Few poets have had such an influence, not only within the confines of literature, but on culture at large, as the French boy genius Arthur Rimbaud
. The archetypical young rebel, he has inspired not only later writers like T. S. Eliot
, but musicians such as Bob Dylan
, Jim Morrison
and Patti Smith
and the 1968 Paris
Student revolt. Born in 1854 to an army captain who deserted his family when his son was six years old and a bigoted tyrannical mother whom he would later dub "the mouth of darkness", he went on to turn the western poetic tradition on its head between the age of 15 and 20. Then he simply walked away, later dismissing his earlier works, when he got word of their increasing popularity among the new generation of poets, as "slops!"
Why did this brilliant writer turn his back on literature just as he was reaching maturity? Why did he instead opt for a life as mercenary, explorer, tradesman and gun-runner? It is one of the great mysteries of poetry.
He was born and grew up in the rural town of Charleville
in north-eastern France
. He was a gifted boy, but unhappy at home with his strict unimaginative mother. He would later say that the only place he felt out from under her thumb was in the outhouse. He was a brilliant student and won high praise and prizes for his writing in Latin and French. But one of his professors, Mr. Pérette had his doubts 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 this head, it will be the genius of good or evil!"
His early poems, which he would later renounce as "outmoded" and wanted friends to burn, like "Ophelia
", were in the style and mood of Baudelaire
, whose book of poems "Les Fleurs du mal
had caused scandal and been arraigned for offences to religion or public morality upon its publication in 1857, with its slightly elegiac
After the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war
in 1870 the citizens of Paris revolted and set up The Commune
, an anarcho-socialist city-state. Rimbaud, who ran away from home on a regular basis, was full of enthusiasm for the revolution and wanted to join the communards. It's uncertain how involved he was, but he was back in Charleville at his mother's before the Commune fell to the government forces. The revolutionary message of the Paris revolt still burned in him though.
In his 1871 "Lettre du voyant
", "The Seer Letter
", sent to the poet Paul Demeny
and his teacher Georges Izambard
, the young poet formulates his new poetics, but also a manifesto for revolution through poetry. In it he savages just about all earlier French poets, except for Baudelaire
(Who was nevertheless too stuck in old forms, according to him) and his contemporary Paul Verlaine
, with whom he would later have a tempestous relationship. He goes on to write:
The poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense, and calculated derailment of all the senses. All the forms of love and suffering and madness; he seeks himself and exhausts in himself all the poisons, keeping only the quitessences. Unspeakable torture, in which he needs all the faith, all the superhuman strength, by which be becomes the great invalid, the great criminal, the great pariah, above all others - and the supreme Savant! - For he attains the unknown! Since he has cultivated his soul, which was rich to start with, more than anyone else! He reaches the unknown, and if, finally overwhelmed, he turns out to lose the meaning of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die in his surge through things unheard of and beyond naming: other horrible workers will come after him and begin at the horizons where he sank succumbed!
Poetry will no longer just set action to rhythms; it will, itself, take the lead.
He wanted not only to describe the world through his writing, but by an alchemy (which he was deeply interested in) of the word to actually change it. It is no wonder that it's left rather vague how this is actually to be done.
But his poetry had now broken free of all influences and was straining ever more against the moulds of traditional verse. A poem like "Voyelles
" is hanging on to what hitherto had been understood as poetry by its fingernails.
Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O- vowels,
Some day I will open your silent pregnancies:
A, black belt, hairy with bursting flies,
Bumbling and buzzing over stinking cruelties,
pits of night; E, Candor of sand and pavilions,
High glacial spears, white kings, trembling Queen Anne's lace;
I, bloody spittle, laughter dribbling from a face
In wild denial or in anger, vermilions;
U… divine movement of viridian seas,
Peace of pastures animal-strewn, peace of calm lines
Drawn on foreheads worn with heavy alchemies;
O… supreme Trumpet, harsh with strange stridencies,
Silences traced in angels and astral designs:
0 ... OMEGA ... the violet light of His Eyes!¹
Later in 1871 he sent an introductory letter to Verlaine along with a number of poems. Verlaine, understandably, took the poet to be a much older man and promptly sent a letter asking him to Paris. Rimbaud came and with him brought along one of his most famous poems, "Le Bateau Ivre
", "The Drunken Boat
". It begins with the lines:
Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs :
Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles,
Les ayant cloués nus aux poteaux de couleurs.
