This poem by Verlaine is in the main a description of walking through late 19th century Paris, when cities were a hubbub of noise, dirt, the mix of the old and the new, danger and discomfort, but also places of exhilaration, hope and achievement. Let’s walk with Verlaine in the boulevards of the city of light in the 1870s or 1880s…
Le bruit des cabarets, la fange des trottoirs
Le bruit des cabarets, la fange des trottoirs,
Les platanes déchus s’effeuillant dans l’air noir,
L’omnibus, ouragan de ferraille et de boues,
Qui grince, mal assis entre ses quatre roues,
Et roule ses yeux verts et rouges lentement,
Les ouvriers allant au club, tout en fumant
Leur brûle-gueule au nez des agents de police,
Toits qui dégouttent, murs suintants, pavé qui glisse,
Bitume défoncé, ruisseaux comblant l’égout,
Voilà ma route – avec le paradis au bout.
The first line plunges us into a world of disagreeable sensations – the noise coming out of the cabarets, presumably from drunken clients, the dirt on the pavements (probably a mix of horse manure and household rubbish). You can imagine the Parisian flaneur picking his way through these obstacles with his mind on higher things. Then we see and hear the omnibus, still horse-drawn presumably, creaking rustily as it goes through red lights and green lights. The workers going to the club, smoking under the eyes of the police (the 1870 Paris commune must have been fresh in the memory, hence the police keeping workers under surveillance). The sense of decay and rottenness from the dripping roofs, sweating walls and slippery cobblestones, and sewage running through open gutters in the street add to the picture of a sordidly dirty city, through which the poet must walk. I can easily imagine this as the daily experience of someone living in any of the big cities in the second half of the nineteenth century, yet for them it was normal, they knew no different. It took a poet like Verlaine to draw attention to all this, and yet, in the final line, we realise none of this matters – his walk is taking him to some paradise (perhaps a lover, perhaps a place of beauty or rest, perhaps to the end of his life – who knows), and the human spirit is triumphant over the superficial ugliness of daily life.
The Poetry Dude