Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3795
Rimbaud, like his friend Verlaine and their great predecessor Charles Baudelaire, is one of those poets who is at least as well known for his scandalous lifestyle as he is for his poetic production. The prototype for the henceforth famous poètes maudites (damned poets), Rimbaud believed that the goal of...
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- Critical Essays
Rimbaud, like his friend Verlaine and their great predecessor Charles Baudelaire, is one of those poets who is at least as well known for his scandalous lifestyle as he is for his poetic production. The prototype for the henceforth famous poètes maudites (damned poets), Rimbaud believed that the goal of poetry was to change life. In his opposition to the hypocrisy of European bourgeois materialism and nineteenth century positivism, the poet pioneered the use of shock as a tool of political statement.
Remy de Gourmont, the symbolist poet and theoretician, praised Rimbaud’s “magnificently obscene violence.” Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Camille Pissarro, committed as they were to the liberation of painting, enthusiastically followed the work of the literary anarchist Rimbaud. In his poem “Le Voyage” (“The Trip”), Baudelaire had insisted that his goal was to “find the new.” Rimbaud experimented with new language and poetic form in order to continue on the road marked by Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1931). Thus, Rimbaud created the poem-illumination, an explosion of sound, feeling, and movement, aiming, through sensual experience, to achieve a merger of reality and dream.
Breaking down the traditional patterns of rhyme and meter for poetry, Rimbaud’s poems “Marine” (“Seascape”) and “Movement” (“Motion”) were two of the first free-verse works published in French. During the final years of the nineteenth century, the Symbolist poets acclaimed Rimbaud for this sort of innovation. His sonnet “Voyelles” (“Vowels”) became a manifesto for many of them. The assignment of a specific color to each vowel was a striking example of his use of synesthesia. The subjective association of a visual stimulus to the sound experienced proclaimed the sovereignty of individual perception.
Far more important than Rimbaud’s influence on the Symbolists was the role that he played for the Dadaists and the Surrealists. Dada was a movement grounded in anarchy, in revolt against all established aesthetic values. It therefore recognized in Rimbaud a precursor both in his work and in his life, especially in the fact that he eventually stopped writing poetry. The Surrealists were drawn to the visionary side of the poet’s writing. Their desire was to explore the unknown, to express the dark side of experience, and to reach the language of what Sigmund Freud called the unconscious. They considered Rimbaud a poet-alchemist, who, by overthrowing reason and deranging the senses, sought new knowledge. “Rimbaud is a Surrealist in the practice of life and elsewhere,” wrote their spokesman André Breton in his Manifeste du surréalisme (1924; Manifesto of Surrealism; 1969).
Rimbaud’s acceptance of evil as an instrument for self-liberation and for the transformation of human existence, his unwillingness to compromise the purity of his vision and to settle for bourgeois values, have inspired many twentieth century artists. The American poet Hart Crane quoted a line by Rimbaud, “It can only be the end of the world, ahead,” as the epigram for White Buildings (1926). Another rebellious American writer, Henry Miller, devoted a prose poem of 150 pages titled The Time of the Assassins: A Story of Rimbaud (1956) to Rimbaud, whom he saw as a patron saint.
An extraordinarily gifted young man, Rimbaud produced the main body of his poetry between the years 1870 and 1873, that is, from the ages of fifteen and a half to nineteen. Rimbaud’s adolescent revolt against bourgeois society—marked by his running away from home, taking drugs, and generally scandalizing the public—does not really distinguish him from countless young men of his time and up through the present. What does distinguish him is his poetry.
Rimbaud’s first attempts at verse were presented in traditional mold, but soon, under the influence of Verlaine, the young poet experimented with new forms. After “The Drunken Boat,” each poem seeks a form organically connected to its message. Thus, it becomes impossible to distinguish between form and content. Form, as merely decorative, poetry as convention, and consecrated cultural value are clearly despicable to Rimbaud. The prose poem, on the other hand, which Rimbaud inherited from Baudelaire and uses so successfully in Illuminations and A Season in Hell, attempts to free itself of conventional poetic trappings.
