The only thing that really defines a life is it’s funeral.
“I don’t know anything as jolly as a funeral” claimed Paul Verlaine in 1891. The French poet’s own interment, which took place on this day in 1896, was by all accounts a less than jolly affair. Nonetheless it offers a fascinating snapshot of fin-de-siècle French literary life where the beau monde and demi-monde mingled uneasily.
The public funeral drew around 5000 mourners on a cold, bright day and marked the exact point at which the hitherto disreputable Verlaine was rehabilitated by the bourgeoisie. A riotous affair with the younger poet Arthur Rimbaud and a drunken, dissolute later life spent with two mistresses; all was forgiven once his days were done.
Among the more distinguished mourners were esteemed composer Gabriel Fauré, who played the organ, as well as writers Maurice Barrès, Stéphane Mallarmé and Madame Rachilde. On the other hand, Yeats reports the presence of Verlaine’s mistress Eugénie Krantz (whom Harold Nicolson called “a woman of much squalor and some character”), quarrelling with a publisher over ownership of the sheet which had covered the poet’s body.
Two figures, above all, together symbolised the distinct worlds in which Verlaine moved: Bibi-la-Purée and Count Robert de Montesquiou. The shabby bohemian and the fastidious aesthete were as different as any two associates of Verlaine could be; indeed, Bibi’s biographer refers to him as “the anti-Montesquiou”. American poet Stuart Merrill reported that Montesquiou, a pall-bearer, objected to Bibi’s presence immediately behind the coffin, and he was removed. “But,” according to Merrill, “the poor devil had more right to be there than any of us.” If Yeats is to be believed, Bibi took revenge by stealing 14 umbrellas during the ceremony.
Later at the wake however, in the early hours of the morning, Bibi and the count were apparently getting on famously, the former even daring to address the latter with the familiar tu. Verlaine’s worlds had finally come together.
Paul Fort recorded the event in his poem”L’enterrement de Verlaine”; French chansonnier Georges Brassens thoughtfully set it to music for us in 1960. It goes a little something like this: