They’re two famous figures in the annals of French poetry, and yet one: Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud.
Verlaine was older: an unhappily married man, a poet of renown, an established if erratic figure in the literary firmament. Rimbaud was much younger (he was 8 when Verlaine got his bachelor’s degree, and he was only 17 when the two of them met, on Rimbaud’s initiative and at Verlaine’s urging, in Paris in 1871), a meteoric genius astonishing the world of French poetry from the moment Verlaine introduced him to it.
The narrative of their tempestuous relationship yields to a series of unsatisfying climaxes: Rimbaud’s scandalous assertions of Verlaine’s sexual passivity; their squalid living situations (some variation of ‘squalor’ clings to every contemporary account of Rimbaud –a noteworthy though noxious distinction in the malodorous setting of 19th-century France); their titanic drinking bouts; their wanderings; Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the wrist, getting arrested and imprisoned for 18 months for that act (and a quasi-medical determination of his homosexuality), finding God and the Catholic faith, getting released, and immediately returning to Paris to moon after the boy who caused his imprisonment; Rimbaud eventually drifting to Ethiopia, turning his back forever on poetry, living as a trader until his bitter, disappointed (and, of course, squalid) return to France, dying six years before Verlaine, who would remain loyal to his erstwhile lover’s reputation (and the money it could bring in) and even try his hand at writing a Rimbaud biography.
It’s not a properly satisfying Victorian double-narrative; Balzac would have tidied it up quite a bit and no doubt provided at least some kind of appeasing ending. Instead, what do we have? A poet of great talent is already three-quarters bad at living his life; he meets and falls in love with a much younger poet of genius, eventually tries to kill him, and never stops weeping about any of it. The younger poet survives his wounding but walks away from poetry altogether, leading for nearly twenty years a life that not only has nothing to do with the arts but that can’t in any way be twisted into a metaphor for them. He dies, and a little while later the older poet dies too. Nothing is learned by either man even though both manage to regret everything they ever did, separately or together. They meet, they destroy each other’s lives almost accidentally, then they part. C’est tout?
Of course the element missing from such a summary is the only essential part of it all: the poetry. Throughout all these sordid goings-on, both Verlaine and Rimbaud were writing some of the finest French verse ever crafted. That is the thing that separates them from the innumerable garret-dwellers whose antics are identical to theirs. That is why we have many editions of their collected works, and that is why every season will have its new Rimbaud biography.
The one by American novelist Edmund White now appears in the series of ‘brief lives’ commissioned by James Atlas under the imprint Atlas & Co. White’s double status as a writer and a homosexual seems calculated to prompt at least some comparisons with Rimbaud (or Verlaine, for related but interestingly different reasons, as we shall see), and he deals with these comparisons early in the book, in an introductory chapter of startling honesty and immediacy. White is as unassuming an author as Rimbaud was an arrogant one, but they share a certain quality of garrulous charm:
… as a desperate, self-hating homosexual, as an aspiring writer, as a sissy-rebel. I, too, wanted to reach out to the older writers in New York and have them extend a welcoming hand, as Verlaine had welcomed an unknown Rimbaud (and sent him the money for a train ticket to Paris). I, too, wanted to escape the ennui of my petit-bourgeois world, and to embrace bohemia. I, too, wanted to forego years of apprenticeship and shoot to the artistic top as a prodigy, not a drudge. I, too, wanted to make men leave their wives and run off with me. ...