In September 1872, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud arrived in London. The 28-year old Verlaine had just eloped with the 17-year old boy genius, deserting both his young family and polite (Parisian, literary) society in the process. The myth of their coupling is a sort of prototype for the Oscar Wilde/Bosie double act of twenty years later; except that the two Frenchmen were equally talented, as well as equally desperate. Rimbaud had sent some poems to Verlaine, an established poet, who was duly impressed and invited the promising newcomer to visit him in Paris; Verlaine was not expecting to meet a provincial, teenage thug. Young Arthur’s behaviour in the City of Light sounds like something from a scatological farce, whether he was assaulting a noted portrait photographer with a sword-stick or merely wanking into his landlord’s cup of milk. For his part, Verlaine fell in love. After an abortive trip to Belgium, where Verlaine dodged his wife and his mother-in-law who were pursuing him with entreaties, the poets ran away to London: exiles in a city ‘as black as a crow and as noisy as a duck’.
At this time, London had distinct advantages for Frenchmen who had become undesirables at home. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Paris commune the previous year, London – and Soho in particular – was a haven for those of a revolutionary turn of mind and there was a vigorous ‘communard’ presence amongst the expatriate French population. After Verlaine renewed his acquaintance with other refugees from Paris, the pair took a room recently vacated by a radical French journalist, sentenced to death in absentia, at 34 Howland Street, W1, in the neighbourhood that became known as Fitzrovia. (The street still exists but only as a 20th and 21st century entity.) At first, they had issues with London’s food, its suspicious policemen, its booze (warm beer, gin like ‘concentrated sewage water’) and even its barmaids. But it seems that they grew to like the city; they grew accustomed to strange beverages such as porter and pale ale, they found congenial pubs (including the Duke of York off the Gray’s Inn Road) and both found ‘Laun’deun’ to be a great source of material. Rimbaud wrote some of his visionary Illuminations in London, including the great prose-poem Metropolitan, its title irresistibly suggestive of that impossibly futuristic transport facility, the Metropolitan line. Rimbaud was especially fascinated by the city’s docks, by the exoticism of the sailors and their merchandise, their languages, and the two men traipsed all over town, including excursions to distant suburbs such as Kew and Woolwich. They loved the theatres (especially the almost mythical Alhambra in Leicester Square, touchstone for a later generation of bohemians) and popular entertainments, as well as the Reading Room of the British Museum. In some ways their pride in their ‘outsider’ status in the great city anticipates another doomed gay couple: Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, who lived, worked and died together in a small room in Islington in the 1960s.
But it was not to last. They were both heavy drinkers and prone to febrile bursts of temper; in one poem Rimbaud characterized Verlaine as a ‘satanic doctor’ whilst the older man was, inevitably, tormented by scorched earth of his past life, the wreck of his reputation and the abandonment of his wife and infant son. Also, whether they knew it or not, anonymous reports on their activities as possible seditionaries made their way back to the Prefecture de police in Paris. One summer afternoon Verlaine returned to their new digs on College Street, Camden, and proudly showed the young prodigy the fish he’d bought for their lunch. Rimbaud was lolling on a sunlit window sill and languidly commented ‘You’ve no idea what a cunt you look with that fish’. (Or words to that effect; it probably sounded more resonant in French.) Things went downhill after that. Verlaine promptly packed his bags and took a ferry from Dover, ignoring his young lover waving frantically from the quayside. Letters and recriminations followed, Rimbaud traveled to Brussels, where Verlaine and his mother were staying , and a drunken argument between the great men of literature ended up with Rimbaud hit in the wrist by a shot from Verlaine’s pistol. Verlaine was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. Paul and Arthur called it a day after that. (At least they ended it before they ended up dead, Orton/Halliwell style.)
Rimbaud was back in London for a brief spell a year or so later, but shortly afterwards he left Europe for a shadowy existence smuggling guns and – just possibly – slaves in Africa. He had long since abandoned poetry. Verlaine left it another twenty years before he returned to the city, this time as the guest of Arthur Symons, who had just published The Decadent Movement in Literature, which included Verlaine in its roll call of essential practitioners, to give a lecture at Barnard’s Inn, Holborn. The trip was a success; Verlaine renewed his acquaintance with the likes of Oscar Wilde, met his young British admirers at The Crown, the Decadents’ hangout of choice on the Charing Cross Road, and made a nostalgic visit to the Alhambra, muttering to Symons that all of his misfortunes dated to a meeting with a woman he’d met coming out of there twenty years before. (All his misfortunes?)
As for no. 34, Howland Street, it was flattened by the General Post Office in the 1930s. The entire street was subsumed by 20th century development and, in 1961, the tallest building in London for nearly 300 years (it was taller than St Paul’s), The Post Office Tower, was built on the corner of Howland Street and Cleveland Street: the very spot where Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud had lived. Intended as a communications hub in the event of a nuclear attack, advances in communication technology and the end of the Cold War have left the Tower as no more than a quaint relic, a symbol of futuristic thinking in a nation determined to look backwards. But perhaps it might best be seen as a fittingly phallic monument for the two gay pioneers whose elopement it inadvertently memorializes; it’s just a shame they’ve closed the bar at the top.
I am indebted to Charles Nichol’s biography of Rimbaud Somebody Else, and also to Antony Clayton’s excellent overview Decadent London.