- Paul Verlaine and A Platonic Lament:Beardsley’s Portrayal of a Parallel Love Story in Wilde’s Salome
From the moment Oscar Wilde's and Aubrey Beardsley's Salome first appeared in 1894, the English illustrated edition has been a cause célèbre, with Beardsley bearing the brunt of the blame. Erotic details were openly portrayed, most appearing to have nothing to do with Wilde's words.1 Readers wondered whether Wilde liked or disliked the illustrations; critics questioned the relationship between image and text. As an anonymous reviewer from the Studio of 15 February 1894 observed, it is debatable "whether the compositions do or do not illustrate the text."2 While the debate continues to this very day, a little-known observation made by Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) sheds new light on the Wilde–Beardsley collaboration. In an essay published in 1913, Cocteau states: "Aubrey Beardsley's charmingly pretty sister told me that 'Oscar' himself never intended his 'Salome' to be taken too seriously, and certainly her brother's famous illustrations, depicting Verlaine winking and the author tucked away in the moon, go far to substantiate the theory."3 The illustration "depicting Verlaine winking and the author tucked away in the moon" is A Platonic Lament, and while numerous critics have identified Wilde in the moon, Cocteau is the first to identify "Verlaine"—i.e., Paul Verlaine (1844–1896), the French symbolist poet and notorious practitioner of "the Love that dare not speak its name." This article focuses on Beardsley's vivid depiction of Verlaine and questions the significance of such a portrayal. It is a fanciful figure; however, it is also a caricature that alludes to the relationship of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) and thus provides a parallel love story commenting on that between the Page and the Young Syrian in Wilde's play.
A double romance plot sets the scene for Beardsley's A Platonic Lament. Wilde's play presents two love stories about forbidden and thwarted desire. There is a story about heterosexual lust: Herod wants [End Page 152] Salome, but she only has eyes for Iokanaan (John the Baptist). There is also a short-lived story about platonic love: an older man, the Page of Herodias, expresses his affection for a younger man, the Young Syrian. Neither story ends happily. Salome is crushed to death (Herod commands: "Kill that woman!"), and, much earlier, the Young Syrian kills himself as Salome declares her desire to kiss the prophet.
The bond between the Page and the Young Syrian is revealed after the Young Syrian is dead. Salome never notices the corpse, but the Page laments the death of his young friend:
The young Syrian has slain himself! The young captain has slain himself! He has slain himself who was my friend! I gave him a little box of perfumes and ear-rings wrought in silver, and now he has killed himself! Ah, did he not say that some misfortune would happen? I, too, said it, and it has come to pass. Well I knew that the moon was seeking a dead thing, but I knew not that it was he whom she sought. Ah! why did I not hide him from the moon? If I had hidden him in a cavern she would not have seen him.4
The repetitions highlight that the Page is mourning the death of the Young Syrian. He cared for the Young Syrian, giving him perfume and earrings. The lament continues: "He was my brother, and nearer to me than a brother. I gave him a little box full of perfumes, and a ring of agate that he wore always on his hand. In the evening we were wont to walk by the river, and among the almond-trees, and he used to tell me of the things of his country. He spake ever very low. The sound of his voice was like the sound of the flute, of one who playeth upon the flute. Also he had much joy to gaze at himself in the river. I used to reproach him for that."5 The Page reveals a strong bond: the Young Syrian was "nearer...