A Serious Absinthe Drinker

by James on May 27, 2010

“I take sugar with it” seems an innocuous enough remark but to Paul-Marie Verlaine, the French poet and granddaddy of absinthe drinkers this was more this was more like “a sort of war-cry” as one contemporary dryly remarked. When Verlaine was on absinthe there was often mayhem and destruction, for absinthe raised all the devils that plagued him. Towards the end of his life he was a sorry fellow who had strangers buy absinthe for him in return for recounting tales of his Bohemian debauchery.

It is certainly true that Verlaine was a troubled soul; not surprisingly so, after being raised in a house which contained the pickled foetuses of his mother’s many miscarriages! Verlaine was also sexually adventurous, and, like Oscar Wilde, was imprisoned for homosexuality.

Verlaine’s equivalent of Bosie was the anarchic French poet Arthur Rimbaud, with whom he rampaged across Europe drunk on absinthe. Verlaine later lamented their care-free lifestyle, noting the unfortunate loss of some of Rimbaud’s ingenious verse:

“That dastardly Rimbaud and I flogged them along with lots of other things to pay for absinthes and cigars,” he admitted.

Although Verlaine’s poetry is a clear testament to his incredible talent, there was another Paul Verlaine. It was the Verlaine that set fire to his wife’s hair, he who threatened his elderly mother with a knife, and he who ended his days in drunken squalor in the company of his bizarre secretary, Bibi-la-Purre, a mad figure with an outlandish bouquet of flowers in his tatty, but once grand, overcoat and a battered top hat.

Whether absinthe was Verlaine’s destruction or his muse is open to question. The answer is probably both. As Verlaine said, “Moi, ma gloire n’est qu’une humble absinthe ephemere,” or My glory is only a humble ephemeral absinthe.

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