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Arthur Rimbaud ESSAYS & VARIOUSLY...

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Page 1


Primo piano del giovane Arthur
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"The Child of Anger"
"The Infernal Husband"
"The Man with Foot Soles of Wind"


"The man was tall, well-built, almost athletic, with a perfectly oval face of an angel in exile, with untidy light brown hair and eyes of a disturbing pale blue"

- Paul Verlaine: The Accursed Poets

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"This Considerable Passer-By"


"Glare, him, of a meteor, lit without any other motive than his presence, born alone and dying out".

"... the one, who rejects dreams, by his fault or theirs, and operates on himself, alive, for poetry, later can find only far, very far, a new state. Oblivion includes the space of the desert or the sea."

- Stéphane Mallarmé: letter to M. Harrison, Rhodes. "Arthur Rimbaud",
The Chap Book Review, May 15, 1895 and Divagations, 1897

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Rimbaud fumant, par Verlaine


Arthur Rimbaud
From Poet to Adventurer:

Jean Nicolas Arthur RIMBAUD was born in Charleville, in the Ardennes, on October 20, 1854. His father, Captain of Infantry Frédéric Rimbaud and his mother Vitalie Cuif, who came from a farming family of Ardennes, married in 1853. Arthur had an elder brother, Frédéric and two sisters, Vitalie and Isabelle, respectively born in 1858 and in 1860.

Their father joined his regiment in Grenoble for good, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. After his time in the army, he chose to retire to Dijon rather than return home. Deeply hurt, his wife no longer talked about him. The children were very strictly educated, because their mother feared that they would follow the bad example of their father and their maternal Uncles Cuif.

The two boys entered the Rossat Institute. In 1865, they entered Charleville College, where Arthur met Ernest Delahaye, who remained his most faithful friend.

As a brilliant student and a model pupil, he won many prizes, especially in rhetoric. When he was thirteen years old, he secretly sent a tribute to the Imperial Prince, who had just taken his first communion. He wrote his first lines in Latin. In 1869, he won the first prize in an academic contest for Ver Erat, The Angel and The Child, and Jugurtha. One of his professors from his third year, Mr. Pérette said about him: "Intelligent, as much as you want, but he has eyes and a smile which I do not like. He will end badly: in any case, nothing banal will germinate in that head: he will be the genius of good or evil!"

In January 1870, the Review published his first lines: the Orphans' New Year gifts. Then a new teacher of rhetoric, Georges Izambard, himself a poet, arrived from Paris. He became fond of Arthur and made him happy by letting him use his personal library. Mrs Rimbaud, however, strongly disapproved for she thought that some of the books would corrupt her son.

On May 24, 1870, hoping to be published in the contemporary Parnassus, Arthur sent to Theodore Banville: Sensation, Ophelia and Credo in Unam (first Sun and Flesh version), then the following year What we say to the poet about flowers. He was not discouraged by these failures.

In 1871, France waged war against Prussia. Everything was in chaos. Izambard left for Douai allowing Arthur access to his library. Arthur walked round and round and became really bored: "My city is exceptionally idiotic among all the small provincial towns" he wrote to Izambard."

On August 29th, for the first time, he ran away to Paris, via Charleroi. His ticket was not valid for the whole journey and he was imprisoned in Mazas. Following the intervention of Izambard, he was released and went to Douai to spend fifteen days at the Gindre Ladies' house, Izambard's elderly aunts. He was not greeted warmly on his return.

On October 7th, Arthur ran away again for Belgium (Charleroi), then Brussels, before returning to the Gindre Ladies' house in Douai. There, he wrote up his poems and sent them to Paul Demeny, a young poet introduced to him by Yzambard.

On November 1st, Rimbaud's mother asked the Police to bring him back home. The college buildings were requisitioned as a hospital and the school was closed. So Arthur spent a lot of time in Charleville's library. On February 25, 1871, he ran away one more time to Paris, by train. Completely broke, he wandered the streets for fifteen days and finally went back on foot to Charleville on March 10th.

When the Commune broke out in Paris on March 18th, he sympathised with the insurrectionists. He expressed his feelings in Parisian Song of War, Jeanne-Marie's Hands, Paris is Repeopled. He was completely revolted, became anarchist, violent, started to drink and had fun to behave scandalously. It was the "disorder of all the senses". He explained his behaviour and feelings to his friends Izambard and Demeny in two letters known as "of the Visionary". He asked Demeny to burn the poems that he previously sent to him, judging them outmoded. Fortunately, his friend did not do it.

At the end of August, he wrote and sent poems to Verlaine. Charmed, Verlaine invited him to Paris: "Come, dear great soul, you are called, you are awaited". Mid-September, Rimbaud went to Paris with his poem, The Drunken Boat.

Verlaine was married to the rich girl of a middle-class man, Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville, and was living in his parents-in-law's home. The arrival of Arthur caused a scandal in the family, because of his rude, untidy and insulting behaviour. He was so undesirable, that he was finally lodged with different friends of Verlaine. Verlaine subsequently returned to drinking and spent most of his time hanging about with Rimbaud. They kept company with the Circle Zutique of poets, created by Charles Cros, who met at Hotel Des Etrangers, boulevard Saint-Michel, and contributed to the collective Album of the group. Ernest Cabaner, the barman, was teaching piano to Rimbaud with the method of musical chromaticism, colouring notes and giving them the sound of a vowel (It seems to be the real source of Rimbaud's inspiration for the poem Vowels). Arthur was his assistant in the club for some months, and was allowed to sleep in the room. But with his sullen and aggressive attitude, and being rude to everybody, Arthur was quickly frowned on by all. Verlaine was supporting him. Their love affair was a scandal. They led a dissolute life and haunted Cafes, getting drunk with absinthe. A victim of marital violence, Mathilde ended up fleeing with her son.

In March, Verlaine promised to break off his relationship with Rimbaud, who had returned to Charleville, so she agreed to go back home. Back to Paris in May, Arthur was so disappointed by his Parisian experience and by Verlaine who preferred his life as a good father, that he decided to travel, with or without him. He contacted Verlaine and succeeded in persuading him to go with him. Together they left for Brussels in July 1872. Mathilde wanted to bring her husband back home, so she joined them with her mother. But Verlaine preferred to follow Rimbaud and abandoned her at the station, near the frontier. She went back to Paris and asked for a legal separation.

At the beginning of September, they went from Ostend to London. They saw the sea for the first time. On their arrival, they contacted the exile Communards, like Eugène Vermersh and Félix Regamey. They were helped to settle near Soho, 34 Howland Street. Being enthusiastic about the town, Rimbaud composed part of the Illuminations and Verlaine wrote the "Romances sans Paroles".

But Verlaine was harassed by the papers resulting of his wife's request for a legal separation. She could cite his fits of violence due to alcohol and his abnormal behaviour in Brussels against him. He lost heart and lamented, overwhelmed with remorse. Following his mother's advice, Rimbaud went back to Charleville in December. He stayed three weeks there. Depressed and sick, Verlaine called for help desperately. Arthur and Verlaine's mother went to his bedside.

Life went on as before with walks, reading and studies. On April 4th, they left London. Verlaine went to Namur, always obsessed by the idea of being reconciled with his wife. But she refused all contact. All alone, Arthur returned to Roche on April 11th and started to write a Pagan Book, or Negro Book, which became A Season in Hell.

At the beginning of July, he agreed to go back to London with Verlaine, via Liège and Anvers. They settled in 8 Great College street, Camden Town. They improved their English and gave French lessons. Their strange love affair begun to be known in the Communard circle of London, which expelled them. It was mentioned in the reports of the police informers, who infiltrated the group. Verlaine felt that his reputation was lost and began to see that he would lose his case against his wife if the rumour was heard in Paris. He started to drink again. Arthur was more and more unbearable. They began to fight more and more often with fists, but also with knifes. Following a violent argument, Verlaine left Rimbaud and took refuge in Brussels, still hoping that her wife would come and that they would be reconciled. Very emotional, he spoke about suicide in his letters. His mother joined him and he sent a telegram for Arthur to come too.

On July 10th, understanding that Rimbaud absolutely wanted to go back to Paris, Verlaine fired two shots from a revolver at him. One of them hits him in the wrist. After being treated in the Saint-Jean hospital, Arthur made his way towards the station. As Verlaine was threatening him again, he took fright and called a policeman. Verlaine was taken to the police station and the day after, he was transferred to the prison of Petites-Carmes. He was subjected to a medico-legal examination which concluded that he had homosexual habits. On August 8th, he was sentenced to two years of imprisonment by Brussels magistrates' court for assaults and grievous bodily harm, and got a 200F fine, in spite of Rimbaud's declaration in his favour. Arthur was hospitalised so the bullet could be removed from his wrist.

On July 20th, after having signed an act of renunciation of his complaint the day before, Arthur was in despair and went back to Roche. He locked himself up in his loft to finish A Season in Hell.

In August, he brought the manuscript to a printer in Brussels. October 22nd, being unable to pay for the printer, he took some copies, gave them to rare friends, and abandoned the edition of his book. But he only found hostility: everybody reproached him about the decline of Paul. He left one signed specimen for Verlaine in prison.

In March 1874, he went back to London with Germain Nouveau, another poet who helped him to write up the Illuminations. They settled in 178 Stamford Street and gave French lessons. Nouveau went back to Paris in June, probably to escape Arthur's bad reputation which could damage his promising young career. Depressed, Arthur wrote a letter to his family and in July, he received a visit from his mother and sister Vitalie. On July 31st, he left London for a job in Scarborough. He went back to Charleville at the end of December.

Until 1879, he wandered, most of time on foot, in all Europe.

On February 13, 1875, he left for Stuttgart, as a tutor, after having studied German for a few weeks. On March 2nd, he was joined there by Verlaine. Paul had just come out of prison and was in full crisis of religious exaltation. "Verlaine arrived here the other day, a rosary in the claws" he wrote to Delahaye on March 5th. "Three hours after, we had renounced his god and bled the 98 wounds of Our Lord. He remained two days and half extremely reasonable and on my remonstration went back to Paris". Rimbaud gave the manuscript of the Illuminations to him to have it published. They would never see each other again.

As Arthur was short of money, he asked for Verlaine's financial help in a letter. But Paul refused, so Arthur sent him another letter full of insults. Yet Verlaine went on to be interested in what would happen to his friend, sending letters to him and getting no answers. He went on to get some news by Delahaye or Nouveau, their mutual friends.

At the beginning of May, Arthur left Stuttgart on foot for Italy. Exhausted and sick, he spent one month in Milan at a widow's house, and set off towards the South again in June. Falling ill of a touch of heat-stroke, he was repatriated in Marseilles by the French Consul in Leghorn. From there, he went back to Paris, where he worked as a tutor, then returned to Charleville at the beginning of October. He spent winter to study languages, in particular Russian and Arabic, then had a passion for music and piano.

On December 18th, his favourite sister Vitalie died of a tuberculous synovitis. Deeply affected, he shaved his head as a sign of mourning.

On Spring 1876, he set out again for Vienna and had hardly arrived, he was stripped by a coach driver. Without a penny, he was escorted back to the frontier by the police and returned on foot to Charleville.

In May, he crossed Belgium and enlisted in the colonial Dutch army. He arrived in Batavia, deserted three weeks later and went back to Europe on a Scottish ship. Back to Charleville in December, he spent winter there, then set out again towards the North: Cologne, Bremen. He was found working as an interpreter in a circus on tour in Denmark and Norway. He tried to join the American Navy.

In autumn, he passed by Charleville and boarded in Marseilles for Alexandria, but sick, he was evacuated to a hospital. After one month spent in Rome, he came back to Charleville.

In 1878, he was seen in Paris for Easter, then helped his family to work in the farm during the summer. In October, he set out on foot again, crossed Saint-Gothard in snow, and from Genoa, took the boat for Alexandria. On December 16th, he was in Cyprus, team header in a stone quarry in Lanarka. Six months later, sick with typhoid fever, he went back to Roche to be treated.

Autumn 1879, false start. In Marseilles, feverish, he turned back to Roche. Delahaye who visited him, told:

"First I only recognised his so extraordinarily beautiful eyes - with a light blue iris surrounded by a darker ring of periwinkle blue colour. Round in the past, his cheeks looked hollow, squared, hardened. The fresh complexion of an English child that he kept a long time had let place, in that interval of two years, to the dark skin of a Kabyle, and on that tanned skin, new thing which amused me, a fawn-blond beard curled tightly, that was a long time coming - he was going on 25 - like it happens, one believes, to people of a strong race. Another sign of complete physical masculinity, his voice losing the nervous timbre, somewhat childish, that I had known until now, had become low, deep, filled with calm energy" [...].

In the evening, after dinner, I risked to ask him if he was still thinking about ... literature. Shaking his head, he had a half-amused, half-irritated smile, as if I had asked him: "Do you still play with a hoop?" and simply answered:" I do not mind about it anymore".

This winter in the Ardennes was very hard for him, he could not stand the cold anymore.

In March 1880, he went back to Cyprus where he supervised the construction of the governor's residence. Then he worked as a foreman in another stone quarry. At the beginning of August, he arrived at Aden and signed a contract with Bardey's and Co import-export agency. He was supervising the selection of coffee as foreman. Three months later, he was posted to Bardey's new branch store, in Harer, Abyssinia. In May 1881, he contracted syphilis. Alfred Bardey, who visited the new agency, helped him to be treated.

During ten years, he moved on between Aden and Harer, made trade, crossed the country on foot, horse, alone or with caravans. He spoke Arabic and learned the local languages. He merged into the population.

He found Aden dreadful, "it is a rock without a blade of grass nor a good water drop": they drank distilled sea water. The heat was excessive there and all was very expensive. On the other hand, he was feeling much better in Harer where there was more air and greenery.

Isolated, he took up with his family again, his only ties in Europe. The most part of his letters were addressed to his mother and sister. He entrusted them part of his savings. He had plans: new trading posts, expeditions, to write a work on Harer or the Gallas country. He ordered a camera. He red many technical works and took an interest in Koran.

"This is only to remind you of my face and to give you an idea of the landscapes from here". But he was bored:

"[...] For me, I regret not being married and having a family. But now I am condemned to wander, attached to a faraway company, and every day I lose the taste for the climate and the manners of living, and even the language of Europe. Alas! What is the use of these comings and goings, and these tiredness and these adventures among strange races, and these languages of which the memory is filled, and these troubles without name, if I must not a day, after some years, be able to rest in a place that I like more or less, and find a family, and have at least a son that I spend the rest of my life to raise with my own idea, to enrich and to arm of the more complete possible instruction that can be reached at that time, and that I see become a famous engineer, a man powerful and rich by the science? But who knows how long can last my days in these mountains? And I could disappear in the middle of these tribes, without the news never coming out of it [...]" Letter to his family, May 6th, 1883

Letter by Rimbaud to French Consul
In February 1884, The Society of Geography published in its bulletin the report written by Rimbaud for Alfred Bardey on the Ogaden country where he had organised several expeditions. The company which employed him having gone bankrupt, he closed Harer agency and returned to Aden in April 1884. He was accompanied by an Abyssinian girl and lived with her for two years.

Then he left Bardey's agency and decided to be engaged in arms dealing, by delivering rifles to Menilek, King of Showa, in war against Emperor Jean of Abyssinia. This adventure mobilised him from October 1885 to July 1887, and proved to be disastrous. His partners Pierre Lebatut and Paul Soleillet died. The first one from a cancer of the throat, the second from a stroke in a street of Aden. So he left alone with the caravan. The delivery having arrived too late, he was obliged to sell off the prices and to pay Lebatut's debts. During this time, in Paris, people started to speak about him. Verlaine published the Accursed Poets, with a chapter about the “Man with the foot soles of wind”, and at the beginning of summer 1886, the Illuminations appeared in the review the Vogue.

At the end of July 1887, he went to Cairo with Djami Wadaï, his young servant, to take some rest a few weeks. A daily newspaper from there, the "Egyptian Bosphore", published the notes he wrote during his expedition in Showa. October 8th, he was back to Aden.

In March 1888, he set up a new trade agency in Harer in partnership with César Tian, a trader of Aden. He became storekeeper, sold hardware, barters. And was always bored. His best friend was Alfred Ilg, Swiss engineer, who became Menelik's Prime Minister.

In France, articles appeared about him, poems were published, he began to be well-known and to arouse curiosity. Arthur learned it by a letter he received from an old classmate, Paul Bourde. He kept it preciously.

According to people who have known him in Africa, he was a taciturn, withdrawn, unsociable man with a dry sense of humour. Honest, scrupulous, methodical trader and accountant, demanding a lot to others and to himself too, having a very simple life, almost ascetic, liking to make good around him by helping the poor, but of an inconstant nature, irritable, grumpy and moaning in his bad days.

In February 1891, a pain with the right knee started to prevent him from walking. The state of his leg getting worse, he closed the agency. Having a stretcher made, covered with canvas, he was carried by men to cross the 300 kilometres of desert to the port of Zeïlah and the journey was a real torture. In Aden, the doctor of the European hospital diagnosed synovitis to a so advanced stage that amputation was necessary. Because of the exhausted, overworked and underfed state of Arthur, synovitis quickly developed into a cancerous tumour (carcinoma). Hereditarily, it was also the weakness of all the children Rimbaud as Vitalie, Arthur's younger sister, died of a synovitis complicated with tuberculosis and Isabelle would die of a similar disease in 1922.

Arthur found the strength to liquidate his business, and on May 9th, took the boat for France. On May 27th, he had his right leg amputated at the Conception hospital in Marseilles. His mother joined him then set out again. Arthur was in despair because of her too sudden departure and did not forgive her. He tried to relearn to walk with crutches, then with a wooden leg. For this great walker, it was a punishment without end. His sister became the only confidante of his despair:

"[...] I begin again to walk with crutches. What a nuisance, what a fatigue, what a sadness when I think about all my ancient travels, and how active I was just 5 months ago! Where are the runnings across mountains, the cavalcades, the walks, the deserts, the rivers and the seas? And now, the life of a legless cripple. For I begin to understand that crutches, wooden and articulated legs are a pack of jokes and that with them we just can drag ourselves miserably without being able to do something. And to think I precisely had decided to come back to France this summer to get married! Goodbye to wedding, goodbye to family, goodbye to future! My life is gone, I'm no more than an immobile trunk [...]"
Letter to his sister Isabelle, July 10, 1891

On July 23, he went back to Roche in a special carriage, looked after by his sister Isabelle. One month later, he set off with her to Marseilles again, thinking of being better treated over there. At his arrival to the station, he was taken to hospital. Cancer was general. His state was becoming worse, he started to be delirious and scared, asked for going back to Harer, and for his young servant Djami who stayed there.

He died on November 10, 1891, at 37 years old. He was buried in Charleville.

"[...] But to always live at the same place, I will always find that very unfortunate. Finally, the most probable is that we rather go where we don't want to, and that we rather do what we would not like to do, and that we live and die quite differently than we would not ever like it, without hope of any sort of compensation [...]"
Letter to his family, January 15, 1885

Isabelle decided to restore his brother's good name, and told that he died like a good Christian. Respecting his last wishes, she paid the legacy of 750 thalaris to Djami. As he was also dead, probably during the famine in Harer, the settlement went to his heirs. With the help of her husband, Paterne Berrichon (pseudonym of Pierre-Eugène Dufour), great admirer of Rimbaud that she would marry in 1897 after a lengthy correspondence, she worked to publish Arthur's work and biographical memories.

There are uncertainties regarding some parts of the poems as they were written most of the time on loose sheets, except the leafs entrusted to Demeny, where Arthur had written up his first poems when he was in Douai, in October 1870. Also coexist several versions, in the letters he wrote to his friends, without nobody really knowing which is the final one. Some, of which Verlaine made mention in his writings, are lost or have been destroyed.


MORTAL, angel AND demon, as to say Rimbaud,
You deserve the first place in this book of mine,
Despite of such smart scribbler called you a beardless ribaud*,
And a budding monster, and a drunken schoolboy.

The first place yet in the temple of Memory
All the spirals of incense, all the chords of lute!
And your radiant name will sing in the glory,
Because you loved me as it had to be.

The women will see you, tall young man very strong,
Very handsome of a rustic and wily beauty,
With an indolently daring attitude;
History sculptured you triumphing over death
Omnipotent Poet and victorious of life,
Your white feet put on Envy's heads.

Paul Verlaine

- As published for the first time in the review
"Le Chat Noir" (The Black Cat) on August 24, 1899.

~ *A ribaud is a debauched person.


(a bit more succint, if you’re in a hurry)

Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)

French poet and adventurer, who stopped writing verse at the age of 21, and became after his early death an inextricable myth in French gay life. Rimbaud's poetry, partially written in free verse, is characterized by dramatic and imaginative vision. "I say that one must be a visionary - that one must make oneself a VISIONARY." His works are among the most original in the Symbolist movement, which included in France such poets as Stéphane Mallarme and Paul Paul Verlaine, and playwrights as Maurice Maeterlinck. Rimbaud's best-known work, LE BÂTEAU IVRE (The Drunken Boat), appeared in 1871. In the poem he sent a toy boat on a journey, an allegory for a spiritual quest.

It is found again.
What? Eternity.
It is the sea
Gone with the sun.
(from 'L'Éternite', 1872)

Arthur Rimbaud was born in Charleville, in the northern Ardennes region of France, as the son of Fréderic Rimbaud, a career soldier, who had served in Algria, and Marie-Catherine-Vitale Cuif, an unsentimental matriarch. Rimbaud's father left the family and from the age of six young Arthur was raised by her strictly religious mother. Rimbaud was educated in a provincial school until the age of fifteen. He was an outstanding student but his behavior was considered provocative. After publishing his first poem in 1870 at the age of 16, Rimbaud wandered through northern France and Belgium, and was returned to his home in Paris by police.

In 1871 he met poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), whose collection of poems, Les Amies (1867) had been banned by a court. Verlaine was an alcoholic who had a taste for absinthe. He left his family - his young wife, Mathilde Mauté, was expecting a baby - and fled with the teenaged Rimbaud to London in 1872 to live a Bohemian life. Most of the time they lived in poverty and abused drink and drugs. Rimbaud accepted uncleaniness, including body lice, but Verlaine was horrified by the English cuisine, especially "the abominable oxtail soup": "Fie on such a horror! A man's sock with a rotten clitoris floating in it." Their relationship ended next year in Brussels, when Rimbaud tried to break off the relationship. Verlaine, drunk and desolate, shot Rimbaud in the wrist with a 7mm pistol after a quarrel. Verlaine was tried for attempted murder and sent to Brussels' Amigo Detention Center. Rimbaud returned to the family farm in Roche, where he finished his UNE SAISON EN ENFER (A Season in Hell).

Rimbaud's collection of poetry and prose pieces, A Season in Hell, appeared in 1873. "One evening, I sat Beauty in my lap. - And I found her bitter. - And I cursed her." Rimbaud gave some copies of the book to his friends - one was sent to P. Verlaine at the Petits Carmes Prison - but the spiritual autobiography did not receive any reviews. After completing in England ILLUMINATIONS, a collection of prose poems, Rimbaud gave up literature and burned his manuscripts. In 1901 the first edition of A Season in Hell was found at the printers' in its original packing. Eventually the work became a touchstone for anguished poets, artists, and lovers. In 1874 Rimbaud spent some time in London with Germain Nouveau, a young poet, who had only one testicle. Nouveau member of the Zutistes circle - a group of poets who wrote verses in a notebook, the Zutiste Album. At the British Library Rimbaud was not allowed to read Marquis de Sade's books because he was under twenty-one. Verlaine, whom Rimbaud saw last time in 1875, and with whom he had a violent quarrel, published a selection of Rimbaud's poems and wrote about him in LES POÈTES MAUDITS (1884).

In 1875-76 Rimbaud learned several languages, English, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Arabic and Greek, and started his vagabond life again. He worked a teacher in Germany, unloaded cargo in Marseilles, enlisted in the Netherlands army but deserted in Sumatra. In 1876 Rimbaud robbed a cabman in Vienna. In the last dozen years of his life, Rimbaud worked in the import-export field for series of French employers dealing everything from porcelain to weaponry - possibly he was a slave dealer.

Rimbaud arrived in 1880 in Aden after short sojourns in Java and Cyprus. Rimbaud made business travels in modern-day Yemen, Ethiopia, and Egypt, and walked occasionally hundreds of miles at the head of trading caravans through dangerous lands. He was the first European to penetrate into the country of Ogadain. His expertise and learning of the language, religion, and culture of local peoples was acknowledged when the French Geographical Society deemed his commercial and geographical report on East Africa worthy of publication.

In 1886 Verlaine published Rimbaud's book of poems, Illuminations. It revealed Rimbaud's longing for spiritual values and reestablished his reputation as a major poet. A rumor started to spread in September 1888 that Rimbaud was dead and next year Le Décadent published as a joke a list of donors to the statue of Rimbaud. In February 1891 Rimbaud felt pain in his left knee, and went to Marseilles to see a doctor. The leg had to be amputated because of enormous, cancerous swelling. Rimbaud died in Marseilles on November 10, 1891, and was buried in Charleville in strict family intimacy. Isabelle, Rimbaud's sister, had never known till after her brother's death, that he had been a poet. Rimbaud's African servant boy, Djami Wadaï, was one of his major heirs apart from his family.

Rimbaud's statue at Charleville

Dans la feuillée, écrin vert taché d'or,
Dans la feuillée incertaine et fleurie
De splendides fleurs où le baiser dort,
Vif et crevant l'exquise broderie,
Un faune égaré montre ses deux yeux
Et mord les fleurs rouges de ses dents blanches.
Brunie et sanglante ainsi qu'un vin vieux,
Sa lévre éclate en rires sous les branches.
Et quand il a fui - tel qu'un écureuil, -
Son rire tremble encore à chaque feuille,
Et l'on voit épeuré par un bouvreuil
Le Baiser d'or du Bois, qui se recueille.

Tutti gli uomini di Rimbaud

Selected works:
    • LE BÂTEAU IVRE, 1871 – The Drunken Boat
    • UNE SAISON EN ENFER, 1873 - A Season in Hell
    • ILLUMINATIONS, 1886 - (ed. by Paul Verlaine)
    • LE RELIQUAIRE, 1891
    • POÈMES, 1891
    • POÉSIES COMPLÈTES, 1895 (publ. by Verlaine)
    • LETTRES, 1899
    • LETTRES (1870-1875), 1931
    • ŒUVRES, 1931
    • POÉSIES, 1939
    • CORRESPONDANCE 1888-91, 1970
    Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works, 1976
    • Rimbaud Complete Works: Selected Letters, 1987
    Rimbaud: Poems, 1994

Rimbaud banner

(because I like it!)

by Pierre Ferrand

Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) is undoubtedly one of the most puzzling figures among the world’s famous poets. As a result, he has been the subject of endless controversy, and he is forever quoted and interpreted out of context.

A case in point is Henry Miller’s 1946 essay, called The Time of the Assassins. Not that Miller didn’t work at trying to understand Rimbaud. He said that he adored him “above all other writers,” and read and reread his writings and correspondence in French as well as in English, though he confessed that “I come to him through the fog of a language I never mastered.” (Shame on him, since he spent nearly a decade in France in the 30s!). Miller pored over scholarly interpretations of his life and art (in English), such as the well-regarded studies by Enid Starkie and Wallace Fowlie.

Miller is not the only commentator to consider Rimbaud a “voyant,” a seer or a prophet, though he is presumably the first to suggest that he somehow predicted the atomic bomb with his phrase about “the time of the assassins.” While this was clearly timely in 1946, it remains nevertheless absurd. In the first place, Rimbaud himself, who used what he knew to be the fashionable romantic term, “voyant,” to describe his artistic intentions in a letter to a friend, clearly meant little more by it than novel ways of poetic expression. His mention of “the time of the assassins” in his prose poem entitled “A Morning of Intoxication” has no conceivable prophetic meaning in context and may refer to experimentation with hashish.

While Rimbaud was, like many teenagers, a very self-centered and self-absorbed young man, he was somewhat more socially-conscious than Miller, a model of immature irresponsibility. He showed some awareness of the horrors of the Franco-Prussian war in one of his poems, indicated his sympathy for the revolutionary French Communards of 1871, and, in several prose poems, clearly denounced colonialism. He was on the side of the victims and the oppressed, and also rejected with violent sarcasm and, indeed, blasphemy, the religious practices of his childhood and, during his later teens, most aspects of conventional morality.

Miller said that he identified with Rimbaud “as in a mirror.” We may question the similarity between the two writers. True, Miller, too, was a narcissistic outsider, wishing to shock the establishment. He also had something of the French poet’s gift of gab, though he is not memorable, like Rimbaud, for his many haunting and quotable phrases, nor for poems of remarkable intensity and beauty. He had the same urge to scandalize his readers by his often scatological excesses of language and to boast about his wicked ways. Like the French poet, he was very willing to be just a parasite, supported by his friends. Rimbaud, however, had the excuse of extreme youth.

Miller admits that he started to be creative literarily at an age when Rimbaud was dead, after nearly four decades of drifting through dull and frustrating professions. Rimbaud’s dull and frustrating workaday life (in exotic places), began after he had stopped being creative.

Rimbaud had been a gifted youngster who revolted against his petty bourgeois upbringing in the dull provincial town of Charleroi, in the French Ardennes. His family was not poor, but he was raised by an exceedingly devout mother who did not want her teenage boy to read such immoral books as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, frowned at her son’s interest in literature and planned for him some respectable profession, such as businessman, teacher, or engineer. His father (a French colonial officer) had abandoned her and her children when he was a small child.

A good student, Rimbaud read voraciously and without much discrimination, won several prizes in Latin composition and attracted the attention of a young teacher of liberal views, Georges Izambard, some five years older than he was. The very proper and decent Izambard lent him books, encouraged him to write, and treated him like a younger brother. Among the poems directly inspired by his teacher (who had given him Latin homework on the subject) is the lovely one about Shakespeare’s Ophelia, one of my favorites. It has always reminded me of the fine painting by John Everett Millais.

A few weeks after the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, so disastrous for France, Rimbaud, 15 years old, fled from home against Izambard’s advice to go to Paris by train. Arrested for traveling without a ticket, he was rescued from prison by his teacher. He fled Charleroi two more times during the next few months, but had to return home, mostly walking all the way because he had no money.

He tried to interest some established poets in his own verse, with little success, until he was placed in contact with Paul Verlaine, who was enthusiastic. He particularly admired Rimbaud’s best-known poem, “The Drunken Boat,” [see translation below] just completed. Verlaine, a decade older than Rimbaud, had already published several well-regarded volumes of poetry, which Rimbaud had read and appreciated. Verlaine wrote, off and on, some the loveliest French 19th Century verse. He had married less than two years earlier after promising to mend his ways in a beautiful series of poems dedicated to his fiance (he had bohemian morals and was a heavy drinker). He did not hesitate to invite the 16-year-old boy to his Paris home in September, 1871, at a time his wife expected a child, sending him a money order to cover the expenses for the trip.

