Verlaine in Westbourne
Lindsay Neal on the autumn of the house of the usher
Published in August ’15
How much the young gentlemen of St Aloysius School in Bournemouth’s long lost Westburn Terrace knew of their new French and Latin teacher in 1875 we can only wonder. Did they, for instance, realise he’d not long been released from prison for shooting his male lover? Or that he had fallen into teaching after unsuccessfully attempting to enter a Trappist monastery and then being rebuffed in turn by both his estranged wife and paramour.
Did they even know that Monsieur Verlaine was none other than Paul-Marie Verlaine, the celebrated poet, the one-time head of the Press Bureau of the Paris Commune and fevered lover of his fellow decadent, the notorious libertine poet Arthur Rimbaud?
The caricaturist Max Beerbohm later imagined Verlaine with an umbrella under his arm shepherding a line of schoolboys in his 1904 engraving Paul Verlaine (Usher In Private School At Bournemouth, 1877-1878) – a far cry from the absinthe-swilling, gun-toting, tortured genius that history was to paint.
Verlaine’s stormy affair with Rimbaud began soon after his return to Paris in August 1871 following the fall of the Commune the previous May and effectively ended in Brussels in July 1873 when, in a jealous rage, he fired two shots at Rimbaud one of which hit him in the wrist. Verlaine was arrested and imprisoned at Mons where he converted to Roman Catholicism.
Having first failed in his efforts to join a monastery on his release and then to reconcile with his wife, Verlaine met Rimbaud for the final time in Stuttgart but failed to rekindle their romance. His next move was to London from where he took up teaching positions at two private schools in Lincolnshire and finally at St Aloysius where it is said he impressed all with his dignity and piety.
By the time Verlaine arrived in Bournemouth he was writing in a more thoughtful, considered style. He is known to have read a lot of Tennyson at the time and came to appreciate the works of Algernon Charles Swinburne as well as the Anglican hymn writers. He wrote another successful collection of poems, Sagesse (‘Wisdom’), in which he explored his emotional journey and expressed his Catholic faith – he worshipped at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Albert Road. The collection includes two poems about the town, one simply called Bournemouth and the other La Mer de Bournemouth.
In his last book, Confessions published in 1894, two years before his death, Verlaine noted: ‘I also wrote an entirely insignificant poem, entitled Bournemouth, that people are quite pleased to find good.’ However, the poet and diplomat Paul Claudel was not alone in attributing much greater value to the work, celebrating it as ‘one of the most beautiful pieces of French poetry’.
At the end of the school year in 1877 Verlaine left Bournemouth to return to France and succeed his friend the writer Ernest Delahaye, who was also close to Rimbaud, teaching English at the college of Notre-Dame at Rethel, near the Belgian border, where he fell in love with a pupil.
By 1881 St Aloysius School, which was owned by Frederick Remington, a former Anglican minister who had converted to Roman Catholicism, had moved to Surrey Road with its owner who died in 1899. His obituary in the Catholic weekly The Tablet remembered him as ‘scrupulously conscientious and honourable in all his dealings, generous and large-minded in his judgments of others, a hater of idleness and trifling, and to the end a loyal and staunch adherent to the religious faith of his later life.’ A set of stained glass windows at the Sacred Heart Church is dedicated to his memory.
In time 2 Westburn Terrace became known as 8 Poole Road and by 1911 the former school was listed as Hartington Nursing and Convalescent Home, which had become the Sandbourne Hotel by the 1930s. In 1970 the name was changed to the Cadogan Hotel and in 2000 Bournemouth Borough Council commissioned a blue plaque commemorating its association with Verlaine, but just six years later the building, which dated from the 1860s was sold and demolished to make way for the Premier Inn that now occupies the site. ◗