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Alcohol Fueled Romance Between Poets: Rimbaud and Verlaine

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Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine Meet

One of the strangest and most fascinating love affairs of poetry was between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Their romance was a wild vagabond poet affair, blurred with intoxication and emotional volatility.

Verlaine was married with a son on the way and living in Paris when he met Rimbaud in 1871. He was a well-known poet of the time and Rimbaud an admirer who began a letter correspondence. Eventually, Rimbaud came to Paris to stay with Verlaine’s family as a sort of apprentice.

Quickly, the two poets began a scandalous love affair and Verlaine left his wife and son for the young poet. Rimbaud was unlike any other poet of his time. He was brilliant and bold, writing symbolic and prose poetry the likes of which had never been imagined before.

Rimbaud was obsessed with the work of becoming the poet, becoming genius. In this obsession, he was dedicated to unorthodoxy and challenged all assumed ideas about decency. He was insolent to social and religious convention, making a point to act obnoxious and as unrestrained as possible. Verlaine was impressed, endeared, and fascinated by the young poet.

They drank heavily and abused drugs together, gallivanting around France and Europe on their bizarre adventures.

Alcohol and Opium

Absinthe was a popular spirit of the time in France, nicknamed the green fairy for its traditional green color and minor psychoactive properties. Rimbaud and Verlaine would binge drink absinthe often, inspiring a number of violent episodes.

Of course, it was not just Absinthe that they partook in, but also wine and other alcohols. In addition to their reckless consumption of alcohol, Rimbaud and Verlaine were also known to smoke hashish, a drug derived from cannabis, and opium together. Rimbaud was eager to push himself into the edges of experience, believing that it would allow him more insight in his work of writing.

Rimbaud seemed to drink and drug to become what he called a “seer” and deepen his experience with the unknown in order to be “born a poet” (as he wrote in a letter). Verlaine, on the other hand, was emotionally unstable and developed a severe dependence especially to alcohol.

Rimbaud’s Romanticized Alcohol and Drugs

Blaming his artistic endeavors and will to “reach the unknown,” Rimabud actively sought out dangerous, uncanny, and ultimately self-destructive activities in his effort. He would become one of the most revolutionary poets of his time, introducing unheard of formal and thematic aspects of poetry. The evolution in poetry he inspired would help open the door to modernism, but it would be a mistake to equate his influence and genius with his drunk and high escapades.

Rimbaud was a visionary long before he got caught up with alcohol and drugs. The idea of mind altering substance leading to brilliance, popular among artists, plays into very unhealthy ideas of being an artist. One Rimbaud’s most taught and discussed poems, “Le Dormeur du Val” (The Sleeper in the Valley), was written before he even met Verlaine. This is true for many of his most influential poems.

Verlaine’s Drunken Episodes of Violence

The damage of alcohol and drugs is more obvious in Verlaine’s narrative. He was prone to cruel, violent fits while drunk and often his wife and young son fell victim. He physically abused both of them often while drunk. Once, this incident is famous for its cruelty, he lit his wife’s hair on fire.

Verlaine also shot Rimbaud in the hand once with a gun, though it is unclear if his intentions were to harm or to kill. This put him in prison for a time.

Alcohol can cause us to do horrible things. Rimbaud also was violent—stabbing Verlaine in the wrist and the thigh on one disturbing, Absinthe-fueled night.

Drunken Escapades of Poet Lovers

Rimbaud and Verlaine traveled to the seaside in England to lead a fairly dismal and impoverished life. They also traveled together to Brussels. The nature of their affair was consistently fraught, always on and off again. Verlaine felt pulled between his exciting adventures with Rimbaud and the purity of his wife—both served as subjects in his poems.

Rimbaud was less of a romantic, however, and became disinterested in their vulgar vagabond days. After writing all of his poetry in a span of just five or so years, he became disinterested in poetry as well. Around this same time was Verlaine’s release from prison and the end of their affair.

Alcohol Abuse Leads to Death

Rimbaud died very young of cancer. Presumably, his abuse of alcohol and drugs was short lived and had little effects on his overall health. Verlaine also died fairly young, though, from the effects of long-term alcohol and drug abuse. He had continued along his path of dangerous drinking long after he and Rimbaud had parted.

The psychological and physical effects of alcohol abuse, especially over a long period of time, are irrefutable. Thousands of people die each year, just in the US, from alcohol abuse. It seems that Verlaine and Rimbaud were destined to die young, one way or another.

You don’t have to die young, though. If you are struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, there are plenty of resources out there for you. Call (877)670-8451 to get more information on treatment and resources for substance abuse and addiction.

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