On 25 October 1873, Verlaine was moved to Mons prison. He had already spent time in the Petits Carmes in Brussels and had to finish his sentence in Hainaut’s capital. After yet another argument, the poet had shot at the young Rimbaud, with whom he had been having a turbulent affair. Rimbaud was only slightly injured, but the justice system, tired of all the couple’s escapades, was not going to let the poet off lightly.
A tormented soul
What was going through Verlaine’s mind when he came to Mons? How did he feel about his incarceration?What about his fellow inmates? Did they know that they were living with one of the greatest poets of all times?What strikes me about Verlaine is the poignant melancholy with which he describes everything that he experiences. I can still remember the first lines of Chanson d'automne or Autumn song:“The long sobs of the violins of autumn wound my heart with a monotonous languor”. When I learnt this poem at school, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which life could affect the work of an artist or a poet like Verlaine. And yet... When he wrote his Poèmes Saturniens, which included the Chanson d'automne, Verlaine was just 22 years old. He had not yet met Mathilde, his wife, or Rimbaud. And yet he was already a tormented soul.
A turning point
Was there a “before” and “after” Mons?The answer seems clear. You don’t come out of prison unscathed. For Verlaine, his time in Mons would mark a real turning point in his work. The critics are unanimous on the subject. In cell 252, the poet would meditate and write. He was let off any work, and he was given everything he needed to write. He fought his inner demons by turning to God. Jesus became a master whom he followed. He converted, tried to re-establish his relationship with his family and wrote some wonderful poems that can be mainly found in three collections:“Sagesse”, “Jadis et naguère”and “Parallèlement”.
The best of castles
When he left Mons prison on 16 January 1875, Verlaine was completely alone. Mathilde wouldn’t forgive his escapades. And yet the poet did not have bad memories of Mons:“I once lived in the best of castles. In the finest land of white water and hills. Four towers rose up from its four-winged front. And one was my residence for long long days…”He only returned much later to give a series of talks. The poet’s demons caught up with him, and he found it hard to get his words straight. Despite all the glory, he was penniless. Eaten away by alcohol, he was regularly hospitalised. He died, worn out, in 1896, from pulmonary congestion. He was just 51 years old.