Poetry as a weapon

Poetry as a weapon

The French poet Paul Verlaine (1844 – 1896) would have never dreamt it. That his words were used as a code during the Second World War. Read more about how poetry turned into a gear of war.

Paul Verlaine was a French poet. He was fascinated by literature and even gave up his study. When he worked in city hall in Paris, he started writing poetry. His life wasn’t as optimistic, to say the least. He was a heavy drinker and was addicted to Absinthe. This got him into a lot of trouble, mostly after 1870. At the time he was married to Mathilde Mauté, he got involved with the very young poet Arthur Rimbaud (he was seventeen at that time). They even left for London together. They somehow ended up in Brussels (Belgium), where he tried to shoot his lover when he was drunk. He was convicted and was sent to prison for eighteen months. Afterwards, he returned to Paris. For a while, he tried to hold a normal life as a teacher. Then he decided he wanted to become a farmer. As of 1880, he was forced to return to Paris and spent the last of his years in the slums. When he died in 1896, he was a poor man.

This poor man wasn’t that famous during his lifetime. Except for one published collection of poems of 1884 entitled Les poètes maudits. He included not only his own work (under the pseudonym Pauvre Lelian) but also the work of Corbière, Rimbaud and Mallarmé. Critics weren’t that mild about the publication. They were convinced that these poems were hard to read. Still, there was a success for Verlaine.

It was the poem Art poétique that would become his most famous poem during his lifetime. It became the manifest of the Symbolism. The poem we translated as Autumn Song wasn’t that popular. The original, French title, is Chanson d’automne. It was written in 1866 and describes the feelings of growing older. This causes sadness and pain.

Poetry as a weapon

We all know the examples of protest poems that encourage, motivate or force people to think or act. In this case, the poem is no such poem. The poem is just about that sad moment when you realize you are getting older. For some of us, it’s a time of reflection and having to think about those painful moments. It’s in no way a weapon. Still, the poem was linked to an event that changed history.

Operation Overlord

On 1 June 1944, the first three lines of the poem by Verlaine were broadcasted by BBC Radio. These were intended for the French Resistance. These first lines meant one of the greatest amphibious operations or one of the largest landings of the Allied forces was about to take place within the next two weeks. The next series of lines would indicate that the invasion would take place within 48 hours. The resistance could plan their sabotage operations. As the Germans who occupied France were heavily dependent on the French railroads, it was of great importance that the resistance should do everything to make the railroad system fail.

The last set of lines was broadcasted at exactly 23.15 hours on 5 June 1944. Operation Overlord, also known as D-Day would begin on 6 June 1944. It would eventually result in the liberation of France and the rest of occupied Europe. Paul Verlaine could not have known this when he wrote this poem. If you listen to the words of Rachel Laine, you will believe that it’s just about growing older.



Things change, once you take a look at the video below. These sound clips were also used in the film The Longest Day.




Paul Verlaine - Chanson d'automne


Chanson d’automne

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

English version

Autumn song

When a sighing begins
In the violins
Of the autumn-song,
My heart is drowned
In the slow sound
Languorous and long

Pale as with pain,
Breath fails me when
The hours tolls deep.
My thoughts recover
The days that are over
And I weep.

And I go
Where the winds know,
Broken and brief,
To and fro,
As the winds blow
A dead leaf.