Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The point of interpreting should never be to make a poem unnecessarily difficult; one should not look for ambiguity where there is none. In this case, however, the poetic ambiguity is clear, and it appears to point to a deeper meaning beyond the prosaic one. One could argue, for example, that Rimbaud’s soul is divided against itself and that the poem is a dramatization of Rimbaud’s inner psychological turmoil. On the one hand, Rimbaud expresses his sadistic fantasy for revenge, and on the other, he expresses the punishment he should receive for entertaining such sinful thoughts. The formal strategies insisting on opposition noted above would thus serve to punctuate Rimbaud’s internal conflict between his asocial desire for vengeance and the moral stricture that prohibits such a desire. “He” in this case would not refer to another person (such as Verlaine) but to the poet’s alter ego, to an unconscious self-aggression outside Rimbaud’s rational control. According to this scenario, the numerous references to violent acts may be an expression of a guilt complex, a masochistic fantasy whereby Rimbaud irrationally desires punishment for his errors or sins. In that case, the final lines calling for prayer more clearly point to Rimbaud’s own expression of shame.

This all may seem wildly speculative unless the reader is familiar with Rimbaud’s famous dictum: “I am an other.” What Rimbaud means by this is that his psyche is self-divided, one half against the other. The “other,” the part outside his rational and linguistic control, speaks through him in spite of himself; it expresses desires and fantasies that reason or morality cannot easily impede. Such an internal division between passion and rationality, between individual desire and morality is a traditional one that goes back as far as the Greeks. Rimbaud radicalizes the opposition by giving this “other” a name, “he,” as well as by granting it supremacy. This idea of the divided psyche or the “other within” anticipates Sigmund Freud’s idea of the unconscious, and it makes Rimbaud one of the first truly modern poets.