- A Feminine Canaan
Early on in his literary career, Paul Verlaine swore off most of the traditional sources of poetic ecstasy. "Nature, nothing about you moves me," he writes in the poem "Anxiety," adding "I scoff at Art, and mankind too." Verlaine throws Classical Greek civilization—the source of quickening heart rates for many a European writer from Winkelmann to Rilke, from Pater to Cavafy—into the dustbin of the uninspiring. Out, too go the monuments of Christianity, and God himself, and even love. Well, maybe not love, or at least not all forms of love. Agape he can do without, but in the absence of so many sources of delirious exaltation, Verlaine leaves himself one: the realm of the erotic.
You'd be forgiven if you hadn't noticed. For one thing, the most explicit parts of Verlaine's erotic oeuvre were long repressed. Les Amies (1867), a little book of poems about fantasy lesbians luxuriating for the male gaze, was published illicitly in Belgium and smuggled into France. A later book, Femmes (1890), in which Verlaine recounts in great detail his encounters with Parisian prostitutes, was a similarly underground document, and its companion volume about men, Hombres (1891), wasn't published until after Verlaine died. The erotic poems have had a checkered publication history since: they didn't even find their way into the otherwise comprehensive and canonical Pléiade edition until a special supplement was issued in 1989. But once you dial into Paul Verlaine's particular erotic frequency—which was less about male or female bodies than about genderless surrender, less about penetrating or being penetrated than about a kind of soul-shattering act of submission, you find that his kind of erotic ecstasy had been hiding in plain sight since the beginning of his poetic career.
People used to argue about Verlaine's true sexual orientation—and why not? His conventional marriage, his volcanic affair with Rimbaud, his self-flagellating Catholic repentance, and the late flowering of his erotic poems give us plenty of material to work with. For a long time, even Verlaine's sympathetic critics tried to explain away anything homosexual, despite all the evidence to the contrary. In 1939 Francis Carco, for example, argued—perhaps with good intentions, though with dubious veracity and suspect sexual politics—that Verlaine was only gay when he was drunk. Some later readers have been prepared to dismiss Verlaine's marriage, and even the visits to female prostitutes, as less authentic than a truer, more underlying homoeroticism. But the active binary for Verlaine was never that of a male vs. a female object of desire, or even of a male vs. female concept of himself.
The opening stanza of "Resignation," the first poem of Verlaine's first book, invokes Heliogabalus, the young Roman Emperor who cross-dressed, painted his eyelids, and married several women and at least two men. Heliogabalus is the harbinger of a blending of the male and the female that occurs throughout Verlaine's work. In "Songs Forgotten" he yearns for a moment in which he and his love "weep on one another's breast" and "mingle, as sister-souls:" an intimacy predicated on the erasure of his masculinity. Verlaine imagines a similarly emasculated yet eroticized persona in "Ballade Sappho":
My gentle hand, a lover's hand, a mistress's,Glides and smiles its way across the festivalOf your skin. Such pleasure in your pleasure.You know my hand was meant to serve you.You know I must unclothe your splendorTo send it with a new art's skillful strokesInto rapture, then more rapture.I am like great Sappho.
He serves her pleasure not as a man, or at least not strictly so. Someone who knows more about gender theory than I could unlock the puzzle-box of Verlaine's gender performance here, but for me it reads as a feminized, if not exactly feminine, presence—one on which he clearly gets off.
No, the active binary in Paul Verlaine's erotic imagination was never male vs. female. It was, if anything, dominant vs. submissive, and there was never any doubt on which side of that line he...