Obsessing as so many are on the small niceties of American politics—i.e., the final confrontation between the forces of light and darkness on which all of humanity’s future depends—let us spare a moment’s thought for a couple of obscure French poets and their fate. (The poets themselves are not obscure, but their work often is, and deliberately so.) The poets are Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, and the fate that they, or their remains—or if you are a romantic, as they were, their ghosts—face is whether they should be moved into the position of the highest imaginable honor in their country, or whether they would be better honored by being deprived of the honor.
The place to which their remains might be moved is the Pantheon, in the Fifth Arrondissement of Paris. Built in the late eighteenth century as a domed church modelled on, though much larger and significantly less shapely than, the ancient Pantheon in Rome, it was transformed during the Revolution into a kind of mausoleum for the great figures of France, an Académie Française for the glorious deceased. Voltaire, Zola, and Marie Curie are all interred there. Its purpose is a bit like that of the Poet’s Corner, in Westminster Abbey—to honor the culturally magnificent. (America has no real equivalent.) Well worth a visit for its interior’s gloomy grandeur, the Pantheon is a beautiful climb up the steep streets of the Fifth, its entrance directly opposite a hotel with the best name of any in the world, the Hôtel des Grands Hommes—presumably, you have to establish your cultural significance before they give you your room key.
Rimbaud’s remains are currently interred in the provinces, and Verlaine’s elsewhere in Paris; the controversy over moving them derives from the still-resonant scandal attached to their lives. Bob Dylan, in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” from his 1975 album, “Blood on the Tracks,” compared his love life to Verlaine and Rimbaud’s, and he didn’t mean it as a cheerful domestic reference. Their story, memorialized in countless retellings (including a not-entirely-terrible movie from 1995, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis) is familiar to every student of modern Western literature. In the golden artistic decade of the eighteen-seventies, while the Impressionists remade art, Rimbaud, then a precocious sixteen-year-old provincial kid, sent his verse to Verlaine, a decade older and a rising, if avant-garde, poet. Verlaine was taken with the poems and even more so with the youth, when he arrived in Paris, where Verlaine lived in semi-bourgeois comfort with his wife and children.
The two men plunged into an illicit love affair, fuelled by absinthe and opium, which became the very model of French amour fou—the crazy love that, as a practice and a fascination, dominated the avant-garde poetic imagination from Symbolism to Surrealism and beyond. It eventually led them to the two standard sites of French exile: London, first, and then Brussels. In Brussels, Verlaine, in the midst of an inebriated lover’s quarrel, fired a revolver at Rimbaud, wounding him in the wrist. Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison for criminal assault, assumed to be aggravated by homosexuality. While there, he converted to Catholicism.
Rimbaud, still only twenty, gave up literature for a career as, among other things, an arms dealer in, among other places, Abyssinia, from where rumors of his continued existence occasionally made their way to France. He died at the age of thirty-seven. A decade ago, a photograph thought to be of Rimbaud was discovered in a flea market; it was apparently taken in Aden when he was twenty-five, and it is seemingly the only adult photograph of the man who changed French poetry. (There’s an unforgettable image of him as a devastatingly beautiful youth, alongside Verlaine, in Henri Fantin-Latour’s great group portrait “By the Table,” from 1872.)
He and Verlaine both changed poetry, in ways that continue to affect it in our own time. Dylan’s mention of them was not mere name-dropping. By the testimony of Dylan’s mentor Dave Van Ronk, it was a paperback copy of modern French verse, heavy with underlining—which a fresh-from-Minnesota Dylan took down from Van Ronk’s bookshelf, on Macdougal Street, in 1960—that provided the impetus for that poet’s own stream of imagery. Rimbaud’s “A Season In Hell” gave the idea that poetry should be, first of all, a journey into extreme experience, evidenced not by a coherent evocation of a story but by subversive images and sensual evocations that subvert logic and language itself. (Dylan’s great songs from “Blonde on Blonde”—“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Visions of Johanna”—are straight applications of Rimbaud’s symbolist methods to popular music.)
Dylan aside, no poetic practice, or poets’ lives, have been more influential. Rimbaud is the exemplar of the mad youth, the poete maudit, that runs right to Kurt Cobain, and also the model of the mysterious disappearance, which touches legends as different as those of Ambrose Bierce and Jack Black. (Not the actor Jack Black, but the California vagabond whose memoir has the best title in American literature, “You Can’t Win,” and who disappeared, in New York, in the nineteen-thirties.) Verlaine, in turn, is the modern model of the sublime-if-not-quite-comprehensible poet, his verse forms streaming into those of everyone from Mallarmé to Wallace Stevens.
