From visiting US Student Bryan Pannill
Drugs, poetry, knives, love; now put in Paul Verlaine; add Arthur Rimbaud; here’s a dash (May – July 1873) of London; and voila: the witch’s brew. What is it they do? Romances sans Paroles—Romances without Words. That’s Verlaine. And for Rimbaud: Une Saison en Enfer — A Season in Hell.
Of course, nothing else could have been expected when the two “poètes maudits” first met in Paris in 1871. Verlaine was 28 years old, volatile, a revolutionary, an alcoholic, and in a disastrous marriage with Mathilde Mauté, when he first received a letter and poems from the 17-year-old Rimbaud.
The teenage poet was raised in Charleville, Ardennes by his mother, his father having left her with four children to pursue his army career. His mother devoted herself militantly to her children’s education. With such schooling, Rimbaud demonstrated very early his poetic genius, earning him Victor Hugo’s epithet “the infant Shakespeare.” Nevertheless, Rimbaud quickly grew to rebel against all conventions, social controls, and his mother’s own epithet, “ordinarily so tranquil.” He made three failed attempts to escape to Paris, both to flee the hometown he hated and to immerse himself in the capital’s literary circles. When Verlaine answered his letter with a train ticket, Rimbaud went.
Rimbaud is the poet who, at sixteen years old in 1871, famously wrote in a letter that “one must be a voyant, make oneself a voyant”—a “seer” in order to accesses a superior experience of reality. He, the poet, does so “through a long, immense and reasoned disorder of all the senses,” becoming through endurance of such suffering “le supreme Savant!” And he, at last, sees “l’inconnu!”—the unknown. Nevermind that he has lost “l’intelligence” of his “visions”—he’s still seen them! Such was Rimbaud’s poetic project; his method was self-induced “ineffable torture” by all forms of love, suffering, and madness.
Yes, one wonders if Verlaine knew what he was getting himself into. If he had, he would probably have called for Rimbaud all the sooner. Rimbaud arrived in Paris, and he quickly out-wore his welcome as Mathilde’s houseguest with such shenanigans as sun-bathing naked, shedding lice on passerby, and raising revolutionary hell with Verlaine in the Parisian streets. For his part, Verlaine drank and violently abused his pregnant wife. The two poets, now lovers, left Paris for London in September 1872.
House of Knives, Poet in the City’s new film with a script by award winning poet David Harsent, vivifies the poets’ stay at 8 Great College Street in London between May and July 1873. In this “saison en enfer,” each in search of “l’inconnu,” they sunk into absinthe, poetry, poverty, passion, and yes, knives. Theirs was, to quote the film, “a love that depends on conflict…and betrayal.”
After a particularly violent quarrel, Verlaine left London for Brussels in July. He claimed he would commit suicide if he failed to reconcile with his wife; she sued for divorce. But instead of death, Verlaine called for Rimbaud again, who came across the Channel. In the next inevitable fight, the fitful Verlaine drew his pistol, and shot Rimbaud in the wrist. Perhaps, instead, he should have given words another try; sans paroles, their romance ended with a bang.
During his ensuing two-year imprisonment at Mons, Verlaine published Romances sans Paroles and Sagesse, poems inspired by his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Afterwards, he flitted between countries and teaching jobs. After his new love, his student Lucien Letivois, died in 1883, Verlaine descended again into drinking, drugs, poverty, and hospitals. He died in 1896. After reviving his poetry and celebrating its importance, the people of Paris elected him France’s “Prince of Poets” in 1984.
Arthur Rimbaud, after publishing Une Saison en Enfer and Illuminations, gave up writing for good at only twenty years of age. He began the life of a vagabond, drifting across Europe and the Far East, until cancer waylaid him, dying, in Marseilles. He died on November 10, 1881, at 37 years old.
Rimbaud’s and Verlaine’s poetry helped form the foundations of the French Symbolist movement, and they were instrumental in freeing poetry from verse. Culturally, their influence is extensive, inspiring artists from Pablo Picasso to Patti Smith to Jim Morrison. As Bob Dylan sings in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” “Situations have ended sad / Relationships have all been bad / Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud.”
And today, the poets’ legacy continues in Poet in the City’s upcoming event Rimbaud and Verlaine in London. Join us on Monday, May 20th for an exclusive premiere of the film House of Knives, as well as live poetry and discussion from award-winning poets Deryn Rees-Jones and UCL’s Tim Mathews.
How to Book:
Rimbaud and Verlaine in London takes place from 6.30pm on Monday 20th May 2013 in Hall One at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London, N1 9AG.
Tickets cost £9.50 from the Kings Place website www.kingsplace.co.uk or £11.50 via the box office on 020 7520 1490