The Illuminations were given two subtitles, “painted plates” and “colored plates,” by Verlaine. These subtitles, insisting upon the connection between the visual and the verbal, recall Rimbaud’s efforts, in the sonnet “Vowels,” to mesh color and sound.
This volume illustrates Rimbaud’s theory of poetry as bedazzlement. In order for the texts to furnish a revelation in one flighting burst of light, however, readers must accustom themselves to experiencing periods of groping in the dark. As a protest against the plodding, step-by-step logic of Western rationalism, Rimbaud favors the technique of ellipsis as revelation through juxtaposition. According to twentieth century French poet Saint-John Perse, Rimbaud is “the poet of ellipsis and of leaps.” Yet if breaks in logic appear between images, leaving readers to bridge them as best they can, those non sequiturs are nothing more than the equivalent of the lack of coherence in the modern world.
The famous “The Drunken Boat” was written a full year before Rimbaud had ever seen the sea. The poet’s most often quoted phrase, “Je est un autre” (“I is another person”), from the “Seer Letter,” puts into succinct form the alienation experienced by modern humankind faced with its own creative experience in a world that does not really make sense.For I is another. If brass awakes as a bugle, it is not at all its fault. This is plain to me: I am a witness to the birth of my thought: I look at it, I listen to it: I draw a stroke of the bow: the symphony makes its stir in the depths, or comes with a leap upon the stage.
“The Sleeper of the Valley”
First published: “Le Dormeur du val,” 1888 (collected in Rimbaud Complete, 2002-2003)
Type of work: Poem
In harmonious sonnet form, Rimbaud paints a tender picture of a young soldier dead in the midst of a peaceful natural setting.
“The Sleeper of the Valley,” in manuscript form, dates from October, 1870, and therefore conjures up an image linked to the Franco-Prussian War. Research has shown that there was no fighting in the area around Charleville at the time that the sonnet was written, and it is therefore unlikely that Rimbaud, who was just sixteen at the time, saw the scene described otherwise than in imagination.
This work is one of the best-known and most loved of Rimbaud’s poems. It was not published by the poet himself but first appeared in the Anthologie Lemerre, a collection compiled in 1888. The form of the poem is a traditional one, “The Sleeper of the Valley” being a sonnet in four stanzas, two quatrains followed by two triads. The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd eef ggf. The poet also alternates masculine and feminine rhymes, consonant sounds with vowel sounds in the final syllable of each line. The form, obeying these traditional metrical rules, makes the poem look something like an exercise. The first noun appearing in the poem, trou, or “hole,” used to describe the natural setting of the scene, comes back in the final line, where it serves as a revelation. Color images alone differentiate the green spot (trou) of the opening line from the two red holes in the soldier’s side in the final vision. The repetition of a simple word such as this one renders the formal organization of the sonnet even tighter.
The first stanza is a description of the natural setting; no human figure is yet perceived, yet nature is personified and thus seems very much alive. Its characteristics are positive. The river “sings,” wetting the grass and “silvering” it “gayly,” the mountain is “proud,” and the “little” valley is “quivering” with pleasure under the rays of the sun. The colors of the first stanza are green and silver, and there are numerous references to light.
The second stanza introduces the “young soldier.” The physical description tends to accentuate his vulnerability: “mouth open,” “head bare,” “neck bathing in the fresh blue watercress.” Blue is added to the “green” of his “bed,” and he is “pale.” The light of the first stanza is somewhat attenuated since the young soldier is seen sleeping “under a cloud” and “light rains on his green bed.” The image of light raining constitutes an oxymoron, a union of opposites, and serves as a warning that all is not as idyllic as it seems.
In the third stanza, the soldier is called a child, and he is seen smiling “like a sick child would.” His feet are in wild yellow irises, an image that may seem pleasant and positive, but which also suggests the flowers heaped around a funeral bier. The stanza ends with an apostrophe to Nature, who is begged to “rock the child warmly” for “he is cold.”
