Arthur Rimbaud Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111201575-Rimbaud.jpg Arthur Rimbaud (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Rimbaud became one of the most influential of the French Symbolist poets through his vigorous writings and his dramatic personal history.

Early Life

Jean-Nicholas-Arthur Rimbaud was born in Charleville, near the Belgian border, the family’s second son. His parents were Frédéric Rimbaud, a career army officer, and Vitalie Cuif, an austerely devout and conscientious woman of peasant stock. Captain Rimbaud was seldom at the family home in Charleville. In September, 1860, after several violent clashes with his wife, he left the family forever.

Madame Rimbaud reared her children to be examples of propriety and devoted herself to the complete control of their thoughts and actions. The eldest child, Frédéric, was slow, but Arthur showed early promise. The boys entered school together in 1861. In 1865, they were transferred to the Collège de Charleville. Arthur soon outstripped his brother academically, met outstanding success in all studies but mathematics, and won an overwhelming list of year’s end prizes.

The young Rimbaud is described as angelic, with blue eyes and round cheeks—an ideal schoolboy. Madame Rimbaud separated her sons from the other boys at school, but eventually they found a long-term friend in Ernest Delahaye, later to be Rimbaud’s biographer. Rimbaud’s skill in French prose composition and Latin verse won for him the respect of his classmates. The principal of the collège indulged him, lent books to his prodigy, and enjoyed Rimbaud’s success in academic competitions.

By early 1870, Rimbaud was leading a double life. Outwardly obedient, he read voraciously in all periods and points of view and formed a global view based on revolution against middle-class norms. He hoped to become a journalist and escape his mother, with whom he identified all civil and religious restrictions. He shared long walks with Delahaye, with whom he read and discussed poetry. Several of his Latin poems had already been published when his first long piece of French verse appeared in January, 1870. In the same month, Georges Izambard joined the faculty of the collège as a teacher of rhetoric. Izambard was very young, a political liberal, and a poet in his own right. He encouraged Rimbaud, lent him books, and discussed poetry with him. Through him, Rimbaud met Paul Bretagne, a friend of the famous poet Paul Verlaine. The boy was intoxicated by this link with Paris and found an outlet in poems celebrating nature and poetic aspirations as well as satires on the good bourgeois of Charleville.

On July 18, Napoleon III declared war on Prussia. When classes ended, Izambard left Charleville. Rimbaud’s older brother ran away to follow the army. Delahaye was his only resource. Isolated, disgusted by bourgeois patriotism, and determined to rebel, Rimbaud ran away. On August 29, he made his first attempt, which ended with imprisonment in Paris for traveling without a ticket. Izambard posted bail and returned him to his mother. Between October, 1870, and April, 1871, he ran away three more times. Many poems written during this period are violent, revolutionary attacks on bourgeois society and the national government. The sixteen-year-old Rimbaud was probably in Paris in late April, 1871, during the last days of the Paris Commune, but left before the Thiers government retook the capital in the “bloody week” of May 7-14. During this stay, the runaway schoolboy witnessed wild scenes and possibly suffered homosexual rape. He also knew hunger and exposure and returned home ill and filthy. His personality and behavior had undergone a dramatic change. He was now determined to break his own ties to normal life.

Life’s Work

On May 13 and 15, 1871, Rimbaud wrote his “Lettre du voyant” (“Seer Letter”), tumbling verses and exhortations as he described his ideal visionary poet. The Seer must reach new visions by a reasoned dismantling of all senses and create a new language, in which the senses join to shape material and poetic futures. No suffering or self-sacrifice is too great to reach this end, and other horrible workers will carry on after the individual’s death. In a catalog of French poets of the past, Rimbaud heaps scorn on most but names Verlaine a Seer and true poet. Although Rimbaud had not yet met Verlaine, in September, 1871, he twice sent him poems and confided in him as an admired master. Verlaine, who was twenty-seven years old, married, and soon to be a father, was living with his in-laws. He took up a collection, sent for Rimbaud, and offered him temporary lodging with his wife’s family. Rimbaud’s single...

(The entire section is 1912 words.)

Arthur Rimbaud Biography

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud was born in the provincial town of Charleville on the Franco-Prussian border. His mother, Vitalie Cuif, was of peasant stock and a devout Jansenist; his father, Captain Frédéric Rimbaud, was an itinerant army officer who abandoned the family when Rimbaud was only six years old. A brilliant student, Rimbaud completed nine years of schooling in eight, earning numerous literary prizes in the course of his studies. His earliest attempts at verse were in Latin, followed by his first poem in French, “Les Étrennes des orphelins” (“The Orphans’ New Year’s Day Gifts”), published in January, 1870. Encouraged by his teacher, Georges Izambard, Rimbaud sent off three poems to the Parnassian poet Théodore de Banville, who, however, failed to express any interest.

