Paul Verlaine is usually mentioned in the same heady breath as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. Or, put another way, Verlaine is considered one of the greatest French poets of 19th century. Like another great talent in the France of the 1800’s—Vincent van Gogh—his artistry would not be fully appreciated until after his death. In the case of van Gogh, his mental illness was a contributing factor to both his genius and his lack of commercial success in his own time. The same may well be true of Verlaine, but there is a momentous difference. Paul Verlaine did his artistic standing among his contemporaries no good at all by capping his notorious dissolute lifestyle by shooting what would become his main rival as the premier poet of his day: Arthur Rimbaud.
Time heals and—even better for Verlaine—with that passage of time has come a general acceptance that artists have to be a little crazy. It should come as no surprise then that the elevation of Verlaine to a status much higher after death than he enjoyed while alive can be attributed in no small part to the 20th century aesthete of living fast, dying young and leaving behind the image of a rebel who refused to play by the rules. Musicians have always tended to be big fans Verlaine because he is in many ways the epitome of the rock star lifestyle.
More than that, however, is that Verlaine is among the most musical of poets. He recognized this talent, of course, and immortalized it in perhaps the most famous opening line of any poem he ever composed: “Music above everything else.” From that instruction in “L’Art poétique” Verlaine has enjoyed greater popular success than his former rivals. While Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé have risen in critical esteem as a result of what is viewed as a lack of depth in Verlaine’s verse which can no longer be denied, Verlaine remains the great 19th century poet of rock and roll.