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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...

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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

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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 littéraire d'Arthur Rimbaud (letters and prose) 1931

Correspondence, 1888-1891 (letters) 1965

Robert Greer Cohn (essay date 1973)

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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 time and historical critics—but powerfully inventive for all that, and absolutely characteristic of Rimbaud, linking up with the rest of his writings in countless ways.

The form is traditional Late Romantic, Parnassian, but the imagery and general tone are Impressionist-Symbolist. There is no use quibbling about its being a true Symbolist poem or not. Certainly it belongs to its cultural era, which is being increasingly defined as the Symbolist one (for example by René Wellek, after Edmund Wilson), by virtue of its impressionist-pointillist delicacy and refinement; and by its fluidity (as opposed to neoclassic discursive rigidity), including connotations, suggestive qualities of imagery, touches of synesthesia, the vibrant relation between sign and designatum, and the like.

Since the true meaning of Symbolism depends mainly on the foregoing qualities, it is idle to hunt for individual “symbols.” Symbolism implies, to me, that the key images are in a fluid continuum, a chain (or net) of Being. Each symbol is a monad or microcosm, standing for the subjective-objective whole. It relates theoretically to all, and in practice to many of the verbal phenomena, through overtones, associations, echoes, rhymes.

There are myriad symbols in the poem. Some are more obvious than others, like the boat of the title itself, which crystallizes varied aspects of reality floating about in the world or the work. It stands (or, rather, lies) for the boy-poet himself, on the threshold of a special manhood—prefiguring the departing vessel of “Adieu”—timorously launching into the sea of independence, adult human life or, more deeply, the unknown force of the whole cosmos (including prominently the feminine waters of birth and mother-nature or life qua experience). As such, it vibrates with reminiscences of all sorts of literary boats, from the Odyssey through Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym to Baudelaire's “Le Voyage” and “le vaisseau fantôme” of Wagner (and, later, the “Coup de Dés”).

But this vessel is far more “Symbolist” than any of its predecessors in the sense that the relation between the concrete form (the boat as symbol) and the substantive reality is constantly alive, fluid, vibrant. Many aspects of the boat reflect aspects of the boy sensually: his body feels like a boat, lying down in a dark room awash with memories and potentialities; its rocking and élans—later, its rotting timbers—are perceived as direct parts of the self. And the sea is apprehended with equal intimacy as expression of a life's vicissitudes.

The poem tells of the moment when, after a long “winter” of childhood numbness (“l'autre hiver,” strophe 3) and of powerlessness under the resented regime of a harshly dutiful mother, the gathering life-forces, the “sèves inouïes” (strophe 16) of the adolescent rise to spiritual revolt. The spirituality is emphasized by the fact that there is no outer action: it all occurs in a dream, or in a state of intoxication, n'importe; in any case, it is an inner crisis and evolution.

The disaffection and dissidence here are extraordinarily pronounced, primarily because the child was so full of life, so exceptional (to start with, undoubtedly, but also aggravatedly, because of his circumstances), and secondly because both the later-19th-century provincial France generally and the mother were so repressive. Strong as she obviously was, she had failed as a female parent, had not succeeded in keeping the family together, had lost her husband by divorce or separation, so, partly for this reason too, the revolt came sooner than most.

Such revolts are seldom complete—what in life is?—and we need not exaggerate: at the end of the poem it is clear that Rimbaud is not yet ready to let go of the ropes of the “haulers” (strophe 1)—umbilical cords or their later extension, apron strings—and that he still fears the adult world with its prisons (“pontons,” last strophe). And, as it has been observed, his later wanderings, like his earlier ones, always returned to his only Penelope, his mother. So let us not talk too soon about “smashing reality like a money box,” as the schematic and often heavy-handed Sartre does. Although Rimbaud makes genuine advances in syntactical fluidity and openness both here in “Le Bateau ivre” and more remarkably in the works that follow, his reality is nonetheless recognizably inscribed in a specific time, place and tradition which also must be taken into account. Rimbaud is also us, an almost predictable, immensely appealing (French) boy—not unlike Meaulnes—who makes sense if we read him and his times right. This is not finally to “tame” him—on the contrary. As Norge says, there is nothing more intimate than a symmetric French garden. Or, as Richard Wilbur puts it, when decorum prevails, “there are most tigers in the woods.”

1st strophe:
          Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
          Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs:
          Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles,
          Les ayant cloués nus aux poteaux de couleurs.

The “impassive Rivers” are the numbly suspended, dull course of his life to this point, seen as a river itinerary in a dream, heading for the open ocean of freedom, widening. It is like the underground rushing waters that sound the approach to a mystic experience in Le Grand Meaulnes,1 or a release, a thaw to maturity, emotional openness, like the close of “Hérodiade.” The suspension is humming with new possibilities, we sense, when we are aware that the guidelines, the “tow-ropes,” the spiritual umbilical cords of childhood dependency, have been dropped.

Right away there is the fear of “anguished freedom.” The “haulers,” resented but mild symbols of everyday familial or societal authority (mothers, teachers, priests, etc.) are done in by savage creatures, “shrieking Redskins.” They avenge Rimbaud momentarily, and he identifies with them, sadistically—with sexual undertones to this sadism in the “nus” (as the fake zealot was said to be naked under his hypocritical clothes in “Le Châtiment de Tartufe”). But these figures are also frightening, with something of the bogeyman mothers use to keep their young in line (more deeply rooted than the societal ones). Antoine Adam found a likely source a line in Verlaine's La Bonne Chanson, XVII: “Il [le monde] peut … nous prendre pour cibles.” The Indians may come from Chateaubriand's Les Natchez.

2nd strophe:
          J'étais insoucieux de tous les équipages,
          Porteur de blés flamands ou de cotons anglais.
          Quand avec mes haleurs ont fini ces tapages,
          Les Fleuves m'ont laissé descendre où je voulais.

The child-man, advancing tentatively, fearfully but advancing all the same like Petit-Poucet (“Ma Bohème”), comes into intimate view. There is youthful braggadoccio—as well as some genuine new confidence, a daring élan—in the “heedless of all crews.” For, at the end, those adult “crews” will cow him anew. They are associated with boats of commerce, a busy adult northern (Flemish, English) world which is coldly efficient like his mother and the bourgeois generally—there is probably some connection here with the “hiver” of the next strophe.

The final fearful stirrings, trepidations, qualms die away. He “lets go.”2 It is like being taken over by a roller coaster, or childbirth, birth of the new self: exhilarating. One accepts being a part of the subjective-objective order, the cosmos, as Nietzsche did in his privileged moments.

3rd strophe:
          Dans les clapotements furieux des marées,
          Moi, l'autre hiver, plus sourd que les cerveaux d'enfants,
          Je courus! Et les Péninsules démarrées
          N'ont pas subi tohu-bohus plus triomphants.

Like a contemporary surfer, he rides the excitingly challenging waves of freedom, independence. The “other winter” is a mixture of the long numb winter of discontent in childhood thralldom, now thawing, a northern, coldly efficient atmosphere of duty in a society against which he is now rebelling (cf. the northern commercial boats above), plus a more general feeling of cold openness—sweeping as blank snow—which is part of the daring, new free scene. Winter is a time of fresh resolve: New Year's resolutions, birth from year-end. Having ventured forth into the freezing outdoors and “made it,” the child draws confidence, like the Mallarmé of “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui.” The “autre” gives a timeless, eternal quality which corresponds to the spatial openness. Both are typical of crucial dreams (cf. “la neige éternelle,” “Villes,” II; and “hiver éternel,” Baudelaire, “Le Poème du haschisch”). Thus in “Les Déserts de l'amour” he is moved “to death” in his sleep by the murmur of “the night of the last century.” This is linked to “hiver” and “sourd” in

Je sortis dans la ville sans fin. O fatigue! [numbness]. Noyé dans la nuit sourde et dans la fuite du bonheur. C'était comme une nuit d'hiver, avec une neige pour étouffer le monde décidément [the smothering of independent life].

In “Génie,” the “nuit d'hiver” is a dream of strength and summer amid winter rigors: “au haut des déserts de neige.” The “deafer than children's brains” is related ambiguously to this wintery pall and the stubborn isolation in new night- or day-dreaming individuality (cf. the “unheeding” above), like a sulking, in-turned child, which he had been in “Les Poètes de sept ans” (rehearsing in the last lines this flight by imaginary boat). This rapt inwardness is closely akin to the later image of the drowning men (seeing their whole lives roll by), or an embryo in its amniotic fluid (or a foetus in a bottle).3 That “sourd” has a dull reverberating quality like a dream echo-chamber.4

“I ran!” he brags, beginning a series of self-assertive Je's. The image of a detached peninsula (no doubt from some legendary or exotic source, such as the floating islands of Mexico) is apt for this new freedom: the child-peninsula, or part, breaking away from the mainland-mother, a whole, and becoming a new full entity, as in mitosis. The peninsula is a good shape and sound for male pride. The swelling-at-the-top P in “Péninsule” and “triomphants” (plus all the o's) adds to the pride, or mushroom-cloud, hubris feeling. This goes with the numerous b's in “subi … bohu … béni … bouchons,” which are rounded, buoyant, bubbly, etc.5 This rocky and rackety trial is being triumphantly surmounted.

4th strophe:
          La tempête a béni mes éveils maritimes.
          Plus léger qu'un bouchon j'ai dansé sur les flots
          Qu'on appelle rouleurs éternels de victimes,
          Dix nuits, sans regretter l'œil niais des falots!

The “maritime awakenings” are the new fuller awareness of self, as when we say a woman is “awakened” to love. Note the bright é and i for this effect in “béni … éveil … maritimes … léger.” Lightness, buoyancy, is the essence of freedom, the defeat of enslaving gravity. Rimbaud mocks the vaguely Hugolian (“Oceano nox”) fears of the ocean as “eternal roller of victims.” He regrets not the silly shore beacons. The essence of mother as secure “mainland” for the perhaps sick or frightened child is the light down the hall at night, “La lampe de la famille rougissait l'une après l'autre les chambres voisines.” (“Les Déserts de l'amour,” Bernard, p. 189). Compare the “braise” in the dark forest of the “Sorcière” in “Après le déluge.” In “Veillées” III, “Les lampes et les tapis de la veillée font le bruit des vagues, la nuit” which links the maternal lamp with the nocturnal sea voyage here. Rejection of this security as “silly” is absolutely appropriate to the mood of new confidence (and yet?).

5th strophe:
          Plus douce qu'aux enfants la chair des pommes sures,
          L'eau verte pénétra ma coque de sapin
          Et des taches de vins bleus et des vomissures
          Me lava, dispersant gouvernail et grappin.

The “sour apples” have the tartness of challenging, fresh life. The green water (associated with green apples as well as, no doubt, absinthe) envelops and invades him; as a boat he is a passive-female inner shape as well as an active-male outer one, and these two modes alternate frequently. Part of the passivity here is the admitted child-status (“enfants”) and the being “bathed”; his “letting go” is to abandon himself to a greater force—the ocean (like the “Génie” of “Les Sœurs de charité” and of “Génie” and “Conte”)—to be taken over, possessed, by something like a father-God (cf. “O saisons, ô châteaux”: “dispersa tous efforts,” and the “ange aux mains d'un barbier” of “Oraison du soir”; “Général … bombarde-nous” of the Saison en Enfer, the “je succomberai” of “Bannières de mai”).6

The ocean here is at times neutral, and at times either “male” or “female” (even as the boat varies its mode between active and passive); in the next strophe the “take charge” aspect of the ocean becomes pronouncedly feminine.

The “vins bleus” and the “vomissures” echo the ivre of the title, another obvious form of “letting go” but clearly rejected for something more total here. This dream-sea maternally washes away the spots of wine: the vomit of a night of debauchery as in “Bonne pensée du matin”: “l'aube évapore / L'odeur du soir fêté …”; vins bleus is wine which makes spots—taches—that are hard to remove: “la mer, que j'aimais comme si elle eût dû me laver d'une souillure” (“Alchimie du verbe”).

6th strophe:
          Et dès lors, je me suis baigné dans le Poème
          De la Mer, infusé d'astres, et lactescent,
          Dévorant les azurs verts; où, flottaison blême
          Et ravie, un noyé pensif parfois descend;

Here the child abandons himself to envelopment by the ocean of beauty (“Poème”), of life, as in “Génie”: “Il nous a connus tous et nous a tous aimés”; but here there is a decided overtone of mère, in “mer,” reinforced by the milk in “lactescent” and the “lava” in the last line of the preceding strophe.

The fantasy feeling of childhood communion with mother-essence is very much like Wynken, Blynken, and Nod on their sky-sailing dream-boat. Rimbaud was completely honest about this shamelessly plunging mood: in “Les Déserts de l'amour” he speaks of his being “ému jusqu'à la mort par le murmure du lait du matin et de la nuit du siècle dernier.” He combines milk with the milky sky of dawn (precisely as Mallarmé does in “Don du poème”) emerging from the depth of night-death, and all this is related to a clear dream-mother-figure; compare the Cybèle of “Soleil et chair” and “l'astre lacté” of “L'Homme juste.” The “Mer … Dévorant les azurs verts” refers to the sea's absorption by reflection, fusion, with the sky; recall the trees mingling with the azur and its (milky) white star in “Roman.”

The “flottaison blême / Et ravie, un noyé pensif” is discussed under strophe 3. The image recurs in strophe 17. The “ravie” is the rapt fascination of the “diving” child at the sea-change into rich and strange phenomena.7

7th strophe:
          Où, teignant tout à coup les bleuités, délires
          Et rhythmes lents sous les rutilements du jour,
          Plus fortes que l'alcool, plus vastes que nos lyres,
          Fermentent les rousseurs amères de l'amour!

This strophe is full of mysterious undersea music and light flashes—bright gong-like effects of i and u in “délires … rhythmes … rutilements … lyres” versus dark effects of ou in “tout à coup … rousseurs … amour”—like a “happening,” with synesthesia8 matching the sea-sky fusion in the generalized promiscuity of a wonderful integrated magic world. The “bitter ruddinesses” spread happily, marrying the ocean “bluenesses.”9

No doubt amère is called up by the harmony of mer-mère-amère, etc., which we discussed previously, and there may be a connection with his own mother, as in the similar instance of the “mer a perlé rousse” of “L'Étoile a pleuré rose.” It may be too that the “bleu regard … qui ment” of his mother's eyes in “Les Poètes de sept ans” is vaguely recalled here, in the contamination of amère.

8th strophe:
          Je sais les cieux crevant en éclairs, et les trombes
          Et les ressacs et les courants: je sais le soir,
          L'Aube exaltée ainsi qu'un peuple de colombes,
          Et j'ai vu quelquefois ce que l'homme a cru voir!

Events—vertical, dramatic—happen: lightning going down, waterspouts shooting up. The repeated “Je sais” is pathetically boastful, like one child to another as in the later desire to show children the goldfish (strophe 15).

The “Aube exaltée ainsi qu'un peuple de colombes” is an exquisite epiphany of dawn spraying up (like Mallarmé's “Palmes!”). Dawn was Rimbaud's favorite experience; we will return to it under “Aube.” The religious overtone is duplicated in the “croix consolatrice” over the ocean of “Délires II.” The fourth line is like Marianne Moore's famous “live toads in imaginary gardens” or Mallarmé's “De vue et non de visions” (the “vue” referring to true vision) in “Prose,” i.e., a leap joining two radically distinct categories of Being:10 fiction (“cru voir”) and reality (“vu”); “Je n'exagère rien. J'ai vu. A la fin tous ces nuages aux formes fantastiques et lumineuses, ces ténèbres chaotiques, ces immensités vertes et roses. … Je reconnais ce que je n'ai jamais vu” (Baudelaire, Salon de 1859).

Rimbaud will use a flock of birds for the swarming life of vision once again in this poem and, later, in “Vies.”

9th strophe:
          J'ai vu le soleil bas, taché d'horreurs mystiques.
          Illuminant de longs figements violets,
          Pareils à des acteurs de drames très antiques
          Les flots roulant au loin leurs frissons de volets!

This apocalyptic sun with its “figements violets” recalls the Last Judgement strideurs of “rayon violet” in “Voyelles.” The “figements” are inspired, no doubt, by Baudelaire's sundown “sang qui se fige” (“Harmonie du soir”). The waves succeeding each other across the horizon are like mysterious actors moving hieratically, processionally, across a stage (perhaps a Greek chorus; cf. “Scènes”). “Frissons de volets” is marvelous for this rippling alternation of striated light-and-shadow on sea-surface.

10th strophe:
          J'ai rêvé la nuit verte aux neiges éblouies,
          Baiser montant aux yeux des mers avec lenteurs,
          La circulation des sèves inouïes,
          Et l'éveil jaune et bleu des phosphores chanteurs!

The winter night in his dream is like the one in “Les Déserts de l'amour” (already discussed under strophe 3); this one is oceanic green. It is probably associated with the mother, as in “Les Déserts”: “Baiser montant aux yeux des mers” may recall the embrace he sought in his mother's blue look in “Les Poètes de sept ans.” The effect recalls the “Baiser d'or du Bois qui se recueille” of “Tête de faune”: love's beauty-light rising in the sea-eye (in “Fleurs” the sea is an eye, as is the river water in “Mémoire”). The blue in the last line is mingled with the “male” yellow as at the close of “Mémoire.” Here in a promising moment the sap of life is rising full in his adolescent veins—“plein de sang!” (“Les Déserts”)—and he seems to mate with a male-female life force (cf. “Génie”), which somehow includes the essence of his mother, one feels. But, of course, one cannot prove anything this complex. Still the theme of marriage, the restored happy family, is one of Rimbaud's clear and recurrent themes, which we discuss in our Introduction. Synesthesia (“phosphores chanteurs”) helps to bring together magically (as does the coupling of the two colors, cf. the frequent red and black pairing) the tragically split world—the crack of the “absurd”—represented in Rimbaud's broken home. In this sense I believe the ubiquitous coupling of red and black represents an attempt to overcome the most primordial split in the cosmos: between light and darkness, life and death. The marriage of yellow (gold) and blue is discussed under “Mémoire.”

11th strophe:
          J'ai suivi, des mois pleins, pareille aux vacheries
          Hystériques, la houle à l'assaut des récifs,
          Sans songer que les pieds lumineux des Maries
          Pussent forcer le mufle aux Océans poussifs!

The hysterical herds, foaming at the mouth (“poussifs”), are a fairly apt metaphor for surf. In Greek myth the surf was imagined as the manes of horses of Poseidon, and the wild horses of Camargue are thought by some to be remembered here.

The feet of the Virgin Mary traditionally calm the sea. “Marie de la mer” is an important figure in Bretagne, hymned by Corbière. Verlaine has “La mer sur qui prie / La Vierge Marie,” imitated by Rimbaud in “Chanson de la plus haute tour,” Mallarmé too has “tes pieds qui calmeraient la mer” (Pléiade, p. 15). But Rimbaud is “unheeding” of her, doesn't even think of her power, but accepts the tumult, life as it is, in a Nietzschean-Camusian sense. The plural of Maries indicates a number of such statues (or places named after the Virgin) along the coast of France.

12th strophe:
          J'ai heurté, savez-vous, d'incroyables Florides
          Mêlant aux fleurs des yeux de panthères à peaux
          D'hommes! Des arcs-en-ciel tendus comme des brides
          Sous l'horizon des mers, à de glauques troupeaux!

Exotic notes from his youthful readings crop up: goodness knows where he got the “panthers with men's skins” but it is a pleasing idea, reversing the usual formula, like “man bites dog.” The jungle picture here is in the manner of “le douanier” Rousseau. Rainbows are apparently like giant loops of bridles—perhaps an echo of the Ocean herd—attached undersea to watery herds; not so felicitous an image, rather forced in fact.

13th strophe:
          J'ai vu fermenter les marais énormes, nasses
          Où pourrit dans les joncs tout un Léviathan!
          Des écroulements d'eaux au milieu des bonaces,
          Et les lointains vers les gouffres cataractant!

The drunkenness moves into a hangover phase, gueule de bois, with some dramatic movements of water, full of potential menace (“gouffres”).

14th strophe:
          Glaciers, soleils d'argent, flots nacreux, cieux de braises!
          Échouages hideux au fond des golfes bruns
          Où les serpents géants dévorés des punaises
          Choient, des arbres tordus, avec de noirs parfums!

More exotic spectacles parade by in the first line, none particularly poetic. The “Échouages hideux,” etc., deepen the hangover effect, a heavy coming-aground after the free buoyancy, back to a viscous darkness rather like the “boue” at the end of “Mémoire.” The snakes, like the rotting Leviathan, represent well the inner disgust (the throat lining, the dirty human plumbing generally). They also, with their “noirs parfums” (see our Introduction to the Derniers Vers, below) represent a fear of homosexuality. The “cieux de braise” will have a rough later equivalent in the “brasiers, pleuvant” of “Barbare.”

15th strophe:
          J'aurais voulu montrer aux enfants ces dorades
          Du flot bleu, ces poissons d'or, ces poissons chantants.
          —Des écumes de fleurs ont bercé mes dérades
          Et d'ineffables vents m'ont ailé par instants.

He bounces back with a new note of wistfulness—it's not all that easy, this freedom. The desire to show other children the goldfish and the other phenomena is typically infantile bragging; here it is brought in by the sophisticated Rimbaud as a note of honest humility and pathos so characteristic of him (as of Salinger: Holden Caulfield would have felt the same way). Besides, only they who spoke with the “sweetness of idiots” (“Les Poètes de sept ans”)—like Faulkner's Benjy—would truly understand.

The second part of the strophe is as gently lyrical as the first. The last line is an exquisitely childish yielding to the breezes, the world. The ff of “ineffables” and the v of “vents” are windy (as Plato said in the Cratylus).11

16th strophe:
          Parfois, martyr lassé des pôles et des zones,
          La mer dont le sanglot faisait mon roulis doux
          Montait vers moi ses fleurs d'ombre aux ventouses jaunes
          Et je restais, ainsi qu'une femme à genoux …

The humility and passivity extend here into lassitude and drifting. He has traveled far in this inner world of vast space and time. The emotional charge (cathexis) of the crisis was clearly great. Now he floats rather like Ophélie on her river, gently, passively, and compares himself to a woman, a humbly kneeling one, foreshadowing the squatting child of the next-to-last strophe.

The verb tense, which has alternated between passé défini and passé composé heretofore, now becomes the imperfect for the next six strophes. The tone has changed from dramatic staccato events to a more fluid continuous effect of backdrop or reminiscence of a whole era: the bold striking-out is over.

The maternal aspect of la mer is strong again now in the flowery sucking-cups, emerging from the dark depths as a feverish child in the night might see them coming in his mother's hands.

17th strophe:
          Presque île, ballottant sur mes bords les querelles
          Et les fientes d'oiseaux clabaudeurs aux yeux blonds.
          Et je voguais, lorsqu'à travers mes liens frêles
          Des noyés descendaient dormir, à reculons!

The passivity is emphasized by the boat as container, carrying clamorous birds—lighter (“blond eyed”) variants of the gueule de bois serpents, with similar fecal muddy quality in their “fientes.” The drowning men are vaguely a threat now, though again they represent mainly, as in strophe 6, a rapt inner meditation.12 The menace and the insecurity are implied too in the frailty of the “liens”: Rimbaud seems almost to miss les haleurs. The curious expression “Presque île” emphasizes that he is not entirely independent (Eng.: “almost an island”). The “regret” of “old parapets” is not far off.

18th strophe:
          Or moi, bateau perdu sous les cheveux des anses,
          Jeté par l'ouragan dans l'éther sans oiseau,
          Moi dont les Monitors et les voiliers des Hanses
          N'auraient pas repêché la carcasse ivre d'eau;

The “cheveux des anses”13 are a further example of the échouages, the running aground (strophe 14), the developing failure. The “éther” lacks the familiar orientation of birds, a part of the well-known European scene he is beginning to regret (strophe 21). Fearful gunboats, Monitors, somewhat nightmarish visions like the prison-boats (pontons) at the dark close of the poem, loom up from his past readings. The Hanseatic “voiliers” recall the commercial boats mentioned in strophe 2—the adult boats he ignored then, and now fears, or needs the help of, to fish his water-logged body out of the sea. He anxiously surmises they would not even bother: after all, he didn't give a hang for them.

19th strophe:
          Libre, fumant, monté de brumes violettes,
          Moi qui trouais le ciel rougeoyant comme un mur
          Qui porte, confiture exquise aux bons poètes,
          Des lichens de soleil et des morves d'azur;

Although the strophe begins with an assertion of freedom, the tone (furthered by the passive, fluid imperfect) is increasingly resigned. The imagery is more and more lyric, static, less dynamic or dramatic: more intimately Rimbaldian, in sum. Hence it returns to the numb scenes of childhood, “not going anywhere.” We see the wall from his backyard, as in “Les Poètes de sept ans,” closely observed by the little boy who was desperately in need of something to latch onto: insects, moss, anything gentle and apart from the forbidding world of people, adults and most of his peers too (who called him “sale cagot,” etc.).

So the strophe, which begins with the forced confidence of “libre” and the “Moi qui” plus the image of voyaging to the exotic and new, soon turns insensibly (partly through the limp imperfect) to the humbly familiar. The wall, which began as a metaphor of the sky, takes over, in a remarkable modulation, the main interest. And although the ensuing images are extensions of the metaphor, we are aware that the “bons poètes” are linked with the imagery of a defeated childhood: the “reddening” of the sunset, “lichens of the sun,” “exquisite jam”—the very essence of a child's solace—even the “morves,” which are also comforting to deprived children, like other excrement or exudations, such as the “eye discoloring on the cheek” of the pauper children down the street in “Les Poètes de sept ans.”

The “violet mists” too are associated with perfectly resigned beauty: the apocalypse of the sun described in one of the quieter moments earlier (strophe 9) was colored with “figements violets.” In “Comédie de la soif” the violets represent the ultimate resignation, a beauty-in-death for which the poet finally thirsts (sitio) like the melting clouds (“fondre où fond ce nuage”) which are akin to the violet mists (and curdlings) here. In “Voyelles,” too, the “rayon violet” is an ultimate refinement of light in divine Eyes.

20th strophe:
          Qui courais, taché de lunules électriques,
          Planche folle, escorté des hippocampes noirs,
          Quand les juillets faisaient crouler à coups de triques
          Les cieux ultramarins aux ardents entonnoirs;

Now he is a sadly diminished “boat,” a mere “planche” and a “planche folle” at that. The “entonnoirs” are another example of growing threat. July makes the ultramarine sky crumble with cudgel-blows—excessive heat bringing on a storm, the hoped-for final release (as in many other poems: “Larme,” “Michel et Christine,” “Après le déluge”): “O que ma quille éclate!” (23rd strophe).

The imagery here is increasingly automatic, forced (“lunules électriques,” etc.), marred by the brittle modernist virtuosity of “Ce qu'on dit au poète.” It goes on for a while thus unconvincingly, but halfway through the next strophe he collapses; and the voyage is over.

21st strophe:
          Moi qui tremblais, sentant geindre à cinquante lieues
          Le rut des Béhémots et les Maelstroms épais,
          Fileur éternel des immobilités bleues,
          Je regrette l'Europe aux anciens parapets!

The imagery is repetitively and compulsively dramatic, exotic, visionary—large distances, Behemoths, Maelstroms, eternal skies—with a certain new note of aridity and defeat. All this infinity and wide-open liberty which can be anguish comes to a merciful halt, abruptly: he breaks down and confesses his regret for reality and the familiar life of Europe, with its limiting but old-friendly reassuring walls.

22nd strophe:
          J'ai vu des archipels sidéraux! et des îles
          Dont les cieux délirants sont ouverts au voyageur:
          —Est-ce en ces nuits sans fonds que tu dors et t'exiles,
          Million d'oiseaux d'or, ô future Vigueur?

A last look back over the adventure and a feeble attempt to crank up the dream, evoking the starry spaces he voyaged over. He scrapes at the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, digging desperately into his psyche for untapped resources. The hidden layers are like the depths of those dream-spaces, the “bottomless nights,” the death Baudelaire sought at last in “Le Voyage,” plunging into the inconnu to find du nouveau. The untapped strength itself—“future Vigor”—like dredged-up gold or stars in the night, is described as “a million golden birds.” Birds, eternal symbols of man's Eros sublimated into spiritual aspiration, add dynamism to the gold.14

23rd strophe:
          Mais, vrai, j'ai trop pleuré! Les Aubes sont navrantes.
          Toute lune est atroce et tout soleil amer:
          L'âcre amour m'a gonflé de torpeurs enivrantes.
          O que ma quille éclate! O que j'aille à la mer!

