The Crossing Over of Paul Verlaine
by ENID STARKIE
One day Paul Verlaine at the end of his tether, broke away, feeling that he could not endure the torture any longer. After a quarrel - not more violent than the others, but merely the futile culmination of much previous irritation - he walked out of the house, without any luggage and without saying where he was going. At his cross-examination in Brussels Arthur Rimbaud stated that Verlaine had become angry because he had reproached him with being lazy and treating badly some of their friends.
Later in life Verlaine gave his friends a different account of the quarrel. He had gone out shopping, he said, and was returning with a salted herring in one hand and a bottle of salad oil in the other, when Rimbaud, who had been waiting for him and looking out the window, began to roar with laughter as he saw him arrive. Then, when he came into their room, he said to him, "If you only knew how fucking silly you look with that herring in your hand!"
Without another word Verlaine left the house, abandoning Rimbaud alone and without money in London. When the latter finally realized Verlaine had really gone he fell into a state of great distress and bitterly regretted the conduct which had goaded his friend too far. He must have guessed what Verlaine intended to do - perhaps he had frequently threatened it - for he went to London Docks and arrived breathless at the quayside just as the gangway was being hoisted on the Antwerp boat, and he made excited signs to his friend who was standing on deck, to leave the boat and to come and join him. Verlaine, however, only shook his head and looked away. When the boat had left and nothing further could be gained by waiting, he went home to his lodgings in a state of great distress.
On board the boat which was taking him to Antwerp Verlaine wrote to his wife informing her that he had left Rimbaud for ever and that if she did not come to him to Brussels he intended to blow his brains out. Mathilde, however, did not receive this letter until five years later, for all communications from her husband were intercepted by her father and not allowed to reach her.
In the meantime, Rimbaud, alone in the dingy lodging-house room, composed the letter to Verlaine which some critics have considered mere play-acting and which cynics have said was written for purely mercenary motives. Fair-minded readers will, however, feel the sincerity of the distress and Rimbaud's regret at having goaded his friend too far. They will also see in it an interesting psychological document for the understanding of the emotional relationship existing between the two.
Come back! Come back! dearest friend. My only friend come back! I swear to you that I shall henceforth be kind! If I was nasty to you it was all a joke, a joke in which I persisted. I am more sorry than I can ever say! Come back and everything will be forgotten! How unfortunate that you should have taken that joke seriously! For two days I have been doing nothing but weeping! Be brave! Nothing is lost! You have only got to cross over again and we shall live together bravely and patiently. I implore you! It's in your own interest as well! Come back and you will find all your things here! I hope you realize that there was nothing really in our quarrel! That awful moment! But you, when I beckoned to you to leave the boat, why didn't you come? Have we lived together for two years to come to such a pass? What will you do now? If you don't want to come back here, would you like me to join you wherever you are?
Yes, I know it was I who was in the wrong! Do answer at once! Are we no longer to live happily together? Be brave and answer quickly. I can't remain here much longer. Only follow the feelings of your heart. Quick! Tell me if I am to go to you. Yours for all life.
P.S. If I can't see you again I shall enlist in the army or the navy. Oh! Come back! At all hours of the day I weep! Tell me to come to you and I'll come! Tell me! Wire to me immediately.
The letter shows traces in the handwriting of having been composed under intense nervous excitement and in the state of mental instability. There are, also, visible traces on the paper of what must have been tears.
In the meantime Verlaine's state of exaltation had fallen and he began to regret what he had done. From the boat that was bearing him to Antwerp, he wrote to Rimbaud a letter that is typical of his habit of self-dramatization and his power of self-deception.
I don't know whether you will still be in London when this reaches you. I want, however, to tell you that must absolutely understand that I had to leave, that I damn well couldn't stand any longer the violent life we have been leading lately, full of scenes and quarrels, with no other cause than your warped temper. Only, as I love you greatly I want to tell you that if at the end of three days I'm not reconciled with my wife, in perfect amity, I'm going to blow my brains out. This will explain to you my meaning of this afternoon. You must forgive me! If, which is very likely, I'm obliged to perform this last pitiable act, I shall, at least, do it bravely. My last thought will be for you, for you who were beckoning to me, this afternoon, from the quayside, when I wouldn't go back, because it's necessary I should die. Nevertheless! I embrace you before I die.
Rimbaud's feelings of remorse and regret evaporated on receiving this letter. He felt that here was once more the same old Verlaine from whom nothing could ever be expected, in whom there was nothing solid and stable. The same old sentimental slush oozed up once more and he felt nauseated.
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Richard Hell on Rimbaud:
Of all poets, his writing is the most alive, even now and here, in another language more than a hundred years later. He learned very much from Baudelaire, and in many ways Baudelaire remains his master, but Baudelaire was a poet of ennui (and dreams), while Rimbaud reels with the most robust — if often contemptuous — vitality (and dreams). This is a function of his peasant, punkish ultra-confidence in the value of his pure (unegotistic) honesty, as an adolescent seeing through the adult hypocrisy and convention veiling the sensual, unsane world; a boy to whom language was understood as inextricable (to the seer) from reality, and who knew how to wield those words, existence itself. He didn’t have to try to translate his perceptions into language; he understood that he must see in language, and he saw with the supreme, paradoxically unformed, fluid ego of an adolescent. His honesty and insight never waned — he just grew up and lost interest in the unrewarding expression of the visions.