The liaison with Rimbaud contributed to the break-up of Verlaine’s marriage. So did their drunken debauchery, especially since Verlaine was apt to be quite violent when drunk, even to his own mother and baby son. His wife, fearing for her life, eventually secured a separation and then a divorce from her husband, despite attempts at reconciliation. Rimbaud and Verlaine lived together, off and on, for nearly two years, chiefly in England, where Verlaine supported Rimbaud and his own drinking habit by teaching French. On July 9, 1873, while in Brussels, Rimbaud stated his intention to leave Verlaine. The next day, Verlaine, drunk as usual, shot and wounded Rimbaud in the wrist. Verlaine was arrested and spent over a year in prison though Rimbaud did not press charges.

Shortly after this incident, Rimbaud, now 19 years old, tried to publish A Season in Hell, a remarkable 54-page sequence of significantly confessional sketches or prose poems, which also include some of his most haunting verse. As he could not pay for the 500 copies printed, they were never distributed and were discovered only half a century later in a warehouse.

A Season in Hell contains a wickedly sarcastic account of his relationship with Verlaine (whom he does not name), and passages indicating his feeling that his revolt against social norms had been a meaningless folly. He also says that his creative efforts, undertaken with great enthusiasm, were equally foolish. Few students of his writings have agreed with this judgment.

After this little booklet, Rimbaud still wrote other prose poems which are part of a collection of 42 pieces known as The Illuminations. While some of them are pleasant or striking, most of them have defied interpretation to this day. He had transmuted French phrases into rich and strange imagery. Even when well-read students can trace his motifs (such as his visions of gigantic cities) to sources like Baudelaire’s prose poems, his own presentation remains fresh and novel. Moreover, his oracular fragments are often eminently quotable.

Apart from three minor poems issued in out-of-the way periodicals and his own abortive attempt at publishing The Season in Hell, nothing of Rimbaud’s French prose and poetry had been printed by 1875, when he was 21. He seems to have considered himself a failure, and totally lost interest in literature.

He then drifted for some five years through much of Europe and the Near East, was a dock worker in Marseilles, an interpreter for a circus in Scandinavia, tried to enlist in the U.S. Army and did enlist in the Dutch Army in Indonesia (but deserted), and supervised a construction site in Cyprus, looked for jobs in Alexandria, periodically returning to the family farm in the Ardennes, exhausted and defeated.

From 1880 on, he stayed in Aden and in Ethiopia as a clerk and later as a trader for his own account. Over 100 letters by him to his family during this time are evidence that after nearly a decade to his dull commercial jobs in the oppressive heat of Aden and the more temperate but dangerous highlands of Abyssinia. He dreamt of further travels to China and elsewhere, but constantly wrote about his need for staying on to accumulate gold. He always carried his hoard around his waist for fear of being robbed. His stated ambition was to retire eventually to France on his accumulated earnings, marry, and raise a family. He lived very soberly, without any drinking or taking of drugs, though, for a couple of years, he had an Abyssinian mistress.

His only readings at this time were technical manuals and treatises on native languages he had asked his family to get him. He also procured some photographic equipment (he did not do well as an amateur photographer). His employers and associates testify that he was hardworking, honest, taciturn, and generally decent, though given to outbursts of rage.

It makes little sense to glamorize the last 16 years of his life as many have done. True, he did organize a trading caravan into an area of Ethiopia where no white man had gone before and wrote to geographic societies and others about his trips which were exhausting and dangerous, but his brief memoirs about them are dull and uninspiring. Contrary to a legend which has survived to this day, he traded in coffee and other products, but never in slaves. He did sell some guns to Menelik, later the ruler of Ethiopia who defeated the Italians, but this was no gun-running venture but a routine business transaction. He apparently lost money on the deal.

Indeed, his long stay in the Middle East, far from being a great adventure, was more of the nature of penance for his excesses as a teenager. Except for religious feelings, he had adopted the conventional bourgeois values of his family with a vengeance. Like his self-proclaimed “mirror image,” Henry Miller, he never escaped the bondage of his childhood, and he never really grew up.

Rimbaud was unaware of the fact that by the mid-1880s, he had been published and promoted in prose and verse by his erstwhile bosom friend Paul Verlaine and had become famous in Parisian literary circles. Verlaine, who had taken copies of much of Rimbaud’s literary production a decade earlier, was definitely a drunken bum by then, despite his talent, though he proclaimed that he had “got religion.” He simply exploited Rimbaud’s work to earn some money for himself, and did not know or really cared whether his former companion was living or dead. He featured him and his verse in his series of essays, “Les Poetes Maudits,” and elsewhere.

Rimbaud returned to France, a very ill man, in 1891, and died after his leg was amputated. He had no idea of his literary fame and no interest in the subject. His pious kid sister Isabel theatrically claimed that he converted on his deathbed, but this is most questionable. There is no independent evidence, and Isabel openly admitted that she omitted and distorted facts to create a myth of her brother’s ultimate quasi-sainthood, and with her husband and some others, engaged in wholesale alteration of documents.

~ Here's a fair translation of Rimbaud's...


As I was descending cold-faced rivers,
I realized I had lost my guides:
Yelping Redskins are taking them for targets,
They've nailed them naked to painted poles.

I didn't give a fuck about the crew or cargo
Of Flemish wheat and English cotton.
When the screams of my haulers had finally ended,
The rivers let me go where I wanted.

In furious tongues of surf last winter
I, being deffer than a child's brain,
Ran! And the peninsula took off
Unused to such triumphant noise.

The storm has blessed my awakening.
More light than a cork I dance on the waves
That are called the eternal rollers of victims,
Ten nights, without missing the inane look of the lanterns.

More sweet than the flesh of sour apples to boys
The green water entered my hull of fir
And washed the vomit and blue wine
Off me, scattering rudder and grappling hook.

And from then on I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, star-soaked, milk radiant, gulping
Down the green sky-blue; where the pallid debris
Is stirred by the drowned man's passing thoughts.

Where all of a sudden the blueness is dyed: madness
And slow rhythms under the gleam of day,
Stronger than alcohol, more vast than our song,
The bitter red dots of love ferment!

I know the skies bursting with lightning, and the waterspout
And the undertow and the currents: I've been the evening,
The Dawn, as elated as the nation of doves,
And at times I've seen what man believes he's seen!

I've seen the setting sun, stained with mystical horror,
Light up the long purple jellies
Like actors of ancient dramas
The waves roll away their quivering shutters!

I've dreamed the green night of dazzling snows,
A kiss wells up slowly to the eyes of the sea,
The circulation of previously unimaginable saps,
And the yellow and blue dawn of crooning phosphor!

I have followed for many ripe months the cowish
Hysterical pounding of swells on the reefs,
Without supposing that the glowing feet of the Marys
Could kick in the face of the wheezing seas!

I have hit upon, understand, unbelievable Floridas
Mingling with flowers the eyes of panthers-in-
Man-skin! The rainbows tight as reins
Beneath the oceans to some glaucous flocks!

I have seen the enormous swamp ferment, fish-net
Where in the rushes rots a prehistoric whale!
Water collapse cascading in the midst of calm,
And distances that lead to a torrential emptiness!

Glaciers, silver suns, nacreaous waves, glowing embers of sky!
Hideous wreckage on the floor of brown gulfs
Where the giant snakes devoured by bugs
Sink, like torn trees, in black perfumes!

I would have loved to show the children these gilt-heads
From the ocean blue, these fish of gold, these fish that lyricize.
--Flower foam rocks my formless drift
And ineffable breezes make wings of me at times.

Sometimes, a martyr weary of zones and poles,
The sob of the seas gentled my rocking,
Lifting its flowers of shadow on yellow suction pads
And I stayed there, like a kneeling woman...

Nearly an island, tossing around my banks the quarrels
And dung of blond-eyed birds.
And I sailed along, as across my frail lines
Drowned men sank to sleep backwards!

Thus I, boat lost beneath the hair of coves,
Thrown by the storm into birdless ether,
I, the ruin drunk with water, would not
Have been rescued by the Monitors of Hanseatic caravelles;

Free, smoking, lifted by the purple mist,
I who pierced the smoldering sky like a wall
Which offers good poets that exquisite jam
The lichen of the sun and infinite-blue mucous;

Who ran, stained by electric half-moons,
Loony board, escorted by black sea-horses,
When the Julys were thrashing and smashing
The sea-blue skies of burning funnels;

I who was shaking, feeling fifty miles away the moan
Of the rutting Hippos and the thick Maelstroms,
I the eternal plyer of the blue immobilities,
I miss the Europe of ancient parapets!

I've seen sidereal archipelegos! and islands
The delerious skies of which are open to the wanderer
--Is it in these ancient nights that you sleep and exile yourself,
Millions of golden birds, oh future Strength?--

But really, I cry too much! The Dawns are beyond hope.
Any moon is atrocious and any sun bitter:
The acrid love inflated me with its heady torpors.
Oh that my keel explode! Oh that I'm all the sea!

If I desire the waters of Europe, it's the puddle
Black and cold, where towards fragrant twilight
A squatting child full of sadnesses, releases
A boat as frail as a butterfly.

I can't anymore, bathed in your languors, oh waves,
Erase the traces of your cotton carriers,
Nor traverse the arrogance of flags and flames,
Nor swim beneath the horrible eyes of slave ships.

The Crux of Rimbaud's Poetics
by Eric Mader-Lin

Arthur Rimbaud--the meaning of Arthur Rimbaud's work--has periodically haunted me since I first read him in English translation at age 16. It was around a year after my first reading of Rimbaud that the following lines appeared in my high school's literary magazine over the name Delahaye:

O, to be a mad poet!
I want to be a mad poet!
Smear my summer legs with blood.
Let me vomit the countryside.

I want a fat grey catfish in my head.
There's a dozen dusty holes in my chest.

I signed this bit of juvenilia with the name Delahaye after the friend of Rimbaud's youth Ernest Delahaye. (1) For I too considered myself a friend of Rimbaud.

At university, I initially took up the study of French in order to get closer to Rimbaud and his project. I majored in Comparative Literature and eventually finished a Masters degree in French. During those seven years of study, my interests in literature developed in different directions. I was no longer studying French mainly for the sake of Rimbaud. I translated prose poetry from Max Jacob's Le Cornet a des--a work I still consider to be of unique importance--and read Flaubert and Baudelaire. I contemplated continuing with French in the PhD. program, intending to do research on Rabelais (a writer for whom Rimbaud had contempt) or another of the great writers of the late Medieval or early Renaissance period. I didn't continue with this PhD.

Through these years of study, I read and reread Rimbaud as well. I read into the criticism on Rimbaud. My experience here was always the same: Rimbaud criticism, Rimbaud's readers over the decades, had missed the essential. Though I often felt myself getting a better grasp of the work of other writers through my study of critical writing on them, in the case of Rimbaud it was usually the opposite. I felt my understanding of his work was not changed in any significant way, and that in fact even readers of great insight when it came to the consideration of other writers' work seemed only capable of writing either banalities or irrelevancies when they took up the task of reading Rimbaud. The adolescent poet from Charleville was the great literary casse-tete.

Rimbaud's critics have generally misplaced the crux of his poetics. They’ve generally ignored the contradiction from which all that is perilous in his work arises. Though the recognition is general that this work constitutes a kind of "brilliant disaster," the basis of both the disaster and the brilliance has yet to be traced. What’s more, it is doubtful that Rimbaud himself ever understood the contradiction that became the necessity of his writing. Rimbaud's writing was coeval with his struggle against this contradiction.

I take it as evident that the essential forces in Rimbaud's project had already consumed themselves before the writing of Une Saison en enfer. The Saison is thus a belated work in Rimbaud's career, in the sense that it was written after the fact. I will go so far as to say that for our purposes the Saison is best considered as a work written by someone other than Rimbaud. It is no longer Rimbaud as the poet of necessity we best know him to be. The Saison is a relatively weak collection of texts; we may consider it the first book of Rimbaud criticism written in a biographical mode. Many such books were to follow.

The question of the Illuminations is more problematic. Doubtless some of the Illuminations antedate Une Saison en enfer and are thus to be considered part of the essential work of the poet Rimbaud. More of them, however, are clearly belated texts written by a man whose fatigue is a symptom of his loss of calling. Most of the Illuminations were not written by the great poet Rimbaud, but rather by a hand that couldn't stop writing. This is not an unprecedented occurrence in the history of literature. The hand continues to write even though the tragic necessity that once compelled its writing has already reached its crisis and is finished. I believe most of the Illuminations to be writing of this sort. This isn’t a judgment based on a distaste for prose poetry--I am, in fact, greatly interested in the odd genre called prose poetry--but rather on a reading of the poems themselves in the context of Rimbaud's other work.

What can this strict paring away of Rimbaud's oeuvre mean? My meaning will hopefully become clear in the course of this essay. For now, I will sum up the above remarks on the different stages of Rimbaud's writing with an analogy. If--and this merely for the sake of illustration--we were to consider the name Rimbaud as the title of a classical tragedy, it would be necessary to place much of the writing ascribed to Rimbaud after Act V.

I have posited two Rimbauds here: the poet who started writing at age 14, and the poet who started writing with Une Saison en enfer. Two things are curious in this regard. First, I believe the greatness of Rimbaud, his significance for us, would be absolutely intact had the Rimbaud who started writing the Saison never existed. The greatness and dignity of Rimbaud the poet would perhaps be even more difficult to avoid than it is now. Second, I believe that if we had only the texts of the Rimbaud who started writing with the Saison--if somehow all of the texts that antedated the Saison were lost--we would not on any account be able to trace out what had been essential in Rimbaud's earlier work. We would know that this earlier work existed, but we would not be able to infer its greatness: we would not be able to reconstitute the necessity of this earlier work. This latter observation further emphasizes what I’ve suggested above: namely, Rimbaud himself did not fully grasp the stakes of his poetics. The later Rimbaud was a rather weak critic of the early Rimbaud.

How disabling, then, must have been the fatigue of the poet in those later years! To be abandoning writing, to have lost all hope in his writing, and yet to be incapable of grasping the contradiction that both characterized that writing and forced its "failure." But to mention here "the great fatigue of Rimbaud" automatically puts me on my guard. Such formulae make one susceptible of being targeted as one who is indulging in le mythe de Rimbaud. I do not deny that there is a "Rimbaud myth"--how could it be otherwise in any case? But I do not understand Rimbaud as being the willful founder of this myth. Creating legends about himself was not Rimbaud's concern. He was not an occultist mountebank. He was a young man of great faith; and when this faith was dashed, his despair and fatigue were equally great. This despair and fatigue blighted the rest of his short life.

What, then, is the contradiction at the base of Rimbaud's project? I believe Le Bateau ivre offers the most direct access to a perception of it, and I will eventually show it at work in that poem. Nonetheless, to bring the contradiction more fully to light, it is necessary to return first to Rimbaud's formulations of his poetics.

Rimbaud's poetics is somehow tied up with alchemy. He writes eventually of his "alchemy of the word," and one of course finds everywhere in his poems allusions to the alchemical process. The struggle to effect an alchemy of the word is one of the determining struggles of Rimbaud's work. But in itself it is not the crux. Rimbaud presents his poetics, his theory of the voyant, to his friend Paul Demeny in the now famous lettre du voyant:

Car Je est un autre. Si le cuivre s'eveille clairon, il n'y a rien de sa faute. Cela m'est evident: j'assise a l'eclosion de ma pensee: je la regarde, je l'ecoute: je lance un coup d'archet: la symphonie fait son remuement dans les profondeurs, ou vient d'un bond sur la scene.

Le dis qu'il faut etre voyant, se faire voyant.

Le Poete se fait voyant par un long, immense et raisonne dereglement de tous les sens. Toutes les formes d'amour, de souffrance, de folie; il cherche lui-m'me, il epuise en lui tous les poisons, pour n'en garder que les quintessences.


Il est charge de l'humanite, des animaux meme; il devra faire sentir, palper, ecouter ses inventions.... Trouver une langue; --Du reste, toute parole etant idee, le temps d'un langage universel viendra!

[For I is another. If brass wakes up a bugle, it is not its own doing. This is clear to me: I'm a witness at the flowering of my own thought. I watch it and listen to it. I draw a stroke of the bow, and the symphony makes its stir in the depths, or comes upon the stage in a leap.


I say it is necessary to be a voyant, make oneself a voyant.

The Poet makes himself a voyant by a long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses. All the forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences.


He is responsible for humanity, for animals even. He will have to make his inventions smelt, touched, and heard.... A language must be found. Moreover, every word [utterance] being an idea, the time of a universal language will come!] (2)

Here again, cited for the thousandth time, is that locus classicus of modern poetry, the lettre du voyant. We have encountered it so many times we finally become indifferent to the meaning of its formulae. The first thing we always remark upon reading over these lines is that the process of Rimbaud's poetics is quite explicit. One could "easily" become a disciple of Rimbaud by taking up this project step by step. The very explicitness of his formulae has perhaps rendered his poetics somewhat opaque. For what is not explicit are the implications of this project. And we have become so used to reading mere restatements of this project that we neglect to think through what these implications might be. What is the philosophy it implies? I would say even: What is the theology implied in Rimbaud's theory of the voyant? What would the universe need to be for Rimbaud's project to bring forth the results he so fervently hopes it will? It is only through questions such as these that we may approach the young poet's thought.

Rimbaud wanted to steal from the heart of the unknown the quintessences of words and things. He wanted to attain the grammar, vocabulary, and alphabet of a universal language. He was correct in recognizing that such a language could overturn the world, and could make himself, and the poets, responsible for and to all beings. (3) But he was confused as to the source from which this universal language was to come. To say that it was to come from the unknown is not enough.

What is this confusion? It can be stated in very clear terms. Rimbaud couldn't decide if the quintessences of the universal language were to be received by him as the gift of some Other or if, rather, they were to be created by him. This confusion amounted to a fundamental contradiction in Rimbaud's thinking about the sources of his own power. Between the two primary terms of the confusion--reception of the quintessences from an Other; creation of the quintessences by himself--there was in fact a third, mediating term: namely, discovery in the scientific sense. But it is evident that for Rimbaud the poet, the Maker, this third mediating term could not bridge the gap between the two primary terms: the notion of discovery in fact seems to have only confused the issue. This is to say that the processes of modern science and the particular rhetoric of science in the nineteenth century offered no solution to Rimbaud's dilemma. Rimbaud's was too strong a spirit to be satisfied with the solutions of nineteenth-century scientific progressivism. Though the language of discovery was indeed taken into Rimbaud's work more or less under the register of occultism, it nonetheless remained convincingly "scientific" enough to constitute for him a veneer under which the more important contradiction became harder to read. In other words, the heady prestige of the very word discovery--once included in Rimbaud's project--made it easier for him not to worry about the more important bases of his project.

Rimbaud's indecision as to the true origin of the quintessences -- an indecision that vacillated between the two poles of an Other on the one hand and his creative self on the other -- remained the determining contradiction at the heart of his work. In order to properly place the meaning of this, we need to consider how this contradiction relates both to the European history from which it stems and to Rimbaud's own project as a poetic project. The poetic aspect of Rimbaud's project is best understood through his philosophy of language.

I am aware that I have begun using the term quintessences in a rather eccentric manner here. I do so because I see it as the most direct way to articulate Rimbaud's thought. This thought holds together around a philosophy of language, and it is Rimbaud's philosophy of language that ultimately renders my eccentric usage of the term quintessences viable. What is Rimbaud's philosophy of language? We need to state this philosophy of language as succinctly as possible.

Though it is never explicitly stated, there is clearly something in Rimbaud like a doctrine of quintessences. This doctrine has its place in a philosophy of language. As follows:

    1) Rimbaud believes language is capable of seizing the quintessences of things.

    2) This is a potential in language that needs to be tapped.

    3) The voyant is the only one capable of tapping this potential.

    4) To tap this potential in language is to approach creating the "universal language."

    5) The universal language is capable of transforming the world.

    6) The universal language is already somehow latent in language as potential.

    7) The voyant, as expeditor of the universal language, is a divine being.

Here, in a few positive statements, is Rimbaud's philosophy of language. It is not, as it stands, a necessarily magical philosophy of language, though it does owe much to 19th century occultism. As regards this latter, however, I do not think that Rimbaud believed in a lost Adamic language as the Kabbalists do. His idea of the power in language was not founded on the supposition of something precious that had been lost, but rather on the supposition of things that were there to be found or created. These things to be found or created would give the voyant the power to transform the world. Rimbaud’s notion of the approach to these things was a religious one, and it formulated itself in a kind of praxis: "one must make oneself a voyant." Rimbaud's philosophy of language was not fundamentally magical, but was rather what I would call dispensational.

Whence came to the poet the quintessences that would give him his due powers? Was he their creator or did he rather receive them as gifts from some Other? Rimbaud tells us that "If brass wakes up a bugle, that is none of its own doing." And yet is it not the willful activity of the would-be voyant that fashions this bugle? If not, how then does the brass "wake up" a bugle? Who or what had been at work while it "slept"? I know that Rimbaud uses the metaphor of the bugle to explain being "born a poet," and that in fact he is not speaking of waking up as a voyant. The poet is born, the voyant is self-created. This much seems clear. And yet Rimbaud's metaphor of the bugle is characteristic in that it plays the powers of an Other against the powers of the self that is "created." This va-et-vient between the two poles leads directly to the basic contradiction. The famous "Je est un autre" is of importance here as a formula seemingly uniting the two terms of the contradiction by means of the strongest of verbs: the verb to be. "The I is another," writes Rimbaud. That it was linguistically possible for Rimbaud to make this identity did not mean, however, that he was on the way to overcoming the contradiction it indicated or even that he realized this contradiction as the fundamental problem of his poetics. Rimbaud's great faith in his project meant that he was too driven, too occupied, to step down to the level of such realizations.

I have hinted above that Rimbaud's project implies a theology. The term theology is appropriate. Rimbaud is a poet whose significance becomes clearer if one considers him in the context of western religious thought. Though not a religious poet in the common sense of the term, Rimbaud was evidently concerned with something like salvation. Once we admit the possibility of uniting the name Rimbaud with Christian salvation--and this is a possibility certain to be scorned by many of Rimbaud's enthusiastic readers--we move closer to placing him in the intellectual and spiritual context within which and against which his writing developed.

How is it possible that men can be saved from the death and damnation resulting from the Fall? The death of Christ in atonement for the sins of man makes this salvation possible. But the question of the means by which the saving power of Christ's death is given to individual men--and the related question of who is to receive this saving power--became crucially important in the theological controversies that took place in the early centuries of Christian history. Several things need to be clarified as a basis for understanding these controversies. First, it is necessary to understand that according to Christian thinking man's essential relation is to God and man's essential concern--the stakes of his life on earth--is salvation. According to Christian tradition, we are saved by a power, a power that comes from God, and that power is called grace. Our reception of this power only became possible with the death of Christ. The coming, death, and resurrection of Christ inaugurated a new dispensation: the channels of divine grace were opened up, overcoming the Fall. These were basic elements of doctrine established by the early Church. Important questions, however, remained undecided--or at least the formulations remained sufficiently unclear to allow for continued debate. Can grace be earned by us through our acts? Does more of this grace come to us as the reward of our acts? Or is grace rather an entirely gratuitous gift from God which we can never deserve regardless of our acts, being, as we are, irremediably fallen through original sin? The signal importance of these questions in Western thought lies in their implications for the understanding of man. Those who inclined toward the former idea of grace (that grace can be earned through acts) also inclined toward a more positive or humanistic idea of man. For such believers, man's works have a certain value to God, and God will reward those whose works are just with His gift of grace. Those, however, who held the latter idea of grace (that grace cannot be earned or deserved) also tended to hold a more pessimistic idea of man. For these believers, a man's works can do nothing for him, for man is as nothing to the grandeur of God. Who, after all, is man to demand payment for his works?

The most optimistic position on this question, or at least what we might call the most humanistic position, was taken by the British monk Pelagius (fl. 400). Pelagius did not in fact believe in original sin. For Pelagius, we are not fallen until we actually commit sins ourselves. Fallenness is not a given of our being as man: it is something performed by us individually. Following the ascetic example given by Christ, we can, according to Pelagius, avoid falling. The idea that fallenness is not given in our state but is rather performed individually has its counterpart in Pelagius' idea of human goodness: for our goodness, and thus our justification before God, is also performed by us individually. Pelagius' thinking comes together in a theology that affirms man's ability to effect his own salvation: man achieves his own salvation through his good works, through his adherence to the example set by Christ. This theology--and it has taken many forms over the centuries--is called Pelagianism, and it is one of the arch-heresies.

Augustine disagreed with Pelagius on nearly all these points. For Augustine, man could not look to his own powers for salvation. In fact it was man's selfish looking to himself, his selfish desire to eat of the forbidden fruit, that caused his fall in the first place. How then shall he look to himself for salvation? The Fall is of course the origin referred to in original sin, and Augustine helped formulate the Church's understanding of original sin. We are born into original sin, which is to say: we are congenitally unable to turn our gaze to God and away from ourselves. But since God is the ground of being, our gaze turns away from God only to see nothingness. Original sin is thus man's fall into nothingness. Physical decay and death are only the most tangible forms of this nothingness: all the evil and degradation we suffer on this earth arise from it as well. Salvation from this nothingness can only come with man's being lifted up into the plenitude of the Being in which he is truly grounded. But how can this being lifted up come about through man's efforts? How, in short, can salvation be accomplished by a creature that has fallen into nothing and is as if irremediably blinded to the ground of his own being? For Augustine, it can’t. It is only God's own will that is strong enough to lift man out of nothingness. God's saving grace is the reality of this will, and grace can be neither deserved nor earned, but is rather a gift. Augustine's position on this question defined the orthodox position of the Church against what was henceforth rejected as the Pelagian heresy.

Augustine is clearly more pessimistic than Pelagius as regards the question of man's powers in relation to the divine. Even more pessimistic than Augustine, however, were the thinkers that adhered to Gnosticism. But we needn't consider Gnosticism here. The important point is that Augustine and Pelagius between them defined the two poles of the West's understanding of the spiritual powers of man in relation to the spiritual powers of God. Either salvation is to be effected by an individual's own will, by his own powers, or it is to be wholly a gift from God, a gift in relation to which man can only wait and pray.

To say that Pelagius and Augustine defined the two poles of Western theology is to hint that the problem of their controversy was never really resolved. This is in fact the case. In the Reformation the controversy became important again, with the Protestants representing an Augustinian reaction against a Church that had begun to put, they felt, too much value both on individual works and on its own role in the dispensation of grace. But even long before the Reformation the same issues were raised in different religious controversies. The Cathar movement that sprang up in southern Europe in the eleventh century represented a flourishing of something like Gnosticism or Manichaeism and thus promulgated a theology even more pessimistic than Augustine's. And after the Reformation, the Enlightenment, particularly with its spiritualized ideas of the Progress of Man, represented an anti-Augustinian reaction in favor of what could be considered a kind of secularized Pelagianism. In Enlightenment thought salvation is recast as historical salvation: the promised Paradise is a future society in which man will live in peace and equality. The important thing to recognize in these different historical conflicts is that the West's thinking about the being of man is a thinking inscribed across the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius. It is thus a question here of one of the ontological grounds of Western spiritual life.

The poet Rimbaud has a singular place in relation to these questions, one I am undertaking here to define. For Rimbaud incarnated this theological controversy in an unprecedented way. Not a representative of one of its poles, he rather embodied the controversy as such. This was possible because of Rimbaud's great and paradoxical faith and because he was on the verge of a theology entirely new. That he didn't think of himself as a theology student matters little. He was evidently a spiritual being with pressing--very pressing--spiritual concerns, and such is in fact the basis of all significant theology. The theological controversy sketched above is the background of the contradiction at the base of Rimbaud's project. Rimbaud’s is a specifically theological problem.

Rimbaud was a poet writing in a theocentric universe. He nonetheless could not decide where divinity resided. Was he himself God? The answer was Yes. Was God a transcendent Other? The answer was also Yes. This double affirmation would seem to make Rimbaud a mystic: a mystic of a particularly heretical, though not unprecedented sort. And yet Rimbaud was not really a mystic, for he was not content with a mystic unity with the Godhead, or at least not if this unity was to be understood as in any sense quiescent or static. Neither was he looking for a grace assuring his personal afterlife in Heaven. Rather, Rimbaud’s imperious desire to change the world led him to the Divinity as the source from which the quintessences were to be received, the quintessences here being the key to a transformative power. And yet, as I've indicated, the question of whether these quintessences were to be received or somehow created was not definitively decided. The poet's work thus arose on the basis of a vacillation between these two poles.

In his idiosyncratic manner, then, Rimbaud incarnated a permanently unresolved contradiction in Western thought. And he was a strong enough spirit not to seek to resolve it himself. What is meant by this? Just the following: Rimbaud had such faith in his calling and in his method that he did not feel the need to seek a resolution. Indeed, he did not seem to recognize the contradiction as a problem. That the crux of Rimbaud's greatness is an unresolved contradiction should not really be understood as an oddity, however. After all, Shakespeare's Hamlet, the greatest of our modern dramas, gives us the tragedy of a prince whose tragic flaw seems equally his incapacity to resolve a contradiction. The character Hamlet and the man Rimbaud share such incapacity even as they share a prodigious gift for intellectualizing. Rimbaud differs from Hamlet in that Rimbaud believed he had a divine work to undertake: he had a divine calling. Hamlet had no such calling. Or rather, Hamlet's calling, if we should call it that, was merely spectral and gruesome, the grudge of a dead father. Fuller being is not to be attained on such grounds, if fuller being can ever be attained through vengeance.

I have indicated that the singularity of the contradiction in Rimbaud's project is its theological character. Yet there’s another contradiction that might be mentioned here, because it is both relevant to Rimbaud's project and to poetry in general. It is in fact that old aporia at the roots of Western poetic thinking, one that Rimbaud necessarily inherited with his literary education. Simply put: Does the poet receive his verses from the Muses--i.e., by divine inspiration--or is he rather an artificer who fashions these verses himself through his own mastery of the techniques of poetry? This problem will be seen to parallel the theological one, and in fact this one, like the other, is never definitively resolved. Poets and thinkers of the classical world asserted that the poet and his work could be understood in both manners, and there have of course been many formulations in favor of one or the other side. The two camps go on debating well into the nineteenth century, finally rallying under Classicism and Romanticism respectively. In terms of his literary learning, Rimbaud was of course part of the culture of this debate. But we can guess that he himself, during the period of his project, would not be likely to seek a theoretical resolution of such a debate. The poetic contradiction, to the extent it was perceived in a literary-artistic register, would necessarily seem of less pressing concern to him than what I am calling the theological one. In other words, why would he bother to turn his head in its direction? Rimbaud's work was going to transform the world, after all. His was a different register. These latter poetic debates, in his eyes, were the stuff of versifiers. They did not concern the voyant.

