Arthur Rimbaud Rimbaud, Arthur - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Lettres du Voyant [Letters of the Visionary] 1871

Une Saison en enfer [A Season in Hell] 1873

Les illuminations [Prose Poems from Les Illuminations] 1886

Reliquaire, Poésies 1891

Poésies complètes [edited by M. Vanier; Complete Poems] 1895

Oeuvres de Jean-Arthur Rimbaud [edited by Paterne Berrichon and Ernest Delahaye] (poetry and prose) 1898

Oeuvres complètes [edited by Antoine Adam] 1972

Oeuvres [edited by Suzanne Bernard and André Guyaux] (poems and prose) 1981

Lettres de la vie...

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Robert Greer Cohn (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohn, Robert Greer. “The Early Poems: ‘Le Bateau ivre’.” In The Poetry of Rimbaud, pp. 156-72. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.

[In the following excerpt, Cohn analyzes Rimbaud's most acclaimed poem, “The Drunken Boat.”]

Rimbaud's most famous poem [“Le Bateau ivre”] had so long been overpraised (particularly in relation to some of his other works, like “Mémoire” or “Génie”) that more recently there has been a tendency to underestimate it. I still regard it as a fantastic achievement by a boy of sixteen, or of any other age. It is less original than used to be thought—this is always the fate of originality, given...

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J. A. Ferguson (essay date January 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ferguson, J. A. “‘Noirs Inconnus’: The Identity and Function of the Negro in Rimbaud's Poetry and Correspondence.” French Studies 39, no. 1 (January 1985): 43-58.

[In the following essay, Ferguson studies references to Africans in Rimbaud's work, finding that the poet's attitudes toward Black people, slavery, and colonialism were ambivalent.]

The publication in 1938 of Enid Starkie's Rimbaud en Abyssinie, an extended and revised translation of the earlier Arthur Rimbaud in Abyssinia, marked a new departure in the field of biographical mythmaking surrounding the life and career of the poet. Drawing upon previously unavailable correspondence...

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Kristin Ross (essay date summer 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ross, Kristin. “Rimbaud and the Resistance to Work.” Representations, no. 19 (summer 1987): 62-86.

[In the following essay, Ross examines Rimbaud's resistance to the bourgeois work ethic in his life and in his writings.]

The origin of the Commune dates back in effect to the time of Genesis, to the day when Cain killed his brother. It is envy that lies behind all those demands stuttered by the indolent [des paresseux] whose tools make them ashamed, and who in hatred of work prefer the chances of combat to the security of daily work.

—Maxime du Camp1


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Carol de Dobay Rifelj (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: de Dobay Rifelj, Carol. “Rimbaud: Poetics and Politics.” In Word and Figure: The Language of Nineteenth-Century French Poetry, pp. 132-64. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, de Dobay Rifelj discusses Rimbaud's innovations in reproducing the speech of the lower classes and in combining formal poetic language with vulgar and vernacular terms.]

“Rimbaud bourre ses vers de mots triviaux, écrit dans une langue très voisine de la langue parlée,” writes François Ruchon. These “mots roturiers … sont la traduction de l'état de révolte, d'ironie, de haine où il vit, dans la contrainte de Charleville et dans l'âpre...

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Michael Riffaterre (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Riffaterre, Michael. “Sylleptic Symbols: Rimbaud's ‘Memoire’.” In Nineteenth-Century French Poetry: Introductions to Close Reading, edited by Christopher Prendergast, pp. 178-98. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Riffaterre contends that deciphering symbols in Rimbaud's poetry has been hampered by undue attention to incidents in the poet's life, The critic instead bases his interpretation of “Memoire” on the poem's formal features.]


L'eau claire; comme le sel des larmes d'enfance,
L'assaut au soleil des blancheurs des corps de femmes;
la soie, en foule et de lys pur, des oriflammes

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John Simon (essay date September 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Simon, John. “Rimbaud, the Anarchic Demiurge.” The New Criterion 10, no. 1 (September 1991): 61-74.

