What is the symbolism and conclusion of "The Drunken Boat"?

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kjtracy eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Drunken Boat," by Arthur Rimbaud, is known for its heavy use of symbolism. In fact, the work continues to be mysterious after more than a century of academic study. Many readers have suggested that the poem uses metaphysical as well as esoteric symbolism.

Perspective and Symbolism

"The Drunken Boat" is told through a first-person singular perspective. The speaker is a lone sailor who describes the colorful imagery around him as well as his boredom and loneliness, which makes for an interesting contrast. The speaker uses the drunken boat as a symbol to represent himself and the isolation he feels from humanity. Like him, the ship has become a "martyr" and lost its connection to human morality and guidance.

In addition to the obvious symbolism of the boat, there are many subtle layers of symbolism as well. The speaker laments, "O let my keel burst! Let me find the sea!" This is likely a more obscure use of symbolism since the speaker has previously implied that he is already out at sea. This line could be interpreted as his desire to find peace or some other worthwhile goal symbolized by the water. On a deeper level, it suggests that the speaker has lost sight of the fact that what he is seeking, symbolized by the sea, is already all around him if he will only recognize it.

Childhood and Innocence

Children are used as a symbol for innocence throughout the poem. The speaker longs to recapture the innocence of youth and finds himself adrift in the adult world. At the time of writing the poem, Rimbaud was an adolescent. The poem expresses his simultaneous desire for adult autonomy and the freedom of youth. The boat in the poem has broken free of its moorings, which serves as a symbol for the transition from childhood to early adulthood. Like an adolescent, the boat is "drunk" on its newfound freedom, but it finds itself traveling towards an unknown destination. The boat's lack of a rudder, grappling hook or haulers symbolizes the youth's feeling of exhilarating freedom and the aimlessness that comes along with it. This is the double-edged sword of autonomy.

Age and Death

Each of the adventures the boat experiences during its voyage symbolizes human life experiences that come with age. As the poem progresses, the boat grows weary and weathered. Its physical deterioration is a symbol for both the physical and spiritual deterioration of the human aging process. By the end of the story, the boat longs for rest at the bottom of the sea. This could be seen as a symbol for the eternal rest provided by death. The line, "Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter," could symbolize the speaker's growing cynicism as he reaches the end of his life journey. Things that were once exciting and beautiful have become wearisome.

Unusual Symbolism

In addition to the obvious symbolism found throughout the poem, there are many examples of symbolism that are less clear. Subsequent readings of the poem leave the reader unsure of the meaning of references to a low sun "spotted with mystic horrors" or the boat's dream of "the yellow and blue awakening of singing phosphorous." While such lines could be interpreted as convoluted references to elements previously presented in the poem, such as the approaching night or the setting sun, their obscure phrasing creates a sense of mystery and even hints at the speaker's irrationality.

Conclusion

Through both overt and mysterious symbolism, "The Drunken Boat" offers multiple layers of meaning for the reader to consider. On its surface, this poem symbolizes the often tumultuous journey from youth to adulthood. The boat's eventual longing to sink to the bottom of the ocean serves as a somber conclusion, but there is a ray of hope. With a cry of, "O let me go into the sea!" the boat has accepted its fate and welcomes death. In this sense, the conclusion of the poem is satisfying and brings an end to the painful experiences of the speaker as well as the good.

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The Drunken Boat

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