On Translating Verlaine’s Prose


  • Richard Hibbitt


It is probably safe to say that the French poet Paul Verlaine (1844–1896) is not known as a writer of prose. In fact, it may come as a surprise to learn that there is enough material extant for a Pléiade volume entitled Œuvres en prose complètes, edited by Jacques Borel and published in 1972. These writings span from 1867 to 1895 and are divided into the following sections: Œuvres d’imagination; Œuvres autobiographiques; Œuvres critiques; Œuvres polémiques; Voyages; an appendix containing a translation from Byron; the contents of Verlaine’s notebook; and some pieces written in English, including the enjoyable ‘My Visit to London’ (published in The Savoy, April 1896). Many of these pieces can be classified as travel writing or autobiographical sketches; there is also a fair number of critical articles, prefaces, and reviews, although Verlaine was not as prolific a reviewer as many of his contemporaries. The best-known pieces are Les Poètes maudits, Verlaine’s six short articles on different nineteenth-century poets, including himself. As for what we would today call creative writing, or short fiction, many pieces are brief character sketches of one or two pages; others can be categorized as short contes or longer nouvelles. Although some of these appeared during his lifetime, most were published for the first time in Œuvres posthumes (1903). What is striking is how conventional these texts often seem – usually narrated in either the first or third person and in the past tense, with setting, character, dialogue, and plot all present and correct. One might think perhaps of Guy de Maupassant as a touchstone. It would also be easy to believe that these works were by one of many writers who wrote for the myriad newspapers and journals at a time when print was the hegemonic mass medium.