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Paul Verlaine

 Poet (1844-1896)

Paul Verlaine was born at Metz in France, the son of an army officer. When his father retired from the army, the family moved to Paris, and Paul studied at the Lycée Condorcet there. He passed the civil service examination in 1864 and took up a post as a clerk at Paris Town Hall. He had begun writing poetry at an early age and continued to do so in his spare time :his passionate love for Mathilde Mauté inspired the collection of poems La bonne chanson. He married her in 1870, when he was 27 and she was 17. He was politically left-wing: he supported the Paris Commune in 1871 and became Head of the Commune’s Press Office. He managed to escape with his wife from Paris as the Commune was suppressed by troops. In 1872, he met Arthur Rimbaud, a 17-year-old poet who sent him some of his poems, and fell madly in love with him, giving up his job and abandoning his wife and son. He and Rimbaud smoked hashish and drank absinthe and scandalised the Parisian literary scene. They travelled together to London and then visited Verlaine’s mother in Brussels. While staying in an hotel near the Grand’Place, he and Rimbaud got into a drink-and-drug-fuelled argument which resulted with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud with a pistol, wounding his wrist. Rimbaud went to the police, who arrested Verlaine. Despite Rimbaud not pressing charges, following allegations from Verlaine’s wife about his relationship with Rimbaud, Verlaine was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, which he served in Brussels and then in Mons, where he had a religious experience and became a fervent Catholic, shown in his collection of poems Romances sans paroles published on his release from prison. Verlaine travelled to England and taught French there for a few years, returning to France in 1877 and publishing Sagesse. He took a job teaching English at Rethel, where he became infatuated with Lucien Létinois, one of his pupils, who became his muse. Létinois’ death from typhus in 1883 provoked a nervous breakdown and Verlaine became addicted to absinthe (an alcoholic spirit with hallucinogenic properties that was eventually banned due to the insanity its abuse often provoked). He lived on handouts from supporters and from his royalties, which had increased following the setting of some of his poems to music by Fauré (La bonne chanson) and Debussy (Fêtes galantes), but his health declined rapidly, and he died in Paris aged 52 in 1896.

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