Paul Verlaine -- Stuart Merrill, translated by Laird Hunt
Paul Verlaine was easy to approach. No great man was ever less arrogant, even if towards the end of his life he wasn't against posing a bit 'to annoy Moreas.'

At the time that I made Verlaine's acquaintance, Moreas was engaged in studying the poets of the Pleiade; as one knows, having arrived quite late in France, Moreas made a conscious effort to afford himself a literary education. For a long time he would terrorize people by accosting them and asking, "What do you think of Gace-Brule?" The Chatelain de Coucy, fair enough, but Gace-Brule! I rather quickly became convinced that he knew no more of Gace-Brule than what was cited in Bartsch's Anthology, and was consequently somewhat less bowled over by his erudition. At any rate, in following the course of ages, he had arrived at the Pleiade, and used to make the cafes of the Latin Quarter ring with those words that came to serve as the starting point of all his discourses, "Ronsard and Myself. . . ." This practice somewhat exasperated that other overgrown child, Verlaine, who, in imitation of Moreas, would apply a touch of saliva to his finger, smooth the end of his mustaches, adjust his cuffs, which were, alas, imaginary, and intone, "Moreas and Myself..." Later, less delicately, he was to refer to him in his Epigrammes by a 3 letter word; one which constitutes a gratuitous insult to the sex to which we owe our birth and dreams.

Verlaine would sometimes seek out Moreas at a wine shop called La Cote d'Or, which sat at the corner of the rue Racine and the rue de Medecis, across from the Odeon and the Luxembourg Palace. From the mezzanine, which functioned as a restaurant, one could watch celebrities pass.

One day we even saw Sarcey, introducing himself into a certain public facility that Vespasian would not have turned his nose up at. This was no easy task on account of his corpulence. He extricated himself with no less difficulty -- his glut (as Jarry might have put it) shoved backwards by the narrow exit. A resounding ovation greeted the deliverance of Our Uncle, who, because he was extremely near-sighted, couldn't discover the provenance of the unexpected applause.

So Verlaine would sometimes come and share our soup and half-pint with us. We, in addition to Moreas, were Raymond de la Tailhede, the great lyric poet who for so long now has been silent; Ernest Raynaud, who so nobly evoked the work of his master in l'Assomption de Paul Verlaine; Maurice du Plessys, bustling, sarcastic and dry; Gaugin, who had just arrived from the Antilles and was preparing to leave for Tahiti; Charles Morice, whose la litterature de Tout a l'heure had just made a big splash; Edouard Dubus, that delicious sensibility who was to sink so deeply into all the artificial paradises; Adolphe Rette, who at that time barely dreamed of religion; Louis Le Cardonnel, who never stopped thinking about it; and so many others, including several who killed themselves, of whom a few died hideously. Nevertheless, the ones among us who deserve the most pity are those who renounced, too early, Art & Poetry.

Le Pelerin passionne appeared, and it was decided that Moreas would, with great pomp and circumstance, offer a deluxe copy to Stephane Mallarme. Accordingly, one fine Tuesday, we hired several cabs and had ourselves conveyed to Mallarme's house on the Rue de Rome. Verlaine, clever old fox, was already there, waiting in ambush. He and Moreas were engaged, at that time, in a struggle for the scepter of the Latin Quarter. In short, he was childishly jealous of this Greek villager whose black eyes had nothing too charming to say to a patriotic old bugger's heart. Mallarme received Moreas and his merry men with his habitual courtesy. As for Verlaine, hackles raised, he didn't stop riddling Moreas with venemous darts the entire evening. Moreas, who was utterly lacking in wit, but was possessed of great finesse, endured the assault without retaliation. He deserved, that evening, the sympathy of all of us, for Verlaine was truly outdoing himself. When he would consent to release Moreas, much like a cat releases a mouse so that it can, even more emphatically, attack it again, he showed himself capable of ascending into eloquence. The subject was Shakespeare. I remember the following curious remark: "Shakespeare, ah! Wouldn't you say he was like a blind giant chopping trees down in a forestxvery darkxthe Ardenne forest?"

When it was time to take our leave of Mallarme, I went out directly in front of Verlaine and heard the adorable old boy say: "Well Stephane, how did I do this evening? Do you think I bowled the boys over enough?"

Most often, we went to see Verlaine at the cafe Francois Ier on the Boulevard St. Michel, where he would hold court at the hour of absinthe. I confess that I didn't go there very often, as I felt none too kindly towards the young people who would drink at the master's expense on those days when he had, as he would proudly put it, "recuperated his gold". In and around the group would flit Bibi-la-Puree, that incredible ne'er do well who used to parade his Louis the Eleventh silhouette from Montmartre to the Latin Quarter.

He functioned for Verlaine as a kind of factotum, a galant Mercury, someone who would help him slip out of his lodgings without paying the bill; and, because he knew literature, he waxed glorious in the great man's indulgent friendship. At Verlaine's funeral, Count Robert de Montesquiou sniffed at Bibi's presence in the place of honour just behind the coffin. He was removed. But the poor devil had more right to be there than any of us.

I remember a charming conversation I had with Verlaine in that corner of the Cafe Francois Ier where the photographer for Nos Contemporains chez eux caught him leaning over his absinthe. He told me about a visit he had made to the Grande Chartreuse, describing to me the monks: "their frocks like blocks and tiny little round heads like in paintings by Le Sueur." And he brought together his two closed fists while repeating "tiny little round heads like in paintings by Le Sueur."