The honest childish theme of weeping colors this return to earth, defeat, as it did the close of “Les Déserts de l'amour” (“j'ai pleuré plus que tous les enfants du monde”) and “Les Poètes de sept ans” (“pitié!”).

Dawn, buoyant in an earlier strophe (as usual in Rimbaud), is “heart-breaking”—a broken promise! Moons, redolent of happy marriage, are likewise bitter disappointments: “atrocious,” exactly as the “Or des lunes d'avril au cœur du saint lit” become a somber “regret” toward the sad close of “Mémoire.” Suns (multiple in time or space), too, the very sources of light, are bitter in this psychic rout. Love itself, even deeper-rooted than light, which once soared up through the “sèves inouïes,” has gone bad, has swollen him into drunken torpors.

Overinflated with hubris, excessive vision,15 he yearns to burst, to sink back into easeful death, as at the end of “Les Sœurs de charité.” Death is sought not for adventure's sake, not for du nouveau, but rather out of sheer fatigue. “O que j'aille à la mer!” is somewhat ambiguous: “to go into the sea,” drown, as we said, is the main sense, but, like the close of Une Saison en Enfer: “Cela s'est passé,” the formula leaves open a possibility of further voyaging, perhaps in a real sea (as he would do). Like the Lady of Shalott, Rimbaud must have been “sick of shadows” by now. And, as at the end of the “Scène” of “Hérodiade,” a plunge into real life, a love, seemed a distinct possibility. The “j'aille” has an overtone of jaillir, spring forth, into new life, or physical love and a “future” of the body (compare “La vague … ose jaillir des rocs,” the fresh élan at the end of Valéry's “Cimetière marin”).

24th strophe:
          Si je désire une eau d'Europe, c'est la flache
          Noire et froide où vers le crépuscule embaumé
          Un enfant accroupi plein de tristesses, lâche
          Un bateau frêle comme un papillon de mai.

The real scene of his childhood—an Ardennes puddle, part of the regretted old Europe—turns out to be the hidden source of strength. Having resigned himself, in a sort of death of the outer-questing spirit (even though in fantasy), he is reborn to true inmost beauty, an epiphany worthy of the finest in art. The puddle16 is a microcosm of the Ocean, an infinitely more intimate site for lyric poetry.

That child, bent over itself and nature for support—like the lonely wayside figure of “Ma Bohème,” curled up almost embryo-fashion—is all of us, as we once were, martyrs of infinite grief, mirrored in the cold blackness of the soul-reflecting waters. But the dusk is perfumed, there is Balm in Gilead. And the spirit is lifted in a new tiny launching of a delicate hope, in the toy boat,17 frail and ephemeral as a May butterfly. The most tactful comment here is silence.

25th strophe:
          Je ne puis plus, baigné de vos langueurs, ô lames,
          Enlever leur sillage aux porteurs de cotons,
          Ni traverser l'orgueil des drapeaux et des flammes,
          Ni nager sous les yeux horribles des pontons.

Rimbaud admits his defeat, his exhaustion of rebellious spirit. The waves—of varied inner life, experience—have been too numerous, wearing, “languorous.” He has been drawn down by “Elle,” the “Vampire,” as in “Angoisse,” undone by the feminine principle of on-going life which gets us all in the end, strive as we Icaruses may: “Mère qui créas … De grandes fleurs avec la balsamique Mort” (Mallarmé's “Les Fleurs”).

He can no longer defy the grown-up boats, the cotton-bearing commercial ships he sailed blithely by in strophe 2. “Enlever leur sillage” means to follow in the adult-boat wake, with a suggestion of challenge or defiance in “enlever.” “To cross the pride of flags and streamers” is definitely to challenge, referring no doubt to war-boats but, more generally, adult male pride and derring-do. He can no longer manage this, nor “swim” (as boat, as boy) under the horrible eyes (portholes) of prison ships—he cannot defy the law-giving male society that closes the doors on the hardened criminal he will dare, another sulking day, to admire in the Saison en enfer.

As he will later observe: “On ne part pas.”18


  1. This mysterious combination of homecoming (to freedom) and Outward-Bound is like the opening scene of Broch's Death of Virgil, Tennyson's “Crossing the Bar,” or the long rivery closes of Brahms' symphonies (particularly No. 2). It involves a mysterious close-of-cycle fusion of death and life, of old man and infant (as in the symbolism of the New Year). See our later comment on the “noyé pensif,” the Old Man of the Sea (Shakespeare's “father” who lies “full fathom five” in The Tempest, Keats' Glaucon in “Endymion,” who is the spectral father of the poet; Mallarmé's vieillard in the “Coup de Dés,” who carries the ombre juvénile in him). Wordsworth's “child is the father of the man” expresses the awesome paradox, as does the enigmatic stained-glass King of Proust's Combray, who partly represents the child's kingdom of innocence and magic omnipotence. Compare the old space traveler with the embryo in him at the close of 2001, a Space Odyssey. Or the endlessly fascinating and puzzling king of playing cards and Tarot.

  2. This is the hardest thing for a sensitive being, like Rimbaud, to do. For example, James Joyce was deadly afraid of one thing above all: losing consciousness, control, his identity (see Richard Ellman's biography).

  3. Recall the embryonic coil of “Ma Bohème.” The “hippocampes” of strophe 20 is a faintly related image.

  4. Curiously appropriate to the sonorous quality of distant sounds in winter, compare Baudelaire's “Chant d'automne”: “Tout l'hiver va rentrer dans mon être … écho … sourd.” Gide's André Walter, in a crisis of inward listening spoke of his “tête sonore.” Verlaine in his “Green” has a “tête toute sonore” rolling on his mistress' lap.

  5. See [Robert Greer Cohn,] Toward the Poems of Mallarmé [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965], Appendix c, under p and b. Compare Keats' “beaded bubbles winking at the brim” (“Ode to a Nightingale”).

  6. In this last poem, as often, both parents are merged in the sun (“c'est rire aux parents qu'au soleil”), the world-forces (as in “Génie,” though the accent there is on the virile). The ocean of myth is a father (Oceanus) as well as a mother (“mère-mer”); for James Joyce it is both his “great gray mother” (the beginning of Ulysses) and his “cold feary father” (end of Finnegans Wake). Here too it is both, as nature is mainly neutral sexually, but there are different specific modes involving one or the other sex as an accented rhythm, or aspect, of nature, playing on universal analogy (or the fact that the sexes emerge from aspects of nature, metaphysical and physical laws). When a mother invades her child's mouth with a spoon, or its rectum with an enema, she is metaphysically male. When she washes and caresses him she is more “female” (see Sartre's analysis of the “hole” in L'Être et le néant, i.e., its reversible meaning).

  7. One easily thinks of Shakespeare's “Full fathom five”: the conversion through death-in-life, to a new “undersea” world of art; the association with the dead father-figure who preceded the son into mystery. The “livres … qui avaient trempé dans l'océan” of “Les Déserts de l'amour” are similar to the end of The Tempest.

  8. Sounds (“lyres”), tactile effects (“alcool,” in part), visual effects (the colors), echo each other here. “Lyres” are “vastes,” etc. In Yeats' “Byzantium” the gongs are similarly siren-seductive.

  9. “Bleuité” is invented by Rimbaud, cf. “bleuisons” of “Les Mains de Jeanne-Marie.”

  10. Kant says we cannot think the color blue. True. But also, ultimately, not true.

  11. See Toward the Poems of Mallarmé, Appendix c. Compare Hugo (“Booz endormi”): “Un frais parfum sortait des touffes d'asphodèle; / Les souffles de la nuit flottaient sur Galgala.” Leconte de Lisle speaks somewhere of “l'aile du vent.”

  12. And the strange combination of man-child (embryo) in the moment of death and rebirth to spiritual life (see footnote 1).

  13. Compare the “bras … d'herbe” of “Mémoire,” and similar vegetation along the river banks in Flaubert's Un Cœur Simple.

  14. They make us think a bit of those birds with blond eyes and of the goldfish of an earlier strophe (or perhaps Yeats' golden nightingale in “Sailing to Byzantium”). Rimbaud is similarly hyperbolic with his evocation: “O million de Christs aux yeux sombres et doux” in “Morts de Quatre-vingt-douze.”

  15. This recalls Mallarmé's “Prose” with its “Hyperbole!” and repeated “trop.” See Toward the Poems of Mallarmé, p. 240.

  16. The little puddle is a reflection of the humility of the soul at this moment, “little me.” We find a similar image in “Ouvriers”: “une flache laissée par l'inondation du mois précédent à un sentier assez haut … [avec] de très petits poissons.” This is the moment of defeat turning the gaze inward to intimate depth: to the “little fish in the little pond.” In “Little Gidding” T. S. Eliot similarly pokes with a stick at a crab (like the ragged one he says he should have been in “Prufrock”) in a pool on a mountain path. No doubt he had read his Rimbaud.

  17. The sail is gently indicated in the circumflex over “frêle” (or “lâche”).

  18. Rimbaud's voyage is faintly reminiscent of one in Balzac's Les Proscrits (which also has a New Jerusalem in the sunset skies, see the end of the Saison en enfer): “[L'Archange] franchit les sphères comme un vaisseau fend les ondes.”

J. A. Ferguson (essay date January 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7004

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 and British Foreign Office documentation, Starkie was able to produce a detailed account of Rimbaud's activity and experience in Arabia and East Africa between 1880 and 1891 and, more controversially, to propose that during this period he had been actively involved in the slave-trade.1 This allegation was founded on three sources of evidence: a Foreign Office report which claimed that a certain ‘Remban’ had accompanied a slave caravan from the interior of Ethiopia to the coastal port of Tadjoura; a letter from Alfred Ilg to Rimbaud in which the Swiss engineer seemingly refused to supply his trading associate with slaves; and the more general supposition that the arms trade, in which Rimbaud openly participated, was inextricably linked to the traite.2 Adding furthermore that all foreign traders who wished to deal with local chieftains such as Menelik or Ras Makonnen were obliged to co-operate with the Abu Bekr, the area's major slave-trading family, Starkie concluded that ‘Il n'y a rien qui doive étonner dans le fait que Rimbaud ait été mêlé à la traite des nègres’.3

Starkie's theory enjoyed a brief period of acceptance. In 1939, Jean-Marie Carré admitted in a revised biography that Rimbaud had indeed been a ‘négrier’,4 while in 1944 Jacques Castelnau wrote that Rimbaud had organized a shuttle service for slave-traders between the interior and the coast of Ethiopia.5 In the second volume of his Le Mythe de Rimbaud of 1952, Étiemble announced that with Starkie's book ‘la preuve était produite que Rimbaud du moins voulut essayer de vendre la chair humaine’,6 and five years later he reiterated this view in his introduction to the Larousse Pages choisies, remarking of Rimbaud that ‘s'il accepte de s'ennuyer en Afrique, c'est pour gagner de l'argent. Il vendra donc des fusils à Ménélik, des nègres à qui voudra’.7 With the support of Étiemble, a specialist in Rimbaldian ‘démythisation’, the theory was close to assuming the status of orthodoxy when, in 1962, Mario Matucci published his Le Dernier Visage de Rimbaud en Afrique, a detailed study of the subject which challenged both the veracity and the method of Starkie's work.

Rereading the Foreign Office document 78/4167, Matucci discovered that the date of the report from Cecchi, the Italian Consul in Aden, to Crispi, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs,8 was not, as Starkie had stated, 16 June 1888, but rather 22 May of that year, the later date being that of the original report's translation in London. The report which asserted that ‘Rembau’ had been sighted at Ambos with the Abu Bekr caravan ‘il giorno 10 del corrente mese’9 thus referred not to 10 June but to 10 May. Matucci then pointed out that Rimbaud had sent letters dated 3 May and 15 May from Harar, hence making it virtually impossible for him to have been at Ambos on the 10th, to have travelled with the caravan to the coast, and to have returned to Harar by the 15th, a journey of some four hundred kilometres.10 If considerable doubt emerged over the reliability of Cecchi's report, moreover, then Starkie's second piece of evidence, the letter from Ilg, proved to be no less problematic. In Rimbaud en Abyssinie, the following passage had been cited: ‘Quant aux esclaves, pardonnez-moi, je ne puis m'en occuper, je n'ai jamais acheté d'esclaves et je ne veux pas commencer. Même pour moi je ne le ferai pas’. Upon examining the letter in question, however, Matucci found that Ilg had actually written: ‘Quant aux esclaves, pardonnez-moi, je ne puis m'en occuper, je n'en ai jamais acheté et je ne veux pas commencer. Je reconnais absolument vos bonnes intentions, mais même pour moi, je ne le ferai jamais’. The phrase ‘Je reconnais absolument vos bonnes intentions’, completely omitted from Starkie's transcription of the letter, significantly altered the meaning and tone of the passage, thus invalidating Starkie's conjecture that Ilg was ‘sourcilleux’ in his response to Rimbaud's apparent request. The exact nature of the request itself, however, remained a mystery, and Matucci thought it likely that the relevant documentation would never come to light.

In 1965, the missing evidence finally appeared when Rimbaud's complete correspondence during the period 1888-1891 was published under the aegis of Jean Voellmy. Voellmy had received the assistance of Ilg's surviving relatives, and was able to produce for the first time the letter from Rimbaud which had prompted Ilg's hitherto enigmatic reply. Dated 20 December 1889, some twenty months after Cecchi's report and some eight months before Ilg's response, the letter dealt principally with problems of transportation and payment surrounding the exportation of coffee. The penultimate paragraph, however, consisted simply of the sentence:

—Je vous confirme très sérieusement ma demande d'un très bon mulet et de deux garçons esclaves.11

This, then, was almost certainly the request which Ilg refused and the evidence upon which Starkie had indirectly based her controversial theory. As Voellmy, in his introductory Connaissance de Rimbaud, remarked: ‘Il faut être de mauvaise foi pour faire de Rimbaud un marchand d'esclaves après avoir pris connaissance de ces lettres. On ne s'enrichit pas en achetant deux négrillons. Rimbaud manque de personnel et pense s'en procurer selon la coutume du pays’.12

With the publication of the correspondence and of Matucci's work, the mythical image of the ‘poète maudit’ turned ‘négrier’ was effectively discredited. The letter from Ilg, censored by Starkie, was shown to correspond to a request by Rimbaud which in no way implicated him in the traite itself, while the evidence gleaned from the Cecchi report was demonstrably flawed by a serious chronological error. The Foreign Office document should furthermore, as Duncan Forbes suggests,13 be read in the context of the suspicion and hostility generated by imperialist competition between the three European powers, an assessment supported by the report's description of ‘Rembau’ as ‘uno degli agenti più intelligenti e più attivi del Governo Francese in quelle regioni’.14 Starkie's third ‘preuve’, the correlation between the arms trade and the slave-trade, was by virtue of its very generality less simple to dismiss, yet Starkie herself, when challenged by André Tian, admitted that ‘cette hypothèse non plus n'est appuyée sur aucun document […]. La supposition concernant le commerce des esclaves ne venait que de moi’.15

That Rimbaud was ambivalent in his attitude towards the question of slavery there can be little doubt. In a letter to his family, for instance, he observed that ‘sous le protectorat français, on ne cherche pas à gêner la traite, et cela vaut mieux’,16 and it appears that he was willing to invest in two slaves as a source of inexpensive labour. These points were raised by Étiemble who, in the wake of Matucci and Voellmy, was obliged to recant his earlier position, distancing himself from Starkie's hypothesis. Étiemble none the less maintained that no moral distinction could be made between the buying and the selling of slaves, and that Rimbaud, if not guilty of active complicity, at least approved in principle of the slave-trade.17 While it is certainly true that no explicit condemnation of the traite appears in the African correspondence, the occasional references to its existence can scarcely be taken to constitute direct approbation. Instead, they attest to a pragmatic appraisal of the region's social and commercial traditions and to a belief that European opposition to such traditions would merely worsen relations with influential sectors of the indigenous population. Equally, the proposed purchase of slaves, a practice endorsed as a means of liberation by French missionaries on the East coast of Africa,18 by no means amounted to a vindication of the system, but could plausibly be seen as benefiting both Rimbaud and the slaves in question, who would otherwise have been taken to Arabia or Turkey. Largely motivated by self-interest, Rimbaud's ambivalence thus reflects neither approval nor disapproval, but merely a dispassionate and perhaps calculated policy of laissez-faire.

One of the consequences of Starkie's hypothesis is that the question of slavery has largely obfuscated the less sensational problem of Rimbaud's relationship with the native inhabitants of Ethiopia. This relationship, determined by a colonial or pre-colonial context of exploitation, generated a number of attitudes and responses in Rimbaud's writing, some of which were conventionally ethnocentric, others less orthodox. As regards the latter, it is important to note that Rimbaud entirely eschewed the reductive kind of physical stereotyping which characterizes the majority of contemporary depictions of blacks. At no point in his reports or correspondence does he conform to the pseudo-aestheticism which abounded in the period's fiction and travel-accounts and which tended to present the African as antithetical to an assumedly normative model of European beauty. The one physical description which occurs in his writing, in the Rapport sur l'Ogadine, merely relates that the natives of the area are ‘de haute taille, plus généralement rouges que noirs’.19 Even less orthodox perhaps was Rimbaud's assertion, in a letter to his family, that the black population of Harar were neither intellectually nor morally inferior to white Europeans:

Les gens du Harar ne sont ni plus bêtes, ni plus canailles que les nègres blancs des pays dits civilisés; ce n'est pas du même ordre, voilà tout. Ils sont même moins méchants, et peuvent, dans certains cas, manifester de la reconnaissance et de la fidélité.20

In the same letter he announces too that his enlightened and charitable treatment of the indigenous people has earned him a positive reputation and that his only pleasure is derived from the practice of philanthropy.

Yet despite this apparent benevolence, it would be difficult to share Starkie's view that Rimbaud ‘had none of the racial arrogance usual in white men stationed amongst the coloured races’.21 Instead, the correspondence testifies to a growing sense of impatience and alienation, articulated not only in terms of a generalized pessimism, but also within the framework of a conventional cultural racism. The letters refer, for instance, to ‘l'ennui, la rage continuelle au milieu de nègres aussi bêtes que canailles’,22 to ‘ces compagnies de sauvages ou d'imbéciles’,23 to ‘des déserts peuplés de nègres stupides’,24 and to ‘une triste existence au milieu de ces nègres’.25 Believing that the natives take advantage of his altruism, Rimbaud vituperates against them, depicting himself as ‘obligé de parler leurs baragouins, de manger leurs sales mets, de subir mille ennuis provenant de leur paresse, de leur trahison, de leur stupidité’.26 They are also, he supposes, capable of violence and barbarity; a report sent to the Cairo based Bosphore Égyptien describes how Menelik's army terrorized the town of Harar:

Les Abyssins, entrés en ville, la réduisirent en un cloaque horrible, démolirent les habitations, ravagèrent les plantations, tyrannisèrent la population comme les nègres savent procéder entre eux.27

But perhaps the most revealing of Rimbaud's observations appears in a letter to Ilg. Here, he suggests that the British policy of blockading the importation of arms into the country is likely to exacerbate hostility between Europeans and the indigenous population. He concludes: ‘—Morale, rester l'allié des nègres, ou ne pas les toucher du tout, si on n'est pas en pouvoir de les écraser au premier moment’.28

The inconsistency within Rimbaud's attitude towards the Ethiopian blacks is, it seems, striking. While proclaiming them to be the equals or even the betters of the European ‘nègres blancs’, he also resorts to the most banal of ethnocentric lieux communs, decrying their language and their food, and attributing to them the vices of stupidity and savagery. If, however, the allusion to the alleged superiority of ‘les gens du Harar’—‘ils sont même moins méchants’—is taken less as a positive appreciation of the African than as an ironical and provocative attack upon Western life, then the apparent contradiction is at once less pronounced, the significance of Rimbaud's judgement lying not in a favourable assessment of the Ethiopian, but in a sweeping condemnation of Europe.29 Indeed, the faint praise assigned to the Africans in the patronizing remark that they can ‘dans certains cas, manifester de la reconnaissance’ is indicative that he is less concerned to promote an edifying impression of the Ethiopian black than to criticize what he perceives as the hypocrisy of the white European. To some extent, then, Rimbaud's largely hostile and disparaging view of the black African is mediated by a corresponding and frequently expressed aversion to Europe, creating a double-edged sense of isolation and misanthropy, a ‘mépris qu'il affiche pour l'humanité tout entière’.30

This state of radical alienation has been defined by several twentieth-century writers as endemic to colonialism. Dominique Mannoni, for instance, suggests that an inability to come to terms with the demands of Western society may often account for attraction towards colonial life, an attraction which reveals a desire for solitude and a fear of ‘les autres’: ‘Ainsi la vie coloniale n'est qu'un pis aller ouvert à qui souffre encore confusément de la tentation d'un monde sans hommes, c'est-à-dire à qui a échoué dans l'effort nécessaire pour adapter les images infantiles à la réalité adulte’.31 Rejecting the restrictions and responsibilities of European life, the colonialist thus chooses a simplified alternative, whereby an authoritarian and paternalistic ‘Prospero complex’ replaces the compromise and conflict of social integration. In this situation, the indigenous ‘colonisé’, while considered obstructive and problematic, presents no real threat to the colonialist who enjoys the security of institutionalized superiority and power. Furthermore, according to Albert Memmi, colonialist discourse actively seeks to negate the individuality and hence the humanity of the ‘colonisé’, leading to ‘ce qu'on pourrait appeler la marque du pluriel. Le colonisé n'est jamais caractérisé d'une manière différentielle, il n'a droit qu'à la noyade dans le collectif anonyme’.32

The experience of Rimbaud in pre-colonial and undeveloped Ethiopia was clearly very different from the circumstances which inspired the theories of Mannoni and Memmi in the 1950s, yet it is nevertheless possible to see in his writing some of the principal traits which they associate with a classical colonial mentality. In the letters to his family, Rimbaud consistently excludes the possibility of a return to France, admitting that he would never be able to conform to the discipline and monotony of regular employment. At the same time, he complains bitterly of isolation, boredom and frustration in Africa, adding that he is ‘condamné à errer’ among ‘ces races étranges’.33 This feeling of déracinement is sharpened, too, by impatience with the indigenous blacks who, he claims, ‘cherchent à vous exploiter et vous mettent dans l'impossibilité de liquider des affaires à bref délai’.34 Obstructive and rapacious, the natives are invariably described by Rimbaud in terms of a homogeneous collectivity, deprived of individuality and reduced to the generic anonymity of ‘nègres’ or ‘sauvages’.

Besides these general reflexes, Rimbaud's attitude towards the concept of colonialism itself is worthy of attention. Referring in his letter to the Bosphore Égyptien to the Itoo plateau, west of Harar, he observes that these fertile regions are ‘les seules de l'Afrique orientale adaptées à la colonisation européenne’.35 Elsewhere, when writing to the Ministre de la Marine et des Colonies for permission to import armaments, he stresses the strategic importance of trading with Menelik, ‘une puissance chrétienne intéressante, amie des Européens et des Français en particulier’.36 It is possible, of course, that such pro-colonial sentiments were mere diplomacy, intended to conform to editorial policy or to impress an influential minister, and that Rimbaud's attachment to the imperialist ethos was simply determined by self-interest. Yet a letter written to his family in 1884 suggests, on the contrary, that despite criticisms of French strategy, he subscribed in a more general sense to the theory and practice of colonialism. Here, Rimbaud condemns British interference in East Africa, complaining that it obstructs trading and has failed to resolve the Sudanese crisis. The French, he claims, have also committed serious errors by restricting their gains to the bay of Tadjoura and by refusing to move inland towards the ‘très sains et productifs’ areas surrounding Harar.37 Moreover, the possibility of annexing Madagascar, ‘qui est une bonne colonie’, has been overlooked, while large amounts of money have been invested in the unprofitable and insecure territory of Tonkin. In Rimbaud's view, then, French colonial policy is ‘inepte’, characterized by wasteful adventurism, and lacking the vision and resolve of British expansionism.38

If Rimbaud the trader embraced, albeit critically, the imperialist cause, advocating French intervention in Ethiopia and Madagascar, then the same could scarcely be said of Rimbaud the poet who some ten years earlier denounced the repressive ideology of the mission civilisatrice. The anti-colonialist theme appears first in the apocalyptic fantasy of ‘Qu'est-ce pour nous, mon cœur’, a poem which evokes an almost global process of destruction in which colonists, among others, are swept away:

Tout à la guerre, à la vengeance, à la terreur,
Mon Esprit! Tournons dans la Morsure: Ah! passez,
Républiques de ce monde! Des empereurs,
Des régiments, des colons, des peuples, assez!(39)

In ‘Mauvais Sang’, however, the violence is directed not against the colonist, but, by implication, against the black ‘colonisé’ who with the advent of the imperialist occupation is forced to accept the religious and cultural dictates of the white European: ‘Les blancs débarquent. Le canon! Il faut se soumettre au baptême, s'habiller, travailler’.40 ‘Démocratie’, too, suggests a correlation between imperialism and violence, for in this text the pluralized poetic voice, belonging perhaps to a colonial army, to the ‘conscrits du bon vouloir’, alludes to the interchange between economic exploitation and physical repression:

Aux centres nous alimenterons la plus cynique prostitution. Nous massacrerons les révoltes logiques.

Aux pays poivrés et détrempés!—au service des plus monstrueuses exploitations industrielles ou militaires.41

Less direct in its anti-imperialist stance is the vers libre poem, ‘Mouvement’, which commentators have tended to view as a pæan to the notion of progress. If considered within the context of Rimbaud's critique of colonialism, however, the apparent heroism of the ‘conquérants du monde’ may be plausibly interpreted as an ironical reflection upon the contemporary glorification of the colonial avant-garde and the arrogant ethnocentrism of its mission civilisatrice:

Ils emmènent l'éducation
Des races, des classes et des bêtes, sur ce Vaisseau.(42)

In Rimbaud's poetry the idea of imperialism emerges as a consistent political concern, linked to the concepts of Christianity and militarism, and characterized by images of exploitation and force. To this extent, the poetic texts afford a remarkable contrast with Rimbaud's later writing on the same question, in which humanitarian and libertarian principles are superseded by a cynical attention to criteria of profitability and Realpolitik. This contradiction is noted by Enid H. Rhodes who, while remarking on the ‘intensely anti-colonial’ nature of several poems, admits that ‘some inconsistency with regard to colonialism does appear in his life, if not in his writings’.43 In a later introduction to her translation of the poetry, the same critic reiterates this judgement, but here she avoids the awkward distinction between life and writings, commenting that ‘in some of his letters the former voyant who satirized European colonists in “Démocratie” even sounds strangely like the ethnocentric men he once mocked’.44 C. A. Hackett too detects fundamental ideological discrepancies between the poetry and the African correspondence, and although he does not refer directly to the notion of imperialism, his observation that ‘the letters are the obverse, or the inverted image of the poetry’45 is certainly germane to this particular problem. A disjunction between poetry and correspondence in relation to imperialism is thus manifest and, accordingly, it is important to ascertain whether the changing conception and evaluation of colonialism does not also entail other and connected mutations in attitudes and convictions.

Rimbaud's reaction to the indigenous population of Ethiopia is, we have seen, a largely unfavourable one; ranging from condescending paternalism to outright antipathy, his view of the black African is generally marked by an orthodox cultural racism. Yet, according to Rhodes, the anti-colonialism of the poetry involves a process of identification with the victims of imperialism whereby Rimbaud ‘voices profound sympathy for the exploited natives’.46 An apparent antinomy between the early ‘sympathy’ and the later antipathy might therefore be assumed to exist in conjunction with the shifting attitude towards colonialism, leading to a different yet related area of inconsistency. Certainly, Pierre Gascar identifies in the correspondence a qualitative break from the racial principles of the poetry. Describing Rimbaud's response to the Ethiopian natives as one of ‘incompréhension’, he states that ‘l'attitude distante sinon hostile de Rimbaud à l'égard des indigènes a de quoi surprendre. […] Dans une de ses lettres, n'a-t-il pas qualifié de “livre nègre” Une Saison en Enfer?’.47 What Gascar implies, then, is that the racism evinced by Rimbaud's African writing represents a significant, even surprising departure from earlier conceptions of race, exemplified by Une Saison en Enfer. To determine the validity of such a view, it is necessary to consider the image of the Negro and its function within the poetic texts.

