A LITERARY CAUSERIE: ON THE “INVECTIVES” OF VERLAINE
I NEVER read a book with more regret than this book of
“Invectives,” which has appeared since the death of
Verlaine. I do not see why it should not have been
written, if the writing of a petulance helped to clear that
petulance away. But what might have been a sort of sad
or vexed amusement to Verlaine, in some sleepless hour in
hospital, should never have been taken for more than what it was, and should
never, certainly, have gone further than one of the best-locked cupboards in
Vanier’s publishing office. I should like to think that Verlaine never intended
it to go further ; and I am quite sure that, in the first instance, he never did
intend it to go further. But I know Vanier, and I know that whatever
Vanier got hold of he was not likely to loose. Gradually the petulances
would have heaped themselves one upon another, until they had come to
about the size of a book. Then there would be the suggestion : why should
we not make a book of them ? Then jest would turn into earnest ;
Verlaine would be persuaded that he was a great satirist : it was so easy to
persuade him of anything ! And now here is the book.
Well, the book has some admirable things in it, and, as perhaps the most
admirable, I will quote a piece called “Deception” :
“Satan de sort, Diable d’argent !”
Parut le Diable
Qui me dit : “L’homme intelligent
Que te voici, que me veux-tu ?
Car tu m’évoques
Et je crois, l’homme tout vertu,
Que tu m’invoques.
Or je me mets, suis-je gentil ?
A ton service :
Dis ton vœu naïf ou subtil ;
Bêtise ou vice ?
A LITERARY CAUSERIE 89
Que dois-je pour faire plaisir
A ta sagesse ?
L’impuissance ou bien le désir
Croissant sans cesse?
L’indifférence ou bien l’abus ?
Parle, que puis-je ?”
Je répondis : “Tous vins sont bus,
Plus de prestige,
La femme trompe et l’homme aussi,
Je suis malade,
JE VEUX MOURIR.” Le Diable : “Si
C’est là l’aubade
Qu tu m’offres, je rentre. En Bas.
Bon pour ton Dieu. Je ne suis pas
A ce point brusque.”
Diable d’argent et par la mort !
Partit le Diable,
Me laissant en proie à ce sort
In such a poem as this we have the Verlaine of the finer parts of “Parallèle-
ment.” But what of the little jokes for and against M. Moréas, the pointless
attack on Leconte de Lisle, the unworthy rage against M. Rod, the political
squibs, the complaints against doctors and magistrates, the condescension to
the manner of M. Raoul Ponchon ? Here is neither a devouring rage, which
must flame itself out, nor a fine malice, justifying its existence, as the serpent
does, by the beauty of its coils. Verlaine’s furies, which were frequent, were
too brief, and too near the surface, to be of much use to him in the making of
art. He was a big child, and his furies meant no more than the squalling
and kicking of a baby. His nature was essentially good-humoured, finding
pleasure on the smallest opportunity ; often despondent, and for reasons
em nigh, but for the most part, and in spite of everything—ill-health, poverty,
interminable embarrassments—full of a brave gaiety. He often grumbled,
even then with a sort of cheerfulness ; and when he grumbled he used very
colloquial language, some of which you will not find in the dictionaries of
classical French. These poems are. his grumblings ; only, unfortunately, they
are written down, and we can read them in print, critically, instead of
listening to them in sympathetic amusement. And what injustice they do
him, alike as poet and man ! How impossible it will be, now that this book
90 THE SAVOY
has appeared, to convince anyone, to whom Verlaine is but a name, that the
writer of these “Invectives” was the most charming, the most lovable of
men. The poet will recover from it, for, at all events, there are the “Fêtes
Galantes,” the “Romances sans Paroles,” “Sagesse,” “Amour,” and the others,
which one need but turn to, and which are there for all eyes. But the man !
Well, the man will soon become a legend, and this book will, no doubt,
be one of the many contradictory chapters of the legend. In a few years’
time Verlaine will have become as distant, as dubious, as distorted, as Gilles
de Retz. He will once more re-enter that shadow of unknown horror from
which he has but latterly emerged. People will refuse to believe that he was
not always drunk, or singing “Chansons pour elle.” They will see in his
sincere Catholicism only what des Esseintes, in the book of Huysmans, saw
in it : “des rêveries clandestines, des fictions d’un amour occulte pour une
Madone byzantine qui se muait, à un certain moment, en une Cydalise égarée
dans notre siècle.” And they will see, perhaps, only a poetical licence in such
lines as these, in which, years ago, Verlaine said all that need ever be said in
excuse, or in explanation, of the problem of himself :
Un mot encore, car je vous dois
Quelque lueur en définitive
Concemant la chose qui m’arrive :
Je compte parmi les maladroits.
J’ai perdu ma vie et je sais bien
Que tout blame sur moi s’en va fondre :
A cela je ne puis que répondre
Que je suis vraiment né Saturnien.
Symons, Arthur. “A Literary Causerie: On the ‘Invectives’ of Verlaine.” The Savoy vol. 7, November 1896, pp. 88-90. 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/savoyv7-symons-causerie/