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Ars Poetica

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for Charles Morice

Music first and foremost! In your verse,
Choose those meters odd of syllable,
Supple in the air, vague, flexible,
Free of pounding beat, heavy or terse.
Choose the words you use—now right, now wrong—
With abandon: when the poet’s vision
Couples the Precise with Imprecision,
Best the giddy shadows of his song:
Eyes veiled, hidden, dark with mystery,
Sunshine trembling in the noonday glare,
Starlight, in the tepid autumn air,
Shimmering in night-blue filigree!
For Nuance, not Color absolute,
Is your goal; subtle and shaded hue!
Nuance! It alone is what lets you
Marry dream to dream, and horn to flute!
Shun all cruel and ruthless Railleries;
Hurtful Quip, lewd Laughter, that appall
Heaven, Azure-eyed, to tears; and all
Garlic-stench scullery recipes!
Take vain Eloquence and wring its neck!
Best you keep your Rhyme sober and sound,
Lest it wander, reinless and unbound—
How far? Who can say?—if not in check!
Rhyme! Who will its infamies revile?
What deaf child, what Black of little wit
Forged with worthless bauble, fashioned it
False and hollow-sounding to the file?
Music first and foremost, and forever!
Let your verse be what goes soaring, sighing,
Set free, fleeing from the soul gone flying
Off to other skies and loves, wherever.
Let your verse be aimless chance, delighting
In good-omened fortune, sprinkled over
Dawn’s wind, bristling scents of mint, thyme, clover . . .
All the rest is nothing more than writing.

Paul Verlaine, "Ars Poetica" from One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine: A Bilingual Edition, translated by Norman R. Shapiro. Copyright © 1999 by Norman R. Shapiro.  Reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
Source: One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine: A Bilingual Edition (The University of Chicago Press, 1999)
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Ars Poetica

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  • Although he was known as “the Master” to his friends and admirers by the time of his death in 1896, French poet Paul Verlaine endured a rocky relationship with the public during his life. Verlaine's literary reputation declined in his final years—in part because of his scandalous behavior—even as he was identified as a major influence on the burgeoning symbolist movement. Verlaine was also one of the models for the Decadent movement that began in the 1870s. As much as for his literary reputation, however, Paul Verlaine’s fame rests on his stormy personal relationship with the poet Arthur Rimbaud.

    Born in northern France on 30 March 1844, Verlaine was the son of Nicolas Verlaine, a captain in the army, and Stéphanie Dehée, the daughter of a farmer from Arras. Nicolas Verlaine was cold and authoritarian by nature, but Stéphanie Dehée was devoted to her son, who was born...

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