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Reviewed by:
  • Marges du premier Verlaine
  • Jay Lutz
Murphy, Steve. Marges du premier Verlaine. Romantisme et modernités 71. Paris: Champion, 2003. Pp. 423. ISBN2-7453-0866-1

Generations of readers have disparaged the literary capacity of Paul Verlaine in the 1880s during a period Alain Buisine terms the poet's "descente aux enfers" (Verlaine: Histoire d'un corps, 1995). At the same time, the appreciation of Verlaine's earlier poetry has been closely linked to the notion of the poet as mythical bohemian satyr hobbling from one café to another in the Quartier Latin of the 1880s and '90s. There are exceptions. It is to be noted that Eléonore Zimmermann explored all of Verlaine's periods with insight and care in Magies de Verlaine (1967, rpt 1981). Her study conceived [End Page 452] of Verlaine's poetry as being characterized by constant change and development. For many readers, however, the poetry of Verlaine has come to exude the enticing, but slightly stale, odor of "fadeur," term chosen by Jean-Pierre Richard for his influential and provocative study of Verlaine in 1955 (Poésie et profondeur). Richard makes a point in his study of stating that "fadeur" is not "insipidité." He writes: "c'est une absence de gôut devenue positive, réelle, permanente, agaçante comme une provocation" (éd. "Points" Seuil, 170). "Insipidity," "sickliness" and "pointlessness," however, are the translations found for "fadeur" in one French-English dictionary (Harrap's New Shorter, 1978); and, although le Petit Robert confirms Richard's notion of "fade" as "manque de goût," it also gives a second and figurative meaning: "qui est sans caractère, sans intérêt particulier." It is the latter, and common, definition of "fade" which Steve Murphy questions in his important new book Marges du premier Verlaine.

In the spirit of Alain Buisine's reinterpretation of the biographical framing of Verlaine's work, Murphy gives readers a detailed and compelling study of the early Verlaine (1858-1871). Buisine notes in the forward to his study that a painting of the young Verlaine by Frédéric Bazille (Portrait de Paul Verlaine en troubadour, currently part of the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art) showing the poet with "[a]llure soignée, très fine moustache et léger collier d'une barbe naissante" inspired him to write his biography of "Pauvre Lelian" (9-11). Murphy, similarly, reminds us in the forward to his study that the Verlaine who met Rimbaud in 1871 was a young man recently married who was about to become a father and who enjoyed a certain reputation among the Parnassians and a rather enviable financial situation. "Ce n'est certes pas," he writes, "le Verlaine lâche, pour ne pas dire pusillanime, de la légende, ni un poète entiché de la fadeur, que Rimbaud chercha en Verlaine, mais un poète de la force" (11). Murphy then procedes to recreate this young and intelligent radical through a careful study of the poetry and parody published by Verlaine in his youth, as well as from early poems first published in the 1880s and from recovered early work left unpublished or forgotten. The study also allows Murphy to begin to write a new narrative of the Parnasse movement and period which, as the critic points out in the conclusion to his book, could lead to the reopening of a chapter in literary history which has been prematurely closed (395).

Murphy provides new and original close readings of poems in Verlaine's first published volume, Poèmes saturniens. In analyzing poems such as "Après Trois Ans" and "Nevermore" ("Souvenir, souvenir, que me veux-tu? L'automne"), the critic makes a convincing case for the overwhelming influence of Baudelaire and shows how Verlaine tries to mediate between the compelling styles of Hugo and Baudelaire. The study also focuses upon Verlaine's political positions in poetry from an early age and the seeming renunciation of political discourse through participation in the Parnasse. "Monsieur Prudhomme," Verlaine's first published poem, serves as a convincing example of political engagement. Murphy then compellingly teases out a view of "l'Art pour l'Art" and the...


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