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The Review - FEATURES

Paul Verlaine

Arthur Rimbaud

The house in Royal College Street which Rimbaud shared with Verlaine

Gerry Harrison is a Labour councillor for Camden

Chasing Rimbaud through our streets

French literary giants Rimbaud and Verlaine carried out their intense love affair in north London and we should honour their presence, writes Gerry Harrison

WHO would have thought that in Camden there once lived in 1873 two great French poets, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, whose output it can be argued laid the foundation of modern art and modernism?
It is Rimbaud’s prose-poem, ‘Les Illuminations’, written at the age of 19 and 20 and even perhaps in part at No 8 Great College Street, now Royal College Street, that is seen to be an ancestor of other more often cited examples of ground-breaking modernistic works such as those of Picasso in painting, Stravinsky in music, Joyce in novels, TS Eliot in poetry and a few years later Bunuel in cinema.
The influence of Rimbaud and Verlaine also entered the music scene of the 1960s when Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Patti Smith and others acknowledged this. In his album Blood on the Tracks, Dylan writes “Situations have ended sad/Relationships have all been bad/Mine have been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud./But there’s no way I can compare/All those scenes to this affair/Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go”.
Dylan’s lyric gives a brief summary of the volatile relationship between the two poets.
The reputation of Rimbaud and Verlaine in France is perhaps equivalent to that of Wordsworth and Coleridge in Britain.
However the French tend to award their artists greater respect than here, but English Heritage has already agreed to the installation of a Blue Plaque.
But who were these two characters? This was not their first home in London. A previous one in Howland Street was demolished to make way for the Telecom Tower.
In France, the older Verlaine had been captivated by Rimbaud’s charm and rebellious demeanour enough to leave his family.
He ‘eloped’, as he put it, with the talented 17-year-old to London in 1872. The younger man was the archetypal ‘enfant terrible’, but one whose extraordinary literary output ended only a few years later.
They enjoyed London, finding it superior to Paris. This was then a city of émigrés and political refugees, and it is recorded that they attend meetings in Soho at which Karl Marx spoke.
At Great College Street, overlooking the new railway through Agar Town to St Pancras Station, they spent some months during the summer of 1873.
Later that year Rimbaud’s ‘Une Saison en Enfer’ (A Season in Hell) was published, which, like his prose-poem ‘Les Illuminations’, published in 1886, did much to change the shape of European literature.
Whether the gin and hashish of Camden Town was adequate or not, they enjoyed a life of hovels and general decadence, but their love affair was now unhappily descending into argument and violence.
An event took place here that had a crucial impact on their relationship. One July morning Rimbaud spotted his partner returning from Camden market. In one hand was a fish and in the other a bottle of olive oil. Verlaine has recorded that Rimbaud ridiculed his appearance, and in his rage, which was notorious and perhaps exacerbated by a hangover, he retaliated by swiping his partner across the face with the fish.
He then stormed off, reached St Katherine’s Dock and took the first boat which was to Belgium. Rimbaud pawned whatever clothes and possessions Verlaine had left behind, and followed Verlaine to Belgium a week later. Verlaine had already written to him, threatening to blow his brains out.
Their row continued in Brussels, where Verlaine drunkenly shot his lover, injuring him in the left wrist. The police were called and Verlaine was finally convicted. He was to spend nearly two years in prison.
This separation meant that Rimbaud had to carve out his own life, which in its continuing vagabond way led him to remote parts of the world.
As a merchant in Abyssinia, whose businesses included gun running, he became ill, and after a leg amputation he died in Marseille in 1891, at the age of 37. Out of prison and having survived even more colourful experiences, Paul Verlaine died in Paris five years later.
Camden contains many institutions with an international reputation. Number 8 Royal College Street is one, but it is not yet properly recognised.
This is a building listed Grade II by English Heritage and on its Building-at-Risk register.
It is not owned by the council but Camden does have some responsibility and can threaten enforcement action. The owner, the Royal Veterinary College, has now decided to sell Nos 6, 8 and 10 as a package.
Rimbaud and Verlaine in Camden Town will not be forgotten, but I hope that one day I may cycle past and see their home refurbished, with No 8t Royal College Street proudly displaying its Blue Plaque.
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