25. Paul Verlaine – Selected Poems (1866-1913)

I conclude my reading of the French decadent poets with the selected poems of Verlaine. Verlaine is perhaps the least loved of the four (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme), but Burroughs cited him the most often.

Which isn’t to say he’s the most influential. If anything, the hidden references to Rimbaud and the stylistic borrowings from Baudelaire mark them out as far more of an influence on the young Burroughs.

It’s Verlaine that he enjoys quoting verbatim – suggesting distance. The kind of respectful distance he also keeps with oft-quoted but little-borrowed-form figures like Graham Greene, Samuel Beckett and Jane Austen.

In “Paris Please Stay the Same” he quotes the lines:

Il pleut dans mon coeur

Comme il pleut dans la ville

Which he translates as:

It rains in my heart

As it rains in the city

The poem, “Il pleure dans mon coeur” (the actual spelling of the first line), is translated in my own edition as “Falling tears…”, although an earlier translation “Tears Fall in My Heart”, is more literally (though perhaps not stylistically) accurate, and translates the line as Burroughs does.

Meaningfully, Burroughs does not quote the latter end of the stanza:

                Quelle est cette langueur

                Qui penetre mon couer?

Translated as either (in the earlier translation, the one Burroughs seems familiar with):

                Why is this torpor

                Pervading my heart?

Or (in the translation in my edition):

                Why this long ache,

                This knife in my heart?

The first two lines, as trite as the are, clearly caught in Burroughs’ imagination. He read French poetry as a youth and these lines have the simple yet evocative power of song lyrics.

The question of the knife might be one of translation. The French, which I would have presumed means “what is this languor that has penetrated my heart?”, rather than the two quoted translations, is tantalisingly ambiguous. Is this a pleasurable or a murderous penetration?

The poem goes on to show a rainy Paris, and our poet within it, crying without reason: il pleure sans raison. A sensation that we know Burroughs was familiar with.

In his final journals, Burroughs quotes the poem Le faune, compressing its two stanzas down to the following simple line:

Un vieux faun en terre cuite presageant, sans doute, une suite malheureuse a ces heures dont la suite tour a son des tambours

Which, in English, amounts to something like:

An old terracotta faun presaging, no doubt, an unhappy continuation of those hours, the hours that turn to the sound of drums.

The full poem is more ambiguous. The faun “laughs in the smooth grass”, having visions of bad things to come, while “melancholy pilgrims” dance. In his memory, Burroughs has compacted this down into a vision not of presaged doom, but of hell itself.

Where Verlaine’s faun foresees danger in the midst of fun, Burroughs’ faun understands that the danger is that the fun continues, that one is stuck, dancing to the drum, forever.

In the same set of journals he misattributes the line “my past in an evil river” to Verlaine. It is actually from St-John Perse. This perhaps drives home the interchangeability of these French writers in Burroughs’ mind, all of them being associated with his teenage years. But also, perhaps, clarifying his view of Verlaine as a poet who, among poems one might not wish to imitate, still produces some perfect lines.

The Martin Sorrell translation – the version I read – of Verlaine’s Selected Poems, is itself bafflingly dismissive of the poet’s worth. Sorrell’s introduction seems to apologise for Verlaine’s “large number of poor poems”, and gives an overview of his career that can be roughly summarised as: starts poorly, a couple of moments of brilliance thanks to Rimbaud, then downhill for the rest.

Did the task of translating Verlaine sicken Sorrell on the poet’s work? Or is this a fair assessment of the world-famous poet? I lack sufficient French to judge.

In looking out for potential sources of stylistic inspiration or borrowed lines, I found a few:

Two poems in Parrallelement, his 1889 collection, are curiously prescient of Genet. “Impression fausse” is the voice of a convict calling out to his friends, telling them to dream only of women, for dreams are their sanctuary: this is the message of Our Lady of the Flowers. “Autre” describes the punishment yard where convicts walk in silent circles: a core scene in The Miracle of the Rose.

The recurrence of Verlaine in Genet would certainly confirm Burroughs’ thoughts about art being always either borrowed or stolen. Verlaine may also have primed him for his later idolisation of Genet.

From the same collection, “A Madmoiselle” features the line “de jeune animal”; “your animal teeth”. Burroughs often describes the teeth of his fantasy boys, and often in these same terms. “Animal teeth” may be a borrowing.

Then there is Jadis et Naguere, the 1884 collection presaging St-John Perse through its adoption of classical themes, sensuality, the Orient and the megalithic. If Burroughs read this collection, or poets from it, it may have later led to the confusion of the two poets in his attribution of “my life is an evil river”.

Finally, one might look to the lines from Verlaine’s earliest published collection, Poemes saturniens (1866), and its celebration of “Supreme Poets, worshippers of Gods we don’t believe in,” and draw from this an aesthetic tenet that Burroughs, of all the writers in world literature, would take possibly further than any other; indulging in magic, the worship of ancient and forgotten Gods, and the adoption of an animistic worldview.

The lines of inspiration are nevertheless loose here and indirect. Verlaine as a poet moves from vulgarity to religiousity to pure landscape. This makes a “Verlainian” style hard to pin down.

 Burroughs seems happy enough to quote lines from him, and so Verlaine’s influence must, I believe, be limited to the enduring effect that reading French decadents had on Burroughs during his teenage years at the Los Alamos school. It’s a formative foundation, but not a direct impetus on his later writings.