I have always read Le Bateau ivre as the poem that most obviously figures forth the stakes of Rimbaud's work. It was in this poem more than anywhere else that the poet came closest to actually banging his head against his own fundamental indecision. Thus there has always been a certain pathos surrounding this poem for me. For it was here that the young Rimbaud could have grasped the basic gestures of his quest: it was here that he could have read the contradiction that determined his eventual "failure."

That which is most basic and evident in this poem is also that which is most revealing. What happens in Le Bateau ivre? In the form of a boat, the poet figures his own movement toward the status of voyant. The boat of the poem is simultaneously a metaphor of the poet and a personification of a boat. Inanimate, the boat is thus passive, but it is simultaneously active in its function as metaphor for the poet. Ostensibly set adrift, does the boat suffer the sea as a vast and sublime force, or does it rather orchestrate the sea through its own powers? Are the glorious visions it undergoes impressed upon it by the forces of otherness, or are they rather created out of bits of flotsam and jetsam? It is impossible to decide. The drunken boat is both object and subject of its own poetic derangement.

Just as Rimbaud's theory of the voyant projects an attack on the integrity of the self, so does Le Bateau ivre begin with the massacre of the haulers who guide the boat:

Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
Je ne me sentis plus guide par les haleurs:
Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles,
Les ayant cloues nus aux poteaux de couleurs.
[As I was going down impassible Rivers,
I no longer felt myself guided by haulers!
Yelping redskins had taken them as targets,
And had nailed them naked to colored stakes.]

The boat speaks as an "I." It is clear that before the action of the poem, the boat had felt itself "guided by haulers." The construction is in the passive voice, and the image is one of perfect passivity. The peaceful state of being guided by the haulers -- of being, in the Christian metaphor, one of the flock--is broken by the attack of screaming redskins. The redskins constitute a furiously active force invoking both the extreme otherness of a totemic culture and all the Romantic depictions of the primitive vigor of native Americans. The haulers are no match for such vigor. They are "nailed naked to colored stakes" in an image that evokes American Indian sacrificial rites as well as the Crucifixion. We may also justifiably read the story of the haulers as a kind of allegorization of the process of "derangement of the senses." Presumably undergoing tortures at the hands of their captors, the haulers are properly deregles.

In the second strophe, the boat admits that it had always been "insoucieux de tous les equipages [indifferent to all crews]." The massacre of the crew thus represented a desired liberation in that it set the boat adrift: no longer a carrier of merchandise, the boat is to be carried off by the Rivers: "Les Fleuves m'ont laisse descendre ou je voulais [The Rivers let me go where I wanted]." Consider the verbs here: the boat is without crew, thus technically a shipwreck, but the Rivers let it go where it wants. The poet didn't write: "The Rivers transported me to the unknown" or "The Rivers carried me where they would." The verbs imply rather an active will on the part of the boat; and this active will contrasts with the passive image of a boat without a guide. The boat's willful activity will only increase up until the twelfth strophe.

In the third strophe, we read that the boat "runs":

Dans les clapotements furieux des marees,
Moi, l'autre hiver, plus sourd que les cerveaux d'enfants,
Je courus! Et les Peninsules demarrees
N'ont pas subi tohu-bohus plus triomphants.
[Into the furious lashing of the tides,
More heedless than children's brains, the other winter
I ran! And loosened peninsulas
Have not undergone a more triumphant hubbub.]

There is an unavoidable contrast here between the active verb courir (run) and the passivity of the participle subi (from the verb submit, or undergo). But does the last verse of this strophe really imply a passive state on the part of the drunken boat? We must remark that the boat undergoes "triumphant hubbubs." Thus in the context of a grammatically passive voice the potential of active force is reconquered through the adjective triumphant. It is as if the "I" of the poem boasts of having suffered a glorious thrashing. Rimbaud's boat must be simultaneously beaten and triumphant: object of force and subject of the same force.

In the fourth strophe, the boat tells that it "danced on the waves"--an active verb of personification--but in the fifth strophe we read that the boat lost its last tools of rational navigation: its rudder and grappling hook.

The sixth strophe continues the contradictory shifting between active and passive voice in the words devorant and infuse. It is interesting that both words can be understood to refer either to the je or to le Poeme de la Mer: either the je is infused with stars (as I would guess) or the Poeme de la Mer is infused with stars; either the je devours the green azure or the Poeme de la Mer does. Ascription here is grammatically undecidable. Does this indecidability suggest an identity between the "I" and the "Poem of the Sea"? If it does, it reinforces a reading of the poem hinted at above: the Sea in Le Bateau ivre can be understood either as a sublime force of otherness or as a force orchestrated by the "I." Does the latter possibility undermine the Sea's sublimity? Everything I've stressed in this essay indicates that such a question is unanswerable in the universe of Rimbaud's project.

Naming the Poem of the Sea, the sixth strophe also witnesses the first unfolding of the delirious images to follow. The delirious activity of the boat opens onto a visionary activity as the merely human je of the personification sinks away in the form of a pensive drowned man. Is this visionary activity truly active or is it rather passive? It seems it would be somehow other than either of these categories, yet just how it is other is not discernible in the poem. Perhaps the following offers a clue: in the eighth strophe, the verb savoir is introduced: the boat knows. Knowing is somehow neither active nor passive. This knowledge, however, gives over into a series of things seen rather than into the creative act of God. Perhaps the knowledge suggests the imaginations of a creator God just before the act of creation: for the things seen are certainly creatures from a menagerie as yet uncreated; they are creatures of fantasy:

J'ai heurte, savez-vous, d'incroyables Florides
Melant aux fleurs des yeux de pantheres a peux
[I struck against, you know, unbelievable Floridas
Mingling with flowers panthers' eyes and human

The verb savoir is the apogee of this poem. It represents a potential that needs to be activated. But the movement from the verb savoir to the verb voir -- effected across the paradoxical line "Et j'ai vu quelquefois ce que l'homme a cru voir! [And at times I have seen what man thought he saw!]"--represents a stepping back down rather than another step up in Rimbaud's project. How, after all, does the potential of knowledge become active? The strophes following the verb savoir demonstrate an attempt to realize the potential of the verb through other verbs: "J'ai vu..."; "J'ai reve..."; "J'ai suivi..."; "J'ai heurte..."; and then again: "J'ai vu...." In the fifteenth strophe we witness the first recognition of the failure of this anaphoric series of attempts: "J'aurais voulu montrer... [I should have liked to show...]." This is no longer the triumphant voice of one moving upward. Certain of the project's goals have been reached, others have not.

The boat's visionary quest has unmoored it not only from the mercantile world, but from the world of created things. It is likewise obvious, beginning with the sixth strophe, that this visionary quest has unmoored it from the surface of the sea: the sea and the sky become indistinguishable in a series of movements where up and down no longer have meaning. Whether or not this constitutes a kind of primal Chaos--a return to the time before the Deity established the firmament between the waters above and the waters below (Gen: 1:6)--is uncertain. The Old Testament is elsewhere present in Rimbaud's Poem of the Sea in the thirteenth strophe, where we find a Leviathan rotting. What is certain is that the boat's visionary quest remains grounded in the visionary: the boat never attains to the status of one who might reestablish the firmament by saying the words of the universal language: "Let there be...." The possibility of this saying is explicitly deferred to the future through recourse to the language of alchemy. The first unmistakable reference to alchemy comes in the fifteenth strophe with: "J'aurais voulu montrer aux enfants ces dorades / Du flot bleu, ces poissons d'or, ces poissons chantants. [I should have liked to show children those sunfish / Of the blue wave, the fish of gold, the singing fish.]" The poet would have liked to be the one to bring this gold to others. The first reference to alchemy thus hints at an initial failure. In the twenty-second strophe, this failure becomes a deferral of the Work to the future. The "fish of gold"--once swimming in the relative proximity of the blue wave--are now felt to be a million golden birds as yet unseen: "Est-ce en ces nuits sans fonds que tu dors et t'exiles, / Million d'oiseaux d'or, O future Vigueur? [Is it in these bottomless nights that you sleep and exile yourself, / Million golden birds, O future Vigor?]" The divine Vigor, the true goal of Rimbaud's project, is not yet attainable, but is somehow understood to be in exile.

I have undertaken a more complete reading of this poem than was perhaps necessary for my purposes. It is the first six strophes, which allegorize the contradiction at the base of Rimbaud's project, that are of most concern here. For in those first six strophes we encounter most clearly the contrast between the boat as subject of its movement and the boat as object of its movement. This rhetorical indecidability figures Rimbaud's indecidability in relation to the divine source of his powers. The poet’s dilemma becomes legible as a rhetorical movement back and forth, a va-et-vient that becomes impossibly dizzying and that is thus partially responsible for the step into the visionary universe of the central strophes of the poem. This visionary universe is pre-active: it is the Chaos from which the Work must spring.

I have suggested both that the verb savoir is the apogee of the poem and that the central strophes can be understood as the imaginations of a Deity about to create. The central strophes bring forth the fabulous creatures of fantasy. But fantasy as an activity is necessarily less powerful than divine knowing. For divine knowing is the root of being. Divine knowledge need only be spoken to become creatures. Thus the movement from the verb savoir to the strophes of fantasy can only be a stepping back. It was in the verb savoir that Rimbaud could have moved closer to his goal. For fantasy only becomes knowledge with the actual external being of fantasy's objects. Thus it is only the Deity whose fantasy becomes knowledge through the will implied in the "Let there be...." This is to say, ultimately, that fantasy is a less than divine activity: for the fantasies of God would be so easily turned into realities that they wouldn't properly be fantasies. The voyant hasn't yet the vigor of such a will: he creates in the realm of fantasy: how his fantasies become realities is as yet problematic: it is a matter of divine Vigor.

But Rimbaud had a prodigious faith both in his calling and in his method. This means there was an immediate importance to his every word, his every act. Rimbaud's words were uttered on a world stage about to reveal itself as such. The spiritual economy of the contradiction--of the back and forth movement between the activity of a Creator and the passivity of a creature--handed the poet over to a visionary universe in which objects of fantasy were always on the verge of spilling over into reality. For the voyant who is not certain at what moment he will become actually divine is likewise uncertain as to the status of his poetic creations. His is a solipsistic universe that is expected at some point to become no longer so.

The latter remarks are true as descriptions of the working of faith in Rimbaud's project. Nonetheless, they overstate the case. As I've indicated above, I don't think it likely that Rimbaud actually believed in a magical potential in language. He did not believe language could bring forth objects ex nihilo. This means that the remarks in the previous paragraph are true in an allegorical rather than a literal sense. They are after all remarks written under the aegis of a poem that figures forth the poet's progress toward his goal. But if these remarks are not literally true, what, then, is the divine functioning of the voyant's universal language? For if it is not expected to transform the world immediately as would a magical formula, how is it to transform the world?

I think the answer to this question can be found in the lettre du voyant. There we learn that the universal language necessarily functions on the basis of the participation of others. The poet's task, according to Rimbaud, is to be a "multiplier of progress." If the universal language is universal in its power to seize upon the quintessences of things, it is also universal in its power to seize upon the will of men. The universal language will be known as such in that it will speak the words of a new dispensation: it will receive (or create) and then speak words of such compelling power that they will immediately be felt to be the words of a new Law of relations between men and things. This is what I mean by Rimbaud's dispensational thinking. Rimbaud imagines the power of this new language in the following lines from the lettre du voyant:

Cette langue sera de l'ame pour l'ame, resumant tout, parfums, sons, couleurs, de la pensee accrochant la pensee et tirant.... Enormite devenant norme, absorbee par tous, [le poete] sera vraiment un multiplicateur de progres!

[This language will be of the soul for the soul, containing everything, smells, sounds, colors, thought holding on to thought and pulling.... Enormity becoming normal, absorbed by all, [the poet] would really be a multiplier of progress!]

Here it is not a question of the power of language to transform things immediately, but rather a question of the power of language to transform men's relations to things. In line with both Western religious tradition and the progressive thought of his century, Rimbaud knew that a transformation of the world meant first of all a transformation of men. Parting ways with his century, however, he understood that the keys to the transformation of man were hidden away somewhere in the Divine.

The existence of the Deity is not in doubt in Rimbaud's universe. And there is no question in Rimbaud of polytheism. Rimbaud's is an essentially monotheist ethos. This is not to say, however, that the poet was a Christian by default -- as if we could say Rimbaud was a Christian by his mere fulminating against his Christian milieu; or that he was a Christian by his unavoidable intellectual and cultural inscription in Christian civilization. These latter factors are of enormous importance in defining Rimbaud, but finally we must recognize that Rimbaud's thought made significant breaks with Christian thinking. Rimbaud would found a new religious dispensation in which the very being of the Deity was shared by the voyant. The radical hubris of such a theology needs to be recognized. It is not merely a matter of inspiration or of possession, but rather a matter of "being of one substance with the Father." In the Christian dispensation, it is the Son who is of one substance with the Father. In the Rimbaldian dispensation, it is the Voyant. But does the Voyant suffer for the sins of mankind? There is something of this in the Rimbaldian asceticism. What else could be the meaning of Rimbaud's assertion that the poet is to become "responsible for humanity, for animals even"? It is the suffering of the Voyant, the rack of tortures, that allows him to receive/create the universal language that will transform (redeem) the world.

Unlike the mystic under the Christian dispensation, the voyant under the Rimbaldian dispensation does not seek an ecstatic union with God in the sense of a being-gathered-up in a loving embrace that redeems his sinful state and the incompleteness or fallenness of the historical world. The voyant cannot be merely the recipient of such gifts of love. It is rather the case that the voyant seeks a union with God in the sense of sharing in the divine power of creation and redemption. Born a poet, he must make himself a voyant. This self-recreating through ascesis raises the poet to the powers of the Father. The poet actually attains to the capacity of creating the world. What can this mean? In Rimbaud's sense, this can only mean transforming the world, or recreating it.

Though I will not here go into the reasons why I think this is so, I would say the doctrine of creation ex nihilo does not seem apposite to Rimbaud's thinking. At least it is a problematic doctrine in the Rimbaudian dispensation. I would say that for Rimbaud there is no being higher than the Father, but that the Father is to a great extent something like the Demiurge of Gnostic thinking. There would be no Satan in Rimbaud's dispensation because all satanic qualities would necessarily be embodied in his uncanny Creator God.

I have here made explicit the theology I think is implicit in Rimbaud's project. All of this would be well for that project, except for two things. The first is that Rimbaud does not consistently stick with this theology, but rather depends on the Christian theology as well: redemption, vision, the quintessences are to be a gift from some Other. For the quintessences are always already there in the form of something like the Platonic Ideas. How is one to create them? They rather come to one as vision. This is the contradiction again. The poet may "[squeeze] his dazzled eyes to make visions come," but the vision is essentially something that comes or that is received. And the quest to receive vision is not an activity of the same grandeur as the creation of the world through speech. ("And God said, 'Let there be light!' and there was light.") Thus in this respect the Voyant is not of the same order of being as the Father. For one cannot imagine God the Father undertaking an ascetic quest for visions. God may sacrifice Himself out of love for man, but God does not sacrifice himself in order to receive visions. How then is the Voyant of one substance with the Father?

The second reason the dispensation sketched above does not bring Rimbaud's project to fruition is the following: Rimbaud did not in fact attain to the universal language; he did not in fact transform the world. (4) The movement of Rimbaud's project necessarily reached its crisis when he realized the historical world was not being transformed; he was in fact hardly gaining followers. Rimbaud the man was becoming physically and mentally exhausted, and even if his preternatural literary ability remained intact--and this is questionable -- his faith was limited. He perhaps felt by 1873 that his best work was behind him, and that it had accomplished nothing but the texts themselves. Obviously texts themselves were an insufficient achievement for a man with goals like his. Perhaps his faith in his vision was in some respect lacking. Faith can move mountains, we are told. But Rimbaud could not move the people of Paris; he was not recognized and hailed by those who would have been most likely to hear the necessity behind his words. How could this be?

Before we conclude Rimbaud's faith was lacking, we must take into account the following: it is one thing to have great faith in God -- a faith that endures through all one's own failures and the failures of the world -- and quite another to have great faith in God when one believes the substance of that God is shared by oneself. For in the latter case, one must oneself live up to the attributes of God. If or when one doesn't, one's faith is necessarily dashed. It is this dashed faith that led Rimbaud to abandon his project. By the time of Une Saison en enfer, it is clear that Rimbaud had already passed over to an acceptance of the world untransformed.

I will repeat that Rimbaud did not abandon writing simultaneously with the abandonment of his project, but instead allowed his hand to continue with its automatic writing. But automatic writing -- that activity soon to be made "revolutionary" by the Surrealists and psychoanalysis--what is this next to the faith of the other Rimbaud, the Rimbaud of 1871? Of course Rimbaud was not a theorist of automatic writing in the surrealist sense. But I believe it is significant that nothing of the nineteenth century so resembles the Surrealists' work as certain of the Illuminations. Whereas the Surrealists raised such writing as a banner, I believe Rimbaud knew it for what it was: a writing of despair and hopelessness; a writing beyond the end of writing; a merely automatic writing. The hard polish of these prose gems does not put them on a par with Rimbaud's earlier work. For their hard polish is their main virtue: it is almost all they are. Rimbaud had obviously become truly and finally a spectator of the workings of his own mind: merely a spectator. He composed these workings into a series of little theater pieces, each separate from the other. Some of the Illuminations I would exempt from this judgment. Some of them, we know, were written before Une Saison en enfer.

Over the past several decades there has been a critical effort to "demythologize" Rimbaud. We are reminded by critics that not all of Rimbaud's ideas were new for his time: he borrowed much from Romanticism and from messianic progressivism; he borrowed language from nineteenth-century occultism. The point these critics try to make is that much of Rimbaud's thought, and many of his themes, were already there before him: he needed only take them up. I think this approach is fundamentally misguided, and that it represents mainly a desire on the part of criticism to reduce Rimbaud to the status of a literary figure who can be dealt with in historical art-critical terms. At the same time, we are told by these critics to read the poems not as earnest attempts at transforming reality, not as the traces of an essentially spiritual quest, but rather "for what they are": that is to say, we are to read them as poems: documents in a literary history whose main interest lies in their having been influential on later literary figures. The earnestness of Rimbaud's project becomes of secondary importance to what European poetry became because of his revolutionary literary innovations. Thus the demythologizers focus on what came before Rimbaud and what came after Rimbaud because they do not want to concern themselves with the thornier issue of the significance of Rimbaud. Or rather the significance of Rimbaud, to the extent it is found in his writing itself, becomes synonymous with a rhetorical-poetic study of his technical virtuosity in relation to his literary forebears, on the one hand, and his literary progeny on the other. Of course Rimbaud's writing, at the technical level, is of the greatest interest; his writing, at the technical level, is a crucial element in his project. But to say this is also to say that I cannot separate "the poems themselves" from what I know to be the singularity of Rimbaud's spiritual make-up. I do not think the poems themselves would be there at all were it not for Rimbaud's spiritual quest. I can cite as evidence of this the fact that once Rimbaud's spiritual quest had reached its crisis, there was no more poetry to come. There is no poetry from the thirty-year-old Arthur Rimbaud because by then his faith had long since run out: his faith was so far in the past that he didn't even have the desire to write illuminations any longer. And as far as the question of what themes and ideas Rimbaud borrowed from his contemporaries--the occultism; the progressivism; the Romantic Satanism--I don't as a reader and student of literature need any reminder of this from the critics. In other words, Rimbaud's singularity remains intact. The point is not what he borrowed from the generation before his, but rather what he managed to fuse these diverse borrowings into at the age of sixteen.

In an early essay on Rimbaud, Maurice Blanchot wonders if there is anyone "who will ever prove to us that the lettre du voyant was more than an adolescent dream." (5) Of course the lettre du voyant is an adolescent dream. And so what? The point is that Rimbaud's project is an adolescent dream on the part of an adolescent of supreme intellectual and poetic powers, an adolescent, moreover, who incarnated in himself the most problematic aspects of the religious experience of Europe. Rimbaud made the spiritual struggle of Europe his own, and he rewrote that struggle according to his own grandiose perception of his calling and his powers. As an adolescent dream, Rimbaud's project embodied a necessity that raised it to a level unattainable by the literati. This is why for so long we have been such weak readers of Rimbaud and his significance. We’ve sensed something there, yet couldn't put our finger on it. We begin to suspect it’s all just theater: the enticements of a very gifted mountebank. We ignore the works for a time; and then, when we return to them, we sense again something essential, something not explained by mere virtuosity. What can that something be? Rimbaud began a project that remains unfinished. The basic lines of his understanding of the necessity of the poet and the poet's language must be traced in the light of the theological contradiction from which they stem. Though every individual word I speak or write may have been spoken or written a million times before me, this does not prevent me from receiving or creating in some novel combination of these words a universal language capable of overturning the world.


    1. A "friend of Rimbaud's youth"? This is perhaps redundant. Were not all Rimbaud's friends friends of his youth?

    2. I have modified the translation by Wallace Fowlie. Below I will use his translation, unmodified, of Le Bateau ivre.

    3. The assumption of the possibility of a universal language in Rimbaud's sense does not necessarily presume an understanding of words as symbols somehow positively holding their meaning. I do not think Rimbaud believed there are hidden syllables which, once uttered, would somehow magically transform reality. This is to say that the possibility of a language capable of overturning the world is not annulled by post-Saussurean linguistics. One need only consider, by analogy, how much of the world Marxism overturned in order to verify the fact of language's potential.

    4. Though perhaps he came close. How shall we know?

    5. Cf. "The Sleep of Rimbaud" in Maurice Blanchot: The Work of Fire, tr. Charlotte Mandell, Stanford University Press: 1995.

Crocus coming out


by Michael C. Walker

Few writers depend so heavily on the intricacies of a given language as the poet, for whom each word is often essential. Every major language can provide examples of fine poetry, rich in the demeanor and presence of language, filled with the richness that makes a language unique and interesting. Some would argue that without the variance found in dissimilar languages poetry would fail us as a comprehensive art; could we have the peculiar grammar of Emily Dickinson beside the lyricism of Baudelaire if both poets were constrained to the same language? However, such richness provides difficulty for those who are called upon to translate poetry from one language to another, a common task in the case of well-known poets and a growing area of interest for the works of lesser-known contemporary poets. This article examines issues germane to the translation of poetry using the works of the nineteenth century French poet Arthur Rimbaud as its example.

Rimbaud is, with no room for argument, one of the greatest and most unusual poets in the history of French literature. He began writing in earnest as a young boy, displaying an uncanny aptitude for lucent thought and a way with his native language which bespoke a depth of character far beyond his years. Perhaps most remarkably, Rimbaud wrote the entirety of his poetical works during his adolescence, turning away from poetry altogether in his late teenage years to pursue a precarious career of trading in Yemen and Africa. Although Rimbaud was knowledgeable about the works of the leading poets of his time and often mimicked (and mocked) their forms in his own work, it was his unique style that earned him a rightful place among France’s notable writers. Since his death in 1891 and the gradual establishment of interest in his works, his poetry has been translated into at least twenty-five different languages, including the four other Romance languages and most remaining European tongues. One of the first languages to receive Rimbaud’s work was, logically, English. Rimbaud had not pursued translating his French poems into this language, thus all translations we have in English of Rimbaud are the efforts of others, almost exclusively successive to his death.

While many translators have worked with Rimbaud’s poetry and have produced volumes of his work in English, perhaps no single individual stands out as crucial to bringing Rimbaud to an English-reading audience as Wallace Fowlie, a noted professor emeritus of French at Duke University. Fowlie’s approach to Rimbaud was to present the original French side-by-side with his English translations in book form, to allow the reader a direct comparison of the works in both languages. Therefore, Fowlie’s efforts are a true treasure for anyone curious to the process of translating poetry from one language to another. The epistemology of Fowlie’s logic in word choice and the restructuring of phrases is clear and easy to discern from these comparative presentations. Furthermore, the variance in grammar is readily apparent, demonstrating the intricacies of both Rimbaud’s verse and French in general. Fowlie has attempted to preserve not only the meaning and tone of Rimbaud in his English translations but also the energy and empirical structure of the poet’s art. Such is no small feat given Rimbaud’s often bizarre handling of his native tongue.

The transcendent aspects of Rimbaud’s voice do allow some agency in the selection of foreign words to match his verse in translation, but the particular nuances of French as a language cannot be underestimated in the context of Rimbaud’s works. French is often hailed as the language of romance, and it does impart the Romantic in every sense of that word, from its origins in Latin to its embodiment of the great Romantic age traditions in art and literature. The idea of belles lettres is in itself a French concept, and French poetry does stand apart even from the poetries of other Romance languages in its lyricism. The French of Rimbaud—though swift and strident oftentimes—is overtly soft, dulcet, and flowing in its cadence. To this end, Rimbaud amplifies the French language, somehow making it even more “French” than it would be in another application or scenario. I pair Rimbaud’s written French with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ spoken French: soft, even, and ever-melodious. English, and most other, non-Romance languages— certainly all the Germanic and Slavic languages—have difficulty in replicating such subtitles as these graces are not intrinsic to these languages. How then, are Rimbaud’s thoughts best translated into another language without the loss of his breath, his tone? Certainly, this is not an issue limited to Rimbaud alone—or to French writers alone, either, as other languages present examples of the same challenges, such as the case of translating Tsvetaeva out of the Russian.

Certainly the rhyme-structure and rhythm of Rimbaud is difficult to duplicate in English; like most poets working in a rhyme scheme, Rimbaud chose certain words for their compatibility with other rhymed words. When immensely lucky, the translator shall find an approximate word in English which will also rhyme, but this is, of course, the happy exception and not the arduous rule. As astute as Fowlie’s translations are, he encounters this problem time and again. How Fowlie approaches this quandary is interesting and instructive. For example, the original line in Rimbaud’s “Fêtes de la Patience” (“Festivals of Patience”) reads:

Oisive jeunesse
À tout asservie,
Par délicatesse
J’ai perdu ma vie.

Fowlie’s translation of the above reads:

Idle youth
enslaved to everything,
through sensitivity
I wasted my life.

Fowlie has certainly preserved the meaning of the verse and the sense of despondency and urgency of the French, but the sound of the language is lost entirely. If there is no means of retaining the lyrical flow and essence of a language—characteristics so important to poetry—how then, does the translator possibly impart the poet’s intent into the translation? One method—though a controversial one—is via innovations in punctuation. If cadence and flow may not be maintained through the sound quality of the words, then possibly punctuation can do what phonetics cannot. Often this is the case when translating Asian poetry—especially Chinese—into Romance or Germanic languages. For a poet such as Emily Dickinson, who made use of punctuation in rather unconventional ways, this technique is not an option, but for Rimbaud and most French, Spanish, and Italian poets prior to the mid-twentieth century, it is often worth a try.

Another example from Fowlie’s translations should expose a secondary problem of Rimbaud’s poetry: his words tend to bear a more pronounced meaning in French than their English equivalents can often express. First, the French:

Le premier habit noir, le plus beau jour de tartes,

Now, Fowlie’s English translation:

The first black suit, on the finest day of pastries

The precise, literal, meaning of both of the sentences above is very close, yet something is missing in the English variant. Fowlie stays as true as possible to Rimbaud’s meaning, and, in the context of the rest of the poem, this sentence makes perfect sense. Where the difficulty lies in this example is the difference in structure between French and English. Had the task been to translate this passage into Spanish, it would have been easier to retain the order and appearance of the words Rimbaud provides. It is important in reading the French to note that “habit” comes before “noir”, but there is no mechanism in English to permit this flow of words; the adjective must precede the noun it describes, efforts at doing otherwise seem only awkward. We could say “the first suit of black—on the day finest—of pastries” but this solution is more cumbersome to the reader than Fowlie’s direct translation.

While the translator preparing an entire volume of poetry with a substantial budget to do so may elect to include the source text with the translations, many who are confronted with translating a small portion of poetry for other types of publications cannot justify such maneuvers. Instead, constraints may dictate the most compact translation possible. Here, the voice of the poet and to some degree the essence of the source language should retain its unique character without ancillary exposition or explanation. How can this challenge be met? Perhaps by examining the intent of the poet in using his word choices. While analysis of poetry is often beyond the translator’s purpose or providence, simple examination and query can usually at least rule out what should not be done. Rimbaud can illustrate this situation most effectively, as witnessed in the following excerpt:

Morts de Quatre-vingt-douze et de Quatre-vingt-treize,

From the above one may reduce the translation to a simple:

The dead of ’92 and ’93,

None of Rimbaud’s purpose or flair is lost in using the numerals instead of their written equivalents, and the sentence is shortened considerably. In fact, if the numerals were spelled out as words in English, the contemporary reader might be puzzled by the use of the words instead of the numerals.

Some knowledge not only of poetry and literature but also the etymology of whatever foreign language one is translating from is essential to producing accurate translations, especially when dealing with poets from other centuries. Most translators possess such a knowledge, but those who specialize in scientific or business-oriented work may not need to call upon their background in the history of a language so often as is necessary for the dependable translation of poetry. The best person to translate poetry—other than the actual poet—is someone who has intensively studied the poet and his/her works, but lacking this, one may resort to examining important criticism of the poet by scholars. Centering oneself in the poetry—even briefly—in this fashion can make all the difference between producing a mediocre translation and a superb rendition. The duty of the translator in translating poetry is as essential as when translating an important legal or technical document as scholars in the recipient language will rely with good faith on the translator to have produced a reliable work for their own purposes.

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Regamey: Verlaine & Rimbaud


In 2005 Theresa Rogers invited me to talk to her U3A French Literature class about the group of late 19th century poets known as Les Symbolists, foremost among whom were Paul Verlaine and the 17-year-old Arthur Rimbaud. The two poets had a tempestuous love affair which became the scandal of the age and for which they are still remembered. The following is largely extracted from the talk I gave to Theresa’s class but with a few alterations to suit the moment. Because these two poets — les poètes maudits in Verlaine’s own words — relied so heavily on personal symbolism and the music of words, it makes little sense to translate most of the poems quoted in the following essay. Furthermore, translations found on the web and in many books tend to “sanitise” the works of these two poets. One of the most frequent tricks is to take advantage of the ambiguity of grammatical gender in French and render “il” or le” into the neuter gender or even into the feminine in English. When they are translated in the masculine they show up the homosexual nature of the poem’s contents. A good example of this (as I remark in the essay) is in several translations of Rimbaud’s Ô saisons, ô châteaux in which the verses

Ô vive lui, chaque fois
Que chante son coq gaulois.

are often rendered as though the French Cock is just any other gallic rooster…. The coq gaulois or “French Cock” — or so my poor French leads me to understand — is actually a splendid breed of fowl, long an icon of France but more than that, in this case symbolises Verlaine in both his sexual and literary personas. To translate otherwise is to destroy the whole figure of speech, the compacted symbolism for which the youthful Rimbaud became famous. A literal and sanitized translation loses the joy which is so evident in this poem, the joy — in my understanding — of a young man who has discovered that he, like other men, can love and perhaps more specifically, that he can “do sex”. The “saisons” of the title for me are more like Shakespeare’s “ages of man” and the châteauxare castles in the air, the daydreams, young men have about being a man (and which in French are châteaux en Espagne, castles in Spain).

