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By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

Image rightsGetty ImagesImage descriptionArthur Rimbaud was depicted in this Jef Rosman painting in his bed after Verlaine slightly injured him *: not ([hidden]): not (style) ~ *: not ([hidden]): not (style) {margin-top: 1rem;}]]>

President Emmanuel Macron is under pressure to deal a blow to sexual diversity by ordering the “pantheonization” – burials in the national mausoleum in Paris – of two of France’s most beloved poets, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine.

A petition signed by 10 former ministers of culture and a long list of artists and intellectuals say that the two poets, who had an intense but ultimately violent affair in the early 1870s, “were symbols of diversity”.

They suffered from the harsh homophobia of their time. They are the French Oscar Wildes.

Image rightsGetty ImagesImage descriptionPaul Verlaine is currently buried in a cemetery on the Paris Ringstrasse

“It is a question of simple justice to let them join the Pantheon with other great writers like Voltaire, Rousseau, Dumas, Hugo and Malraux,” the petition says.

The current Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot, did not sign the petition, but she agreed. “Bringing these two poets and lovers into the pantheon would have a meaning that is not only historical and literary, but fundamental today,” she said.

Arguments for and against the movement of the poets

However, the call has sparked an angry backlash. Opponents say that the poets are the victims of a cultural invasion of power in the 21st century and that absolutely nothing in their life or work indicates suitability for a patriotic Valhalla.

Rimbaud and Verlaine are certainly among the most revered French poets – and it is also true that none of the 75 residents of the Pantheon are there for poetry. Victor Hugo was transferred for his political achievement.

Supporters say there are both literary and moral reasons for their renewed intervention.

Not only “their genius has nourished our literary and poetic imaginations for more than a century”, but their current graves – in Charleville, Lorraine for Rimbaud, in a cemetery on the Paris Ringstrasse for Verlaine – are “unworthy”.

There is also the homophobic persecution that Verlaine most of all endured.

Image rightsGetty ImagesImage descriptionThe revolver that Verlaine used to try to kill his lover was auctioned in 2016

It is well known that the poets’ relationship ended in 1873 when Verlaine fired a gun in Brussels and Rimbaud slightly wounded.

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Rimbaud refused to prosecute, but the Belgian police went ahead anyway and their report was heavily marked by their dislike of the poets’ relationship.

Verlaine spent a year and a half in prison.

Arthur Rimbaud: October 20, 1854 – November 10, 1891

The French culture minister says she sometimes comes to cabinet meetings with Rimbaud’s 1871 poem, The Drunken Boat, on her mind.

As I drove down listless rivers, I no longer felt guided by shippers

Yelping Redskins had targeted them and nailed them naked to colored stakes

Paul Verlaine: March 30, 1844 – January 8, 1896

Lines of Verlaines Chanson d’automne were used to warn the French Resistance of the impending Allied landings in Normandy during World War II.

Les sanglots longs / Of the violins / The long sigh of the violins of autumn

Wounded my heart in a monotonous indolence

Society “takes revenge”

But opponents of pantheonization say it would make fun of what the poets actually stood for – which was certainly not a membership in the French establishment. Rather, it was freedom, rebellion and a refusal to turn to the cultural zeitgeist.

Image rightsGetty ImagesImage descriptionOver 120 years after Rimbaud’s death, letters are still being sent to this mailbox in the cemetery where he is buried

“Everything in your life, everything in your work shows that you are turning your back on society,” said the writer Étienne de Montety in the French newspaper Le Figaro. “They were passionate about freedom until they made transgression an art form.”

“Society is annoyed with the easy today and takes revenge. With the help of science and government, it tries to co-opt them.”

Others have suggested that the support of the motherland was not the poets’ strength.

In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Rimbaud even said he would welcome a Prussian victory. And of the Pantheon itself, the poet once said that it was an “official acropolis that is leading modern barbarism to new extremes”.

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