France’s cultural elite are split over whether the remains of two of the country’s greatest poets, Arthur Rimbaud and his lover Paul Verlaine, should be dug up and re-interred in the Panthéon in Paris.
The secular mausoleum is home to French greats including Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas and Marie Curie. Now a petition signed by more than 5,000 people, including culture minister Roselyne Bachelot and a host of her predecessors, is calling on president Emmanuel Macron to allow Rimbaud and Verlaine to join them.
Rimbaud, the poet known for Illuminations (Illuminations) and Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell), died in 1891 at the age of 37. He is buried in Charleville-Mézières in the Ardennes. Verlaine, known as one of the leaders of the symbolist movement, died in 1896, and is buried in the Batignolles cemetery, off the Paris ring road.
“Rimbaud and Verlaine are two major poets of our language. They enriched our heritage with their genius,” says the petition. “It would only be fair to celebrate their memory today by bringing them together to the Panthéon, alongside other great literary figures: Voltaire, Rousseau, Dumas, Hugo, Malraux.”
The petition highlights how the poets are symbols of diversity who “had to endure the relentless ‘homophobia’ of their time”, describing them as “the French Oscar Wildes”. The two began a stormy love affair when Rimbaud was 17. Verlaine left his wife and child for Rimbaud, whom he called “the man with soles of wind”. Their relationship ended in 1873, when a row broke out between them and Verlaine fired a gun at Rimbaud, for which he would spend two years in a Belgian prison.
“We could of course bring them in separately, one after the other, but this passion that united them deserves to be brought in together, right?” said Bachelot in an interview with Le Point. “Bringing these two poets and lovers into the Pantheon together would have a significance that is not just historical and literary, but profoundly relevant today.”
The petition says the current resting places for the poets are not worthy of their genius, with Rimbaud buried in a “narrow, miserly” tomb, and Verlaine “in a vault … under frightful plastic flowers in the Batignolles cemetery”. “Is this how France honours its greatest poets?” asks the petition.
Counterarguments point out that the two men “turned their backs on society” and were “in love with freedom, going as far as making transgression a way of life”. Jacqueline Teissier-Rimbaud, the great-grand-niece of the poet, has stated her opposition to the plans, telling the press that “Rimbaud did not start his life with Verlaine and did not end it with him, these are just a few years of his youth”, while the association Les Amis de Rimbaud is also against the plans. A counterpetition, which had 439 signatories at time of writing, is calling on Macron to keep the poets where they are, and not fall into the “trap of political correctness”.
The French president is the only person who can decide about moving a body to the Panthéon. In 2018, Simone Veil, the Holocaust survivor and women’s rights defender, was given the honour of a final burial there.