The French poet Paul-Marie Verlaine is best known for his contributions to the Symbolism, an art movement that rejected the idealism that was upheld by the Naturalist and Realist movements, and instead touted a darker, more decadent side of the human spirit. Verlaine and his poetry are considered to be the epitome of the “fin de siècle” – the most culturally vibrant period at the end of the century.
Verlaine was born in Metz, and at the age of seven he moved to Paris and was enrolled at lycée where he received his degree in 1862. Although he was inspired to write at an early young age – after reading Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal – Verlaine entered the civil service in order to please his father, a captain in the infantry. Nevertheless, Verlaine was still inspired to write (at his father’s dismay) and published his first collection of poetry, Poèmes saturniens in 1866.
Verlaine’s style owed a lot to Charles Baudelaire’s decadent poetry from a decade earlier, as it focused primarily on the topics of sex, death, drugs, and tried to evoke the feelings and moods through a unique rhythm and repetition of words. He also had an appreciation of simple occurrences and incidents that, combined with his own melancholia and disillusionment, made his poetry unforgettable to his admirers -- which included an aspiring young poet named Arthur Rimbaud.
Although he married Mathilde Mauté in 1870, and had one daughter, Verlaine eventually left them a year later to start an affair with Arthur Rimbaud. The two men’s relationship was passionate yet rocky, and eventually Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist during a drunken rage in 1873. Verlaine was imprisoned for eighteen months, during which he renounced his bohemian lifestyle. His next romance with a male pupil, Lucien Létinois did not end well either, as Lucien died of typhus in 1883.
In wasn’t until the last decade of his life that Verlaine achieved some redemption. Although he was broke and an alcoholic, a renewal of love for the arts began to garner him and his work some new attention. In 1894, he was elected as the “Prince of Poets” for his groundbreaking body of work, and when he died two years later at the age of 52, he was considered a source for inspiration for many artists that followed.