These days, Paul Verlaine seems to be just as, if not more, well-remembered for his infatuation with teenage poetic prodigy Arthur Rimbaus, than for his own, more extensive poetic output. The relationship ended quite soon, and quite badly, with Verlaine shooting at Rimbaud, who then abandoned poetry and went off to trade in East Africa. However, setting aside this melodrama, Verlaine was a fine poet, and it is possible Rimbaud attached himself to the older man to learn more of the poet’s craft. This poem describes a dream in which the poet has a vision of love. Of course, as it is a dream much is vague and contradictory. The title suggests it is a recurring dream.
Mon rêve familier
Je fais souvent ce rêve étrange et pénétrant
D’une femme inconnue, et que j’aime, et qui m’aime,
Et qui n’est, chaque fois, ni tout à fait la même
Ni tout à fait une autre, et m’aime et me comprend.
Car elle me comprend, et mon coeur transparent
Pour elle seule, hélas! cesse d’être un problème
Pour elle seule, et les moiteurs de mon front blême,
Elle seule les sait rafraîchir, en pleurant.
Est-elle brune, blonde ou rousse? Je l’ignore.
Son nom? Je me souviens qu’il est doux et sonore,
Comme ceux des aimés que la vie exila.
Son regard est pareil au regard des statues,
Et, pour sa voix, lointaine, et calme, et grave, elle a
L’inflexion des voix chères qui se sont tues.
Paul Verlaine (Poèmes saturniens)
The dream-like paradox is captured in the second line, where the poet talks of an unknown woman, who he loves and who loves him. How can this be so? And she is never quite the same as the dream recurs, and never completely different. However, it is true love, as only she can understand him and comfort him when sad. Her name is unknown, even her hair colour is in doubt, but her look and her voice convey true love.
There is a mystery in this, as would be the case in a dream, but perhaps it is a true reflection of a type of ideal love, where appearance doesn’t matter, love finds its way even in the face of doubt and uncertainty.
For those who haven’t yet noticed, this is a sonnet, and Verlaine has clearly mastered the rules and constraints of this wonderful verse form. It demands clarity, succinctness and an absolute mastery of putting the right word in the right place. In my mind, Verlaine succeeds on all counts.
The Poetry Dude