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Vice verser: ‘vagabond’ poet Paul Verlaine

In the second of his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley turns his attentions to the scurrilous poet, Paul Verlaine

22 June, 2018 — By Neil Titley

Paul Verlaine abandoned his marriage in favour of an alcoholic rampage that brought him to Royal College Street

IN his song You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, Bob Dylan wrote that “Relationships have all been bad / Mine have been like Verlaine and Rimbaud”. He may have been overstating his case – did any of Dylan’s ex-lovers ever hit him in the face with a dead fish?

It is unlikely that most people’s experience of romance ever matched the explosive relationship between the French Decadent poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, an affair that was partly conducted in the unlikely surroundings of 8 Royal College Street in Camden Town.

Initially, Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) might have seemed to be a surprising candidate to enhance the course of French poetry: he was a violent, bisexual alcoholic of such remarkable ugliness that an early teacher said of him: “His hideous head made one think of a brutalised criminal.” In 1871 while trapped in the Siege of Paris, Verlaine acted with spectacular cowardice, dispatching his teenage pregnant wife Mathilde on a danger-fraught mission to rescue his mother while he stayed at home attempting to seduce the maid.

Unsurprisingly, this marriage ended rapidly, speeded up by the arrival of Rimbaud – in Mathilde’s words: “The doll-face destroyer of domestic bliss.” Not that Verlaine supplied much of the latter as in a drunken rage he had attempted to strangle Mathilde after setting fire to her hair.

Verlaine abandoned his marriage in favour of an alcoholic rampage with Rimbaud commencing in Belgium and continuing to 1870s London, a town they found much to their taste as Verlaine reported that the inhabitants were “permanently sozzled” and although prudish “had every vice on offer”. They spent their time touring the sights of the city and, in Verlaine’s case, acquiring syphilis from a prostitute picked up in Charing Cross Road.

Verlaine’s house in Royal College Street

Their life continued in a confused welter of poetry composition, inebriated debauches and quarrels. Rimbaud created a duelling game where the two would wrap knives in towels so that only the point protruded (to reduce injuries), and then try to stab each other. When one of them received a serious enough wound, they would stop and retire to the local pub, most probably the Golden Lion.

Eventually the tensions in their relationship escalated to the point of destruction. After the piscine incident (when Verlaine weaponised the fish to strike his lover), Rimbaud departed to Brussels pursued by a drunken Verlaine. In a further incident Verlaine upgraded his arsenal and shot Rimbaud through the shoulder. Rimbaud fled only to be pursued through the streets by a pistol-waving Verlaine. The police stepped in and arrested the raving poet.

Verlaine received a two-year prison sentence for attempted murder. After he was released, he again sought out his old partner who finally ended their affair by knocking him out cold and leaving him by the roadside.

Post-Rimbaud, Verlaine’s life took a curious turn. His circumstances degenerated into abject squalor – he ended up living in a Parisian brothel and reliant on the charity of friendly prostitutes.

However, his very degradation became his salvation. The younger generation came to see him as a great anti-hero and during the 1890s turned him into the unchallenged “king” of the bohemian Latin Quarter.

He became immune to normal dangers. One of his prostitute girlfriends had a powerful pimp, Paul Lacan, as her protector. Lacan decided to extend his protection to the poet, saying: “Monsieur Verlaine is a great writer. If anyone touches him, they’ll have to deal with me.” At the same time, the Prefect of Police gave strict orders to his force that Verlaine should never be arrested, no matter what happened. The criminal world and the police vied with each other to protect him.

Verlaine died in 1896, suffering from at least 10 different illnesses, including gonorrhoea, diabetes and cirrhosis.

Despite his appalling life, it appears that Verlaine could still create an unforgettable effect on his listeners. When he recited his poems one friend said of him: “At the words of this vagabond, quite unconsciously, they rediscovered their souls”.

Adapted from Neil Titley’s book, The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details, see www.wildetheatre.co.uk

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