This Luminous Beggar

Excerpted from Misia by Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold © 1980, Misia Natanson writes of her friendship with the poet Paul Verlaine:

It was there that I struck up a friendship with Paul Verlaine. Usually between benders, and always sad, he would come in the early evening, sit down with me, drink, read me beautiful poems, and weep.

One felt the unconquerable, the tragic youthfulness of his heart. Somewhere behind that immense forehead lived a soul which knew the uttermost bounds of purity. This drunken bum zigzagging across the Latin Quarter, this luminous beggar dragging his feet in the mud was conscious only of the sky. The horror of being ugly, of being ugly every day, without respite, every minute, even when his heart was dazzled by love for another being, had gradually taught him a profound humility. The blows of life? He had brushed them all aside. They did not prevent him from coming back to sit at a sticky marble café table, order an absinthe and a dreadful little pen, scratchy and squeaky, one of those pens born to be dipped into the inkwells of the poor… His were simple words, transformed into treasures…

It was my tender memory of this little café which made me go to see him in the hospital when I heard he was seriously ill. I shall never forget that poor ravaged face, the long shaky hand he could barely lift to take mine and the light in his feverish eyes that tried desperately to express what his lips no longer had the strength to say… Two days later Verlaine died. His funeral procession, and Debussy’s, were the only ones I ever followed on foot.

Paul Verlaine died in Paris in at the age of 51 in 1906.  A nice collection of his poems, translated into English, is available online at Poetry In Translation.

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I could have told you, Vincent

Three things I learned about Vincent Van Gogh from reading Van Gogh by Pierre Cabanne, © 1961:

  1. When Van Gogh took up painting, late in life, he began by taking lessons, visiting museums to study the works of the masters, and inviting established artists to critique his work.  In the popular imagination he simply sat down at his canvas and let the genius flow forth– and there was an element of that– but he had carefully laid the foundation.
  2. He didn’t cut off his whole ear, just the tip of his earlobe.  That’s still disturbing and indicative of a troubled mind, but far less ghastly than if he had lopped off the whole thing.
  3. While it is true he sold only a single painting while alive, his career had a major breakthrough shortly before his suicide.  A respected art critic had published a glowing review of his work, and he was being contacted by other successful painters who were intrigued by his work and wanted to meet him and exchange paintings.  He had several public exhibitions which were widely attended and brought positive attention.  He had every objective reason to be optimistic.