Friday, February 12, 2010

The incomprehensible Paul Verlaine

Paul Verlaine's clarity has surprised me.  Compared to the esotericism of Gérard de Nerval or the wild lingusitic play of Tristan Corbière - I hope to write about him soon, if I can figure him out - Verlaine is straightforward.  I thought the French Symbolists were going to be sweat-on-the-brow difficult.  Some are, but some are not.  Verlaine is not.  Overall.  Let's be careful here.  This is what I mean:


Saint-Denis's a dirty stupid stretch of land.
Still, that's where one day I took my lady friend.
We were out of sorts, and bickering.
A flat sun plastered butter-rays
On a plain as dry as toast.
It wasn't long after the Siege.
Some flattened 'country houses'
Hadn't been rebuilt. Others looked like stage sets.
Scrawled on unexploded shells embedded in pilasters
Ran these words: 'Souvenir of the Disasters'.  (1884, tr. Martin Sorrell)

I'll remind myself that Verlaine's poem has a regular meter and rhymes .  But otherwise, this is pretty much the poem.  The flat sun buttering the toast-like plain is wonderful.  The engagement with history, with the 1870 Siege of Paris, is easy to grasp.  The explicit link between the lovers' quarrel and the destruction of Paris is unmysterious.  The poem itself becomes another souvenir of the disasters.  There is no shortage of meaning in the poem, in its substance and imagery, but it is not cryptic. 

Perhaps my two translators are protecting me from the obscure Verlaine.  I doubt it, but it's a Subject For Future Research.

I have been enjoying the incomprehensible Paul Verlaine in another format entirely, a group of song settings by Claude Debussy, as performed by Dawn Upshaw on a 1997 recording called Forgotten Songs: Dawn Upshaw Sings Debussy.  My understanding of spoken French is quite bad, but I can hardly understand a word of Verlaine in these songs, even while trying to read along.  I can comprehend the first line of "Fantoches" - the name "Scaramouche" stands out in French - but that's about it.  And then at the end of that song, she begins squawking like the nightingale in the poem, which is amusing.  So it does help to know what the song is about.

Ma femme suggests that I blame Debussy, not Upshaw or Verlaine.  She says that she can't understand the words either.  With the French poem in front of me, it becomes clear how Debussy breaks apart and twists individual words, and how little interest he has in Verlaine's meter.  His own idiosyncratic melodic and rhythmic concerns have priority. 

The songs, and Upshaw's singing, are beautiful, and I can recommend the recording - try to hear someone's version of "Mandoline," at least.  Debussy didn't help me much with Paul Verlaine.  Luckily, I don't think I needed too much help.


  1. Thanks for running these posts on Verlaine's poetry. I've Edmund Whites biography of Rimbaud in my TBR stack; I'm hoping or read it later this week. At this point, I admit, I know much more about their lives than I do their work.

  2. Oh good, I'm eager to know what you think. I'm curious about White's book myself. I enjoyed his little Proust bio.

  3. I've just been reading through your delicious posts on Verlaine. He's less... spectacular, both biographically and poetically, than Rimbaud, and he doesn't do the incomprehensible fireworks the way Mallarmé does. But I like Verlaine a lot. I usually read these guys in French, so it's very interesting reading your comparative translations; translation interests me. A smooth, readable translation is not always a good one.

    In any case. Wonderful. Thanks.

  4. Jenny, thanks a lot. Mallarmé is upcoming, I hope. I still have to recover a bit from reading Tristan Corbiére - that was pretty wild.

  5. That poem -- that poem in translation -- is quietly awesome.