In The Trembling of the Veil, W. B. Yeats recalls a visit to the Parisian home of poet Paul Verlaine, there encountering a “slovenly, ragged man”. Unnamed in the book, it is none other than our favourite dandified klepto-hobohemian, Bibi-la-Purée (who died on this day in 1903), known for memoirbombing just about any account of the literary avant-garde in Belle Époque Paris:
Paul Verlaine alternated between the two halves of his nature with so little apparent resistance that he seemed like a bad child, though to read his sacred poems is to remember perhaps that the Holy Infant shared His first home with the beasts. In what month was it that I received a note inviting me to “coffee and cigarettes plentifully,” and signed “Yours quite cheerfully, Paul Verlaine?” I found him at the top of a tenement house in the Rue St. Jacques, sitting in an easy chair, his bad leg swaddled in many bandages. He asked me, speaking in English, if I knew Paris well, and added, pointing to his leg, that it had scorched his leg for he know it “well, too well” and “lived in it like a fly in a pot of marmalade.” He took up an English dictionary, one of the few books in the room, and began searching for the name of his disease, selecting after a long search and with, as I understood, only comparative accuracy “Erysipelas.” Meanwhile his homely, middle-aged mistress made the coffee and found the cigarettes; it was obviously she who had given the room its character; her canaries in several cages hanging in the window, and her sentimental lithographs nailed here and there among the nude drawings and newspaper caricatures of her lover as various kinds of monkey, which he had pinned upon the wall. A slovenly, ragged man came in, his trousers belted with a piece of rope and an opera hat upon his head. She drew a box over to the fire, and he sat down, now holding the opera hat upon his knees, and I think he must have acquired it very lately for he kept constantly closing and opening it. Verlaine introduced him by saying, “He is a poor man, but a good fellow, and is so like Louis XI to look at that we call him Louis the Xlth.” I remember that Verlaine talked of Victor Hugo who was “a supreme poet, but a volcano of mud as well as of flame,” and of Villiers de L’Isle Adam who was “exalté” and wrote excellent French ; and of In Memoriam, which he had tried to translate and could not. “Tennyson is too noble, too Anglais ; when he should have been broken- hearted, he had many reminiscences.”
At Verlaine’s burial, but a few months after, his mistress quarrelled with a publisher at the graveside as to who owned the sheet by which the body had been covered, and Louis XI stole fourteen umbrellas that he found leaning against a tree in the Cemetery.