A group of French writers has called on President Emmanuel Macron to give “cursed” 19th century gay poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine a dignified resting place at Paris's Panthéon. But opponents denounce the attempt to broaden diversity at the republican mausoleum as more politically correct “Americanisation” of French culture.
(This story first appeared in the Spotlight on France podcast)
Rimbaud’s headstone in Charleville-Mézières cemetery near the Belgian border carries the inscription “Arthur Rimbaud, 37, 10 November 1891”. And underneath, in gold lettering, the words Priez pour lui (pray for him).
The call to prayer was the will of Rimbaud’s brother-in-law by marriage Paterne Berrichon: a man who’d spent his life air-brushing the poet’s revolutionary politics, his homosexuality and who maintained the rebel had converted to Catholicism on his death bed.
“It was shocking to see him there, and buried next to Berrichon,” said writer Fréderic Martel, who visited the cemetery last spring with a couple of Rimbaud specialists.
Together they vowed to “get Rimbaud out of Charleville, a town he hated and spent his life trying to leave, and into the Panthéon”.
And why not “rescue” Paul Verlaine with whom Rimbaud had a short and tumultuous affair in the 1870s and who now wallows in a cemetery near the Paris ring road with a few “plastic flowers for company”?
Strong symbols of diversity
In early September the group of rescuers petitioned the president - the only person with the authority to transfer the remains of important French figures to the national mausoleum - requesting that Verlaine and Rimbaud’s remains be “symbolically” transferred there “at the same time”.
The petition has gathered over 5,000 signatures so far, including those of writers, artists and intellectuals, nine former culture ministers and the renowned gay American writer Edmund White.
They argue the monument should open its doors to “two of France’s greatest poets” and also two symbols of diversity, which they call the "Oscar Wildes” of France.
When in 1873 Verlaine, in an absinthe-fuelled domestic farce, fired a gun and lightly wounded Rimbaud, he received a hefty 18-month prison sentence despite the fact Rimbaud didn’t press charges.
Verlaine, it’s widely acknowledged, was punished for his sexuality.
While not signing the petition, France’s current culture minister Roselyne Bachelot said she supported it. “Bringing these two poets and lovers into the Panthéon would have not just historical and literary significance, but would be profoundly relevant today,” she told Le Point magazine.
"Americanisation” of French culture
The call, however, has prompted an angry backlash. 500 people have signed a counter-petition.
And a collective of writers, academics, intellectuals, Rimbaud fans and conservative Catholics published a tribune in Le Monde daily.
They argue that the bid to move Rimbaud and Verlaine reflects an obsession with “political correctness”, proof of “the Americanisation of French culture”.
But Fréderic Martel says the move towards more diversity is legitimate.
“The Panthéon has to change,” he said. “We need more diversity and more representation of French society than just the old military figures.”
That movement is already in motion.
Martel cited the former minister and Holocaust survivor Simone Weil who was transferred to the Panthéon with her husband in 2018; black French writer Aimé Césaire who was commemorated with a plaque in 2011, author Alexandre Dumas, the grandson of slaves from Saint Domingue (now Haiti), whose ashes were brought to the Panthéon in 2002.
A “betrayal” of free spirits
But the counter-petition claims Rimbaud and Verlaine were far too free, independent and rebellious to be “imprisoned” in the confines of such a Republican establishment.
After all they were among the few artists to publicly support the 1871 Paris Commune when anarchists seized power and ruled the city as a kind of direct democracy for two months before being crushed.
Putting the two “Communards” into the Panthéon would be, some say, a form of betrayal.
“They have no place in the Panthéon, they were against the norms of their time, against all forms of academia,” Denis Saint-Amand, an expert on Rimbaud, told Marianne magazine.
“That’s why Rimbaud, in his lifetime, was banished from the Parisien literary milieu. To erase the poets’ lawlessness, to force their entry into this official building which combines the patriotism and clericalism of the State would be to betray their memory,” he argued.
De-institutionalising the Panthéon
But Martel maintains it’s up to the Panthéon to change.
“Some people say: ‘you want to institutionalise Rimbaud and Verlaine despite the fact they were dissidents’ but no, we want exactly the opposite, we want to de-institutionalise the Panthéon.”
What’s more, Rimbaud and Verlaine are part of French history, warts and all.
“The Panthéon is a symbol of the great figures in France and great figures also means the Commune de Paris. Like it or not it’s part of the French Revolution.
“It’s also a place where dissidents, bohemians, cursed poets, should be. Aimé Césaire was also a dissident in relation to French society and colonialism, Victor Hugo was an enemy of France’s Second Republic and imperialism.”
An “error of youth”
The extent to which Rimbaud and Verlaine should be recognised as a gay couple remains a major sticking point.
“What bothers me is the word ‘homosexuality’,” Jacqueline Teissier-Rimbaud, the great-great niece of Rimbaud’s brother Fréderic, told the France Bleu Champagne-Ardenne radio.
“Rimbaud didn’t have it in him, he was forced into it because he needed someone [like Verlaine],” she said, insisting that their affair was an “error of youth” which he later regretted.
The counter-petition also claims that bringing the pair to the Pantheon together would amount to a “sordid Pacs” in reference to France’s civil union which is available to all, including same-sex couples.
For Martel, this shows that the real bone of contention is linked to homophobia.
“It’s not about the Commune, it’s not about poetry, it’s about homosexuality,” he said.
“This petition, even though it was more of a joke in the beginning, ended up revealing the strong homophobia that still exists in the academic world.”
Far from exemplary duo
One argument which is a little harder to cast off is that both Rimbaud and Verlaine are not worthy, as men, of entering the Panthéon.
After turning his back on writing, Rimbaud became a gunrunner in Africa while Verlaine beat his wife and mistreated his children.
“Everybody had some good parts of his life and some dark times,” Martel insisted. “We are profoundly against the idea of avoiding celebrating somebody because of his failure.
“Rimbaud was a great poet, and that’s enough.”
Rimbaud hated France
The poet was anything but a patriot, he didn’t like France and spoke of “how horrid” the French countryside was.
In 1871 he even exhorted the Prussian invaders to “turn their canons on the Panthéon”.
But criticising France, Martel said, makes you irrefutably French.
“Being French means you can criticise your own country. France accepts dissidents and dissent. And that’s part of the definition, I would say, of the Panthéon.”
Pilgrimage outside of Paris
Meanwhile the mayor of Charleville-Mazières is, unsurprisingly, against the idea of losing the town’s link with the rebel poet whose letter box still receives mail today.
Should France keep all its jewels in the capital? The debate rolls on.