In the spring of 1873, Arthur Rimbaud wrote to a friend that he was preparing a “pagan book” with “half a dozen horror stories.” He called the stories “stupid and innocent,” but he added that his fate depended on them. A few months later, he took the finished manuscript to a printer in Brussels, who was to publish the work at the expense of Rimbaud’s family. Rimbaud was not yet nineteen years old.
Rimbaud gave advance copies of A Season in Hell to his former mentor and lover, Paul Verlaine, and to a few other friends. Snubbed socially and artistically following a scandal that landed Verlaine in prison, Rimbaud burned the remaining copies of the book in a fireplace at his mother’s house. He also burned a sheaf of his unpublished poems. He said he no longer thought about poetry. The boy who had been the talk of Paris at the age of sixteen—“an infant Shakespeare” in the words of novelist Victor Hugo—gave up poetry for a life of wandering and, eventually, running guns to rebel tribes in Africa.
Not until 1901, a full decade after Rimbaud’s death, were the unsold copies of A Season in Hell discovered in a Brussels warehouse and sold to an admiring public. The apparently autobiographical nature of his “horror stories,” which are really prose poems, only added to their appeal. His was the ultimate voice of tragic youth, of a poet risking all to attain the sublime vision that older poets only talked about.
In the opening paragraphs of the work, the speaker refers to the happier times of his childhood, to his first encounters with beauty and inspiration, and to the unspecified disaster that gave rise to his “book of the damned.” (This speaker is a poet but not necessarily Rimbaud.) The first section, “Bad Blood,” goes back to his peasant stock and his French heritage. It also refers to conflicts and retributions that evoke the Paris Commune of 1871 and the revolutionary spirit lingering when Rimbaud first arrived in the city later that year. Then comes the speaker’s “Night in Hell,” after he has died of world weariness. Following are two dreams, or “Deleria,” in which the speaker reveals the secrets of his poetry.
The speaker returns to ordinary reality in the second half of the poem. In “The Impossible,” he recognizes that others consider his dreams impossible. In “Lighting,” he acknowledges that although he has lost all hope of entering a poetic heaven, he can begin to glimpse the light of everyday life. In “Morning,” he listens to the music made by nations and rivers as they move onward. Finally, in “Farewell,” the speaker sees the coming of autumn and, with the death of the year, the death of his youthful identity. He buries his imagination. He laughs off his past, as he thinks women laugh off unhappy loves. He prepares for a new relationship with reality when he will confront truth itself, body and soul.
The two episodes of delirium—in the word’s etymological sense of deviation or deranging—come at the center of the poem and help to identify the speaker’s deepest hopes and fears. The first episode is a dialogue between a Foolish Virgin and a Hellish Husband. In some sense they are no doubt Verlaine and Rimbaud, respectively, but they are allegorical figures as well. Jesus told the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the women who were or were not prepared for the bridegroom who came in the night. In the biblical story, from Matthew,...
(The entire section is 1422 words.)