Poets and Lovers: Do Rimbaud and Verlaine Belong in France’s Panthéon?
PARIS – “For the great men a grateful home” reads the inscription above the column entrance of the Panthéon, France’s famous hero’s grave, in which the remains of idols such as Hugo, Curie and Rousseau are kept.
A petition calling on President Emmanuel Macron to anchor 19th-century poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, whose sexual relationship scandalized their contemporaries, leads to arguments about diversity, inclusion, national pride and the meaning of “great”.
The poets have a well-deserved reputation for transgressive behavior as well as verse. Verlaine left his wife and baby to pursue the affair that may have started before Rimbaud turned 17. They abused opium and alcohol, and Rimbaud was notoriously rude, raw, and even violent. When their relationship broke down, Verlaine shot and wounded his lover, for whom he spent 18 months in prison.
Supporters argue that official recognition of literary merits is long overdue and that joint acceptance into the Panthéon would send a strong message against homophobia. Thousands of people have signed the petition calling the poets “the French Oscar Wildes”, including Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot and some of her predecessors, as well as the writer Annie Ernaux and the fashion designer Agnès B.
“Rimbaud has a rightful place as an anti-establishment figure because France accepts and even values dissent, blasphemy and criticism,” said Frédéric Martel, journalist and author of “The Pink and the Black, Gays in France since 1968”. Who organized the petition?
But the idea has met with fierce opposition from unequal quarters. Some opponents have argued openly against homosexuals. But more say that other factors make the poets unsuitable as national icons, or that the petition reduces them to their affair and overshadows their work.
In a column in Le Monde, Dominique de Villepin, a former Prime Minister, wrote that honoring writers would impose “an identity memory” on them that contradicts the universalist values of France.
Others claim Verlaine and Rimbaud despised the establishment’s seal of approval. Etienne Montety, an editor of Le Figaro, called it “too free for the Panthéon”.
The cutting edge arguments against her concern personal behavior: the shooting and Rimbaud’s role in slavery and war in Ethiopia. It is clear that Rimbaud did business and worked with slave traders and sold weapons, although his biographer Graham Robb found no evidence of his direct involvement in human traffic, as is sometimes claimed.
Even if France wants to champion Rimbaud, the feeling was not mutual. He spent most of his adult life abroad vilifying the French. In the poem “Bad Blood” he called them “an inferior race”, one that “never rose except to plunder”.
The French President alone decides who goes to the Panthéon – Mr Macron did not tilt his hand – and there are no defined criteria. The decisions have always been political and discussed and often reflected the views of the moment rather than the judgment of the time.
The Panthéon, in which the remains of 78 people are kept, is full of military and political figures of the revolutionary era, unknown today. (Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Bevière, someone?) More conspicuous is who is missing.
Writers like Balzac, Sartre, Proust, Sand, de Beauvoir and Flaubert are missing, as are artists like Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Manet and Rodin. The handful of scientists don’t include Pasteur. Debussy is not there and no other composer.
Charles de Gaulle would certainly be there, but he wanted his body to stay in his hometown. In 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed moving Camus’ remains to the Panthéon, but dropped the idea after the writer’s son objected.
A massive neoclassical landmark in central Paris, the Panthéon was designed as a church but completed as a secular shrine during the French Revolution. One of the first to be buried there in 1791 was the philosopher Voltaire.
For decades, critics have complained that the initiate list is too masculine and too white – a condition that is changing, albeit slowly. “While France maintains a universalistic discourse, it is opening to a form of citizenship that takes differences into account much more than before,” said Philippe Portier, political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris.
When the chemist Marcellin Berthelot died and was buried in the Panthéon in 1907, he was accompanied by his wife Sophie Berthelot, who died on the same day. For 88 years she was the only woman there.
Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry, but it wasn’t until 1995 – six decades after her death – that she became the first woman to be accepted into the Panthéon because of her own achievements.
Three more women have been inducted over the past five years: two heroes of World War II, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, and Simone Veil, a former Health Minister and President of the European Parliament.
Recognition…Keystone-France via Getty Images
It was not until 2002 that another colored person, the writer Alexandre Dumas the Elder, was accepted into the Panthéon 132 years after his death.
The petition to move the remains of Rimbaud and Verlaine began after Mr Martel and five friends made a pilgrimage to Rimbaud’s grave in Charleville-Mézières, the small town near the Belgian border where he grew up. (He once described it as “extraordinarily stupid”.) Mr. Martel found the grave “disappointing,” almost invisible under the other tombstones.
At the age of 16, Rimbaud rejected civil decency and wrote to a friend that he had to suffer as a poet in order to receive inspiration from “disturbing all senses”. He wrote to Verlaine, 10 years older than him, and then ran off to meet the older man in Paris.
As a teenager, Rimbaud wrote masterpieces such as “Le Bateau ivre” (“The drunk boat”), “Le Dormeur du Val” (“The sleeper in the valley”), “Voyelles” (“Vowels”) and the collection “Un Saison en Enfer “(” A Season in Hell “). Then, at the age of 20, he suddenly stopped writing poetry.
Verlaine, already a well-known poet, joined the Paris Commune, the short-lived socialist government, calling it radical in the eyes of the national government. The nascent Third Republic brutally crushed the Commune in 1871, months before he met Rimbaud.
Later known as the “Prince of Poets”, Verlaine wrote well-known works such as “Chanson d’Automne” (“Song of Autumn”) and the collection “Romance Sans Paroles” (“Wordless Romance”). Aged prematurely from alcohol and drugs, he died at the age of 51.
Rimbaud became a soldier for the Dutch in what is now Indonesia, then a dealer in coffee and other goods in Ethiopia. He died of cancer at the age of 37.
Both poets used enigmatic, allusive images and are considered part of the symbolist movement that influenced artists from Debussy to Picasso to Bob Dylan. Rimbaud’s phrase “changing lives” became the motif for the French protests in May 1968.
They have also become gay icons – although both have had relationships with women – especially in France, where the musical “Rimbaud Verlaine” was performed last year. A 1995 film, “Total Eclipse” with Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis, told their story.
But Jacqueline Teissier-Rimbaud, the poet’s great-great-niece, said they shouldn’t be defined by a relationship that lasted less than two years. “Rimbaud didn’t start his life with Verlaine and didn’t end it with him,” she said.
If France wants to celebrate sexual differences, it should anchor someone like Michel Foucault, the gay social theorist who wrote extensively on sexuality, said Henri Scepi, professor of French literature at the Sorbonne Nouvelle.
A Panthéon funeral, he said, risks distorting the legacy of anti-establishment poets by turning them into establishment heroes.
“We have to maintain its destabilizing and corrosive power against the institutions, the state agency, the army and the police,” he said.