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         PAUL VERLAINE

                             I

A FIRST SIGHT OF VERLAINE

Page with ornament
The Database of Ornament

    THREE years ago my thoughts were a good deal occupied by
the theories and experiments which a section of the younger
French poets were engaged upon. In this country, the
Symbolists and Decadents of Paris had been laughed at
and parodied, but, with the exception of Mr. Arthur Symons,
no English critic had given their tentatives any serious
attention. I became much interested—not wholly converted, certainly, but
considerably impressed—as I studied, not what was said about them by their
enemies, but what they wrote themselves. Among them all, there was but
one, M. Mallarmé, whom I knew personally ; him I had met, more than
twenty years before, carrying the vast folio of his Manet-Poe through the
length and breadth of London, disappointed but not discouraged. I learned
that there were certain haunts where these later Decadents might be observed
in large numbers, drawn together by the gregarious attraction of verse. I
determined to haunt that neighbourhood with a butterfly-net, and see what
delicate creatures with powdery wings I could catch. And, above all, was it
not understood that that vaster lepidopter, that giant hawk-moth, Paul
Verlaine, uncoiled his proboscis in the same absinthe-corollas ?

    Timidity, doubtless, would have brought the scheme to naught, if, un-
folding it to Mr. Henry Harland, who knows his Paris like the palm of his
hand, he had not, with enthusiastic kindness, offered to become my cicerone.
He was far from sharing my interest in the Symbolo-decadent movement,
and the ideas of the “poètes abscons comme la lune” left him a little cold,
yet he entered at once into the sport of the idea. To race up and down the
Boulevard St. Michel, catching live poets in shoals, what a charming game !
So, with a beating heart and under this gallant guidance, I started on a
beautiful April morning to try my luck as an entomologist. This is not
the occasion to speak of the butterflies which we successfully captured during
this and the following days and nights ; the expedition was a great success.

114                              THE SAVOY

But, all the time, the hope of capturing that really substantial moth, Verlaine,
was uppermost, and this is how it was realized.

    As everyone knows, the broad Boulevard St. Michel runs almost due south
from the Palais de Justice to the Gardens of the Luxembourg. Through the
greater part of its course, it is principally (so it strikes one) composed of restau-
rants and brasseries, rather dull in the day-time, excessively blazing and gay at
night. To the critical entomologist the eastern side of this street is known as
the chief, indeed almost the only habitat of poeta symbolans, which, however,
occurs here in vast numbers. Each of the leaders of a school has his particular
café, where he is to be found at an hour and in a chair known to the habitués
of the place. So Dryden sat at Will’s and Addison at Button’s, when
chocolate and ratafia, I suppose, took the place of absinthe. M. Jean Moréas
sits in great circumstance at the Restaurant d’Harcourt—or he did three years
ago—and there I enjoyed much surprising and stimulating conversation. But
Verlaine—where was he? At his café, the François-Premier, we were told
that he had not been seen for four days. “There is a letter for him —he must
be ill,” said Madame ; and we felt what the tiger-hunter feels when the tiger
has gone to visit a friend in another valley. But to persist is to succeed.

    The last of three days devoted to this fascinating sport had arrived. I
had seen Symbolists and Decadents to my heart’s content. I had learned
that Victor Hugo was not a poet at all, and that M. Vielé-Griffin was a
splendid bard ; I had discovered that neither Victor Hugo nor M. Vielé-Griffin
had a spark of talent, but that M. Charles Morice was the real Simon Pure.
I had heard a great many conflicting opinions stated without hesitation and
with a delightful violence ; I had heard a great many verses recited which I
did not understand because I was a foreigner, and could not have understood
if I had been a Frenchman. I had quaffed a number of highly indigestible
drinks, and had enjoyed myself very much. But I had not seen Verlaine,
and poor Mr. Harland was in despair. We invited some of the poets to dine
with us that night (this is the etiquette of the “Boul’ Mich'”) at the Restaurant
d’Harcourt, and a very entertaining meal we had. M. Moréas was in the
chair, and a poetess with a charming name decorated us all with sprays of the
narcissus poeticus. I suppose that the company was what is called “a little
mixed,” but I am sure it was very lyrical. I had the honour of giving my
arm to a most amiable lady, the Queen of Golconda, whose precise rank
among the crowned heads of Europe is, I am afraid, but vaguely determined.
The dinner was simple, but distinctly good ; the chairman was in magnificent
form, un vrai chef d’école, and between each of the courses somebody intoned

                          PAUL VERLAINE                                    115

his own verses at the top of his voice. The windows were wide open on to
the Boulevard, but there was no public expression of surprise.

