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.)