Besides brief and undeveloped allusions to ‘la fée africaine’ in ‘Jeune Ménage’48 and to the ‘superbes noires’ of ‘Enfance’,49 it is generally accepted that the image of the Negro appears in two of Rimbaud's works, in ‘Qu'est-ce pour nous, mon cœur’, and in the ‘Mauvais Sang’ section of Une Saison en Enfer. The first of these poems, however, is by no means unproblematic in this respect, and despite the consensus of a majority of critics and commentators, a degree of ambiguity remains as to the text's precise meaning. The poem offers a vivid impression of unfettered violence and destruction in which symbolic representatives of power, wealth, and tradition are condemned in an apparent frenzy of revenge and revolution. Accordingly, it has been traditionally interpreted as an unmediated expression of rage inspired by the defeat and suppression of the Commune. While such a reading is vindicated by the generally insurrectional theme and tone, an exegetical problem arises in the opening lines of the sixth stanza, where the poet exclaims:

Oh! mes amis!—mon cœur, c'est sûr, ils sont des frères:
Noirs inconnus, si nous allions! allons! allons!(50)

In the phrase ‘noirs inconnus’, critics have tended to see a direct invocation to the persona of the Negro; Rhodes, for instance, believes that the poet is ‘addressing the inhabitants of Africa as “unknown blacks”’,51 and Robert Goffin suggests that in the text, ‘déjà nous pressentons l'amour de Rimbaud pour les nègres’.52 This interpretation is, to some extent, supported by the preceding stanza in which the destruction of three of the world's continents is announced: ‘Europe, Asie, Amérique, disparaissez’. Here, as Starkie remarks, Rimbaud ‘omits Africa from his general condemnation’,53 Rhodes pointing out too that ‘Africa is the only inhabited continent spared’.54 The exclusion of Africa from the otherwise global vision of dissolution is thus taken by these critics as constituting a consistent thematic correlation with the image of the ‘noirs inconnus’, a correlation which posits the centrality of the Negro in the poem's field of reference.

This reading is, in the first instance, based upon the assumption that the word ‘noirs’ functions as a noun, denoting a specific racial group, and that ‘inconnus’ acts as its qualifying adjective. Should one, however, invert these grammatical functions and ascribe to ‘noirs’ an adjectival status, then the sense of the phrase might be significantly modified. In this case, what Rhodes translates as ‘unknown blacks’ could be plausibly rendered by a phrase such as ‘dark strangers’. An alternative reading of this sort is partly validated by the fact that with the single exception of ‘Enfance’, Rimbaud never employs the word ‘noir’ in its ethnic sense, preferring instead to use the commoner nineteenth-century term, ‘nègre’. Furthermore, as Michel Courtois clearly demonstrates, images of blackness proliferate in Rimbaud's poetry, generating a complex and multivalent series of semantic implications. In Courtois's view, the notion of ‘noirceur’ is intrinsically related to a number of distinct themes, ranging from sexual neurosis to political revolt, and is hence vital in the symbolic superstructure of ‘tout un monde du sombre et du caché’.55 Certainly, in the verse poetry which precedes this particular text, blackness appears as a highly heterogeneous attribute; in ‘Les Premières Communions’, for example, a village priest is perceived as a ‘noir grotesque’, in ‘Les Effarés’, the children are ‘noirs dans la neige et dans la brume’, and in ‘Les Assis’, the adjective occurs three times in an impression of bureaucratic hostility.56 More significant perhaps is the association which exists between ‘noirceur’ and Rimbaud's view of the industrial working-class. In lines such as:

Et je vais dans Paris, noir, marteau sur l'épaule,


Il n'aimait pas Dieu, mais les hommes, qu'au soir fauve
Noirs, en blouse, il voyait rentrer dans le faubourg,(57)

the idea of blackness is somehow central to the poet's conception of an oppressed and potentially revolutionary social class. The theme of political injustice and insurrection, prefigured in ‘Le Forgeron’ and ‘Les Poètes de sept ans’, emerges in its most explicit and vivid form in ‘Qu'est-ce pour nous, mon cœur’, and with it the idea of blackness, the colour of anarchy and violent retribution.

The precise identity of the ‘noirs inconnus’ remains uncertain and elusive. There are, it is true, good reasons for seeing in this image a reference to the persona of the Negro; both the allusion to the ‘colons’ and the apparent exculpation afforded to the continent of Africa point to the possibility of a specifically racial form of blackness. It is conceivable, moreover, that the figure of the Negro may have been suggested to Rimbaud by the presence of black troops during the Franco-Prussian war,58 but no mention of this is to be found in any other context. Conversely, the multivalent function of blackness in Rimbaud's symbolic framework, and in particular the political resonance which the idea generates, suggest that the image could be located within the broader context of the poet's early engagement and as part of a millennial concept of social revolution. The pronounced and perhaps intentional ambiguity of the poem, heightened by its elliptical and discontinuous structure, thus effectively precludes a single, reductive reading, and although one can by no means discount the orthodox interpretation, it is not unreasonable to treat with some caution Antoine Adam's assertion that ‘il importe de relever ce mot de noirs qui annonce Le Livre Nègre’.59

The Livre Nègre is widely believed to represent a preliminary stage in the genesis of Une Saison en Enfer. Mentioned in a letter to Delahaye, dated May 1873, the project appears to correspond chronologically to the five-month period, from April to August, which Rimbaud claimed to have devoted to the composition of his extended prose poem. Little is known of the project itself, and it is uncertain whether this apparent prototype was ever a separate and complete text or simply a subsequently abandoned working title for the eventual poem. Yet, from the original concept, described by Rimbaud as ‘bête et innocent’,60 the persona of the Negro survives, moved perhaps from the centrality suggested by the embryonic title, but none the less occupying a vital position in the structure of the definitive work.

When the Negro appears in Une Saison en Enfer, the ideological and philosophical conflicts which form the poem's thematic core have already been articulated in a series of dualisms. On the one hand stand the conceptual traditions of the Western world, Christianity, progress, and industry, and on the other the antithetical notions of paganism, barbarism, and idleness. In the paragraph which precedes the Negro's first utterance, three archetypal social groups are named—‘Prêtres, professeurs, maîtres’61—representatives respectively of Christianity, education and work. The Negro's initial reaction is to reject these three fundamental categories: ‘Oui, j'ai les yeux fermés à votre lumière. Je suis une bête, un nègre’. In the passage which follows, the nature of this rejection is developed and the three fields are considered from a radically non-European perspective. The pre-eminence of the religious theme, implicit in Rimbaud's other proposed title, Livre Païen, is emphasized by the connotative quality of the term ‘lumière’. The Negro, intentionally or contingently, is blind to the light of Christian faith and is hence a pagan. Yet, paradoxically, in the following sentence Rimbaud asserts: ‘je puis être sauvé’. The source of this potential salvation is ambiguous: should it be understood that redemption of a non-Christian sort is envisaged, or is the Negro prepared to accept the ‘lumière’ of the Western priests? Ironically, it is the latter form of salvation which triumphs, not through free choice, but as a result of the imperialist invasion which forces the Negro to ‘se soumettre au baptême’.62 The ‘professeurs’, too, are at first defied, and their enlightenment is refused together with religious faith. As a self-proclaimed ‘bête’, the Negro deliberately eschews any aspiration to knowledge of the world or to self-knowledge: ‘Connais-je encore la nature? me connais-je?’ Indeed, so absolute is the denial of Western epistemology that language itself is abandoned: ‘Plus de mots’. This breakdown of rational discourse finds its corollary in the celebration of action, the primal instinctivism of cannibalism, and escape into the anti-intellectualism of rhythm and dance: ‘Plus de mots. J'ensevelis les morts dans mon ventre. Cris, tambour, danse, danse, danse, danse!’ Again, however, the arrival of the white colonists spells out the end of this freedom; the advent of colonialism brings not only a forced baptism, but the related imperatives to dress, to work, to accept the dual authority of teacher and master.

Within the ideological structure of Une Saison en Enfer, the Negro is conceived as a symbol of negation, as a repoussoir for the Christianity and rationalism which Rimbaud implicitly associates with the contemporary West. As a personification of instinct, a cannibal, a hedonist, the Negro is the transgressor of the normative European values of faith, knowledge and work. At the same time, however, the very figureheads of these same values are no more than ‘faux nègres’; the merchant, the magistrate, the general, and the emperor are all ‘nègres’ in as much as they share a real yet hidden proclivity towards irrationality and pleasure. The ‘maniaques, féroces, avares’ of Western civilization, despite the status afforded to them by society, are hypocrites, for while remaining within the bounds of respectability, they infringe the principles which they ostensibly represent, partaking of ‘une liqueur non taxée, de la fabrique de Satan’. In such a way, the term ‘nègre’ assumes a dual connotative function, signifying not only opposition to Western life, but also the corruption and dissimulation which, in Rimbaud's view, exist at the heart of its value-system. Its rhetorical tone is hence one of anathema, and Margaret Davies is justified in stressing the pejorative quality with which Rimbaud endows the word: ‘sa réaction de haine et de mépris se centre sur ce mot nègre qu'il répète six fois, et qui est maintenant riche de toutes les résonances dont il vient d'être investi par le thème du mauvais sang’.63

The image of the Negro which emerges from Une Saison en Enfer is determined by a restricted number of highly conventional referents. Defined in terms of instinct, appetite and incoherence, the Negro-persona conforms to the orthodox contemporary conception of black psychology and to the narrow limitations of a well established cultural stereotype. The traits of cannibalism, dancing, drums and chanting, stock components of a nineteenth-century image d'Épinal, form the substance of the reductive impression and promote a vision of dehumanized savagery which might be found in any contemporaneous description of Haiti or Dahomey. The single positive attribute of the Negro, the ethos of revolt, is furthermore shown to be ephemeral and futile, for the victory of imperialism leads to the acceptance of Western values and to a humiliating sense of defeat and passivity. This one-dimensional figure, delineated by the most conventional of racial poncifs, is thus refused any measure of real identity and is consigned to a role of submission which represents a final negation of individuality and worth. It is perhaps curious, then, that Marcel Ruff should discern in this text ‘la première revendication de négritude’,64 an idea which suggests the positive affirmation of black identity and autonomy. On the contrary, the poem clearly denies any such affirmation, and instead insists that the Negro, a symbol of impotence, ultimately fails to offer a viable alternative to the cultural hegemony of a Western world-view.

For Rimbaud, the importance of the Negro lies not in a proposition of immanent ethnic value, but in the position which this figure occupies within the complex dialectical structure of the text. As an abstract personification of altérité, the Negro is but one of a series of marginal and esoteric personae who stand in implied opposition to the moral and spiritual essence of modern Europe. From social, historical and ethnological perspectives, Rimbaud draws upon the Gaul, the leper,65 the witch, the criminal, the Mongol and the Negro as representatives of an intrinsic otherness which is systematically contrasted with the repressive conformism of Western civilization. With some of these personae the narrator's empathy is vicarious; with others the poetic voice literally merges, adopting, albeit fleetingly, their identities in a rapid process of protean mutability. The extreme dynamism and discontinuity of this process inhibit any degree of concreteness; instead, the personae are characterized by a minimal set of deictic features which exclude the possibility of mimetic vraisemblance and which produce a parodic sense of superficiality. If the narrator chooses, among others, the temporary identity of the Negro, it is precisely because this persona offers a manifest symbolic signification which is instantly conspicuous through the restrictive orthodoxism of the cultural stereotype and which functions by virtue of its familiarity. The almost caricatural image, ‘bête et innocent’, is therefore essentially empty, operating as an abstract emblem for the alienation and frustration of the poetic consciousness which recognizes its inability to escape the fatal determinism of Western society. Signifying instinctive refusal and eventual capitulation, the Negro is finally an apposite yet incomplete alibi for the révolté who seeks to deny the atavistic hold of the ‘marais occidentaux’ but who is returned by each abortive movement to the inevitability of a ‘réalité rugueuse’.66

The mythical image of the slave trader has perhaps indirectly contributed to the establishment of an opposing and compensatory myth which places Rimbaud as a precursor of négritude. The two ideas are striking in their incompatibility, positing two antithetical moral attitudes and forming a paradoxical antagonism within the broad field of Rimbaldian criticism and biography. Between the two poles lies the more general belief, itself informed by a sense of paradox, that Rimbaud's poetic work expresses an explicit sympathy for the Negro which is subsequently contradicted by the primarily hostile depiction of the Ethiopian blacks. This view, exemplified by Gascar, suggests that the changing conception of imperialism involves a shift from the position of sympathy to one of antipathy, and that the African correspondence evinces a tendency towards racism which is at odds with the premises of the poetry. Yet, while the inconsistency in relation to colonialism is undeniable and the racial intolerance of the later writing no less so, it is by no means self-evident that Rimbaud's poetic work presents a positive image of the Negro or affirms the intrinsic value of this figure in any genuine way.

Instead, it should be stressed that, in terms of ethnic identity, Rimbaud's view of the Negro remains remarkably consistent, for neither in the poetry nor in the correspondence does he ever transcend the limitations of a self-generating cultural stereotype. In the poetry, of course, the stereotype functions ironically, as parody; the poetic voice assumes the status of Negro as an affront to the cultural imperatives which it attempts to reject and perceives itself within the epistemological perspective of these same imperatives. As such, the image is hollow, reductive, and significant only in its symbolic potential. Yet, in the correspondence, the same reductive traits reappear, not as parody, but literally as Rimbaud projects on to the anonymous ‘nègres’ an overriding sense of bitterness and alienation. In both instances, then, the persona of the Negro is abstract and dehumanized, marked by the ideas of instinct and ‘bêtise’, and subject to the negativity of an ethnocentric discourse. To conclude, as does Rhodes, that ‘even Rimbaud is not devoid of Western prejudices’67 is thus perhaps to understate the problem, for whether as poet or trader, Rimbaud's response to the Negro is articulated exclusively within the conceptual framework of these very prejudices. In his vocabulary, the term ‘nègre’ is never separable from its conventional stigmatic connotations; it is above all a pejorative epithet, an accusation directed against himself, the hypocrites of European society, and the natives of Ethiopia. As a savage, a cannibal, a speaker of gibberish, Rimbaud's ‘nègre’ is in every way the product of the historical period's collective imagination, and it is ironical that this empty and impoverished being should so faithfully conform to the orthodox cultural preconceptions which Rimbaud, the voyant, professed to despise.


  1. It had twice before been suggested that Rimbaud was a slave trader. In his Paul Verlaine, sa vie, son œuvre, Mercure de France, 1907, Edmond Lepelletier referred to Rimbaud as a ‘pourvoyeur de nègres’ (266), and in an Italian newspaper article (La Stampa, Turin, 31/12/1935), Filippo Burzio described him as a ‘negriere’. In neither instance was any evidence produced to support the claim. Neither writer appears in the bibliographies of the British and French versions of Starkie's book, although Lepelletier's biography of Verlaine is frequently cited in her contemporaneous and more general Arthur Rimbaud, London, Faber, 1938.

  2. Enid Starkie, Rimbaud en Abyssinie, Payot, 1938, 153 et passim.

  3. Ibid., 155.

  4. Jean-Marie Carré, Vie de Rimbaud, Plon, 1939, 268. Carré had earlier rejected the theory, but his initial judgement was based on a reading of the less substantial Arthur Rimbaud in Abyssinia.

  5. Jacques Castelnau, Rimbaud, Jules Tallandier, 1944, 217.

  6. Étiemble, Le Mythe de Rimbaud: structure du mythe, Gallimard, 1952, 262.

  7. Arthur Rimbaud, Pages Choisies, Classiques Larousse, 1957, 11. See also Rimbaud's Selected Verse, London, Penguin, 1962, in which the editor and translator, Oliver Bernard, states that Rimbaud helped ‘in the slave traffic to Turkey and Arabia’ (xxi).

  8. At this stage in imperialist intervention in Ethiopia, Britain and Italy had adopted a tactic of co-operation in matters of intelligence as a joint response to growing French influence in the area.

  9. Mario Matucci, Le Dernier Visage de Rimbaud en Afrique, Marcel Didier, 1962, 109. The original Italian report named the French ‘agent’ as ‘Rembau’; this was subsequently changed to ‘Remban’ in the English translation.

  10. Ibid., 69 et passim.

  11. Arthur Rimbaud, Correspondance, 1888-1891, Gallimard, 1965, 150.

  12. Ibid., 30-31.

  13. Duncan Forbes, Rimbaud in Ethiopia, Hythe, Volturna Press, 1979, 99.

  14. Matucci, op. cit., 109.

  15. Ibid., 92. André Tian, the son of Rimbaud's former employer in Aden, led a single-handed campaign to clear his father's name of involvement with the slave-trade. The evidence which he gathered forced Starkie to admit the hypothetical nature of her thesis in an open letter to the review, Études. None the less, the allegation concerning César Tian was never effectively dropped, and appears in subsequent editions of Arthur Rimbaud.

  16. Arthur Rimbaud, Œuvres complètes, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1972, 409.

  17. Étiemble, ‘Rimbaud fut-il marchand d'esclaves?’, Le Figaro littéraire, 29 mai 1965, 14.

  18. In Suéma ou la petite Esclave africaine enterrée vivante, Gaume frères et J. Duprey, 1870, for instance, Monseigneur Gaume concludes his harrowing account of slavery with an appeal for funds in order to purchase, educate and then liberate slaves in East Africa and Zanzibar.

  19. Rimbaud, op. cit., 378.

  20. Ibid., 612.

  21. Starkie, Arthur Rimbaud, 390.

  22. Rimbaud, op. cit., 656.

  23. Ibid., 391.

  24. Ibid., 611.

  25. Ibid., 543.

  26. Ibid., 502.

  27. Ibid., 434.

  28. Ibid., 480. Voellmy suggests that the ‘crânerie’ of Rimbaud's observation was intended to impress Ilg, ‘avec lequel il désire commencer des relations d'affaires’ (Correspondance, 1888-1891, 25).

  29. An analogous idea occurs in Une Saison en Enfer (Œuvres complètes, 97), where the archetypal Western figures of the merchant, magistrate, general and emperor are stigmatized as ‘faux nègres’.

  30. Rimbaud, Correspondance, 1888-1891, 24.

  31. Dominique Mannoni, Psychologie de la Colonisation, Seuil, 1950, 103.

  32. Albert Memmi, Portrait du Colonisé précédé du Portrait du Colonisateur, Buchet/Chastel, 1957, 113.

  33. Rimbaud, Œuvres complètes, 365. The notion of exile through transgression is, according to Mannoni, an important element in the colonial psyche.

  34. Ibid., 502.

  35. Ibid., 440.

  36. Ibid., 472.

  37. Ibid., 394.

  38. Ibid., 395.

  39. Ibid., 71.

  40. Ibid., 98.

  41. Ibid., 154.

  42. Ibid., 152.

  43. Enid H. Rhodes, ‘Under the Spell of Africa. Poems and Letters of Arthur Rimbaud inspired by the Dark Continent’, The French Review, XLIV, 1971, 25.

  44. Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell, The Illuminations, Oxford, University Press, 1973, 17.

  45. C. A. Hackett, Rimbaud: a critical Introduction, Cambridge, University Press, 1981, 127.

  46. Rhodes, op. cit., 21.

  47. Pierre Gascar, Rimbaud et la Commune, Gallimard, 1971, 140-41.

  48. Rimbaud, Œuvres complètes, 81.

  49. Ibid., 122.

  50. Ibid., 71.

  51. Rhodes, op. cit., 21.

  52. Robert Goffin, Rimbaud vivant, Corrêa, 1937, 153.

  53. Starkie, op. cit., 324.

  54. Rhodes, op. cit., 21.

  55. Michel Courtois, ‘Le Mythe du nègre chez Rimbaud’, Littérature, XI, 1973, 85.

  56. Rimbaud, op. cit., 61, 27, 36-37.

  57. Ibid., 17, 44.

  58. Shelby T. McCloy, The Negro in France, Lexington, University of Kentucky Press, 1961. According to McCloy, an estimated six thousand black African troops took part in the Franco-Prussian war (189).

  59. Rimbaud, op. cit., 926.

  60. Ibid., 267.

  61. Ibid., 97.

  62. Ibid., 97.

  63. Margaret Davies, «Une Saison en Enfer» d'Arthur Rimbaud: analyse du texte, Archives des Lettres Modernes, Minard, 1975, 32.

  64. Marcel Ruff, Rimbaud, Connaissance des Lettres, Hatier, 1968, 170.

  65. In his Histoire de la Folie à l'âge classique, Gallimard, 1961, Michel Foucault suggests that medieval European society's perception of lepers and leprosy was determined by a collective notion of exclusion and altérité.

  66. Rimbaud, op. cit., 113, 116.

  67. Rhodes, op. cit., 22-23.

Kristin Ross (essay date summer 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12398

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

“Ideology” is perhaps the fact that each person does what he or she is “supposed to do”. … Ideology is just the other name for work.

—Jacques Rancière2

In his essay “Le Chant des sirènes,” Maurice Blanchot places Rimbaud's Une Saison en enfer within a curious constellation of texts, in the community of narratives he calls récits: the tale of Ulysses and the Sirens, for example, Moby Dick, Nerval's Aurélia, Nadja. The constituent elements of the genre, or rather antigenre, “récit” are, at least initially, relatively straightforward; the récit is the narrative of one single episode: “Something has happened, something which someone has experienced who tells about it afterwards.”3 I say antigenre because Blanchot defines the récit in opposition to the novel; the distinction he proposes between the two kinds of narrative is primarily a temporal one: the récit recounts the exceptional event, while the propelling force of the novel is everyday, mundane time. The novel's space is “the world of the usual sort of truth,” and its concerns are those of verisimilitude. The récit, on the other hand, takes off where verisimilitude stops.

The récit for Blanchot functions as a kind of transhistorical antigenre that flowers in opposition to the dominant generic compromise formation of any given historical moment. By designating Une Saison a récit Blanchot invites an examination of its oppositional stance to the dominant generic project of its historical moment: the novelistic one, what in English is variously called the novel of education or acculturation, in French the roman de formation, and the more vast bourgeois cultural project of which the novel of apprenticeship forms perhaps something of a subset—that of biography or autobiography. The novel of formation shares with autobiography a very general project: the recounting of the formation of a personality.

To say that Une Saison en enfer, that long and arduous Penelope work of undoing, of de-formation, offers a critique of the novel of acculturation is not to relegate Rimbaud's poetic project to a realm of romantic subjectivism lacking in social reflexivity. Marxist aesthetic theory—from Lukács to the current generation—has shown a marked neglect of poetry while at the same time reasserting the traditionally dominant concern with narrative and with the novel genre. This hesitation on the part of Marxist critics (Brecht and Benjamin being the notable exceptions) and cultural critics in general to explore a new sense of the discursive relationship between what we generally call poetry and what we generally call political discourse can be traced to traditional assumptions that regard prose as the privileged vehicle for objective or political themes and verse for subjective or individual ones—or, put another way, to the assumption that there exists a social production of reality on the one hand and a desiring production that is mere fantasy or wish fulfillment on the other. To situate Rimbaud's work within the quasi-Anarchist social movements and culture surrounding the Paris Commune, as I will below, is not simply to provide a political or social “context” for a subjective poetic work (as if the “deconstruction” of a work of art offered up a social context that did not in turn have to be deconstructed)—rather, I propose to read Rimbaud, his experience and his poetry, as one “phoneme,” so to speak, among many in the political language of the 1870s.

In their writings on the bourgeois novel, Lukács and Sartre join together in underlining two elements essential to the genre of the novel of acculturation. The first of these is an almost atmospheric emanation of calm, which Lukács locates in the social optimism of the beginnings of the genre and in the relativization of the central character into a universal and ideal bourgeois subjectivity (bourgeois as universal). Sartre, writing about the late nineteenth century—his exemplary author is Maupassant—locates the same calm in the novel's retrospective narration, in the great distance from which the narrator looks back on the turbulent events of his youth. The novel of youth, in other words, is ventriloquized out of the mouths of the aged—narrators freed from the exigencies of desire who consider the escapades of their youth both lucidly and indulgently.

Neither the author nor the reader of these novels, says Sartre, is running any risks: the event, the turbulence, is past, catalogued, understood, and recounted by a stabilized bourgeoisie at the end of the century who have lived through 1848 and the Commune and who are confident that “nothing else will happen.” But if the genre of the “novel of youth” is formed out of the interplay between the transformational energies it derives from the energy of youth, and by the formal limitations imposed by the necessity that youth must come to an end,4 then Rimbaud's tale of youth proposes the impossible: a narrative that consists of pure transformational energy, pure transition or suradolescence; a voice that speaks from the place of youth rather than ventriloquizes it; and the movement of a thought conjugated with and in view of (not after) the event. Rimbaud's narrative, formally marked by the violence of its multifaceted transformations, is not calm.

The second, and, for our purposes, more important element that both Lukács and Sartre deem essential to the novel of acculturation is the centrality of the role of métier in the narrative construction of the bourgeois subject:

It follows … given by the theme itself, of effective action in social reality, that the organization of the outside world into professions, classes, ranks, etc., is of decisive importance for this particular type of personality as the substratum of its social activity.5

The reconciliation of the aspirations of the subject to the objective limitations imposed on him/her by an alienated world is charted through the subject's gradual accession into the world of work. The individual learns to internalize the jarring shocks of encountering the objective limitations set by the social world (“I learned from my mistakes”): that process of internalization is called apprenticeship.6 Along the way the individual makes errors; learning to internalize these errors leads not only to a comprehension of and reconciliation with the world—it provides the very motor energy of the plot. The gentleman who has arrived at the moment of his life when the mistakes of his life can be imparted as moral lessons is, according to Sartre, “always a professional by experience, a doctor, soldier, artist … neither the general nor the doctor impart their memories in a raw state: they are experiences that have been distilled, and we are warned as soon as they begin to speak that their story has a moral.”7 That moral is both the result of and the proscription to the choice and acquisition of a métier.

The regime of work, then, is inseparable from the development of form, to which corresponds the formation of the subject.8 Rimbaud's narrator in the “Mauvais Sang” section of Une Saison en enfer categorically refuses the choice of métier:

J'ai horreur de tous les métiers. Maîtres et ouvriers, tous paysans, ignobles. La main à plume vaut la main à charrue.—Quel siècle à mains!—Je n'aurai jamais ma main. Après, la domesticité mène trop loin. L'honnêteté de la mendicité me navre. Les criminels dégoûtent comme les châtrés: moi, je suis intact, et ça m'est égal.

[I have a horror of all trades. Bosses and workers, all of them peasants, and common. The hand that holds the pen is as good as the one that holds the plow. (What a century for hands!) I'll never learn to use my hands. Then, domesticity leads too far. The propriety of beggary shames me. Criminals are as disgusting as castrates; I'm intact, and I don't care.]9

Lest we take métiers in the opening sentence of this passage to mean “trades” as opposed to the more bourgeois “professions,” the rest of the paragraph makes clear that the narrator refuses the very structure of work, the social division of labor itself that in the nineteenth century is beginning to be pushed to the limits of overspecialization. He is refusing the narrow horizon resulting from being imprisoned in one's trade—the “idiotisme,” both in the sense of the idiocy and the idiom, of the métier: seeing only the problems and preoccupations of one's specialty, whether one's role be that of boss or worker: “Bosses and workers, all of them peasants, and common.”

“Quel siècle à mains!” Manus, in Latin, indicates the fist, power, that which wields the weapon or the tool, strength, authority, the “authorial” authority of the writer, even the conjugal authority of the man over the woman who gives him hers. “I'll never learn to use my hands. Then, domesticity leads too far.” The narrator places himself outside of a set of power relations that includes conjugal domesticity as much as it does the division of labor, even that most primitive of hierarchies that privileges intellectual over manual work, professions of initiative, intelligence, and command—those “proper” to the bourgeoisie—over those requiring physical effort, obedience, and the execution of orders. In Rimbaud the other of the proletariat is not so much the capitalist, the man of property, as the intellectual or artist, the man of words: “The hand that holds the pen is as good as the hand that holds the plow.”

