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A detail from The Bird Catchers (1748) by François Boucher (1703-1770)Whatever one might think about the work of Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), one must admit that he was no One Note Charlie. From the apparently sincere religious fervor of Sagesse to the frankly erotic obsessions of Femmes and Hombres,(*) from the hesitant and often despairing firstlings of Poèmes saturniens to the vigor and revolt of the Rimbaud influenced Romances sans paroles, Verlaine changed and changed again.For his second volume of poems, Fêtes galantes (1869),(**) the title was less ironically chosen than it was for his first. Fête galante was the term invented by the French Academy of Arts for the genre of painting pioneered by Jean-Antoine Watteau in the preceding century and exemplified by the above image; one could try to translate it as courtship party. During the mid-19th century there was a nostalgic fashion in France for the era of Louis XV.What a contrast between the doubt and (beautiful) gloom of Poèmes saturniens and the Watteauesque fairyland of Fêtes galantes, though Verlaines musicality, finesse and melancholy are still very present. Under the influence of Baudelaire and absinthe and in flight from the memories of his crushing disappointment by and the early death of his beloved cousin, Elisa, as well as from his tedious job as functionary of the Ville de Paris, Verlaine entered a dreamland from which he returned bearing twenty-two artful reports such as the following octosyllabic poem, which recalls both Watteaus famous canvas Lembarquement pour Cythère and Baudelaires poem Un voyage à Cythère.(***) CythèreUn pavillon à claires-voiesAbrite doucement nos joiesQuéventent des rosiers amis;Lodeur des roses, faible, grâceAu vent léger dété qui passe,Se mêle aux parfums quelle a mis ;Comme ses yeux lavaient promis,Son courage est grand et sa lèvreCommunique une exquise fièvre ;Et lAmour comblant tout, hormisLa faim, sorbets et confituresNous préservent des courbatures.Verlaines dreamland even yielded an ironic but distinctly nostalgic dance of courtly amour in an aristocratic park: (!) A la promenadeLe ciel si pâle et les arbres si grêlesSemblent sourire à nos costumes clairsQui vont flottant légers avec des airsDe nonchalance et des mouvements dailes.Et le vent doux ride lhumble bassin,Et la lueur du soleil quatténueLombre des bas tilleuls de lavenueNous parvient bleue et mourante à dessein.Trompeurs exquis et coquettes charmantes,Coeurs tendres, mais affranchis du serment,Nous devisons délicieusement,Et les amants lutinent les amantes,De qui la main imperceptible saitParfois donner un soufflet, quon échangeContre un baiser sur lextrême phalangeDu petit doigt, et comme la chose estImmensément excessive et farouche,On est puni par un regard très sec,Lequel contraste, au demeurant, avecLa moue assez clémente de la bouche.Ah, the games we play and the pleasures we take from them!A fine and sensitive artistry in the service of what, exactly - escape, nostalgia, fashion ? - but with the poem that closes Fêtes galantes, the courtly party becomes a danse macabre, and one wonders if Elisa had returned to his absinthe-soaked mind. Colloque sentimentalDans le vieux parc solitaire et glacéDeux formes ont tout à lheure passé.Leurs yeux sont morts et leurs lèvres sont molles,Et lon entend à peine leurs paroles.Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacéDeux spectres ont évoqué le passé.- Te souvient-il de notre extase ancienne?- Pourquoi voulez-vous donc quil men souvienne?- Ton coeur bat-il toujours à mon seul nom?Toujours vois-tu mon âme en rêve? - Non.Ah ! les beaux jours de bonheur indicibleOù nous joignions nos bouches ! - Cest possible.- Quil était bleu, le ciel, et grand, lespoir !- Lespoir a fui, vaincu, vers le ciel noir.Tels ils marchaient dans les avoines folles,Et la nuit seule entendit leurs paroles.Fortunately, Verlaine was soon shaken out of his effete dreams by the Franco-Prussian War, a most ill-considered marriage and a fateful missive from Charleville. A venir... (*) The young Stefan Zweig termed them flatly and most disapprovingly pornographic, and I rather doubt that he even had had the opportunity to read Le Sonnet du Trou du Cul, which Verlaine had co-written with Arthur Rimbaud.(**) Actually, under the pseudonym Pablo de Herlagnez Verlaine clandestinely published in 1867 - between Poèmes saturniens and Fêtes galantes - Les amies, a collection of six, mostly erotic sonnets that give play to his fantasies about lesbians.(***) Because Verlaines music and moods are inseparable from his language, I wont offer any translations (which are, in any case, available online in dozens of languages) with apologies to those not well versed in French.



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