The final stanza opens on a negation: “The perfumes do not make his nose tremble.” The reader is told that “he is sleeping” for the third time, which may begin to make the reader suspicious. His hand is on his chest, which is “still,” even as his nose was in the first line of this three-line stanza. All the movement in the, poem has been attributed to nature. The final sentence of the poem, “He has two red holes in his right side,” is brutal in its dry, matter-of-fact succinctness.
“The Sleeper of the Valley” is an excellent example of the poetic mastery attained by the adolescent Rimbaud. Its message, a subtle yet forceful one, can be seen as a denunciation of the society responsible for the young man’s death.
“The Drunken Boat”
First published: “Le Bateau ivre,” 1883 (collected in Rimbaud Complete, 2002-2003)
Type of work: Poem
The desire to break the bounds of ordinary life and to discover the unknown leads to disillusionment as the speaker foresees no end to his journey.
“The Drunken Boat” is perhaps one of the poems that Rimbaud presented to the poet Paul Verlaine as an introduction upon arrival in Paris in 1871. There is no manuscript in the hand of the poet, but the work was no doubt written shortly before being given to Verlaine. It was first published in a journal, Lutèce, in 1883 and then in Verlaine’s Poètes maudits in 1884. “The Drunken Boat” is a work upon which Rimbaud counted to make his reputation. It is mysterious and remains so even after generations of scholarly readings. Many people see it as a succession of images noted by a youngster who had been reading adventure stories such as those of Jules Verne and James Fenimore Cooper. Other readers have discovered metaphysical intentions and esoteric symbols.
Some of the obscure images in the poem become clearer if one rereads Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) and “The Manuscript Found in a Bottle,” as well as Jules Verne’s Vingt Male Lieues sou les mers (1869-1870; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1873). Rimbaud had not been to America, nor had he seen the ocean, when he created these images of shores haunted by Indians, of violet sunsets and phosphorescent waves. In spite of the fact that many of the strange images in the poem are borrowed from Verne’s voyage of the Nautilus, “The Drunken Boat” has little in common with an adventure story. It is Rimbaud’s effort to render in poetic form his painful disillusionment during the winter of 1870-1871. The real literary point of departure for Rimbaud is no doubt Baudelaire’s poem “Le Voyage” (“The Trip”), which also tells of dreams of escape followed by despair.
This long poem comprises twenty-five quatrains using the abab rhyme scheme and the classical twelve-syllable Alexandrine line throughout. Thus, the form of the poem is extremely traditional.
“The Drunken Boat” is written in the first-person singular; the prominence of the speaker is apparent from the start and gives the poem a strong impression of being a subjective vision. The first seven stanzas of the poem celebrate the freedom of the solitary sailor in the midst of an exotic maritime world. Yet with the “I know” at the beginning of the eighth stanza, the speaker’s ennui, or boredom, becomes apparent: “I saw at times what man believed he saw.” The poem proceeds largely through enumeration of colorful images drawn from adventure stories, yet which seem Surrealist here, divorced as they are from any logical explanation. The speaker identifies with the drunken boat, a ship that has lost all human guidance and has become a restless “martyr”:
A martyr tired of poles and zones, at momentsthe sea whose weeping fed my gentle rolllifted up shadow-flowers with yellow suckerstowards where I rested like a woman kneeling.
In the twenty-first stanza, the speaker confesses, “I long for the old parapets of Europe.” The exaltation of the opening stanza has given way to fatigue and disillusionment: “Yes, true, I’ve wept too much.” Since there is nothing left to see and nothing else for which to hope, the speaker aspires to end his purposeless voyage at the mercy of the blind waves. Perhaps the most famous line of the poem is the final verse of the twenty-third stanza, “Oh let my keel burst! Let me find the sea!” This wish is somewhat ambiguous, since the boat is already out to sea. In spite of first impressions, however, this is not an invitation to a voyage, but rather a desire to sink to the bottom of the sea, to oblivion.