The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July, 1870, put an end to Rimbaud’s formal schooling. Alienated by the hypocrisy of provincial society, which he satirized in various poems composed in the early months of 1870, he ran away from home three times: first to Paris, then to Belgium, and again to Paris. He was back in Charleville when the Paris Commune was declared on March 18, 1871. Although much critical attention has been devoted to Rimbaud’s possible ties with the Commune, there is no clear evidence that he ever left Charleville during the crucial period of the Paris uprising. On May 15, Rimbaud composed his celebrated “Lettre du voyant” (“Seer Letter”), addressed to a friend, Paul Demeny. Rimbaud’s break with traditional poetry was by this time already complete, and on August 15, he again wrote to Banville, enclosing a new poem, “Ce qu’on dit au poète à propos de fleurs” (“What One Says to the Poet in Regard to Flowers”), a vitriolic attack on Parnassian poetics. Shortly thereafter, Rimbaud also sent off eight new poems, in two installments, to Paul Verlaine, who responded with the famous phrase “Venez, chère grande âme, on vous appelle, on vous attend” (“Come, dear great soul, we call to you, we await you”).

Rimbaud arrived in the capital with a copy of his newly composed poem, “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”), which brought him some notoriety among the Parisian literary crowd. The young poet’s obnoxious...

(The entire section is 930 words.)

Arthur Rimbaud Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud (ram-BOH) was born on October 20, 1854, in Charleville, a town near the Belgian border in northeastern France, and grew up there. He was the second of five children. His father, Frédéric Rimbaud, an army officer, left the family to go to the Crimean War when Arthur was six years old. Vitalie Cuif, the poet’s mother, came from a peasant background and was narrow-minded and fanatically religious. In 1870, a young teacher, Georges Izambard, arrived at Arthur’s school. Himself a poet, he encouraged Rimbaud and lent him books by François Villon, François Rabelais, Victor Hugo, and the Parnassian poets. In an irate letter, Rimbaud’s mother complained that the teacher had lent her son a “dangerous book,” Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862; English translation, 1862). That same year, Rimbaud composed twenty-two poems. Describing nature, dreams, pagan eroticism, and the rebellion against Christianity, the young poet also wrote one of his masterpieces, “Le Dormeur du val” (“The Sleeper of the Valley”), about a young soldier dead in the Franco-Prussian War.

Because of the war, the schools closed, Izambard left Charleville, and Rimbaud dreamed of doing likewise. Boarding a train for Paris without money to pay his fare, the fifteen-year-old was promptly thrown in prison upon arrival in the capital but was rescued by Izambard, his former teacher. Although he was sent back to his mother, the young poet escaped again, only to be brought home by the police. When the schools reopened, the sixteen-year-old refused to return.

On May 15, 1871, Rimbaud wrote to his friend Paul Demeny the famous “Lettre du voyant” (“Seer Letter”) expressing his theories about poetry and life. In proposing to make himself a voyant, a poet-prophet-visionary, Rimbaud vows to practice the “long, immense and reasoned deranging of all the senses” in order to reach a transcendent state, called the “unknown.” The letter expresses Rimbaud’s desire to experience “all the forms of love” and thus foretells his liaison with...

(The entire section is 851 words.)

Arthur Rimbaud Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The few short years that Arthur Rimbaud devoted to poetic creation have had an overwhelming impact on modern poetry, not only in France but in other countries as well. His works prepared the way for such movements as Symbolism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. He is a continuing reference for vanguard literary thought today—Rimbaud’s poetry is not only an exercise in shocking and beautiful imagery but also a synthesis of intellectual, emotional, and sensual response purposing a tormenting exploration of the self in the modern world. In his continuing disrespect for established values and his demand for innovation, Rimbaud has had a liberating effect on poetry and on life.

(The entire section is 109 words.)

Arthur Rimbaud Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The life of Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud (ram-boh) was brief, lasting a scant thirty-seven years, and his life as a poet was briefer still, ending with the completion of A Season in Hell in 1873, only a little over three years after his stormy entrance into Paris in 1870. Yet in this brief tenure as a poet he managed to compose enough verse to fill a volume and managed to write with such power and vision that he changed the course of the French Symbolist movement and exerted an influence that is still being felt in literature today. His life’s vision was a dual one, angelic and diabolic at once. He followed it compulsively and agonizingly, or, rather, he was driven by it from one excess to another, and from one country to...

(The entire section is 813 words.)