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Verlaine's Verbal Sensation

Author(s): Russell S. King

Source: Studies in Philology, Vol. 72, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), pp. 226-236
Published by: University of North Carolina Press
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Studies in Philology.
Verlaine's Verbal Sensation

by RussellS. King

ECENT studies of Verlaine's impressionistic style have been

primarily "stylo-technical" rather than stylo-linguistic.
Such studies, including notably Octave Nadal's " L'Impres-
sionnisme Verlainien" and Alain Baudot's "Poesie et Musique
chez Verlaine," have taken as their point of departure Verlaine's
Art Po6tique.IIntent on examining the " musicality" of Verlaine's
poetry, they demonstrate the contribution of diverse technical
features including versification, uneven line-length, enjambement
and sound patterns. Valuable though these analyses are to an
understanding of Verlaine's poetic technique, they only in-
cidentally isolate and explain certain linguistic choices which
characterize Verlaine's impressionistic poetry. Jean-Pierre
Richard has described Verlaine's poetry as that of " le pur
sentir."2 Though most critics readily agree, they fail to amplify
this description by showing how sense and sensation in some
measure control linguistic choices and thereby become signifi-
cant structures within the language of the poem.
There is a close relationship between the nature of the senses
and the function of the verb within the sentence. Despite the
"names"0 of the five senses being nouns-sight, hearing, smell,
taste and touchin English and vue, ouie, odorat,gout and toucherin

I Octave Nadal, " L'Impressionnisme Verlainien," Mercurede France (May, I95 z),
pp. 59-74. Alain Baudot, "Poesie et Musique chez Verlaine," Etudes Franfaises
(February, I968), pp. 31-54. See also Maurice Got, "'Art Poetique': Verlaine et la
technique impressionniste," La Table Ronde, CLIX (March, I96I), pp. I28-36.
2 Jean-Pierre Richard,
"Fadeur de Verlaine," in Poesie et Profondeur(Paris, I95 5).
RussellS. King 227

French-they are in fact abstract, nominalized forms of their

equivalentverbs. Sensoryperceptionremainsan abstractconcept
until it is actualized through the verb, which links the "je"
or person experiencingthe sensation and the object which pro-
vokes it. Just as the verb links subject and object within the
sentence, so do the senses link the person and the world:

I smell the water.

This schemais useful too for demonstratingthe shifting focus of

the differentpoetic trends in nineteenth-centuryFrench poetry:

Romantic "je-moi" nouns and adjectives

Parnassian the object nouns and adjectives
Verlaine senses verbs and adverbs.

The object of this present essay is to examine the nature and

stylistic implications of the centralityof the verb in Verlaine's
poetry. Particularreferencewill be made to the poem, Le piano
que baise une mainfrele, in the Ariettes Oublidesof Romancessans
paroles, Verlaine's most characteristic and, probably, most
original collection of poems, though frequent mention will be
made of other characteristicpoems from the same collection,
Poemessaturniensand Sagesse.
Le piano que baise une main frele
Luit dans le soir rose et gris vaguement,
Tandis qu'avec un tres leger bruit d'aile
zz8 Verlaine'sVerbalSensation
Un air bien vieux, bien faible et bien charmant
Rode discret, epeure quasiment,
Par le boudoir, longtemps parfumed'Elle.
Qu'est-ce que c'est que ce berceau soudain
Qui lentement dorlote mon pauvre etre?
Que voudrais-tu de moi, doux chant badin?
Qu'as-tu voulu, fin refrainincertain
Qui vas tantot mourir vers la fenetre
Ouverte un peu sur le petit jardin?
The importance of the verb lies not only in the choices and its
frequency, but also, indirectly, in the consistent erosion of the
two other areas of focus, the person and the world. Therefore
the poem can be broken down in this way:

mon pauvre etre baise le piano

moi luit une main
rode le soir
epeure un bruit
parfume un air
dorlote le boudoir
voudrais Elle
as voulu ce berceau
vas mourir chant
ouverte refrain
la fen6tre
le jardin.
If the reader accepts, in a general manner, currently accepted
criteria for isolating the stylistic fact, he soon discovers that in
Verlaine's poetry the "deviations from the norm," the elements
which arrest the reader's attention, for the most part concern
RussellS. King 229

choices and forms of verbs. Certainlythe most arrestinglinguis-

tic features in Le piano que baise are precisely the choices of
Le piano que baise une main ...
un air ... rode .. . par le boudoir ...
un air ... ipeur6 quasiment...
ce berceau ... qui lentement dorlotemon pauvre etre.
refrain incertain qui vas tantot mourir...

