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The Tippling Point | Absinthe, The End of Several Promising 19th Century European Artists

Absinthe was ‘green fairy’ to most artists towards the end of 19th century. They found their muse in the drink.

Manu Remakant |

Updated:January 7, 2018, 3:46 PM IST
The Tippling Point | Absinthe, The End of Several Promising 19th Century European Artists
Absinthe was 'green fairy' to most artists towards the end of 19th century. They found their muse in the drink. (Reuters)
News18 Tippling PointDramatis personae:

Paul Marie Verlaine: One of the greatest French poets associated with the Symbolist movement.

Arthur Rimbaud: One of the most popular French poets, who wrote poems for only 5 years and died at the age of 37.

Absinthe: The green villain — the alcohol that was a rage in Europe during the end of the 19th century and beginning of 20th century.


Paris and a little bit of Brussels.

The Story:

Absinthe was ‘green fairy’ to most artists towards the end of 19th century. They found their muse in the drink.

The green drink gave Paul Verlaine a sense of exaltation, which he happily injected into the poems he wrote. The spell of the drink along with the temper that ran in his family ignited the poet too often, something which Paris witnessed in many of his violent moods. He got married to a girl named Matilde, but the honeymoon turned into ‘absinthe-moon’ pretty soon.

Yet, the real tragedy was still on its way.

On September, 1871, a young man of 16, landed in Paris. The boy had not a penny to his name, but a satchel of wonderful poems to his credit. Verlaine had already read a few of them and had wholeheartedly welcomed the boy into his town.

It was an instant love affair and by then Verlaine had already earned himself a name for his same-sex affairs.

Verlaine and Rimbaud. Their penchant for absinthe kick-started a turbulent affair but alas… fate had something in store.

While Verlaine — who was more mature and old — nursed a sense of guilt all his life for his dependency on absinthe, the young boy — who had already became known in the literary circles as ‘enfant terrible’ — threw himself into the ‘green fire’ with abandon. To him, absinthe was a perfect companion for his poetic liberation.

The two poets very rarely sobered up.

For Rimbaud, intoxication was a ritual akin to self-torture, which must be too tense and painful for the nerves to sing like harp wires.

Verlaine took his guilt back home. He tortured his wife, beat her, set her clothes and hair on fire and even slashed her with a knife. He abhorred and ridiculed the concept of a good family man.

The madness of the poets soon tumbled over to the Parisian cafes, where men of letters gathered.

In his phenomenal book on absinthe, Barnaby Conrad gives us a report of Antoine Cros, who had attended one of the absinthe binges of the poets:

“Verlaine said to us: ‘Put your hands on the table, I want to show you an experiment.’ We thought it was a joke, and put out our hands; he pulled out an open-clasp knife from his pocket and cut his wrists quite deeply. I had time to take my hands away. Verlaine left with his sinister companion and received two more stab-wounds in his thigh.”

After some years, Rimbaud began to get tired of the old poet and decided to break off the relationship. In a fit of despair, Verlaine fled to Brussels and wrote to Rimbaud that he would commit suicide. Rimbaud reached Brussels to patch up with his mentor. But once he saw all that weeping and pleading coming from a drunken Verlaine, Rimbaud was disgusted with the relationship. Without losing his cool, he tried to convince his mentor about the need to separate.


Verlaine now flipped out his pistol and fired at Rimbaud three times. Even though he was stone drunk, one bullet made it to Rimbaud, hitting him on the wrist. But when Verlaine saw his minion writhing on the floor in a pool of blood, he was overcome with remorse. He wept bitterly.

For poor Rimbaud, the ordeal was not over yet. Two days later, Verlaine pulled out his pistol again at Rimbaud. The latter narrowly escaped and turned over his old friend to the police. Verlaine was put in jail.

By now, Rimbaud was fed up with both absinthe and poetry. He burned all his manuscripts and fled to Somalia. By the young age of 20, the gifted writer traded the call of poetry with that of a trader. It did not last long. In 1890, he developed arthritis and his left leg was amputated. A year later when he died, none of the literary figures of Paris, including Verlaine turned up for his funeral.

For most of them, he was long dead.

Verlaine’s ordeal continued for five more years and by that time, he became such a drunkard that he was a butt of ridicule in the Parisian cafes. He suffered a lot in his last days. Verlaine got cirrhosis, gonorrhea and syphilis – all remnants of a wayward life that he had led.

Verlaine and Rimbaud. The green fairy, absinthe, had only begun its ravage.

Soon, absinthe grew to become a huge social menace in European countries. Unable to contain the wrath of the people who now thought that absinthe creates madness, several governments in the continent banned the drink from their countries.

(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)

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| Edited by: Sanchari Chatterjee
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