Paul Verlaine

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If all "art," as Walter Pater wrote, "constantly aspired towards the condition of music," Verlaine, impatiently rejecting the idea of a circuitous path to perfection, wanted his poetry to be music. Indeed,…
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If all "art," as Walter Pater wrote, "constantly aspired towards the condition of music," Verlaine, impatiently rejecting the idea of a circuitous path to perfection, wanted his poetry to be music. Indeed, the great French poet opened his "Art poétique" with the laconic command: "De la musique avant toute chose" (Music before all else). In other words, Verlaine, unlike poets who wrote musical, or musically inspired, poetry, wrote poetry which possessed certain qualities, such as fluidity, ambivalence, tonal richness, euphony, melodiousness, precise imprecision, and otherworldly beauty, which are usually associated with pure music.

Born in 1844, Verlaine started his career as a poet with two notable collections, Poèmes saturniens (1866) and Fêtes galantes (1869), which, although influenced by Baudelaire, exhibit an extraordinary originality and poetic inventiveness which set Verlaine apart from schools and movements. The imaginary world of Fêtes galantes, an ethereal, crepuscular in which commedia dell'arte characters move, mysteriously, in landscapes conjuring up Watteau's subtle, luxuriantly seductive art.

While Debussy wrote some of his exquisite songs under the guidance, one could say, of Verlaine's muse, compositions exemplified by the first book of Fêtes galantes, which include the second version of Clair de lune, the composer with the greatest affinity with Verlaine is Gabriel Fauré. This affinity, demonstrated in many compositions, inluding Fauré's song cycle La bonne chanson, became clearly evident in Fauré Clair de lune, his first setting of a poem by Verlaine. Verlaine and Fauré, as Jean-Michel Nectoux observed, both sought the perfect, and often indefinable, balance between words and sounds, a fragile balance in which the imprecision of music sheds a mysterious, revelatory light on the magical precision of the poetic word. Indeed, Verlaine's poem, which opens with the words "Your soul is an exquisite landscape," may have seduced Fauré into modulating into a minor key as the poet sang of a "minor mode," but Verlaine's poetry, particularly in Fauré's settings, always inspires the musician to transcend the given poetic text, thereby unearthing the hidden essence which is often inaccessible to the casual reader or listener.

In 1887, when Fauré composed Claire de lune, Verlaine was in a desperate situation, struggling with poverty and alcoholism. The poet had married in 1870, but any attempt to lead a stable life seemed doomed. Thus, while Verlaine's passionate involvement in Paris Commune, in 1871, ended with the Commune's destruction, the allure of a bohemian existence remained omnipresent and permanent. A typical episode of this type of bohemian life was Verlaine tempestuous friendship with the young Arthur Rimbaud. The friendship between the two great poets was turbulent, euphoric, extreme, and violent: in 1873, Verlaine shot his friend in an attempt to kill him. Fortunately, the wound was not lethal. As a result of this violent act, Verlaine was sentenced to prison, where he embraced Catholicism and repudiated his association with the Paris Commune. Written in 1874, Verlaine's collection Romances sans paroles not only continues his musical exploration language but also offers, in the poem "Crimen amoris" (A Crime of Love), a moving, remorseful, religious explanation of his destructive attachment to Rimbaud. Jadis and naguère (Once and Yesterday), published in 1884, include "Art poétique," the quintessential poem which illuminates Verlaine's entire oeuvre. Unable to escape the demons of alcohol and despair, Verlaine died in poverty, in 1896.