I am an ephemeral and a not too discontented citizen of a metropolis considered modern because all known taste has been avoided in the furnishings and the exterior of the houses as well as in the plan of the city. Here you would fail to detect the least trace of any monument to superstition.
Arthur Rimbaud on London in Illuminations
Getting a face full of wet fish is usually associated with Monty Python at Teddington Lock rather than French poets in North London, but such is the warping power of Camden Town. Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine were the Gallic rhymers in question. The pair enjoyed a tempestuous relationship in a variety of London addresses, which culminated in the aforementioned fish-slapping incident in Camden.
They had arrived in London in September 1872 after fleeing scandal in Paris. Rimbaud was 17, Verlaine ten years older, married with a child. Verlaine’s brother-in-law described Rimbaud as ‘a vile, vicious, disgusting little schoolboy’, but Verlaine found him an ‘exquisite creature’ probably for much the same reasons. At first they settled in Howland Street in Fitzrovia. They became part of Soho’s expat anarchist dissident set, reportedly attending meetings helmed by Karl Marx in Old Compton Street, drinking heavily, taking hash and opium (Rimbaud advocated ‘derangement of all the senses’) and keeping warm at the British Museum, where Rimbaud’s name – but not Verlaine’s – was later added to the Reading Room roll of honour. Neither were particularly politically motivated, but the anti-establishment environment would undoubtedly have appealed to the outlaw couple.
They both loved London. Rimbaud felt that by comparison Paris looked like nothing more than a ‘pretty provincial town’ and loved the ‘interminable docks’, while Verlaine was captivated by the ‘incessant railways on splendid cast iron bridges’ and the ‘brutal, loud-mouthed people in the streets’. Together they travelled on the river, visited Hampstead Heath and rode the newly opened underground railway. They visited Hyde Park Corner, Madame Tussaud’s, the National Gallery and the Tower Subway (‘It stinks, it’s hot and it quivers like a suspension bridge, while all the while you hear the sound of the enormous volume of water,’ they reported back).
They wrote as well. Parts of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Une Saison en Enfer were written in London, and his relationship with Verlaine is recorded in the latter’s lines: ‘On several nights, his demon seized me, we rolled around together, I wrestled with him!—At nights, often, drunk, he lies in wait in the streets or in the houses, to frighten me half to death… In the hovels where we used to get drunk, he would weep at the sight of those around us, miserable beasts…’ Verlaine was also influenced by the hectic modernity of the docks, and wrote a poem about Regent’s Canal.
Their sojourn in Fitzrovia was briefly commemorated with a plaque written in French and erected in 1922, although it only mentioned Verlaine – Rimbaud’s name was omitted on grounds of morality. Unfortunately, the street numbers had changed by this time, so the plaque on No 34 was almost certainly commemorating the wrong house. These defects were solved in 1938 by simple means – the house was demolished. It’s said the plaque was saved from destruction, but if so it has long since been lost.
There is a plaque for their next house however, left by ‘unknown hand’ according to Simon Callow. This is on their residence at 8 Great (now Royal) College Street, which they moved to in May 1873, living in two rooms on the top floor for three months. Here the pair’s self-destructive instincts really blossomed. They argued relentlessly, and often fought physically. This reached its nadir one July morning when Verlaine returned from Camden market carrying fresh fish and olive oil. It was a hot day and Verlaine had a hangover, but Rimbaud, watching from an upstairs window, was unsympathetic. He laughed and bellowed, ‘Ce que tu as l’air con!’ (‘What a cunt you look!’). Verlaine responded with a kipper in the face (hurt, he later wrote to a friend rather pathetically, ‘I retaliated, because, I can assure you, I definitely did not look ridiculous’), packed his bags and fled to Brussels. Rimbaud eventually followed, only to receive two bullets in his wrist for his troubles.
Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison, which he spent in part reading Une Saison en Enfer, and that was pretty much the end of that relationship. Rimbaud returned to London in 1874, living at Stamford Street, SE1 with the poet Germain Nouveau and later taking a room at No 12 Argyll Square in 1875. He then disappeared for four months – biographers still speculate about whether he was in Scotland, Scarborough or Reading. He barely wrote another word and died, one-legged, in 1891. Verlaine also returned to England, teaching in Boston and Bournemouth, before returning to Paris where he succumbed to alcoholism and died in 1896. Camden can do that.