[In the following essay, Simon discusses Rimbaud's contributions to modern poetry and examines his influence on other writers.]

Arthur Rimbaud was the begetter of modern poetry. For it to come to pass, a Rimbaud was required. It did not have to be A. Rimbaud; it could have been a Rimbaud of some other name, in some other place. But in the event, it was this Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud, born in Charleville in the Ardennes on October 20, 1854, and dead on November 10, 1891—in pain and wretchedness, with one leg and all his hopes amputated—that is the...

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Aimée Israel-Pelletier (essay date spring 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Israel-Pelletier, Aimée. “Radical Realism: Rimbaud's Affinities with Impressionism.” Mosaic 25, no. 2 (spring 1992): 49-68.

[In the following essay, Israel-Pelletier explores the nature of representation in Rimbaud's verse and its connections with Impressionist art.]

There exist in Rimbaud criticism two very different approaches to his work, each of which centers upon the question of referentiality and coherence. Antoine Adam and Antoine Fongaro, for example, believe that, however difficult Rimbaud's poetry is, it has “meaning” which can be decoded; his work, they insist, can only gain from such an approach. The opposite view was initiated by...

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Michael Bishop (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bishop, Michael. “Rimbaud.” In Nineteenth-Century French Poetry, pp. 255-81. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

[In the following essay, Bishop provides an overview of Rimbaud's poetry and aesthetic theories.]

Thirty-seven years after his birth in Charleville, on 20 October 1854, the man behind the myth we have come to know as Rimbaud died of gangrene poisoning and complications, in the presence of his sister, Isabelle, in the Hôpital de la Conception, Marseille. A precocious young pupil who skipped the cinquième année and an extraordinary Latinist, he was writing some of his most lasting work at the ages of fifteen and sixteen. Reading Rabelais...

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Victor-Guy Aboulaffia (essay date fall-winter 1993-1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Aboulaffia, Victor-Guy. “Rimbaud and the Ideology of Art for Art's Sake.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 22, nos. 1 & 2 (fall-winter 1993-1994): 172-94.

[In the following essay, Aboulaffia contends that Rimbaud rejected the notion of “pure poetry” as an art form aimed at elite readers.]

Arthur Rimbaud's first act of aesthetic revolt can be sensed in the way he opposed the dominant writing protocols of the Parnasse poetry school.1 This aestheticist movement endorsed a set of constraining idealistic assumptions regarding literary activity, which gave an exaggerated importance to technical skills over content, and demanded an...

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James Lawler (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Lawler, James. “Of Ecstasy and Action: Rimbaud's ‘Matinée d'ivresse’.” In Understanding French Poetry: Essays for a New Millennium, edited by Stamos Metzidakis, pp. 35-49. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

[In the following essay, Lawler discusses the critical controversy surrounding Rimbaud's composition of “Morning of Intoxication,” possibly while under the influence of hashish.]

A brief account links Rimbaud to drug-taking. It refers to an episode of November 1871 when Verlaine and Delahaye found Rimbaud asleep on a bench in the Hôtel des Etrangers. He told them, on waking, that he had taken hashish. “Eh alors? …, demanda...

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Roger Little (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Little, Roger. “Rimbaud: The Shaping of a Vision.” In Artistic Relations: Literature and the Visual Arts in Nineteenth-Century France, edited by Peter Collier and Robert Lethbridge, pp. 253-63. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Little examines formal patterns and the use of visual metaphors in Rimbaud's prose poetry.]

Once it was clearly established, in the course of the nineteenth century, that the attribute of poetry was distinct from the technique of verse, it was possible for poets to allow the shaping of their texts to respond to visual stimuli, whether from the real world or from existing art works. Without going...

