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Friday, June 10, 2011

Number 182: Paul Verlaine "Claire De Lune"

Like most of Verlaine's poetry, it's short so I've given you a few translations:

Claire De Lune

Your soul is as a moonlit landscape fair,
Peopled with maskers delicate and dim,
That play on lutes and dance and have an air
Of being sad in their fantastic trim.

The while they celebrate in minor strain
Triumphant love, effective enterprise,
They have an air of knowing all is vain,—
And through the quiet moonlight their songs rise,

The melancholy moonlight, sweet and lone,
That makes to dream the birds upon the tree,
And in their polished basins of white stone
The fountains tall to sob with ecstasy.

--Paul Verlaine
Translated by Gertrude Hall

Claire De Lune

Your soul is the choicest of countries
Where charming maskers, masked shepherdesses,
Go playing their lutes and dancing, yet gently
Sad beneath fantastic disguises.

While they sing in a minor key
Of all-conquering love and careless fortune,
They seem to mistrust their own fantasy
And their song melts away in the light of the moon,

In the quiet moonlight, lovely and sad,
That makes the birds dream in the trees, all
The tall water-jets sob with ecstasies,
The slender water-jets rising from marble.

-- Paul Verlaine
Translated by A.S. Kline


Your soul is a select landscape

Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go

Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.

All sing in a minor key

Of victorious love and the opportune life,

They do not seem to believe in their happiness

And their song mingles with the moonlight,

With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,

That sets the birds dreaming in the trees

And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,

The tall slender fountains among marble statues.

--Paul Verlaine
Translated by Chris Routledge

Hap Notes: Are we really gonna tackle Verlaine (1844-1896) on a Friday? Well, sure. He's the easiest of the French Symbolists to understand and this is a pretty famous poem seeing as how it's been set to music or inspired music by Faure', Debussy, Ferre' and Poldowski just to name a few. Bob Dylan mentions him, too. Verlaine's sensuous descriptions inspire music.

In point of fact Verlaine is all about the sound, feel and colors of words and his poems are written in the moment, deeply felt, passionate and often wistful or sorrowful or besotted with love and beauty. If you are just learning French, he is a good choice for reading and translating and if you ever go to France and can recite some Verlaine, ooh la la, mes amis.

Verlaine's life is that scary and cautionary tale one always hears about the dangers of absinthe, a green liquor that had properties much like liquid marijuana in the late 1800s. It's a delicious licorice/anise flavored herbal drink that is no longer made to induce the high that Verlaine and his compadres got from it. Verlaine is the guy who called it "the green fairy."

Verlaine was born in Metz and started writing poetry early, his first poem was published when he was 19. Verlaine seems to have been two people trapped in one body. One of the people, let's call him V1, had a civil service job, fell in love, married, and had a child.

The other person in Verlaine, V2, got a letter from a young poet, Arthur Rimbaud, whom Verlaine , 27, thought talented and at least a man of 30 years old. Rimbaud was handsome, wild and 17. Verlaine's passionate and tumultuous affair with Rimbaud was ecstatic and degrading. Rimbaud disturbed the Verlaine household and encouraged the ultra-sensitive Verlaine to live a life of debauchery and alcohol. Verlaine didn't need much persuasion.

Verlaine left his wife and son and bummed around with Rimbaud. They went to England and things just kept deteriorating. It ended after a year or so, with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud, injuring the young poet's wrist. Rimbaud pressed charges, mostly out of concern for Verlaine's mental state, and Verlaine went to jail.

While in jail, Verlaine read voraciously, Shakespeare and Cervantes etc. etc. and wrote like a madman. He converted to Catholicism (V1) and wrote letters to Rimbaud (V2). Rimbaud said that when Verlaine got out of prison and visited him in Germany, he had, after plying him with drink, shattered most of the commandments. Okay, Rimbaud's actual words were "he made the 98 wounds of Christ bleed again." They were a romantic, passionate, wild and rather vile couple, all in all.

Verlaine was probably inspired and encouraged by Rimbaud's youthful genius but he sank into the life of V2- the drunken, dirty, beggar/poet who lived the rest of his life in slums and public hospitals, always still writing and remembering. Rimbaud, whose poetry is often called genius, became a merchant and never wrote another word after the age of 21.

Verlaine was in a bad way towards the end of his life but the French love artists and poets and a small pension was arranged for him. He was even given the title of "Prince of Poets" an unofficial title honored by French poets. He succeeded Leconte' de Lisle and preceded Mallarme' in the position. Verlaine died at 51.

Rimbaud wanted to break the frames of standard poetry and he saw that Verlaine's talent was in the impression rather than the facts. Verlaine's work is tied up with Rimbaud like smoke is tied to fire. Verlaine wanted to use language like music and memory like paint. He generally succeeds in this.

In today's poem, we see the results of Verlaine's ultra-sensitivity. His poems are generally short and loaded with moonlight, love, loss, fragrance and signifiers like puppets, masks, statues and clowns. There is nobody who writes with more wistful longing. It is not hard to imagine masked dancing people who do not seem to believe in their happiness, is it?

Here is David Oistrakh playing Debussy's Verlaine inspired piece Claire De Lune. That's almost assuredly a Stradivarius he's playing. While it was originally intended for piano, this really captures the "feel" of the Verlaine:

Here is the original French version of the poem. Remember that Verlaine wanted the words to feel and sound appropriate to the mood so the French adds yet another dimension.

Clair de lune

Votre âme est un paysage choisi

Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques

Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi

Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur

L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune,

Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur

Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,

Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres

Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,

Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

-- Paul Verlaine

Here's a good Verlaine quote:

"The poet is a madman lost in adventure."

You can find more Verlaine here:

The masthead picture is Verlaine in 1892, seated with pens, paper, hat, cane and absinthe.


  1. Claire is a female name
    The Title is Clair de Lune

  2. Dear Hap, I'm writing a paper on the subjective connections between this poem and Debussy's music, and the things you have said about Verlaine here would be wonderfully useful for me. Thing is, I need to provide sources, and as much as I'd love to just cite your blog, I doubt my professors would approve of that... I'd need things such as books or articles. Do you know of any good books on Verlaine? I don't need something too great, as I'll focus on the music and the poem, only writing about the authors and Symbolism to contextualize the pieces. Could you recommend me something?