Article abstract: Rimbaud became one of the most influential of the French Symbolist poets through his vigorous writings and his dramatic personal history.
Jean-Nicholas-Arthur Rimbaud was born in Charleville, near the Belgian border, the family’s second son. His parents were Frédéric Rimbaud, a career army officer, and Vitalie Cuif, an austerely devout and conscientious woman of peasant stock. Captain Rimbaud was seldom at the family home in Charleville. In September, 1860, after several violent clashes with his wife, he left the family forever.
Madame Rimbaud reared her children to be examples of propriety and devoted herself to the complete control of their thoughts and actions. The eldest child, Frédéric, was slow, but Arthur showed early promise. The boys entered school together in 1861. In 1865, they were transferred to the Collège de Charleville. Arthur soon outstripped his brother academically, met outstanding success in all studies but mathematics, and won an overwhelming list of year’s end prizes.
The young Rimbaud is described as angelic, with blue eyes and round cheeks—an ideal schoolboy. Madame Rimbaud separated her sons from the other boys at school, but eventually they found a long-term friend in Ernest Delahaye, later to be Rimbaud’s biographer. Rimbaud’s skill in French prose composition and Latin verse won for him the respect of his classmates. The principal of the collège indulged him, lent books to his prodigy, and enjoyed Rimbaud’s success in academic competitions.
By early 1870, Rimbaud was leading a double life. Outwardly obedient, he read voraciously in all periods and points of view and formed a global view based on revolution against middle-class norms. He hoped to become a journalist and escape his mother, with whom he identified all civil and religious restrictions. He shared long walks with Delahaye, with whom he read and discussed poetry. Several of his Latin poems had already been published when his first long piece of French verse appeared in January, 1870. In the same month, Georges Izambard joined the faculty of the collège as a teacher of rhetoric. Izambard was very young, a political liberal, and a poet in his own right. He encouraged Rimbaud, lent him books, and discussed poetry with him. Through him, Rimbaud met Paul Bretagne, a friend of the famous poet Paul Verlaine. The boy was intoxicated by this link with Paris and found an outlet in poems celebrating nature and poetic aspirations as well as satires on the good bourgeois of Charleville.
On July 18, Napoleon III declared war on Prussia. When classes ended, Izambard left Charleville. Rimbaud’s older brother ran away to follow the army. Delahaye was his only resource. Isolated, disgusted by bourgeois patriotism, and determined to rebel, Rimbaud ran away. On August 29, he made his first attempt, which ended with imprisonment in Paris for traveling without a ticket. Izambard posted bail and returned him to his mother. Between October, 1870, and April, 1871, he ran away three more times. Many poems written during this period are violent, revolutionary attacks on bourgeois society and the national government. The sixteen-year-old Rimbaud was probably in Paris in late April, 1871, during the last days of the Paris Commune, but left before the Thiers government retook the capital in the “bloody week” of May 7-14. During this stay, the runaway schoolboy witnessed wild scenes and possibly suffered homosexual rape. He also knew hunger and exposure and returned home ill and filthy. His personality and behavior had undergone a dramatic change. He was now determined to break his own ties to normal life.
On May 13 and 15, 1871, Rimbaud wrote his “Lettre du voyant” (“Seer Letter”), tumbling verses and exhortations as he described his ideal visionary poet. The Seer must reach new visions by a reasoned dismantling of all senses and create a new language, in which the senses join to shape material and poetic futures. No suffering or self-sacrifice is too great to reach this end, and other horrible workers will carry on after the individual’s death. In a catalog of French poets of the past, Rimbaud heaps scorn on most but names Verlaine a Seer and true poet. Although Rimbaud had not yet met Verlaine, in September, 1871, he twice sent him poems and confided in him as an admired master. Verlaine, who was twenty-seven years old, married, and soon to be a father, was living with his in-laws. He took up a collection, sent for Rimbaud, and offered him temporary lodging with his wife’s family. Rimbaud’s single...
(The entire section is 1912 words.)