As I was floating down unconcerned Rivers
I no longer felt myself steered by the haulers :
Gaudy Redskins had taken them for targets
Nailing them naked to coloured stakes.²
One can understand how Verlaine took Rimbaud's virtuoso mastery of form and imaginative language for the work of a much more seasoned poet. But if you look a bit closer at the imagery of the poem and the "strange" twists of the language, while peeling away the impressive structure, you suddenly see that, "Yes, it's the way a clever child would express himself!" In fact most of the images, redskins, ships at sea, tropical locales, could be found in most contemporary Boys Own Adventure Stories. It is all too easy to be blinded by the raw talent and the erudition to the fact that he was still in many ways a child. In fact a lot of the phrasing makes a lot more sense when viewed through this understanding, and so does the overblown expectations of what poetry could and could not do. It also goes a long way towards explaining the collapse of the whole project later on.
The married Verlaine fell under the younger man's spell and together they scandalised good society and went about the derailment of the senses with a vengeance. Driven ever onwards by the demonic youngster they both pushed at the borders of poetics. Rimbaud himself had soon left traditional verse behind alltogether. It is uncertain how many of the pieces of "Illuminations
" were written during this period, though it is probable that most of them were. They travelled and slept together, until a distraught, jealous and drunk Verlaine shot his companion in the wrist in Brussels
in 1873, got arrested, tried and convicted for the assault, but in reality for sodomy.
Rimbaud returned to his family in Charleville and wrote "Une Saison en Enfer
", "A Season in Hell
", relating his disillusionment with the relationship with Verlaine, but also his growing doubts about writing in general.
In "Second Delirium: The Alchemy Of The Word
" he sarcastically tells of the grand plans he'd had for his writing:
The story of one of my insanities.
For a long time I boasted that I was master of all possible landscapes-- and I thought the great figures of modern painting and poetry were laughable.
I dreamed of Crusades, voyages of discovery that nobody had heard of, republics without histories, religious wars stamped out, revolutions in morals, movements of races and continents; I used to believe in every kind of magic.
I invented colors for the vowels! A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green. I made rules for the form and movement of every consonant, and I boasted of inventing, with rhythms from within me, a kind of poetry that all the senses, sooner or later, would recognize. And I alone would be its translator.
His dreams of being the alchemical high-priest of a new era were fading, and with the passing of that ambition the words too were faltering. It is palpable in the section called "Morning
" where you can just feel language winding down, its gears and cogs screeching to a halt from being driven too hard:
I can explain myself no better than the beggar with his endless Aves and Pater Nosters. I no longer know how to talk!
By the end of the book, in "Farewell
", it is almost spelled out.
I tried to invent new flowers, new planets, new flesh, new languages. I thought I had acquired supernatural powers. Ha! I have to bury my imagination and my memories! What an end to a splendid career as an artist and storyteller!
I! I called myself a magician, an angel, free from all moral constraint.... I am sent back to the soil to seek some obligation, to wrap gnarled reality in my arms. A peasant!³
"...to wrap gnarled reality in my arms." He had left poetry behind. There was no point to it anymore. Pretty words were good for nothing.
In the end he could have contented himself with just writing good poetry, but that was never what he'd wanted. He never wished to be an entertainer for bourgeois society. He wanted to turn it upside down, preferably with him on top. It was a child's scheme, and the grown man could no longer believe in it. He had also followed his own battlecry, "Above all else, be modern!" to its end. There was, as time would show, not much further you could stretch language. In a way he had run the course of modernism all by himself. And to stand still or turn back was impossible.
The rest of his short life would be a pursuit of earthly riches, under the motto, "If you can't beat them, join them!" Finding money was the goal now. He chased them through the world, by fair means and foul, 'til an infected leg brought him home to France to find death in Marseilles on November 10 1891 at 37.
¹ Translated by Alex Goluszko
² Translated by Oliver Bernard : "Arthur Rimbaud, Collected Poems"
(1962) The complete poem can be found here
by Peter Pullicino