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Modernité Sans Frontières:” Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of the Avant-Garde in King Leopold’s Belgium, 1885–1910

From: American Imago
Volume 68, Number 4, Winter 2011
pp. 707-797 | 10.1353/aim.2011.0038

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Introduction: Bohemia and “Belgitude

On February 25, 1893, the poet Paul Verlaine arrived in Belgium, beginning a two-week lecture tour in a number of cities throughout the kingdom. Verlaine’s speaking invitations spanned a variety of literary societies and cultural associations, from the avant-garde art group of Les Vingt, to the local Cercle Artistique of Antwerp and Ghent, to the Catholic university student association, the Cercle Léo XIII of Brussels.

Verlaine experienced the trip with great emotion, as it represented to him a great personal triumph and vindication. Twenty years earlier, in January of 1873, Verlaine had stood accused, humiliated, and condemned in a Brussels courtroom. Arrested for wounding Rimbaud with a gunshot that grazed his lover’s wrist during one of their arguments, Verlaine received a maximum sentence and served almost two years in the desolate prison at Mons. During this period, Verlaine rekindled his Catholic faith, charting the spiritual journey of his reconversion in a collection of poems written in prison, Sagesse, published in 1881. While Verlaine’s friends and correspondents among Belgian literary modernists, such as Maurice Maeterlinck, Emile Verhaeren, and Georges Rodenbach were conversant with the full range of his complex oeuvre, it was the prayerful fervor of Sagessse that was singularly well known to the broader literate public, and which stimulated the many invitations of 1893.

On this first trip back to Belgium after his ignominious incarceration, then, Verlaine arrived apprehensive, and excited. Fearing that his criminal record could be used against him in some unexpected way, Verlaine quelled his apprehension by soliciting, at the suggestion of one of his hosts, a letter and an official permit de séjour from the Ministry of Justice, which he kept in his pocket at all times during the trip. The safe permit letter proclaimed, as signed by the Minister himself, that the poet Paul Verlaine was welcome and “would bring honor to Belgian soil for as long as he wished to stay, despite his earlier conviction.” Verlaine’s excitement turned quickly to elation when he realized, ever desperate for funds, that he would be paid immediately after each event, in cash, an average of three hundred francs per lecture—a staggering sum for him to have his hands on. He ended his two-week stay in Belgium in a state of exhilaration, commending his literary comrades and his hosts, and even writing a poem of tribute to King Leopold II.

Where he had departed in shame as a criminal in 1875, Verlaine returned to a hero’s welcome in 1893, where, as one writer put it, “all of Belgian letters, writers and critics from every school, came together in their common goal of celebrating Paul Verlaine.” One of Verlaine’s sponsors for the 1893 visit, Henri Carton de Wiart, slyly and proudly noted that Verlaine had strong affinities for Belgium and possessed what he called an “instinctual chauvinism” that flowed from the poet’s background. While born in Metz, Verlaine’s paternal grandfather “was Belgian (était Belge),” and, even more, “a Belgian from the Ardennes (Belge des Ardennes);” Carton de Wiart thus claimed Verlaine as “un peu Belge” (Carton de Wiart, 1893, March 5, pp. 75–76). Writing to his friend Eugenie Krantz, Verlaine recounted how he had been applauded and lavished with praise by his fellow artists and an elite public, and feted at sumptuous dinners by such luminaries as a Senator and a Minister of State. Verlaine went on to describe how he was overcome after one lecture with tears of joy and pride at his reversal of fortune in Belgium from convict to celebrity, remarking that he wished that everyone could experience such an extraordinary occurrence just one time in their lives!

To be sure, Verlaine was never quite the unambiguous penitent that some of the Belgian public anticipated, nor was his celebrity tour untroubled by the turmoil that marked his dual identity as bohemian and bourgeois. Verlaine’s behavior among the Belgians exhibits precisely what Jerrold Seigel (1986) has identified as the tension and ambivalence coursing through avant-garde creativity in nineteenth-century French bourgeois culture. The reactions of Verlaine’s Belgian colleagues to his swings of transgression and composure...



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