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Poets from hell: the sordid relationship of Rimbaud and Verlaine

Arthur Rimbaud
Arthur Rimbaud
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Ah, to be a poet in 19th century Paris. You’d be living the bohemian dream; sipping aperitif outside a hip café in the Montmartre at one in the afternoon, debuting your newest work during a poet’s circle, debating the virtues of Victor Hugo, sporadically publishing your work making just enough money to buy yourself a drink and a prostitute for that evening…yep, the epitome of slacker heaven. What could you possibly have to complain about? Well, if you were one of the famous friends of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, quite a bit.

Verlaine was pretty popular in France and captured the attention of a young poet wannabe named Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud desperately wanted to get to Paris and meet his idol, firing off several letters to Verlaine filled with his poems and a request for train fare. Verlaine, taken with the boy’s work and ambition, gladly sent the money; and there begins one of the most tumultuous relationships in literary history.

When he arrived, Verlaine was immediately attracted to the young Rimbaud, who was not quite seventeen. He described Rimbaud 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."

Oh, did I mention Verlaine was married? Yeah, and no surprise, Mathilde wasn’t too keen on this rendezvous, if you catch my drift, but agreed to put their new visitor up anyway. That is, until Rimbaud became the houseguest from hell.

Constantly challenging conventional propriety of the day, Rimbaud brazenly sunbathed publicly in the nude just outside the house, purposely tried to spread his lice to strangers passing by his window, and as Verlaine would soon discover, destroyed the guest room in their home which was actually owned by his father-in-law. That was enough for Mathilde who promptly banished the teenager from the house.

Verlaine’s friend, the comic poet, Charles Cros, took him in briefly. That is until Rimbaud used a magazine in which Cros had just published his poems, as toilet paper. The Parnassian poet Théodore de Banville was the next victim of Rimbaud’s mischief, asking him to leave after Rimbaud broke his china, soiled his sheets, and sold his furniture.

So, what do you do with a problem like Rimbaud? Well, if you’re Verlaine, you become his lover. Of course, that’s after you throw your three month old son against a wall in a drunken rage and try to strangle your wife who subsequently, throws you out of the house.

While living together and overindulging in alcohol and hashish, the two poets began collaborating and publishing their work to rave reviews, but their circle of friends disappeared as their wild behavior became intolerable. They got drunk and quarreled in public, trashed the Montmartre cafes, wrestled with knives, staining their hotel room with blood, and one time, Rimbaud actually stabbed Verlaine in the hand sending the blade straight through to the wooden table underneath.

This last incident was the final straw for Verlaine. He sent Rimbaud home to his mother and tried to repair his relationship with Mathilde. Rimbaud would not be deterred, however, and soon began sending Verlaine letters threatening to kill himself if his former lover would not see him.

Possibly due to concern, but most likely out of lust, Verlaine met with Rimbaud in a hotel room in Paris. The two soon began to argue and the confrontation quickly became violent. In what could only be described as poetic irony, Verlaine grabs the pistol Rimbaud brought to allegedly kill himself with, and shoots his lover through the hand. (You get the irony, right? If you don't, I won't tell you because I expect a lot more from my readers.)

Verlaine was quickly arrested and spent two years in prison. And, in typical fashion of those who are incarcerated, found Jesus and began writing Christian poetry.

Rimbaud went back home to his mother and completed his widely hailed book of prose titled, Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell.) It was a genius work, employing an innovative use of symbolism to describe his time with Verlaine. He later went to London and completed his most famous work, Illuminations. He spent the rest of his life traveling all over the world until in 1891 when he developed a debilitating pain in his knee. The diagnosis was cancer, and after amputating his leg, Rimbaud died in agonizing pain at the age of 37.

In 1874, after his release, Verlaine tried to adhere to the expectations of the Catholic Church but soon found himself in the arms of another young man, Lucien Létinois. Unfortunately, Létinois died of typhus in 1883 and his death sent Verlaine into a tailspin. He spent the remainder of his life living in slums and public hospitals, drinking absinthe until he went mad. He finally died in Paris at the age of 51.