Writing is an activity of the hand as much as is plowing: the importance lies in the relation of the hand to a tool, even if the tool is as light as a pen. “Je n'aurai jamais ma main,” which Paul Schmidt translates convincingly as “I will never learn to use my hands,” announces the will to resist participation in a society where workers' activities—those of artists or farmers—are projected outside of and against them, in a work process in which the previous social labor, which has produced the tools, the pens, the plows, the language with which work is done, appears as a dead structure automatizing labor and worker at once. It is not work that forms the worker but only his or her expropriation—apprenticeship is “realized” only when work has become a power completely alien to the worker. “Je n'aurai jamais ma main”: Rimbaud here indicates the will to resist that compromise solution of finding the contradictions of the objective structure to be complex and alienated but nonetheless manipulable. The poet, in fact, is identified with the instrumentally manipulated and dominated; if we understand “ma main” as in the expression “de la main de quelqu'un,” then “I will never have my signature,” my oeuvre: a body of artistic work that exists as an alienated or detached object. To have a métier, a trade, a specialty—even that of an antisocial métier like beggar or criminal (both professionals who “live by their hands”; in French, tendre la main means “to beg”)—is to lose one's hand as an integral part of one's body: to experience it as extraneous, detachable, in service to the rest of the body as synecdoche for the social body, executing the wishes of another. To give birth to myself, to become my own work—by placing myself outside the regime of work I can remain intact: “Criminals are as disgusting as castrates: I'm intact and I don't care.” Intact, which is to say, not castrated.

The native infirmity of the worker is castration, the expropriation of the body by the institution of wage labor: the economic obligation of people who cannot otherwise survive to sell the only commodity they possess, their labor power, their “hand,” on the labor market. Mutilation is a consequence of war (as in “Le Dormeur du val”); it is, however, as Rimbaud makes clear, a condition, a presupposition of the state apparatus and the organization of work. In the “Nuit de l'enfer” section of Une Saison, the space of hell—which is at one and the same time the Christian concept of eternal damnation (“hell; the old one, the one whose doors the son of man opened”) and the increasing standardization of everyday life under late nineteenth-century capitalism—is characterized by mutilation: “But I am still alive! Suppose damnation is eternal! A man who wants to mutilate himself is certainly damned, isn't he?”; “Ah! To return to life! To stare at our deformities.”

The “Mauvais Sang” section of the poem, which, it seems clear from the letters, provided the genesis for the entire narrative, opens with the construction of an “oppositional” ancestry:

J'ai de mes ancêtres gaulois l'oeil bleu blanc, la cervelle étroite, et la maladresse dans la lutte. Je trouve mon habillement aussi barbare que le leur. Mais je ne beurre pas ma chevelure.

Les Gaulois étaient les écorcheurs de bêtes, les bruleurs d'herbes les plus ineptes de leur temps.

D'eux, j'ai: l'idolâtrie et l'amour du sacrilège;—oh! tous les vices, colère, luxure,—magnifique, la luxure;—surtout mensonge et paresse.

[From my ancestors the Gauls I have white-blue eyes, a narrow brain, and awkwardness in competition. I think my clothes are as barbaric as theirs. But I don't butter my hair.

The Gauls were the most inept hide flayers and hay burners of their time.

From them I inherit: idolatry and love of sacrilege—oh, all sorts of vice: anger, lust—terrific, lust—above all, lying and laziness.]

We must look closely here at the first of what will be a lengthy series of identifications or “devenir-autres” on the part of the narrator. A lineage or racial ancestry is established, at least initially, through the legacy of specifically antibourgeois moral qualities bequeathed by the barbarian ancestors: clumsiness, inattention to dress, ineptitude or incompetence, idolatry, anger, lust, and, above all, dishonesty and laziness. Later we will see more clearly how this racial identification, among others, functions strategically in the narrative as a rewriting of autobiography: an apparently subjective and individual narrative is little by little generalized to the point of forming a collective, world-historical subject. It has never been sufficiently emphasized that the narrator's “identifications” throughout the poem are always group identifications and not individual, psychological, or sentimental ones. In Rimbaud the minimal real unity is not the word, nor the individual subject, nor the concept, but rather the arrangement, the process of arranging or configurating elements. Une Saison en enfer is the production of collective utterances that are the product of such arrangements: the voices and experiences of populations—here Barbarian hordes—multiplicities, territories, migrations. Thus the acquisition in this passage of what appear initially to be psychological or rather moral characterological traits by the narrator-heir is of importance only within the larger social framework that places those qualities in dynamic opposition to bourgeois values; hence, for example, the embrace of lying, which undercuts, of course, the confessional or autobiographical validity of the narrative. (A similar purpose is served in the opening dedication of the whole work to the figure of Satan, “you who value in a writer all lack of descriptive or didactic flair”; this opening should be relieved once and for all of any cheap “Satanic” or demonic interpretation. For if it is, what emerges is a formal refusal analogous to the narrator's refusal of work in “Mauvais Sang”: Rimbaud's prose work will contain none of the didactic or moralizing posture of the nineteenth-century prose described by Sartre.) The habits and moral standards canonized as economic virtues under the bourgeois era were denounced in other ages as vices.

“Above all, lying and laziness.” How are we to understand this éloge to laziness, which amounts to a placing of the entire poem under its aegis? Certainly it is the antibourgeois value par excellence, the contrary to the justifying myth (industry and utility) of that unproductive and laborious class. But Rimbaud's relationship to laziness is a long and complex one that we can only begin to examine here. Laziness is frequently thematized, in more or less overt ways, throughout the poetry, beginning perhaps with the figure of the bohème in “Ma Bohème” and “Sensation” (“Et j'irai loin, bien loin comme un bohémien”) and the conscious opposition of sexual and archaic drives to the reality and performance principles of Nina's work world in “Les Reparties de Nina.” “Nina” is perhaps the first of the poems where the sharp division between spaces of lived time and the possibility of desire are placed over against the compartmentalized clock time of the adult, work world. In later works like “Vagabonds,” this opposition is highlighted by pairing oisif and luxe, as in the above description of the Gauls. The intact body, the body unmarked by work, is the body that experiences intense sensation; paresse is linked throughout Rimbaud's work to intensity of physical sensation and, at the same time, to a kind of weightlessness affiliated with pure speed. By a striking paradox, laziness, remaining outside the work order, is not standing still but moving fast, too fast.

Fredric Jameson has written about Rimbaud's unparalleled production of the “adolescent body”; he reads this production in the poetry in terms of a lived experience of “fermentation”: the perseverance of identity through metamorphosis.10 The choice of fermentation is governed in Jameson's argument by the need to construct a physiological, individual, or subjective homology to the objective historical change in mode of production—the transition from the market stage of capitalism to the monopoly stage—marked by Rimbaud's work. Jameson's underlining of the specificity of the adolescent body in Rimbaud is a powerful perception; however, grounding it in the phenomenlogical experience of fermentation, with all its connotations of ripeness and maturity, is incongruous and textually unconvincing. Isn't a full, sensory approximation of the male adolescent body more readily apparent in the almost reptilian combination of absolute torpor and absolute speed with which that body emerges in Rimbaud's text? Thus, on the one hand, the famous “sommeil” of Rimbaud, the languorous “wine of indolence” of “Les Chercheuses de poux,” of “Délire II”: “I lay about idle, consumed by an oppressive fever: I envied the bliss of animals—caterpillars, who portray the innocence of Limbo; moles, the slumber of virginity!”; “He'll never work; he wants to live like a sleepwalker” (“Délire I”); “The best thing is a drunken sleep, stretched out on some strip of shore” (“Mauvais Sang”). And, on the other, a gesture that is most like a darting, sudden reptilian precipitation; a brusk, usually oral aggression or rapid discharge of emotion—emotion, not sentiment but affect that takes a projectile form. This gesture is more prevalent in Rimbaud's early, erotic thematics—look, for instance, at the early prose work “Les Déserts de l'amour” or the poem “Tête de faune,” or recall the ending to “A la musique” in which the leisurely contemplation of the girls' bodies is suddenly disrupted: “Et mes désirs brutaux s'accrochent à leurs lèvres”—but it is apparent in other contexts as well, in the violent way, for instance, in which Rimbaud allows the category of the social to disrupt the sleepy genre of pastoral in “Le Dormeur du val” by suddenly blasting two bullet holes into the middle of the tableau.

What distinguishes the adolescent body, then, as it is figured in Rimbaud's work is a particular corporeal relation to speed: the body is both too slow and too fast. Periods of apparent lulls are broken by violent, spasmodically unbridled explosions, but even this is something of an optical illusion: the heavy torpor or seeming somnambulance of the body qualified by paresse hides a body that is in fact moving too fast. Laziness for Rimbaud is a kind of absolute motion, absolute speed that escapes from the pull of gravity. (One thinks, in the context of Rimbaud's relation to speed, of the almost unbelievable rapidity of diction, the semantic acceleration of the Illuminations; and, in a related context, of Ernest Delahaye's description of Rimbaud reading his poetry aloud: “that convulsive haste he had when he recited verse.”)11 Laziness hides an activity not subordinated to certain necessities, an activity that is not the everyday action of subsistence or industry (“Action isn't life; it's merely a way of ruining a kind of strength, a means of destroying nerves. Morality is water on the brain”; “Délire II”). Immobility in Rimbaud can in some cases be composed of pure speed: the sudden darting of desert reptiles on whom lies the fatigue of centuries. The adolescent body is both too slow and too fast to submit to the regime of work; “Work makes life blossom,” writes Rimbaud later in “Mauvais Sang,” “an old idea, not mine; my life doesn't weigh enough, it drifts off and floats far beyond action, that third pole of the world [ce cher point du monde].” In later sections of Une Saison en enfer we will hear diatribes against the sluggishness of work and against the engulfing of the understanding of the civil world by the canons of knowledge used in the physical sciences: “Careful, mind. Don't rush madly after salvation. Train yourself! Ah, science never goes fast enough for us!” (“L'Impossible”); or,

What more can I do? Labor I know, and science is too slow. That praying gallops and that light roars; I'm well aware of it. It's too simple, and the weather's too hot; you can all do without me. I have my duty; but I will be proud, as others have been, to set it aside.


Rimbaud's own lived experience of resistance to work is well known to any who have read his letters. A few days after returning from his first flight to Paris he writes to Georges Izambard: “I am out of place [dépaysé], sick, furious, dull, upset; I hoped to lie in the sun, I hoped for infinite walks, rests, trips, adventures, wanderings [des bohémienneries]” (25 August 1870). To Izambard again, three months later: “I returned to Charleville the day after leaving you. My mother received me, and I'm here … completely lazy [oisif].” And the following year, after the three famous instances of “vagabondage”—twice to Paris and once to Belgium—he is back in Charleville, under the strict and watchful eye of his mother:

More than a year ago I left ordinary life behind for the one you know about. Locked up forever in that indescribable Ardennes country, seeing nobody, burdened with wretched work, incompetent, mysterious, obstinate, answering questions or crude, mean addresses with silence. … She [his mother] wanted to force me to work—forever, in Charleville (Ardennes!). Find a job by such and such a day, she said, or get out.—I refused that life without giving any reasons: it would have been pathetic.

[28 August 1871]

Poetic work, as well, is problematic: to Verlaine he writes in 1872, “Work is as far away from me as my fingernail from my eye.” And two years later in London, when Rimbaud appears to be engaged in a frantic search for a position as an instructor of languages, his mother and sister come to London and wait for him to find a position: “There are positions,” his sister complains. “If he had wanted one, he would have had one and we would have already left. If he had wanted, we could have already been gone today.”12

Psychobiographical data like Rimbaud's flights from Charleville, his “vagabondage,” have been used most frequently to support any of the various mythic constructions of Rimbaud as poète maudit. Designed largely to promote a vulgarized notion of the experience of exile and expatriation, such interpretations rely on the simple and traditional model of the poet as “outsider” and “genius”—outsider even within his own community. The banal imagery invoked by such models is all too familiar: the fixed gap between isolated and misunderstood but clairvoyant prodigy and the inauthentic society. Rimbaud's running away from home at sixteen becomes the proof of the irrepressible and singular nature of his genius, his uniquely “poet's” need to distance himself from the petty tyrannies of the provinces and his mother. Nothing, in fact, shows Rimbaud's uniqueness or originality less.13 Between the years of 1830 and 1896, convictions for vagrancy [vagabondage] increased by sevenfold in France; in 1889, 600,000 children—one-eleventh of the educable population—had fled school.14 In most cases vagabondage corresponded to the ritualization of the entry into the work force at the end of school—that abrupt passage into a new age, itinerary, group of friends: with the onset of work came the moment of rupture. Particularly widespread was the phenomenon of youthful vagabondage: youths “of a bohemian and lazy character, vicious or incorrigible, unable or unwilling to stay and work for bosses in the countryside,”15 fled rural life to come to the cities. Charles Portales, author of a book on the phenomenon, writes in 1854 that “soon laziness and debauchery will propel … into the cities thousands of corrupt young men who will threaten propriety.”16 By the middle of the century vagabondage as a social problem was being analyzed and discussed in print by an assortment of educators, prison supervisors, and social reformers. While some of these writers show at least an initial sensitivity, speaking, for example, of “the extreme difficulty presented by the question of vagabondage … since the problem touches on the primordial rights of human liberty,”17 most resorted to a particularly lurid brand of rhetoric:

Outside of the society that it frightens and repels, lives a class of individuals for whom there is no family, no regular work, no fixed domicile.

That class is the class of vagabonds.18

The Belgian inspector-general of prisons, Edouard Ducpetiaux, writing in a tone that typifies the pamphlets of the period, warns against vagabondage as the male equivalent to prostitution; what looks like aimless wandering, he alerts his readers, is in fact a greased path to the gallows:

Ordinarily vagabondage means the first step taken in a career that leads to prison and sometimes to the gallows: vagabondage is for the apprentice what prostitution is for the young woman worker: a sort of proclamation of independence, it is the first act of defiance against the social order.19

Vagabondage is a pure creation of penal law, a word of repression; it has no existence apart from a legally constituted infraction. A vagabond is a vagabond because he or she is arrested. What was particularly disquieting about vagabondage was its ambiguous status: technically speaking, vagabonds have not violated any laws (except the laws against vagabondage); they have not committed any crimes. But their “way of life” places them in a state that supposes the eventual violation of laws: vagabonds are always virtual, anticipatory. One writer describes the ambiguity in this way: you can't say to a vagabond, as you might to a criminal who has committed a crime, “Don't do it again”; instead, you would have to say, “Change your way of life, take up the habits of work, etc.”20 Their existence in “virtuality” or “potentiality” of misdeed makes them more threatening, as Maupassant's 1887 story “Le Vagabond” makes clear, than the more predictable criminal. Vagabonds are victims of dangerous heredity and carriers of the fatal germ of dégénérescence; “contagious,” in both the medical and social sense of the term, they are the incarnation of a social illness that strikes not so much an individual as a family, a generation, a lineage.21 Their problem, like Rimbaud's, is “bad blood.” The vagueness of the vagabond's “potential” for evil is, after the Commune, given a precise identity, a face: vagabonds are now potential political insurgents:

It is easy to understand what the support of such people [vagabonds] must be for the enemies of the established order, those who are pushed by various motives of ambition, desire, anger, and who want to rise up against the established order. These will always find in vagabonds men of action, always ready to do anything, those who, for a cigar or a glass of eau-de-vie, would set fire to all of Paris. …

Vagabonds are the most dangerous enemies of society. … They live among us as savage animals would. … Deplorable from the point of view of society; for the vagabond, having nothing to lose in moments of social upheaval, desires such moments and helps out in the hopes of gaining something … vagabondage being not only a fact, but a state, a sort of moral infirmity.22

Methods of treating the problem ranged from the preacherly (“Men must be taught, not only by laws and by speeches, but also by example, that nothing is more beautiful than work”)23 to the severely repressive. When Rimbaud is sent back to Charleville after being arrested in Paris, the official police document reads: “Came from Charleroi to Paris with a ticket for Saint-Quentin and without a domicile nor means of supporting himself.”24 In fact, the French penal code of 1810 (art. 270) defines the vagabond not only as someone without a home but specifically as someone without a métier: “Vagabonds or people without a place [gens sans aveu; the expression in the Middle Ages referred to people who were not tied to a lord, and who thus had no protection under the law] are those who have neither an assured domicile nor means of existence, and who generally have no trade [métier] or profession.” Rimbaud profited from an 1832 revision of the penal code that established a legal distinction between adults and adolescents; while adults were liable to six months in prison, youths sixteen or younger were, depending on the circumstances, sent back to their parents or placed under police surveillance until the age of twenty-one, if they had not, by that age, obtained an engagement in the army or the marines.

Later in the century the French government would learn to apply to vagabondage—“that nervous mania of locomotion and laziness that appears to be one of the ways in which the free life of the savage is preserved”25—a more effective, if homeopathic, treatment: from vagabondage would come organized wandering in the form of geographical exploration and colonial expedition, a solution that had been advocated for some time by writers on the topic:

One day when I was sitting in the correctional chamber of the Court of Appeals in Rouen, we had to judge a young man who had been found guilty of vagabondage, and who already had been convicted four times for the same crime.

“Why are you appealing?” the President asked him. “In the first place you were only condemned to six months in prison, which is the penalty you just saw being given men for their first offense.”

“Why am I appealing?” responded the guilty man, “I am appealing so that you send me to the colonies. There perhaps I could do something better than what I am doing in France.”26

As for transportation, if the state would only grant the transport and establishment of vagabonds on Algerian soil.27

Let another asylum be opened for them, and, in the same way that Rome had a law decreeing that rebel beggars be sent to the colonies, let a new law open up those magnificent domains that France possesses beyond the seas for her vagabonds.28

In the “Voyant” letters, written at the time of the Commune, it is clear that the élan propelling Rimbaud toward a structural identification with the workers in Paris arises at the precise moment when “work,” as such, has definitively stopped:

Je serai un travailleur: c'est l'dée qui me retient, quand les colères folles me poussent vers la bataille de Paris,—où tant de travailleurs meurent pourtant encore tandis que je vous écris! Travailler maintenant, jamais, jamais; je suis en grève.

[I will be a worker: that's what holds me back when a wild fury drives me toward the battle in Paris, where so many workers are still dying while I am writing to you! Work, now? Never, never. I'm on strike;

to Izambard, 13 May 1871]

“Workers” in this identificatory structure are not those whose time/space is rigidly defined and allotted by a dominant class; they are people who have become aware of their position in a structure of oppression. Rimbaud's identification is with a group subject whose joint activity is not work but in this case combat. “I will be a worker”: it is only at some future moment when the project of new social relations, a radical transformation in the structure of work has been achieved that Rimbaud will be a worker; now, however, he refuses work. But the refusal of work is not an absence of activity—nor, obviously, is it leisure since leisure reinforces the work model by existing only with reference to work—it is a qualitatively different activity, often very frenetic, and above all combative.29 The strategic refusal of work presupposes a collective subject as well—the “nous” of the final sections of Une Saison, the “horrible travailleurs” whose future existence is affirmed in the letter to Paul Demeny (15 May 1871): “Other horrible workers will come; they will begin at the horizons where the other has fallen!”

“Mauvais Sang” develops the strategy of nonwork:

Mais! qui a fait ma langue perfide tellement, qu'elle ait guidé et sauvegardé jusqu'ici ma paresse? Sans me servir pour vivre même de mon corps, et plus oisif que le crapaud, j'ai vécu partout.

[But who has made my tongue so treacherous, that until now it has counseled and kept me in idleness? I have not used even my body to get along. More idle than a toad, I have lived everywhere.]

The intact body is the body “safeguarded” from work and from the hierarchy of its organs inflicted by the work model: the mind that commands, the hand that executes. Laziness, the refusal to make use of the body or turn it into a tool, is here linked to a kind of radical mobility—I have lived everywhere; I have lived many lives. (Later, “J'ai connu tous les fils de famille”—the sexual sense of the verb is clear.) This is not the proverbial mobility of the industrial worker under capitalism, who migrates to the urban capitals from the countryside, “free” to move about because “free” to sell his/her labor. This is the impossible liberty of having exempted oneself from the organization of work in a society that expropriates the very body of the worker.

A pamphlet written about five years after Une Saison en enfer, a text that is in many ways its double in the field of political theory, sheds light on Rimbaud's celebration of laziness as ideological refusal: Paul Lafargue's Le Droit à la paresse (1880). Born in Cuba of mixed ancestry (Jewish, Cuban mulatto, French, Caribbean Indian), Lafargue came to France to study medicine but became involved in left-wing politics. At first a follower of Proudhon, he became friends with Marx and his family in London and later married Marx's daughter Laura. He participated actively in the Commune and took exile in London at the same time as Rimbaud, Verlaine, Eugène Vermersch, and many other ex-Communards. He resettled in Paris in 1880 and became a leading propagandist for the Parti ouvrier français. Militantly anticlerical, he was a strong supporter of women's rights; his colonial background helped him become a leading critic and uncannily prescient analyst of imperialism; he was, as well, one of the pioneering figures in the new fields of anthropology and ethnology.

Le Droit à la paresse was written as a parodic refutation to the document that elevated the “right to work” to the status of a revolutionary principle, the 1848 Droit au travail. It was to produce an enormous effect in France and elsewhere; of all nineteenth-century political pamphlets it was second only to the Communist Manifesto in the number of languages into which it was translated. The pamphlet sets out to prove, at a time when labor was being virtually deified, that all individual and social miseries in capitalist society are born of the working classes' conditioned passion and demand for work. Like Rimbaud, Lafargue stages highly dramatic imaginary dialogues and tableaux; his hyperbolic, parodic, and colorful prose in and of itself shows a proto-Brechtian suspension of the opposition between entertainment and instruction. His subtitles (“A nouvel air, chanson nouvelle”), recall the “nouvelle harmonie,” the veritable crescendo of “the new” that we find in Rimbaud's “Départ,” “Génie,” or the conclusion to Une Saison. Much time is spent detailing the grotesque physicality and degradation of both worker and bourgeois resulting from the inscription on their bodies of the division of labor—that great sale of human labor which makes merchandise of people and an immense boutique of society. (“For sale,” writes Rimbaud in “Solde,” “bodies without price, outside any race, any world, any sex, any lineage!”) The bourgeoisie, for example, obliged to devote themselves to overconsumption as their definitive activity or métier, strikingly resemble the Charleville music listeners in “A la musique”; traces of Lafargue's medical training can be heard in the precise anatomical vocabulary he uses to depict the bourgeoisie “squatting” (accroupie; a favorite word of Rimbaud's) in their absolute laziness:

With this occupation [à ce métier], the organism decays rapidly, hair falls out, teeth loosen, the abdomen loses its shape, the stomach is ruined, respiration is hampered, all movement grows heavy, the joints stiffen, the phalanxes become twisted.30

By proclaiming the right to laziness Lafargue is not turning his back on the tradition of utopian socialism—even if his pamphlet was greeted more favorably in anarchist than in socialist circles.31 He is, however, “deconstructing” the most definitive and time-honored semantic opposition of that tradition—the opposition, dating back to the 1789 revolution and at first a solely economic one, between “one who works and produces” (travailleur) and “one who produces nothing and is a social parasite” (oisif).32 By the 1830s, the term travailleurs, in the collective plural, had taken on strong moral as well as economic value within revolutionary vocabulary, defined antonymically to the pejorative connotations of oisif (and its synonyms, capitaliste, exploiteur, bourgeois). With the problem of the “right to work” dominating the June insurrection, the revolution of 1848 definitively consecrates the opposition; the revolutionary content of the term travailleur develops throughout the Second Empire, and what had once expressed a solely economic relationship by the time of the Commune takes on its full social and political resonance. By depicting the absolute laziness of the bourgeoisie, Lafargue operates within the traditional socialist opposition. His emphasis, however, on workers claiming what the bourgeoisie reserved for itself—leisure, pleasure, intellectual life—on workers abandoning the world of work, grants the pamphlet its shock value. Lafargue suggests a revolutionary praxis whereby the true threat to existing order comes not from some untainted working class but from a challenge to the boundaries between labor and leisure, producer and consumer, worker and bourgeois, worker and intellectual.33

My concern in articulating Rimbaud and Lafargue's “attack” on labor is to document a moment or strategy in an oppositional culture that itself cannot be detected as long as one approaches cultural production uniquely from the perspective of the relentless “it couldn't have been otherwise” logic of the commodity. Studies of the nineteenth-century commodification of leisure, of the rise of the department store or the opulent life of the demi-monde under the Second Empire, have little to say about such specific oppositional strategies that were operative at the same time. It is crucial in this context, therefore, not to mistake laziness for leisure. Laziness, for Rimbaud and Lafargue, constitutes a kind of third term outside of the programmed dyad of labor and leisure. Their attack on labor is at one and the same time an attack on commodified leisure and an affirmation of transgressive activity like that of the worker-poet Charles Poncy, who despite George Sand's complaint to him that “what we want from you is songs about the factory” resisted the class identity prescribed for him and continued to write highly rhetorical and elevated poems on romantic love.

The interest of Lafargue lies particularly in his refusal to participate in the construction of the “good worker,” that image type central to pre-Commune moralizing discourse directed at workers by right-wing philanthropists, moralists, and factory managers. In the decade following the Commune, the Left takes over the task of constructing the “good worker”—largely in reaction to inflammatory right-wing diatribes against the prostitutes, petroleuses, drunkards, and vagabonds who set Paris aflame. Many left-wing histories of the Commune written in the 1870s are immediately concerned with depicting the Communard as model worker: a good family man who never touched eau-de-vie and who wanted nothing more than to devote himself fifteen hours a day to his métier.

Lafargue begins his pamphlet by quoting Adolphe Thiers as the representative mouthpiece of bourgeois utility; he allows Thiers to establish the basic opposition between work and pleasure that will structure his own text:

I want to make the clergy's influence all powerful, because I am counting on it to propagate that good philosophy which teaches man that he is here below to suffer, and not that other philosophy which tells man the opposite: take pleasure [jouis].


Rimbaud sums up the alliance between bourgeois rationalization and Christian asceticism even more succinctly in Une Saison: “Monsieur Prudhomme was born with Christ” (“L'Impossible”). The value judgments that found the distinction between classes, which privilege intellectual over manual work, have their roots in the primacy of mind over matter, intellectual and moral life over the life of the body, that is the founding premise of the Christian tradition. The new and dominant bourgeois ideology of scientific knowledge as a nonbelief is nothing more than the last refuge of belief, of religiosity. “‘Nothing is vanity; on toward knowledge!’ cries the modern Ecclesiastes, which is Everyone.” (“L'Eclair”). “Science doesn't deny God, it does better, it makes Him unnecessary.”34 In Lafargue and Rimbaud, capitalist morality and Christian morality unite in making anathema the body of the worker.

Lafargue's strategy, like Rimbaud's in “Mauvais Sang,” is to begin his historical narrative by establishing an “alternative” history; like Rimbaud he will call his alternative narrative a “barbarian” or “pagan” history. (The original title for Une Saison en enfer was Livre païen or Livre nègre.) He begins his narrative with the historical moment when the bourgeoisie, locked in struggle against the nobility, “had happily taken up the pagan tradition once more and glorified the flesh and the passions” (119). Now, of course, gorged with pleasures and with goods, the bourgeoisie preaches abstinence; formerly, their inferior, combative posture allowed for an “adoption” of the pagan tradition.

