The Papyrus, January 1908
Ah! the mystery of the human soul! the mystery of human personality! The mystery of evil! The mystery of rapture! The mystery of dreams that sound their trumpet calls to the greater beatitudes, and the mystery of the impish voices in the blood that call men to dust and the gutter!
Paul Verlaine, with the seven mystic stars of poetic beatification in his hair and his feet stuck deep in the garbage of earth; Paul Verlaine gnawed by the rats of desire at the same time his soul was being fed by the white doves with the lilies in their mouths that fly out of the ethereal firmaments woven of the souls of dead poets and the opalescent and violet dreams of mystic aspirants—he, with his multiple nature and his badly knitted souls living in the pit of awkward flesh, was the representative of humanity; in his turbulent life showing us the shame of us and the glory of us.
He was a lascivious pietist, a saint of the gutters, a mutilated god, a rent and tattered Shelley, a Villon who wore his purple cloak to tatters, a piping young god from Olympus that Chance decreed should be a spittle-shirted hanger-on at Parisian café tables, a split-shoe who came out from his lair in the wine-cellar to maunder through his immortal dreams, wrought in perfect words, for the delectation of a visitor who thrust him a franc for his pains. The scurrility of Fame!
Like Villon and Dowson and Poe, he was a born vagabond. He wore no halter, he had no instinct for place, he was a rubber ball in the hands of Circumstance. Vagabondage is the return to primitive conditions of mankind. Of old we roved to consume; poets, in this elder age of the world, rove to produce. New and vivid sensations are always needed to feed the ideas that gestate in the wombs of their imaginations. They are rolling stones that gather moss, the tramps that transmute the mire under their feet into star-dust, the wayside loungers who, with that thaumaturgy which is their own secret, pluck roses from weed-stems.
Verlaine’s mind was sensuous. It is not hard for a psychologist to fathom the evident relation of sex to religion, the heavenly liaisons of the saints, the alcoholic houris and the carnal passions that expand to angelic unions in the minds of poets like Verlaine, Rossetti, and Swinburne.
In these men—in Verlaine especially, the aesthetic impulse (which is the highly evolved sex-impulse, the translation and apotheosis of passion) lapped at the shores of strange worlds, melancholy, remote, peopled by exquisite, impossible women who still wore their flesh about them and walked the devious ways of earthly passion.
The mysticism of Verlaine, like the mysticism of all poets of the sensuous, was impressionistic. His moods were things. His dreams, erotic, tender, philosophic, created the world in which he lived, as alcohol or morphine will construct an empire of fancy that realizes itself in consciousness with a hundredfold greater vividness than the objects of the external world, because the objects of the external world lose in power in passing through the sense to the brain, while dreams—poetic evocations especially—blossom at the very sources of consciousness, speak directly to the soul, spurning the lying diplomacy of the senses.
Impressionistic, too, to the last degree, was the world that surrounded Verlaine. The chairs, the tables, the parks, the women, the stars came to that brain transfigured in the golden or gray raiment of his mood. They were wan and shadowy spectres that murmured strange things down the alleys of his senses, purged by the inner poetic touch.
There fell upon Verlaine the tragic mood, when he cloaked the world in black, when the days struck off nocturnes in his brain and he seemed to cry “Enough.”
There fell upon him the mood when life is seen as merely an itch, a humor on the bronzed face of a sphinx-like eternity, a troubled shadow moving over a level, waveless sea.
He made his record of things with a kind of exquisite melancholia, divining their transitoriness, their ghostly, ephemeral quality. So the fountains sobbed in their white bowls and the golden sun-birds wept their lays in the blue heights as if they were aware of their nothingness and that they were only moods in a poet’s brain—as, in turn, that poet’s brain was only a mood of the World-Spirit.
Benjamin De Casseres.