London is renowned for attracting eccentric, rebellious, hedonistic characters (in one word: dropouts) from around the world. But two former inhabitants top the bill. Their decadent lifestyle makes the young artists and hipsters of today look like Boy Scouts!
As a teenager I was fascinated by their story, and spellbound by their poetry.
Rimbaud and Verlaine were highly influential French poets of the 19th century. Paul Verlaine was 27 when he left his wife for the 17-year-old Arthur Rimbaud, after the young man had sent him some poems.
The two lovers scandalised literary Paris with their wild behaviour, involving absinthe and drug taking. They eventually ran away, first to Brussels and then to London.
The poets fell in love with the city.
Rimbaud felt that in comparison Paris looked like nothing more than a “pretty provincial town” and he loved the “interminable docks”.
Verlaine was captivated by the “incessant railways on splendid cast-iron bridges” and the “brutal, loud-mouthed people in the streets”. He described the city as “prudish, but with every vice on offer” and the inhabitants as being “permanently drunk, despite ridiculous bills on drunkenness”.
Nothing much seems to have changed on that front.
They initially settled in Fitzrovia and became part of Soho’s expat dissident set, attending meetings led by Karl Marx in Old Compton Street – although they would probably have preferred the epicurean Soho of the late 20th century, as neither of them was particularly politically motivated.
In fact, like many visitors to the city, they were mostly drinking and taking illicit drugs; Rimbaud advocating the “derangement of the senses”.
While in London, they were both at the height of their poetic powers and wrote poetry that remains central to 19th-century French literature: Verlaine much of his Romances sans paroles (Songs Without Words) and Rimbaud his Illuminations, including the great poem Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell).
Yet they were both poor and they advertised in the Daily Telegraph, offering lessons in French, Latin and literature.
Their infamous relationship had always been a stormy one, with fights involving razors and knives, but things reached a critical point when they were living in Camden, on Royal College Street.
One morning Verlaine came home from Camden market with two kippers and a bottle of oil to cook the fish in. He was holding the fish out in front of him and the cocky Rimbaud, sitting on the window ledge of the room they rented at the top of the house, burst out laughing and said: “Ce que tu as l’air con!” (You look like such a cunt!).
Verlaine responded with a kipper in the face, packed his bags and fled to Belgium. A week later they were briefly reunited in Brussels, where they had their final row. Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the arm and was eventually jailed for two years. The two lovers never met again.
Rimbaud returned to London in 1874, living at Stamford Street, SE1 with the poet Germain Nouveau. He barely wrote another word and died in 1891, aged 37. Verlaine also returned to England, to teach in Boston and Bournemouth, before going back to Paris, where he died an alcoholic in 1896.
Their sojourn in Fitzrovia was commemorated with a plaque erected in 1922, but it only mentioned Verlaine – Rimbaud’s name was omitted on grounds of morality! The house was demolished in 1938.
When the house in Camden was put on the market in 2006, there was talk for a while of restoring it as a museum. This never happened, but at least a plaque was installed.