There are several references to children in the poem. The twenty-fourth stanza provides one positive, but inaccessible, image. After exhausting the marvels of the whole world, the boat longs for “a cold black pool where one unhappy child/ Kneels and releases towards the balm of dusk/ A boat frail as a butterfly in May.” “A Drunken Boat” chronicles the vision of a poet who dared to explore what few of his contemporaries could know and who despaired of ever recapturing the innocence of childhood.
First published: “Aube,” 1886 (collected in Rimbaud Complete, 2002-2003)
Type of work: Poem
Through a dream landscape, the speaker pursues and captures the goddess Dawn, before losing consciousness in her embrace.
“Dawn,” one of the prose poems included in Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1886), is particularly representative of the concerns in most of his writing. Subjectivity, underlined by the use of a first-person speaker; erotic desire, rendered by the image of pursuit of the object; and a final depersonalization accompanied by fainting are the principal themes of the work.
The poem begins and ends with short declarative sentences, each of them forming its own paragraph or stanza. In between, the poet has arranged his dream-narrative in five brief paragraphs of approximately equal length. After the first sentence, “I embraced the summer dawn,” which in fact summarizes the entire action of the poem, the story is presented chronologically. The final sentence questions the reality of the action evoked.
Perhaps the most striking literary technique apparent in the first stanza is personification. The façade of the palaces is called a “forehead.” The water is “dead.” Shadows are “encamped,” and nature is “breathing,” while precious stones “watch” the speaker. By attributing life to the inanimate, the poet tends to make it more active than his speaker.
The next short paragraph reinforces the notion that the speaker is passive. “My first enterprise was, in the path already filled with cool pale glimmers, a flower that told me her name.” Not only is the flower personified, but the “enterprise,” a word that suggests action, is not really that of the speaker at all, for the only initiative belongs to the flower.
The fourth paragraph, or stanza, represents the center of the poem. It is a sort of climax as the speaker catches a glimpse of the “goddess.” Rimbaud uses a neologism in French, wasserfall, for waterfall, and the strange but comprehensible word renders the goddess exotic, yet accessible. Personification is still present, for the waterfall is “blond” and “tosses its hair.”
In the next stanza, the speaker becomes more active “lifting, one by one, her veils.” The erotic encounter is the unveiling of a mystery. The technique of personification still has an important part to play as the speaker seems to communicate with nature by waving his arms, clearly demonstrating an intimate relationship. “I betrayed her coming to the cock” attributes reactions to the cock that are not usually his. The speaker assumes considerable power, able now to “betray” the divinity. Dawn “fled,” “running like a beggar.” The goddess, hitherto evoked in terms of gold, silver, and precious stones, has suddenly lost her prestige. The speaker is now definitely active: “I pursued her.”
The physical limits of the speaker become vague; perhaps he is disembodied as he “surrounds” Dawn. Her body is felt as “immense”—but what kind of body does he have if he can “surround” her? The reversal of active/passive elements, effected through the use of personification, continues as the goddess becomes finite and even degraded while the speaker dissolves into the whole. Then, the poem makes an abrupt shift from a first-person narration, where the speaker assumes responsibility for the action, saying “I,” to a third-person narration: “Dawn and the child plunged to the bottom of the wood.” The plunging fall suggests a loss of consciousness at the paroxysm of emotion.
If the speaker suddenly becomes a child, this transformation of the poem may be linked to the final sentence: “Upon awakening it was noon.” The English translation would read more smoothly, “When I awoke,” yet it is important to note that Rimbaud has left the final sentence without an agent. The speaker has in fact disappeared from the poem as though his only reality were a dream existence. The absence of the speaker in the final sentence, and the transformation of the “I” into a “child” in the second-to-last sentence, may seem to function as a disavowal of the erotic content of the dream-poem.
Sigmund Freud has noted that one of the functions of dreams is to allow the dreamer to continue sleeping. In this case, the final line of the poem, “Upon awakening it was noon,” presents a definite letdown. Dreaming about Dawn has occupied the entire morning: The poet seems to imply that imagination is preferable to waking reality.