Like Rimbaud in “Mauvais Sang” (“Pagan blood returns!” and, “Since I cannot express myself except in pagan terms, I would rather keep quiet”), Lafargue uses the notion of a pagan tradition to serve as a hinge between the celebration of the body (jouissance, paresse) in the past—the European antecedents—and “New World” alternatives to Western bourgeois ideology: the indifference or outright hostility of peasants and tribespeople to participation in the market economy as wage laborers. Complaining that work in capitalist society is the cause of all intellectual degeneration and all organic deformation, Lafargue conjures up a “precolonial” tableau picturing the native that “the missionaries of trade and the traders of religion have not yet corrupted with Christianity, syphilis, and the dogma of work” (121). Rimbaud's trio of oppression in “Mauvais Sang” is, if we recall, almost identical: “The white men are landing! The cannon! Now we must be baptized, get dressed, and go to work.” Just as older civilizations and the beginnings of Christianity “corrupt the barbarians of the old world,” so aging Christianity and modern capitalist society corrupt the inhabitants of the New World, manipulating the same rhetoric used to justify class warfare in Europe to condemn the seemingly irrational resistance of tribespeople new to the modern wage-labor situation to be drawn into market economy as wage laborers. Lafargue then undertakes a vaguely ethnographic survey, quoting in passing M. F. Le Play's Les Ouvriers européens (1865); he admires Le Play's talent for observation while rejecting all of his sociological conclusions. The passage he selects praises the seminomadic paresse of the Bachkirs (shepherds from the Asian side of the Urals):

The propensity of the Bachkirs for laziness, the leisures of nomadic life, the habits of meditation these give rise to even in the least gifted individuals often lends these people a distinction of manners, a fineness of intelligence and of judgment rarely seen at the same social level of a more developed civilization.


Lafargue forms his “pagan” constellation out of the European bourgeoisie at the moment of its struggle against the nobility, the precolonial native, aborigines from Oceania, the Goths and other barbarians, Eskimos, Indian tribes in Brazil, and the Bachkirs. On the other side of the spectrum he provides examples of races who “love to work, races for whom work is an organic necessity”: Auvergnats, Scots, and Chinese. Within capitalist society he specifies the classes that love work for work's sake: “landowning peasants and the petite bourgeoisie, the former stooped over their lands, the latter entombed in their shops, moving around like moles in their underground world” (213). (It is striking to note that Rimbaud's class background unites exactly these two: his mother was a land-owning peasant, his father, petit bourgeois.)

If Rimbaud's and Lafargue's alternative or oppositional constellations are roughly the same, so are the forces each chooses to castigate within the filiation of the oppressive bourgeois order. In fact, the opposition between what I am calling a “constellation” on the one hand, which might be defined as an oppositional rapport based on a kind of decentered, nonhierarchical mobility and alliance, and the familial relation of “filiation” on the other plays a crucial role in both texts. A familial or filial rhetoric dominates those passages that deal with the oppressive, official history: “I recall the history of France, the oldest daughter of the Church” (“Mauvais Sang”); “Bourgeois men of letters … have sung loathsome songs in honor of the god Progress, the oldest son of Work” (Lafargue, 126). The thematics of the orphan, which are prevalent throughout Rimbaud's early poetry (e.g., “Les Etrennes des orphelins,” “Ma Bohème,” “Rêvé pour l'hiver,” “Les Effarés”) and, if we are to believe Delahaye, in his conversation (“What work, everything to be demolished, to be erased in my head! Oh! how happy the abandoned child, brought up any which way, reaching adulthood without any idea inculcated by teachers or by a family: new, clear-headed, without principles, without ideas,—since everything they teach us is false—and free, free from everything”),35 reach their highpoint in the figure of the poet/speaker of “Mauvais Sang”—dispossessed, without a family, without even a proper language or material form: “If only I had a link to some point in the history of France! But instead, nothing”; “I don't remember much beyond this land, and Christianity. I will see myself forever in its past. But always alone, without a family; what language, in fact, did I used to speak?”

Is it surprising, then, to find Rimbaud, an adolescent, and Lafargue, a Creole, both of whose political imaginations were irrevocably marked by participating in the event of the Commune, joined together at the precise historical moment of the acceleration of capital into what would become its imperialist heyday, both articulating a refusal—the very same as that of “primitive” societies—the refusal to allow work and production to engulf them?

But are we really seeing anything here distinct from the standard oppositional discourse adopted en masse by nineteenth-century bourgeois intellectuals and writers—Mallarmé and Flaubert being the best examples—to the hegemonic discourse and workings of their own class? In the face of the creeping domination of the world, including the world of art, by a market economy, the mid-century artistic avant-garde institutes a radical disjunction between the world of poetry and the perceived vulgarity of socioeconomic existence: the realm of utility. Flaubert's dialectical negation takes the form of an enshrined, privatized notion of the Beautiful: an aesthetic realm freed from the contamination of mediocre, “common,” extraliterary considerations. Mallarmé, as is well known, is preoccupied with asserting language's autonomy and self-sufficiency; a poetic language of “evocation” must be rescued from drowning into the base and dominant language of “precision”—the rationalist, analytical discourse of science, technology, and material production. In his recent book Discourse/Counter-Discourse, Richard Terdiman argues convincingly that Mallarmé's fetishization of the poetic text—which appears without a producer, which appears, according to Mallarmé's famous dictum, with “the elocutory disappearance of the poet”—ends up promoting the reification it sought to resist. Thus the canonical avant-garde stance—what was then called Art for Art's Sake and what has evolved into the aestheticism and empty formalism of many strains in our own contemporary criticism—can be seen, as Terdiman suggests, as “a transformation of the old aristocratic doctrine that manual work, work related to concerns of practicality or utility, is the attribute of inferiority.”36

How different, then, the embrace of inferiority by Rimbaud: “I am well aware that I have always been of an inferior race”; and, “Priests, professors, and doctors, you are mistaken in delivering me into the hands of the law. I have never been one of you; I have never been a Christian; I belong to the race that sang on the scaffold” (“Mauvais Sang”). The narrator's desires or investments are, quite simply, those of the “inferior race.” That “race” shows up in the margins of official French history in the form of the undifferentiated horde of serfs “who owe their existence to the Declaration of the Rights of Man,” recruited to fight in the Crusades:

Je me rappelle l'histoire de la France, fille aînée de l'Eglise. J'aurais fait, manant, le voyage de terre sainte; j'ai dans la tête des routes dans les plaines souabes, des vues de Byzance, des remparts de Solyme; le culte de Marie, l'attendrissement sur le crucifié s'éveillent en moi parmi mille féeries profanes.—Je suis assis, lépreux, sur les pots cassés et les orties, au pied d'un mur rongé par le soleil.—Plus tard, reître, j'aurais bivaqué sous les nuits d'Allemagne.

Ah! encore: je danse le sabbat dans une rouge clairière, avec des vieilles et des enfants.

[I remember the history of France, the eldest daughter of the Church. I would have gone, a village serf, crusading to the Holy Land; my head is full of roads in the Swabian plains, of the sight of Byzantium, of the ramparts of Jerusalem; the cult of Mary, the pitiful thought of Christ crucified, turns in my head with a thousand profane enchantments—I sit, a leper among broken pots and nettles, at the foot of a wall eaten away by the sun.—And later, a wandering mercenary, I would have bivouacked under German nights.

Ah! one more thing: I dance the Sabbath in a scarlet clearing, with old women and children.]

This passage is striking for several reasons, not the least of which is the spatial, geographical presentation of world history we begin to find here—a kind of slide-show projection of side-by-side world-historical scenes with no apparent transition or continuity—that will become so overwhelmingly prevalent in the Illuminations. That Rimbaud should produce a historical narrative of discrete, disjointed tableaux at the point in the poem when he is seeking to disassociate himself from the history of official France and of the Church is not surprising; as Gramsci points out, the history of subaltern social groups is necessarily fragmented and episodic. And Rimbaud's history is resolutely subaltern: “I never see myself in the councils of Christ, nor in the councils of the Lords [Seigneurs], Christ's representatives.”

The subaltern figures of the village serf, the leper, the reiter, the witch are implicitly opposed to the canonical ghost trio of “priests, professors, doctors” who appeared earlier in the poem. A manant, in the Middle Ages, was the inhabitant of a village subjugated to seigneurial justice; a rude, uneducated man, the opposite of a gentleman: a paysan (a word which has the same etymology as pagan, from the Latin paganus, “villager”). A reiter in the Middle Ages was a German warrior; in the nineteenth century the term came to mean “mercenary.” The marginality of the leper and the witch needs no comment; it is, however, striking that it should be at this moment that the verb tense underlines a particular relation: “I would have gone, a village serf” and “a wandering mercenary, I would have bivouacked,” but “I sit, a leper” and “I dance the Sabbath.” Hugo Friedrich, in The Structure of Modern Poetry, speaks of Rimbaud's use of what he calls “absolute metaphor,” one that is no longer a mere figure of comparison but instead creates an identity.37 (Théodore de Banville was perhaps the first to notice this propensity in Rimbaud when he complained about the opening of “Le Bateau ivre.” The poem would be clearer, more successful, he advised, if Rimbaud were to replace the audacious “I” of the first line with a more digestible formula like “I am like a boat that. …” The true program of such language is, like that of Artaud's Theater of Cruelty, to verge beyond representation, to function as a machine to produce, not reproduce, the real. Thus Rimbaud's affinity with the slogan, with invective, with any language that, like the peculiar status of the vagabond, is latent or “virtual”—on the verge of passing over into action—and his affinity as well with the performative, libidinal politics of the Situationists, Deleuze, Guattari, and others of the post-May '68 generation.) Here the present tense of the “I” as leper is given the weight of one of Friedrich's “absolute metaphors”; it is important first as an underlining of the theme of mutilation, the body in Rimbaud being at all times at issue. But it also serves to clarify the peculiar dimensions of Rimbaldian subjectivity. There is no I-Rimbaud who suddenly hallucinates an identity with various marginal characters; instead there is something like a Rimbaud-subject who passes through a series of affective states and who identifies the proper names of history—and later geography—to these states. Une Saison en enfer lasts for much longer than a season, and its expanse is not limited to hell: a whole parade of universal history, races, cultures, populations will be played out on the body of the speaker. This kind of relation is certainly not the static, familial one of identification, based on relations of resemblance or generation, the “I take myself for …” or the “I take after Uncle Tod,” the composite, metaphorical figures of Freudian condensation; it is instead the essentially nonrepresentative “crowd” process—“I dance the Sabbath … with old women and children”—the becoming-other of “Je est un autre.”

Thus the transition from the ending of the fourth section of “Mauvais Sang,” “De profundus, Dominé, suis-je bête!” to the middle of the next section: “Je suis une bête, un nègre” (my emphasis): the rhetorical exclamation “materializes” into a devenir-bête, a devenir-nègre. This is the longest and most celebrated metamorphosis in “Mauvais Sang”: the poet's becoming African at the precise moment of the arrival of Christianity and the colonialists (“The white men are landing! The cannon! Now we must be baptized, get dressed, go to work”). I want to return now to the last term in this trio and to the discussion of work, for it is in terms of métier or the work order that Rimbaud establishes the opposition between the bad faith of the Western, European bourgeois—the “faux nègres” who are singled out and identified by their professional titles—and the “true kingdom of the children of Ham”:

Oui, j'ai les yeux fermés à votre lumière. Je suis une bête, un nègre. Mais je puis être sauvé. Vous êtes de faux nègres, vous maniaques, féroces, avares. Marchand, tu es nègre; magistrat, tu es nègre; général, tu es nègre; empereur, vieille démangeaison, tu es nègre. … Le plus malin est de quitter ce continent, où la folie rôde pour pouvoir d'otages ces misérables. J'entre au vrai royaume des enfants de Cham.

[Yes, my eyes are closed to your light. I am a fool, a nigger. But I can be saved. You are fake niggers; maniacs, savages, misers, all of you. Businessman, you're a nigger; judge, you're a nigger; general, you're a nigger; emperor, old scratch-head, you're a nigger. … The best thing is to quit this continent where madness prowls, out to supply hostages for these wretches. I enter the true kingdom of the children of Ham.]

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in Mille Plateaux have provided a useful distinction between the “work regime” and another model of motor activity they call “action libre.”38 Work, in their account, is a motor cause that must overcome resistances, operate on the exterior, be consumed or spent in its effect, and which must be renewed from one instant to another. “Action libre,” on the other hand, has no resistance to overcome; just as much a motor cause, it operates only on the mobile body itself, is not consumed in its effect, and is continuous between two instances. The work model is characterized by relative speed and the importance of gravity—the force exerted by the weight of a unified body. “Absolute” speed and the way in which parts of the body escape from gravitational pull in order to occupy a nonstratified, nonpunctual space characterize “free action.” “Work makes life blossom,” writes Rimbaud, “An old idea, not mine; my life doesn't weigh enough, it drifts off and floats far beyond action.”

“Free action,” a kind of whirlwind, free expenditure, holds sway in the brief moment before the arrival of the whites:

Connais-je encore la nature? me connais-je?—Plus de mots. J'ensevelis les morts dans mon ventre. Cris, tambour, danse, danse, danse, danse! Je ne vois même pas l'heure où, les blancs débarquant, je tomberai au néant.

Faim, soif, cris, danse, danse, danse, danse!

[Do I understand nature? Do I understand myself? No more words. I shroud dead men in my stomach. Shouts, drums, dance, dance, dance, dance! I can't even imagine the hour when the white men land, and I will fall into nothingness.

Thirst and hunger, shouts, dance, dance, dance, dance!]

The articulated language of the dance, in a kind of fast forward of the process of colonial domination, will be replaced in the next scene by the parodic, staccato recitation of catechism lessons (“I am reborn in reason. The world is good. I will bless life. I will love my brothers. … God is my strength and I praise God”), and finally, in the concluding moments of “Mauvais Sang,” by the slow, torturous movement of a slave caravan:

Assez! voici la punition.—En marche!

Ah! les poumons brûlent, les tempes grondent! La nuit roule dans mes yeux, par ce soleil! Le coeur … les membres …

Où va-t-on? au combat? Je suis faible! les autres avancent. Les outils, les armes … le temps! …

Feu! feu sur moi! Là, où je me rends.—Lâches!—je me tue! Je me jette aux pieds des chevaux!

Ah! …

—Je m'y habituerai.

Ce serait la vie française, le sentier de l'honneur!

[Stop it! This is your punishment … Forward march!

Ah! my lungs burn, my temples roar! Night rolls in my eyes, beneath the sun! My heart … my arms and legs …

Where are we going? To battle? I am weak! the others go on ahead. Tools, weapons … give me time! …

Fire! Fire at me! Here! or I'll give myself up!—Cowards!—I'll kill myself! I'll throw myself beneath the horses' hooves!

Ah! …

—I'll get used to it.

That would be the French way, the path of honor.]

Once again, power relations are inscribed on the body; the regulated movement of the march overcomes the whirlwind, nomadic language of the dance. Space is stratified into a single direction: “the French way, the path of honor.” Tactile and auditory sensations, speed and movement succumb to the natural gravity of the state apparatus, one of whose principal affairs is to fix, to make sedentary, to regulate work and create a work force (a “main d'oeuvre”).

The dance of the blacks before the arrival of the colonialists, like the paresse and inactivity of the Gauls, are movements whose material and variations have not been controlled by or submitted to the spatiotemporal framework of the state. Lafargue, outlining the results of overproduction in “advanced” countries—the necessity of capital to find new markets in undeveloped, unterritorialized lands—uses the verb lézarder, recalling the reptilian, adolescent body in Rimbaud, to describe the free action of noncolonized space:

Capital abounds like merchandise. The financiers no longer know where to put it; and so they go into happy nations where people lounge [lézardent] in the sun smoking cigarettes, to build their railroads, set up factories, and bring in the malediction of work.


Political anthropologists like Pierre Clastres, in Society Against the State (1977), have argued that primitive societies do not, in our sense, work, even if their activities are extremely constrained and regulated. An earlier, more powerful version of Clastres's argument can be found in the striking first pages of René Maran's 1921 novel Batouala. The novel opens with the main character, a tribal leader in a colony within French Equatorial Africa, struggling to get out of bed in the morning:

And didn't it take an immense effort for him just to stand up? He was the first to admit that making that decision could appear to be of the utmost simplicity to white men. As for him, he found it infinitely more difficult than one might believe. Ordinarily, waking up and work go hand in hand. Certainly work didn't frighten him excessively. Robust, stout-limbed, of excellent stride, he knew no rival when it came to throwing a spear or an assagai, hunting or fighting. …

So work couldn't frighten him. Only, in the language of the white men, this word took on a surprising sense, signifying fatigue without immediate tangible result, worries, grief, pain, bad health, the pursuit of chimerical designs.

Aha! white men. So what did they come looking for, so far from their home, in black lands. How much better for them, all of them, to go back to their lands and to never leave them again.

Life is short. Work is only pleasing to those who never understand life. Idleness [la fainéantise] cannot degrade anyone. In this it differs profoundly from sloth [paresse].

In any case, whether you agreed with him or not, he firmly believed, and would not have given in until proven wrong, that to do nothing was, in all good nature and simplicity, to avail oneself of everything that surrounded you.39

For Clastres, work is the imperative of a state apparatus, and primitive societies are societies without a state: “Two axioms seem to have guided the advance of Western civilization from the outset: the first maintains that true societies unfold in the protective shadow of the state; the second states a categorical imperative: man must work.”40 The work model is the invention of the state in that people will only work or produce more than their needs require them when forced to. What are disparagingly called “subsistence economies,” societies where one works to satisfy one's needs and not to produce a surplus, are to be seen, according to Clastres, as operating according to a refusal of a useless excess of activity (“There were days when all men of action seemed to him like the toys of some grotesque raving. He would laugh, horribly, on and on”; “Délire I”). Work, then, appears only with the constitution of a surplus; work begins, properly speaking, as overwork; it originates as alienated labor. Where there is no state apparatus or overproduction, there is no work model.

After the Commune—the moment in the history of Western society that comes closest to a dismantling of the state apparatus—the late nineteenth century is figured in Rimbaud's poetry as the epoch of the triumph of the work model, the moment when all activities are translated into possible or virtual work. “It's the vision of numbers,” writes Rimbaud in “Mauvais Sang,” in a succinct encapsulation of all of Weberian rationalization: the organization of people's productive capacities and nature's resources into markets, their rationalization according to cost accounting, their unity broken into smaller and smaller quantifiable subcomponents—the gearing of a society to accumulation for its own sake. The vision of numbers: the stage reached when everything, as Henri Lefebvre has put it, is calculated because everything is numbered: money, miles, degrees, minutes, calories.41 It is also the moment, as Rimbaud makes clear in poems like “Le Bateau ivre” and “Démocratie,” when even the most distant and exotic lands are beginning to be opened up to European commerical interests.

Rimbaud's peculiar achievement in Une Saison en enfer is to have articulated the strategic position and pathos of the adolescent body approaching and entering what “the vision of numbers” designates as adulthood. “Quick! Are there any other lives?”; “It seemed to me that everyone should have had several other lives as well” (“Délire II”). “Je veux travailler libre,” writes Rimbaud to Demeny in 1871, three months after the Commune: his strategy of resistance, even flight—from métier, from “formation,” but no less from morals, values, nations, religions, and private certitudes—should in no way be confused with a quasi-Mallarméan denegation of the social, that canonical avant-garde doctrine according to which self-realization can only be attained outside the functioning of the social. Rimbaud's flight is at all times a profoundly social investment; it opens at every step out onto a sociohistorical field. The gradual disassembling of the vertical, religious scaffolding of Une Saison en enfer in its final sections is both the event and the possibility of the event—the utopian possibility, that is, of transformed work relations, the resolutely social and non-nostalgic vision of “Noël sur la terre.” In this sense we could say that the récit in its entirety ends on the note of “Je serai un travailleur”: I will be a worker—but only at the moment when work, as we know it, has come to an end.


  1. Maxime du Camp, Les Convulsions de Paris, vol. 4 (Paris, 1889), 326.

  2. Jacques Rancière, Le Philosophe et ses pauvres (Paris, 1983), 113-15.

  3. Maurice Blanchot, “The Song of the Sirens,” in The Gaze of Orpheus, trans. Lydia Davis (Barrytown, N.Y., 1981), 109.

  4. Franco Moretti, “The Novel of Youth” (Lecture delivered at the University of California, Santa Cruz, May 1985). See also Moretti, “The Comfort of Civilization,” Representations 12 (Fall 1985): 115-39.

  5. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anya Bostock (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 132.

  6. See Max Weber for the role of apprenticeship, or “the calling,” in the rationalization of economic life: “Labor must … be performed as if it were an absolute end in itself, a calling. But such an attitude is by no means a product of nature. It cannot be evoked by low wages or high ones alone, but can only be the product of a long and arduous process of education.” The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York, 1958), 62.

  7. Jean-Paul Sartre, Qu'est-ce que la littérature? (Paris, 1948), 173. Here and elsewhere, unless otherwise noted, translations from the French are mine.

  8. Formation, a term assuring the link between the psychological and the professional, takes precedence over instruction as a goal in mid-nineteenth-century French schooling; the adolescent's purely technical education is downplayed in favor of “apprenticeship”: preparation in view of social position as well as technique. See Jean-Claude Monier, “L'Apprentissage de sa condition,” in Les Sauvages dans la cité, ed. Jean Borail (Paris, 1985), 161-69.

  9. Arthur Rimbaud, Oeuvres complètes (hereafter OC), ed. Rolland de Renéville and J. Mouquet (Paris, 1963). English translations of Rimbaud are my slightly altered versions of Paul Schmidt, Rimbaud: Complete Works (New York, 1976).

  10. Fredric Jameson, “Rimbaud and the Spatial Text,” in Re-writing Literary History, ed. Tak-Wai Wong and M. A. Abbas (Hong Kong, 1984), 66-93.

  11. Ernest Delahaye, cited in Henri Matarasso and Pierre Petitfils, Vie d'Arthur Rimbaud (Paris, 1962), 86.

  12. Vitalie Rimbaud, “Journal,” in Rimbaud, OC, 582.

  13. In the discussion of vagabondage that follows, I am less concerned with allegorizing the social position of the vagabond and the aesthetic position of Rimbaud than with calling attention to the material conditions of Rimbaud's gesture. I want to show how the mythification of the artist works: on the one hand (in traditional accounts), Rimbaud runs away because he is a poet, but the fact that that gesture marks his participation in a social collectivity is ignored and deemed irrelevant to his development as a poet.

  14. Phillipe Meyer, “Le Territoire de l'aveu,” in Nomades et vagabonds, ed. Jacques Berque (Paris, 1975), 72, 76.

  15. C. Rollet, Enfance abandonnée, vicieux, insoumis, vagabonds (Mont-Louis, 1899), 8.

  16. Charles Portales, Des Mendiants et des vagabonds (Nîmes, 1854), 5.

  17. Louis Rivière, Un Siècle de lutte contre le vagabondage (Paris, 1899), 5.

  18. Théodore Homberg, Etudes sur le vagabondage (Paris, 1880), ix.

  19. Cited in Meyer, “Le Territoire de l'aveu,” 69.

  20. Homberg, Etudes sur le vagabondage, 9.

  21. See Jean-Claude Beaune, “Images du mauvais pauvre: Anti-travail et anti-éducation: La Figure du vagabond au XIXe siècle,” in Les Sauvages dans la cité, 184-201.

  22. Homberg, Etudes sur le vagabondage, 24-25, 243-48.

  23. Portales, Des Mendiants et des vagabonds, 8.

  24. Cited in Petitfils, Vie de Rimbaud, 70.

  25. Published in the newspaper La Providence; in Meyer, “Le Territoire de l'aveu,” 74.

  26. Homberg, Etudes sur le vagabondage, vii-viii.

  27. Ibid., 250.

  28. Portales, Des Mendiants et des vagabonds, 10-11.

  29. For a wonderful analysis of workers' “resistance to work” strategies immediately before the Commune, see Alain Cottereau's introduction to Denis Poulot, Le Sublime; ou, Le Travailleur comme il est en 1870, et ce qu'il peut être (Paris, 1980), 7-102.

  30. Paul Lafargue, Le Droit à la paresse, ed. Maurice Dommanget (Paris, 1982), 136.

  31. Lafargue was apparently engaged in translating Engels's Socialism Utopian and Scientific at the same time (early 1880) that he was writing the pamphlet. While proclaiming himself a “scientific socialist,” he maintained that socialist convictions were awakened not only by “the entrails of reality” but by a “far-off memory” of a communist epoch preceding the era of private property, by “a memory of that golden age, of that earthly paradise that religions speak to us about.” See his Idéalisme et matérialisme dans la conception de l'histoire (Paris, 1901), 43. (Compare Rimbaud's utopian opening to Une Saison: “Long ago, if I remember well, my life was a feast where all hearts opened, where all wines flowed.”).

  32. For a diachronic study of the term travailleur, see Jean Dubois, Le Vocabulaire politique et social en France de 1869 à 1872 (Paris, 1962), 37-40. While the term has a thickness of revolutionary connotation during the Commune, this was not always to be the case. The diffusion of a specifically Marxist vocabulary in the next few decades made prevalent the term classe ouvrière; writers whose political activities and memories linked them to the Commune and who continued to use the term travailleur were frequently criticized in the late nineteenth century for “sloppy thinking.” In fact such a usage proved their link—like that of Rimbaud—to a precise historical period.

  33. See the work of Jacques Rancière in this context, especially La Nuit des proletaires (Paris, 1981); and Le Philosophe et ses pauvres (Paris, 1983).

  34. Paul Lafargue, cited in J. Tchernoff, Le Parti républicain au coup d'état et sous le Second Empire (Paris, 1901), 354.

  35. Cited in Petitfils, Vie de Rimbaud, 57.

  36. Richard Terdiman, Discourse/Counter-Discourse (Ithaca, N.Y., 1984). Terdiman's book examines the modes of opposition or “counter-discourses” of bourgeois writers and intellectuals to the increasing standardization of culture in a rapidly industrializing France. Rimbaud, symptomatically, is relegated to a footnote in this book; he is, as Terdiman rightly puts it, “beyond the limits of counter-discursive protocol.”

  37. Hugo Friedrich, The Structure of Modern Poetry, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (Evanston, Ill., 1974), 51.

  38. See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille Plateaux (Paris, 1980), 494-96, for a discussion of the work model versus “action libre.”

  39. René Maran, Batouala (Paris, 1965), 20-21.

  40. Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, 1977), 163. It is crucial to point out that Clastres is forced to admit, almost inadvertently, that his basic argument—“Primitive societies are societies without a state; a state is necessary to impose work: there is no “work” in primitive societies”—pertains to only one half of the population of primitive societies: the men. Consider this description of the Tupi-Guarani tribe in South America:

    The economic life of those Indians was primarily based on agriculture, secondarily on hunting, fishing, and gathering. The same garden plot was used from four to six consecutive years, after which it was abandoned, owing either to the depletion of the soil, or, more likely, to an invasion of the cultivated space by a parasitic vegetation that was difficult to eliminate. The biggest part of the work, performed by the men, consisted of clearing the necessary area by the slash and burn technique, using stone axes. This job, accomplished at the end of the rainy season, would keep the men busy for a month or two. Nearly all the rest of the agricultural process—planting, weeding, harvesting—was the responsibility of the women, in keeping with the sexual division of labor. This happy conclusion follows: the men (i.e., one half of the population) worked about two months every four years!


    Happy for some. The sexual division of labor creates an underclass, women, whose activity, according to Clastres's own definition, would have to constitute “work,” alienated labor.

    For other valuable analyses of precapitalist or “primitive” relations to work, see Michael T. Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980); John M. Coetzee, “Anthropology and the Hottentots,” Semiotica 54, nos. 1/2 (1985): 87-95; and Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (Chicago, 1972).

  41. Henri Lefebvre, La Vie quotidienne dans le monde moderne (Paris, 1968), 44.

Carol de Dobay Rifelj (essay date 1987)

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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 ennui qui succède à ses escapades” (175). This quotation epitomizes the critical commentary on Rimbaud's linguistic innovations in verse: “revolutionary” poetic discourse equals revolt against society. This equation has been formulated in various ways and has been applied in different ways to various texts, but the underlying implication is the same. Several of the main features of this approach can be seen in the preceding quotation: first, that the use of familiar discourse reflects a kind of loss of self-restraint (“Rimbaud bourre ses vers”); second, that it is aspects of Rimbaud's life and character (Rimbaud the great rebel against convention, rejecting the “contrainte de Charleville”) that provoke such usage; and third, and most important, that there is a one-to-one correspondence, here expressed as a “translation,” between diction and thought, between the signifier and the signified. The word traduction is especially apt in its link to the root meaning of metaphor, for this concept represents in essence a metaphoric linking between the text and the world. Of course, such a concept is not particular to studies on Rimbaud, nor is it anything new. It is the basis both of theoretical positions like Bonald's 1806 statement supporting the distinction between noble and “roturier” vocabularies, “distinction aussi fondamentale en littérature qu'en politique” (988) and of the poetic text that best epitomizes the romantics' opposition to traditional poetic diction, Hugo's “Réponse.” As we have seen, it was the line “je mis un bonnet rouge au vieux dictionnaire” that became the catchword for the metaphorical equivalence between revolt in poetics and in politics.

