MARGINAL COMMENT By HAROLD NICOLSON I WAS up in Birmingham the
other day speaking at the University on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Paul Verlaine. How astounded would Paul Verlaine have been had he known that in this northern island, which he half-hated and half-loved, a ceremony would take place fifty years after his death at which his poems would be sung and recited to an English audience! How amused would he have been had he known that one day a London municipality would allow a tablet to be erected upon the house in which, during that hot autumn of 1872, he and Rimbaud lived and quarrelled! And how bewildered would he have been could he have caught a glimpse of the future and realised that the day would come when the younger genera- tion of his own countrymen would regard him as old-fashioned and soft and would hail in Arthur Rimbaud the true phoenix of the century! Verlaine, although most irritable, had a forgiving nature ; he was not by temperament a jealous man, and he would have accepted this reversal of values with amused resignation. He would have claimed in fact the credit for having been the first Frenchman to foresee the fame of Rimbaud, he would have pointed to his article in the Poetes maudits in which for the first time the name of Rimbaud had been made known to the French literary public, and he would quite certainly have suggested that but for him this great genius might have remained inglorious and mute. Yet he would have regretted the influence which Rimbaud has exercised upon modem French writers ; he would have disliked the Rimbaud school as much as he disliked what he called the " Cymballistes " ; and in his husky voice he would have murmured the central precept of his own Ars Poetica: "De la musique avant toute chose."
* * * * • Verlaine paid six separate visits to this country in very varied circumstances. During his first visit, in September, 1872, he and Rimbaud found rooms at No. 34, Howland Street, and managed to support themselves by giving French lessons in the neighbourhood. He was impressed by the immensity of London ; he liked the docks and the great muddy river and the windows of the public-houses. He even liked the English. " Their absurdities," he wrote, " are not really objectionable." But in December of that year he fell ill with influenza and was assailed with panic and depression. His mother crossed over from France to comfort him and brought him back with her to the Ardennes. In May of 1873 he and Rimbaud again came to London, and this time they lived at No. 8, Great College Street, Camden Town. Rimbaud by then had become bored with Verlaine ; he resented his soft dependence ; his manner towards his companion was violent and abusive. In a fit of fury Verlaine abandoned him in London and crossed to Antwerp. Rimbaud followed him to Brussels, there ensued a scene of fierce recrimination, and on July loth Verlaine was arrested for firing a revolver at his companion in the Place Rouppe. He was imprisoned in Brussels, and subsequently at Mons, for a period of fourteen months. On his release he managed to obtain the post of French usher under a Mr. Andrews at Stickney, in Lincolnshire. Again, in 1877, he spent some time in England teaching in the school kept by Mr. Remington at No. 2, West bourne Terrace, Bournemouth. The story goes that he adopted an original method of instructing his pupils in the difficult task of pronouncing the French language. He would make them talk English to him in a strong French accent. The pupils took much delight in this pastime and the device may in fact have given them some idea of the difference in the vowel-tones of the two languages. But when January came one of his little charges threw a snowball at him with a stone inside it. Hurt by this episode, Verlaine returned to France.
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He did not revisit England until Christmas of 1880, when he dashed over to London in order to rescue his young friend Lucien Letinois from some obscure difficulties in which he had become involved. That was an unhappy journey ; in the streets outside they could hear the sounds of Christmas revelry ; but the fog crept into the little room of their lodging-house with its single candle, and to Verlaine the memories of London fused with pest remorse: " Tout l'affreux passé saute, piaule, miaule et glapit Dans le brouillard rose et jaune et sale des Sohos Avec des indeeds ct des all rights et des bads."
It is pleasant to recall that his final visit to England took place in more agreeable circumstances. In November, 1893, when Verlaine had already become a legend, he was invited by William Rothenstein, Arthur Symons and Yorke Powell to deliver a series of lectures on Racine, Shakespeare and th: Decadent movement in French literature. He stayed with Symons in Fountain Court and with Yorke Powell at Oxford. He proceeded to Manchester and addressed an astonished audience at Salford. He returned to Paris with some £75 in cash. He had been provided on this occasion with a clean snit and two clean shirts. Instead of the belt which he usually wore, he was given a pair of braces. " I feel myself," he wrote, " retained, main- tained, sustained." Thereafter, on ceremonial occasions, he would appear at the Café Francois Premier dressed in the clothes which he had worn in England. " C'est ma chemise de conference," he would explain. And he wrote some pretty complimentary poems to Symons, to Oxford and to Manchester. Yes, he would have been pleased had he known that they would still be lecturing about him in England in 1946. * *
How sad and curious it is to consider the rise and fall of literary reputations! To the younger generation in France Verlaine today is no more than a minor poet ; he is regarded as less important even than Glatigny or Corbieres. To their minds he is overshadowed by the gigantic shape of Rimbaud, and they find in his poems only the faint tinkle of some discarded musical box. We also are subject to such mutations of taste. When I was a young man it was thought eccentric to admire Tennyson and not to admire Meredith and Swinburne. Today Tennyson is again becoming popular, and it may well be that even Browning will revive. But I confess that I can no longer read Swinbume with any pleasure, and that it is only with an effort of the will that I recognise Meredith as among the greatest of our novelists. In Paris today the young men snort aloud if one praises Anatole France, and yet surely that great writer was a most worthy exponent of the high French tradition of lucidity and form. I was distressed recently to find a gifted French author who had not read Maurice Barris since leaving school. " He is not," he said, " believe me, a writer of any importance at all." We for our part are surprised by the immense influence exercised upon French literature by Edgar Allan Poe, even as we are surprised by the esteem with which certain American and British writers of today, whom we ourselves consider secondary, are regarded by French intellectuals. When I examine these fluctuations of renown I am reminded of a story which I believe to be authentic. One afternoon in the early 'thirties the young Tennyson was walking arm-in-arm with Samuel Rogers in St. James's Park. Rogers was already a man of seventy with his wrinkled feline face ; Tennyson was then un- bearded, lantern-jawed and sallow. " How rare it is," remarked Tennyson, " for any poet to be certain of his own immortality ! " Rogers was silent for a few moments, and he then pressed Tennyson's arm. " My dear Mr. Tennyson," he said, "I am certain." It is true that many people today remember Samuel Rogers ; but they do not remember him because of "Jacqueline" or the "Pleasures of Hope." They remember him because he had some interesting things to say about Byron and gave many well-attended breakfast-parties
in St. James's Place. * * Verlaine, for his part, experienced during his own life-time these periods of misprisal and obscurity. During the ten years between 1873 and 1883 he was almost forgotten ; it was generally believed that he was dead. He was without a publisher, and only rarely would any Paris newspaper consent to print his articles or poems. Gradually the gentle melody of his verses caught the ears of an ever- widening public ; he became the Villon of his age ; and as he sat there in the Francois Premier blinking over • his absynthe, young poets, such as Valery, would come and talk to him, and men of letters from Belgium, Holland, Germany and England would seek him out. He had, as he admitted, quite a good dose of immortality before he died.