Arthur Rimbaud 1854-1891
(Full name Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud) French poet.
The following entry provides an overview of Rimbaud's life and works.
A child prodigy who produced his first poem at the age of ten, Rimbaud is often considered the father of modern poetry. His verse encompasses every style from formal to free, but culminates in what many consider his greatest achievement—the prose poem.
Rimbaud was born Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud in Charleville, France, near the Belgian border, on October 20, 1854. His parents were Frédéric Rimbaud, an army captain, and Marie-Cathérine-Vitalie Cuif Rimbaud, a landed peasant. There were three other children in the family: Frédéric, born in 1853; Vitalie, born in 1858; and Isabelle, born in 1860. When Rimbaud was six years old, his parents separated, and the boy was raised by his stern, overprotective, and devoutly Christian mother. He attended the College de Charleville, where he was an outstanding student in every subject, but he was permitted no contact with other boys outside school hours by his mother who insisted on accompanying him to and from school each day. Georges Izambard, a professor at the school, befriended Rimbaud and encouraged him to read the poetry of the Romantics and the Parnassians, and to write his own poetry. Izambard left the school in 1870 at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, and over the next two years Rimbaud ran away from home on three different occasions, at least once in an attempt to find his mentor. Some critics, citing the abrupt change in the tone of his poetry during this period, speculate that Rimbaud may have experienced a traumatic event—possibly sexual abuse by soldiers—during the months he spent in Paris and Belgium. The sentimental verse of his earlier years gave way to poetry that expressed his growing cynicism and disgust with life.
In 1871 Rimbaud wrote two letters to Izambard and a third to his friend Paul Démeny, outlining his aesthetic philosophy. Known as the Lettres du Voyant (Letters of the Visionary), they have been frequently quoted by literary historians and critics seeking to understand Rimbaud's poetry. Also in 1871, he wrote to the poet Paul Verlaine, enclosing some samples of his verse. At Verlaine's urging, Rimbaud went to Paris and took up residence with Verlaine and his wife. Rimbaud's antisocial behavior and the developing sexual relationship between the two poets all but destroyed Verlaine's marriage. Rimbaud, often drunk on absinthe and increasingly rude to the members of the Parisian literary community, soon wore out his welcome and fled the city. Verlaine's attempted reconciliation with his wife failed and the elder poet then begged his young friend to return. From 1872 to 1873 the pair traveled together throughout England and Belgium. Rimbaud, who was studying Eastern religion and alchemy, existing on very little sleep, and taking hallucinogenic drugs, experienced a period of intense creative activity during this time. However, his relationship with Verlaine became more and more volatile and when he tried to end the affair, Verlaine shot him in the wrist. Rimbaud retreated to his mother's home in Roche, near Charleville, and finished Une Saison en enfer (1873; A Season in Hell), while Verlaine spent the next two years at hard labor in a Belgian prison. When he recovered, Rimbaud returned to Paris and gave the manuscript of Les Illuminations (Illuminations) to Verlaine, after which he stopped writing completely. He was twenty-one years old.
Deciding to become an adventurer, Rimbaud traveled throughout Europe and Africa, finally settling in Abyssinia, Ethiopia, where he worked for many years as a gunrunner and possibly as a slave trader. Although entirely devoted to a life of commerce during this time, Rimbaud was nonetheless becoming famous in France for his poetry. Verlaine, thinking Rimbaud was dead, had published Illuminations in 1886. In 1891 Rimbaud developed cancer in his leg and returned to France for medical treatment in Marseille. His leg was amputated and once again, he returned to his mother's home in Roche to recuperate. His condition grew worse, however, and he returned to the hospital in Marseille, where he died on November 10, 1891, at the age of thirty-seven. His younger sister Isabelle insisted that on his deathbed Rimbaud accepted the Catholic faith, although his biographers are skeptical of that claim. He was buried in Charleville.
Major Poetic Works
Rimbaud's earliest known work is “Le Soleil était encore chaud” (“The Sun Was Still Warm”), apparently written when he was ten years old, but the majority of his early poetry was composed between 1869 and 1872, much of it published by Verlaine in the collection Poésies complètes (Complete Poems) in 1895. Although these were generally considered his most traditional works, the individual poems deal with many of the same themes and concerns—particularly his rejection of bourgeois conventions and Christian principles—that characterize his later, more venomous, writing. The volume includes such works as “Ma Bohème,” a celebration of the unconventional lifestyle; “A la musique” (“To Music”), a satiric skewering of the bourgeoisie; and “Oraison du soir” (“Evening Orison”), a blasphemous anti-Christian poem. His most famous early poem is “Le Bateau ivre,” (“The Drunken Boat”) composed when he was just sixteen years old, which combines traditional form with the imagery associated with Impressionism and Symbolism. Also at the age of sixteen Rimbaud articulated his theories on poetic discourse and the role of the poet in his Letters of the Visionary. Another renowned piece from this period is “Les Poètes de sept ans” (“Seven-year-old Poets”) which, like many of his early poems, apparently reflects his rejection of provincial life, or more specifically, his rebellion against the values and expectations of his mother, who was both his curse and his muse, as one critic put it.
