Bede and Verlaine

I just stumbled across Verlaine’s Bonheur, which he described as part of a Catholic triptych. He wrote it in the late 1880s and early 1890s, finishing the manuscript in January 1891. Poem 28 is in the form of an epanaleptic elegy, like Bede’s Hymn to Aethelthryth, modified into an ABABA rhyme. The first line matches the last. Here are the first two stanzas:

Les plus belles voix
De la Confrérie
Célèbrant le mois
Heureux de Marie.
O les douces voix!

Monsiuer le Curé
L’a dit à la Messe:
C’est le mois sacré.
Écoutons sans cesse
Monsieur le Curé.

I’m struck by how tenacious is the poetic form. Not only does the form allude to Latin elegies of the Church, but it also requires the poet to repeat a phrase in different contexts—which is a practice in prayer. Repetition in slightly different contexts allows the poet to restore a reader’s wandering imagination to a fixed narrative while serially enlarging the semantic force of the narrative. So we meet fairly cliché images: voices of monastery, a curate saying Mass. But slight variation and addition of phrases moves our imagination from topic to topic, connotation to connotation, and thereby gives fuller character to otherwise dry words. Verlaine focuses our attention first on superlative beauty, a characteristic we then apply to voices. We follow those voices to a confraternity. The verb célèbrant is in the plural, which places an image of celebration in our minds, but does not assign it to the singular confrérie. Instead, it is the beautiful voices that celebrate.

Next we greet the singular mois ‘month’, which until the /s/ at the end of the line leaves us in suspense, wondering if will end moine ‘monk’. The masculine mois is set in parallel with the previous line’s feminine Confrérie, indicating in part the capaciousness of the community, like a month that contains many days. A natural caesura at the end of the third line interrupts the semantic flow of the Noun + Adjective (mois heureux). This pause sets the initial words of line 3 and 4 in apposition: celebrate and joyful. And now, a bit of genius! Verlaine wraps a singular masculine phrase (le mois hereux) with two singular feminine nouns, confrérie and Marie. Here, one is reminded of Bede’s description of Caedmon’s monastery at Whitby where a community of men is ruled by a woman, Hild, and the Wisdom of God—in Latin, Wisdom is feminine.

After the celebratory kernel, we finish the wrapping with a transformed choir of voices. At first the most beautiful, now, transformed through their celebration of Mary, they are gentle and sweet. Similar transformation will take place with the mois ‘month’ which begins joyfully, then transforms in the second stanza to sacred, sacré.

This is a poem of nine stanzas. The number is not insignificant, as it is the number of months Christ was in the womb, the number of months it takes for the physical body to gain its spiritual soul, and perhaps the number of stanzas it takes for a reader suffused with the physical beauty of Verlaine’s verse to achieve a spiritual understanding.

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