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Rimbaud and Verlaine: France agonises over digging up gay poets

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

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image captionArthur Rimbaud was portrayed in this Jef Rosman painting in his bed after Verlaine had lightly wounded him

President Emmanuel Macron is under pressure to strike a blow for sexual diversity by ordering the "Pantheonisation" - interment at the national mausoleum in Paris - of two of France's best-loved poets, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine.

A petition signed by 10 former culture ministers, as well as a long list of artists and intellectuals, says the two poets - who had an intense but ultimately violent affair in the early 1870s - "were symbols of diversity".

They suffered the harsh homophobia of their time. They are the French Oscar Wildes.

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image captionPaul Verlaine is currently buried in a cemetery off the Paris ring road

"It is a question of simple justice to have them enter jointly into the Pantheon alongside other great literary figures like Voltaire, Rousseau, Dumas, Hugo and Malraux," the petition reads.

Current Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot, while not signing the petition, nevertheless said she agreed. "Bringing these two poets and lovers into the Pantheon would have a significance that is not just historical and literary, but profoundly relevant today," she said.

Arguments for and against moving the poets

The call, however, has triggered an angry backlash, with opponents saying the poets are being made the victims of a 21st Century cultural power-grab, and that absolutely nothing in their lives or work suggests suitability for a patriotic Valhalla.

Rimbaud and Verlaine are certainly among the most revered of French poets - and it is also true that of the 75 residents of the Pantheon, none is there for poetry. Victor Hugo was transferred for his political achievement.

Supporters say there are both literary and moral reasons for their re-interment.

Not only has "their genius nourished for more than a century our literary and poetic imagination", but also their current burial places - in Charleville-Mezieres, Ardennes for Rimbaud, in a cemetery off the Paris ring road for Verlaine - are "unworthy".

There is also the homophobic persecution which Verlaine above all had to endure.

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image captionThe revolver that Verlaine used to try to kill his lover was sold at auction in 2016

Famously, the poets' relationship ended in 1873 when Verlaine fired a gun and lightly wounded Rimbaud in Brussels.

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Rimbaud refused to press charges, but Belgian police went ahead anyway and their report was heavily slanted by their distaste for the poets' relationship.

Verlaine spent a year and a half in jail.

Arthur Rimbaud: 20 October 1854 - 10 November 1891

France's culture minister says she sometimes arrives at cabinet meetings with Rimbaud's 1871 poem The Drunken Boat coursing through her head.

As I was going down impassive Rivers, I no longer felt myself guided by haulers

Yelping redskins had taken them as targets, And had nailed them naked to coloured stakes

Paul Verlaine: 30 March 1844 - 8 January 1896

Lines of Verlaine's Chanson d'automne were used to warn the French Resistance of the imminent Allied landings in Normandy in World War Two.

Les sanglots longs/ Des violons/ De l'automne (The long sighs of autumn's violins)

Blessent mon coeur/ D'une langueur/ Monotone (Wound my heart in a monotonous languor)

Society 'taking its revenge'

But opponents of Pantheonisation say it would make a mockery of what the poets actually stood for - which was certainly not membership of the French establishment. Rather it was liberty, rebellion, and a refusal to kowtow to the cultural zeitgeist.

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image captionOver 120 years after Rimbaud's death, letters are still sent to this letter box in the cemetery where he is buried

"Everything about their lives, everything about their work shows them turning their back on society," writer Étienne de Montety said in French newspaper Le Figaro. "They were passionate for liberty, to the point of making transgression an art form."

"Resenting the slight, today society is taking its revenge. With the help of academia and government, it is trying to co-opt them."

Others have pointed out that support for the motherland was not exactly the poets' strong point.

In the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, Rimbaud even said he would welcome a Prussian victory. And of the Pantheon itself, the poet once said that it was an "official acropolis which takes modern barbarity to new extremes".

Related Topics

  • France
  • Poetry
  • Paris

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