Rimbaud's use of technical or scientific terminology, familiar discourse, slang, and childish expressions, and his attention to subject matter (and the corresponding vocabulary) of contemporary life and aspects of lower-class life are still easily perceptible today. He used such language from some of his earliest poems until the end of his work in verse, though it appears less frequently in the Derniers Vers. As throughout, I will be treating verse texts only. Effects of disruption and disjunction are typical of Rimbaud's work as a whole, but the introduction of such language into verse brings about a conflict in codes that points up one of the problems I will discuss in particular, the question of the “prosaic.”

Rimbaud's innovations exploit the possibilities raised by Hugo's rejection of neoclassical periphrasis in favor of the mot propre. And it is these devices that lead to his characterization as a “revolutionizer” of poetic discourse as he was a rebel against society. This poetic/political parallelism becomes particularly clear when we turn to poetic texts whose subject matter is itself overtly political. I will study two such texts in detail, “A la musique” and “L'Orgie parisienne,” to see how this equivalence holds up. In other poems the use of familiar discourse contributes to establishing a kind of middle style in which the “prosaic” signified is neither romanticized nor devalued in its treatment. “Ma Bohème” is a good example of such a text. Still other poems, like “Ce qu'on dit au poète,” which presents itself as a kind of poetic manifesto, pose very different questions regarding resistance to poetic tradition and the relationship between the signifier and the signified. But before examining these poems, it is important to look at Rimbaud's diction in general and the problems it raises in distinguishing between the levels of content and expression, for it is here that the question of the poem's referentiality arises.


Rimbaud is well-known for widening the scope of poetic vocabulary. Although the directions he developed had all been explored by Hugo, Baudelaire, Verlaine, or all three, there are in his work both a high incidence of unconventional vocabulary and striking use of clashes between conflicting registers. On the level of the signified, he introduced a large number of contemporary references as well as features of everyday or lower-class life, that is, semantic fields formerly considered beneath the notice of poets. Examples would be the hair ointment and caoutchoucs of “Mes petites amoureuses” or the photographers, telegraph poles, and references to public figures in “Ce qu'on dit au poète.” These would seem to belong in newspapers or advertisements rather than in poetry. A similar device is the presence of the banal and the commonplace: potatoes and fried eggs in “Ce qu'on dit au poète,” cheap wine in the “Bateau ivre,” shoe elastics in “Ma Bohème,” rustic or vulgar elements in “Les Reparties de Nina” (fumiers, une vache fientera, the description of the farmhouse and the peasant people). Such elements attract notice because they are features of everyday or lower-class life, linguistic fields formerly considered beneath the notice of poets.

Innovations in mode include the reproduction of speech associated with the lower classes, a stylistic marker of this field. “C'est une bonne farce” (“Soleil et chair”), “tra la la,” “tu sais bien” (“Le Forgeron”), “Ah va, c'est bon pour vous” (“Les Premiers Communions”), and “Veux-tu finir! … Oh! C'est encore mieux” (“Première Soirée”) are among many examples of directly or indirectly quoted speech that lend a realistic air as well as an everyday tone to the texts in which they appear. Hugo had made a similar use of reported speech, in “Les Pauvres Gens,” for example. Like Hugo, Rimbaud is especially noted for his use of familiar or popular expressions, a violation of the standards of “formality.”

Again on the level of the signifier, sequences of short, simple words (as in “Les Effarés”), terms from particular linguistic domains, like commercial or scientific vocabularies (the “déficits assez mal ravaudés” in “Vénus anadyomène” for instance), and prosaic rhythms have similar effects. In “Au Cabaret-Vert,” for example, there is a tension between the regularity of the sonnet-form (rhyme, alexandrines) and the rhythm of the poem, which tends to break free from the restrictions imposed by the division into verses. From the beginning of the poem,

Depuis huit jours, j'avais déchiré mes bottines
Aux cailloux des chemins. J'entrais à Charleroi.
—Au Cabaret-Vert: je demandai des tartines
De beurre et du jambon qui fût à moitié froid.
Bienheureux, j'allongeai les jambes sous la table
Verte: je contemplai les sujets très naïfs
De la tapisserie. …

the punctuation and the use of enjambements pull the lines into the rhythm of spoken language. In a poem like “Le Dormeur du val,” also written in October 1870, the rejets D'argent, Luit, Dort, and Tranquille serve to accentuate important elements in the poem. But in “Au Cabaret-Vert” the words thus set off (De beurre, Verte, D'ail, and De la tapisserie) hardly merit such emphasis. They have no special interest; they neither form a combined effect nor a contrast with other elements in the poem. Rimbaud seems to contradict the reader's impulse to assign value to the rejets or to stop at the end of each line: tartines and gousse have to be carried over to the next line for completion; verte and de la tapisserie require the preceding line in order to make sense. Such prose rhythms combine with the simple past tense typical of narrative, the natural syntax, the colloquial expressions and provincial terms, and banal, lower-class elements (bread and butter, ham, garlic, la chope) to establish a tone that might be called “realistic” in the sense that it incorporates elements more likely to be found in realist novels of the time. But the expectations set up by these devices are themselves undercut by the more conventionally lyrical last lines of the text:

                              … la chope immense, avec sa mousse
Que dorait un rayon de soleil arriéré.

And the tone is again unsettled by the pejorative connotations of the last word of the text, arriéré.

As we have seen in studying other poets, familiar, vulgar, and technical poetic discourse can be used to a variety of stylistic effect. It can be considered as motivated by evocation of, say, the milieux of peasants or the working classes. But Rimbaud also extends its use to more conventionally “aesthetic” contexts, where such terms are often in sharp relief against religious allusions (e.g., “Les Pauvres à l'église”), characters with heroic qualities (like the military heroes invoked in “Les Douaniers”), or conventionally lyrical subjects (as in “Mes petites amoureuses” or “Michel et Christine”). In such texts their shock value is especially great. “L'Eclatante Victoire de Sarrebruck” is an excellent example of this process: grandiloquent terms (éclatante, apothéose, Empereur) are played off against the slang terms and infantile expressions (dada, Pioupious, etc.), and the result is a picture of the Emperor as thoroughly ridiculous. Familiar and vulgar expressions used in conventionally lyrical contexts can be directed against the people described, as in “Vénus anadyomène,” “Les Assis,” and “Accroupissements,” where they appear to be a form of attack, a series of insults. In such contexts they are in conflict with the text's own subject matter. “Les Premières Communions” is a particularly good example of such a use.

In applying the concept of register to poetic texts it is important to distinguish as carefully as possible among the levels of discourse and in particular between the signifier and the signified. It has been a useful step for critics dealing with Rimbaud's style to make distinctions between the subject represented and the language levels used in their representation. Thus, Riffaterre has noted that in “Vénus anadyomène” Rimbaud writes a kind of “contreblason,” using pejorative and vulgar discourse to treat a conventionally “poetic” subject (Production, 93-97; see also Scarfe, 173-74). At the opposite extreme, a text like “Accroupissements” derives its humor from the elevated diction used to describe bodily functions, a semantic field avoided in the poetry of the time. “Rayons de lune,” for instance, loses its lyrical quality in the next line, where we find that the moon's rays make “aux contours du cul des bavures de lumière.” But often when critics turn to specific examples, the distinctions they establish break down. Thus, Scarfe does not distinguish between the signifier and the signified, grouping together as “pejorative” or “unaesthetic” such disparate language levels as those exemplified by “mouches éclatantes,” “pioupiesques,” “c'est une bonne farce,” and “coeurs de saleté.” Similarly, he finds that the “Stupra” sonnets have a “scabrous vocabulary” (171), whereas they are lexically perfectly tame. The title of the third piece, “Sonnet du trou du cul” (beginning “Obscure et froncé …”), includes the only phrase that belongs to a level of vocabulary lower than that usually found in poetry, and this title was perhaps given by Verlaine, who wrote the quatrains. Whereas in earlier texts Rimbaud had used expressions like Je pisse vers les cieux, ulcère à l'anus, and so on, there are no other examples of such daring vocabulary in these supposedly obscene texts. And no one seems to have objected to the use of leurs culs en rond in the more “esthetic” text, “Les Effarés.” The “obscenity” of this sonnet arises from its subject and the reader's deciphering of the text with reference to parts of the body—oeillet as the opening; mousse as the pubic and anal hair; larmes de lait as semen, etc. In fact, the very lack of more vulgar terms, the fact that the poems are couched in such genteel language, gives them a humorous note. The third sonnet appeared in L'Album zutique as a parody of Mérat's “Idole,” a series of sonnets celebrating various parts of the female anatomy. And, with respect to their language, incorporating such eminently lyrical words as ardeurs, charmante, fleurit, anges, and glorieuse, Rimbaud's sonnets would not be out-of-place in such a series. This aspect of the sonnets makes them into kinds of éloges paradoxaux of the parts of the body (the penis, the buttocks, and the anus) not included in such verses as Mérat's. Though, as Kerbrat points out, the stylistic function of a term and its pejorative or meliorative function are often related in practice (101-2), these poems play on the divergence between their referents and the positive connotations of their language.

A certain imprecision in critical terminology arising from the failure to distinguish between the signifier and the signified can be seen even in Baudry's brilliant analysis of Rimbaud's discourse. He contrasts two kinds of “subversion” operating within the literary code in Rimbaud's verse, “l'interdit,” or “ce qui ne doit pas être dit” and “le prosaïque,” “qui devrait par définition être exclu de la poésie” (51-52). It is a measure of the difficulty of this task that once he turns to examples, his distinction starts to break down: the examples he gives of each class of expression could be used to illustrate the other. Ulcère à l'anus (from “Vénus anadyomène”), an example of “l'interdit,” is a term that would be more appropriate to a medical context and so could be considered “prosaic”; whereas the language of “Mes petites amoureuses,” a text he classifies as “prosaic,” includes vulgarisms (dégueulé), scientific terms like hydrolat, neologisms, provincialisms, and more. These terms would certainly fall under the heading of “l'interdit,” that which should not be uttered in poetry. Furthermore, as Houston has pointed out (French Symbolism, 99), the term “prosaic” itself tends to be misused: familiar or slang diction is not necessarily characteristic of prose. The “prosaism” Baudry finds in “Et mon bureau?” from “Les Réparties de Nina” seems to refer to Nina's unromantic attitude rather than to the qualities of her speech. It is interesting that critics of all schools call Nina “prosaic”: the speaker in the poem is seen as the poet; what is opposed to him must be not-poetry, the “prosaic.”1 This meshing of expression and content is as capable of leading us astray as it is compelling; and it shows how easy it is to posit a union between the text and the world.

Because of the particularly restricted poetic vocabulary of neoclassical French poetry, the nineteenth-century texts that introduced elements from registers hitherto considered unacceptable tend to be described by critics in terms of “revolutionary” acts. But despite its usefulness in particular instances, the equivalence so posited is theoretically untenable: works from Lamartine to the socialist poets of the nineteenth century to Soviet socialist realists show that opposition to bourgeois society is not necessarily expressed through opposition to its linguistic standards or its literary conventions. And vice versa, stylistic innovation cannot always be associated with sociopolitical rebellion. Wordsworth, Eliot, and the Decadents (Rimbaud's successors in the introduction of vulgarisms into poetry) would be among the many possible counterexamples.

Why is it so tempting to call Rimbaud's verse “revolutionary” and to slide back and forth between referring to poetic devices and to political attitudes (with side-slippings to Rimbaud's “anti-social” behavior at the time he was writing)? One reason is the attention that has always been given to his biography. His alleged participation in the Commune, his rebellion against provincial life, his outrageous behavior in Paris and London even by the standards of bohemian poets and artists, his subsequent rejection of poetry, his gun-running, all these elements that Etiemble has examined in Le Mythe de Rimbaud contribute to his image as the great “révolté.” Events in his life are deduced from reading the poems and the poems are interpreted with reference to his life.2 Another reason is that many of his texts do deal with social injustice, the constraints of bourgeois society, and so on. Other poems represent opposition to poetic tradition in their choice of subject matter: “unpoetic”, “unaesthetic” objects and situations are described. Examples of such texts will be examined below.

But further, our conception of poetic language leads us to seek analogies among the various stylistic levels of a text: phonetic, semantic, syntactic, thematic, and so on. “Motivation,” “overdetermination,” “coupling,” “projecting the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination,” such catchwords represent what Genette has called a “poetic cratylism,” i.e., the concept of poetic language as the “rémotivation de la langue courante” (“Formalisme,” 237; “Valéry”). Whereas the principle of the arbitrary sign is generally accepted for ordinary speech, in poetry the critic finds a “mimelogical” relation between signifier and signified. This relation is most often posited between sound and sense but it is also used in the study of diction. In speaking about remotivating standard language in the context of nineteenth-century French poetry, however, it is important to remember that when it is incorporated within a poem, everyday language, far from being neutral, is marked diction set against the standard poetic lexicon. It is in fact in its supposed correlation with the thematics of revolt that it becomes motivated. Genette sees this phenomenon in our critical methods as a typically romantic-symbolist one (he examines Mallarmé and Valéry in particular).3 We can go farther and point out that it has affinites with the valorization, beginning with the romantics, of metaphor and more precisely, with the romantic tradition of metaphorizing the relation between the text and history: the specular relationship between the poet and nature is transferred to that between the poem and the exterior world. A representative quote from a contemporary theorist shows to what extent our critical discourse is still imbued with this conception of poetry: “Ce qui doit intéresser le poéticien, ce n'est pas d'isoler les éléments d'un vocabulaire dont la spécificité ne serait qu'évocatrice mais de montrer que l'effort poétique cherche à intégrer des structurations hétérogènes à celles de la langue dans une totalité dont il lui revient de souligner le fonctionnement globilisant” (Delas, 96).

The words intégrer, totalité, globalisant show clearly the metaphoric process at work. Of course, poets since the nineteenth century have themselves worked in this tradition, structuring such parallelisms into their works: the onomatopoeias of Poe or the concrete poetry of the twentieth century are especially clear examples, but the principle is the same with less obvious devices. Although the word “revolutionary” may be a homology rather than an analogy, Rimbaud does use unconventional language in texts expressing a reaction against his society. His work is part of the reason we are likely to draw such a parallel between poetics and politics when we read modern poetry.


One reason it is easy to make the leap from poetics to politics is that our critical vocabulary tends to come already weighted with the poetics/politics analogy: we speak of poetic “convention” and “norms”; innovation is “opposition to poetic tradition,” it is called “deviation,” “violation of the rules.” Finding neutral critical terms in order to avoid confusion is virtually impossible. When the subject matter of the text is opposition to bourgeois society or to the political regime, it is most tempting to analyze such discourse as itself “revolutionary,” and to analyze it, the way Baudry does, as resistance to the code of the contemporary cultural text or as opposition to the political regime. There are many examples of such texts in Rimbaud's Poésies, referring to specific political events, like “Chant de guerre parisien” or “L'Eclatante victoire de Sarrebruck”; opposing religion (“Les Pauvres à l'église,” “Les Premières Communions,” “L'Homme juste”); or commenting on social injustice or insensitive bureaucrats (“Les Effarés,” “Les Douaniers”). A study of two such poems, “A la musique” and “L'Orgie parisienne,” serves to show the ways we can analyze the special parallelism between “revolutionary” thought and unconventional expression.

“A la musique” is an example of the use of familiar discourse in a piece of social criticism. An early poem, it is an interesting piece on several levels, especially in the attitude it manifests towards language in general. It seems to point to a rejection of language itself, as the contrast between the speaker and the people described in the text becomes that between speech and silence. The society presented in the poem is obviously antipathetic. The people are as chopped-off and mean as their surroundings: they have so deformed nature that even the trees and flowers are “correct”; and they have destroyed any semblance of life in themselves. Thus, instead of charms hanging from the watch chain, it is the notary himself who hangs. These charms are inscribed with the owner's initials and have become symbols of possessiveness. Even the women are commercialized: they have “des airs de réclames.” Imagery of sickness and death predominates; and the people seem to be strangled by their own weight and their restricting clothes: wheezy townsfolk, choked by the heat; bloated clerks; the fat burgher with his overflowing pipe. The uselessness and vacuity of their lives is suggested by retired men who stir the sand, as though one could get fire out of it. It seems to be their own appetites and acquisitions that destroy them. Their interest in things is translated by a predominance of concrete objects and therefore concrete nouns in the poem: almost all of the people are described as wearing or carrying something: schakos, charms, lorgnons, walking sticks, and so on. As the first stanza points out, the bourgeois “Portent … leurs bêtises.” Similarly, bureaux is used in its third sense, referring to the workers in an office; they are reduced to the objects to which they sacrifice their humanity, like the women portrayed earlier who have become advertisements.

The young man who speaks in the last three stanzas is opposed to these people from his first words, as the line beginning Moi, je suis indicates. He is débraillé: literally “undressed,” figuratively, “unrestrained” or “indecent.” Likewise, as he undresses the young girls in his mind, he is removing all the trappings of stifling, restricting bourgeois society. Unlike their elders, the girls are alert, not complacent; their embroidery, too, is really their hair, in mèches folles at that. And more important, both they and the young man are set against the bourgeois through their silence: he says, “Je ne dis pas un mot”; and they speak only “tout bas,” and the indiscreet things they have to say are expressed with their eyes alone.

This is in marked contrast to the speech of the bourgeois, which is mimicked earlier in the poem in a good example of Rimbaud's use of reported speech. Prisent en argent, for instance, is a contraction for taking snuff from silver snuffboxes. This ellipsis leaves what is essential to them, argent. The quotation, “En somme …” (another allusion to money, besides) is evidently ironic from the mouths of retired men, especially after the sarcastic fort sérieusement: the ridiculousness of their armchair politics is heightened by the pretentiousness of their language. The next instance of reported speech indicts itself in a similar way: “Vous savez, c'est de la contrebande.” First, the speaker is called a bourgeois: he need not fear judicial reprisals. Also, he is described as complacently satisfied with his situation: épatant … les rondeurs de ses reins, bedaine, savour, déborde; he seems to live for his appetites. The joy he takes in his little “contraband,” the fact that the word is used for small amount of illicit snuff, all these are measures of the placidity and monotony of the lives of these people, to whom this seems exciting. The last line of the poem, “Et mes désirs brutaux s'accrochent à leurs lèvres,” is in sharp contrast to such coyness.4 In the context of such a description, the word onnaing is of special interest. It is a provincialism referring to a type of pipe, a kind that “faisait plus riche” (Bruneau, “Patois,” 5). It is itself overflowing as are the people, and the word indicates the social situation of the man described; but also it calls attention to itself as a word used by provincial people, in both the literal and figurative senses of the term. Even sounds other than words are denigrated in this text: the band music is filled with mistakes; the sound of the trombones is said to cause amorous feelings; and a “waltz for fifes”—which critics have actually tried to find—would be a very silly piece indeed. The title, in its sense “To Music,” can only be ironic when applied to such a concert.

Not only is the language of the bourgeois pompous and inappropriate; it is also commercialized: the inanimate objects that have become language, the dresses and the charms, carry messages similar to those of the people's speech, concerned with treaties and contraband. Indeed, all the objects they wear and carry signify their social standing and political beliefs. The soldier's caressing of babies in order to wheedle the maids' favors is only the most obvious instance of the exchanges that are going on. As Saussure showed, language itself can be seen as exchange, both in the sense of interpersonal communication and in the sense of the continual substitution of figure that constitutes it. In “La Mythologie blanche,” Derrida points out that “l'inscription du numéraire est le plus souvent le lieu de croisement, la scène de l'échange entre le linguistique et l'économique” (257). I have indicated the ways in which Rimbaud's text explicitly presents language as a system of barter. The watch charms inscribed with their owners' initials are perhaps the best example of the link Derrida shows between writing, the propre (the literal), and property.

In consequence, language, as it both incarnates and constitutes society, seems to be opposed to nature in this text. It could be considered, as it often has been, as a kind of clothing, disguising both desire and thought. Like the bourgeois' clothing, like their fat, like their tobacco, it is in excess, it should be stripped away. In Marxist terms it would be analogous to the surplus-value generated by capitalism. Thus, the last line can be seen not only as a return to the natural (brutaux), but also as a way of silencing the young girls, of sealing their lips.

But it is of course impossible to counteract bourgeois society without words. “Je ne dis pas un mot” is necessarily untrue: it is the opposite of a self-referential statement. Not only does the existence of the poem contradict it, but the particular language to be found in it has important connotative value. It is important that the text should include expressions marked as popular or slang, words like couac, pioupiou, bedaine, voyou. Such words are in opposition to those of the bourgeois quoted and echoed in the text. The poem's familiar, commonplace language is unfamiliar, alien, in its context, playing against the poem's regular alexandrines and regular rhyme scheme. It is not silence that is set against bourgeois life and speech, but language of another sort. When the speaker says “Je reconstruis les corps,” then, we should take it not merely as an opposition to clothing or restrictions: it is only through language that one can construct bodies or nature or any perception of the world. The meaning of corps (“corpus”) is relevant here: through the language of this poem and in the conflicts between its different registers, the social body is constructed into a text.

It is useful to study familiar language in this poem in the context of opposition to bourgeois discourse, but we must be careful not to push too far the analogy between “subversive” vocabulary and subversive politics. A poem that reveals the problems raised by confusions between poetics and history, between text and world, is “L'Orgie parisienne ou Paris se repeuple.” It is generally taken to be an account of the return of the “Versaillais” bourgeois to Paris after the repression of the Commune.5 Its polemical tone is established from the outset. Its use of a slogan of the Versaillais: “Société, tout est rétabli” recalls the chapter headings of that other vituperative poetic work, Hugo's Les Châtiments. The first stanza is largely representative of what is to follow:

O lâches, la voilà! Dégorgez dans les gares!
Le soleil essuya de ses poumons ardents
Les boulevards qu'un soir comblèrent les Barbares.
Voilà la Cité sainte, assise à l'occident!

“O lâches” immediately sets the speaker in opposition to those he is addressing and prepares for the series of insults that will be hurled at them during the course of the poem. Dégorgez not only refers to the debarking of passengers but also, in its sense of vomiting, announces the network of both illness- and orgy-imagery that will predominate in the text. The Barbares (capitalized), an ironic reference to the Communards, and “la Cité sainte” (Paris described as Jerusalem) set a sarcastic, bitter tone that is likewise to be continued. That the city should be “assise à l'occident” rather than “à l'orient” and that it is decked out as a prostitute rather than “prepared as a bride for her husband” as was Jerusalem in the biblical source give a measure of the acerbity of the polemical attack. The political stance adopted by the poet could not be clearer.

The semantic fields utilized in the text, similarly, have clear thematic implications. The poem is saturated with imagery of sickness and death, words like hagards, convulsions, lines like “Trempez de poisons forts les cordes de vos cous,” “Asphyxiant votre nichée infâme / Sur sa poitrine, en une horrible pression”), and death (râle, flancs morts, cité quasi morte, tu gis, and so on). This imagery points to the corruption and degradation of the bourgeois and of the society they are in the process of reestablishing. The orgy imagery makes this point even more explicit, especially since its effect is one of revulsion rather than titillation: “le troupeau roux des tordeuses de hanches” or “Tas de chiennes en rut mangeant des cataplasmes,” for example, are hardly alluring. Such images seek to offend the reader's sensibilities, and they mark the ugliness and degeneracy of the bourgeois described. Indeed, these returning Parisians are reduced by the text to the level of machines without intelligence or sensibility, as shown by the accent on physical needs, the repetition of the word pantins, and the line “Fonctionnez plus fort, bouches de puanteurs.”

On the level of the signifier, the language of the text reinforces such imagery, both syntactically and in its levels of discourse. Repeated and insistant imperatives, action verbs, and exclamation points create an impression of frenetic and undirected motion. Also, the levels of discourse employed represent a departure from the norms of poetic language of the time. The vulgarism putain is only the extreme point of a markedly familiar diction, including expressions like tas de and “Qu'est-ce que ça peut faire,” and comprising as well a remarkable series of-insults addressed to the bourgeois: fous, syphilitiques, hargneux pourris and so on. Rimbaud draws on another lexicon also usually excluded from contemporary verse: medical and scientific terms (cataplasme, spasme, ulcère, asphyxiant, etc.) Such terms are all the more striking in their juxtaposition with more conventionally “poetic” expressions: “Superbes/nausées,” “azurs/blafards,” “quoiqu'on n'ait fait jamais d'une cité / Ulcère plus puant à la Nature verte, / Le Poëte te dit: ‘Splendide est ta Beauté!’” Further, the neologism râleux goes beyond the bounds of the French language itself.

The use of such discourse seems to provide clear parallels with the poem's thematics. The repulsive imagery translates the speaker's revulsion against the disgusting bourgeois; the rhythm of the text parallels his agitation; and most important, the poem's diction is itself revolting against the poetic norms of the day, just as the speaker revolts against bourgeois society. There is an analogy between the poem's style and its rejection of the conventions, attitudes, and actions of that society: in a word, poetic practice equals political stance. Moreover, poetic practice leads to a kind of praxis: the shock effects provided by the poem will create a corresponding feeling of revulsion in the reader as well; for who could sympathize with the bourgeois so described?

Yet such an assumption regarding the practical effects of the text is highly problematic: it is very doubtful that the “lâches” and “fous” to whom the poem is ostensibly addressed would read the text at all, let alone with any sympathy; and effects on more sympathetic, left-leaning readers either at that time or now would be difficult, not to say impossible, to measure. Besides, there are elements in the text itself that contradict the neat analogy I have drawn up between style and content. Clearly, the poem has many traditional aspects, too. First, there is a network of positive imagery in counterpoint to the distasteful imagery noted earlier, like the sun washing the boulevards, the luxurious light, the “bonté du fauve renouveau.” Second, there are levels of discourse counteracting the use of familiar diction, slang, technical terms, and so on. These include classical allusions, religious vocabulary and allusions, and neoclassical diction, expressions like “pleurs d'or astral” or “le clairon” or “Le Poëte” (capitalized, with a dieresis). Third, the form of the poem is perfectly conventional: regular alexandrines, grouped in quatrains, inverted syntax, the use of the simple past, and so on. As for rhetorical figures, the allegorizing capitalizations of words like “la Cité,” “L'Avenir,” and “Progrès” are used seriously toward the end of the poem, in counterpoint to the ironic use of the device earlier, for words like “Barbares” and “Vainqueurs.” Other devices, like the frequent use of apostrophe (“O cité douloureuse, ô cité quasi morte”), enumerations, anaphora, and exclamations, place the text solidly within the tradition of romantic heroic verse. This “revolutionary” poem turns out to be quite conventional after all.

How can we fit such contradictions into an interpretive strategy for analyzing this text? It is not the case that when “Le Poëte” speaks about the beauty of the city and his hope for its progress there is a shift in language levels from the low to the elevated (the way diction changed at the end of Hugo's “Réponse”); and even if there were, the supposed “revolutionary” nature of the text would be impaired: there would be a backsliding into a conventional mode of expression for a conventional subject. We could try to integrate the innovation/convention contrast on another level, positing that this juxtaposition itself parallels the situation of Paris—destroyed and brought to her knees, yet turned to the future, a symbol of defeat, a prostitute, yet a symbol of the possibility of concerted action and revolution. The poem, then, would itself represent the “supreme poetry” the poet finds in the city: it would be a hymn to the future and to Paris, but expressed in terms that would otherwise inspire disgust. Yet such ingenious interpretive strategies belie the ambiguous tone of the text in its mixture of rhetorical bombast and puncturing irony. The last lines illustrate the vacillations of tone that counteract efforts to arrive at a logically-satisfying, all-encompassing interpretation of the text:

—Société, tout est rétabli: (a bourgeois slogan)—les orgies Pleurent leur ancien râle aux anciens lupanars: (neoclassical personification, repetition, use of a literary euphemism, lupanars for a house of prostitution)
Et les gaz en délire, aux murailles rougies, (the gas lights, an element of modern life, are contrasted in semantic field with en délire)
Flambent sinistrement vers les azurs blafards! (a double juxtaposition: flambent is devalued by its epithet and azurs, an ultra-“poetic” term, by the pejorative and banal blafards).