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Reinhard H. Thum (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Thum, Reinhard H. “Arthur Rimbaud: The Abdication of Utopia in Une Saison En Enfer.” In The City: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verhaeren, pp. 204-16. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Thum discusses references to the city in Une Saison en enfer.]

In Une Saison en enfer, probably Rimbaud's last work but for a few scattered poems of Les Illuminations, the poet analyzes and rejects unconditionally a state of mind and a way of thinking which began to assert themselves more and more in the early months of 1871, attitudes which form the basis for many of the poems written during and after this period. Because of their...

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Randa J. Duvick (essay date spring-summer 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Duvick, Randa J. “‘Rouler aux blessures’: Feminine Figures in Rimbaud's Illuminations.Nineteenth-Century French Studies 24, nos. 3 & 4 (spring-summer 1996): 406-16.

[In the following essay, Duvick examines Rimbaud's representations of woman as a link to nature and as the vehicle for poetic creation.]

Those critics who have considered the role or roles played by feminine figures in Rimbaud's Illuminations1—“notre mère de beauté” of “Being Beauteous,” “Elle” of “Métropolitain,” “Léonie Aubois d'Ashby” of “Dévotion,” “la Sorcière” of “Après le déluge,” for example—have often...

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Gerald Martin Macklin (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Macklin, Gerald Martin. “Representations of the Grotesque in the Early Verse of Arthur Rimbaud.” Orbis Litterarum 52, no. 4 (1997): 221-39.

[In the following essay, Macklin positions Rimbaud's preoccupation with the grotesque within the context of the nineteenth-century's similar fascination, also apparent in the work of Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, and Edgar Allan Poe, among others.]

Noirs de loupes, grêlés, les yeux cerclés de bagues
Vertes, leurs doigts boulus crispés à leurs fémurs
Le sinciput plaqué de hargnosités vagues
Comme les floraisons lépreuses des vieux murs;

(“Les Assis”1)


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Daphne Merkin (essay date winter 2003)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Merkin, Daphne. “Rimbaud Rules.” The American Scholar 72, no. 1 (winter 2003): 45-52.

[In the following essay, Merkin discusses Rimbaud's enduring influence on such modern artists as Jack Kerouac, Jim Morrison, and Bob Dylan.]

Sometimes it seems as if anyone who has ever aspired to hipness has laid claim to the nineteenth-century poète maudit and Ur-Bad Boy Arthur Rimbaud. He was born to be wild, a room-trashing rock star with a passion for drugs, drink, and degradation well before the prototype existed—or so we have come to think. Rimbaud's mythic reputation is that of a debauched and restless prodigy whose genius flared briefly before he turned...

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Daryl Lee (essay date fall-winter 2003-2004)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Lee, Daryl. “Rimbaud's Ruin of French Verse: Verse Spatiality and the Paris Commune Ruins.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 32, nos. 1 & 2 (fall-winter 2003-2004): 69-82.

[In the following essay, Lee argues, through a reading of “Qu'est-ce pour nous, mon coeur” (“What, For Us, My Heart”), that Rimbaud revolted against the bourgeoisie and the French Empire by attacking them openly in his poetry, using a variety of dialects, and subverting traditional literary forms.]

… comme l'architecture d'une ville inhabitée ou soufflée, réduite à son squelette par quelque catastrophe de la nature ou de l'art. Ville non plus habitée...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Aboulaffia, Victor. “The Quarrel of the ‘Vowels’.” Modern Language Notes 107, no. 4 (September 1992): 774-94.

Reassessment of Rimbaud's place in the development of modern French poetry.

Argote, Joel Thompson. “Colliding Fragments: The Illuminations as Collage.” Romance Notes 37, no. 2 (winter 1997): 199-206.

Suggests that Rimbaud's poems more closely resemble the art of collage than impressionist painting, to which it has often been likened.

Coates, Carrol F. “Phonemic Structuration and the Reading of the Poem: Rimbaud's ‘Le Châtiment de Tartufe’.” In...

(The entire section is 494 words.)