Presented by Bob Hay


More than 50 years ago, as a disillusioned 17 year old Uni student, I walked out of my French class and took up philosophy instead. The only thing I remember from those unhappy weeks was the first two lines of one of the poems we studied in that final class. Those lines go something like this — if you will pardon my French…

Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit
Si bleu, si calm!

“Le ciel est par-dessus le toit….” is a prison poem and the patch of blue is the only bit of the “outside” which the poet, Paul Verlaine could see from his cell window. In the past half-century, this “patch of blue” has become a symbol for me too, but not so much of freedom from physical confinement, but more from the psychological constraints we place upon ourselves in our daily lives. Over the years I also have used this “patch of blue” in my own writing, a couple of times when talking about “coming out” in the Gay Liberation context and most recently, not long after my mother died, in another essay where I examined the strange double-edged sword the death of a loved-one can sometimes be. I don’t remember what was said in that distant class, but knowing what I know now, I doubt if the poet, Paul Verlaine, ever felt truly free.

By the time he died, Verlaine was the best-known and most loved poet of his generation despite his habitual drunkenness, his scandalous sexual confrontations, repeated violence and for most of his adult life, his poverty.

Verlaine was born in Metz, northeast France in 1844 where his father, an infantry captain, was stationed at the time. Paul was an only child and, by all accounts, rather spoiled by a doting mother. In 1851 the family moved to Paris where he attended the Lycée Bonaparte. When he was 14, he read Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, which so impressed him that he seems to have decided to become poet and even sent his own work to the great Victor Hugo.

Verlaine accounted himself one of the Parnassians [ In the 1860s a new generation of poets emerged who called themselves Le Parnasse - after Mont Parnasse, the home of the muses in Greek mythology-. Compared to their predecessors, the Parnassians preferred an impersonal and objective kind of poetry and elevated formal beauty above realism, advocating art for art’s sake.] and some of his early poems were published in “Le Parnassien contemporain”. His first book, “Poèmes Saturniens” was published in 1866, followed by “Fêtes Galantes” in 1869. In 1870 he married Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville, and moved in with her into her parents’ house. For Mathilde, Verlaine wrote La Bonne Chanson in 1870 in which he reveals his anxieties and hopes for future happiness.

However, at this stage the plot thickens.... Receiving some poems from the young Arthur Rimbaud, Verlaine invited the 17 year-old to visit and even to stay with his family. When Verlaine and Rimbaud fell in love with each other and started a sexual relationship, Verlaine’s marriage was shattered and the two men left France to live a Bohemian life, principally in London.

Jean Nicholas Arthur Rimbaud was born on October 20, 1854 at Charleville. Like Verlaine, he was also the son of an army officer but his childhood was very different from the affluent early years of the man who was to become his lover. The father abandoned the family when Arthur was only 6 years old and left them in poverty. Afraid he would pick up the “bad habits” of the lower classes, Rimbaud’s mother forbade him to play with the local children, and even though unable to afford it, she later moved house to a “better” neighbourhood.

As a child, Rimbaud was an excellent student at school and started writing poems at the age of 8. His first published poem “Les Étrennes des orphelins" (The Orphans' Gifts) appeared in 1869 when he was just 15. He was greatly encouraged in his poetry by a young teacher, Georges Izambard, so much so that in the next twelve months he had written twenty-two poems, several of which were published in Le Parnasse Contemporain.

Professeur Izambard
This came to an abrupt end when, in 1870 Izambard joined the army to fight in the Franco-Prussian War and in reaction, Rimbaud ran away from home and set out for Paris. However, almost there, he was arrested for fare evasion and put in prison. After several more “escapes” from home, in February 1871 Rimbaud finally reached Paris where throughout most of March he lived on the streets, penniless and often starving. This was a dangerous time to be in Paris: the city was surrounded by the victorious German troops, the French government had withdrawn to Versailles, and on 18th March, the Paris Commune rose up in arms and installed its own revolutionary government which lasted until 27 May.

Perhaps fortunately for him (at least he was out of Paris before La Semaine Sanglante, the week of bloody reprisals, started), this time he was arrested by the police as a vagabond and jailed for two weeks and then ordered to return home. However, Rimbaud chose to walk the 240km to Charleville! This took him most of April, finally arriving in at his mother’s house on 8th May. He refers to this long walk in an interesting poem, “Au cabaret vert” in which he reaches the inn, stretches out his tired legs beneath a table and orders a meal. When it is brought, he stares at the waitress’ big tits (“la fille aux tétons énormes” — his words, not mine!) and wonders if she would be good for a kiss…..

More significantly (and to my mind, a defining point in his life), somewhere along his way out of Paris, the young Rimbaud spent some time with Communard soldiers in their barracks where he was gang raped. His poem “Le Coeur Volé” (The Stolen Heart), was written not long after and reflects what was probably his first sexual experience.

The word “volé” in the title is usually translated as “stolen” but voler can also mean “to fly” or “to cheat”. The original version was written in May 1871 but the following month, Rimbaud made minor revisions and sent one to his former teacher, Izambard under the title "le Coeur supplicié" (“The tortured heart”). The second revision called “Le Coeur de Pitre” (lit. “The clown’s heart” but it makes one think of the Sondheim song “Send in the clowns”), to Paul de Demeny, the young poet whom he had met on one of his previous “escapes” from his mother’s home. The changes are not many but clarify the meaning in the mix of horrendous metaphors.


Mon triste coeur bave à la poupe,
Mon coeur couvert de caporal :
Ils y lancent des jets de soupe
Mon triste coeur bave à la poupe :
Sous les quolibets de la troupe
Qui pousse un rire général,
Mon triste coeur bave à la poupe,
Mon coeur couvert de caporal.

It is at this period while back home in Charleville, Rimbaud seems to have undergone some kind of poetic rebirth and, like Mallarmé before him, revised his whole philosophy of poetry and what it meant to be a poet.

On the 13th May 1871 Rimbaud wrote to the man he himself once identified as a “father figure”, George Izambard. This was not the first time Rimbaud had written to his former teacher: back when he ran away from Charleville for the first time and had subsequently been jailed for fare evasion, he wrote to Izambard who bailed him out and took him to stay with his (Izambard’s) two aunts in Douai where he lingered until Izambard was forced by Mme Rimbaud to return her son to Charleville. Now, he wrote again, as Gargett3 says, “from the maze of poetic delirium and the loss of self-possession” to tell of his new poetic vision:

"Now I degrade myself as far as possible. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working to render myself visionary: you will not understand any of this, and I scarcely know how to explain it to you. It is necessary to arrive at the unknown by a deregulation of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but one must be strong, to be born a poet and I recognize myself as a poet. …"

This letter and another he wrote on 15 May to Paul de Demeny, a young poet he had met while staying with Izambard’s aunts, have become known as “Les Lettres du Voyant”. In the Demeny letter, Rimbaud asked the other poet to burn all the poems he had previously given him because he now believed it was essential that

Rimbaud 1871

"The poet makes himself a visionary by a long, immense and
rational deregulation of all the senses. All forms of love, of
suffering, of madness: he searches himself, he exhausts all poisons
in himself, in order to preserve only their quintessence…..”

There can be little doubt the experiences of the past few weeks, the hardship and chaos of the Commune and the trauma of the rape, had ‘deregulated the senses’ and brought about this change in Rimbaud’s thoughts and feelings about poetry.

Then, in August, Rimbaud sent some of his poems, including “Le Coeur Volé” to Verlaine who — the history books all claim — was shocked by the brilliance of the work and promptly invited the 17-year-old lad to visit him and even to live with him and his wife. Rimbaud arrived in Paris in September — Verlaine had sent him his train fare — and thus began a relationship which Rimbaud later labelled “A season in Hell” and for which posterity has remembered them ever since.

Rimbaud by Verlaine

The bond between the two men was instantaneous and they became inseparable, scandalising their colleagues with their attentions to each other and spending more and more time carousing with a group of other poets at Hotel Des Etrangers in the boulevard Saint-Michel who, calling themselves the "vilains bonshommes", they composed bawdy poems which have survived as the “Album zutique”. Rimbaud for his part, became the assistant to the barman in the Hotel, Ernest Cabaner who set about teaching the youth how to play the piano, using a method of associating colours to the notes. This probably was the real origin of Rimbaud’s most famous poem, “Voyelles”. Rimbaud took to sleeping in the bar, supported by Verlaine but with his sullen and aggressive attitude to everyone, he soon fell from favour.

As for Verlaine, he often returned home to his wife and baby son drunk and increasingly violent. Mathilde ran away from home, only returning when Verlaine promised to break off his relationship with Rimbaud. Rimbaud returned to Charleville for a little while but bored with this decided to go traveling and wrote to Verlaine to persuade him to accompany him. In July 1872 they went to Brussels, Mme Verlaine and her mother followed and tried to get Verlaine to return to Paris with them but the attempt at reconciliation failed, Verlaine left the women at the station near the border and went back to Rimbaud while his wife returned to Paris and sought a legal separation. In September Verlaine and Rimbaud left Ostend for London where, with the help of two Communard exiles they found rooms at 34 Howland Street, Soho where they attempted to earn a living by teaching French. While they were here Rimbaud wrote part of Illuminations and Verlaine composed most of Romances sans paroles.

It is always difficult, even impossible, to understand past events — and other people’s love affairs — without imposing our own viewpoint upon them, especially by using our words to describe them. So, when trying to understand the relationship between the young poets and the world in which they were living, we have to remember that the word homosexual was not invented until 1868 and was not in common usage until well into the next century. The word “gay” came into use in the late 1960s and, even though it came to us from the Troubadours writing in Old Provençal5, it too is anachronistic. However, when we try to use the words of the period — such as “sodomite” or “pederast” — we can mislead ourselves because we simply can’t know the nuances of meaning as they were then understood.

In France, the two men had nothing to fear from the law: sodomy between consenting adults in private had been decriminalised in 1791 and the penalty, death by burning, abolished. This Revolutionary reform of what had been medieval church law was later re-enacted in the Code Napoleon. However, sexual activities of any kind in public constituted an offence against public decency and in 1817 a vice-squad was set up and for the next 160 years patrolled parks and other public spaces. Following on the long tradition of petites histoires and chroniques scandaleuses in France, newspapers reported at length on indecency trials and scandals, while lurid books such as Paris’ Garbage (1874) and Corruption in Paris (1890) purported to “tell all” about the seamy side of the City of Light. So, in short, in France at least, sex between men might have been safe in private but you had to be very discreet if you wanted to preserve any kind of reputation.9 I doubt Rimbaud would have worried much about this, but for Verlaine the social shame seems to have been more keenly felt.

In England, the two poets were not safe. Although the death penalty was repealed in 1862, the “abominable crime of sodomy” was punishable by life imprisonment. There is some evidence that by the time Verlaine and Rimbaud left London for Brussels, neighbours were on the verge of complaining to the police, and not only about the noise the couple made in their lodgings. Any police investigation could have been disastrous.

Although Rimbaud was well accustomed to the kind of rootless and penurious lifestyle they lived together, Verlaine was not and turned more and more to drink. He also became more and more obsessed with a reconciliation with his wife. Rimbaud returned to France and in Roche, near his childhood home, on April 11 1872 he began to write what later would become “Une saison en Enfer” (A Season in Hell), a more-or-less biographical account of his life with Verlaine.

After Verlaine’s wife refused any contact, Verlaine appealed to Rimbaud to return with him to London where they settled once more into life together, this time at 8 Great College Street, Camden Town. However, by now their relationship seems finally to have got completely out of control, resulting in a violent argument after which Verlaine ran away to Belgium, Rimbaud followed him, they fought again and Verlaine — who had a small pistol because he said he was going to kill himself — shot Rimbaud in the wrist. They went to the hospital and had the wound dressed but later that day while walking to the train station, Verlaine put his hand in his pocket and a very edgy Rimbaud thought he was going to shoot him again and so ran to the police and had Verlaine arrested.

Later, Rimbaud came to regret his action and attempted to have the charges dropped but this only succeeded in drawing attention to the sexual nature of their relationship. Verlaine was examined medically by prison doctors who concluded that he showed signs of repeated anal intercourse. Although this was irrelevant to the charge on which he was tried, it weighed heavily against him and he was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

While Verlaine was in prison in Belgium, Rimbaud returned to Roche and resumed writing “Une Saison en Enfer”. Now recognised as one of his greatest works, it was initially not well received and Rimbaud, discouraged, is said to have burned the original manuscript.10 Rimbaud appears to have spent some time back in London in 1874, this time with the young poet, Germain Nouveau, who also had been one of the ‘vilains bonhommes’ collaborating on the Album zutist. Meanwhile, for his part, Verlaine spent his time in jail writing the poems — including Le ciel est par-dessus le toit — which would later — in 1881 — appear in “Sagesse”. Also, near the end of his prison term, “Romances sans Paroles”, the poems he wrote while on the road with Rimbaud, was finally published in 1874. This is generally regarded as the masterpiece in which he found his mature voice.

After Verlaine was released from prison he first visited his mother and then spent some time with Trappist monks. Still on what we might call a “religious high” he travelled to Germany with the intention of converting Rimbaud who had moved to Stuttgart in February 1875 after studying German for a few weeks, and where he was then working as a tutor. On March 2 the former lovers had what turned out to be a drunken and violent meeting at which Rimbaud is reported to have got Verlaine drunk, to have ridiculed him for his professed religious conversion and tricked him into blaspheming, and ended up beating him with a club! Following this they parted and never saw each other again. However, as a parting gesture, Rimbaud gave Verlaine a copy of Les Illuminations and several weeks later, even wrote asking for money. Verlaine refused.

Rimbaud left Germany and went south, to Italy, but fell ill and was repatriated to France. Later, learning Arabic, Hindi and Russian along the way, he set off on a long adventure which took him across the Alps on foot, saw him enlist and then desert from the Dutch army in Java, work for a while in a German circus touring Scandinavia before finally, in 1879, going to Egypt and thence to Aden. He settled there for a time, working for a coffee trader in whose employ he became the first European to journey into the Ogaden region of Ethiopia where he ended up living with a native woman for 11 months while reputedly tradingarms. When he became ill, probably with some complication of syphilis, he returned to France where a swelling in his knee was diagnosed as cancer and his leg was amputated. He never fully recovered from the surgery and died in Marseilles on November 10, 1891, at the age of 37. He was buried — in strict family secrecy — in his native Charleville. His sister, Isabelle, who nursed him through his last days, never knew before his death that he had been a famous poet. Interestingly too, although he left some of his estate to his family, he left most of it to Djami Wadaï, his former African house-boy.


Verlaine on the other hand, after their break-up, moved back to London , returning to France only in 1877. Back home, he taught for a time while writing the poems for “Sagesse”, the collection in which “Le ciel est pardessus le toit” appears, which was published in 1881. Most of the poems are said to reflect the feelings Verlaine experienced when reviewing his earlier life after converting back to Roman Catholicism, but in many of these works one gets the feeling the poet is re-visiting rather than repenting past exploits and certainly, by the time Sagesse was published, he had already returned to his old ways.

In 1878 he met Lucien Létinois, who was one of his former pupils whom he called his “adopted son” (Verlaine always insisted this was not a sexual relationship). They went back to England for a while before returning to France where Verlaine most improbably bought a farm in the Ardennes. There, he continued to write but the farm went bankrupt and in 1883, Lucien died of typhus. The following year Verlaine published the first of his critical works called Les Poètes Maudits which included short biographical studies of poets, short stories and sacred and profane verse. It was in these collections that he began to promote Rimbaud’s work to the reading public. In introducing him to the public, Verlaine described Rimbaud as

Rimbaud photographed by arjat
“The man was tall, well-built, almost athletic, with the perfectly
oval face of an angel in exile, with untidy light brown hair and eyes
of a disturbing pale blue"

Despite his publications, these were bad years for Verlaine who was sinking more and more into debauchery and illness. His mother attempted to rescue him by taking him to the country to live but he scandalised the neighbourhood with his constant drunkenness, his seductions of local farm boys, and finally, by his violence to his mother. For this last, he was once again sent to prison.

On his release, they moved back to Paris where Mme Verlaine took a dingy cold-water apartment in a block inhabited by pimps and prostitutes where she attempted to take care of her ill son. Then, in January 1886, Verlaine’s mother died. The death of a loved one can sometimes be a strangely double-edged sword and so, rather than being devastated, Verlaine seems to have settled down and later that year (and apparently believing that he was dead), published Rimbaud’s “Les Illuminations” with a preface he himself wrote in the literary review, “La Vogue” . It was this publication which finally re-established Rimbaud’s reputation and without his knowledge, made him famous among French poets.

In 1888 the second series of Poètes maudits was published. In this there appeared a self-portrait of Verlain as "Pauvre Lélian.", an anagram of his name by which he projected an image of himself as a poor, misunderstood, occasionally guilty but essentially naive and wellmeaning person. In that year too, he had the last of his known loveaffairs, this time with the elegant young painter, Frédéric-Auguste Cazals but Cazals soon left Verlaine, fearing that his reputation was endangered by the association with the older man.

Also, in 1888, “Amour”, with its references to Lucien’s death, appeared in print along with an article by Jules LeMaître stressing Verlaine’s importance to French literature13. While the book was not a great success and it seemed Verlaine’s creative years were now behind him, one more work remained but was not published during his lifetime. This was the collection of erotic poems “Parallèlement”, a collection Verlaine himself described as the "…waste-pipe, the night-soil deposit for all the 'bad' feeling which I can express.”

Verlaine spent his last years living in poverty, alternately, with two middle-aged prostitutes and frequenting a homosexual man known as Bibi-la-Purée, a professional thief best known around Paris for stealing umbrellas. This life-style notwithstanding, his early collections of poems were re-discovered and in 1894, following the death of Leconte de Lisle, he was elected to the Academie and shortly afterwards, elected France’s Prince of Poets. Paul Verlaine died in Paris two years later, at the age of 52, on January 8, 1896. His funeral was a huge public event, thousands of Parisians following the casket to the Batignolles cemetery.

An aged Verlaine

There is no doubt that Paul Verlaine, maudit d'entre les maudits, was foremost among those who renewed French poetry in the late Nineteenth Century and restored to it many of the lyric traditions which had been virtually lost for several hundred years. Along with Mallarmé and Rimbaud, one of his major contributions was to re-invigorate the sonnet.

The sonnet dates from about 1220 and seems to have been introduced by the Sicilian poet, Ciacomo de Lentino who most probably took the idea from the Italian or Provencal canzone or the Sicilian strambotto. Its structure had been virtually set in concrete since the days of Petrach (after whom the classical form is named) and consists in fourteen iambic pentameter lines including an octave in two quatrains rhyming abba abba followed by a sestet in two tercets rhyming cde cde — or of course, a variant of this. One of the few changes to be made to this classical form was made by Les Pléiades when Ronsard’s suggested that the Alexandrine (ie, a verse of iambic hexameter) was better suited to French than the iambic pentameters we prefer in English.

Verlaine perhaps more so than Mallarmé and Rimbaud, continued to use alexandrines in his sonnets, but like the other two, he experimented with other rhyme schemes and helped free up the rules of meter while emphasising the role of homophony. Through these innovations, he created poems so fluid and musical, in his own words, they seem to “dissolve in the air”. Take for example, his “Chanson d’automne”. This is not one of Verlaine’s most important works perhaps but one many composers have set to music. Listen to the music, not so much the words..... In the first stanza, for example, note particularly how the “dark” vowel sounds are softened by the connecting, more liquid consonants – the [L], [M] and [N] sounds. Autumn was a popular subject among 19th Century poets but in Verlaine’s vision, it is more a reminder of our impotence in the face of Fate than a harbinger of the Winter of Death.


Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l'automne
Blessent mon coeur
D'une langueur
Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l'heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;
Et je m'en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m'emporte
Deçà, delà
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

In another poem, “Art Poétique” which he wrote in 1874 but which was not published until the collection “Jadis et Naguère” appeared in 1884, Verlaine set out his musical view of poetry:

De la musique avant toute chose,
Et pour cela préfère l’Impair,
Plus vague et plus soluble dans l’air,
Sans rien en lui qui pèse ou qui pose……

However, of the two men, it was the teen-age Rimbaud — now virtually canonised in Charleville, the town he kept running away from — who laid the foundations for much of modern literature and contributed most to our modern view of the world. Among others, Rimbaud strongly influenced Joseph Conrad, Jean Cocteau, Hart Crane, Bob Dylan, Jean Genet, André Gide, Allen Ginsberg, William Faulkner, Henry James, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Federico García Lorca, H.P. Lovecraft, Marcel Proust, Patti Smith, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, the Surrealists and much of today's alternative music scene. One such was Jim Morrison (1943 – 1971) and his group, The Doors. Poet as well as musician, Morrison once wrote:

I like ideas about the breaking away or overthrowing of established order. I am interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos - especially activity that seems to have no meaning. It seems to me to be the road toward freedom - external revolt is a way to bring about internal freedom. Rather than starting inside, I start outside - reach the mental through the physical.

An opera, “Seasons in Hell: An Opera in Two Acts” was produced in 1994 with score by Harold Blumenfeld and Libretto by Charles Kondek. This traces the life of Rimbaud, the libretto being made up largely of fragments of his poems. And a major movie, “Total Eclipse”, starring Leonardo diCaprio as Rimbaud and David Thewlis as Verlaine, was released to mixed reviews in 1995 [actually, it was a tremendous flop].

In 1972, a rather garish French and Italian co-production of Une saison en enfer was shot on location in Ethiopia and starred a young blue-eyed Terence Stamp. Even Australian painters Sidney Nolan and Brett Whiteley once paid him homage by painting his portrait!

I find it very difficult to choose which of his work to look at more closely. However, since we will come back to some of his work, let us for the moment take a peek at portion of Une Saison en enfer which Rimbaud wrote in 1873 while Verlaine was in jail in Belgium. In this section15 he uses the parable of the Wise Virgins in which to offer his most obviously autobiographical account of his life with Verlaine. It is too long to detail here but there is much which — even in English translation — reads like direct quotation of things Verlaine might well have said. For example,

"He says : "I don't love women. Love has to be reinvented, we know that. The only thing women can ultimately imagine is security. Once they get that, love, beauty, everything else goes out the window : all they have left is cold disdain, that's what marriages live on nowadays...."

The picture Rimbaud paints is one in which he adores Verlaine and is under the spell of the older man, but hates the way he is often brutal and derogatory in his dealings, not only with Rimbaud himself but with others too. Unexpectedly however, Rimbaud hints that it was he who seduced Verlaine, a claim which seems consistent with what we know of them both. Two of the best-known of all Rimbaud’s poems are “Le Bateau Ivre” and “Le chant des voyelles”. The first of these, “Le Bateau Ivre”, was written when Rimbaud had returned to Charleville after his sojourn in Paris during the Commune, his rape by the soldiers whom he had thought his friends, and his long walk home. It was one of the poems he sent, along with “Le Coeur Volé” to Verlaine. Of this poem, Gargett comments that:

“The magnificent "Bateau ivre" may be described as the first great Symbolist poem. The "drunken boat" is a ship which has gone adrift down some American river when its haulers were captured and massacred by "shrieking redskins". Free and crewless it is carried about the seas, traversing storms, amid seascapes and landfalls of incredible strangeness and beauty. The underwater world and the sky display their terrors and marvels while it drifts …… The great strength of "Bateau ivre" lies in its evocations of the violence and colours of the sea and of their concordances with human experience. As his [Rimbaud’s] biographers duly note, he had not yet seen the sea, yet far more lucidly and successfully than Hugo, he is a cosmic poet…”

The second poem, “Le chant des voyelles” is probably the most celebrated and certainly the most commented on and glossed of all Rimbaud’s work. This poem helped popularise the psychological phenomenon of “synesthesia” in which people “see” sounds and “hear” colours. However, Rimbaud himself admitted he just made up the colours he associated with the vowels. Personally, I suspect that this poem, which was written in the same period as “Le Coeur Volé”, “Le Bateau Ivre” and Les Lettres du Voyant, has greater appeal to readers who have experienced some of the psychodelic effects of LSD or other psychotropic drugs — or perhaps, even those of La Fée Verte!.


A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu : voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes :
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,
Golfes d'ombre ; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,
Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d'ombelles ;
I, pourpres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles
Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes ;
U, cycles, vibrement divins des mers virides,
Paix des pâtis semés d'animaux, paix des rides
Que l'alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux ;
O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,
Silences traversés des Mondes et des Anges :
- O l'Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux !

(Poésies 1870 - 1871)

I'll tell One day, you vowels, how you come to be and whence.
A, black, the glittering of flies that form a dense,
Velvety corset round some foul and cruel smell,
Gulf of dark shadow; E, the glaiers' insolence,
Steams, tents, white kings, the quiver of a flowery bell;
I, crimson, blood expectorated, laughs that well
From lovely lips in wrath or drunken pentinence;
U, cycles, the divine vibrations of the seas,
Peace of herd-dotted pastures or the wrinkled ease
That alchemy imprints upon the scholar's brow;
O, the last trumpet, loud with strangely strident brass,
The silences through which the Worlds and Angels pass:
-- O stands for Omega, His Eyes' deep violet glow!

(Translation by N. Cameron, 1947)

Now this of course is a sonnet, but note the rhyme scheme in the French: in the quatrains, abba baab and in the tercets, cc deed. And note too the neologism, “bombinent”, presumably from the nonexistent verb “bombiner, to buzz or drone” which Rimbaud invented from the Latin bombus, drone. These features aside, however, this poem is regarded by many as the most modern of all Rimbaud’s texts, especially because it places the associations of words ahead of the meaning of words. It is also an extraordinarily clever construction: notice how he arranges the poem according to the properties of light, first from the darkness of Black to the light of White, then groups the colours in order of the spectrum. This poem is extraordinary too in the way it shows how the poet can play with words yet, like John Donne, leap with them into Eternity. Although brief, the relationship between Verlaine and Rimbaud has continued to preoccupy the curiosity of the public and scholars alike. Two frequently asked questions are “To what extent were they ‘homosexual’ in our sense of the word?” and “How did their sexualities affect their art?” These questions are not motivated by some prurient interest in the sex lives of the two young poets but arise in the attempt to understand how the identity of artists, particularly those who are members of minority groups, affect their art. Similar questions are asked about many feminist and black writers.

As for the first, I think there is no doubt that Verlaine was primarily homosexual, what today we might call a “married gay” (which was pretty much par for the course for homosexuals until very recently)… We do know that Rimbaud was not the first young man in Verlaine’s life: in addition to some adolescent gropings with his class-mates at school he himself refers to in his “Confessions”, there was also most notably the young Lucien Viotti, a friend and literary collaborator. Verlaine seems to have been besotted by Viotti’s "ephebic body's exquisite proportions" even though, at the same time, he was wooing Mathilde whom he married in 1870. Verlaine was distraught when Viotti was killed in the Franco- Prussian War that same year.

While there can be little doubt about Verlaine’s sexuality, I am not so sure about Rimbaud. His was a very complex character to begin with, but surely was made more complex by his traumatic experiences. Without giving my reasons here, I would tend to regard Rimbaud as possibly one of those youths for whom homosexuality was “a passing phase”. However, we should not discount Rimbaud’s love — indeed, adoration — for Verlaine. As for Verlaine, he continued to love Rimbaud until the day he died.

"For me, Rimbaud is an ever-living reality," Verlaine once said to his friend, "a sun that burns inside me that does not want to be put out..."

As for the second question, “How did their sexualities affect their art?”, it has to be remembered that the relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine was not only the debauched, violent and scandalous affair for which history remembers them, but also a remarkable literary partnership which pushed French poetry to new extremes. Although they only ever collaborated on one poem together, their relationship, including its sexual component, clearly inspired them both when they were together and, in Verlaine’s case, even long after they had parted.

The one poem on which they collaborated was the Sonnet du Trou du Cul, for which Verlain wrote the quatrains and Rimbaud the tercets….. This rather infamous piece was written back in the early days of their association when, along with the other “vilains bonshommes” they composed the bawdy poems which have survived as the Album zutique. The Sonnet du Trou du Cul was written in response to a book of sonnets, “L’Idole” by the Parnassian poet Albert Mérat in which each poem extolled a part of the body of his mistress. However, there was one body part without a sonnet so Verlaine and Rimbaud rectified the omission. Rimbaud especially, who raged against hypocrisy of all kinds, probably enjoyed writing this sonnet: whether he knew it or not, anal intercourse was the second most popular form of contraception at that time in France, particularly among men and their mistresses.


Some of the poems written by these lovers, while together or apart, can be classified as “gay poetry”, a genre which some might call “pornographic” but which in reality cannot be dismissed so simplistically. Gay poetry as we know it today includes poems which range from the gentle and intimate to the sexually very explicit. Much has come down to us from ages past — for example, parts of the Epic of Gilgamish, some of the Ecologues of Virgil, Wu Chun’s poems in New Songs from a Jade Terrace, the love poetry of Hafiz of Shiraz, many of Shakespeare’s sonnets of course (sonnets 18, 20, 104, and 108 to name but a few of the 26 identifiably dedicated to a man) and nearer home, poems by Wilfred Owen (sadly killed in the Great War), by Frederico García Lorca, Walt Whitman (for example “When I Heard at the Close of the Day”) and one of my favourites, the Alexandrian Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy. However, the last 50 years or so has seen an exponential increase in the repertoire of gay poetry, all of it having its part to play by giving the men for whom it was written a mirror in which we see reflected our own lives and not just the heterosexual lives the majority live all around us.

Verlaine wrote a number of poems most probably inspired by his relationship with Rimbaud, such as "Vers pour être calomnié" (Verse to be slandered) and "L'espoir luit comme un brin de paille dans l'étable" (Hope shines like a blade of straw in the stable). The inspiration of "Crimen Amoris," is less easy to attribute but the graceful young prince whose triumph the poem describes could not have been far away….


Ce soir je m'étais penché sur ton sommeil.
Tout ton corps dormait chaste sur l'humble lit,
Et j'ai vu, comme un qui s'applique et qui lit,
Ah ! j'ai vu que tout est vain sous le soleil !
Qu'on vive, ô quelle délicate merveille,
Tant notre appareil est une fleur qui plie !
O pensée aboutissant à la folie !
Va, pauvre, dors ! moi, l'effroi pour toi m'éveille.
Ah ! misère de t'aimer, mon frêle amour
Qui vas respirant comme on respire un jour !
O regard fermé que la mort fera tel !
O bouche qui ris en songe sur ma bouche,
En attendant l'autre rire plus farouche !
Vite, éveille-toi. Dis, l'âme est immortelle ?
“Jadis et naguère”

One of my favourite poems, and the one which is most often quoted as expressing Verlaine’s love for Rimbaud is a poem he wrote in prison and which he dedicated to his distant lover. It refers to Rimbaud’s earlier poem which opens thus:

Il pleut doucement sur la ville.
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur?

