlaine is more interested in probing the psychology of human behaviour than simply repeating well-known tropes about nineteenth-century Parisian life, which is why his prose works go beyond stereotypical descriptions into more interesting areas such as motivation, desire, agency, sexual politics, double standards and the tension between individual and society. As with the poetry, the simplicity of the technique and the style belies the attempts to explore perception and behaviour.

La Toilette by Toulouse-Lautrec

One noticeable theme in Verlaine’s prose works is an interest in prostitution combined with an indictment of hypocrisy. The story ‘Deux mots d’une fille’ (Two words from a woman of the night) relates a man’s enduring attraction for a female prostitute, despite her fickle behaviour towards him. The first-person narrator’s tone suggests an equal sympathy towards both parties in this unconventional yet mutually beneficial relationship. The narrator’s tone is also telling in ‘Charles Husson’, the tale of an eponymous pimp who is unexpectedly propositioned by another man; when the two men go upstairs to a hotel bedroom, the excluded female prostitute, swearing to exact her revenge, informs an off-duty policeman who agrees to arrest the couple. The story ends with an unfinished paragraph of one sentence:

Et c’est ainsi qu’encore une fois la morale fut sauvé, que force restait à la Loi, que… 

(And thus once more morality was preserved, the Law was upheld, and….’)

The suspension points here invite the reader to finish the sentence off. The narrator’s ironic declarations expose the double standards at play: a policeman might turn a blind eye to clandestine unlicensed female street prostitution, but could be persuaded to expose a gay liaison in the knowledge of the ensuing scandal. One might add now that morality, the law and heteronormativity avant la lettre were all maintained. Writing in prose enabled Verlaine to make a point about inequality in a more direct and, ironically, acceptable manner to the censor. Instead of encoding contentious erotic references or discounting any hope of officially publishing explicit material, prose allowed him to consider matters of sexual politics in a both literally and figuratively prosaic style, drawing on the quasi-documentary approach of Naturalist fiction that had dominated the previous two decades. Prose was therefore not simply an opportunity to try out a different form; it also enabled Verlaine to criticize the hypocritical heteronormative systems of control and punishment that would later lead to the downfall of Oscar Wilde on the other side of the Channel.

I wasn’t able to find published English translations of Verlaine’s short stories, so decided to attempt my own version, assisted by a French colleague with a great ear for idiomatic expressions in both languages. The task of translating Verlaine’s prose is accompanied by a sense of liberty; unlike in the case of his poetry, the translator has no qualms about accidental imitation or the challenge of emulating popular and critically acclaimed versions. Moreover , the potential translator of Verlaine’s prose can learn a great deal from the translators of his poetry, especially with regard to his use of register. Verlaine’s fascination with slang, dialect and idiolect is apparent throughout his correspondence, for example in his letters written from London, when he listens carefully to the use of street slang and reports back on it to his friends. His use of dialogue in his prose writings similarly reveals a good ear for colloquial speech, as well as an occasional humour and sense of joie de vivre that is familiar from some of his poems, particularly the exchanges between the commedia dell’arte characters in Fêtes galantes (1869). As with the poems, the dialogue also gives his prose pieces a theatrical element that places them in the present tense; we listen to the exchanges between characters being played out before us, as if imagining a radio or stage play. It is this theatricality which presents an intriguing challenge to prospective translators of the prose: do they update the dialogue, as one might do in the theatre with a new translation of Molière, for example, or do they aim for a target-text lexis that seems appropriate to the late nineteenth century, drawing on the language of the street and popular songs that Verlaine and Rimbaud might have heard in London in the early 1870s?

Shelagh Delaney

My view is that updating lexis and register is a suitable approach to translating Verlaine’s prose, but that the translation should resist the desire to foreground a particular contemporary register. Similarly, to my mind translations of prose should also resist the temptation to embellish the semantic material in the source text, which sometimes happens in new translations of classical theatre repertoire. My approach aimed to reproduce the colloquial register of the source text through lexical choices that situate it neither in the late nineteenth century nor in any other specific period or cultural space, contemporary or otherwise. Of course this desired neutrality of register and lexis is relative and subjective. But the aim is to produce a text which also might be adapted again to other media – film, radio, theatre, television – and to different periods and settings. My closest point of reference was an amalgam of mid-twentieth-century postwar British English sources, encompassing new wave cinema, kitchen sink dramas, or the early plays of Harold Pinter or Shelagh Delaney. At the same time this approach also aims to look back to the serialised novels of the nineteenth century and forward to the TV soap operas of the twenty-first. If you would like to read more about this, the extract was published last year in the online journal Volupté and can be found here, together with further commentary on the translation:

Recently I have been thinking again about simplicity and profundity, inspired once more by an undergraduate student (this time the subject is Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People and the TV adaptation of last year). Will Self gave an interesting appraisal of the book in an interview: ‘What’s now regarded as serious literature would, 10 or 20 years ago, have been regarded as young-adult fiction […] I read a few pages of the Sally Rooney book. It may say things that millennials want to hear reflected back at them, but it’s very simple stuff with no literary ambition that I can see.” Rooney’s narrative technique and prose style may indeed be fairly conventional, but surely this is the point: the language attempts to convey what the characters struggle to articulate beneath the surface of dialogue and description. Much of Verlaine’s poetry and prose is also ‘simple stuff’, but this is both its literary ambition and its achievement.


Richard Hibbitt
Senior Lecturer in French and Comparative Literature at the University of Leeds

Posted on:Wednesday 19th May, 2021