French poet Paul Verlaine was far too fond of the “green fairy”—the popular nickname for absinthe, a potentially lethal 140-proof anise-flavored spirit that flowed freely in nineteenth-century Parisian cafes. In a messy life, marked by frequent self-indulgent debauchery, Verlaine abandoned his wife and infant son for a steamy affair with seventeen-year-old Arthur Rimbaud, served eighteen months in prison for shooting Rimbaud in a lovers’ quarrel, converted to Catholicism while incarcerated, had a weird relationship with another teenaged youth, and finally died miserably at fifty-one in the home of a retired prostitute. Though denied membership in the Académie Française, he was given the coveted title of “Prince of Poets” and is regarded today as one of France’s most important literary figures.
This paradox of a man was born March 30, 1844, in Metz, a northeastern French city, and moved with his family to Paris at age seven. He attended the neighborhood lycée, then earned a bachelor’s degree and went to work as a clerk at City Hall. The job was a sinecure in which he showed up at ten, had a two-hour liquid lunch, staggered back to his office to shuffle papers until five, and then repaired to the Café de Gaz for aperitifs. He hung out with bohemian writers and artists, wrote poetry and art criticism, and in 1866 published a volume of his verse, rich with mystical images of Symbolism. The poems were praised by Stéphane Mallarmé and Victor Hugo, and they earned Verlaine a secure place in the literary world.
In 1870, when he was twenty-six, he married a sixteen-year-old girl, Mathilde Mauté, and shortly they had a son whom they called Georges. Two years later, Verlaine received a fan letter from an admiring provincial youth and fledgling poet named Arthur Rimbaud. So smitten was he by this hero worship that he sent the young man, not yet seventeen, trainfare to join him in Paris. Rimbaud moved in with Verlaine, his wife and infant son, and Mathilde’s parents. He was not an ideal house guest: he loved to sunbathe naked in the front garden, where he combed his filthy hair and flicked lice on passers-by; he trashed his room; and he mutilated the family’s heirloom crucifix.
Despite—or maybe because of—this behavior, Verlaine was fascinated with the young man. He described him as “tall, well built, almost athletic, with the perfectly oval face of an angel in exile, with unruly light chestnut hair and eyes of a disquieting blue.” They made an odd couple. Verlaine, according to friends, was indisputably ugly, with an over-large skull, unaligned eyes, tiny pug nose, sparse strands of hair on his head, and scraggly whiskers on his chin. When the mother of one of Verlaine’s friends met him, she said, "My God, he made me think of an orangutan escaped from the zoo!"
Verlaine fell in willingly with Rimbaud’s disreputable lifestyle. They even collaborated on a graphic homoerotic sonnet whose title is best translated “Sonnet in Praise of the Butthole.” Their steamy affair culminated in late 1872, when Verlaine and Rimbaud went to London together, and then to Brussels. It was there that they fell into a ferocious fight, and Verlaine pulled out a pistol and shot Rimbaud, hitting him twice in the arm. Although Rimbaud was not seriously wounded, Verlaine was arrested and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. While there he underwent a religious conversion and resumed his Catholic faith, renouncing his bohemian life.
While the conversion was evidently sincere, the renunciation of la vie de bohème was not long-lasting. Verlaine resumed his lifelong dependency on absinthe, and in 1877, he fell in love with another seventeen-year-old boy, Lucien Létinois, a student of his at the College de Notre Dame in the town of Rethel. While there is evidence that their relationship remained platonic, at least in its early years, they were both dismissed from the school for “inappropriate behavior.” They continued to see each other, but in 1883 Lucien died of typhoid fever.
Lucien’s death marked Verlaine’s abandonment of his literary work and the beginning of his physical and mental decline into alcoholism, drug addiction, and poverty. He was able to eke out a living with a few lectures in France, England, and Belgium. He was sent to prison again briefly for trying to strangle his mother. (She later died of pneumonia after venturing out in nasty weather to buy tobacco for her son.) Verlaine spent time in hospitals for treatment of infections and miscellaneous diseases. He lodged with various friends, and in 1896 he wound up in a fourth-floor room at 39 rue Descartes, the home of his friend Eugénie Krantz, a retired prostitute. The critic Saint-Georges Bouhélier gave this account of his last day in an article in Le Figaro:
"January 8 was not a bad day, at last no more so than other days, and with Andre Cornuty, Frédéric-Auguste Cazals, and other comrades, Verlaine traded stories, mixed with his habitual complaints. It was all quite normal, passing easily from laughter to sadness and tears. Towards evening, his friends left, leaving Eugénie at his bedside. What happened between them? Most likely Verlaine wanted
something and asked her to fetch it. She answered crossly, he became annoyed, and she hurled insults at him. Whenever he became angry, she could always dish it out as well as he could. Verlaine tried to get out of bed to attack her. He fell on the floor—perhaps pushed by Eugénie. She left him lying there, half-naked, in a badly heated room, on a night that was especially cold. From her room she could hear him whimpering. But she dared not poke her nose into his business! Every household finds its own kind of peace, as the simple folk say. Early in the morning, Eugénie came back to Verlaine’s room. She found him in the same place, in agony, and covered in sweat."
Eugénie summoned a doctor, who applied a mustard plaster. “That bites,” winced Verlaine. Those were his last intelligible words. He died later that evening, officially of “pulmonary congestion,” but his doctor concluded, “He had at least ten mortal maladies—he was worn out—a mere husk of a human being.” Verlaine was fifty-one.
His funeral was two days later at the Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. Gabriel Fauré was the organist, and the mourners included much of the Parisian literati. Verlaine was buried in the Cimitière des Batignolles.