These settings of some of the best-known poems of Paul Verlaine mark Debussy's transition from a traditional composer in the style of Gounod to a more individual artist, although here the operative word is "individual" rather than "original": the young Debussy, in sauntering away from his French idols, is hooking his arm into that of Richard Wagner. The music is highly chromatic and tonally ambiguous, traits that Debussy would make his own in the next few years. Also, Debussy begins to make heavy use of the dominant ninth chord, one of his later trademarks; indeed, the very beginning of the first song is a series of falling ninths.
Debussy set Verlaine's poetry 19 times through his career; the texts are rich in long, lazy vowels and seductively repetitive consonants. The first item in Ariettes oubliées is typical of Verlaine's work and a highly adept musical setting by Debussy: the gauzy, floating melodic line perfectly reflects the text of C'est l'extase langoureuse, in all its languorous ecstasy. Next is Il pleure dans mon coeur, with the piano accompanying the long vocal lines with what would become Debussy's typical "raindrop" music; the singer notes that it rains in her heart as it rains in the town, but can't understand the source of her sadness. "It's pain's darkest state/not to know why/without love, without hate/my heart feels such weight."
The third song is L'ombre des arbes (The Shadows of the Trees), another doleful piece in which the singer's state of mind reflects (rather than is reflected by) a sad, solemn landscape. Everything brightens significantly with Chevaux de bois, initially celebrating the energy of merry-go-round horses turning in their circular route, although midway through the mood changes to sadness and wistfulness, reflecting the knowledge that these are not living creatures.
The last two songs are "Green" and "Spleen" -- the titles are in English, because Verlaine liked their sound. Debussy, following Verlaine, referred to this pair of songs as aquarelles, and the music does have a light, wispy, watercolor character. "Green" is a love song that begins with offerings from nature (fruits, flowers, leaves in the trees) and ends with a falling into slumber. "Spleen" is a song of despair -- the sky is too blue, the sea too green, all because the loved one has done something "atrocious." The vocal line becomes intentionally monotonous, and the music fades away, listlessly.