The move to bring Rimbaud and Verlaine together in the Pantheon began last year, when several writers—some gay, some French, and at least one of them American—launched a petition. Soon reinforced by nine French former ministers of culture—and, eventually, President Emmanuel Macron’s current culture minister, Roselyne Bachelot—the appeal of the petition was that the inclusion of Verlaine and Rimbaud would both increase the “diversity” of those honored in the Pantheon and put an end to its implicit homophobia. It began, “Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine are two major poets of our language. They enriched our heritage with their genius. They are two symbols of diversity. They had to endure the implacable homophobia of their time. They are the French Oscar Wildes.”
These conceptions turned out to be poisoned chalices, placing the appeal outside the main currents of French culture. The call for diversity rang in suspiciously American tones, while the comparison to Oscar Wilde, a great wit but hardly a great poet, seemed to reduce the originality of the true French poetic kind. French snobbery met the ethic of French subversive art. The reaction was instant, voluble, and negative—on several fronts. The right-wing newspaper Le Figaro, reported that Rimbaud’s great-grand-niece, with the vestiges of bourgeois stuffiness still astonishingly strong, disapproved of the idea, ironically, because it made too much of his brief connection to Verlaine. “Rimbaud did not start his life with Verlaine and did not end it with him, these are just a few years of his youth,” she sniffed, rather overlooking the point that those few years are the only reason we remember him now.
The left-wing Libération published an attack on the proposed move under the headline “Verlaine Et Rimbaud: trop sauvages pour le Panthéon”—too wild for the Pantheon. A counter-petition against the interment was launched in the center-left Le Monde, on the same ground: that it would honor two damned poets with too much bliss. With maximum French rhetorical inversion, the original petitioners then returned to say that “it is not that we act, in our eyes, to institutionalize Rimbaud and Verlaine; it is to deinstitutionalize the Pantheon . . . . The secular and republican temple should be a ‘multiplier’ of progress.” Meanwhile, writing in La Règle du jeu, a literary magazine founded by Bernard-Henri Lévy, the writer Pascal Basqué objected that placing the poets in the Pantheon would reduce them to another happy couple: it is hard, and wrong, to honor crazy love in a sane space.
The final dispensation of the mens’ remains is still in dispute, and other events and tragedies, above all the unspeakable decapitation of the teacher Samuel Paty, have taken its place at the center of French cultural argument. But we might still ask what we, across the sea and mostly cut off from Parisian culture, make of it. Surely, the first irony is most self-evident: while we are tearing down statues and dismantling old memorials, in order to rectify old wrongs, the French impulse is to reject the act of memorializing itself as inadequate to our memories. To honor Rimbaud or Verlaine as though they were safely conventional figures, as ornaments of official culture, is to deny the relevance of their example.
At a deeper level, the argument reminds us that the battle between the bourgeois and the bohemian has an edge in France that we can scarcely understand in America. The “bourgeois” in France is, if not an actual social class, an actual cultural force, or assumed to be one: a force of order, property, and regularity governing even the manners of love affairs. To be bohemian is not merely to turn that order on its head but to reject it altogether, to turn one’s back on any structure of property or approval or order, and to accept love and art in their inherently unmanageable forms. In America, we admire an audacious voyage that is at last steered safely into port—the voyage of Dylan himself, beribboned and academicized, is of this kind. In France, the dream is still of the voyage out, sails unfurled, on a roiling wave amid a permanent tempest. We are not at all surprised to see yesterday’s avant-garde artist turned into today’s acknowledged master. In France, even a century later, to see those who had the audacity to dare turned into an image of those who had the shrewdness to submit feels like a defeat. (The honored avant-garde may live very bourgeois lives in France, but they would prefer not to be seen that way.)
Well, the pragmatic American imagination demands, would Verlaine and Rimbaud have wanted the honor? Here one can answer only with a pragmatic American “Uh, yes and no.” No, because Rimbaud himself once called the Pantheon an “official acropolis which takes modern barbarity to new extremes.” But, yes, because writers always fear the annihilation of time, so anything that secures their words from the corrosive salt of the passing ages is positive. People of action may have to endure memorials; men and women of acts should be honored by the traces that they have left on the page. We place them in the Pantheon—indeed, we kick them right up into a mansion on Parnassus—when we take down from the shelf our own (heavily underlined) paperback copy of their verse, and read.