    It was all excessively amusing, but deep down in my consciousness,
tolling like a little bell, there continued to sound the words, “We haven’t seen
Verlaine.” I confessed as much at last to the sovereign of Golconda, and she
was graciously pleased to say that she would make a great effort. She was kind
enough, I believe, to send out a sort of search-party. Meanwhile, we adjourned
to another café, to drink other things, and our company grew like a rolling
snowball. I was losing all hope, and we were descending the Boulevard, our
faces set for home ; the Queen of Golconda was hanging heavily on my arm,
and having formed a flattering misconception as to my age, was warning me
against the temptations of Paris, when two more poets, a male and a female,
most amiably hurried to meet us with the intoxicating news that Verlaine had
been seen to dart into a little place called the Café Soleil d’Or. Thither we
accordingly hied, buoyed up by hope, and our party, now containing a dozen
persons (all poets), rushed into an almost empty drinking-shop. But no
Verlaine was to be seen. M. Moréas then collected us round a table, and fresh
grenadines were ordered.

    Where I sat, by the elbow of M. Moréas, I was opposite an open door,
absolutely dark, leading down, by oblique stairs, to a cellar. As I idly watched
this square of blackness I suddenly saw some ghostly shape fluttering at the
bottom of it. It took the form of a strange bald head, bobbing close to the
ground. Although it was so dim and vague, an idea crossed my mind. Not
daring to speak, I touched M. Moréas, and so drew his attention to it. “Pas
un mot, pas un geste, Monsieur !” he whispered, and then, instructed in the
guile of his race, insidias Danaûm, the eminent author of “Les Cantilènes”
rose, making a vague detour towards the street, and then plunged at the cellar
door. There was a prolonged scuffle and a rolling down stairs ; then M. Moréas
re-appeared, triumphant ; behind him something flopped up out of the darkness
like an owl,—a timid shambling figure in a soft black hat, with jerking hands,
and it peeped with intention to disappear again. But there were cries of
“Venez donc, Maître,” and by-and-by Verlaine was persuaded to emerge
definitely and to sit by me.

    I had been prepared for strange eccentricities of garb, but he was very
decently dressed ; he referred at once to the fact, and explained that this was
the suit which had been bought for him to lecture in, in Belgium. He was
particularly proud of a real white shirt ; “C’est ma chemise de conférence,”
he said, and shot out the cuffs of it with pardonable pride. He was full of his

116                              THE SAVOY

experiences of Belgium, and in particular he said some very pretty things
about Bruges and its béguinages, and how much he should like to spend the
rest of his life there. Yet it seemed less the mediæval buildings which had
attracted him than a museum of old lace. He spoke with a veiled utterance,
difficult for me to follow. Not for an instant would he take off his hat, so that
I could not see the Socratic dome of forehead which figures in all the caricatures.
I thought his countenance very Chinese, and I may perhaps say here that when
he was in London in 1894 I called him a Chinese philosopher. He replied :
Chinois—comme vous voulez, mais philosophe—non pas !”

    On this first occasion (April 2, 1893), recitations were called for, and
Verlaine repeated his “Clair de Lune” :

            “Votre âme est un paysage choisi
               Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
            Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
               Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.”

He recited in a low voice, without gesticulation, very delicately. Then
M. Moréas, in exactly the opposite manner, with roarings of a bull and with
modulated sawings of the air with his hand, intoned an eclogue addressed by
himself to Verlaine as “Tityre.” And so the exciting evening closed, the
passionate shepherd in question presently disappearing again down those
mysterious stairs. And we, out into the soft April night and the budding
smell of the trees.

                                                                   EDMUND GOSSE.

MLA citation:

Gosse, Edmund. “A First Sight of Verlaine.” The Savoy, vol. 2, April 1896, pp. 113-116. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv2-paul-verlaine-I-gosse-first-sight/