Thus we can see that even such an overtly political text, referring to a particular historical moment, resists the one-to-one correspondences we attempt to ascribe to its relation to history. The signifier (in terms of language levels and stylistic devices) does not simply reproduce the signified (the subject matter of the text); nor can we say, in consequence, that the text as a whole is a signifier that faithfully reproduces the historical moment it signifies. In “L'Orgie parisienne” the poet admires the beauty he finds in the very repulsiveness of Paris, saying, “L'orage t'a sacrée suprême poésie.” According to this text, then, poetry is not history; rather, history is poetry. As it is fashionable to say: history is itself a text. As in any concerted analysis of textual strategies, a close reading of “L'Orgie parisienne” shows that our critical tendency to metaphorize, to totalize, is resisted by the text: unmotivated, arbitrary elements give the poem a life of its own and thwart the categorizations we attempt to impose on it. Such a conclusion, in turn, puts into question the mimetic relationship of a literary work to history, not only as implied by what Hayden White calls the “reflection” theory of literature as the mirror of society, but also in the concept of the stylistic level of a text as reflecting its ideological content.6


Looking at the question from another perspective, we see that the use of familiar and slang expressions in Rimbaud's verse does not always have the effect of shocking the reader. In the Derniers Vers and in poems like “Soleil et chair,” we must find other ways of reading its presence. “Ma Bohème” is another such text. Like “Ce qu'on dit au poète,” it can be taken as an ars poetica, but the view of the poet and poetry it presents is a very different one. An analysis of this poem shows how the everyday character of the vocabulary contrasts with more conventionally aesthetic words in a way that creates a split in the discourse at many different levels. This in turn establishes the ironic mode of the text and, ultimately, puts into question the terms “poetic” and “prosaic” themselves. We have seen that Baudelaire, too, grappled with this issue, but Rimbaud's solution leads to a very different kind of poem.

In his essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” Paul de Man examines Baudelairean irony, noting:

The ironic subject at once has to ironize its own predicament and observe in turn, with the detachment and disinterestedness that Baudelaire demands of this kind of spectator, the temptation to which it is about to succumb. It does so precisely by avoiding the return to the world … by reasserting the purely fictional nature of its own universe and by carefully maintaining the radical difference that separates fiction from the world of empirical reality.


Such an ironic mode is present in “Ma Bohème,” where a totalization of the self and the world is undermined by the speaker's attitude towards his experience, an attitude articulated by his diction.

The poem sets up a metaphorical relationship between the young wanderer presented and the universe around him: metaphorical in the sense that it is effectuated through the use of tropes and also because a system of identities and analogies is established between the self and the world. In the line, “Mon auberge était à la Grande-Ourse,” for example, Grande-Ourse, sounding like a plausible name for an inn, is more than a metaphor describing his sleeping under the stars (“à la belle étoile”): the line makes of him a wanderer among the stars. He says “mon auberge,” and “mes étoiles.” He seems even to be one of the stars: “ma course” can be taken in its sense of the movement of the heavens. Not only is he capable of hearing the stars (the traditional image of the music of the spheres) but in the line “mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou,” it becomes the sound of women companions, the expression frou-frou referring to the sound of silk or taffeta gowns. The physical world and the speaker seem to exchange attributes, as in the metalepsis “mes souliers blessés” and the metaphor linking the sweat of his brow to the dew. The word égrenais, linking his verses with grain, presents another example of his union with the world about him.7

On the other hand, this idealized totalization of the universe and the poet is undercut in several ways, among them the poeticization of the banal. A certain oscillation is exemplified by the line:

Mon paletot aussi devenait idéal.

The ideal is of course contrasted with matter; as the coat disintegrates, it loses its material aspects and becomes ideal. It also exists for the speaker as an idea, because he still feels he is wearing a coat, even when its outward appearance would be that of rags. But idéal also means that which is perfect: the coat suits him perfectly well. Unique culotte functions in the same way.

There is a certain indeterminacy in the sense in which the reader is to understand many of the expressions used in the poem, and because of it, the stylistic level is uncertain. “Fantaisie” can be a caprice or an imaginative work, an artistic creation; or on the other hand, according to Littré, an “irrégularité dans la conduite.” All these senses are appropriate: the wanderer's life is certainly an unconventional existence, and his attitude towards his clothing reveals a rejection of the materialistic values of society. Yet another ambiguous term is Bohème, which has connotations of a sordid, tawdry, but also, an exciting and romantic existence. Rimbaud plays on both associations, and through the language of the poem evokes both conceptions, intertwining them by mingling the vocabularies proper to both, and giving us an example of a lyrical poem built on the reconciliation of two incompatible worlds.

Throughout the poem, as in “Oraison du soir” and “Mes petites amoureuses,” prose syntax and the everyday character of the vocabulary contrast with more conventionally aesthetic words. On the one hand, there are terms from the vocabulary of neoclassicism, like idéal, Muse, lyres, and amours in the feminine. But these are rendered familiar by their juxtaposition with familiar terms or by their association with the vagabond. Thus, idéal refers to paletot, and to a shabby one at that; the effect of amours splendides is immediately contradicted by the familiar interjection “Oh! là là!”; the strings of the lyres are nothing but shoe elastics. The details regarding his clothing belong to an ordinary, prosaic milieu; and words like crevées and frou-frou are familiar terms.

This almost simultaneous valorization and puncturing of the protagonist's attributes establishes the ironic mode of the text. There is a split between the protagonist and the persona who narrates the poem: the slightly condescending character of the line, “Oh! là là! que d'amours splendides j'ai rêvées!” shows the narrator to be older, more mature, and amused by the thought of his earlier life. Rêver, used as a transitive verb, has the connotation of “dreamed-up,” another deprecatory expression. Calling the wanderer “Petit-Poucet” also reveals this attitude, since this fairy-tale character evokes both admiration and amusement. The parallels between him and the protagonist are many: like the young poet, “Il écoutait beaucoup”; as the poet is isolated from society, Petit-Poucet was “le souffre-douleurs de la maison et on lui donnait toujours le tort” (Perrault, 191). Whereas Petit-Poucet dropped pebbles and pieces of grain to show him the way home, the poet drops his verses. The use of this name puts us in the context of children's stories. We would not expect to take such a character seriously, and other elements in the protagonist's description bear out this impression. He is not really a poet: “rimant au milieu des ombres,” he writes only “rimes,” like verses for children.

But it is not simply the case that the narrator is denigrating his younger self: this might provoke laughter, but it would remove the essential contradiction necessary to an ironic stance. The narrator would simply be older and wiser; the present would be stable; and “Ma Bohème” would refer to a reckless, bohemian existence, now long gone. But this would negate the positive, attractive side of the life described: Petit-Poucet is qualified by the epithet, “rêveur.” Such a view would also undermine the identification of poetry with walking that Jacques Plessen has pointed out in Rimbaud's work and that applies so well to this poem, especially to its last two lines (170-71). The passé composé in the line “Que d'amours splendides j'ai rêvées” has the ambiguity characteristic of this tense: on the one hand, it can be taken as assuring us that this stage is now passed (its “aspect accompli”); while on the other, it retains its link to the present.

Another aspect of this ambiguity is the narrator's stance with respect to himself as narrator. It must not be forgotten that it is poetry itself that is the subject here. The reader of this poem is presented with a “rhyme” written out of the protagonist's experience, like those alluded to along with muses and lyres. The oscillation between valorization and denigration and the conflicting registers, from the very familiar to the traditionally “poetic,” are signs of a doubling of the self. Poulet sees a dialectic of dédoublement in Rimbaud's creation, “[qui] suppose un créateur qui soit la même personne que sa créature … le créateur réveille un autre que lui, qui est pourtant lui” (117; see also 110 and 118-22). But Poulet attributes an “activité magique” to the creator and passivity to the creature; whereas in “Ma Bohème” the creature is himself a creator. This split is not that between the narrator and the protagonist, for this would interfere with the texture of the poem, but within the narrator himself. That he can take himself no more seriously than he can the protagonist is made clear by the poem's subtitle, “Fantaisie”: his attitude cannot be simply one of superiority. This split, then, makes us unsure what to think not only of the character and his life but also of the poem's own status. If this amused, seemingly detached treatment of the young poet is itself a fantasy, then where does fantasy end and reality begin? The union of the poet with nature or the universe, then, far from effectuating a metaphoric totalization, is itself as unsettled as the constant motion of the wanderer, Petit-Poucet, and the stars, as unsubstantial as the ombres fantastiques.

In examining this poem from the standpoint of linguistic register, we can see that the field is at first sight perfectly acceptable: it is about a wandering poet, certainly a traditional subject for poetry. But other signifieds in the poem come from a field usually excluded: everyday clothing (including culotte, poches crevées, and shoe-elastics). Furthermore, on the level of the signifier, there are intrusions from the spoken mode, “Oh! là là!”, and an informal tenor (frou-frou). The contrast between these linguistic intrusions and the terms conventionally associated with this subject, like lyres and Muse, cannot be analyzed in terms of rebellion (political or social), as in “L'Orgie parisienne” or “A la musique.” Nor can it be seen as denigration of the characters described, as in “Les Assis” or “Mes petites amoureuses.” Rather, its very undecidability makes possible the distancing necessary for the ironic stance the narrator takes with respect to himself, and it creates a new, intermediate style, neither “lyrical” nor “prosaic.”


Expanding the correspondence between the signifier and signified the poetics/politics connection presupposes, Rimbaud's work shows how poetic effects can be elicited by discordances both between the signified and the signifier and on the level of the signifier itself. These interrelations can be seen in a pair of texts that exemplify the poeticizing of the trivial (“Oraison du soir”) and the trivializing of the poetic (“Mes petites amoureuses”) and in the metapoetic text, “Ce qu'on dit au poète.”

The juxtapositions of lyrical language with unacceptable signifieds in “Oraison du soir” have frequently been noted. The best example is perhaps the contrast between lines 12 and 13:

Doux comme le Seigneur du cèdre et des hysopes,
Je pisse vers les cieux bruns, très haut et très loin,

but similar juxtapositions take place at the level of both the signified and the signifier. The first line of the poem opposes two figures from distinctly different real and textual milieux: “tel qu'un ange aux mains d'un barbier.” Contradictory elements are brought together, creating striking images: the burns are “douces”; Acre is conjoined with doux; gold is both young and somber, and it can ensanglante: (is it red or gold, then?) Guisto points out the contraditions on the level of expression, seeing the poem as exemplifying Rimbaud's poetic enterprise in 1871, “subvertir la poésie traditionnelle” (118). Of course, Rimbaud needs the reader's familiarity with traditional poetry to make this poem work, because it contrasts conventional poetic vocabulary and religious terms with medical terms (hypogastre), botanical vocabulary (including senses of cannelures and ravaler), and familiar expressions. The romantic mon coeur triste is immediately degraded by its paradoxial association with sapwood and with the coulures. The heavens are depreciated by the adjective bruns. The heliotropes “approve” because they too turn to the sky. Indeed, these contrasts lead to a rereading of the poem in which the elements referred to in elevated diction are reinterpreted in terms of physical functions. Thus, voilures become clouds of smoke from the speaker's pipe, the “rêves” his feeling of nausea or vomit (ravalé taken in the sense of “regurgitated”); coulures the spilled or driveled beer, me recueille not meditation, as the religious vocabulary and title would lead us to expect, but the speaker's retiring to relieve himself. This rereading, in which this language itself is “ravalé,” is triggered by the cues the lexical contrasts have alerted us to find. The confrontations between and on these various levels creates the humor of this poem. And the contrast between these contrasts and the conventional sonnet form creates another level of contradiction. The poem's effect depends on all these oppositions.

“Mes petites amoureuses” has the same contrasts, though its structure is just the reverse of that in “Oraison du soir”: the conventionally poetic subject is treated in language that is violent and vulgar in the extreme. The language is also extremely difficult to understand. But interpretations of this poem differ from those of “Oraison du soir”: The violence of the language used has elicited commentaries on the violence of Rimbaud's feelings towards women (or towards himself), provoking speculations regarding young women by whom he may have been rejected, thoughts on his homosexuality, and so on. The language is itself often called “aggressive.” The subject matter, then, seems to determine the seriousness with which the poem is regarded. But as Schaeffer has shown, Rimbaud is writing not against particular young girls or against women in general, but rather, against a certain kind of poetry, the kind the title of the poem would lead us to expect (125; see also Giustio, 133). Whereas in “Oraison du soir” “poetic” expressions were devalued by their conjunction with a “low” subject,” here, as in “Vénus anadyomène,” the standard subject matter of lyrical poetry is brought down through the use of unconventional vocabulary.

But what kind of unconventional vocabulary is used tells us a great deal about Rimbaud's poetic methods as well as about his reception by critics. Schaeffer tells us that the lexicon of the poem “est emprunté au dégoût, au visqueux, au technique, au prosaïque” (116), thus making no distinction between, respectively, reader reaction (or, if he means words referring to disgust, semantic field), semantic field, a particular register (scientific language), and literary genre conventions. In conflating these categories, he is presupposing that remotivation of the relationship between signifier and referent Genette points out as “poetic cratylism.” A look at the first stanza of the poem shows both how these connections are made and how they unmake themselves:

Un hydrolat lacrymal lave
                              Les cieux vert-chou:
Sous l'arbre tendronnier qui bave,
                              Vos caoutchoucs
Blancs de lunes particulières
                              Aux pialats ronds,
Entrechoquez vos genouillères,
                              Mes laiderons!

We can make sense of Un hydrolat lacrymal in several ways, on different levels. Schaeffer points out the kind of “bégaiement” produced by the concatination of la/al sounds. The phrase also takes its place in an interlocking network of imagery relating to liquids, tears, and pain. And finally, the nouns are part of the sequence of scientific/medical terms in the poem. But when we try to see correspondences among the phonetic structure, the imagery, and the register levels of the language used, we find rupture rather than correlation. We do not associate scientific language with tears or with stammering. The various levels confront rather than reinforce each other, stymying our urge to organize the elements of the text into a comprehensible whole.

The text presents many obstacles to interpreters, and critics have been puzzling for the past hundred years about such collocations as cabbage-green skies, a blue-haired laideron, or the arbre tendronnier. Some terms present problems beyond those posed by unusual images, however. It is worth taking the time to look in detail at some of these difficulties and the ways critics have tried to deal with them. Laideron is masculine in the poem, though it was a feminine noun at the time; étoile is masculine in the ninth stanza, feminine in the eleventh. What can we make of these “errors”: inadvertence? obscure allusion? further denigration of the conventionally “poetic”? Fouffes is defined as a provincialism meaning (depending on the commentator) either “un gifle” or “un chiffon.”8 Adam finds that “gifles” would not make sense in this context and proposes the latter definition, though fouffes is modified by “douleureuses,” and references to pain and cruelty occur throughout the text. Eclanches has been given as a provincialism, too, though it exists in Littré and in present-day dictionaries. But Chambon seems surprised that “les commentateurs pensent qu'il s'agit du terme français éclanches” (97-98), since the word applies to sheep's shoulders and in particular to a butchered cut of meat. He finds such a meaning unacceptable, though the text incorporates terms like mouron, bâtées, and oeufs à la coque. He proposes instead a provincial term, éclinches, meaning “shoulder.” Never mind the other culinary terms and the prevalence of pejorative terms relating to the girls: for Chambon, “shoulders” is more pertinent than the word Rimbaud in fact uses, the “terme français” éclanches. The spelling difference and the fact that the term comes from Picardy rather than the Ardennes region are not evidence enough to counteract the urge to readability and regularity. Pialat is even more difficult to work into a coherent reading because so far its sense has eluded Rimbaud scholars. Antoine Adam avers that it derives from se pialer, “peler de froid” (though he does not list a source); but other commentators, unable to make sense of such a meaning in the stanza, have rejected this definition. Ruff proposes an origin in a slang verb “pialer,” meaning “chialer.” Ruff can then propose a reading, “les traces … des larmes de la pluie” (113). But it doesn't get around the fact that Rimbaud twice wrote “pialat” not chialat (and the latter does not exist either) in a clearly copied text included in the “Lettre du voyant” to Paul Demeny. Schaeffer, too, refutes Adam's suggestion, proposing instead a reading that can be inserted into the network of sexual allusions and images in the text, that of a breast, un “pis-à-lait.” Here again, one would have to discount the spelling Rimbaud used. I have found the word pialàt in the Dictionnaire du Bèarnais et du Gascon modernes, meaning “gros tas, rassemblement, groupe nombreux, foule, masse, amas de choses en tas.” But it is difficult to imagine how Rimbaud could have encountered the term, and it does not work well with the word caoutchoucs in its first appearance, though it makes more sense in conjunction with the “amas d'étoiles” at the end of the poem. What is clear is that, by means of what is literally agrammatical, Rimbaud is working here not only at the limits of conventional poetic language, but of language itself. The kind of opacity presented by such terms makes it impossible to treat this text as a simple instance of referential discourse. It refuses reference, it makes denotation impossible: pialat denotes the null set. It should be clear to what extent readings attempting to correlate the text with events in Rimbaud's life are wide of the mark.

It is possible—and useful—to give a reading of this text analogous to Riffaterre's of “Vénus anadyomène” as a simple reversal of the structure of a typical love poem. Thus, as Guisto has pointed out, the traditional love nest gives us “oeufs à la coque”; stolen kisses have become “salives desséchées”; the graceful ballerina is now an “éclanche” (134). But such a reading can account only in part for the language of the text. The obscure terms prevent a reading that can assign positive or negative values to terms in any simple way, and the collisions on the level of vocabulary between culinary terms, medical expressions, colloquialisms, lyrical expressions, and so on, function in a similar fashion. Hydrolat lacrymal combines a pharmaceutical term (meaning a liquid obtained by distilling water over aromatic plants) with a medical expression, and it throws off simple reference in two ways: it makes us ask both what it denotes and how we can conciliate the two referential systems. For Adam “c'est tout bonnement la pluie” (883). But just as we seek to understand what the use of a rhetorical figure adds to a text instead of a simpler equivalent, we expect to be able to determine the stylistic consequences of the use of such a phrase. Here, they are not so easy to establish. Lunes particulières is an analogous case: lunes can put us into the traditional setting of love poetry, or it can mean “ass” in slang parlance. But what can “lunes particulières” refer to in either case? “Special,” “peculiar,” “private”? Perhaps we should not take as ironic the line “Tu me sacras poète” and Rimbaud's characterization of the poem as “un psaume d'actualité”: this poem takes its place in his theory that his age must create a new poetry, for which it must “trouver une langue.” He enunciates his poetic program both in the “Lettre du Voyant” (in which “Mes petites amoureuses” appears) and in his other poetic manifesto, “Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs.”

This latter text incorporates the kinds of language we have found in “Mes petites amoureuses” and adds more besides. Its language shows the full range of Rimbaud's innovations in the poetic lexicon. He illustrates the possibilities open to poetic discourse, both for himself and for others. But because it is a kind of ars poetica, its self-referential character permits a certain recuperation of this new diction. At the same time, it is not altogether clear what his prescriptions are.

In this text Rimbaud introduces references to fields uncommon in poetry, to contemporary life and to banal, everyday elements in particular. There are allusions to well-known figures of the time—Banville, Renan, Hachette, Grandville (who had published a collection of drawings called Les Fleurs animées), Figuier, author of scientific works, M. de Kerdrel, a famous royalist. Many of the objects mentioned are recent discoveries: rubber, telegraph poles, spoons made by the Alfénide process. Not only do they reveal his interest in the technological advances of the time, but they represent the introduction of unusual subjects into poetry. Rimbaud seems to be calling for a modern poetry for modern times. The same effect is elicited by the scientific terminology so frequently used in this poem (rayon de sodium, dioptriques, glucose), the many references to plants and animals, and the medical lexicon: one would expect them to be used in a scientific treatise rather than in a poem. Using this register also allows plays on the sounds of its typically hard-to-pronounce terms, as in the line “L'Ode Açoka cadre avec la”; as Rimbaud says, they permit “A l'Eucalyptus étonnant / Des contrictors d'un hexamètre.” This kind of effect is common in Rimbaud's satirical verse (the almost unpronouncable grappes d'amygdales of “Les Assis” is one of many possible examples). Industrial and commercial terminology have similar effects. There are references to textile manufacturing (cotonnier, filer, noeuds), mining (filons, gemmeuses), pharmacology, and leather manufacturing. The “Poète” seems to be proving his acquaintance with such subjects, a knowledge superior to those poets ridiculed in the poem because of their futile and ignorant search for local color (“Tu ferais succéder, je crains / Aux Grillons roux les Cantharides”).

A similarly unusual semantic field represented in the text is that of the everyday and the commonplace, including basset hounds, potatoes, ragoûts (in the literal sense), fried eggs, and so on. The impression of what commentators have called the “unaesthetic” is reinforced by the intrusions of the mode of spoken language and the informality of expression, including terms like pochant l'oeil and torcher. The lyrical status of typically poetic terms is often devalued by their association with vulgar or pejorative terms, creating the kind of oxymoronic diction we have seen in Baudelaire: “O blanc Chasseur, qui cours sans bas,” “calices pleins d'oeufs,” “ô Farceur,” “magnifiques omoplates,” etc. These clashes in tone provoke laughter, but at the same time, they represent an implicit refusal to accept conventional poetic language.

The use of neologisms also shows the poem's antitraditionalist stance. True coined words like gemmeuses (from gemme) and pectoraires (a variant on pectoral) combine with terms like pubescences (a latinism) and incageur (an italianism) and irregular usages like végétaux as an epithet for français, panique applied to Pâtis, and “un pleur.” Rimbaud is proposing a new language for a new poetry. Neologisms serve a variety of purposes in Rimbaud's work, creating a dream-like atmosphere, evoking a new world, expressing a rejection of the poetic norm; but in all these cases the effect depends on the way in which neologisms attract the attention of the reader to the coined word itself. The automatic link between signifier and signified is broken, and the reader must supply her own signified according to the context in which the word is found. Thus, refusing the transparency of referential language, the neologism is a particularly effective instrument in focusing on the surface of a text. But in a sense, all the scientific, technical, slang, and vulgar expressions in the poem function like neologisms or foreign words: they belong to levels of language inappropriate to “serious” literature. Rimbaud emphasizes the “revolutionary” nature of his enterprise in dating the poem, “14 juillet 1871,” echoing the politics/poetics parallelism studied above. As Houston (Design, 56) and Baudry (52) have pointed out, the lilies whose overuse in poetry is criticized in this text are emblematic of both literature and royalism (the latter also alluded to in the reference to M. de Kerdrel).

What kind of poetry is Rimbaud asking for and simultaneously illustrating in this poem? The answer to this question is not so easy to determine as we might expect in a text that presents a poetic program. Though it seems clear that the new poetry will be set against the facile exoticism of Parnassian verse, commentators are divided as to whether the poem represents an attack on Banville or whether addressing the poem to him in respectful terms, echoing passages from the Odes funambulesques, and the mere fact of sending the poem to him do not indicate a more positive attitude to the poet Rimbaud included among the “très voyants” second romantics in his “Lettre du Voyant” to Paul Demeny. Is the “Poète” addressed in the text Banville? Parnassian poets? The poet of the future? Rimbaud himself? Even more important, is the speaker Rimbaud himself or a “vil bourgeois” who does not understand poetry, as Adam claimed (906 ff.)? And what kind of statement is Rimbaud making about the society of his time? Is he touting the values of an industrial, technological age, as some critics have thought, citing the “Lettre du Voyant”: “Cet avenir sera matérialiste, vous le voyez”? Or does he rather criticize the “Siècle d'enfer,” “voué” as Adam says “au culte de l'Utile et de l'argent”? (906). Or is it that he marks his opposition to the economic system of bourgeois society by parodying its cultural text, as Baudry claims (52-53)? The differences in interpretation following from the answers to these questions are by no means trivial ones. When giving their own answers, critics seem to need to bolster their arguments with rhetorical force, using “il est clair que” or “il est évident que” with a frequency that would make one think there was critical unanimity on these points. The point here is not to claim that because critics have disagreed about the meaning of the poem this meaning is therefore impossible to determine, that the text is “undecidable.” On the other hand, the shifts in register I have pointed out lead to ruptures in tone that make agreement difficult to come by. Irony is an invisible trope, actualized by the reader, and the “cocasse” language and polemical stance indicated by the insulting characterizations of earlier poets make it hard to say whether Rimbaud is recommending utility as the object of the true poet's efforts or whether it is the object of the poem's ridicule.

I think a reading that looks at the text as a self-referential work can shed some light on the question. The text is proposing a properly poetic notion of utility rather than poetry that would be useful. The emphasis on work seen in the repeated use of the verbs fonctionner, servir, and travailler and in the use of the imperative mood can be understood as indicating what poetry should accomplish. To “trouve[r] au coeur des noirs filons / Des fleurs presque pierres” is to find a new poetic vision. The usefulness of this search is reflected in the poem's industrial and commercial vocabulary; but it is important that such language has itself proved useful in poetry. “Ta Rime sourdra, rose ou blanche, / Comme un rayon de sodium, / Comme un caoutchouc qui s'épanche!”: poetry is not to associate these colors with flowers (white as a lily, pink as a rose) but to find its references in the technological and scientific world. What is proposed, then, is not a work ethic but an aesthetic of language. The text underlines the importance not of plants, but of plant names.

The mixed-up geography of these poets in their search for local color is mocked by throwing together names of unrelated places—Rios, Rhin, Norwèges, Florides, Habana, Guyanes, and in contrast, Oises. The plural form of many of these names has the effect of denying the reference of each to a specific place, denying its very function as a proper noun. Whereas one would expect that the ars poetica genre would call forth a correspondence of expression and content, this kind of usage calls reference itself into question. Proper nouns, the epitome of denotation, are no longer allowed to denote: they have become common nouns again. Poets are to read the works of M. Figuier not only because of the “usefulness” of his works, but also because his name is itself that of a useful tree. In the same way, they are told to go to M. Hachette, whose name is that of a tool, one that might be useful in cutting short traditional poets' lyrical effusions. And so, proper nouns have become useful, useful words, words that can be “common,” that can refer in a polyvalent way. On the other hand, there is an overabundance of capitalization in the poem—not only for all the flower names and words traditionally allegorized (la Flore, l'Art), but also Plantes, Chasseur, Grillons, des Buffles, Oeufs de feu, and Salons. It represents not only a mocking of the process of personification so common in neoclassical verse but also a reversal of the signification of capitalization. Proper nouns have lost their specificity, whereas common nouns have become proper. In the same way as aesthetic terms are devalued by their epithets (“Les Lys, ces clystères d'extases!”) and vice versa, the improper and proper have changed properties, putting into question the notion of property/propriety.

In this poem about how to write poetry, Rimbaud has accomplished what he recommends: he has opened poetic vocabulary to new possibilities and thereby to new poetic effects. That readers are still puzzling over how to deal with his accomplishment is a measure of its effectiveness. On the other hand, it is less clear to what extent the poem can be taken as a statement opposing a political and social structure. The use of such diction can be better analyzed as a sign of resistance to the conventionally “poetic.” Genette (in Figures, 219-20) has analyzed conventional poetic tropes in a way that can be schematized as follows:

signifier: voile ¦ signified: ship} signifier ¦ signified: poetry

Similarly, familiar and scientific discourse signifies a rejection of neoclassical diction. Because it must call attention to itself as language, it implicitly comments on poetic language in general. The signified of such collocations as précieuses glucoses, then, is a reaction against traditional poetic diction. In modern literature, of course, thanks to the work of poets like Rimbaud, what it signifies is again “poetry.”

