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             PAUL VERLAINE


                 VERLAINE IN 1894

    In the spring of 1894 I received a note in English, inviting me to “coffee
and cigarettes plentifully,” and signed “yours quite cheerfully, Paul Verlaine.”
I found him in a little room at the top of a tenement house in the Rue
St. Jacques, sitting in an easy chair, with his bad leg swaddled in many
bandages. He asked me, and in English, for I had explained the poverty of
my French, if I knew Paris well, and added, pointing to his leg, that it had
“scorched” his leg, for he knew it “well, too well,” and lived in it like “a fly
in a pot of marmalade ;” and taking up an English dictionary, one of the very
few books in his room, began searching for the name of the disease, selecting,
after much labour, and with, I understand, imperfect accuracy, “erysipelas.”
Meanwhile, his homely and middle-aged mistress, who had been busy when I
came, in dusting, or in some other housewife fashion, had found the cigarettes,
and made excellent coffee. She had obviously given the room most of its
character : her canary birds, of which there were several cages, kept up an in-
termittent tumult in the open window, and her sentimental chromolithographs
scattered themselves among the nude drawings, and the caricatures of himself
as a monkey, which M. Verlaine had torn out of the papers and pinned against
the wall. She handed me a match to light my cigarette, with the remark, in
English, “A bad match, a French match,” and I saw by the way her face lighted
up when my reply, “They have the best matches in England, but you have the
best poets,” was translated to her, that she was proud of her ungainly lover.
While we were drinking our coffee she drew a box towards the fire for a singular
visitor, a man, who was nicknamed Louis XI., M. Verlaine explained, because of
a close resemblance, and who had not shaved for a week, and kept his trousers on
with a belt of string or thin rope, and wore an opera hat, which he set upon his
knee, and kept shoving up and down continually while M. Verlaine talked.
M. Verlaine talked of Shakespeare, whom he admired, with the reservations of
his article in the “Fortnightly” ; of Maeterlinck, who was “a dear good fellow,”
but in his work “a little bit of a mountebank” ; of Hugo, who was “a volcano
of mud as well as of flame,” but always, though “not good enough for the
young messieurs,” a supreme poet ; and of Villiers de l’lsle Adam, who was
“exalté,” but wrote “the most excellent French,” and whose “Axël” he inter-
preted, and somewhat narrowly, as I could but think, as meaning that love

118                              THE SAVOY

was the only important thing in the world ; and of “In Memoriam,” which he
had tried to translate and could not, because “Tennyson was too noble, too
Anglais, and when he should have been broken-hearted had many re-

    No matter what he talked of, there was in his voice, in his face, or in his
words, something of the “voluminous tenderness ” which Mr. Bain has called,
I believe, “the basis of all immorality,” and of the joyous serenity and un-
troubled perception of those who commune with spiritual ideas. One felt
always that he was a great temperament, the servant of a great daimon, and
fancied, as one listened to his vehement sentences that his temperament, his
daimon, had been made uncontrollable that he might live the life needful for
its perfect expression in art, and yet escape the bonfire. To remember him is to
understand the futility of writing and thinking, as we commonly do, as if the
ideal world were the perfection of ours, a blossom rooted in our clay ; and of
being content to measure those who announce its commandments and its beauty
by their obedience to our laws ; and of missing the wisdom of the Hebrew saying,
“He who sees Jehovah dies.” The ideal world, when it opens its fountains,
dissolves by its mysterious excitement in this man sanity, which is but the art
of understanding the mechanical world, and in this man morality, which is but
the art of living there with comfort ; and, seeing this, we grow angry and
forget that the Incarnation has none the less need of our reverence because it
has taken place in a manger of the dim passions, or bring perhaps our
frankincense and myrrh in secret, lest a little truth madden our world.

                                                                                                W.B. Yeats.

MLA citation:

Yeats, William Butler. “Verlaine in 1894.” The Savoy, vol. 2 April 1896, pp. 117-118. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, 2019.