Rimbaud and Verlaine: France is worried about having unearthed gay poets

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Par Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

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legendArthur Rimbaud was depicted in this painting by Jef Rosman in his bed after Verlaine slightly injured him

President Emmanuel Macron is under pressure to strike a blow at sexual diversity by ordering the “pantheonization” – the burial in the national mausoleum in Paris – of two of France’s most beloved poets, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine.

A petition signed by 10 former ministers of culture, as well as a long list of artists and intellectuals, claims that the two poets – who had an intense but ultimately violent affair in the early 1870s – “were symbols diversity ”.

They suffered from the harsh homophobia of their time. These are the French Oscar Wildes.

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legendPaul Verlaine is currently buried in a cemetery off the Paris ring road

“It is a simple question of justice to bring them jointly into the Pantheon alongside other great literary figures such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Dumas, Hugo and Malraux”, we read in the petition.

The current Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot, while not signing the petition, nevertheless declared that she agreed. “Bringing these two poets and lovers into the Pantheon would have a meaning that is not only historical and literary, but deeply relevant today,” she said.

Arguments for and against the displacement of poets

The call, however, sparked an angry backlash, with opponents claiming that poets were victims of a 21st-century cultural empowerment, and that absolutely nothing in their lives or work suggests being suitable for a patriotic Valhalla. .

Rimbaud and Verlaine are certainly among the most revered French poets – and it is also true that of the 75 inhabitants of the Pantheon, none are there for poetry. Victor Hugo was transferred for his political feat.

Proponents say there are both literary and moral reasons for their re-burial.

Not only “their genius has fed our literary and poetic imagination for more than a century”, but also their current graves – in Charleville, Lorraine for Rimbaud, in a cemetery off the Paris ring road for Verlaine – are “unworthy”.

There is also the homophobic persecution that Verlaine mostly had to endure.

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legendThe revolver Verlaine used to try to kill her lover was auctioned off in 2016

The poets’ relationship ended in 1873 when Verlaine drew a gun and slightly injured Rimbaud in Brussels.

Rimbaud refused to press charges, but the Belgian police continued anyway and their report was heavily biased by their disgust for the poets’ relationship.

Verlaine spent a year and a half in prison.

Arthur Rimbaud: October 20, 1854 – November 10, 1891

The French Culture Minister says she sometimes arrives at cabinet meetings with Rimbaud’s 1871 poem, The Drunken Boat, crossing her head.

As I walked down the impassive rivers, I no longer felt guided by the carriers

The Redskins on Yelp had taken them as targets, and had nailed them naked to colorful stakes

Paul Verlaine: March 30, 1844 – January 8, 1896

The lines from Verlaine’s Chanson d’automne were used to warn the French Resistance of the imminent Allied landings in Normandy during World War II.

Les sanglots longs / Des violins / The long sighs of autumn’s violins

Wound my heart in a monotonous languor

Society “takes its revenge”

But opponents of the pantheonization say it would poke fun at what poets actually stood for – which was certainly not membership in the French establishment. Rather, it was freedom, rebellion and the refusal to bow down to the cultural zeitgeist.

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legendMore than 120 years after Rimbaud’s death, letters are still sent to this letterbox in the cemetery where he is buried

“Everything in their life, everything in their work shows them turning their backs on society,” writer Étienne de Montety told French newspaper Le Figaro. “They were passionate about freedom, to the point of making transgression an art. “

“By feeling the light, today’s society is taking its revenge. With the help of academia and government, she tries to co-opt them. “

Others pointed out that supporting the homeland was not exactly the strong point of poets.

In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Rimbaud even declared that he would rejoice in a Prussian victory. And of the Pantheon itself, the poet once said that it was an “official acropolis that takes modern barbarism to new extremes.”

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