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Picture of Paul Verlaine, nineteenth century French poet and leader of the Symbolist movement

July 10, 1873
Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine
Verlaine & Rimbaud, Armed & Dangerous
by Steve King

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On this day in 1873 Paul Verlaine (pictured) shot Arthur Rimbaud in a Brussels hotel, wounding him in the wrist. Although not yet two years old, their relationship was in such sexual, emotional, financial and absinthe confusion that no specific motive seems relevant, but the Belgian courts were determined to convict Verlaine of assault, and gave him the maximum two-year sentence. Rimbaud's attempts to testify on Verlaine's behalf, and then to withdraw charges, were ignored; condemnations from Verlaine's jilted wife were entertained, as were political charges relayed from Paris. Given even greater sway was the report of the police doctors. This attested, in great anatomical detail, "that P. Verlaine bears on his person traces of habitual pederasty, both active and passive." The police reports on Rimbaud also suggest that, for reasons of rhyme or lifestyle, everyone would have been happier if the two poets had managed to kill each other:
    In morality and talent, this Raimbaud [sic], aged between 15 and 16, was and is a monster. He can construct poems like no one else, but his works are completely incomprehensible and repulsive....Verlaine had abandoned his wife with unparalleled glee; yet she is said to be very likeable and well-mannered. . . .

    A short while ago, Mme Verlaine went to look for her husband to try to bring him back. Verlaine retorted that it was too late, that they could not live together again and that in any case he was no longer his own man. "Married life is abhorrent to me," he cried. "We love each other like tigers!" And, so saying, he bared his chest in front of his wife. It was bruised and tattooed with knife wounds administered by his friend Raimbaud. . . . Discouraged, Mme Verlaine returned to Paris.
Though short and now over, the Verlaine-Rimbaud relationship was productive. While in prison, Verlaine completed and published Songs Without Words, a collection which didn't sell a single copy when first published in 1874, but was seen as revolutionary within a decade. Rimbaud published A Season in Hell, his only book, in the same year. Soon afterwards, he gave up on Europe and literature for the quieter life of gun-running in Africa; by the mid-1880s the French Decadents were hailing him as their "Messiah," and by the middle of the 20th century he was "the poet of revolt, and the greatest of them all" (Albert Camus). From the "Bad Blood" section of A Season in Hell:
    But orgies and the companionship of women were impossible for me. Not even a friend. I saw myself before an angry mob, facing a firing squad, weeping out sorrows they could not understand, and pardoning! -- like Joan of Arc! -- "Priests, professors and doctors, you are mistaken in delivering me into the hands of the law. I have never been one of you; I have never been a Christian; I belong to the race that sang on the scaffold; I do not understand your laws; I have no moral sense; I am a brute; you are making a mistake..."

    Yes, my eyes are closed to your light. I am an animal, a nigger. But I can be saved. You are fake niggers; maniacs, savages, misers, all of you. Businessman, you're a nigger; judge, you're a nigger; general, you're a nigger; emperor, old scratch-head, you're a nigger: you've drunk a liquor no one taxes, from Satan's still....

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Related authors:  Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud
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