The third poem of the section of “Romances sans paroles” entitled “ariettes oubliées” (an ariette is a musical movement, a melody), Verlaine made obvious connection to his former lover’s poem, equating the rain with his own tears…..


Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville,
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur?
0 bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits !
Pour un coeur qui s'ennuie
0 le chant de la pluie !
Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ? ...
Ce deuil est sans raison.
C'est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi
Sans amour et sans haine
Mon coeur a tant de peine!

(Romances sans paroles

However, to use Carolyn A. Durham’s words, not all of Verlaine’s poems are so evocative of “melodic and bittersweet etats d'ame”. In 1891, Verlaine completed 15 poems celebrating male-male sexuality. This work, Hombres, was not published in his lifetime and indeed, was not included in the Pleiade edition of the poet's complete works until 1989. These are often very explicit, even more accurately descriptive of malemale sex than the famous poem “A day for a lay” by WH Auden which was circulated anonymously when I was still a student but which you can now buy in books, fully attributed, from Amazon.com. While many have rushed to call Hombres plain pornography, in my own view (and I have not yet read them all), they have been damned more because they brilliantly celebrate taboo experiences than for any lack of artistic merit.

Rimbaud had only a short career as a poet (he wrote all his mature poetry between the ages of 15 and 19), but in his work one can see not only the artistic influence of his lover but also that of his sexual lifestyle of the time. For example, his poem "O saisons, ô châteaux" sings of his love for Verlaine, but be warned, if you read it in translation, it might have been “sanitized”, like many others of these poems... For example, in translations by both Andrew Jary20 and by AS Klein, “il” is translated as “it”, following on from “le coq gaulois”. However, if you read “he” for “il” it makes it more meaningful — The Coq Gaulois, at least in my reading of it, is Verlaine and there is quite probably a double entendre intended…..


Ô saisons ô châteaux,
Quelle âme est sans défauts ?
Ô saisons, ô châteaux,
J'ai fait la magique étude
Du Bonheur, que nul n'élude.
Ô vive lui, chaque fois
Que chante son coq gaulois.
Mais ! je n'aurai plus d'envie,
Il s'est chargé de ma vie.
Ce Charme ! il prit âme et corps.
Et dispersa tous efforts.
Que comprendre à ma parole ?
Il fait qu'elle fuie et vole !
Ô saisons, ô châteaux !
Et, si le malheur m'entraîne,
Sa disgrâce m'est certaine.
Il faut que son dédain, las !
Me livre au plus prompt trépas !
- Ô Saisons, ô Châteaux !

"Une saison en enfer" 1872/3
republished in "Les lluminations", 1886.

Rimbaud's signature

However, I don’t think such censorship is always the fault of squeamish editors: sometimes too, it looks to me as though Verlaine and Rimbaud deliberately left things a little indefinite. Many homosexual poets and song-writers have written in code or in some way hidden their real meaning from all but the cognoscenti. A good example, more or less of our own time, is the American song-writer Jerome Kearne who wrote a song “Can’t help lovin’ that man of mine”. This was a big hit in its day and was sung on stage by a woman but everyone who was anybody knew “that man of mine” was Jerome’s own partner.

There has always been poetry which spoke to men in this way, and if I have any regrets about leaving French and taking up philosophy all those years ago, they are that, had I stayed, I might have discovered these poems much earlier and felt less alone in the world. But I doubt we would have studied these poems — the 1950s were the most homophobic era in Australian history when we could only yearn for freedom but not express it. So I like to think I took with me the one gem the class had to offer:


Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit,
Si bleu, si calme!
Un arbre, par-dessus le toit,
Berce sa palme.
La cloche, dans le ciel qu'on voit,
Doucement tinte,
Un oiseau sur l'arbre qu'on voit,
Chante sa plainte.
Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, la vie est là,
Simple et tranquille.
Cette paisible rumeur-là
Vient de la ville.
-Qu'as-tu fait, ô toi que voilà
Pleurant sans cesse,
Dis, qu'as-tu fait, toi que voilà,
De ta jeunesse?

(Sagesse, 1881)

* This poem was set to music by many composers including Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) , "Sagesse", from Quatre chansons françaises, no. 2.; Frederick Delius (1862-1934) , "Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit" , 1895, from Songs to poems by Paul Verlaine, no. 2.; Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) , "Prison" , op. 83 no. 1 (1894), published 1896.; Reynaldo Hahn (1875-1947) , "D'une prison"

Smoking Arthur

[click titles]

  1. Arthur Rimbaud: Green Fairy's wild child.

  2. Verlaine and Rimbaud: Poets from hell. By Christina Patterson.

  3. You should know about ... Arthur Rimbaud. By Craig Whitney.

  4. Arthur Rimbaud, Coffee Trader. By Richard Goodman.

  5. Jouissance of the Commodities: Rimbaud against Erotic Reification. By Merrill Cole.

  6. A poet against poetry (Review of "Rimbaud" by Graham Robb). By Andy Martin.

  7. Book review: Delinquent with an art of gold. By Robin Buss.

  8. New light on a total eclipse. By Duncan Fallowell.

  9. Rimbaud mentality. By Roger Clarke.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


“The Green Fairy” is the English translation of La Fee Verte, the affectionate French nickname given to the celebrated absinthe drink in the nineteenth century. The nickname stuck, and over a century later, "absinthe" and "Green Fairy" continue to be used interchangeably by devotees of the potent green alcohol. Mind you, absinthe earned other nicknames, too: poets and artists were inspired by the "Green Muse"; Aleister Crowley, the British occultist, worshipped the "Green Goddess". But no other nickname stuck as well as the original, and many drinkers of absinthe refer to the green liquor simply as La Fee - the Fairy [check Rimbaud’s poem by the same title].

Absinthe and the poet go together like a horse and carriage. The metaphorical Green Fairy first earned her fitting reputation as the artist's muse in the second part of the nineteenth century, when she became the drink of choice among the avante-garde habitues of the Latin Quarter, the artistic district of Paris. It was here, in the absinthe-soaked atmosphere of cafes such as La Nouvelle-Athenes and L'Academie where the Symbolist movement was born. It was under the Fairy's wings where the old was being rejected and the new embraced. It was the Fairy who was the witness to, or perhaps the inspirer of, a profound artistic rebellion.


Absinthe's Rimbaud
'A terrifying poet': Arthur Rimbaud, the genius child rebel, used the Green Fairy as a mind-opening prop.
Rimbaud hated being photographed; he attacked Carjat, the photographer, with a cane shortly after this picture was taken (1871).

Et voilà! Here's Arthur Rimbaud, the first "punk poet", the iconic rebel, and perhaps the most celebrated of all absinthe drinkers.


The appearance of young Rimbaud -- he was only 17 at the time -- in Parisian literary circles was met with a bizarre mix of admiration, jealousy, shock and nervous consternation:

"We are witnessing the birth of a genius," declared Leon Valade after attending a dinner of the Vilains Bonshommes, a group of poets to whom Rimbaud was "exhibited" in October 1871. "... a terrifying poet," Valade recalled, "a truly childlike face which might suit a thirteen year old, deep blue eyes, wild rather than timid -- this is the lad whose imagination, with its amazing powers and depravity, has been fascinating or frightening all our friends."


At that very first dinner, Rimbaud gave the astonished poets a taste of his defiant, self-confident nature when he boldly dismissed the alexandrine, the classical meter that had dominated French poetry for over three centuries. "You can imagine how surprised we were by this rebellious outburst," noted Valade. Little did he know what was yet to come.

Soon, Rimbaud developed a reputation as the "savage" of the Latin Quarter, a child rebel who made the avant-garde look prudish. A notorious rule-breaker with a feral disregard, even disgust, for the niceties of Parisian decorum, he outraged decent society and fellow poets alike.

He announced that Paris was "the least intellectual place on Earth", and proposed that the Communards should have blown up Louvre, a symbol of bourgeois tastes. His conversation was sporadic and obscene, his manners non-existent. At poetry readings, he shouted "merde!" and other profanities whenever he disapproved of his fellow poets' works.


Rimbaud's own poetry was, without a doubt, the work of a genius mind ahead of its time. He was the first poet to attempt expressing the inexpressible, in evocative language that bypasses conventional "meaning". He experimented with concepts such as the "colour" of sounds, the impact of sound over sense, and verse libre (free rhythmic patterns). He articulated symbolist ideas before symbolism became a movement; he was "the spectator to the flowering of (his) thought" before the surrealists embraced the notion of the subconscious mind and free-flow thinking; he was a poet-scientist who set down a credible theory for changing human existence itself.


Those familiar with the mind-bending effects of absinthe drinking may be tempted to attribute Rimbaud's ground-breaking visions to the influence of the Green Fairy. Whilst there is no doubt that Rimbaud enjoyed the company of the Fairy, or "absomphe" as he called her, we should remember that absinthe merely inspires genius; it does not create it.

To fully understand Rimbaud's genius, we must realise that he was more of an explorer than a poet. By his own admission, poetry was but his favoured means of exploring the more fundamental aspects of life. Poetry was the medium through which he indulged in the "immense and rational derangement of the senses", a mental adventure that, he hoped, would provide answers to the Unknown.

And if poetry was simply the vehicle that was to take him to his ultimate destination, the Green Fairy was merely a guide along the route, never the driver. Rimbaud didn't drink absinthe to get drunk, he drank it to liberate his mind and enhance his visions. This was in contrast to Paul Verlaine, his fellow poet, and many other artists of the time.


During his short-lived (but brilliant) career as a poet, Rimbaud anarchic lifestyle mirrored his radical artistic life. He was the original room-trasher, the popular occupation of modern-day rock stars: a contemporary recalled how Rimbaud amused himself by smashing "all the porcelain -- water jug, basin and chamber pot," but also "being short of money, he sold the furniture". This apparently happened time and time again.

Unlike those of most modern rock stars, however, Rimbaud's antics were not preconceived publicity stunts, nor were they random acts of anarchy. Just like his poetry, his lifestyle reflected his innermost desire to escape the frightening world of conformity and to re-invent reality.

"Real life is absent," he proclaimed, and "I is somebody else," as well as "Love must be reinvented."

Rimbaud is thought to be the first person of his time to publicly stand up for women's rights and, later -- during his time as a gun runner in the Horn of Africa -- to even propose the notion of "rights" for the local black population, a concept previously unheard of in France, a mighty colonial power of the time.

Rimbaud's appeal as a determined revolutionary is such that in 1968, during the Paris Students' Revolt, students mocked up a photograph of him wearing jeans and mounted it on the barricades as an apt symbol of defiance. It has also been proposed that the extravagant American musician and occasional poet Jim Morrison may have faked his death in Paris and retraced Rimbaud's journey to Ethiopia. The anarchic child-poet was also claimed as messiah by a whole raft of later-day subversives, from surrealists to hard-core socialists.


In contrast to Arthur Rimbaud, who was a genius who used absinthe as a prop, Paul Verlaine, his fellow poet and partner, was an absinthe drunk first -- albeit a very talented one.
"I take sugar with it!" seems an innocent enough remark, but to Verlaine, this was his way of saying "hello" to just about anyone he met. It was "a sort of war-cry," one contemporary dryly remarked of the manner in which Verlaine usually delivered his peculiar salutation. The "it" which Verlaine took with sugar wasn't a cup of tea, of course; the "it" was the Green Fairy, absinthe. To Verlaine, absinthe was a way of life.


Born in 1844 -- ten years before Arthur Rimbaud -- Verlaine was to become the leader of the French Symbolist movement. He was the pioneer of free verse and an inspiration to scores of followers. Despite its vagueness and simplicity, or perhaps because of it, Verlaine's works remain a beautiful testament to his ingenious ability. According to the writer Graham Robb, Verlaine "never wrote a bad line" and some of his poems had "the strange power to calm a violent class of schoolchildren".

Verlaine was much less reliable off the page. His life alternated between extended periods of drunken debauchery and shorter spells of sober repentance. His absinthe binges sometimes turned violent: he once set his wife's hair on fire, and threatened his elderly mother with a knife (he spent a month in jail for the latter incident, despite her mother's plea in court that he really was "a good boy at heart" ).

The arrival of Rimbaud on the Paris art scene didn't help matters one bit. Verlaine had fallen for Rimbaud's poetry well before the young poet's appearance in Paris (the two exchanged letters when Rimbaud was still living with his mother in Charleville). When Rimbaud finally turned up, Verlaine fell for the boy, too. This was an affliction he never quite recovered from, even though their relationship only lasted about two years.

It is probable that adolescent Rimbaud's interest in carrying on with Verlaine was a reflection of his innate anarchic desire to challenge convention. Verlaine, in contrast, was truly smitten, describing Rimbaud as "a sun that burns inside me that does not want to be put out" long after their paths had gone separate ways.


While it lasted, their association rarely was a happy or a calm one, however. They left Paris for Belgium when Verlaine's marriage began to disintegrate, embarking on a two-year-long "frivolous adventure" (as Verlaine himself later put it) across Europe. They wrote, taught French, drank and provoked 'upright' society -- but they also argued and fought frequently. Rimbaud, who drank far less than Verlaine, slowly grew disgusted by Verlaine's near-constant alcohol consumption and bone idleness. Verlaine had become "impossible to live with", Rimbaud later complained, while Verlaine declared Rimbaud "a Demon, [not] a man!" with a terrible temper. The two parted company after Verlaine, in an absinthe-fuelled frenzy, lost control and shot Rimbaud in the arm. Verlaine ended up doing two years in jail as a result.

In a later sober moment, Verlaine lamented their decadent, care-free lifestyle when he expressed a sincere regret over some lost poems of Rimbaud: "That dastardly Rimbaud and I flogged them along with lots of other things to pay for absinthes and cigars".


Rimbaud stopped writing poetry at the age of twenty and set out to travel the world. In the seventeen years that followed (he died age 37 of a mysterious disease), he explored three continents, eventually settling down in Africa where he was a coffee trader, a gun-runner and even a Koran scholar.

Verlaine spent his last years in the company of one Bibi-la-Purre, an umbrella thief by profession and, like Verlaine, a keen absinthe drinker. Together they killed their days in the cafes of the Latin Quarter, where Verlaine sometimes recited poetry to novice poets or tried to introduce prostitutes to the delights of literature. He died at the age of 50, broken-down and broke.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


The London home of Verlaine and Rimbaud, the enfants terribles of French poetry, is up for sale. A landmark of literary hedonism may be lost, says Christina Patterson

Published: 08 February 2006

He lived in a squalid loft in a seedy part of town. He was often drunk, drugged and violent. He abused his friends, but relied on them to bail him out. Baby-faced and fiercely talented, this lyricist of love and death had a cult following and an angelic smile. "I know these passions and disasters too well," wrote Arthur Rimbaud in 1873, "the rages, the debauches, the madness."

When he wrote those words, the great French poet was living in a house in Camden Town. The terraced house is still there, though in a dilapidated state and in an area that can only be described as bleak. Beside the front door there is a simple plaque: "The French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud lived here May-July 1873". The words can't begin to do justice to the slice of turbulent history that lies behind those walls. Since the house is currently on the market, it is a history that is in danger of being lost.

Arthur Rimbaud first met Paul Verlaine in 1871. Rimbaud was 17, Verlaine 27. Both were brilliant, volatile and utterly committed to the quest for the new, in art and life. Rimbaud was a young poet in search of a patron. Verlaine was a young poet in search of distraction - not least from his miserable marriage to Mathilde, whom he regularly hit. Verlaine's brother-in-law described Rimbaud as "a vile, vicious, disgusting, smutty little schoolboy", but Verlaine found him an "exquisite creature". He didn't seem to mind that Rimbaud rarely washed, left turds under one friend's pillow, and put sulphuric acid in the drink of another; not to mention that he hacked at his wrists with a penknife and stabbed him in the thigh. But by then, he was in love. The two of them ran off to Brussels and then London.

Rimbaud was "delighted and astonished" by London. Verlaine was overwhelmed by the "incessant railways on splendid cast-iron bridges" and the "brutal, loud-mouthed people in the streets", but inspired by the "interminable docks. The city was, he wrote, "prudish, but with every vice on offer", and, "permanently sozzled, despite ridiculous bills on drunkenness". The two poets were often sozzled, too: on ale, gin and absinthe. Rimbaud's extraordinary sonnet "Voyelles" (Vowels), which gained an instant cult following, was clearly inspired by his experiments with "the Green Fairy".

At other times, their drinking was less productive. They fought like cats, sometimes with knives rolled in towels. "As soon as mutilation had been achieved," according to Rimbaud's biographer Graham Robb,"they put the knives away and went to the pub."

Their relationship ended with a slap in the face with a wet fish. When Verlaine came home one day with a fish and a bottle of oil, Rimbaud sniggered. Furious at being mocked, Verlaine whacked him with the fish, then stormed off to Brussels and threatened suicide. After pawning his lover's clothes, Rimbaud followed him and, in a Brussels hotel, they had their final row. With the gun he'd planned to kill himself with, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the arm. He was jailed for two years.

Throughout this time, however, both poets were producing work that would earn them a place in world literature. Verlaine wrote much of his Romances sans paroles; Rimbaud wrote many of the poems in Illuminations. Hailed as a masterpiece of modernism, the latter included the extraordinary polyphonic prose poem, "Une saison en enfer" (A Season in Hell).

These were clearly not pieces tossed off in the pub. Rimbaud would spend hours polishing his lines in the British Library. He was, according to Robb, "ferociously self-disciplined". He may have smashed rooms up, but this was, Robb tells me, "partly a way of smashing the image that he was supposed to have. He came from the provinces and so was patronised by the Parisian poets. He never really did become a Parisian. And that is why it would be much more fitting to have a Rimbaud house in London than in Paris".

For Lisa Appignanesi, one of a number of writers spearheading a campaign to save the Camden house, "it would be wonderful to insert their presence on to the London literary map, and to have a historical site that also thinks about the values of transgression". Rimbaud and Verlaine, she explains, "were both transgressive writers who influenced not only modernism but also the young for many generations, including the world of rock and pop". Indeed. Picasso, André Breton, Jean Cocteau, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison have all named Rimbaud as an influence. And Patti Smith talks of her debt to the writer she dubbed "the first punk poet". Her song "Land: Horses/ Land of a Thousand Dances/ La Mer (de)" even coined the verb "to go Rimbaud".

Even Pete Doherty, who has claimed Baudelaire as an influence, seems to share some of Rimbaud's proclivities. Like Rimbaud, he was a brilliant pupil who published poems as a teenager. And like Rimbaud, he's seems keen on opiates and blades, even writing poems in his own blood. But, for the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, "there's something rather self-conscious in Doherty's attempts to conform to the Rimbaud model. It's all so attention-seeking".

Julian Barnes, who is also involved in the campaign to preserve the house, included quotations from Rimbaud and Verlaine in Metroland, his first novel. Part One has an epigraph from Rimbaud's "Voyelles". Part Two has one from Verlaine: "Moi qui ai connu Rimbaud, je sais qu'il se foutait pas mal si 'A' était rouge ou vert. Il le voyait comme ça, mais c'est tout." ("I who knew Rimbaud, know that he really didn't give a damn whether 'A' was red or green. He saw it like that, but that's all.")

"Rimbaud's 'Voyelles'," says Barnes, "is about how you see life at 18. The Verlaine quote is about how realism kicks in." It is, in other words, about growing up. Pete Doherty, take note.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Arthur at 16
Arthur Rimbaud, age 16.

By Craig Whitney
[Oct. 2005]

Had French poet Arthur Rimbaud been alive in the last 50 years or so, he would have been a rock musician. And from all indications, he would have had a lot of fans.

Bob Dylan has repeatedly cited him as the key influence in his "chains of flashing images" lyrical style of the mid-'60s. Jim Morrison commonly signed autographs using his name, and wrote a fan letter thanking Rimbaud translator Wallace Fowlie. He inspired Patti Smith to quit her New Jersey factory job and start a rock band. Kurt Cobain named him as one of his favorite poets, and his widow, Courtney Love, read several of Rimbaud's prose poems at his funeral.

The real Arthur Rimbaud was born 151 years ago today in Charleville, a town in eastern France just miles from the Belgian border. He was a conspicuously good student, composing Latin verse in his classes with astonishing rapidity and winning nearly all the prizes awarded in his school's annual academic competitions.

At age 14, Rimbaud began increasingly turning his attention to composing French verse. His first attempts were, in general, unremarkable - technically brilliant but otherwise uninspired imitations of Victor Hugo and other notable poets of his day.

The real breakthrough came in 1870 with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. With nearly all of Charleville's teachers serving in the war, the town's schools were closed for the fall term, and Rimbaud, who had grown to become increasingly revolted by the provinciality of his hometown, was transformed in these months of idleness from its prized pupil to its chief rebel. He wandered through Charleville, his greasy hair grown down to his shoulders, scrawling obscene graffiti on park benches and smoking his pipe upside-down, which for some reason was considered the most scandalous of the three.


Accompanying this newfound bohemianism, Rimbaud made a complete break with the influences that had fueled his early poetry. He wrote brilliant invectives against the flowery style of contemporary French poetry, wicked satires of his quaint hometown, polemics against the war, condemnations of religion and, especially, scathing attacks on his pious, domineering mother.

What is most amazing is the tenderness and lyrical subtlety with which he did so, concealing a wealth of hidden meaning beneath the seeming simplicity of these poems. In "The Poet at Seven Years," Rimbaud contrasts his mother's petty tyrannies, and his quiet rebellions against them, with the first stirrings of his adolescent fantasy, imagining fantastic adventures and sea voyages from the quiet of his playroom.

Invigorated by these early poetic triumphs, Rimbaud began to grow even more disgusted with his life in Charleville. He made several attempts to run away, following a friendly school teacher who was serving in Belgium, but was caught and returned to face his mother's wrath each time.

Desperate, Rimbaud wrote two letters to the poet Paul Verlaine in Paris, enclosing several poems in his pleas for help in escaping Charleville. Verlaine, who was duly impressed with the skill of the young poet, wrote back immediately, saying: "My dear soul, come at once. You are summoned. You are expected."

The newly married Verlaine and his wife, Mathilde, had recently moved in to her parents' home in an attempt to wean the middle-aged poet from his fondness for drink and, more importantly, his predilection for teenage boys. But when he learned that his young protegee was only seventeen - and not, as he had been lead to believe, in his mid-twenties - it was far too much for a man of his limited willpower to resist. The two embarked on a torrid love affair that would last for most of the next three years, and which Rimbaud would later chronicle in his brilliant intellectual autobiography, "A Season In Hell."

For a few months Rimbaud and Verlaine made the rounds in the Paris cafes, mocking the smug self-satisfaction of its writers, driving a wedge between Mathilde's parents with their antics and in general making themselves the scandal of Parisian literary society. Under intense pressure from his in-laws to shape up or ship out, Verlaine, with much persuasion from Rimbaud, opted for the latter. For the next two years, the poets would divide their time between Paris, Brussels, London and Charleville, living off of Verlaine's inheritance in a series of bars and cold water flats.

Unlike the deliberately provocative writings of Rimbaud, Verlaine's poetry, at least until the two met, consisted mainly of love poems to his wife, incredible less for their themes than for their unprecedented level of technical innovation. Under his influence, Rimbaud's poetry became not only more technically experimental, but more poised and meditative.

Combining this with his increasing interest in mysticism, Rimbaud's poems took on a surreal, hyper-aesthetic edge, combining recollected events from his childhood with a visionary perceptivity for detail. In the poem "Memory," perhaps his greatest lyric, he delivers a cascading series of elliptical recollections from childhood, densely packed with detail and written in a carefully disordered style that brilliantly conveyed its hazy remembrances of things past.

But despite the success of their collaboration, the sadistic, domineering Rimbaud and the hyper-passive Verlaine were simply too volatile a combination to make their poetic marriage last for more than a brief period. When Rimbaud finally resolved to leave Verlaine in 1874 to return to Charleville and finish the half-completed "Season In Hell," Verlaine shot him in a fit of desperation. He was later arrested, and when the nature of the two poets' relationship became apparent to the Brussels authorities, he was sentenced to two years' hard labor for attempted manslaughter.

After finishing "Season," Rimbaud would go on to complete what would be the first book of prose poems in the French language, "Illuminations." At 19 years old, he gave up writing poetry for the rest of his life, spending a few years traveling and learning languages in Europe before resettling in East Africa. He spent the next 15 years in Ethiopia, working as an engineer, gun runner and, it is alleged, slave trader, before dying of cancer in 1891.

While it is easy in some sense to dismiss Rimbaud as the arch-rebel of French letters or the teenage poet laureate, to do so would be to miss not only the incredible depth and richness of his poems, but the central importance of his place in the history of French poetry.

Rimbaud's poems would go largely unrecognized for several decades after his death. But when, largely because of Verlaine's advocacy, they were rediscovered by Paris' young intellectuals near the turn of the century, he very quickly became the driving force behind the French symbolist and surrealist movements that would dominate the nation's verse well into the next century.

But beyond any question of influence, Rimbaud's importance as a poet rests primarily in his effortless combination of subjective, personal detail with the visionary self-mythology that he crafted around it. That he did so with such deceptive simplicity is unprecedented not only for a poet of his extreme youth, but for a poet of any age.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Translated by Wallace Fowlie

Rimbaud's 1872 poem "Memory" draws on events from his childhood in rural France and delivers them in an extraordinarily brisk meter that evokes the elliptical, dreamlike nature of memory itself.


Clear water; like the salt of childhood tears;
The assault on the sun by the whiteness of women's bodies;
the silk of banners, in masses and of pure lilies,
under the walls a maid once defended.

The play of angels - No... the golden current on it's way
moves its arms, black and heavy, and above all cool, with grass. She,
dark, having the blue sky as a canopy, calls up
for curtains the shadow of the hill and the arch.



Madame stands too straight in the field
nearby where the filaments from the work snow down; the parasol
in her fingers; stepping on the white flower, too proud for her;
children reading in the flowering grass

their book of red morocco. Alas, he, like
a thousand white angels separating on the road,
goes off beyond the mountain! She, all
cold and dark, runs! after the departing man!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Arthur at Harar


Written by Richard Goodman

On a sweltering day in August 1880, a tall, thin blue-eyed Frenchman walked into the offices of Viannay, Bardey et Cie. in Aden, Yemen, and asked for a job. He said he was from the Jura, and had lately overseen a gang of laborers in Cyprus; the work had been finished, so he'd come south to find something else. He had a letter of introduction. He knew some Arabic, too.

Well, said co-owner Pierre Bardey, we might have something for you, Monsieur...? Rimbaud? Viannay, Bardey et Cie, whose main office was in Lyon, exported coffee, among other things, and Bardey thought they could use a foreman in their coffee sorting warehouse. Lodging would be included, and meals. The pay? Well, not much, to be truthful, just seven francs a day. But if one were careful... Yes, it was indeed hot in Aden this time of year. Over 38 degrees (100°F) indoors. But one could get used to anything.

For the next eleven years, until he died miserably in a hospital in Marseille, Arthur Rimbaud, France's great 19th-century enfant terrible, whose poetry was to exert enormous influence on French literature, lived mostly in Aden and in Harar, Ethiopia, working in the coffee trade. He was, in fact, a pioneer in the business, the first European to oversee the export of the celebrated coffee of Harar from the country where coffee was born. He was only the third European ever to set foot in the city, and the first to do business there. How his life swung from the sublime to the commercial is one of the most perplexing mysteries in the history of modern literature.

When Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) abandoned poetry altogether in 1873, at the age of 19 or 20, he left behind a small, incendiary and revolutionary body of work that included "The Drunken Boat", A Season in Hell, and Illuminations, a series of mystical prose poems. He had come out of nowhere, from the small town of Charleville in the Ardennes. His parents were not literary. He began writing poetry at 13, serious poetry at 16. He came to Paris and befriended the poet Paul Verlaine. They had a tempestuous relationship which culminated in Verlaine's shooting Rimbaud in the wrist in a fit of hysteria. Verlaine went to prison; Rimbaud, after completing A Season in Hell, burned his papers and stopped writing altogether. All this in three short years.

From that point onward, Rimbaud led an itinerant life marked by an insatiable restlessness and, especially in the end, a concerted and frustrated quest for money. His wanderings took him from one unlikely place to another: from Indonesia, where he deserted from the Dutch colonial army; to Scandinavia, where he interpreted for a touring Danish circus; to Cyprus, where he supervised road-building gangs; and, finally, in 1880, to Aden in the British protectorate of Yemen near the southern entrance of the Red Sea. Intermittently, he returned—or was repatriated, sick or penniless, by the French diplomatic corps—to his family in Charleville. It was a life from which literature was completely absent. As far as I can determine, in all the letters he wrote to his family during these last years, he never once mentions literature. (He does mention books, but they are invariably technical or instructional ones.) He certainly never wrote poetry again. He did write, though: He published several pieces on East Africa, including a treatise on Ogaden that appeared in the bulletin of the French Geographical Society. It was decently, though not memorably, written, but its author hardly seemed the same Arthur Rimbaud who had upset and forever altered the French literary world.

In fact, like many before him and after, Rimbaud reinvented himself. The problem for posterity has been that with this reinvention, Rimbaud discarded his marvelous ability to spin words in the stars. When, some years later, Pierre Bardey's brother Alfred happened to learn that Rimbaud had written poetry and was revered in certain small circles in Paris, he confronted Rimbaud with this. Rimbaud seemed aghast: "Absurd! Ridiculous! Disgusting!" he said to Bardey. The Rimbaud who had written "The Drunken Boat" and A Season in Hell was dead and buried. The new Rimbaud wanted to make money. And, perhaps, to do some exploring and a bit of photography. This was the Arthur Rimbaud who arrived in Aden, Yemen in August of 1880: a different person entirely.

At that time, coffee had become extremely popular in Europe, and especially in France. Though the plant was being cultivated elsewhere— notably in Java by the Dutch—the best coffee was considered to come from Yemen. Coffee had come into its own there. The name of the port of al-Mukha in Yemen had become synonymous with coffee, and still denotes a certain superior quality today. For years, Arab merchants and traders had kept coffee entirely to themselves. Releasing it at last to the outside world, they then held a monopoly on its trade. They knew a good thing when they saw one.

Coffee's origin is placed variously in Yemen and Ethiopia, with most food historians now believing it to be the latter. Some believe that the word "coffee" derives from the name of the Ethiopian province of Kaffa. It was discovered perhaps as early as the ninth century, and the legend of its discovery was described by the French traveler Jean de La Roque in A Voyage to Arabia the Happy, published in English in 1726. La Roque writes that a goatherd noticed that after eating the berries of a particular bush his goats "leaped and frisked about all night." A local cleric heard of this and gave some of the berries to his disciples "to hinder them from sleeping, when they were called up to their prayers...."

It was not a great leap from munching the berries to making a decoction of them, and from that to roasting the "beans" they contained before boiling them in water—and the revivifying cup of coffee was born. For hundreds of years since, everyone from college students in need of stamina to writers in need of stimulation—Balzac drank up to 20, or possibly 50, cups a day—has turned gratefully to the Ethiopian bean.

