Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Numerous allegorical interpretations can be generated by the poem, but none is so coherent as to exclude all others or to provide a definitive explanation of all details: “The Drunken Boat” is not a structure of simple symbols which can be translated into single concepts. A rational order cannot be pressed upon it, and it is useless to insist that the poem conform to the mental restraints of clarity and coherence. Its images bristle with suggestions and resonances that must be understood on their own terms while being integrated into the whole poetic structure. Rimbaud’s poem is not an enigma to be solved but rather a complex structure of episodes, details, and emotions which the reader must explore carefully.

“The Drunken Boat” is an extraordinary example of a Symbolist poem, astonishing in the perfection of its conception and execution. The structure rests on the presentation and elaboration of one term of a metaphor—the symbolic one. The reader, after comprehending various aspects of the symbol, is left to perceive their relationships to an unnamed term which is the true subject of the poem. Charles Baudelaire and the Parnassian poets Paul Verlaine and Théodore de Banville had been working in this mode of poetry for some years, experimenting with techniques that would reveal the subject without disclosing it, leading the reader to discover the significance of the poem through a thoughtful interpretation of the symbol. Rimbaud’s boat,...

(The entire section is 445 words.)