First published: “Barbare,” 1886 (collected in Rimbaud Complete, 2002-2003)
Type of work: Poem
Evoking various sense impressions, both pleasant and horrible, the poem proceeds by enumeration and seems to convey a difficulty in renouncing hallucinatory experience.
“Barbarian” is a free-verse poem included in the volume Illuminations. The structure of the poem is a loose one in which repetition seems to abolish temporal reference. The poem functions as a tension between two networks of images, one of them agreeable and feminine and characterized by softness, the other violent and threatening. The jumble of imagery has often been seen as revealing Rimbaud’s experimentation with drugs to induce vision.
In the French title, “Barbare,” with its repetition of two identical syllables, producing an echo effect, several elements of the poem are introduced. The word “barbarian” can function either as an adjective or as a noun. The reader does not yet know who or what is qualified as barbarian. The barbarian suggests first of all that which is not civilized. A certain violence may be implied, along with the notion of otherness.
The free-verse form of the poem, consisting for the most part of noun clauses, presents a high degree of repetition, but no apparent structure. Ending as it does with the beginning of a repetition followed by three dots, the poem seems unfinished. Several temporal indications are present from the start of the poem. The first line begins “Long after,” while the third begins with “Delivered” and continues with “far from.” If verbs are present in the text, they tend to be there in participle form, that is, functioning as nouns and thereby losing their active role, as well as their temporal value. The open nasal sound is very frequent. It is found in many words but especially in the present participle ending: “viande” (“meat”), “saignante” (“bleeding”), “fanfares” (“fanfares”), “encore” (“still”), “pleuvant” (“raining”), “vent” (“wind”), “diamants” (“diamonds”), “éternellement” (“eternally”), “entend” (“hears”), “virement” (“veering”), “flottant” (“floating”), “blanches” (“white”), “bouillantes” (“boiling”), “volcans” (“volcanoes”). In addition, the poem makes great use of the other nasal vowel sounds, creating an overall impression of homogeneity of sound, which reinforces the echoing impression left by the title.
Several elements in the poem seem to refer to other pieces in the volume. If “Matinée d’ivresse” (“Morning of Drunkenness”) is set among the fanfares in “Le Temps des assassins” (“The Time of the Assassins”), “Barbarian” declares itself “delivered from the old fanfares” and “far from the old assassins.” Yet these distancing ideas may simply be wishful thinking. The use of present participles would tend to abolish time in favor of an eternal present. The poem admits that the fanfares “still attach our heart and our head.” The next line, beginning “far from,” ends with “that are known, that are felt.”
The abundance of oxymoron, the union of opposites, in the “Blazing coals, raining in squalls of hoarfrost,” “fires in the rain of the wind of diamonds,” “rain hurls down . . . eternally carbonized,” “Blazing coals and froths,” “collision of ice with the stars’ white tears, boiling,” and finally “volcanoes and arctic grottoes,” suggests that the “old flames” of “Morning of Drunkenness” are not really “far away” at all, but very much present. The memory of these sensations provokes an exclamation: “Douceurs” and “ô douceurs” (“delights,” or “sweetness”) while music is heard, suggesting a state of euphoric ecstasy. Is it the result of drugs, or the effect of having abandoned their use?
The meaning of certain images has posed problems to many critics. “The banner of bleeding meat” against the “silk of seas and of the arctic flowers” is certainly mysterious but may simply convey the heightened sensual experience, the “reasoned deranging of all the senses,” which Rimbaud set as his goal in the “Seer Letter.” In the two places where the image of arctic flowers is given in the poem, it is followed by the remark, “they do not exist.” Rimbaud thus juxtaposes not only discordant images but also different orders of existence, that of vision, hallucination or dream, and that of mundane reality.
The poet has effectively covered his tracks, in this case making a definitive interpretation of the poem impossible. Questioned once as to the meaning of an image, Rimbaud is reported to have said; “I meant it literally and in every sense of the word.” The three dots of the last line of “Barbarian” ensure that the final impression will be one of open-endedness.