The coffee tree—really a large bush—grows to some six meters (20') in height, but is usually pruned to around four meters (12') in cultivation. Its flowers, which have an appealing jasmine-like scent, drop off and are replaced by red berries. It is what is inside these berries—the coffee beans—that is coveted. Machines remove the pulp, and then, usually, the beans are washed and dried. They are shipped green, eventually to be roasted. (The roasting of beans began in the 13th century.) The peak harvest in Ethiopia—it's still done by hand—is in November and December.

Arabs had been drinking coffee for hundreds of years when Europeans finally got a taste of this stimulating drink. They eventually broke the Arab monopoly and began importing coffee beans themselves. Coffee was introduced in France in 1660 by some merchants from Marseille who had acquired the habit of drinking it in the Middle East, where they traded. Upon returning from the Levant, they decided they couldn't live without it. It reached Paris in 1669 when the Turkish ambassador began holding lavish coffee parties for the French nobility. After that, it was only a matter of time before the general population got in on it. The Café Procope, Paris's first genuine coffeehouse, opened in 1689. (You can still drink coffee there today, as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin did in their day.) By 1880, the date of Rimbaud's arrival in Yemen, half of the entire Yemeni export coffee crop went to France.

Alfred and Pierre Bardey, businessmen from Lyon, were well aware of their countrymen's thirst for coffee. They traveled to Yemen—then under British control—and opened a branch of their company. (You will find it called by different names in different reincarnations: Bardey et Cie.; Viannay, Bardey et Cie.; and Mazeran, Viannay, Bardey et Cie.) They would export the great treasures of Yemen and those of East Africa, just across the Red Sea: ivory, gum, hides—and coffee. In exchange, they would barter the finest Massachusetts shirting, among other eagerly sought items. The entire process would be much simpler now that the Suez Canal was open. (In the 18th century, La Roque had traveled around Cape Horn to reach Aden.)

The newly hired Arthur Rimbaud was to work as the foreman in the Bardey's coffee-sorting house. He was now at the epicenter of the coffee trade. (The coffee trade in Yemen at the time of Rimbaud's arrival is ably explained by Charles Nicholl in his book Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, 1880-91, published in 1999 by the University of Chicago Press. I have relied heavily on its insights.) The coffee, which was grown in the highlands of Yemen, was transported to the capital city of Aden by camel. It normally arrived as berries from which the pulp had to be removed; the resulting beans then had to be cleaned, graded, packed in large burlap sacks and sent off to Marseille.

One can imagine the heat and dust of such a warehouse in August, when Rimbaud reported the temperature rising to 43 degrees (110F). The sorters and baggers—mostly Indian women, the wives of Indian soldiers posted there— worked from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Rimbaud learned quickly, and almost immediately became a valued employee. In just one month, he was able to write his family that he was "very up to date on the present coffee trade. I have the absolute confidence of my employer." The only problem was that he loathed the town of Aden with all his heart. "Aden is a terrible rock," he wrote his parents, "without a single blade of grass or a drop of good water." The heat was awful. "We sweat liters of water here every day," he told them. He was looking for a way to get out, and declared he'd probably go to Zanzibar. When he heard that Bardey et Cie. wanted to establish a branch in Harar, in the interior of Abyssinia, he jumped at the chance to go.

Alfred Bardey had made an exploratory trip to Abyssinia and was excited about the possibilities for trade and profit. In early November, 1880, Arthur Rimbaud wrote his family, "The company has founded an agency in Harar, a region that you'll find on the map in the south-east of Abyssinia. We'll export coffee, hides, gum, and so on... The country is very healthy and cool due to its elevation." Bardey et Cie. offered Rimbaud a posting there, and on November 10 he signed a three-year contract with the firm. He was to receive 1800 rupees a year, plus food, lodging and one percent of the net profit coming out of Harar. (It is often difficult to follow the monetary transactions of the time, as they flow freely from rupees to francs to Austrian thalers.)

So, there he was, age 26, the equivalent of at least one lifetime already behind him, ready to plunge into Eastern Africa on a search for coffee.

Rimbaud, it turned out, was not unequipped for the job. He had a great facility for languages. He already knew Latin, English, German and probably Dutch, and had even studied Arabic in his home town of Charleville. He would thus be well prepared to learn the language spoken in Harar. (There were two, in fact.) He was genuinely interested in the culture of the lands where he resided, and he was charitable. Indeed, "charitable" is the word most often used by his contemporaries in Yemen and Africa to describe his relations with the locals. For a man who was to become obsessed with making money, hoarding and accounting for every sou, this seems ironic.

Though often frustrated by his dealings with local traders, he was, it turns out, a very sharp merchant. Much later, someone who knew him in Africa but who had only subsequently learned of his artistic past said, "Far be it for me to judge his past as a poet, but I can state with absolute conviction that he was a passionate trader." Who would have predicted that the author of the shimmering, gorgeous "Voyelles"—which by itself would have assured Rimbaud a place in the history of French literature—had a talent for trading?

Near the end of November 1880, Rimbaud left Aden and took a boat across the Red Sea to the Somali port of Zeila. He then joined a caravan. He and his fellow travelers made a 20-day trek across the desert on horseback—the same route by which the coffee would return—to the Abyssinian city of Harar, 1830 meters (6000') feet above sea level. Until just a few years earlier, it had been a closed city. In the end, Rimbaud would reside there on three different occasions and spend more than eight years there altogether—the longest time he spent in any single place in his life, except Charleville. Eleven years later, he would make his last return trip by this route, unable to walk, his leg swollen with a huge tumor, carried in a litter by hired porters.

It is hard to imagine the world into which Arthur Rimbaud entered. Harar, a city of some 20,000 inhabitants, was still primitive. The sanitary system consisted of throwing refuse—including dead bodies—over the town walls after dark to expectant hyenas. Just five years earlier, in 1875, the city had been conquered by the Egyptians, and a garrison of Egyptian soldiers was stationed there when Rimbaud arrived. Although the city had been closed to non-Muslims for centuries, one very unusual European Christian had been there: the amazing Richard Burton. Fresh from his impudent trip to Mecca, he again disguised himself as an Arab and, in 1855, made the same overland journey Rimbaud would make 25 years later. Burton described his visit in First Footsteps in East Africa, where he wrote that "the coffee of Harar is too well known in the markets of Europe to require description." This coffee had long been exported when Rimbaud arrived—but not by Europeans.

What was it about coffee from Harar that made it so desirable then—and still today? Joel Schapira, in The Book of Coffee & Tea, says that Harar coffee is the "finest of Ethiopian coffees," with a taste "characterized by a winy pungency, an exquisitely piquant aroma." An Ethiopian trading company praises its "medium acidity, full body and... distinctive deep mocca flavor." It is a form of Coffea arabica, the variety, indigenous to Ethiopia, that accounts for 90 percent of world production.

Arthur Rimbaud entered Harar unhindered. He situated himself and began trading immediately. From the first, he liked the climate. "Cool and not unhealthy," he described it. He started bartering—not just for coffee but for hides and ivory as well, for the Harar branch of Bardey et Cie. could not subsist on the coffee trade alone. He began gathering coffee and sending it by caravan back to Zeila and then by boat across the Red Sea to Aden. His office was usually filled with sacks of coffee beans, and he would occasionally sleep among them. In February, two months after his arrival, he wrote his family and said that he was having 20 kilos of café moka sent to them at his own expense, "if the customs duty isn't too much."

Then, almost immediately, he grew bored. It's not hard to see why. Even if he had forsaken his literary self, he remained a highly intelligent, keenly observant and very emotional man. He needed intellectual stimulation, and he did not find it in Harar. "Thankfully, this life is the only one we have," he wrote home, "and that's for certain, because I can't imagine another life more boring than this one!" This is the man who, ten years earlier, had enthusiastically written to the poet Théodore de Banville, "I will be a Parnassian! I swear, cher Maître, I will always worship the two goddesses, the Muse and Liberty." Now, his hopes—and, increasingly, his despairs—were more bourgeois. "What good is this coming and going," he wrote to Charleville, "this hard work and these upheavals among strange peoples, these languages I stuff my head with and these nameless tortures, if I can't someday, in a few years, take my ease in a place that suits me pretty well, and have a family—or have, at least, a son whom I can spend the rest of my life bringing up the way I think he should be, whom I can adornand arm with the most complete education it’s possible to get in this age, and whom I can see, become a renowned engineer, a man whose knowledge makes him rich and powerful. But who knows the length of my days in these mountains? I may simply disappear among the population, and never be heard of again...."

Partly to alleviate his pressing boredom, Rimbaud took up photography. He had a camera shipped to him from France and began taking pictures. To this we owe the last of the rare photographs we have of Arthur Rimbaud. They are self-portraits. In a simple statement filled with great poignancy, he sent them home to his family so that they "would remember my face." Looking at the photograph of the man in white cotton tropical garb standing in front of a coffee bush, it's difficult to believe he was 29 when it was taken: He looks 50.

He did well at his trade, though— so well that, in 1883, Alfred Bardey renewed his contract for three more years. He would, in the end, leave Bardey et Cie. to work for another French exporter, César Tian.

And he was to turn to trading of a different sort. He ran guns for King Menelik II of Shewa, helping him conquer the province of Harar. Rimbaud, who knew the region well by then, thought that aiding Menelik would be a reasonably easy way to make money. He was wrong: Menelik cheated him of most of his profits.
By the time he began working for César Tian, he arguably knew more about Ethiopian coffee than any European alive and, albeit inadvertently, had done much to further France's intimacy with the select coffee of Harar. In the late 1880's, Paul Verlaine, out of jail and back in Paris, published Rimbaud's Illuminations. Verlaine had tried unavailingly to contact Rimbaud and assumed that he was dead, and the book was attributed to "the late Arthur Rimbaud." Thus there may have been a moment in a Paris café when someone was reading Rimbaud's Illuminations while drinking a cup of Ethiopian for and exported. Such are the hidden ironies of life.

Frustrated in his effort to accumulate a fortune, Rimbaud left Harar for the last time on April 7, 1891, his leg terribly swollen by a synovial tumor. For 15 agonizing days, his leg hurting "at every step," he was hand-carried in a covered litter to the coast. It was almost equally agonizing for him to pay the porters, parting with some of the money he had slavishly devoted himself to earning during hard years in Africa. Beyond the capacity of local treatment, he was put on a steamer for Marseille, and there was taken to the Hospital of the Immaculate Conception. Near death, he still worried about the expense!

His tumorous leg was amputated in May, and his despair soon increased. "I begin to understand," he wrote to his sister Isabelle, "that crutches, wooden legs and prostheses are just jokes. All you get from them is the ability to drag yourself miserably around without being able to actually do anything. And just when I had decided to return to France this summer and get married! Goodbye marriage, goodbye family, goodbye future! My life is over; I'm nothing but an immobile lump...."

His cancer widespread, Rimbaud died on November 10, 1891, alone and miserable. Though he was by then aware that some of his poetry had been published and had attracted attention, he had not a clue of the magnitude of his eventual, posthumous fame. Would he have cared? In one of his last letters, also written to his sister, he wrote, "Our life is a misery, an endless misery! Why do we exist?"

He was 37.

This article appeared on pages 8-15 of the September/October 2001 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~



by Merrill Cole

Could the commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use-value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange-values. Now listen how these commodities speak through the mouth of the economist. "Value"–(i.e., exchange-value) "is a property of things, riches"–(i.e., use-value) "of man. Value, in this sense, necessarily implies exchanges, riches do not."
- Karl Marx, Capital

[1] In the contamination of poetic idealism with the violence of commodification, in the simultaneous deconstruction of poetic language and commercial speech, Arthur Rimbaud's "Solde" inaugurates a cultural politics more sophisticated than critics have recognized. The prose poem challenges the reading of Rimbaud's œuvre as a narrative culminating in failure. "Solde," like other poems in the Illuminations, refuses the closure that a diagnosis of failure provides and enacts that refusal through poetic form. Its dizzying paradoxes also reveal the limitations of the poet's previous erotic apotheoses, by suggesting the perfect consonance of unrestrained libidinal flow and the smooth functioning of the marketplace. It is not that Rimbaud inscribes homosexuality as failure in "Solde," but rather that subversive sexual desire alone proves quite amenable to commodification. Only by incorporating the logic of the marketplace, and by pushing that logic past its capacity to make sense, can Rimbaud's poetry effectively pervert the erotics of cultural reification.

[2] To analyze how "Solde" intervenes in commodity relations requires recourse to contemporary Marxism, which has already theorized the commercial cooptation of modernism, often citing Rimbaud as the paradigmatic illustration of defeat. I intend to demonstrate, however, not only that Marxist critics have underestimated the poet; but also that he extends a provocation to theoretical certitude. This would position Rimbaud as a potential contributor to Marxist discourse, rather than one of its more or less negative examples. Before I attend to the close reading of "Solde," I need first to canvass Marxist reassessments of modernism; and second, to consider the history of the Marxist reception of Rimbaud. These contexts open the poem's very peculiar disruptions to critical scrutiny.

[3] The common denominator of contemporary Marxist readings of artistic modernism is failure. Whether this negative postulate generates a somewhat optimistic argument in favor of the works of the recent past, as with Jürgen Habermas' "Modernity–An Incomplete Project"; or leads to more dismissive conclusions, as, for instance, in Raymond Williams' "When Was Modernism?," Marxist critics concur that capitalism, particularly in its current commodity manifestation, has achieved decisive cultural hegemony over the various counterdiscourses of modern art and literature. To appropriate a term from Pierre Bourdieu and John Guillory for purposes ultimately different than theirs, these political writers contend that capital, with its basic equivalence form of money, has reified modernist cultural interventions into objects of "cultural capital." Thus paintings, poems, novels, sculptures, musical compositions, and even manifestos have become mere counters for circulation in the global marketplace. Karl Marx's hypothetical polemic that begins, "[c]ould the commodities themselves speak," receives its most eloquent confirmation in artistic works whose terminal statement invariably declares, "exchange-value" (83).

[4] For Habermas, however, it is precisely the aesthetic that can help us overcome reification: "everyday praxis can only be cured by creating unconstrained interaction of the cognitive with the moral-practical and the aesthetic-expressive elements" (11-12). If capitalism created these divided spheres, including the autonomous sphere of the artwork, the modernist or avant-garde commitment to reintegrating them still holds promise. Modernism is thus defined as a critical response to the conditions of modernity. Habermas, diagnosing what he considers the bad eminence of anti-modernism and anti-rationality on the contemporary critical scene, argues that "instead of giving up modernity and its projects as a lost cause" (12), we should understand that the vital "project of modernity has not yet been fulfilled" (13). After reviewing the recent historical decline of modernism, he asks, "what is the meaning of this failure? Does it signal a farewell to modernity?" (6). He answers by negating the negation, by arguing that it beckons us to resume the project of "a differentiated relinking of modern culture with an everyday praxis that still depends on vital heritages, but would be impoverished through mere traditionalism" (13). Habermas dialectically reaffirms the modernist revolt "against what might be called a false normativity of history" (5)–in other words, against convention and administered society–while advocating an adversarial critical culture.

[5] Habermas also acknowledges that characteristic modernism "simply makes an abstract opposition between tradition and the present" and that, since the advent of modernism, "the distinguishing mark of works which count as modern is 'the new' which will be overcome and made obsolete through the novelty of the next style" (4). In this fetishization of the new, however, other Marxist critics find an extremely successful enlargement of modernist ideology, from the specifically aesthetic to the general culture, that also, paradoxically, instrumentalizes its total dissolution. In the words of Raymond Williams,

What has quite rapidly happened is that Modernism quickly lost its anti-bourgeois stance, and achieved comfortable integration into the new international capitalism. Its attempt at a universal market, transfrontier and transclass, turned out to be spurious. Its forms lent themselves to cultural competition and the commercial interplay of obsolescence, with its shifts of schools, styles and fashion so essential to the market. The painfully acquired techniques of significant disconnection are relocated, with the help of the special insensitivity of the trained and assured technicists, as the merely technical modes of advertising and the commercial cinema. The isolated, estranged images of alienation and loss, the narrative discontinuities, have become the easy iconography of the commercials, and the lonely, bitter, sardonic and skeptical hero takes his ready-made place as star of the thriller. (35)

Not only does novelty now serve capitalist ends, but the formal innovations of modernism "have become the new but fixed forms of our present moment" (35). "Modernism," it should be noted, appears as a unitary phenomena in this passage. By using the term, "ready-made," the name of Marcel Duchamp's important avant-garde innovation, in "his ready-made place as star of the thriller," Williams adds derision to his polemic. Finding no continuing merit in the artistic projects of modernity, Williams, with this foundational cultural studies gesture, would turn our attention to more communal and popular forms of art.

[6] The faintly pastoral alternative he envisions, which we might call 'premodernist' in Habermas' terms, does not find much support among other prominent Marxists who share his sense of modernism's cooptation. Williams neglects the possibility that the modernists had very good reasons to abandon permanently the established conventions of artistic production. Even were we to grant that modernism, in its disparate entirety, has utterly flopped, we still need to question whether a return to the forms of so-called popular culture provides a viable political substitute. I say, "so-called," with the strong suspicion that commodity capitalism has more completely and irrevocably co-opted popular Western genres and traditions than those of modernism. I also take issue with the idea that modernist art works are fundamentally elitist, because of their inherent difficultly. The easy equation of difficulty with elitism elides difficulty's diverse forms and rationales. Moreover, as Guillory argues, the truly elitist problem that we must acknowledge and address is "access to literacy" (15): "everyone has a right of access to cultural works, to the means of both their production and their consumption" (54).

[7] In "Capitalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism," Terry Eagleton claims that modernism resisted one form of commodification, only to be captured by another: "[m]odernism is among other things a strategy whereby the work of art resists commodification, holds out by the skin of its teeth against those social forces which would degrade it to an exchangeable object." In order "[t]o fend off such reduction to commodity status, the modernist work brackets off the referent or real historical world, thickens its textures and deranges its forms to forestall instant consumability, and draws its own language protectively around it to become a mysteriously autotelic object." The term, "autotelic," along with the closely following "irony," parodies the discourse of the New Criticism, the preeminent modernist Anglo-American critical practice. For Eagleton, the "devastating irony" is that, as modernism

avoids the humiliation of of becoming an abstract, serialized, instantly exchangeable thing, it does so only by virtue of reproducing that other side of the commodity which is its fetishism. The autonomous, self-regarding impenetrable modernist artefact, in all its isolated splendour, is the commodity as fetish resisting the commodity as exchange, its solution to reification part of the problem. (140)

This argumentative turn depends upon absolutizing the modernist artwork's break from reference and context–an attempted total divorce certainly evident in some modernist works, but not in all. There is a way of reading the break mimetically, as I will elaborate in reference to Rimbaud. Dissatisfied with modernism, though, Eagleton looks with hope for more openly political postmodernist artistic practices that would stress "the state of contradiction we still inhabit" (146), and thus reconstruct the complex forms of modernism and the avant-garde, while learning from their mistakes. He does not consider the extent to which certain modernisms anticipate his critique.

[8] Eagleton basically agrees with Andreas Huyssen, who writes in "The Hidden Dialectic: Avantgarde – Technology – Culture" that, even though culture industry "conformism has all but obliterated the original iconoclastic and subversive thrust of the historical avantgarde" (3), which "has lost its cultural and political explosiveness and has itself become a tool of legitimation" (6),

Both politically and aesthetically, today it is important to retain that image of the now lost unity of the political and artistic avantgarde, which may help us forge a new unity of politics and culture adequate to our own times. Since it has become more difficult to share the historical avantgarde's belief that art can be crucial to a transformation of society, the point is not simply to revive the avantgarde. . . . The point is rather to take up the historical avantgarde's insistence on the cultural transformation of everyday life and from there develop strategies for today's cultural and political context. (6-7)

Any workable cultural politics would have to be historically well-informed and, as Huyssen stipulates in "Adorno in Reverse: From Hollywood to Richard Wagner," would need to create "a contemporary art precisely out of the tensions between modernism and mass culture" (43).
[9] In Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or, The Logic of Late Capitalism, a similar, if infinitely more guarded, affirmation of the potentials of the postmodern accompanies the dismissal of modernist praxis. Fundamentally, he argues,

What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation. (4-5)

Jameson also catalogues how, in his view, vital aesthetic features of modernism no longer function in the situation of Late Capitalism, where surface flattens discredited depth; space distends time; flow washes away interpretation; "fragmentation" decomposes "the alienation of the subject" (14); pastiche emptily mimes the gestures of parody; clashing representations supersede defamiliarization, that outmoded "Utopia of a renewal of perception" (122); fully-administered, prepackaged consumption leaves no place for the experience of art as "nonalienated labor" (146); and, most profoundly, history is "forgotten" (ix), erased from (now disabled) consciousness. Accelerating the anti-historical trends of the modern era, postmodernism voids art of its old political aspirations, along with its sense of temporality. In this situation, Jameson rules out the possibility of resurrecting modernist praxis. Instead, he asserts, in standard Marxist fashion, that "a truly new culture could only emerge through the collective struggle to create a new social system" (xii). Such a struggle, however, would be impossible without historical understanding. Jameson therefore suggests preliminary ways of producing it in properly postmodern art and criticism.


[10] A central literary figure who often supplies the criterion of all things modern, the proper name that indicates precisely what did not work, is Arthur Rimbaud. Although Jameson employs Rimbaud as a touchstone, as do numerous non-Marxist commentators, he disregards reading any of the poet's works closely. Rather, he simply cites "Rimbaud's magical flowers 'that look back at you'" (10), as a passing illustration of the deep affect postmodernism will neither recognize nor reproduce. Implicitly, what the poet demanded of his readers is no longer exactly relevant to today's world. That Jameson, like other contemporary Marxists, grants Rimbaud an at least nominal place in modernist history, reflects the influence of the great modern Marxist, Theodor Adorno. Although Adorno's successors devote much more critical space to refuting or updating his arguments than those of his aesthetic exemplars, reconsidering certain crucial aspects of Adorno's late opus, Aesthetic Theory, along with Rimbaud, problematizes the thoroughly tragic role to which some postmodern-era Marxists assign modernism. Indeed, Rimbaud may prove to have even more to offer than Adorno conceived.

[11] The purpose here is certainly not to disprove the commodification thesis. What follows neither proclaims the triumph of modernism in general, nor of Rimbaud in particular. According to Jameson, "[h]istory progresses by failure rather than by success, as Benjamin never tired of insisting"; in other words, "all the radical positions of the past are flawed, precisely because they failed" (209). In this ultimate sense, Rimbaud has failed, too. Regardless of his spectacular poetic innovations, and in spite of the new forms of love he conjured, Rimbaud did not succeed in the revolution of social relationality he championed. But that is not the end of (the) history. I should like to apply a passage from Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" to the study of the poet:

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it "the way it really was" (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at the moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and it receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. (VI. 255)

Rather than rehearse the insipid and dubious platitudes about the impossible poetic ambition that led to a disillusioned life in imperialist commerce, the pat biographical narrative that even Adorno endorses, the intent of this essay is to read a certain Rimbaldian poetic text in such a way as to illuminate how it participates both in the struggle Benjamin stresses and in the critique of commodification Adorno and his successors articulate. That would situate Rimbaud doubly as a participant in contemporary theoretical debate and as one of its compelling historical objects. It is not the historical actor–more inaccessible than most moderns, in any case–but poetry in its "moment of danger" that may offer what Benjamin terms "the spark of hope in the past" (VI. 255). Focusing on the work, rather than the person, also displaces Benjamin's androcentrically universalized "man." The "historical materialism" of this endeavor, if indeed it can be called that, consists in attending to the crisis of modernity where it still matters, at the very instant it sears into our postmodern situation.

[12] There is an unfortunate limitation to how Adorno theorizes Rimbaud, which leaves his insights incomplete, though those insights certainly provide the pivotal juncture with which to commence. Rimbaud might have played a larger, more productive role in Aesthetic Theory, had Adorno scrutinized the later prose poems, collected as the Illuminations, as closely as he did the early letters and the decisive dictum, "[i]l faut être absolument moderne" (241) ["One must be absolutely modern" (Varèse 89)], from Une Saison en enfer [All Rimbaud translations are Louise Varèse's, unless otherwise indicated; all critical translations are mine]. The Rimbaud of whom Adorno speaks appears to be primarily the writer of the famous "lettres du voyant (342) ["Letters of the Visionary" (v)], written to Georges Izambard and Paul Demeny. If, as Adorno claims, "artworks became artworks only by negating their origin" (3), if "only by virtue of the absolute negativity of collapse does art enunciate the unspeakable: utopia" (32), perhaps no artistic testimony more completely embodies the sweeping gesture of repudiation than the rash words of this poet. In his letter to Izambard, Rimbaud proclaims,

Maintenant, je m'encrapule le plus possible. Pourquoi? Je veux être poète, et je travaille à me rendre voyant : vous ne comprendrez pas du tout, et je ne saurais presque vous expliquer. Il s'agit d'arriver à l'inconnu par le dérèglement de tous les sens. Les souffrances sont énormes, mais il faut être fort, être né poète, et je me suis reconnu poète. Ce n'est pas du tout ma faute. C'est faux de dire : Je pense : on devrait dire : On me pense. –Pardon du jeu de mots.–
Je est un autre. Tant pis pour le bois qui se trouve violon, et Nargue aux inconscients, qui ergotent sur ce qu'ils ignorent tout à fait! (345-46)
[Now I am going in for debauch. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself a
visionary: you won't possibly understand, and I don't know how to explain it to you. To arrive at the unknown through the disordering of all the senses, that's the point. The sufferings will be tremendous, but one must be strong, be born a poet: it is in no way my fault. It is wrong to say: I think. One should say: I am thought. Pardon the pun.
I is some one else. So much the worse for the wood that discovers it's a violin, and to hell with the heedless who cavil about something they know nothing about! (xxvii)]

There is no preconceived content to the "unknown" Rimbaud would summon, outside of newness and its attendant thrill. To reach the beyond requires jettisoning not only the "poésie subjective" (345) ["subjective poetry" (xxvi)] Izambard taught him, but also the subjective self. The goal is emphatically transcendent, as the word, "voyant," implies. Intention gives way to, is sacrificed to, the materials of art, which transform the poet, instead of vise-versa; and for Adorno, "[t]he element of self-alienness that occurs under the constraint of of the material is indeed the seal of what was meant by 'genius'" (170). Although Rimbaud's formulations may in some sense anticipate the postmodern fragmentation of the subject, his faith in defamiliarization as a program for vision or genius marks this passage as profoundly modernist.

[13] Adorno writes, "[t]he new is a blind spot, as empty as the purely indexical gesture 'look here'":

The new is necessarily abstract: It is no more known than the most terrible secret of Poe's pit. Yet something decisive, with regard to its content, is encapsulated in the abstractness of the new. Toward the end of his life Victor Hugo touched on it in his comment that Rimbaud bestowed a
frisson nouveau [new shudder] on poetry. (20)

In his letter to Demeny, the importance of novelty for the poet becomes immediately evident. Rimbaud opens, "[j]'ai résolu de vous donner une heure de littérature nouvelle" (346) ["I have decided to give you an hour of new literature" (xxviii)]. Although the awkward, parodic, and rather conventional early poems inserted in the letter hardly fulfill this promise, the prose goes much farther (which is ironic, considering the specific charge Rimbaud levels below). Rimbaud rebukes the course of literary history in asserting the absolute value of the new:

Toute poésie antique aboutit à la poésie grecque; Vie harmonieuse. – De la Grèce au movement romantique, – moyen-âge, – il y a des lettrés, des versificateurs. D'Ennius à Théroldus, de Théroldus à Casimir Delavigne, tout est prose rimée, un jeu, avachissement et gloire d'innombrables générations idiotes : Racine est le pur, le fort, le grand. – On eût soufflé sur ses rimes, brouillé ses hémistiches, que le Divin Sot serait aujourd'hui aussi ignoré que le premier venu auteur d'Origines. – Après Racine, le jeu moisit. Il a duré deux mille ans! (347)

[All ancient poetry culminated in Greek poetry, harmonious Life. From Greece to the Romantic movement–Middle Ages–there are men of letters, versifiers. From Ennius to Theroldus, from Theroldus to Casimir Delavigne, nothing but rhymed prose, a game, fatty degeneration and glory of countless idiotic generations: Racine is the pure, the strong, the great man. Had his rhymes been effaced, his hemistiches got mixed up, today the Divine Imbecile would be as unknown as any old author of
Origins. After Racine the game gets moldy. It lasted for two thousand years! (xxix)]

The formal structures of poetry have ceased to complement the contours of existence. Reality no longer informs poetry. Rimbaud follows his singular valorization of the Greeks, a typical Romantic gesture, with an execration of the Romantic poets, from whom he wishes to distance himself:

Si les vieux imbéciles n'avaient pas trouvé du Moi que la signification fausse, nous n'aurions pas à balayer ces millions de squelettes qui, depuis un temps infini, ! ont accumulé les produits de leur intelligence borgnesse, en s'en clamant les auteurs!
En Grèce, ai-je dit, vers et lyres
rhythment l'Action. Après, musique et rimes sont jeux, délassements. (347-48)
[If the old fools had not hit upon the false significance of the Ego only, we should not now have to sweep away these millions of skeletons who, since time immemorial, have been accumulating the products of the cockeyed intellects claiming themselves to be authors.
In Greece, I have said, verses and lyres, rhythms: Action. After that, music and rhymes are games, pasttimes. (xxix)]

Imagining a utopian Greece without boundaries between art and life, Rimbaud projects an alternative present–an historically simplistic version of the modernist dream of an integrated everyday praxis that Habermas endorses. Rimbaud's is a profoundly political conception of poetry, however naive its first enunciation appears to the contemporary reader.
[14] The program for social change Rimbaud outlines in his letter to Demeny betrays the ideology of Nineteenth-Century French social reformism, one of the socialisms Marx critiques as inadequate in The Communist Manifesto. The actions of the poet, for Rimbaud, have the power to transform the world:

Il arrive à l'inconnu, et quand, affolé, il finirait par perdre l'intelligence de ses visions, il les a vues! Qu'il crève dans son bondissement par les choses inouïes et innombrables : viendront d'autre horribles travailleurs; ils commenceront par les horizons où l'autre s'est affaissé! (348)

[He arrives at the unknown: and even if, half crazed, in the end, he loses the understanding of his visions, he has seen them! Let him be destroyed in his leap by those unnamable, unutterable and innumerable things: there will come other horrible workers: they will begin at the horizons where he has succumbed. (xxxi)]

In high Romantic fashion, the poet-Prometheus suffers to deliver the truth to others, who are positioned so as to receive and learn from his discoveries. The tropology of horizons and advance is prototypically avant-garde. That the poet leaps into something defined as indescribable implies a surface-depth dichotomy in operation, a bipolar oppositionality that Jameson claims postmodernism invalidates ("Overhastily, we can say that that besides the hermeneutic model of inside and outside which Munch's painting ['The Scream'] develops, at least four other fundamental depth models have generally been repudiated by in contemporary theory," one of which is "the dialectical one of essence and appearance" (12).). The progress that Rimbaud heralds is more than the advancement of the art of poetry, as the word "travailleurs" ["workers"] indicates. But it is idealistic, in Marx's sense:

Donc le poète est vraiment voleur de feu.
Il est chargé de l'humanité, des
animaux même; il devra faire sentir, palper, écouter ses inventions; si ce qu'il il rapporte de là-bas a forme, il donne forme : si c'est informe, il donne de l'informe. Trouver une langue;
– Du reste, toute parole étant idée, le temps d'un langage universal viendra! (349)
[So then, the poet is truly a thief of fire.
Humanity is his responsibility, even the animals; he must see to it that his inventions can be smelled, felt, heard. If what he brings back from beyond has form, he gives it form, if it is formless, he gives it formlessness. A language must be found; as a matter of fact, all speech being an idea, the time of a universal language will come! (xxxi-xxxii)]

The overt, if reversed, Platonism of the passage's final formulations underlines the traditional register of its aspirations. Rimbaud envisions the genesis of a shared, common language that would dismantle the alienations of modern significatory practice. The poet would lead the way: bettering the Greeks, he would bring on social revolution: "[l]a Poésie ne rhythma plus l'action; elle sera en avant (350) ["Poetry will no longer accompany action but will lead it" (xxxii)].

