Article abstract: Rimbaud became one of the most influential of the French Symbolist poets through his vigorous writings and his dramatic personal history.
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.
On May 13 and 15, 1871, Rimbaud wrote his “Lettre du voyant”...
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(“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 most famous poem, “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”), was written as an introduction to Parisian poets before he left Charleville.
The inflexible young poet was immediately recognized by Verlaine’s circle as a sort of evil angel and genius. He bent all of his energies to fulfilling his ideal of the Seer in his own life and Verlaine’s. He provoked a series of violent confrontations with Verlaine’s friends and family, moved from lodging to lodging, occasionally on the streets, returned to Charleville, but always urged the older man to free himself from his settled life. On July 7, 1872, the two poets left Paris for Belgium and continued to London, where they installed themselves and began to learn English. Their relationship was marked by frequent violent quarrels, separations, and Verlaine’s illness. In the course of the year ending July, 1873, the older poet saw himself hopelessly alienated from his wife and the French literary world. In her suit for legal separation, Mathilde Verlaine accused him of homosexuality, a charge he always denied. Leaving Rimbaud penniless in London on July 3, 1873, Verlaine went to Brussels, with the plan either to reconcile with his wife or kill himself. He was joined in Belgium by his mother and Rimbaud. On July 10, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the left arm. He was arrested on Rimbaud’s complaint and spent eighteen months in Belgian prisons. He was released in January, 1875.
Most of Rimbaud’s major verse works were written during the two years spent in close contact with Verlaine. Those years were spent in the hardest kind of living, supported by money from Verlaine’s mother, with alcohol and hashish used as tools in a deliberate dismantling of his mind for poetry’s sake. He had begun work on prose poems, which Verlaine would later publish as Les Illuminations (1886; Illuminations, 1932). He had written a major piece, “La Chasse Spirituelle” (the spiritual chase), now lost. During a period in Charleville, he had begun Une Saison en enfer (1873; A Season in Hell, 1932). Verlaine’s arrest shook him, and he tried unsuccessfully to withdraw charges; he then retired to his mother’s farm in Roche, where he finished A Season in Hell. This work, published in October, 1873, is the only book Rimbaud ever saw into print. He obtained at the printer’s only a dozen copies; the rest of the printing was discovered in storage there in 1901. He left one copy at Verlaine’s prison and embarked for Paris with the intention of distributing the rest in the hope of favorable reviews.
Although Verlaine was older and known as a violent drunk, Rimbaud was blamed for his imprisonment and was ostracized by Parisian literary circles. Their hostility led him to burn his copies of A Season in Hell when he returned to Roche. Many believe this to be the end of his literary life. Evidence suggests, however, that he continued working on prose poems after the publication of A Season in Hell, during a stay in London with the Provençal poet Germain Nouveau in the spring of 1874. This partnership ended abruptly when Nouveau realized the degree of ostracism awaiting Rimbaud’s friends. Verlaine and Nouveau both were involved in copying Rimbaud’s works, and it is almost entirely through Verlaine’s efforts that Rimbaud’s verse and Illuminations were published.
Sometime during the months following the departure of Nouveau, Rimbaud stopped writing literature. From 1875 to 1880, the former poet traveled. He studied German in Stuttgart, crossed the winter Alps on foot, visited Austria and Italy, and wandered with a Scandinavian circus. He went as far as Java in the Dutch colonial army, then deserted and worked his way to Europe on ship. Illness sent him home more than once. He studied piano and foreign languages, and even taught. He worked as an overseer for an engineering firm on Cyprus in 1878. In the end, he became a merchant working out of Aden and Harar in Africa, first as an agent for a French firm (beginning in 1880) and eventually on his own, trading in gold, coffee, skins, guns, and small goods for local consumption. He was one of the first white men to travel into the Shoa region of Ethiopia. The facts of his African years have less impact than the aura of adventure they lend his life. When he died of generalized carcinoma in Marseilles, the phenomenal spread of his literary reputation had just begun, and his absence from the scene enhanced public appreciation of his work.
Arthur Rimbaud’s role as a literary meteor, a sort of fallen angel, was enough to guarantee for him a place as an icon of modern poetry. A large school of admirers, among them the great Christian poet Paul Claudel, saw him as a supreme example of spiritual adventure, a poet who pushed the quest for faith to its ultimate limits. An equally ardent school of thought sees the young poet as an unrepentant, Luciferian rebel. The study of Rimbaud’s writings, with their shattering power of imagination, involves the reader in an absorbing enigma—the contemplation of language pursued into silence. Even though his work spanned barely five years, it can hardly be matched. Few walk away from Rimbaud in indifference.
Fowlie, Wallace. Rimbaud. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. This elegantly written work is especially focused on Illuminations. It gives an outline of Rimbaud’s life, coupled with detailed literary and psychological analysis of key Rimbaud texts. Includes a selected bibliography.
Petitfils, Pierre. Rimbaud. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987. The most complete of the Rimbaud biographies available in English. A thoroughly scholarly, yet accessible work which argues for an essential unity in Rimbaud’s years as a poet and his mature life. The author does not analyze Rimbaud’s writings as literature, but as evidence in the study of his life. An extensive bibliography is included.
Rimbaud, Arthur. Complete Works, Selected Letters. Translated with an introduction by Wallace Fowlie. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966. This is the translation of Rimbaud’s poems used by Pierre Petitfils in his Rimbaud, reposing on the solid basis of Fowlie’s long studies of the poet and his period.
St.-Aubyn, F. C. Arthur Rimbaud. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Part of Twayne’s World Authors series, intended for undergraduate student research. Includes a chronology, a short biography, and an annotated bibliography.
Starkie, Enid. Arthur Rimbaud. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 1938. Rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1961. The standard English Rimbaud biographer for many years, Starkie writes from an intimate psychological viewpoint about the works and life of the poet. A short bibliography is included.
Wilson, Edmund. Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936. The prominent American literary critic relates the life and work of Rimbaud to the literary movements of his day. The French poet is thus juxtaposed to William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein. Somewhat dated but still valuable.