AN 2 9922

Verlaine: Symbolist Poets and the French Melodie

Release date March 06, 2007
Album code AN 2 9922
Periods 20th century
Genres Recitative

Album information

Les poètes maudits—”The Accursed Poets”—was the title of an 1884 essay by Paul Verlaine dedicated to several fellow poets whose style he admired. The expression would forever brand the French Symbolists of the late 19th century, the works of whom quickly became an important source of inspiration for composers who would bring the French mélodie genre to its apogee. Whence the inspired idea of baritone Jean-François Lapointe for a series of recordings to individually feature these poètes maudits.


It is only fitting that the first disc in this collection focus on the poet who both captured the spirit of his generation with a dramatic catchphrase and also served as its emblematic incarnation through his life and work.

Pulled in different directions by opposing forces, Paul Verlaine (1844–1896) took solace in both poetry and alcohol from a young age. But despite an exceedingly chaotic existence, he published poetry throughout his life—over twenty collections in all—making him a dominant figure in French poetry.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1862 at the age of 18, Verlaine initially planned to study law. However, he soon abandoned this path in favour of the bohemian lifestyle led by the artists he began to frequent in Paris’ salons and cafés. In 1866, at the age of 22, he made a doubly remarkable entry onto the literary scene. First, seven of his poems were published in a collection entitled Le Parnasse contemporain, alongside poems by, among others, Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé. These modernist Parnassians rejected the emotional outpourings of romanticism and promoted purity of form and the cult of “art for art’s sake” advocated by Gauthier.

But under the influence of Baudelaire, these poets soon became known as “symbolists.” More than mere romantic expression of sentiment, and even more than the purely formal thrust of the new Parnassians, Baudelaire experienced poetry as a spiritual quest that probed past the obvious meanings of words to examine their symbolic significance and create “correspondences,” which—symbol leading to symbol—aimed to reach beyond appearances to unify humanity and achieve sincerity of being.

In 1866, Verlaine also saw the publication of his first collection, Poèmes saturniens, a title he did not choose lightly. Convinced he was marked by the seal of unhappiness, the author attributed his state to the gloomy influence of the planet Saturn, traditionally the “star of melancholy.” The poems bear witness to this inner “happiness of being sad,” typified by a rejection of eloquence, metrical brevity and the constant search for a musicality evoking the minor mode. One need only think of “Chanson d’automne,” whose first line is today universally known for being the secret code transmitted over shortwave to announce the Normandy invasion on D-Day, in June 1944 during World War II.

Two other collections appeared in 1869. The first took its title, Fêtes galantes, from the painter Jean-Antoine Watteau’s famous oeuvre, an attempt by Verlaine not only to demonstrate the Parnassian desire to reject romanticism, but also to capture the spirit of the previous century—not so much that of the Age of Enlightenment, but that of freethinking libertarianism. In all, Gabbriel Fauré set four poems from Fêtes galantes: “Mandoline,” “En sourdine,” and “À Clymène” formed part of his five-song collection Chansons de Venise, and he set “Claire de Lune” in another collection. “Mandoline” was also set by both Claude Debussy and Reynaldo Hahn (though the latter used the generic title “Fêtes galantes”), and Hahn also set “En sourdine.” Canadian André Mathieu took inspiration from “Colloque sentimental,” the last gloomy poem of these fêtes, which start out so “gallantly” like a Watteau, but end on a darker note.

In June of the same year (1869), Verlaine met Mathilde Mauté, only just turned 16. He began to dream of a marriage that would bring some order and calm to his somewhat dissolute life, and he embarked an assiduous courtship that by year’s end resulted in La Bonne Chanson, a collection of poems that had decorated his letters to la bonne Mathilde, whom he hoped would set him on a more “moral” path. From this collection full of “good” intentions, Hahn set three poems as part of a collection of seven mélodies dedicated to Verlaine, which he entitled Chansons grises: “Tous deux” and “L’heure exquise,” (both untitled in the original collection of poems), and “La bonne chanson,” a generic title that Hahn gave this also untitled poem.

