Thursday, February 11, 2010

Here beneath the secret of these trees - Verlaine and Rimbaud in Belgium

Paul Verlaine is hard to grasp or pin down, I find, because of the variety of his work.  He made wild swerves from book to book.  Fêtes Galantes was preceded by a volume of pornographic poems and followed by a book of poems celebrating the joys of his upcoming marriage.  That marriage turned out to be, let's see, complicated.  So the book after that, Romances sans Paroles (1874) contains, among many other curiosities and wonders, a number of poems about how Verlaines would like to reconcile with his wife.  Some of the other poems are about his adventures in London and Belgium with his lover Arthur Rimbaud.  Thus the unlikelihood of a reconciliation.

Did I mention that Romances sans Paroles was published while Verlaine was in a Belgian prison, for having shot Rimbaud?  Verlaine is hard to pin down.

Having indulged in Belgium-bashing with Baudelaire and Brontë, I thought I would share a pro-Belgium poem of Verlaine's, a Belgian idyll from Romances sans Paroles:


Simple Frescos II

The path goes on and on
Beneath the sky, sacred
Because pallid.
You know, we'd feel so good
Here beneath the secret
Of these trees.

Some well-groomed gentlemen
Friends surely
Of the Royers-Collards,
Head towards the chateau.
I'd find it good
To be these old men.

On the white chateau
Ending sun declines.
Down one elevation;
Fields on every side.
Why can't our love hide
In there somewhere?

The literal translation is by Martin Sorrell.  The original has a regular five syllable line, and rhymes AABCCB.  Shapiro slips a CC in at the end there.

Verlaine has some fine anti-Belgian poems as well.  I mean, the guy spent eighteen months in Belgian prisons!  But the above poem is more typical, as is this one:

from Walcourt

Bricks, tiles... How sweet
Such cozy cover,
Charming retreat
For man and lover!

That's the poetical Norman Shapiro.  The French is, unfortunately for him, perfect, barely there:

Briques et tuiles,
Ô les charmants
Petits asiles
Pour les amants!


  1. This sounds like one of those cases where the author's biography very nearly overshadows their work! This Verlaine character sounds like oodles of fun.

    Something about "Simple Frescoes II" reminds me about T.S. Eliot for some reason -

    With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
    And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
    And drank coffee, and talked for an hour

    Something with the imagery. I guess great minds just think alike?

  2. These are lovely excerpts. Thanks for sharing! Where do you find all these interesting books?

  3. the author's biography very nearly overshadows their work

    Boy, is that true. In some things I have seen, the Verlaine-Rimbaud soap opera is all that really matters. The poems are just documentation. Their story is, admittedly, completely insane.

    I can see what you mean with Eliot. He knew these poets backwards and forwards. Oddly, the one Verlaine poem he explicitly quotes in The Waste Land is not in either of my Verlaine books!

    Marieke - maybe that's a topic for future discussion. I am a lot more interested in literary history than most amateurs, and even a dismaying number of professionals. Some time, I should say why.

    Many English and American readers were and are introduced to Verlaine and the other French Symbolists by T.S. Eliot and related Modernist poets. That's probably where I first saw Verlaine's name.