The charming cafe La Maison de Verlaine in Paris’s Latin Quarter.

“Paris encounter: Paul Verlaine’s Chanson d’Automne, a poem with a past”


In May my wife and I visited Paris. Many magical memories were created but one in particular stands out. A midday taxi ride back to our lodgings in the Latin.

Quarter brought us through Rue Descartes, where we noticed a small cafe called La Maison de Verlaine. White tablecloths added to the attractiveness of the cafe to hungry travellers.

Inside, the space was small but busy. There were multiple old signed photos and other memorabilia on the walls. The inside cover of the menu explained that a much-loved French poet, Paul Verlaine, had lived and eventually died in this house, hence the name of the cafe. Along with Verlaine’s literary genius, there was an unfortunate side to his life — a marriage break-up, a passionate affair with another French writer, prison for shooting his lover in the arm, absinthe and hashish abuse, and depression. Included on the menu cover was one of his most famous poems Chanson d’Automne. Although our translation attempt did not succeed, we enjoyed the beautiful flow of the French words. After a lovely lunch and champagne the waiter was delighted with our interest in the poem and he gave my wife a Chanson d’Automne bookmark.

Back in Australia I learned of the historical significance of this poem, relating to D-Day in World War II. On June 1, 1944, the BBC broadcast the first three lines of the poem, “Les sanglots longs / des violons / de l’automne” (“Long sobs of autumn violins”). These were code to the French Resistance that Operation Overlord was to start in two weeks. On June 5, the next few lines were broadcast, “Blessent mon coeur/d’une langueur/monotone” (“Wound my heart with a monotonous languor”). This was the message that the Allied attack would start within 48 hours, and that the resistance should begin sabotage operations, especially on the railroad system.

There is a romantic CD of French songs that my wife and I often listen to while watching an autumn sunset, pinot in hand, in our favourite spiritual place on Queensland’s North Stradbroke Island. The songs play in the background, enhancing the mood. Only after our recent Paris trip did we realise that one of the favourites, sung by legendary crooner Charles Trenet, is in fact Paul Verlaine’s Chanson d’Automne. Now, that’s magic.


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