Part of the "surprise" of these verbs lies in their metaphoric

value as personification. The human presence is therefore
introduced not directly through nouns and pronouns as much
as through sensations and feeling implied by the verbs. It is
precisely these verbal choices which underlinethe sense experi-
ence: touch in the "hand kissingthe piano," sight in the "piano
shiningvaguely," sound in the "tune prowlingthrough the
boudoir," and smell in the "boudoir for long perfumedby Her."
It would appear that the importance of the verb is further
enhancedby the unusual (in poetry) frequency of adverbs:
luit vaguement
rode discret
epeure quasiment
tant6t mourir
ouverte un peu

In one way these adverbsserve a similarfunction to the adjectives

pale and incertainin contributing to the imprecision
like vaague,
and suggestiveness of the linguistic reference. But also they
extend the size and importance of the verbal unit, as opposed
to the nominal and phrasalelements of the poem. Moreover the
verb, along with certain adverbs of time, permits the mingling
of tenses, and therefore a blurring of past, present and future.
In this poem there is a mingling or interplay among all
230 Verlaine'sVerbalSensation

un air bien vieux baise que voudrais-tu

longtemps parfumed'Elle luit qui vas tantot mourir.
Q2u'as-tu voulu rode

This imprecisionin time, the merging of present sensationwith

hazy memory of the past does not however detract from the
significanceof the verbs which communicatethese notions, but
further underlines their central function in Verlaine's impres-
sionistic style.
Verlaine's preference for verbs as the central medium for
conveying feeling and sensation is frequently illustrated by
arrestingchoices and forms, for example,the pun in
Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville,

or displacementand choice in
Dans l'herbe noire
Les Kobolds vont.
Le vent profond
Pleure, on veut croire.
Quoi donc se sent?
L'avoine si4e.
Un buisson gifle
L'oeil au passant. (Charleroi)
Elsewhere, verbs tend to be reflexiveor intransitive:
Le son du cor s'afligevers les bois ...
La bise se ruea travers ...
Mon coeur qui s'6coeure ...
Ou se dorloteun paysage lent.
La cloche . .. doucement tinte.

The effectof these reflexiveand intransitiveforms is to make the

verb less like a linking verb between two other more important
RussellS. King 231
units (subjectand object of the sentenceor clause)and to make it
the principalpoint of focus.
Much of the poet's skill is expendedon the use of verbalforms.
In addition to unusual choices and reflexives, he had some
predilectionfor unusual past participialforms:
automne atti6di
une ame en all/e
au vent crispe
une aube affaiblie
vile gothique iteinte
Such participlesserve, like adjectivesand adverbs,to modify and
obscure. But becauseof their strangeform and choice they divert
attention in some measure from the noun to which they are
attached to themselves. They signify the feeling or sensation
which is the poet's principalconcern: not the autumn itself but
the feeling of warmth,not the dawn but its pale light. It would
appearthen that there is a fusion of what may well have been the
poet's skill in manipulatingverbs effectively and expressively,
and the function of the verb as the significantconveyor of feeling
and sensation.


In Le piano que baisethe "subject" is referred to explicitly

on only two occasions-mon pauvreetre and moi-and cannot
possibly be considered the centralpoint of focus. No informa-
tion is provided as to his nature or identity, nor is he present
in the first two tercets, although it is clearlyhe who seesand hears
the piano in the pale evening light.
The "dissolution" and concealmentof the poet's identity and
presence are illustratedin two characteristicways in this poem.
The "je-moi," when it does occur, is expressed in an oblique
case, rather than in the more active nominative case. J.-P.
Richardemphasizesthe poet's passivityand examinesthe tension
between the person "qui accueille la sensation" and the thing
"qui la produit." Despite the number of poems which begin
232 Verlaine's Verbal Sensation
with the nominative " je," like Je devine,a traversun murmureand
J'aipeur d'un baiser,the usual pattern is to suggest a landscape, to
introduce sound, and this reinforcement of the senses of sight
and hearing induces a state of reverie in which there is a fusion
of the external world and interior feeling and sensation. The
poet does not appear to perceive active6i, but receives passively
through the senses. He is like the autumn leaf in Chanson
d'automne. This pattern of sight-sound-reverie is illustrated in
Soleils couchants:
Une aube affaiblic
Verse par les champs
La melancolie
Des soleils couchants.
La melancolie
Berce de doux chants
Mon coeur qui s'oublie.

Here, as in Le piano que baise, where the poet uses monpauvre

dtreinstead of me, moncoeuris used to achieve a kind of expressive
but metonymic distancing, which further diminishes the pres-
ence of the person. In these two poems the reader is not aware
of an active personality merely using a landscape as a means of
conveying personal melancholy; rather, a special landscape sub-
sumes a passive, almost absent person.
The second device illustrated by Le piano in dissolving the
clear identity of the subject is the use of questions. The poem
concludes with a sequence of three questions:
Qu'est-ce que c'est que ce berceau...?
Que voudrais-tu ...?
Qu'as-tu voulu ...?