[15] Were we to leave Rimbaud with these outpourings of wildly unreasonable expectation, and their corresponding caustic disillusionment in Une Saison en enfer, Adorno's discourse on modernism and commodification would be completely apropos. Connecting aesthetic output to the modes of production in industrial society, Adorno stipulates that the "abstractness of the new is bound up with the commodity character of art" (21). Art responds to real social conditions:

Nouveauté [newness] is aesthetically the result of historical development, the trademark of consumer goods appropriated by art by means of which artworks distinguish themselves from the ever-same inventory in obedience to the need for the exploitation of capital, which, if it does not expand, if it does not–in its own language–offer something new, is eclipsed. The new is the aesthetic seal of expanded reproduction, with its promise of undiminished plenitude. . . . Only by immersing its autonomy in society's
imagerie [imagery or symbolism] can art surmount the heteronomous market. Art is modern art through mimesis of the hardened and alienated; only thereby, and not by the refusal of mute reality, does art become eloquent; this is why art no longer tolerates the innocuous. (21)

By this reasoning, the purported ugliness of some of Rimbaud's poetry, as well as the impatience of his letters, evidences a critical response to the commodity marketplace. His difficult formal inventions resist consumption. If, in defiance of "the ignominy of the ever-same," Adorno writes, "the new becomes a fetish, this is to be criticized in the work itself, not externally simply because it became a fetish" (22). Thus, while Adorno anticipates Eagleton's argument about how resistance to mass production can turn into a particular sort of commodity fetishism, he leaves room for the artwork to provide oppositional commentary on this process. Adorno avoids condemning artistic production for taking part in the ubiquitous exchange system: "[t]hat artworks are offered for sale at the market–just as pots and statuettes once were–is not their misuse but rather the simple consequence of their participation in the relations of production" (236). Only by such participation can the artwork represent the "historical injustice" (172) the commodity system entails and, by objectifying, by critiquing, and even, if only within the work itself, by negating that system, offer the glimpse of a less degraded social reality.

[16] It is therefore crucial to distinguish 'the new,' as Rimbaud advocates it in the letters, from the role of novelty in the capitalist economy. Whereas Rimbaud would employ the new as a force to shatter the rigidities and complacencies of the ego, the commodity system, from advertising and mass media entertainment to goods consumption, aggrandizes it. Adorno asserts that the culture industry's products offer the consumer "a standardized echo of himself," a locus of "identification" that, rather than challenging the limits of the self, consolidates the ego's petty securities and its sense that the world is as it should be, as it has to be (17). Proffering an assortment of stereotypes and canned plotlines, the culture industry sends the consumer back her or his own glossy self-image, reified and packaged for sale. Although, like Rimbaud, the culture industry glamorizes the unattainable, it programs the consumer to pursue what she or he cannot have or be, simply by buying more products. Jameson argues that "the force of desire alleged to undermine the rigidities of late capitalism is, in fact, very precisely what keeps the consumer system going" (202). Yet Jameson does not distinguish the incitement to desire from its very different possible mobilizations. For Adorno, modernism counters "the culinary consumption of art" (92) with formal devices that keep the artwork at a distance from its audience; thus modern art figures 'the new' not as an object which satiates some immediate hunger in its audience, but as the sometimes painful promise of what the world and the self could become.


[17] In his essay, "L'ambiguïté de Solde" ["The Ambiguity of 'Sale,'"], Yoshikazu Nakaji remarks that Rimbaud's "Solde" is "une poème relativement peu commenté" ["a poem that has received relatively little commentary"]. In Rimbaud: Visions and Habitations, Edward J. Ahearn argues that the ambiguity of "the provocative commercial mode" of the poem "has led to opposing interpretations" (122-23): "Solde," when it does receive attention, is comprehended either as the derisive rebuttal of the whole visionary project, a sort of addendum to Saison en enfer, or as a piece of ironic optimism. Perhaps it is precisely the "commercial mode" of the prose poem that explains the paucity of exegesis; for commerce and poetry to collaborate in such an emphatically erotic, yet equivocal, manner, and thereby challenge the coherence of a fundamental modernist bipolar opposition, may prompt avoidance.

[18] Suzanne Bernard and André Guyaux, in the notes accompanying their definitive edition, Œuvres de Rimbaud, appear to concur with the pessimistic reading: "Le titre de cette pièce semble bien indiquer une volonté de liquidation du passé, un passé qui est celui du voyant : « Après les vaste espoirs, après les ambitions surhumaines, il ne reste plus qu'à solder », écrit A. Adam" (522) ["The title of this piece seems very much to indicate a will to liquidate the past, a past which is that of the visionary: 'After the vast hopes, after the superhuman ambitions, all that is left is to sell,' writes A. Adam."]. The diagnosis of failure is a constant in Rimbaldian interpretation; indeed, ever since Paul Verlaine introduced him to the reading public with Les poètes maudits, or The Accursed Poets, in 1883, the significance of Rimbaud's purported failure and consequent silence has been of paramount critical concern.

[19] Verlaine accentuates ontological, rather than corporeal, disorder, inferring a hidden causality behind Rimbaud's final "abandon de la poésie" ["abandon of poetry"] that must be "logique, honnête et necessaire" ["logical, honest, and necessary"] (15). Much of the critical tradition, however, from Remy de Gourmont and Benjamin Fondane to Yves Bonnefoy and Paul Schmidt, renarrates Rimbaud's final poetic silence as repentance from homosexual transgression against nature, God, or reality. Such judgments, formulated in a variety of different critical vocabularies over the last hundred years, more or less explicitly homophobic, usually entail a dismissal of Rimbaud's liberatory sexual politics. Still other readers, following Paul Valéry, and more interested in poetics than biography or homophobic truism, valorize the profound accord of Rimbaud's failure with the dissonant reality of modern life; failure thus becomes a standard of mimetic realism.

[20] To fashion a satisfying narrative, it is necessary either to force the poems to follow a causal, biographical schedule, wherein juvenile bravado is shamed into self-castigation; or to abstract a governing thematic, whereby the poems submit to allegorical mapping. Such interpretations risk violating the anti-narrativity everywhere evident in the Illuminations, as Guyaux shows in his philological study, Poétique du fragment: Essai sur les Illuminations de Rimbaud [Poetic of the Fragment: Essay on the Illuminations of Rimbaud]. Targeting biographical fallacy, this important intervention unfortunately excludes questions of sexuality and politics. Guyaux's analysis of the "forme de métonymie du fragment littéraire" ["metonymic form of the literary fragment"] (8), which follows from Valéry's study of "incohérence harmonique" ["harmonic incoherence"] (Valéry, 282), elaborates a methodology for interpreting the anti-narratival Rimbaud. Through what Guyaux terms "[l]es glissements du mot" ["slidings of the word"] (162), Rimbaud makes changes in cliché phrases by substituting startling homonyms in key places, undermines closure with subtle and corrosive repetition, escapes autotelic containment through twist endings, effaces syntactic logic by privileging the nominal phrase, and jams the discursive chain with exclamations and superlatives. Although Guyaux remarks on "la perversion du sens par le glissement des mots" [the perversion of sense by the sliding of words"] (184), he declines to address what such perversion could mean beyond linguistic play. Yet the derangement of the vernacular is only the beginning.
[21] In an anaphoric compendium that extends for six of its eight paragraphs, and recommences in its last, the prose-poem, "Solde," appears to throw everything on the market. With derisory frenzy, the poet-merchant hawks a bizarre–even, conflicting–assortment of objects, careful to render them more enticing, and thus to arouse the interest of the clientele (Nakaji 239-40). In the first paragraph, Rimbaud's speaker appropriates the common clichés of commercial discourse:

A vendre ce que les Juifs n'ont pas vendu, ce que noblesse ni crime n'ont goûté, ce qu'ignorent l'amour maudit et la probité infernale des masses : ce que le temps ni la science n'ont pas à reconnaître : (293)

[For sale what the Jews have not sold, what neither nobility nor crime have tasted, what is unknown to monstrous love and to the infernal probity of the masses! what neither time nor science need recognize: (147)]

To reproach the poet for lapsing into Anti-Semitism would be to miss his irony, whereby the hyped phrases of Nineteenth-Century advertising are strung together, without concern for logical consistency. Nakaji points out that the Jews bring to mind the merchants who must be acquainted with many articles, the most precious among others (240). Yet there is also the unsavory suggestion of illicit wealth, which chimes in with contemporaneous sentiments about decadent aristocracy, excitingly transgressive criminality, and naughtily taboo homosexuality ("amour maudit"). Although snob-appeal makes these rarefied states preferable to undifferentiated membership in the moralistic "masses," Rimbaud's hyperboles evoke something even more exquisite, more select, more provocative.

[22] Ahearn argues that, in these formulations, "the negation of the ethical-social codes ('infernale' reverses ethical values [i.e., 'probité']), and of related experiential-conceptual categories and methods (time, science) is augmented by a critique of forms of rebellion" (123). What such a critique seems to imply, though Ahearn argues otherwise, is that supposedly dangerous forms of social subversion have tremendous potential for the marketplace. They sell. Rimbaud proceeds in the second and third paragraphs of "Solde"–note that the sentence above flows past the end of the paragraph–to bring his own former political project, as outlined in the "Letters of the Visionary," under corrosive scrutiny:

Les Voix reconstituées; l'éveil fraternal de toutes les énergies chorales et orchestrales et leurs applications instantanées; l'occasion, unique, de dégager nos sens!
A vendre les Corps sans prix, hors de toute race, de tout monde, de tout sexe, de toute descendance! Les riches jaillissant à chaque démarche! Solde de diamants sans contrôle! (293)
[The Voices restored; fraternal awakening of all choral and orchestral energies and their instantaneous application; the opportunity, the only one, for the release of our senses!
For sale Bodies without price, outside any race, any world, any sex, any lineage! Riches gushing at every step! Uncontrolled sale of diamonds! (147)]

The objectives of poetic vision become bargain items, as the speaker packages the dream of new societal harmony and new language as sexy consumer experiences. These packaged products find their syntactic counterpart in the poem's overcharge of nominal phrases lacking predicates. The release of the senses turns into hedonism. Nakaji notes that, alongside the exhaustive hyperbole, the series of phrases including the word, "any," "Solde" executes a spiraling depreciation of its subject material that begins with the transition from "[l]es Voix" ["Voices"] to "les Corps" ["Bodies"], and continues to unfold across the poem (Nakaji 240).

[23] Adorno claims that art contests "the dichotomy of rationality and sensuousness that society perpetrates and ideologically enjoins" (98), and certainly an integral component of that division is the mind-body duality. Rimbaud's letters call for its dissolution, and such prose poems from the Illuminations as "Being Beauteous" (titled in English) and "Génie" ["Genie"] arguably effect it. In "Solde," however, the speaker ironically reinforces convention at the same time that he lures us closer, to examine his extremely unconventional wares. The pandering becomes explicit when exotically described bodies go up for sale, even though they are paradoxically "sans prix" ["without price"]. The ambiguity concerns whether we should read these bodies as prostituted objects; or, following the implications of "sans prix," comprehend them as the promise of a utopian physicality, which we will enjoy when we finally bury the "arbre du bien et du mal" ("Matinée d'ivresse" 269) ["tree of good and evil" ("Morning of Drunkenness" 41)] of antiquated moral distinctions.

[24] Yet the sale of diamonds is "sans contrôle" ["uncontrolled"], just as the bodies are "sans prix." This repetition erodes any special subjective status presumably granted to the human; it reduces voices and bodies to forms of commodity equivalence. And the phrases, "[l]es riches jaillissant à chaque démarche! Solde de diamants sans contrôle!," taken together, indicate another possibility that Varèse's translation–"[r]iches gushing at every step! Uncontrolled sale of diamonds!" –somewhat obscures. The French verb, "jaillir," has stronger erotic connotations that the English verb, "to gush": it also means "to spurt out," and thus suggests the masculine orgasm. In this context, "diamants sans contrôle!" has significance undetectable in the translation. That the poem's economics are also libidinal, however, does not rule out the commercial reading. Rather, it may indicate, with all sexual proclivities and preferences reduced to slave-market slogans, a confluence of the most unruly erotic flush and the rising tide of commodity traffic.

[25] The veritable delirium of equivalence continues. What the speaker peddles comes to resemble less the inventory of a street vendor (or pimp), than an impossible compendium of human desire, from the petty to the profound, and in no certain order. According to Ahearn, the range includes not only "what Rimbaud was pursuing throughout [his] earlier texts" (124), but also "paltry versions of the search for integral existence provided in the modern world" (125). Nakaji writes,

Après les « Voix » et les « Corps », il ne reste plus que des articles divers. Le déroulement des paragraphs 4 à 7 marque une multiple dégradation. Il n'y a plus de marchandise-vedette qui domine, à elle seule, un paragraph entier. Parallèlement à cette affaiblissement de l'impact des articles apparaît la division de la clientèle en trois catégories (241).
[After the "Voices" and the "Bodies," there are no more than various items. The unfolding of paragraphs 4 to 7 marks a multiple degradation. No longer does a leading product alone dominate an entire paragraph. Parallel to that weakening of the impact of the items, the division of the clientele into three categories appears.]

If the distinction of individual items fades, however, their paradoxical relations proliferate; however diminished they may be, they continue to draw rhetorical force from the various promotional discourses Rimbaud preempts. It is not entirely the case here that flow washes away interpretation, though the play of surfaces is crucial. The incongruity of the selection, the mismatch of languages, becomes more fascinating than the goods themselves.

A vendre l'anarchie pour les masses; la satisfaction irrépressible pour les amateurs supérieurs; la mort atroce pour les fidèles et les amants!
A vendre les habitations et les migrations, sports, féeries et conforts parfaits, et le bruit, le mouvement et l'avenir qu'ils font!
A vendre les applications de calcul et les sauts d'harmonie inouïs. Les trouvailles et les terms non soupçonnés, possession immédiate,
Élan insensé et infini aux splendeurs invisibles, aux délices insensibles, – et ses secrets affolants pour chaque vice – et sa gaîté effrayante pour la foule – (293)
[For sale anarchy for the masses; irrepressible satisfaction for rare connoisseurs; agonizing death for the faithful and for lovers!
For sale colonizations and migrations, sports, fairylands and incomparable comforts, and the noise and the movement and the future they make!
For sale the application of calculations and the incredible leaps of harmony. Discoveries and terms never dreamed of,–immediate possession.
Wild and infinite flights toward invisible splendours, toward intangible delights–and its maddening secrets for every vice–and its terrifying gaiety for the mob. (148-49)]

A purchasing which satisfies both the political radicalism of the underclasses and the specialized wishes of the well-to-do, which both offers and undercuts the possibility of economic justice, can only come across as a scam. When applied mathematics and new music appear to combine seamlessly to provide instantaneous satisfaction, such satisfaction seems as improbable as its production is difficult to envision.

[26] Nakaji observes that,

Les articles divers ne possèdent plus de consistance objective : ce ne sont plus des objets concrets mais des états (« anarchie », « satisfaction ») ou des actions (« mort », « habitations », «migrations », etc.). À cette abstraction de contenu vient s'ajouter la désignation générale : au lieu de nommer ses articles un à un, le marchand finit par les désigner sous un nom générique : « Les trouvailles et les termes non soupçonnés ». (241)
[The various items no longer possess objective consistency: they are no longer concrete objects but states ("anarchy," "satisfaction"), or actions ("death," "colonizations," "migrations," etc.). To this abstraction of content is added generalized designation: instead of naming his items one by one, the merchant finishes by designating them under a generic name: "Discoveries and terms never dreamed of."]

Viewed in the context of Rimbaud's previous political convictions, "Solde" sounds like their dismissal, as though the poet has 'sold out.' It may be more useful, however, to read the contradictory euphorias the poem extends as a stunningly accurate depiction of what capitalism has to offer, particularly in its current commodity manifestation. We have only to transcode 'Disneyland' or 'supermall' for "fairyland," 'niche markets' for "connoisseurs," and so forth, to recognize this. Such transcoding both extends Rimbaud's poetic of unexpected word substitution, as elaborated by Guyaux, and advances Jameson's project. Not only would this make Rimbaud into a 'visionary' in the predictive sense of the term, but it would also show him anticipating the postmodern appropriation of modernism. For just as "Solde" displaces the often revolutionary discourse of Rimbaud's other writings, so capitalism has taken over the ideas and techniques of literary modernism for commercial purposes. The question remains as to whether "Solde" presents a progressive political vision, one more applicable, and perhaps more realistic, than that of the letters.

[27] In the final verse paragraph of "Solde," according to Suzanne Bernard and André Guyaux, some commentators find hope:

Certains font . . . remarquer l'optimisme de la conclusion . . . Étiemble et Y. Gauclère considèrent ce texte comme un commentaire direct de la lettre du « voyant », Rimbaud exposant aux hommes « ce qu'il rapporte de
là-bas ». (522, n. 1)
[Certain critics . . . remark on the optimism of the conclusion . . . Étiemble and Y. Gauclère considered this text as a direct commentary on the letter of the "visionary," Rimbaud exposing to men "what he brings back from beyond."]

For Bernard and Guyaux, this interpretation is inadequate because it fails to register the continuing irony of the poem. Similarly, Nakaji concludes that "Solde" is "un poème d'échec" ["a poem about failure"] (246). But a certain optimism may resonate through the finale of the poem, an optimism unlike that of the letters:

– A vendre les Corps, les voix, l'immense opulence inquestionable, ce qu'on ne vendra jamais. Les vendeurs ne sont pas à bout de solde! Les voyageurs n'ont pas à rendre leur commission de si tôt! (293)

[For sale, the bodies, the voices, the enormous and unquestionable wealth, that which will never be sold. Salesmen are not at the end of their stock! It will be some time before travelers have to turn in their accounts. (149)]

Ahearn argues that the speaker, by reversing the availability of the promised goods, informs us indirectly that "so long as we continue to exist in the mode of experience and discourse that seems natural to us and the poem subverts," we will never achieve the "revitalized mode of being" Rimbaud elsewhere affirms (126). Thus he reads "Solde" as urging us to return to Rimbaud's modernist project, and perhaps to cleanse ourselves of the commercial expectations that the poem raises only in order to disappoint.

[28] If the poem announces the insufficiency of modernist high purity, as I have argued, then recourse to the old redemptive poetic politics runs counter to its intent. While Ahearn is correct to assert that "Solde" undermines "the techniques and vocabulary of the socioproductive order" (126), he neglects to note the corresponding subversion of poetic language. Because the commercial so thoroughly pervades and dominates the lifeworld of the modern subject, that lifeworld's total exclusion from poetic practice can only register as literary escapism. A self-consumed poetry closed in on itself, obsessed with its inviolable integrity to the point of severing external reference, does not accord with the poet who states, "[j]e est un autre" ["I is some one else"]. Instead of reaffirming the limited prerogatives of exclusive identity, Rimbaud trespasses every boundary, propriety, and preconceived restriction of experience. Even the homoerotic flamboyance of prose-poems like "Conte" ["Tale"], "Parade" ["Side Show"], and "Vagabonds" ["Vagabonds"]–not to mention the complete explicitness of the "Sonnet du Trou du Cul" ["Asshole Sonnet," my translation], which Rimbaud composed with Verlaine–proves insufficiently unsettling, a frontier, that, once crossed, loses its strangeness. To the threat of habituation, to all that has been seen, had, or known, Rimbaud responds with a fresh departure. The refusal of poetic purity in "Solde" is not only the escape from another suspect safe harbor, but also a turn in a different political direction.

[29] In "Rimbaud and Patti Smith: Style as Social Deviance," Carrie Jaurès Noland writes that "'Solde' testifies to Rimbaud's awareness that all ideas, all cultural strategies may be appropriated and commodified" (607). Furthermore, "[w]hat the music industry would discover in the sixties and seventies–that resistance to commodification conforms brilliantly to commodification, that social deviance sells – is the implicit message of 'Solde'" (608). Noland traces the important role of Rimbaud in the development of punk rock, a history of the influence of avant-garde poetry on radical, not-so-popular music that raises serious doubts about Jameson's claim of Rimbaud's obsolescence. The aggressive dialogue that "Solde" initiates with commercial culture may not only give the contemporary reader the "ability to imagine the transgression of reality" (608) and some of the formal tools with which to enact it, but also warn of the pitfalls of performing subversions too easily replayed on the hegemonic stage. Sexual deviance in isolation may not suffice; rather than clinging to the redemptive possibilities of the sexed body, and thereby avoiding the economic underwriting of social relations, the more thorough-going perversion confronts commodification intimately.

[30] The ambiguity of the final paragraph of "Solde" concerns the paradox, "[à] vendre . . . ce qu'on ne vendra jamais" ["For sale . . . that which will never be sold"]. Does this mean that there are some things which simply cannot be sold, as Ahearn implies? Or might we interpret it as capitalism's final twist of the knife, that it will market even what eludes it, what seems to confound its operative logic? In "General Economics and Postmodern Capitalism," Jean-Joseph Goux argues that "the capitalist economy is founded on a metaphysical uncertainty regarding the object of human desire. It must create this desire through the invention of the new, the production of the unpredictable" (212). Yet whatever uncertainties capitalism cultivates, it has to direct the consumer toward a purchase; the various stories it tells all have the same ending. An apparent cornucopia of colorful options camouflages the lackluster reification of desire. The object of desire that it cannot standardize, package, and mass produce, it sentences to failure, thus forestalling significant change (or revolution). More than empty novelties, capitalism would fashion the human subject as ever-willing to be duped by its cycles of planned obsolescence, ever-interested in the next sequel to its fantasy narrative.

[31] For sale, that which will never be sold–I do not find this either-or choice, pricelessness or the pricing of absolutely everything, decidable, in part because the poem's concluding exclamations–"Les vendeurs ne sont pas à bout de solde! Les voyageurs n'ont pas à rendre leur commission de si tôt!" ["Salesmen are not at the end of their stock! It will be some time before travelers have to turn in their accounts"]–indicate that the transaction, whatever it is, certainly has not been concluded. What the commodities say has lost all coherence. Rimbaud leaves it to his readers to make a choice where choices appear impossible, to purchase something where it is neither clear what purchasing means, nor even what the goods are. This demystifies the commodity narrative. As the believability and attractiveness of these objects diminish, the exposed syntax of their elaboration invites inspection. I would argue, moreover, that the choice of whether "Solde" itself is a success or a failure also remains indeterminable, regardless of how sharply the poem belittles Rimbaud's earlier idealism. The allure of the prose poem as a genre resides in the delicate balance of presumably incompatible modes of language usage; "Solde" expresses that generic constituent in its careful paradoxes. This thematization of form is resolutely political.

[32] The optimism of "Solde," then, is its consequential open-endedness. The poem's concurrent deconstruction of commercial and poetic discourses may help to extricate us from unhelpful forms of closure. As Hugh Grady remarks in "Further Notes on Marxism(s) and the Lyric," poetry's capacity for "ideological distantiation" may be one of its crucial functions in the postmodern world (187). This would be a most promising provision for 'the new,' defamiliarization no longer limited to perception, but expanding to cognition and, ultimately, to practice–as Rimbaud desired from the beginning. The failure of Rimbaud to revolutionize his world does not have to translate into his futility for ours, so long as we are able to recognize it. "For," as Benjamin warns, "every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably" (255). Open-ended interpretation is a matter of historical justice.

[33] If Guillory is correct to conclude that the role of literature on the contemporary scene is its function as cultural capital in academic institutions, perhaps the very strange capital that Rimbaud offers deserves a lot more pedagogical attention than it currently receives–at least in the American institution. Rimbaud may, however, challenge the cultural capital model. As Noland asserts,

Students too easily accept the division between the classroom and the street, and the text and the arenas of political change. Perhaps this division needs to be revealed for what it is: a tenacious institutional construction that–like the text itself–paradoxically invites us to imagine its own
débordement [overflowing]" (610).

No poetry better tutors such critical imagination than Rimbaud's; no poetry better maps débordement. Rimbaud also demonstrates that such imagination requires new forms: the received idioms of cultural reification will not serve this purpose, except through their rigorous disarticulation.

[34] Commodity culture teaches the subject to eroticize her or his own impoverishment. The unlearning experience that Rimbaud provides may have particular relevance not only to students, but also to queer activists. For if Rimbaud recognized more than one hundred years ago the susceptibility of homoerotic celebration to commercial cooptation, the same circumstance is painfully apparent to the contemporary purveyor of gay pride parades, where sex and gender subversion receives corporate sponsorship and a full array of product-identified accessories. The avoidance of social issues irreducible to sexual preference also registers as acquiescence to the prefabricated departmentalization of human misery. Combatting the commodification of the "queer" necessitates the very sort of disarticulation that the word itself instances. I would argue that attempting to maintain a non-commercial purity in queer communities is not a viable strategy; the task at hand is to pervert the order of exchange, rather than allow the invisible hand of the marketplace to regulate the homoerotic. In the worst years of the American A.I.D.S. crisis, the artistic production of ACT-UP and others revealed the efficacy of such confrontation; through the subversive appropriation of commercial messages and images, as well as by redefining the purposes of art, A.I.D.S. activists upset the political status-quo and brought needed attention to the pandemic. Rimbaud introduces us to the specifically erotic power of such art. This eroticism counters the passive consumption of reified, privatized sexuality, for it situates the subject as a potential agent of social change.

[35] The critique of modernist novelty begins with Rimbaud. In the sacrifice of his own dearly held poetic ideology, he shows us that past arrangements, old solutions, and outmoded visions must give way to the more stringent demands of the present. The contemporary deconstruction of myths of presence need not entail the dismissal of diachronous experience on the razor's edge of the now. Nothing necessitates capitulation to the postmodern ever-same. What remains of the past, as Benjamin advises, is what we use. In "Solde," Rimbaud encourages us to disrupt the false continuum of history, to seize the day, however overwhelming, as the beginning it always also is.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


I would like to thank Leroy Searle, Ranjana Khanna, and Nancy Rubino for their assistance with this essay.

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Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.

Ahearn, Edward J. Rimbaud: Visions and Habitations. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.

Benjamin, Walter. "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969: 253-64.

Bonnefoy, Yves. Arthur Rimbaud par lui-même. Paris: Hatier, 1968.

____. "L'outre-couleur." Rimbaud: Cahiers de l'Herne. Ed. André Guyaux. Paris: Éditions de l'Herne, 1993: 341-58.

De Gourmont, Remy. "Le plus insupportable voyou." Rimbaud: Cahiers de l'Herne. Ed. André Guyaux. Paris: Éditions de l'Herne, 1993: 84-86.

Eagleton, Terry. "Capitalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism." Against the Grain: Essays 1975-1985. London: Verso, 1986: 131-47.

Fondane, Benjamin. Rimbaud le voyou. Paris: Denoël et Steele, 1933.

Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Goux, Jean-Joseph. "General Economics and Postmodern Capitalism." Trans. Kathyrn Ascheim and Rhonda Garelick. Yale French Studies 78 (1990): 206-24.

Grady, Hugh. "Further Notes on Marxism(s) and the Lyric." New Definitions of Lyric: Theory, Technology, and Culture. Ed. Mark Jeffreys. New York: Garland, 1998: 179-99.

Guyaux, André. Poétique du fragment: Essai sur les Illuminations de Rimbaud. Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Éditions de la Baconnière, 1985.

Habermas, Jürgen. "Modernity–An Incomplete Project." The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, Wash.: Bay P, 1983: 3-15.

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____. "The Hidden Dialectic: Avantgarde–Technology–Mass Culture." After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1986: 3-15.

Illuminations and Other Prose Poems. Trans. Louise Varèse. New York: New Directions, 1946.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1991.

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Marx, Karl. "The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof." Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume I. Ed. Frederick Engels. Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. New York: International Publishers, 1967: 71-83.

Nakaji, Yoshikazu. "L'ambiguïte de Solde." Parade Sauvage 5-10 (September 1991): 239-47.

Noland, Carrie Jaurès. "Rimbaud and Patti Smith: Style as Social Deviance." Critical Inquiry 21:3 (Spring 1995): 581-610.

Œuvres de Rimbaud. Ed. Suzanne Bernard and André Guyaux. Paris: Éditions Garnier, 1987.

Ross, Andrew. The Failure of Modernism: Symptoms of American Poetry. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.

Schmidt, Paul. "Visions of Violence: Rimbaud and Verlaine." Homosexualities and French Literature: Cultural Contexts / Critical Texts. Ed. George Stambolian and Elaine Marks. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979: 228-42.

Valéry, Paul. "Extraits de lettres, cahiers, textes divers." Ed. Judith Robinson-Valéry. Rimbaud: Cahiers de l'Herne. Ed. André Guyaux. Paris: Éditions de l'Herne, 1993: 273-85.

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Williams, Raymond. "When Was Modernism?" Ed. Fred Inglis. The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists. Ed. Tony Pinkney. New York: Verso, 1989: 31-35.

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A book review of:
Rimbaud by Graham Robb (Picador)

Published: 30 September 2000

Rousseau cane up with the theory of the wild child, but it took Arthur Rimbaud to put it extravagantly into practice. Rimbaud was the ultimate drop-out: school, Paris, poetry, life, none could detain him for very long. And it is his scandalous example as much as his bewitching poetry that has been such an abiding bad influence on a century of ageing adolescents. He has been canonised by the academy, beatified by Bob Dylan and embodied by Leonardo di Caprio (in Christopher Hampton's Total Eclipse). He gave excellent poetic reasons for having nothing to do with poetry. To the biographer of Balzac and Hugo, Graham Robb, who fell in love with his work as a teenager, Rimbaud must have seemed an irresistible subject.

