Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…
Poems of Paul Verlaine by Paul Verlaine
No doubt you’ve heard of Claude Debussy’s famous “Clair de Lune” piano piece from his Suite bergamasque. Why do I bring this up? Because you probably don’t know that “Clair de Lune” was based on a work of poetry. And the author of that poetry, Paul Verlaine, is who we’re talking about today.
Verlaine isn’t well-remembered in the English-speaking world. But in his native France, he was and continues to be a big deal. A member of the Symbolist and Decadent literary movements, Verlaine was considered one of the greatest poets of the fin de siècle era (i.e. the 1880s and 1890s). His life was exactly the kind of wild story you’d expect from an artist of this place and era: he had affairs with other male poets (one of whom he infamously shot), he went to prison, he got addicted to absinthe and he would have died in poverty if the people of France themselves didn’t venerate his work so much. He was even declared the “Prince of Poets.”
This particular volume of Verlaine’s poetry is translated by Gertrude Hall, and I can’t tell if it’s really an official collection or not. There’s no publication year, though we do have some nice illustrations. But how’s the poetry?
While some may find Verlaine’s prose a little too purple, I can see why he was well-liked. His work is lyrical, evocative and rich in dreamlike imagery. It’s no wonder why multiple musicians tried setting his work to music. Take the famous “Clair de Lune,” for example:
Your soul is as a moonlit landscape fair, Peopled with maskers delicate and dim, That play on lutes and dance and have an air Of being sad in their fantastic trim. The while they celebrate in minor strain Triumphant love, effective enterprise, They have an air of knowing all is vain,— And through the quiet moonlight their songs rise, The melancholy moonlight, sweet and lone, That makes to dream the birds upon the tree, And in their polished basins of white stone The fountains tall to sob with ecstasy.
Another one that’s short but sweet is “Bruxelles,” presumably written about a trip to that city:
Hills and fences hurry by Blent in greenish-rosy flight, And the yellow carriage-light Blurs all to the half-shut eye. Slowly turns the gold to red O'er the humble darkening vales; Little trees that flatly spread, Where some feeble birdling wails. Scarcely sad, so mild and fair This enfolding Autumn seems; All my moody languor dreams, Cradled by the gentle air.
A slightly longer one that I really like is “Colloque Sentimental,” which depicts a dialogue between a pair of ghosts:
In the deserted park, silent and vast, Erewhile two shadowy glimmering figures passed. Their lips were colorless, and dead their eyes; Their words were scarce more audible than sighs. In the deserted park, silent and vast, Two spectres conjured up the buried past. "Our ancient ecstasy, do you recall?" "Why, pray, should I remember it at all?" "Does still your heart at mention of me glow? Do still you see my soul in slumber?" "No!" "Ah, blessed, blissful days when our lips met! You loved me so!" "Quite likely,—I forget." "How sweet was hope, the sky how blue and fair!" "The sky grew black, the hope became despair." Thus walked they 'mid the frozen weeds, these dead, And Night alone o'erheard the things they said.
This feels like the kind of poetry book best enjoyed on a rainy or snowy day with warm blankets and a cup of coffee. There’s an undeniable melancholy to most of them, but the beautiful prose pulls you in no matter what your mood. If you like the ones I quoted here, maybe take a further look. Preferably while listening to Debussy, if you want to go hardcore.
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!