Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Memory” paints an idyllic river landscape and then abandons it, glorifies escape, and ends in regret. It may refer specifically to the August afternoon of Rimbaud’s first escape from his stern mother and younger sisters, left behind in their riverside city as he went to Paris; there were, however, many abandonments in Rimbaud’s life. His father left when the poet was a young child. When Rimbaud wrote “Memory,” he believed his father to be dead. (The older man died in 1878.) His older brother ran away shortly before Arthur did. When Rimbaud wrote “Memory,” he had left Paris and poet Paul Verlaine to return home. He was contemplating another escape, both from France and from verse. (His flight to Belgium with Verlaine took place in July, 1872.) The composition of prose poems, later entitled Les Illuminations (1886; Illuminations, 1932), soon consumed his attention. Une Saison en enfer (1873; A Season in Hell, 1932), also prose, was his last literary composition and the only book he ever saw into print.

If abandonment and loss, abundant in the poet’s life, are central in “Memory,” so are the themes of joy and liberation. There is joy in the elaboration of the riverside scene, all purity, golden light, and flowers, with flashes of mythical, angelic figures. Rivers have their tutelary nymphs; Rimbaud’s river has the brilliant, white flesh of women in the first stanza and the young girls, who are...

(The entire section is 599 words.)