Rousseau cane up with the theory of the wild child, but it took Arthur Rimbaud to put it extravagantly into practice. Rimbaud was the ultimate drop-out: school, Paris, poetry, life, none could detain him for very long. And it is his scandalous example as much as his bewitching poetry that has been such an abiding bad influence on a century of ageing adolescents. He has been canonised by the academy, beatified by Bob Dylan and embodied by Leonardo di Caprio (in Christopher Hampton's Total Eclipse). He gave excellent poetic reasons for having nothing to do with poetry. To the biographer of Balzac and Hugo, Graham Robb, who fell in love with his work as a teenager, Rimbaud must have seemed an irresistible subject.

But any biographer of Rimbaud must encounter two equal and opposite problems. In his first phase, Rimbaud does very little but says and writes a great deal; in the second, he does an awful lot, but provides vanishingly little commentary.

On the one hand is an excess of discourse over substance, issuing in dense, quasi-mystical slabs of verse (Illuminations, A Season in Hell); on the other, an overload of Tintin-in-Africa heroics which left him too busy for anything other than the most prosaic and misleading notes home ("modern astronauts sound poetic by comparison," Robb acknowledges).

In each case, the biographer has to run against the grain of his subject's inclinations. Robb's Rimbaud is encyclopaedic and subtle. But like someone having to explain a joke, Robb is obliged to labour over the meaning of such resonant lines as "Je est un autre". Then, when Rimbaud gives up Parnassus for Harrar, he must colour in the tantalising blanks.

All the usual suspects appear on the scene of Rimbaud's teenage angst: the absent father, the overly-present mother, the grinding dullness of the provinces, revolutionary turmoil in the capital. The young Arthur was the most brilliant student at the College de Charleville and worked up a nice little earner as a Latininist-for-hire to fellow pupils. One plausible hypothesis from Robb's account is that Rimbaud was essentially a shrewd entrepreneur who worked out what the market wanted, gave it them, then moved on to the next deal. But this was no top-hatted capitalist. You can almost smell Robb's picture of the lice-ridden ragamuffin scrounger in Paris: "Rimbaud was a semi-stagnant eco-system with its own atmosphere and verminous population".

There is no account of the notorious Rimbaud-Verlaine spree across France, Belgium and England that does not favour Rimbaud. Robb, although judicious, still leans towards Rimbaud's egocentric vagabondage. Personally, I don't blame Verlaine for pausing to wonder if he had really done the right thing in ditching wife and child in favour of a barely house-trained but charming maniac. When Verlaine, entertaining suicide, shoots Rimbaud (wounding him in the arm), I can't help feeling that Rimbaud - who has been blackmailing him with the threat of exposure as a homosexual - was asking for it.

Robb gives the poetry a plausible biographical spin: since "The Drunken Boat" appears to mean everything and nothing in particular it might just as well be a lament for the long-gone father, Captain Rimbaud. But Robb leaves intact the more metaphysical idea that in order to be a decent writer you have to get filthy, take drugs, and have a sado-masochistic gay fling. Maybe William Hague would agree that "with Rimbaud, drunkenness was an intellectual journey". Robb rightly points out, however, that for an enfant terrible, intent on shocking the bourgeosie, Rimbaud spent an awful lot of time at home with his Mum.

But Rimbaud found even the vie de Boheme too stodgy and took off for the East, leaving literature behind. More truly Vernian than Jules Verne - a mere armchair traveller - Rimbaud's own voyages extraordinaires take him to Java, where he deserts from the Dutch colonial army, and finally Abyssinia, where he turns his hand to gun-running, possibly slave-trading, and even becoming a semi-married man.

Where Charles Nicholl, in Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, was lyrically mournful, Robb is more upbeat. He see Rimbaud as a successful trader who is simply unlucky to die, aged 37, of a dodgy knee (and amputation). At the very least he attained a working knowledge of many languages: not just English, but Arabic, Amharic, Adarinya, Oromo and Somali. Had he ever returned to writing, that multilingual oeuvre would surely have made Finnegans Wake seem easy.

The real mystery of Rimbaud is not that he gave up poetry at 21 but rather that he stuck with it as long as he did when he hated it so much. Which is why it is possible to idolise Rimbaud and still loathe French literature at large.

In 1876, sailing back to Europe, Rimbaud tried to swim to Saint Helena, where Napoleon died in exile, but was dragged back to the ship. Rimbaud was another of those 19th-century writers - like Balzac and Hugo - who dreamed of being a Napoleon of letters. Rimbaud alone had a real shot at carving out his own small empire in the heart of darkness.

Andy Martin (who teaches French at Cambridge University)

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(Independent, The (London), Sep 17, 2000 by Robin Buss)

Rimbaud by Carjat
Arthur Rimbaud, voyant et voyou ("seer and delinquent") offers special challenges to a biographer. Having to describe the personality of someone who famously announced "I is another", is only the start. The fate of this "I" has been resurrection as a host of others, an accretion of myths tailored to suit the myth-maker which started in Rimbaud's lifetime and has not stopped since. His friend, lover and mentor Paul Verlaine enrolled him among the literary damned, les poetes maudits, while an early admirer, the Catholic poet Paul Claudel, tried to redeem him through an alleged deathbed conversion, and since then every little voyou with a taste for drugs and drinks, an urge to adopt a Bohemian lifestyle and basic literacy skills has felt an affinity with the adolescent who announced his intention to undertake "a long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses" - as Graham Robb remarks, the word "rational" is often omitted from this quotation.

The life has given Rimbaud what Robb calls "his posthumous career as Symbolist, Surrealist, Beat poet, student revolutionary, rock lyricist, gay pioneer and inspired drug-user... an emergency exit from the house of convention". His example has inspired so many that his influence seems at times ubiquitous: you can find him in Dylan Thomas ("the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin drive"), say, or in Jim Morrison (who is believed, by some, to have faked his death and set off, like Rimbaud, for Africa); in punks, singers, painters, travellers, revolutionaries, criminals... and, of course, throughout French literature since his time where the effect of his work has been great, if hard to quantify. It is to Robb's credit that he has managed, in this exceptional biography, to offer a version of Rimbaud that is plausible in human terms, with a sober account of the poetry.

The poetry is one of the problems. There were poets in the Romantic era, Byron, Shelley and Pushkin among them, whose lives and tragic deaths made them easily mythologisable, but the myths were divorced from the work, which was there to be judged on its own terms. The idiom of Rimbaud's poetry, however, opaque, mystical, allusive, has made it the site of endless exploration and interpretation. The famous "Sonnet of the Vowels" begins:

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes

("A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels / One day I will recount your latent births", in the literal version that Robb gives in his text, adding the originals in an appendix).

But how seriously should this attribution of colours be taken? Does it reflect the poet's reading of books on universal harmony, an absinthe- induced vision, conscious or subconscious memories of children's primers, or a random, idiosyncratic fancy? When a well-respected critic (Rene Etiemble) can devote a book to these 14 lines, concluding that they depict the body of a woman with green hair at the moment of orgasm, then the field may be said to be open.

There is not much that Graham Robb can do with this particular poem except to point to the most likely sources of inspiration; though some reader, of course, may even now be discovering it afresh, and feel the indefinable charm that Rimbaud's poetry so often exerts, regardless of meaning. Robb rightly sees his task as meticulously separating probability from fantasy and situating the work in the context of Rimbaud's life and time. The poet was born in Charleville, a small town in northern France on the River Meuse, in 1854, the son of an army captain, who was to feature little in his early life (and not at all after 1860), and an embittered mother with a forbidding personality. She would outlive her son and there has been much speculation about her influence on him.

Unlike that other poetic prodigy, Thomas Chatterton, Rimbaud was not uneducated. At the College de Charleville, which he attended from the age of 10, he was in one of the best educational systems in Europe and quickly learned how to excel. Robb remarks that his school career was "one of the most glittering in French literature" - arguably even more brilliant than that of the biographer's previous subject, Victor Hugo. He was soon winning prizes in regional competitions for French and Latin verse. The poet's erudition has usually been played down by later admirers: the shining path to the Imitation of Rimbaud starts with hashish and absinthe rather than with Latin hexameters.

The effect of this success was something that often happens to children who learn early in life how to exploit the system: he came to despise it. He began by seeing what he could get away with: a Latin poem on the French conquest of Algeria, comparing the Algerian leader Abd-el-Kader with the Numidian King Jugurtha, was probably written with irony, and he cribbed a translation of Lucretius from the poet Sully-Prudhomme; he was not found out until 1930. His own poems were increasingly obscene and blasphemous. Young Rimbaud had written an ode for the first communion of Napoleon III's son, but any admiration that he may have had for the pathetic regime of the Second Empire collapsed with the disastrous war against Prussia in 1870. By the time of the Commune in the following year, he was almost certainly in Paris, though how much he saw or felt about the events remains a mystery. Jacques Roubaud has published an analysis of the poem "Qu'est-ce pour nous, mon coeur?" which sees it as both a lament for the dead of the Commune and for the abandonment of the regular metre of the alexandrine. As ever, Rimbaud remains open to a variety of interpretations.

The rest of the poet's literary career is almost over-familiar: the passionate, destructive affair with Verlaine, their residence in London, the shooting incident in Brussels and the abandonment of poetry. Young Rimbaud is someone nicer to know about than to know. For a start, his table manners and personal hygiene were not up to acceptable standards, even in his time: "The filth which is so often associated with Rimbaud should be placed in its historical context - an age when weekly bathing was considered excessive. This was not the faint patina and smell that the word `filth' conjures up today. After a hundred days in the city, Rimbaud was a semi- stagnant eco-system with its own atmosphere and verminous population."

He had an uncomfortable sense of humour. Living at one point with a friend suffering from TB, he ejaculated into his host's daily glass of milk, and cut the panes out of his window. On another occasion, he pinned a man's hand to a cafe table with a knife. He was unpredictable, careless of consequences and no respecter of persons; yet, as Robb points out, he regularly went home for Christmas and kept in contact with his family in Charleville.

It is only because our culture values literature so highly that the period after 1875, when Rimbaud apparently stopped writing poetry, seems an anticlimax and a mockery of our admiration. In fact, what followed was by far the most interesting part of his life. Having studiously avoided conscription in his own country, he enrolled in the Dutch colonial army and set sail for Java. Within a fortnight of his arrival, he had deserted (risking execution if caught), made his way through the jungle and, according to Robb's researches, escaped under the name "Edwin Holmes" on an English merchant vessel that was nearly wrecked on its homeward voyage.

A period of wandering followed. As a foreman in charge of navvies at a stone quarry on Cyprus, he may have killed a man in a fit of temper. He was certainly keen to leave Europe and by 1880 was in Aden. Robb argues persuasively that Rimbaud in Abyssinia, where he spent most of the rest of his life, should be counted among the last of the great 19th-century explorers, and that the odd-sounding requests for books and equipment that he sent home were not evidence of insanity, but entirely reasonable in Rimbaud's circumstances. He learned Arabic, Amharic and several other East African languages, gaining the confidence of the Abyssinians well enough to survive (an achievement in itself) and to make a lot of money trading in various commodities, including guns. In personality, he was still abrasive, with little apparent regard for his own safety. He was probably happier at this time than at any other. Robb devotes about one- third of his gripping biography to this African adventure, the conclusion to a short life lived entirely on its own terms. The final irony is that Rimbaud, dimly reflected in so many later lives, defies imitation. n Above: Henri Fantin-Latour's "Un Coin de Table", depicting the decadent poets of the day; Rimbaud and Verlaine are seated far left.

Below: Rimbaud by Carjat (1871)

Arthur by Carjat - coloured blue

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(Independent, The (London), May 10, 1997 by Duncan Fallowell)

It is an amazing story. Arthur Rimbaud, the unknown 16-year-old delinquent poet, writes to Verlaine - established and nearly 30 - then turns up at the older poet's home in Paris. Verlaine falls in love with the boy and deserts his pregnant wife. The two flee to London and have a violent affair fuelled by huge amounts of alcohol.

Verlaine eventually escapes to his mother in Brussels. Rimbaud follows, only to say he's leaving Verlaine. Verlaine begs him to stay; Rimbaud says no. Verlaine shoots him with a revolver, hits him in the arm, goes to prison. Rimbaud, tries England again - weirdly, he turns up in Reading in 1874 - before abandoning literature and working as a trader in Aden and Ethiopia for the last 11 years of his life. He came back to France in 1891 to die. Verlaine died five years later. Both were victims of bohemianism at its most exultant.

The first quarter of Charles Nicholl's book recounts Rimbaud's earlier life with Verlaine. It is written in high focus, with a strong narrative drive, because much was happening and there is substantial documentation. Then, as Rimbaud embarks on his African period in 1880, the style changes. It falters and drifts in an atmosphere of tropical reverie, hashish dream and sandstorm. We are among nostalgic yearnings, sun-yellowed extracts from forgotten company ledgers, conjecture, a stream of exotic places and few events. The documentary back-up for this phase is negligible - Rimbaud's few letters home and the recollections of commercial colleagues. Whatever there may be of hard-core evidence Nicholl has assiduously traced. But it doesn't amount to a picture. The dossier-like form of the ensuing book and its author's feline performance with very speculative material present a constant tease. Perhaps we shall soon come to somewhere; perhaps we shall even meet Rimbaud, strangely sensed as one who, wherever you turn up, has just left the room. Certain of Nicholl's tricks do not feel right. The on-the-road Bob Dylan sub-theme is pure hippy sentimentality. The switches from past to present tense in historical passages is bogus originality. The present tense in biographical work always comes across as mannered, though not in autobiography. In autobiography the present tense brings one closer to the subject, whereas in biography it takes one further away. So the present is obviously less grating when Nicholl employs it to recount his own recent journeys in Rimbaud's footsteps. Yet Nicholl keeps himself quite as much of a ghost as Rimbaud, in what one may call the peeping-Tom school of travel writing (Bruce Chatwin and Colin Thubron are the recent masters). The author says "Just go about your affairs as though I weren't here", which produces endless scene-setting and no adventure. Nicholl gives us a superb description of the arrival of evening in Djibouti - an evening on which nothing whatsoever happens. The avoidance of emotional contact is very English and maybe even appropriate. In Africa, Rimbaud sought to turn himself into a stoical, abstracted Englishman. Previously he'd been outrageously the Parisian artist, extravagantly self- aware and expressive, pushing poetry off all sorts of cliffs. Eventually one adjusts to Nicholl's oscillation of unrealised possibilities and shifts of perspective, even when the background swallows up the foreground. When, for example, a paragraph referring to some obscure record Nicholl has managed to locate begins "There are 14 camel-suppliers named", one knows one's going to be taken through the whole lot. Yet one accepts it because in such a remote, formless terrain of faint echoes and heat-haze, there isn't much else to do. Unexpectedly, one comes away with more than a ghost. Nicholl quotes Rimbaud's prescient line: "Exiled here, I had a stage on which to perform dramatic masterpieces". They were very private masterpieces too. Thankfully his colleagues were less reticent. One describes him as "closed-up". Another said "He was, it was plain to see, an embittered and irascible man". His hair went prematurely grey. He took an Abyssinian mistress but there were no children and his greatest emotional attachment was to a servant boy. A part of him was somehow ego-less, picking up local languages very quickly and slipping effortlessly into the rhythms of native life. He traded in gold, ivory, guns, earthenware jugs of his own design, but not slaves. It also becomes very clear what drove Verlaine mad. Rimbaud was the classic pain-in-the-neck adolescent, relentlessly sarcastic, clever, surly, uncooperative. He seems to have stayed that way. There is a terrible stubbornness against life in Rimbaud. Nicholl refers to "The horror of stasis: to arrive at the empty inn, at the end of the adventure, and find your old self waiting for you". If you refuse to react with life this is what will happen. Nicholl doesn't investigate the crassness - or divine idiocy - in Rimbaud, the refusal to connect or care about anything or anybody. Nor, in a book fundamentally about the need to escape, does he pursue that great idea either. Why did Rimbaud need to escape so completely? Why did he stop writing? Why, for that matter, did he start writing? What is the connection between poetry and fury? Lists of camel-suppliers are all very well but some intellectual exploration to parallel the geographical would have been fruitful. The end is ghastly and movingly rendered. Rimbaud returns to France with a severe leg infection. The leg is amputated. He becomes trapped in a Marseille hospital, between his need to go north to his family and south to Africa. He dies there, watched over by a sister, and Rimbaud's moroseness at last attains its Hamlet-like nobility.

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(Independent, The (London), Mar 31, 1997 by Roger Clarke)

How does a 19th-century symbolist poet like Arthur Rimbaud, an almost exact contemporary of Van Gogh, manage to exert such a spell on contemporary culture and contemporary popular culture in particular? A recent Pocket Penguin edition of the poet's last poem has sold 60,000 copies. He's up there with Burroughs, Bukowski and William Blake as one of the exalted four of the Internet generation - one of those visionaries who happened to push back the envelope of perception and who adapt so well to the era of pop and cyberspace.

Last month, the Richard Alston Dance Company toured with Visions, a Rimbaudian inspired dance and, on her comeback tour last year, Patti Smith interrupted her show in London to read from the Rimbaud uvre. And had she switched on the TV, she would have seen Eric Cantona finding "room to breathe" on the Eurostar while ostentatiously reading a book of Rimbaud's poems (as does the Terence Stamp character reading on the lawn in Teorema - Pasolini was of course another Rimbaud fan). Cantona puzzled many tabloid hacks at a famous press conference in a now celebrated monologue involving "seagulls" and "trawlers". Little did the sports journalists realise that their idol was giving them a masterclass in Rimbaudian imagery.

In Total Eclipse, this month's much delayed British release of Agnieszcka Holland's disappointing film about the volatile relationship between Rimbaud and fellow poet, Paul Verlaine, the appropriately pretty Leonardo DiCaprio plays the poet as a capricious brat; it was a role originally intended for River Phoenix. Christopher Hampton, who wrote the original stage play back in 1967, himself grabs some cameo roles in the film: significantly, as the photographer attacked by Rimbaud with a swordstick, and again as the Belgian judge who sentences Verlaine to imprisonment for immorality. It was the play that launched Hampton's career, for it was in the Sixties that the great rediscovery of Rimbaud took place. This Sixties fetishisation of the poet is evident in Charles Nicholl's new travel book Someone Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-91 (published by Cape in April). Nicholl observes the influence of Rimbaud on Bob Dylan who, as early as 1965, name-checked Rimbaud in an interview. Rimbaud became, for the Sixties generation, the original alienated rebel, vagabond poet, the dropout who practised "systematic derangement of the senses" 100 years before the "Summer of Love". Rimbaud is one of those template icons who is all things to all people: young kids identify with his rebellion, musicians (like Benjamin Britten, in Les Illuminations) with his verbal musicality, dancers and choreographers (like Richard Alston) with his physicality, gay men with his up-front sexual stance, travel writers (like Nicholl or Philip Smedley) with his feverish wanderlust. Born in the north of France in 1854, the son of a soldier, he had youthful ambitions to be a poet and ran away from home in his early teens, embarking upon what was always to be a nomadic existence. Written-out before the age of 19, he turned his back on the dandified poetry scene in Paris and went abroad to become a coffee-trader and arms-dealer on the north-east coast of Africa.

Bruce Chatwin, with whom I wrote an opera libretto about Rimbaud's "lost" period in Africa, and who named his last book What Am I Doing Here after a Rimbaud quote, always said that the poet had to give up writing or "go mad". Every writer sometimes entertains the fantasy of "giving up writing for ever", but Rimbaud actually did it - he pushed the artistic self-destruct button. On his deathbed, nursed by a sister unaware that he had even been a poet, the family doctor at Roche casually asked his bedridden patient about his work written 15 years earlier. The great poet merely rasped "poetry is a load of shit" and turned away in disgust. Oliver Bernard, younger brother of lowlifer Jeffrey, is a Rimbaud enthusiast who has translated Rimbaud's poems for the Penguin edition and who regularly gives readings of Rimbaud's final poem A Season in Hell. Like Nicholl and a recent leaden Swiss docudrama, he tries to downplay Rimbaud's errant sexuality. "He was no more or less gay than any 15-year-old," Bernard claims mysteriously, deploring Hampton's filmscript and play as "making too much of his homosexuality" - apparently unaware that sexual appropriation can go both ways. Gay Italian wildman and best-selling novelist Aldo Busi has no such queasiness about Rimbaud's preferences ("Arthur turns out to have been sexually indifferent") and, in his own customary otiose style, in the recently published English edition of Uses and Abuses, launches a spirited defence of Rimbaud's much-maligned over-strict mother Vitalie Cuif - yet another example of classic Rimbaudian projection (Busi's own beloved mother, in her eighties, cooks him lunch every day).

Many of Rimbaud's horrible sufferings during his final illness, when he came back from Ethiopia while still in his thirties to die in France, were shared by Bruce Chatwin, who even suffered similar physical symptoms to those ascribed to the "invalids" in A Season in Hell - Rimbaud's remarkably prescient and visionary account of the rest of his own life. Busi was not to know this when he wrote about Rimbaud, but it is fascinating that he throws out, almost casually, the possibility that Rimbaud himself may have had Aids ("l even came across the word 'sarcoma'," Busi notes in relation to Rimbaud's illness) and thus constituted the "first Aids death of modern times". Could the virus have been active in Africa even at that date? Busi is another child of the Sixties, and of all Rimbaud's modern admirers, the most like him. It was the Beat poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, who in the Sixties filtered Rimbaud into the then emerging pop culture; after all, had he not been to Africa a century before Burroughs and the rest fled to Tangier? Was he not the original "on the road" writer? Certainly Dylan learnt much from Ginsberg, and Patti Smith from Burroughs. Many have felt a passionate identification with Rimbaud; Serge Gainsbourg once said on camera that he would "meet Rimbaud in Abyssinia" after his death, while the inhabitants of Roche found a wreathe from Gainsbourg's family laid outside the Rimbaud farmhouse just after the singer's death. Henry Miller wrote a whole book about his obsession, The Time of Assassins. Before Chatwin's demise his identification with the poet was so profound, he insisted he should play a role in the opera we were writing for composer Kevin Volans. Others like just to namecheck the poet for street cred reasons, like the 17-year-old Hollywood screenwriter wunderbrat Jessica Kaplan in a recent issue of Details magazine. Others are interested more in the Rimbaud cult, like the director Todd Haynes, now in London to film his glamrock movie Velvet Underground with Ewan McGregor. His unseen graduation film was about "all those books about Rimbaud". It's hard to say what the poet would have made of all the adoration paid to him; one can't help thinking the boy poet might well have attacked many of his disciples with a swordstick, or thrown lice at them, or tripped up the dancers. Perhaps in the late 20th century his nomadic spirit would have been content with a recording contract and a PC with an Internet link. Rimbaud's famous dictum "we must be absolutely modern" has never seemed more threatening than it does now, in our culturally censorious and fearful environment.
['Total Eclipse' opened on Fri 11 April 1997]

AR - portrait A


Jean-Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud born October 20, 1854 at Charleville, now part of Charleville-Mezieres, in the Ardennes departement in northeastern France, in his maternal grandfather's house. His father, Frederic Rimbaud was a Captain of Infantry, risen to his rank from that of a simple recruit. He is the author of certain unpublished military works and the french-translated Koran, which Arthur will later use to learn Arabic.


Rimbaud goes as a day boy to the Rossat Institute in Charleville. The story:

Rimbaud at the Rossat Institute: 3rd from left, seated
"The sun was still warm, it hardly lit up the earth any more, however; just as a torch placed against the... only lights them up with a feeble light, so the sun, torch of the earth, was going out, letting a last feeble light escape from its body of fire, which nevertheless allowed the green leaves of the trees, the little fading flowers, and the enormous tops of the centuries-old pines, poplars, and okas to be seen. The refreshing wind, that is to say a fresh breeze, moved the leaves of the trees with a rustling somewhat similar to that which the silvery waters of the brook made, flowing at my feet. The ferns bent their green heads before the wind. I fell asleep, not without refreshing myself with the water of the brook.
I dreamt that... I was born in Rheims, in the year 1503.
At that time Rheims was a little town, or, to put it better, a borough, nevertheless famous for its beautiful cathedral, witness to the coronation of king Clovis."


Rimbaud enters the College de Charleville, aged ten.


Rimbaud addresses 'under the strictest secrecy', sixty Latin hexameters to the Imperial Prince on the occasion of the latter's first Communion; his tutor asks Rimbaud's headmaster to thank him publicly. (see poem The ball-boy, the Pubescent)


Rimbaud wins the Latin Poetry Prize at the Concours Academique. His first known french verse composition, Les Etrennes des orphelins, is written. It appears in the Revue pour tous on January 2, 1870.


Rimbaud movies up to the Class of Rhetoric, and became friends with Georges Izambard. Izambard is a young teacher with revolutionary tendencies, who encourages him, to the outage of his mother, to read Rabelais and Hugo. In his 15th year Rimbaud is already a poet. He writes to Banville but too late to have his Sensation, Ophelie, and Soleil et chair published in ”Parnasse contemporain”; but his 'Premiere Soiree' appears, under the tittle 'Trois Baisers', in a satirical periodical called La Charge. On August 29, Rimbaud sells his prize books and takes the train to Paris, hoping to witness the fall to Imperial Government. He rans away another time from home to Belgium, where he writes La Maline, Au Cabaret-Vert, Le Buffet, Reve pour l'hiver and Ma Boheme. He took off to Brussels, where he appears unannounced at the house of some friends of Izambard's, who send him to Douai where Izambard's adoptive 'aunts' live. There he writes Rages de Cesars, L'Elatante Victoire de Sarrebruck, Le Dormeur du val, and Le Mal.


He frequently ran away from home and may have briefly joined the Paris Commune, which he portrayed in his poem L'Orgie parisienne ou Paris se repeuple. At 19, he ran away from the literary world for a stint abroad as a coffee merchant and part-time gun-runner. He may have been raped by drunken Communard soldiers (his poem "Le Coeur supplicie" suggests so). By then he had become an anarchist, started drinking and amused himself by shocking the local bourgeois with his shabby dressing and long hair. At the same time he wrote to Izambard and Paul Demeny about his method for attaining poetical transcendence or visionary power through a "long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses" "Les lettres du Voyant". He returned to Paris in late September 1871 at the invitation of the eminent Parnassian poet Paul Verlaine (after Rimbaud had sent him a letter containing several samples of his work) and resided briefly in Verlaine's home. Verlaine, who was bisexual, promptly fell in love with the sullen, blue-eyed, overgrown 5'10", light-brown-haired adolescent. They became lovers and led a dissolute, vagabond-like life rocked by absinthe and hashish. They scandalized the Parisian literary elite on account of the outrageous behaviour of Rimbaud, the archetypical enfant terrible, and their pederasty. Throughout this period he continued to write strikingly visionary, modern verses.


Rimbaud and Verlaine spend their days in the cafes of the Quartier Latin. Verlaine's mother-in-law accused Rimbaud of corrupting Verlaine on the account between Verlaine;s constant violence with his wife, who has given birth to a son in October 1871, and is only 18. Rimbaud turned to the streets of Paris where he learned to drink absinthe and to smoke hashish. On his return to Charleville in March 1872, he writes the poems Memoire, Michel et Christine, Larme, La Riviere de Cassis, Comedie de la soif, Bonne Pensee du matin, Fetes de la patience, and Chanson de la plus haute tour. In June he writes his last poems in verse Est-elle almee?, Age d'or, Fetes de la faim, O saisons, o chateaux, and the beginning of the period of Illuminations.


Although Rimbaud said that Paris was just a 'pretty little provincial town', the Illuminations called 'metropolitan' and 'villes' seem to be very vivid and convincing descriptions of the horror of a large city such as London was at that time. The possibility that Rimbaud and Verlaine learned to smoke opium in Chinese dens near the Docks may help to explain the distortion of vision one encounters in these prose poems. Rimbaud returnes to Roche, where his mother's farm is, in April. Rather than help on the farm, he shuts humself up to begin writing Une Saison en Enfer. Verlaine manages to persuade Rimbaudto go to England with him, which Rimbaud soon regrets. It is also said that at this time Rimbaud fell in love with a girl he saw on the Underground whom he used to follow home but dared not speak to; thus his work Bottom. After a violent quarrel, Verlaine leaves Rimbaud and goes to Brussels, where Rimbaud follws him, and the shooting occurs. Verlaine fires two shots at Rimbaud, one of which hits him in the wrist; thus the poem Deposition. Rimbaud goes back to Roche in sling and finishes Une Saision en Enfer. Verlaine is sent to prison for 2 years.


Having arranged to have Une Saison en Enfer printed in Belgium, Rimbaud renounced literature and loses interest, thus leaving the printing to halt, with only half a dozen author's copies remaind at the printer's until 1914. With intentions of perfecting his English, Rimbaud set off to London with Germain Nouveau,a young poet he met in Paris. He teaches in various establishments in England and Scotland. The two of them both hold British Museum Library reader's tickets.


Rimbaud in a cafe' - Harar 1883
Travel in Germany, Italy, Switzerland. Studies German, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, Dutch and modern Greek. Joins the Dutch colonial army on a six-year engagement; deserts in Batavia after 3 weeks in the East Indies, and returns to France on an English sailing ship, walking home from Bordeaux. Visits Vienna, Holland, Germany, Sweden and Denmark. Verlaine converted to Catholicism and begs Rimbaud to become so too on their last meeting in Stuttgart.


Rimbaud sails to Alexandria from Marseille, but falls sick and disembarked at Civita Vecchia, visits Rome and back to Charleville during winter.


Rimabud in Harar
He is in Cyprus directing operations for the building of the Governor-General's residence. Rimbaud became a trader in North Africa, with headquarters at Harar and Shoa, central Abyssinia. He arrives on December 13 after 20 days on horseback in the Somali desert.


Rimbaud’s employers ask him to investigate the territories of Somaliland and Galla. He also became the first European to cross the territory of the unknown region of Ogadine.
1883: He got his report about Ogadine published to the Societe de Georgaphie on December 10th.


Rimbaud in Aden, standing with rifle
Rimbaud is living as husband to an Abyssinian girl; but as he wishes to become a gun-runner, he has her repatriated. His gun-running enterprise failed. He obtains license to sell arms, ammunition and is involved in the slave trade with Turkey and Arabia.


Verlaine, under the impression that Rimbaud was no longer alive, published the latter's poems in Illuminations (trans. 1932). This work contains the famous Sonnet des voyelles, in which each of the five vowels is associated with a different color.


Rimbaud is attacked by a tumour on the right knee, on his arrival in France in May, where his leg is amputated at the Hospital de la Conception in Marseille. He returns home to Roche, but then goes back to Marseille when his condition worsens. On December 10, 1891- Rimbaud dies aged 37, in the Hospital de la Conception. On the strength of a few poems that he wrote between the ages of 10 and 20, Rimbaud ranks as one of the most original of all French poets.

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(Document partly resulting from the site ARTHUR RIMBAUD @ http://www.mag4.net/Rimbaud)
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Photocomposition of Rimbaud by Wojnarowicz
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