After abandoning his studies, Verlaine hoped to find peace by entering the Parisian civil service. With his marriage to Mathilde in August 1870, his desire for stability seemed at last to be fulfilled. But the next year was fraught with danger for Verlaine. In the spring of 1871, the civil servant-poet put his position in jeopardy by taking up the revolutionary ideas of the Paris Commune. That fall, he also put his marriage in jeopardy after meeting an aspiring young poet who had recently sent Verlaine his early poems. The young poet, Arthur Rimbaud, was only 16 years old, and Verlaine was his senior by almost 10 years. It was love at first sight, and all of Verlaines “good” morals and resolutions went by the wayside. In July of 1872, the two left Paris and vagabonded around France, Belgium and England, and out of this passionate idyll came what many consider Verlaine’s best work, Romances sans paroles, the title this time borrowed from a musician, Felix Mendelssohn. Verlaine had already used the expression in Fêtes galants (in “À Clymène”), but as a title for an entire collection, Romances sans paroles represented the epitome of the poet’s aspirations: that the plain meanings of words be overshadowed by “correspondences” (as Baudelaire would have said) suggested by the music of the words.

Hahn would transform “L’allée sans fin” and “Paysage triste” into mélodies for Chansons grises, along with “Offrande,” a poem which Fauré also set (though he kept the original English title, “Green”) making it the middle work of the Chansons de Venise cycle. Fauré also took “C’est l’extase” and “Spleen” from Romances sans paroles, while André Mathieu chose “Il pleure dans mon coeur comme il pleut sur la ville” (It weeps in my heart as it rains over the town), a moving lament in which Verlaine—paraphrasing a line of Rimbaud in the poem’s epigraph (“Il pleut doucement sur la ville” or “It rains gently over the town”)—seems to foresee the inevitable end of the affair.

And indeed, after a year, the idyll had turned into a nightmare. On July 10, 1873 in Brussels, learning that Rimbaud was going to leave him, Verlaine shot at him twice, wounding him in the hand. The ensuing investigation brought Verlaine’s homosexuality to light, and he was condemned to two years in prison. During his jail term, after converting to Catholicism, he wrote most of Sagesse, a collection in which the Verlaine professes to be a new, repentant, man—one who, at the end of a voluntary period of purgatory, glimpses the spiritual peace he longs for.

Three composers turned their attention to the most famous poem of this collection, “Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit, si bleu” (The sky is, above the roof, so blue), a marvelous description of what the speaker can see and perceive that makes only an implicit reference to prison. Hahn and Fauré entitled their settings of this untitled poem “Prison” and “D’une prison” respectively. Mathieu, on the other hand, preserved the mystery by using the first line as his title; he also set “Les chères mains.” Debussy drew upon other poems in Sagesse, setting “La mer est plus belle,” “Le son du cor s’afflige” and “L’échelonnement des haies.”

After his liberation from prison in 1875, Verlaine laid low in England for a time, teaching in a number of schools. When he returned to France, history, it seemed, would repeat itself, as Verlaine began a downward spiral that degenerated into complete ruin. In 1877, he managed to obtain a teaching position in Rethel. A year later, he became involved with one of his students who had only just turned 18. Verlaine fled with him to England, just as he had done with Rimbaud. The relationship lasted five years this time, ending with the young man’s premature death from typhoid. Verlaine’s health was also starting to suffer, and between hospital stays, he went from mistress to mistress, some of whom inspired new poem cycles, such as Chansons pour elle in 1891, from which Hahn took “L’incrédule,” the last poem of this recording remaining to put in context.

Verlaine’s final years were appallingly sad, but he nevertheless remained a leader in Paris’s literary scene to the very end. Through his numerous collections of poetry, through essays such as Les poètes maudits, and by arranging for the works of colleagues such as Rimbaud to be published, he contributed more than any other to the triumph of the Symbolist vision of poetry.

Note on the mélodie textes
In setting Verlaine’s poems to music, composers often took surprising liberties, such as omitting lines or even complete verses and changing words or punctuation. As this recording is first and foremost an homage to the poet, Jean-François Lapointe restored the original texts whenever it was possible to do so without harming the music. The texts that follow are thus Verlaine’s poems, with any alterations made by composers indicated as such.

© Guy Marchand
Translation : Peter Christensen

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