Study Guide

First Communions

by Arthur Rimbaud

First Communions Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “First Communions,” Rimbaud developed two themes found in other poems of 1870 and 1871: his anticlericalism (“The Poor in Church”) and his glorification of the powers of nature, the sun in particular (“Sun and Flesh”). It has been suggested that the poem was written in reaction to the first Holy Communion of the poet’s sister in May, 1871. Whatever the specific inspiration of the piece, it falls within his universal rejection of the structures of society. Through the institution of the church and its priest, however, he also attacks Christ as a god of death who is opposed to the life force and is responsible for maiming women.

The poem does not actually present the girl’s first communion in the church or her first communion of the flesh with her lover: The reader is presented with the eve of the former and the morning after the latter. Instead, there is the first communion of the child with the religious vision of angels, Jesus figures, and Marys. In the ninth stanza, “her soul drank all her conqueror,” and in the tenth, “she bites into the coolness of your Remission.” With the disillusionment of section 4 comes a carnal first communion, as the child imagines the nudity of Jesus and thrashes in physical distress. These communions prefigure those yet to come. The figure of the girl is inextricably linked with the Mary image (thus her lover dreams of Marys) and frigid virginity, yet her body and soul are irremediably polluted by her reception of Jesus, the dead god.

Throughout “First Communions,” with its vigorous use of language and the overwhelming strength of its images, the energy of the young poet can be sensed. Rimbaud was yet to enter fully into his great experiment of poetic madness, and his most daring formal ventures lay ahead. Yet, his rage at the structures of his world and his joy in verbal pyrotechnics are already in full motion in this contentious and troubling piece written before his seventeenth birthday.