Born in Metz, he was educated at a lycée in Paris and then took up a post in the civil service. He began writing poetry at an early age, and was initially influenced by the Parnassien movement and its leader, Charles Leconte de Lisle.
Verlaine's first published collection, Poemes saturniens (1867), though criticised by Sainte-Beuve, established him as a poet of promise and originality. Verlaine's private life spills over into his work, beginning with his love for Mathilde Maute, who became his wife. By 1872 he had lost interest in her, and effectively abandoned her and their son, preferring the company of his homosexual lover, the poet Arthur Rimbaud. Verlaine was a heavy drinker, and shot Rimbaud in a jealous rage, fortunately not killing him. As an indirect result of the incident, he was arrested and imprisoned at Mons, where he underwent a religious conversion, which again influenced his work. Romances sans paroles was the poetic outcome of this period.
Following his release, Verlaine travelled to England, where he worked for some years as a teacher and worked on another successful collection, Sagesse. He returned to France in 1877, and, while teaching English at a school in Rethel , became infatuated with one of his pupils, Lucien Letinois, who inspired further poems. Verlaine was devastated when the boy died of typhoid fever.
Verlaine's last years witnessed a descent into alcoholism, insanity, and poverty. Yet even in his lifetime, his poetry was recognised as ground-breaking. Perhaps the best-known of Verlaine's poems is Chanson d'automne, largely thanks to its use as a code message for the Allies during the Second World War. Verlaine's poetry was also popular with musicians, such as Gabriel Fauré, who set several of his poems, including La bonne chanson.
Numerous portraits of Verlaine were left by French artists. Among the most illustrious: Henri Fantin-Latour, Antonio de La Gandara, Eugène Carrière , Frédéric Cazals , and Thèophile-Alexandre Steinlen .
On his death in 1896, Paul Verlaine was interred in the Cimetière des Batignolles in Paris.