They are rhetorical only in that no answer is provided or ex-

pected, but they do not presuppose a particular reply. In this
way the poet avoids providing answers of fact and information-
though, in Le piano, a link between the poet's past and the tune
he now hears is obviously implied. Many of Verlaine's most
RussellS. King 233

celebrated poems contain, or conclude with, similar non-

Quelle est cette langueur
Qui penetre mon coeur?
0 bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits ! (Il pleure dans mon coeur)
Qu'as-tu fait, 6 toi que voila
Pleurant sans cesse,
Dis, qu'as-tu fait, toi que voila,
De ta jeunesse ? (Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit)

These two examplesboth imply that thereis some past reasonfor

the present state of melancholy. But psychological, explanatory
detail is suggested without being elaborated, thereby keeping
the focus on the present mood ratherthan the past cause.
It is preciselyin this aspect of causalitythat Verlaine's poetry
differsmost from that of his romantic predecessors. Simply by
suggesting, often through unanswered questions, that there
exists a reason for his present mood, but by refusing to give
detail, the poet places the emphasis on effect. Thus, in these
two following examples,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure. (Chansond'automne)

I1 pleure sans raison

Dans ce coeur qui s'ecoeure.
Quoi! nulle trahison?
Ce deuil est sans raison. (Iipleure dans mon coeur)

the romantic poet would either have provided a "picture" of

the past or would have attemptedto fill in some of the facts or
experiencesfrom the past contributingto the present. Thus, for
the romantic poet, poetry becomes a vehicle for projecting his
own identity. A more detailed analysis of past experience and
present emotion, with a greater emphasis on causality and
psychology, inevitably contributes to a fuller portrayal of the
subject's identity. But Verlaine resolutely rejects the romantic
234 Verlaine's Verbal Sensation
pattern and focus. The subject's identity is concealed behind the
effect rather than the cause, for, it would seem, causality-which
implies logic, intelligence and facts-would provide those
precise details which would allow a more "real" recognizable
personality to emerge.
Yet another way in which the subject's identity is obscured
is through a shift in language registers. Le piano reflects this
shift less clearly than a poem like La bise se rue (in Sagesse):
after the description of the landscape, the introduction of
"sound," the language abruptly becomes more familiar and
humorous. This is surprising, for it coincides with the first
explicit appearance of the subject. One might expect the tone
to be more serious, befitting the feeling of despair and hope. In
Lepiano the three questions expressed in a more familiar language
with little that is unusual in the lexical choices-with the excep-
tion of fin refrain incertain and doux chant badin-introduce a
certain verbal playfulness. Humor, unlike irony, always serves
to divert attention away from the person.


In Le piano the outside world appears to play a more significant

part than the " je-moi" of the poet. But Verlaine is not a realist
or a Parnassian. Alain Baudot has rightly drawn a distinction
between the early "representative" poetry of Verlaine and the
later "suggestive" less visible, less tangible world.
Verlaine achieves what he describes as "imprecision" of the
contours in his Art Poltique through the use of adjectives. Al-
most all the nouns are qualified, not to provide more precise
detail, but to blur the edges and make the object less clear:
une main frIle
le soir rose etgris
un tres leger bruit d'aile
un air bien vieux, bienfaible et bien charmant
fin refrain incertain
le petit jardin.
Russell S. King 235
Many such adjectives occur in the bulk of Verlaine's impression-
istic poetry (pale, blRme,blafard, vague, delicat, etrange, inconnu)
which serve to erode the outlines and modify the precise contour.
In Le piano the only two nouns that are not closely qualified by
adjectives are le piano at the beginning and verslafen6tre near the
end. But, even here, the piano is "blurred" by the adverb
vaguementmodifying the verb. Likewise, in the second instance,
the eye focuses not on the window itself, but on some less deter-
mined area "in the direction of the window."
There is yet another manner in which the sharp outline is
blurred. This relates more to the function of the senses. It has
already been suggested that a frequent pattern in Verlaine's
poetry is to progress from something seen to something heard,
and, with the consequent interaction and fusion of the two
senses, to a vague state of reverie and reminiscence. This
pattern is seen in Le piano: in the first two lines the words (the
piano, a hand, shining, and the color of the light) contribute to
the picture that is seen. The seenpiano then becomes something
less tangible, a heardtune: un air bien vieux, a doux chant badin, a
fin refrainincertain. Indeed, one of the reasons for the importance
of music for the poet seems to be precisely that it is some vague
emanation from the real world which comes to "cradle" or
"soothe" the poet. Interestingly, the same pattern of sight,
sound and reverie is apparent in almost all the most celebrated
" musical" poems of Verlaine: Soleils couchants,l pleure dans mon
coeur,Le ciel est, par-dessusle toit, and La bise se rue a travers.
It is impossible to determine whether this "dissolution" of
the subject and object, of personal identity and representation of
the real world, causes, or results from, the enhanced function
of the verb in Verlaine's poetic universe. Just as the verb cannot
exist without subject and (usually) object, so sensation cannot
exist without a person receiving it and a world or object pro-
ducing it. However, for the verb and sensation to predominate,
subject and object, that is, person and world, must be modified,
reduced, blurred, and sometimes even suspended. Verlaine's
poetic universe is not the romantic vehicle for projecting his own
236 Verlaine's Verbal Sensation
self and identity, nor is it the Parnassian re-creation in words of
the precise physical, visible world; rather, it occupies a vague,
indeterminate space somewhere between the two. Verlaine's
poetry of sensation seeks to recreate, largely through the verb,
that territory between the romantic "je" and the Parnassian
" chose."

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