Monday, March 30, 2009

Today in Gay History

Happy Birthday March 30
Paul-Marie Verlaine, (1844-1896)
French Poet

The poetry of Paul-Marie Verlaine celebrates both heterosexual and homosexual activity, including lesbian relationships.

Born into a bourgeois family in Metz, France, Verlaine was the pampered only child of a military father and doting mother. As a young boy, he moved with his parents to the outskirts of Paris, later the city of departure and return for an errant poet; and yet his calm early years did not presage the tempestuous and disorderly adulthood that was to follow.

Verlaine's conflicted sexuality became manifest in the late 1860s. Although taken with a friend and literary collaborator, Lucien Viotti, whose "ephebic body's exquisite proportions" he later described, Verlaine pursued a relationship with Mathilde Mauté, whom he married in 1870. La Bonne chanson (1870), dedicated to his new wife, sang with chaste sensitivity of her youthful beauty and of the marriage of their souls. He was nonetheless deeply distraught when Viotti died in combat the same year.

With his early publications, Verlaine gained renown and respect from other writers, including a young schoolboy and aspiring poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who wrote him admiring letters from the provinces. The convergence of Verlaine's marriage to Mathilde and the arrival of Rimbaud (at age 16) in Paris the following year exacerbated the conflict within Verlaine between bourgeois respectability and scandalous rebellion.

The bond between the two poets was nearly instantaneous. Verlaine spent less and less time at home with his pregnant wife and disapproving in-laws, and more and more time with Rimbaud, whose aesthetic project was to "discover the unknown through the unsettling of all the senses."

The younger, more audacious poet found a pliable and willing partner in Verlaine; together they scandalized their literary colleagues and the Mauté family. Often coming home drunk and occasionally abusing his wife, now the mother of the infant George, Verlaine was also experiencing new sensual delights with Rimbaud, and writing some of his most original poetry, which would later be collected in Romances sans paroles (1874).

The 1995 movie, Total Eclipse, tells the story of his tempestuous extra-marital affair with the younger poet, Arthur Rimbaud, portrayed by a young Leonardo DiCaprio.

Long story short, Verlaine is imprisoned for 2 years in Belgium for shooting Rimbaud in a fit of rage. They meet once briefly after, but Rimbaud is "over" Verlaine and rebuffs his advances and prosytelizing (Verlaine had "found God" in prison). Rimbaud goes off to North Africa and gives up writing, and dies a few years later from a neglected malignancy of his knee.

Verlaine "loses God," lives on to write his best poetry, have other male lovers, become severely addicted to absinthe, and dies in abject poverty living in a boarding house brothel in the company of two prostitutes.


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