He had visited Grande Chartreuse one year when his rhumatism had forced him to take a cure at Aix-les-Bains. He was treated there by Doctor Cazalis (Jean Lahor), who, many years later, spoke of his client with considerable distress. First off, Verlaine would only consent to receive Cazalis at the cafe, and the cosmopolitan doctor was obliged to frequent the worst bistrots of the overly small city. Then, on one or two occasions, Verlaine allowed himself to be taken to the police station, where the respectable Cazalis was obliged to go and redeem him. Finally, out of pure mischieviousness, Verlaine displayed an excessive, public and scandalous admiration for a certain marble Ganymede which adorns the public gardens of Aix-les-Bains. I believe that, without risking to come off as a vulgar bourgeois, it is permissible to express sympathy for the tribulations of the excellent Jean Lahor.

I remember a rather interesting evening I spent in the company of Verlaine and Edmond Gosse, the great English poet, novelist and critic. Gosse was dying to meet Verlaine, for his physiognomy as much as for his mind. Verlaine had already delivered lectures in England, where his impressive cranium, ridged, Socratic and well-lit under the electric lights, had made an impression on a public that hadn't understood a word of what he was saying. So we sought out Verlaine in his usual haunts in the Latin Quarter, finally finding him, in the company of the insufferable Eugenie Krantz, at a wine shop on the Place Saint-Michel. He was wearing a muffler that covered his mouth and a large, soft-felt hat that he had pulled down over his forehead. Meaning all Edmond Gosse could see of his head were his nose and eyes.

Verlaine seemed to be in excellent form despite the number of rum and waters he had absorbed. He even attempted to speak English. I suspect, however, that he knew even less English than the good Mallarme! Whatever the case might have been, the only sentence that he managed to get out, and that he repeated over and over, was, "Shakespeare, he is a man." And on top of that he had a bizarre Scottish accent. I found myself in the grips of a burning desire to respond, in the incoherent manner of conversation manuals, "And Racine, he is not a woman!"

Gosse, who is a charmer, quickly had the old beast in his pocket, but from time to time he would whisper, "I haven't seen his head, I want to see his head." So each time Verlaine would return to the subject of Shakespeare, I would say, "Surely, one takes one's hat off before him, don't you think, master!" and I would make as if to doff my own. But he only pulled the old hat even farther down over his eyebrows, and Gosse was obliged to leave without having seen Verlaine's head.

I just made mention of Verlaine's lectures in England. Such an odyssey merits recounting. Robert Sherard, the well-known biographer of Oscar Wilde, and Arthur Symons, the London poet, had been charged, one with receiving Verlaine at Charing Cross, the other with sending him off from Paris. Sherard, accordingly, after having taken Verlaine to dinner, without any excessive drinking, installed him in the Paris-Calais night express, entrusting him, as if he were a child, to the conductor. Then he went home to bed with a clear conscience, after having announced Verlaine's departure, by telegram, to Symons. Bad luck would have it that a tremendous storm unleashed itself that night over the Channel, making it impossible for the ferry to leave. Verlaine, therefore, passed the night at the buffet in Calais, but quite sagely, without getting into any trouble. Symons, expecting him in London at daybreak, slept as well as he could at Charing Cross. Finally, Verlaine appeared, dirty, greenish, patently not recovered from sea-sickness. His host welcomed him like a prodigal child, and, if he stopped short of killing a fatted calf in his honor at his little apartment in Fountain Court, he refreshed him as copiously as he could, then, as a matter of course, asked him if he had brought a suit along with him. A suit! The poor Lelian had brought no more than the basic necessities. So off went Symons, scurrying in all directions, borrowing a suit here, a shirt there, elsewhere a pair of shoes, and Verlaine, when he appeared on stage that evening, looked like a respectable clergyman. Which wasn't what the public had been expecting, led on as they had been by the newspapers which had announced a lecture by Paul Verlaine, "the convict-poet".

Here is one of the more melancholy of my memories. We had stayed out late that evening -- myself and a few friends -- at the Soleil d'or, after one of those celebrated evenings sponsored by La Plume. The Boulevard Saint Michel was deserted. We were making our way rather quietly, when we made out the heavy, melancholy tapping of a cane against asphalt. A man wearing a cape was walking ahead of us, limping heavily. It was Verlaine. We surrounded him, did our best to make him feel comfortable and invited him to come dine with us. That night, however, he was under the influence of Saturn, and it wasn't without some difficulty that we managed to get him to accept our invitation. He remained sullen throughout the entire meal. At the end, one of us asked him, rather awkwardly, to recite something. He complied, as if to pay his portion of the dinner, and recited "The Song of Gaspar Hausar":

Je suis venu, calme orphelin,
Riche de mes seuls yeux tranquilles
Vers les hommes des grandes villes,
Ils ne m'ont pas trouvé malin.

[I came, a calm orphan
Rich only by my tranquil eyes
Towards the men of great cities
They found much to despise]

Lines infinitely poignant on their own. But how to put across here the sad, hoarse voice, the air of abandonment, the poor lost look of the reciter. Not the slightest hint of play-acting. The lines were recited with an almost childlike simplicity. But all of the misery of the man was imbued in that voice which filled with its lamentation the almost empty room of the Cafe D'Harcourt.

One glacial morning in 1896, my friend Henri Degron burst into my quarters, crying, Verlaine is dead! He had just come from Verlaine's lodgings. I rushed over to the funereal house. Verlaine's faithful friend A. F. Cazals showed me into the dead man's room. He was unimaginably handsome. A beatific smile still haunted his lips. His head was turned a little towards his left shoulder, as if in peaceful slumber. The poor old devil really had slipped away: all that emanated from that corpse was a saintly aspect. It had been many years since I had unlearned how to pray. I leaned over the dead Verlaine and kissed him on the forehead.

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