Verlaine and Rimbaud: Poets from hell

The London home of Verlaine and Rimbaud, the enfants terribles of French poetry, is up for sale. A landmark of literary hedonism may be lost, says Christina Patterson
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He lived in a squalid loft in a seedy part of town. He was often drunk, drugged and violent. He abused his friends, but relied on them to bail him out. Baby-faced and fiercely talented, this lyricist of love and death had a cult following and an angelic smile. "I know these passions and disasters too well," wrote Arthur Rimbaud in 1873, "the rages, the debauches, the madness."

When he wrote those words, the great French poet was living in a house in Camden Town. The terraced house is still there, though in a dilapidated state and in an area that can only be described as bleak. Beside the front door there is a simple plaque: "The French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud lived here May-July 1873". The words can't begin to do justice to the slice of turbulent history that lies behind those walls. Since the house is currently on the market, it is a history that is in danger of being lost.

Arthur Rimbaud first met Paul Verlaine in 1871. Rimbaud was 17, Verlaine 27. Both were brilliant, volatile and utterly committed to the quest for the new, in art and life. Rimbaud was a young poet in search of a patron. Verlaine was a young poet in search of distraction - not least from his miserable marriage to Mathilde, whom he regularly hit. Verlaine's brother-in-law described Rimbaud as "a vile, vicious, disgusting, smutty little schoolboy", but Verlaine found him an "exquisite creature". He didn't seem to mind that Rimbaud rarely washed, left turds under one friend's pillow, and put sulphuric acid in the drink of another; not to mention that he hacked at his wrists with a penknife and stabbed him in the thigh. But by then, he was in love. The two of them ran off to Brussels and then London.

Rimbaud was "delighted and astonished" by London. Verlaine was overwhelmed by the "incessant railways on splendid cast-iron bridges" and the "brutal, loud-mouthed people in the streets", but inspired by the "interminable docks. The city was, he wrote, "prudish, but with every vice on offer", and, "permanently sozzled, despite ridiculous bills on drunkenness". The two poets were often sozzled, too: on ale, gin and absinthe. Rimbaud's extraordinary sonnet "Voyelles" (Vowels), which gained an instant cult following, was clearly inspired by his experiments with "the Green Fairy".

At other times, their drinking was less productive. They fought like cats, sometimes with knives rolled in towels. "As soon as mutilation had been achieved," according to Rimbaud's biographer Graham Robb,"they put the knives away and went to the pub."

Their relationship ended with a slap in the face with a wet fish. When Verlaine came home one day with a fish and a bottle of oil, Rimbaud sniggered. Furious at being mocked, Verlaine whacked him with the fish, then stormed off to Brussels and threatened suicide. After pawning his lover's clothes, Rimbaud followed him and, in a Brussels hotel, they had their final row. With the gun he'd planned to kill himself with, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the arm. He was jailed for two years.

Throughout this time, however, both poets were producing work that would earn them a place in world literature. Verlaine wrote much of his Romances sans paroles; Rimbaud wrote many of the poems in Illuminations. Hailed as a masterpiece of modernism, the latter included the extraordinary polyphonic prose poem, "Une saison en enfer" (A Season in Hell).

These were clearly not pieces tossed off in the pub. Rimbaud would spend hours polishing his lines in the British Library. He was, according to Robb, "ferociously self-disciplined". He may have smashed rooms up, but this was, Robb tells me, "partly a way of smashing the image that he was supposed to have. He came from the provinces and so was patronised by the Parisian poets. He never really did become a Parisian. And that is why it would be much more fitting to have a Rimbaud house in London than in Paris".

For Lisa Appignanesi, one of a number of writers spearheading a campaign to save the Camden house, "it would be wonderful to insert their presence on to the London literary map, and to have a historical site that also thinks about the values of transgression". Rimbaud and Verlaine, she explains, "were both transgressive writers who influenced not only modernism but also the young for many generations, including the world of rock and pop". Indeed. Picasso, André Breton, Jean Cocteau, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison have all named Rimbaud as an influence. And Patti Smith talks of her debt to the writer she dubbed "the first punk poet". Her song "Land: Horses/ Land of a Thousand Dances/ La Mer (de)" even coined the verb "to go Rimbaud".

Even Pete Doherty, who has claimed Baudelaire as an influence, seems to share some of Rimbaud's proclivities. Like Rimbaud, he was a brilliant pupil who published poems as a teenager. And like Rimbaud, he's seems keen on opiates and blades, even writing poems in his own blood. But, for the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, "there's something rather self-conscious in Doherty's attempts to conform to the Rimbaud model. It's all so attention-seeking".

Julian Barnes, who is also involved in the campaign to preserve the house, included quotations from Rimbaud and Verlaine in Metroland, his first novel. Part One has an epigraph from Rimbaud's "Voyelles". Part Two has one from Verlaine: "Moi qui ai connu Rimbaud, je sais qu'il se foutait pas mal si 'A' était rouge ou vert. Il le voyait comme ça, mais c'est tout." ("I who knew Rimbaud, know that he really didn't give a damn whether 'A' was red or green. He saw it like that, but that's all.")

"Rimbaud's 'Voyelles'," says Barnes, "is about how you see life at 18. The Verlaine quote is about how realism kicks in." It is, in other words, about growing up. Pete Doherty, take note.

Graham Robb's 'Rimbaud' is published by Picador. For details of the campaign to save 8 Royal College Street, contact gerry.harrison@camden.gov.uk

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