In his later work Rimbaud abandoned the verse of his earlier years and began composing poems in prose, which characterize his two major collections: A Season in Hell and Illuminations. There is some controversy about which book was written first. Some literary historians believe that Rimbaud started writing the poems in Illuminations first, then composed A Season in Hell and then finally completed Illuminations. However, given the dramatic events coinciding with the writing of these poems, the order of composition cannot be determined with any certainty. Both works are known for their idiosyncratic style and their difficult and often inaccessible language.
Rimbaud's poetry, a sensation during his lifetime, became even more popular with both readers and critics after his death. What has changed over the years is not the evaluation of his work as a whole, but rather the relative assessments of individual poems. For example, “The Drunken Boat” was long his most famous poem, and as such, tended to be overvalued by critics. More recently, however, scholars have come to believe the work is not quite as original as was once thought, and the trend now seems to be to undervalue the poem, according to Robert Greer Cohn. Many of Rimbaud's poems, particularly those in Illuminations, are considered resistant to interpretation and understanding, giving rise to a wide variety of interpretive strategies. Critics have long focused on the events of the poet's unconventional life, looking for clues and connections to his verse. Among the biographical incidents linked to his poetry are his “resistance to work,” examined by Kristin Ross. She traces this sentiment in a number of poems, most particularly “Mauvais Sang” (“Bad Blood”) in which Rimbaud “develops the strategy of nonwork,” and in his letters, which reveal “Rimbaud's own lived experience of resistance to work.” Reinhard H. Thum suggests that Rimbaud's guilt over twice leaving Verlaine in response to his mother's demands may have found its way into the poems of A Season in Hell. Thum notes the irony of Rimbaud's behavior—that the rebellious youth should obey “the hitherto despicable moral dictates of his stifling petty bourgeois origins”—and wonders which parts of A Season in Hell were written after these events and which before. More recently critics have rejected the biographical method and adopted in its place a textual approach, focusing on the formal features of the poetry. One such critic is Michael Riffaterre, who maintains that interpreting symbolist poetry is difficult under any circumstances, but more so in the case of Rimbaud's work, where “deciphering symbols has been more problematic because the image of the poet has hidden the poetry and warped its interpretation.” The result, according to Riffaterre, is that critics are tempted “to explain away textual difficulties as autobiographical allusions, when they actually stem from the semiotic make-up of verbal symbols.”
Most scholars, regardless of their critical perspective, agree that Rimbaud's poetry represented something new and innovative in its time. According to Victor-Guy Aboulaffia, the poet's “first act of aesthetic revolt” was his opposition to the “art for art's sake” doctrine of the Parnassian school. Aboulaffia reports that “from early on the young Rimbaud had become aware that this trend-setting, nihilistic aesthetics was intended for an elite readership only,” and his reaction to it was therefore oppositional. Aimée Israel-Pelletier contends that Rimbaud's poetry is innovative because it is so completely grounded in everyday life. She believes that “his work is most radical not for its turning away from reference or coherence, but rather for the way it coerces a traditionally subjective genre—lyric poetry—into interfacing with the real.” Carol de Dobay Rifelj has studied the poet's use of language and claims that he introduced unconventional vocabulary, colloquial expressions, provincial terms, and banal elements associated with lower-class life into his verse and then combined them with the more formal language and subject matter considered appropriate for poetic discourse. “These clashes in tone provoke laughter,” argues de Dobay Rifelj, “but at the same time, they represent an implicit refusal to accept conventional poetic language.” Designating Rimbaud as “the begetter of modern poetry,” John Simon claims that “between the ages of sixteen and somewhere between twenty and twenty-five, Rimbaud conducted all the experiments, made all the discoveries, raised all the questions modern poetry needed to accost.” The result has been Rimbaud's continuing influence not only on poets, but on prose writers as well. Daphne Merkin confirms Rimbaud's ability to inspire the artists of the twentieth century, contending that such important and varied figures as Samuel Beckett, Pablo Picasso, Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Jim Morrison, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan have all drawn on his work.