Emile Verhaeren, an exceptional poet
Emile Verhaeren is one of the most famous representatives of symbolism.
He was born on 21 May 1855 in a prosperous and catholic family in Sint-Amands, located by the river Scheldt between Antwerp and Dendermonde.
After completing his classic high school studies at the Jesuit College of Sint-Barbara in Ghent he went on to follow a course in the law department of Leuven University. In 1876 he wrote his first poems, in Revue générale, a thought provoking and cultural journal published from the year 1865.
Armed with his degree as Doctor of Law, Verhaeren trained alongside the famous Brussels lawyer and literature fanatic Edmond Picard.
In 1883 Verhaeren published his first collection of poetry, Les Flamandes, which he dedicated to the area where he was born. A year later, in 1884, his Contes de Minuit was published, illustrated by Theo Van Rysselberghe, one of the founders of the Groupe des Vingt (or Les XX), an avant-garde artistic circle founded in Brussels in 1883 by Octave Maus.
He became chief editor of La Jeune Belgique (a literary and artistic journal appearing in Brussels between 1881 and 1897). This journal stood for innovation and freedom by acting as a body attracting all poets that called themselves avant-garde. Verhaeren went on to publish poems and critical articles in this journal.
Losing his parents in 1888 and a long history of health problems raised a moral dilemma that can be seen in his work. Dating back to that period are Les Soirs (1888), Les Débâcles (1888) and Les Flambeaux noirs (1891).
Then, in October 1889, Verhaeren met Marthe Massin, a talented young artist from Liege and five years his junior. It was love at first sight. They married on 24 August 1891 and set up home in Brussels. The poets captured his happiness in three collections which he dedicated to a couple's love: Les Heures claires (1896), Les Heures d’Après-Midi (1905) and Les Heures du Soir (1911).
But Verhaeren was also inspired by other topics. He joined in the fight against social inequality and the demise of rural areas, the bitter pills of the industrial revolution, in Les Campagnes hallucinées (1893), Les Villes tentaculaires (1895), Les Villages illusoires (1895) and his first play, Les Aubes (1898).
Around 1898 his career developed and the poet moved to Saint-Cloud, near Paris, for good. This move benefited both his literary productivity and his image in France and Europe.
On the threshold of the 20th century the poet was world famous: his work was being translated, quoted and discussed. His human expressionism bore witness to a renewed faith in human beings and his triumphant vitality.
However, in 1914, right at the peak of his fame in Germany, the First World War broke out. Verhaeren was absolutely devastated. As a passionate pacifist he shamed the war with his sharp and fiery verse. His collection of verses criticising the Germans, Les Ailes rouges de la Guerre, from 1916 were the cause of many a conference, including the one on 26 November 1916 in Rouen, which proved fatal … The next day, during the commotion, the poet ended up under a train, at the age of 61. He died instantly.