Arthur Rimbaud Poetry Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Arthur Rimbaud’s early verse (of which he published only three short pieces in various academic bulletins) falls into two general categories. First, there is his satiric verse, exemplified by such poems as “Les Premières Communions” (“First Communions”) and “Les Assis” (“The Seated Ones”), which attacks religious hypocrisy and the sterility of bourgeois society. Second, there is his erotic verse, typified by such poems as “Vénus anadyomène” (“Venus Emerging from the Waves”) and “Le Coeur volé” (“The Stolen Heart”), which speaks of the trauma of sexual coming-of-age. A pastiche of traditional styles and forms, these initial works nevertheless evidence a brilliant gift for verbal expression and announce the theme of revolt which informs all Rimbaud’s writings.

“Seer Letter”

On May 15, 1871, Rimbaud declared his emancipation from traditional poetics in his celebrated “Seer Letter,” addressed to his friend Paul Demeny. This letter, Rimbaud’s ars poetica, begins with a contemptuous denunciation of all previous poetry as nothing more than rhymed prose. Only Charles Baudelaire, “un vrai dieu” (“a true god”), is spared and, even then, only partially—he frequented a self-consciously artistic milieu, and he failed to find new forms of expression. Rimbaud then calls for a radically new conception of the poet’s mission: “Car je est un autre” (“For I is an other”). It is the essential task of the poet to give voice to the repressed, unconscious “other” that lies concealed behind the mask of the rational, Cartesian “I”—the “other” which societal restrictions have condemned to silence. This can be accomplished only by “un long, immense et raisonn édérèglement de tous les sens” (“a long, immense and reasoned derangement of all the senses”). Unlike his Romantic predecessors and such Symbolist contemporaries as Mallarmé, who passively awaited the return of the muse, Rimbaud insists on the active role the poet must take: “Le Poète se fait voyant” (“The poet makes himself a seer”). The poet must actively cultivate dreams, hallucinations, and madness. In so doing, he becomes the great liberator of humanity, a Prometheus who steals fire from the gods, the spokesman for all those whom society has ostracized: “Il devient entre tous le grand malade, le grand criminel, le grand maudit—et le grand Savant!” (“He becomes, more than anyone, the great sick one, the great criminal, the great accursed one—and the great Learned One!”). Such a poet will be “un multiplicateur de progrès” whose genius, unrestrained by societal taboos and the limitations of rational thought, will lead humankind into a new golden age.

Throughout the remaining months of 1871 and the following year, Rimbaud endeavored to give form to this poetic vision in a new series of songs and verse which are best exemplified by two poems which critics have universally acclaimed as masterpieces: “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”) and “Voyelles” (“Vowels”).

“The Drunken Boat”

Perhaps the best known of Rimbaud’s works, “The Drunken Boat” was composed during the summer of 1871 and presented to Verlaine in September of that same year. Although the work borrows from a wide variety of sources (Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Jules Verne, and Vicomte Chateaubriand, to name but a few), it remains a stunning and original tour de force—particularly for a young poet of sixteen. The poem, composed of twenty-five quatrains in classical Alexandrines and narrated in the first person, is a symbolic drama in three acts. In the first act (quatrains 1 through 4), set on a vast river in the New World, the boat recounts its escape from its haulers, who are massacred by screaming natives, and its subsequent descent toward the sea. There follows a brief, transitional interlude (quatrain 5) in which the boat passes through a ritual purification: Its wooden shell is permeated by the seawater which cleanses it of wine stains and vomit and bears off the boat’s rudder and anchor.

The second and central act (quatrains 6 through 22) tells of the boat’s intoxicating maritime adventures and its fantastic, hallucinatory vision of a transcendental reality which ordinary mortals have only glimpsed in passing. Yet, the boat’s long and frenetic voyage of discovery ultimately begins to turn sour. After braving whirlpools, hurricanes, raging seas, and Leviathans from the deep, the boat unexpectedly declares its nostalgia for the ancient parapets of Europe.

In the third and final act (quatrains 23 through 25), the boat’s delirious optimism turns to anguished despair. Its quest for the absolute has at length proved futile, and the boat now seeks dissolution in death. If it desires a return to European waters, it is to the cold, black puddle into which a sad, impoverished child releases a boat as frail as a May butterfly. At the same time, the boat realizes the impossibility of any turning back to its previous mode of existence. It can no longer follow in the wake of the merchant ships, nor bear the haughty pride of the military gunboats, nor swim beneath the horrible eyes of the prison ships that lie at anchor in the harbor.

“The Drunken Boat” reflects both Rimbaud’s new conception of the poet as “seer” and the influence of the French Symbolists, such as Verlaine and Baudelaire, who sought to replace the effusive, personalized verse of the Romantics with a symbolic, impersonal mode of expression. Critics have generally equated the work’s “protagonist,” the boat, with the poet himself, reading the poem as a symbolic account of Rimbaud’s own efforts to transcend reality through language. Most critics are also agreed that the poem’s final two stanzas, while they suggest the advent of a new self-awareness, evince a disillusionment with the “seer” experiment and prefigure Rimbaud’s later renunciation of poetry.


Rimbaud’s celebrated sonnet “Vowels,” written in decasyllabic verse, dates from the same period as “The Drunken Boat” and was similarly presented to Verlaine in September, 1871. Another of Rimbaud’s “seer” poems, the work postulates a mystic correspondence between vowels and colors: “A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu” (“A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue”). The poem has its literary source in Baudelaire’s famous sonnet “Correspondences,” which had asserted an underlying connection between sounds, perfumes, and colors and had popularized the concept of synesthesia. Another probable source for the work has been found in an illustrated alphabet primer which Rimbaud may have read as a child and which has served to elucidate some of the sonnet’s enigmatic imagery.

Perhaps the most ingenious interpretation of the poem is that of the critic Lucien Sausy, who argued that the work exploits correspondences not between sound and color (there are, in fact, few traces of such matching within the phonetic content of the poem) but rather between the visual form of the vowels themselves and the images to which the latter are linked: A, if inverted, thus suggests the delta-shaped body of a fly; E (written as a Greek epsilon in the manuscript), if turned on its side, suggests vapors, tents, and glaciers; and so on. (Sausy’s interpretation, first advanced in Les Nouvelles Littéraires, September 2, 1933, is available in the notes to the Pléiade edition of Rimbaud’s works.) As a counterbalance, however, one might mention Verlaine’s explanation of the sonnet: “Rimbaud saw things that way and that’s all there is to it.”

A Season in Hell

By his own account, Rimbaud composed A Season in Hell during the period from April to August of 1873. Rimbaud supervised the book’s publication, and it was printed in Brussels in the fall of 1873 in an edition of five hundred copies. Rimbaud was unable, however, to pay the printing costs, and this first edition, save for six author’s copies which circulated among his friends, remained in the attic of a Brussels publishing house until discovered in 1901 by a Belgian bibliophile, who did not make his discovery public until 1914.

The text, which Rimbaud had originally intended to entitle “Livre païen” (pagan book) or “Livre nègre” (Negro book—the French adjective is pejorative), consists of nine prose poems and seven poems in verse, the latter all contained within the section “Délires II” (“Deliria II”). The work has been variously acclaimed by critics for its original and stunning verbal display, its fantastic, visionary imagery, and its prophetic pronouncements concerning Rimbaud’s own future. As the title indicates, A Season in Hell is Rimbaud’s poetic attempt to come to grips...

(The entire section is 3621 words.)