These discordances are analogous to the rhetorical figures that predominate in Rimbaud's work as a whole: oxymoron, zeugma, hypallage, as well as metaphor.9 The hypallage in “panthères à peaux d'hommes” (instead of men in panther skins) (“Le Bateau ivre”) is typical of the startling effects elicited by Rimbaud's use of rhetoric. Perhaps the most striking example of such language is another line from the “Bateau ivre”: “dévorant les azurs verts.” The color-noun azur means blue: azurs verts is not merely impossible in fact, it is logically impossible, a contradiction in terms. We can try to understand the expression in the context of the poem, imagining the water as now green, now blue or as indistinguishably blue and green. Or we can assimilate them into blue-green, a distinct color composed of both, mentally inserting a hyphen and an “s” to make azurs-verts. But since Rimbaud did not make this insertion, as they stand, the words azurs verts bring us to a point of virtual incomprehensibility: Rimbaud has violated a semantic rule. He has violated the standards of propriety in his diction, too, not just in introducing vulgar terms into his texts, but in conjoining terms from disparate registers, forming stylistic oxymorons like morves d'azur.

Todorov links the impossibility of representation in the Illuminations with those texts' oxymorons and contradictory sentences. He sees Rimbaud's language as essentially “présentatif” rather than representational (129-30).10 It is possible to read much of Rimbaud's verse not as representations of the world, but as statements about contemporary poetry or about his own poetry. Their use of unconventional diction serves to foreground these intertextual and self-referential dimensions.

The preceding examination of the language of Rimbaud's poetry has repeatedly encountered the question of reference. This is a question raised often with respect to the Illuminations, but it is central also to interpretations of Rimbaud's verse works dating almost from the beginning of his writing career. As we have seen, the kinds of terms he introduced into verse—scientific terms, neologisms, and familiar discourse in particular—create discordances in tone, agrammaticalities that call for critical interpretation. When pushed to the extreme, as at certain moments in “Mes petites amoureuses,” these anomalies in diction can push a text to the point of unreadability, the way they did in Verlaine's “Nouvelles Variations.” When familiar language refuses assimilation by its context in this way, its shock value—even today—is especially great; and it can thereby gain great destructive or constructive force. In doing so it can serve to disrupt referentiality at the same time as it adds another level of reference, reference that functions by means of the figurative dimension of diction.

In his sonnet on Rimbaud, Auden wrote: “But in that child the rhetorician's lie / Burst like a pipe.” The phrase “burst like a pipe” echoes Rimbaud's own use of unconventional discourse in poetry. But Auden is presenting the traditional view of rhetoric as artificial, as what is opposed to the real, the genuine, the down-to-earth. Rimbaud's accomplishment is to have used such discourse to its greatest rhetorical advantage, not just in the way it can engage the reader, startling her, perhaps even shocking her, but also in the way it functions like rhetorical figure. And at its strongest, in texts like “Ce qu'on dit au poète” or “Le Bateau ivre,” where “le Poème de la mer” transfers the aesthetics of liberation to the poetic lexicon and imagery, it figures the poetic enterprise itself.


  1. Lapeyre writes: “Tout le poème est conçu pour mettre en valeur le dernier mot, pour aboutir au bureau prosaïque” (420). See also Guisto (132).

  2. Chambers examines the ways critics have tried to find referential “keys” to Rimbaud's poetry, especially his later works; and he shows how such referential readings counter these texts' “symbolisation.”

  3. Todorov has also examined the role of romantic theories of the symbol and their relation to modern literary criticism (101-4).

  4. Rimbaud's mentor, Georges Izambard, “corrected” the line, “Et mes désirs brutaux s'accrochent à leurs lèvres” to “Et je sens les baisers qui me viennent aux lèvres.” Ruff and the Pléiade edition use the original line; others, including Bernard's, the Izambard version.

  5. In his edition Ruff claims that the returning Parisians described in the poem are those who had fled the city during its bombing by the Prussians in February and March of 1871, a return Rimbaud might have witnessed. Other commentators have not been convinced by his demonstration. It does not matter for the purposes of my argument which event it is, except that the very fact the question is raised should give us pause regarding the poem's relation to historical reality.

  6. See also Kerbrat's discussion of the relation of connotation to ideology (215-29).

  7. Bachelard has examined the “transaction du petit et du grand” in this text in La Poétique de l'espace (155-57). See also Kittang (170-71).

  8. Suzanne Bernard gives the first in her edition of Rimbaud's Oeuvres as does Marcel Ruff in his edition of the Poésies (113). Antoine Adam gives the latter in the Pléiade edition, and Bernard's successor A. Guyaux follows him. None of them give their sources, but Charles Bruneau defines “fouffe” as a “gifle” in his article “Le Patois de Rimbaud” (5).

  9. See Lapeyre (405-22) for a discussion of Rimbaud's use of rhetorical figures, especially in the prose works.

  10. Baudry's position is similar to Todorov's, while he situates Rimbaud's language in an interrelation with his social text: “Cette langue se distingue radicalement de la langue considérée comme moyen de communication et d'expression. … Loin donc d'être l'expression d'une réalité extérieure à elle … elle est intérieure au texte général (qui pour être texte est toujours en quelque sorte déjà théorisé) et en relation dialectique avec lui” (59, his italics). Paul de Man, however, in criticizing theories that link modern poetry with the loss of representation, shows that “all allegorical poetry must contain a representational element that invites and allows for understanding, only to discover that the understanding it reaches is necessarily in error” (Blindness, 185).

Michael Riffaterre (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7744

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
sous les murs dont quelque pucelle eut la défense;
l'ébat des anges;—Non … le courant d'or en marche,
meut ses bras, noirs, et lourds, et frais surtout, d'herbe. Elle
sombre, ayant le Ciel bleu pour ciel-de-lit, appelle
pour rideaux l'ombre de la colline et de l'arche.


Eh! l'humide carreau tend ses bouillons limpides!
L'eau meuble d'or pâle et sans fond les couches prêtes.
Les robes vertes et déteintes des fillettes
font les saules, d'où sautent les oiseaux sans brides.
Plus pure qu'un louis, jaune et chaude paupière
le souci d'eau—ta foi conjugale, ô l'Epouse!—
au midi prompt, de son terne miroir, jalouse
au ciel gris de chaleur la Sphère rose et chère.


Madame se tient trop debout dans la prairie
prochaine où neigent les fils du travail; l'ombrelle
aux doigts; foulant l'ombelle; trop fière pour elle;
des enfants lisant dans la verdure fleurie
leur livre de maroquin rouge! Hélas, Lui, comme
mille anges blancs qui se séparent sur la route,
s'éloigne par delà la montagne! Elle, toute
froide, et noire, court! après le départ de l'homme!


Regret des bras épais et jeunes d'herbe pure!
Or des lunes d'avril au cœur du saint lit! Joie
des chantiers riverains à l'abandon, en proie
aux soirs d'août qui faisaient germer ces pourritures!
          Qu'elle pleure à présent sous les remparts! l'haleine
des peupliers d'en haut est pour la seule brise.
Puis, c'est la nappe, sans reflets, sans source, grise:
un vieux, dragueur, dans sa barque immobile, peine.


Jouet de cet œil d'eau morne, je n'y puis prendre,
ô canot immobile! oh! bras trop courts! ni l'une
ni l'autre fleur: ni la jaune qui m'importune,
là; ni la bleue, amie à l'eau couleur de cendre.
Ah! la poudre des saules qu'une aile secoue!
Les roses des roseaux dès longtemps dévorées!
Mon canot, toujours fixe; et sa chaîne tirée
Au fond de cet œil d'eau sans bords,—à quelle boue?

Symbolist poetry resists interpretation, because symbols remain independent from any recognizable trope or figure, and thus elude those critical approaches that have evolved from rhetorical analysis. Even the distinction between figurative and literal discourse does little to help, since words can symbolize while keeping their literal acceptation. In extreme cases, words can symbolize without any identifiable or specific symbolism of their own, representing instead the symbolic stance itself, the mere assumption that signs stand for something other than they appear to, and yet still convey their expected meanings. This elusiveness alone would make the readers' task daunting. In the case of Rimbaud, deciphering symbols has been more problematic because the image of the poet has hidden the poetry and warped its interpretation. The substitution of writers for their writing is a widespread fallacy, but it has raised more obstacles between the readers and Rimbaud's work because of his visibility as a man and as a myth. The scandal surrounding his life, at least in the eyes of his contemporaries, and the aura of his precocious genius, have made the temptation irresistible to explain away textual difficulties as autobiographical allusions, when they actually stem from the semiotic make-up of verbal symbols. A related problem of interpretation arises from the use and abuse of his programmatic pronouncements and of those of his poems that are also manifestoes. The attention lavished on the ‘Voyelles’ sonnet has long caused critics to try to focus on Rimbaud's practice of synesthesia, when it is but one instance, and in fact a minor one, of his doctrine of dérèglement de tous les sens. Conversely, this last formula and others culled from the so-called ‘Lettre du Voyant’ have served to justify blanket acceptance of any departure from usage, or of non sequitur as a principle of composition, or the rash surmise that open-ended terms like image are adequate tools for analysis. Typically one is faced with statements like the following: ‘a mere sequence of images, rather than the depiction of a specific scene’ (this purports to explain the poem I am about to discuss), only to find that the one specific and therefore usable feature this assertion contains has been taken away in the next paragraph (here, the very concept of sequence from which one might have derived some rule of the poem's particular grammar).1 Again Rimbaud's most quoted sentence, ‘Je est un autre’, is taken to authorize any interpretation of the lyric that defines it as the subject's taking over the Other, or conversely as the otherness of the subject. The main point of the phrase is dismissed as a stylistic emphasis, while this point (the discrepancy between a first-person subject and a verb in the third person) could be used independently of its content, thus safely free of any intentional fallacy, as a formal model for one of Rimbaud's syntactic idiosyncracies.

My aim here is to focus on the text's formal features. No interpretation of a poem, it seems to me, can ever be specific and reliable unless based on such features. No generalization towards a definition of Rimbaud's manner can be made without such analyses as its preconditions. To that end, I have chosen a poem from Derniers Vers, ‘Mémoire’, whose obscurity is unanimously judged typical of Rimbaud, an obscurity however that all critics attempt wrongly to solve through autobiographical ‘evidence’. In contradistinction to this (the easy option which is also irresponsible since it authorizes just about any hypothesis), obscurity should be seen as an index pointing to its own keys, the reason being that it controls the readers' attention and restricts their freedom of fancy. Indeed, hermeneutic hurdles, far from permitting random guesses, clearly define the areas where usage is challenged and our linguistic competence defeated. It thus forces readers to participate creatively rather than react passively. It harnesses the thrust of their efforts through a limited number of options, itself further and further limited by other hurdles to come.

‘Mémoire’ is especially representative for two reasons: reactions to it exemplify critics' behaviour in Rimbaud's case, and the poem itself exemplifies his writing strategies. As regards critics' behaviour: for those who know Rimbaud's life, the beginning of the poem seems to refer to the landscape around his birthplace, Charleville; the allusions to an authoritarian mother, and to her desertion by the father, coincide with the poet's family life; and the let-down at the end, when the rowboat has run aground in the mud or is anchored in still water, is consistent with Rimbaud's claustrophobic childhood. Critics are fond of pointing to similar passages in poems like ‘Les Poètes de sept ans’, ‘Les Assis’, and above all ‘Bateau ivre’, from which recurrence they infer that the theme's frequency is explained by the author's bitter experience. But of course the likelihood that the above is true still does not mean that it plays a role in our reading and appreciation of the poem. If we needed outside information to evaluate the poem's truth, the poem would therefore be somehow deficient. If the poem is in fact effective, convincing, and consistent with a title such as, say, ‘Childhood's Memories’, it is because the poem's system of verisimilitude is self-sufficient, not because it happens to be verifiable through means of information exterior to it. The only reliable criterion for judgement of the mimesis of a life is to decide whether that representation is explicitly autobiographical. In this case, it is not: most landscapes offer rivers and towns; what we do know of Madame Rimbaud (née Cuif) makes it unlikely that she pursued her errant husband, an event some critics insist is recounted in part III of the poem. Finally, the recurrence of the theme may or may not be explained by its reflecting the author's experience, but its effect on the reader is sufficiently accounted for by that recurrence itself and by its being a recognizable stereotype. On the other hand, if autobiographical representation is not explicit, the only acceptable critical position is that autobiography is precisely what the poem avoids, and that it must remain irrelevant to the poem's impact.

As for the writing strategies I have alluded to, they are:

(1) A systematic challenge to literary conventions, such as lexical restrictions excluding certain words from poetic use, and the privileging of tropes. These conventions inherited from French classicism were hardly disturbed by the romanticists despite their claims to the contrary. The rules differentiating between prose and verse in particular are abolished. In this respect ‘Mémoire’ is half-way between the discursive features of traditional verse and the prose poem to which Rimbaud would eventually turn as the only form suitable for his writing.

(2) The prevalence of verbal humour, both as the principal device for challenging convention, and as a substitute for the formal features of verse.

(3) An overdetermination of the verbal sequence, to compensate for the previous two categories. It is mostly achieved through verbal equivalences and tautological paradigms that visibly structure the text and make up for the loss of metre and rhetorical forms. Readers become aware of paradigms by dint of repetition or of variation on a topic within the text or through intertextuality.

(4) A referential circularity, whereby the sign—object reference may be reversed; in particular, a circularity peculiar to symbolism that prevents readers from deciding which is figurative and which is literal. The text becomes a double-entry system in which the compared and the comparing trade functions in a merry-go-round of undecidability.

‘Mémoire’ in fact unfolds two parallel series of images, the components of one alternating with those of the other, one describing a river, one a family or rather a woman now seen as a wife and now as a mother. Both series are commented upon by a first-person narrative voice. The reader is hard put to decide whether the river is a part of the setting or stage for that family's life, or whether it represents that family metaphorically, or whether on the contrary the family is not in fact a metaphorical code, an artful conceit to represent the river.

For the sake of clarity, or rather to identify the shifts from one image to the next, and figure out what may motivate these shifts and lead to some common factor that may open on to an interpretation, I shall sketch the to-and-fro swinging from one sequence to the next:

Description of the river in black and white (ll. 1-6).

Description of the river as a bedroom (ll. 7-8).

The river as a family scene (ll. 9-12).

The river and the sun it reflects depicted as man and wife (ll. 13-16), or: man and wife depicted as the sun mirroring itself in the river.

An actual family scene: an outing on the river-bank (ll. 17-21).

Sunset: the river as abandoned wife (ll. 21-4).

The past, or: bittersweet memories in a river landscape (ll. 25-30), alternating between regret (ll. 25, 29-30) and happy recollections (ll. 26-8).

Today, or: despondency and powerlessness depicted as stagnant water (ll. 31-40).

In the first three stanzas, the river is real but represented through an accumulation of figurative language (ll. 1-12). In stanza 4, either the river is metaphorized once more, or a couple, or a sexual relationship, is metaphorized as a river (ll. 13-16). In stanza 5, the family seems literal enough (ll. 17-21). In stanza 6, a scene of parting is metaphorized as sunset on the river (ll. 21-4). The last four stanzas clearly tell the story of a life, opposing the past and the present, which are symbolized by a real river.

The first six lines are either metaphorical or symbolic. From then on to line 24, figurative discourse seems metaphorical because equations are explicitly posited between one set of representations and another (e.g. ll. 7-8). No such equations can be drawn afterwards, and life and river are equally literal. Their parallel descriptions make the latter symbolize the former.

And now for a quick overview of the poem's repeated challenges to convention. These may not be easily related to the symbolism of the whole, or even to separate symbols. But it will soon be apparent that the humour attendant on these gestures debunking the literariness of tradition also functions as the sign pointing to a new literariness, as an index showing the way to interpretation.


The departures from conventional forms may not be drastic enough to fall into the class of dérèglement de tous les sens. They seem rather to extend to the whole (syntax and lexicon) of poetic discourse a principle contrary to Boileau's doctrine of ‘le mot juste mis en sa place’ which was to remain until World War I the cornerstone of ‘good’ writing.

Colloquial or even vulgar forms are used where verse would have permitted only normal, guarded usage, or literary discourse. ‘En foule’ (l. 3) for instance, instead of ‘beaucoup’ is either vulgar or schoolchild's talk. Verlaine uses it in the kind of poems half-way between written formalism and spoken colloquialism that were to culminate in the verse version of realism made popular by François Coppée.2 Similarly, ‘ô l'Epouse’ (l. 14) mixes the vulgar form of address (with the article, instead of the normal or poetic form which lacks it) and ‘ô’ of lofty style invocations; again ‘Eh! l'humide …’ (l. 9) replaces with an ejaculation of conversational parlance the vois or contemple in the imperative mood that are the conventional enticements to admire in the lyric.

Clichés are disturbed, a move of unfailing efficacy since the fact of violating forms engraved complete (as lexicon and grammar together) in our memory has more of an impact than the tampering with a rule not yet embodied in a known stereotype. Since ébats, designating a ludic hyperactivity, is used only in the plural, l'ébat in the singular—in ‘l'ébat des anges’ (l. 5)—underscores its meaning, emphasizing the usual connection with children at play, and thus reinforcing the whiteness implicit in angels with the candour that childhood metonymically suggests.

Lines 11 and 12, ‘Les robes vertes et déteintes des fillettes / font les saules’, replace the normal adverbial structure of a comparison such as ‘les robes semblables aux saules’. This traditional way of comparing, the normal trope, would have kept two orders of reality apart while illustrating one with the other. Faire, instead, seems to comment on an actual transformation, as if language were magic, as if the willows were metamorphosed into little girls or vice versa. ‘Déteintes’, an adjective from the laundry lexicon that traditional poetic discourse would preclude (as it would ‘fillettes’, by the way, a word used by mothers or salesmen in children's clothing stores) confirms this actuality with the tawdriness of hand-me-downs. ‘Déteintes’ also fits the pale green of willows. Add to this the reversal of the expected order of comparison, ‘les saules semblables à des robes’: the sentence plays at verifying the not quite believable metamorphosis, suggesting a double face of things, an impossibility or illogism defused by comparison but favoured by symbol.

The mimesis of water transparency has been a favourite locus of descriptive poetry ever since the Latin pastoral. ‘L'humide carreau tend ses bouillons limpides’ (l. 9) at once continues this tradition and parodies it, recalling a classical phraseology that was still commonplace as late as the 1830s. Nodier speaks of ‘onde limpide qui roule son cristal liquide’, Sainte-Beuve of a fountain's ‘humides vitraux’, of ‘l'onde aux mobiles vitraux’.3 Rimbaud creates a humorous stylistic clash by substituting the humble everyday windowpane for words high in a scale of prestigious associations, like cristal and vitrail. He underscores the contrast by keeping the classical epithets ‘humide’4 and ‘limpides’ which remind readers that cristal and vitrail are metaphors for water. He exacerbates the effect of his device with a further contrast between ‘bouillons’, a precise and matter-of-fact notation, and the verb ‘tendre’, which is more appropriate for a flat surface (one stretches a canvas over a frame, a screen across a window) than for bubbling water. It is as if his obvious intention—to achieve accuracy and relevance in the mimesis—could not be fulfilled, whether through classical stereotypes or through realism, without the verbal twist of seemingly gratuitous humour. This twist reminds readers, as verse would, that the text's primary purpose here is to create a verbal artifact rather than merely to depict things, places, and people.

It must be remembered that humour is not destructive, as satire would be. Nor is it a way of saying things a contrario as in the case of irony. Humour is a trope, a bizarre and usually comical turn of phrase unmotivated by content, whose very gratuitousness emphasizes the form given to that content, whether it be tragic or comical, without erasing its seriousness or taking away from its import. Humour compels readers only to a consciousness of form, and of the fact that this form is a constant and is, therefore, capable of indicating that the text belongs to a specific genre. The relationship between humour and content is thus akin to the relationship between metre and content. In both cases, content is emphasized and marked as literary. There is a line in ‘Mémoire’ that corroborates the fact that this genre-denoting consistency is indeed the function of humour that will eventually enable it to replace verse in the later prose poems. The evidence that humour affects everything evenly in the verbal sequence is an instance in which it modifies forms that are already humorous in language and which, therefore, should be immune to change. ‘Les saules, d'où sautent les oiseaux sans brides’ (l. 12), obviously a caricature of a phrase like ‘the willows from which the free birds take flight’, is derived from a humorous colloquial metaphor for pointless and idle endeavours, ‘brider les oies’, ‘to bridle geese’ (the helpless court-room clerk in Beaumarchais's Mariage de Figaro is named Brid'oison). Rimbaud's transform extracts from the farcical gosling of the colloquial phrase a poetic hyperbole of the soaring bird.

Now the whole mechanism of humour depends upon the readers' ability to contrast the text's twisted wording with its corresponding, normal counterpart in usage. Every unconventional transform pre-supposes a pre-transformation state of the sentence or phrase indicating a reference to a model displayed in order to be destroyed. This trains the reader to recognize that words have two sides, that they do not just refer semantically to a content, but semiotically to an identical analogon. This awareness then prepares the reader to spot syllepses, the keys to the significance.


By significance I mean the deeper meaning arrived at by a reading of the whole poem, a meaning that transcends not only the successive senses conveyed by the metaphors, but also the undecidability of what in these is the compared and what is the comparing component. Since undecidability and obscurity prevail in literal and metaphorical meanings alike, significance must be located where these meanings do not hold sway, that is, on the other side of the relevant words, the semantic aspect that is excluded by context and can be retrieved only if we assume some kind of pun. A pun is precisely what syllepsis is, with the difference that perceiving a word-play here is not left to the reader's whim or imposed by our initial perception of the word. Rather it becomes necessary when we look back at it in the light of verbal derivations from it. Syllepsis is the trope that consists in the simultaneous presence of two mutually exclusive meanings for one word. The meaning required by the context preceding the word represses the meaning incompatible with that context. But unless there is a wilful check to that dynamics, repression is compensated for by the generation of a syntagm in which the repressed sense surfaces in various guises. The sylleptic word is thus made to symbolize whatever thought, feeling or act is represented by that resurgence.

Such a resurgence can be phonetic or lexical. If phonetic, the sounds of the matrix, that is, the generating word, are repeated or echoed within derivative words so as to channel the other meaning. If lexical, different words will form a periphrasis of the matrix, but one will be referring to it only from the vantage point of the repressed meaning. In both cases, the derivation is disconcerting since it issues from the ‘wrong’ content. In both cases, it is overdetermined and therefore compelling because it is tautological or repetitive.

Instances of the phonetic derivation may be approximate and have been mistaken for mere alliterations.5 Such seems to be the fact for ‘les roses des roseaux dès longtemps dévorées’ (l. 38). And yet the symbol, which will be the third of a series, is born here on the model of the previous line, in which the departing bird shaking down the dust of foliage provides a second symbol for the melancholy that is already represented a first time by the still water.6 To top the first two with a more emotionally charged version, the river is made to produce beauty only for it to be symbolically destroyed. That is why roses are extracted from water reeds only to be devoured.

A major crux in the poem results from phonetic derivation. It remains an obstacle to comprehension, because it depends on an audible enactment of the pun rather than on the customary silent reading of the text. It is only when we say the word aloud that we have to decide between two competing oral renditions of its spelling. In ‘la prairie / prochaine où neigent les fils du travail’ (ll. 17-18), the cliché ‘sons of toil’ or ‘sons of labour’ to speak of the proletariat demands that we voice the final ‘s’ of ‘fils’, but then we are stuck with the incompatible verb. If, on the other hand, the ‘s’ is not voiced, ‘fils’, ‘threads’, fits the snow image, for in this sense it alludes to newly-woven linen or sheets that used to be spread on meadows to be bleached snow-white by the sun. That was before chemical bleaching was invented, and that picturesque scene was a literary cliché. Rimbaud doubles the word's evocative power by conflating the weavers and the woven fabric under one spelling for two sounds.7

Lexical derivation, however, is much more productive since it is not restricted to phonetic iteration. ‘Le souci d'eau’ (l. 14) is the marsh marigold, but its allegorical metamorphosis into an eye looking with bitter envy at the sun, its celestial rival, develops from its homonym that the watery context eliminates, ‘souci’ as ‘worry’. This homonym also causes the speaker in the poem to reject the marigold as ‘la (fleur) jaune qui m'importune’ (l. 35). The clause ‘the yellow flower that worries (or bothers) me’ is the literal periphrasis of the psychological ‘souci’. It is no wonder then that such devious overdeterminations create the temptation of autobiographical reference. As long as we do not perceive that a latent homonymy, uncovered only by derivation, is the sole root of the symbol, the apparently unmotivated ‘qui m'importune’ can only be rationalized away as a private whim. Any unexplained preference would seem to belong in the semiotic system of a character's mental set-up.

Because the device's generative potential is limited only by the number of available synonymous phrasings, its repercussions can spread through the whole work, producing the two major symbols on which the poem rests.

The image of the river as a bedroom, and its corollary, the river's being indifferently depicted as a stream and as the wife that an exemplary or hyperbolic or just conventional literary bedroom (a connubial one) of necessity entails, both issue from the lit syllepsis. The same word in French, and in English as well, may be a river bed or a bed for two. From Virgil choosing thalamus, the poetic term for a newlywed's couch, when he speaks of a river, to a French folkloric song putting lovers to sleep in the river bed, the double entendre opportunity has been exploited again and again, no doubt because the lexical repression here coincides with a psychological one. Any word whose other side lends itself to sexual fantasies multiplies tenfold its imagistic potential. Another factor, of course, facilitates the derivation: the presence of a theme from erotic poetry in which the verdant recesses of the forest are described as a natural bedroom. Rimbaud's ‘Jeune ménage’ provides an example of this.

Finally, but with the widest impact yet, the very title of the poem sylleptically generates its central image, and makes it possible, indeed imperative, for the river to symbolize memory. From the start, readers may have sensed a vague but lingering inappropriateness in the title, because mémoire designates a mental faculty rather than the images of one's past garnered by that faculty. So much so that the expected title for a poem about reminiscing should be souvenir, or even, remembrance, which latter Rimbaud selected for another text.8

Everything falls into place, however, when it occurs to us that the riverscape is the periphrastic equivalent of a phonetic analogon of mémoire: mes moires. In its technical sense, moire means watered silk or moiré, the top of the line of elegant fabric in interior decorating and in feminine apparel. In its metaphorical sense, though, moire designates the shifting play of light on water, silk-like reflections. Rimbaud himself re-translates watery moires into the silk of that word's literal definition when he speaks elsewhere of a ‘source de soie’.9

The syllepsis here is facilitated by a theme identifying life with a river. The course of life is metaphorized by the flow of the current. The river loses itself in the sea, which may be seen as death or infinity. Rowing upstream, back to the source, represents reminiscing. The objects or places reflected in the river are the memories. Unavoidably, such a context brings together mémoire and moire. There is in fact a poem by Banville which does just that. The only difference from Rimbaud is that the equivalence between the two words, their mutual substitutability, is made explicit by the rhyme instead of being sylleptically repressed:

Et moi, j'étais plus triste encor
Lorsque, comme en un fleuve d'or,
Je remontais dans ma mémoire,
Et que d'un regard triomphant
Je revoyais mes jours d'enfant
Couler d'émeraude et de moire.(10)

As comparisons and rhymes keep apart the very objects they declare to be similar, the twain may have different functions, as when a noun and an adjective are paired. ‘Moire’, ‘émeraude’ and ‘or’ are positive signs: they therefore suggest that the memories are pleasant ones, which makes the present sad by contrast. But if mémoire as a recollecting self, and mes moires as that self's own ‘reflections’ are one and the same, moires cannot assume the function of an adjectival modifier. Consequently there can be only one way left to contrast a depressing present to sweet memories, and that is to replace memories by the present. In terms of the other facet of the syllepsis, this solution should entail the vanishing of moires. This is indeed what line 31 effects: ‘Puis, c'est la nappe, sans reflets, sans source, grise’. Water has lost its shimmer, a notation repeated by ‘eau morne’ (l. 33), or better still by ‘œil d'eau morne’, an eye that does not reflect anything, an unseeing eye. Half a century later, it will be Paul Valéry's turn to navigate the river of memory. As his oars disturb the moire, the wake of the rowboat is said to ‘abolir la mémoire’.11

The mémoire syllepsis thus differs from the others. Whereas souci, lit and fils are single terms repressing similarly single homonyms, mémoire represses a predication, comprised of a subject (mes) and of a predicate (that subject is reflecting). The equation or mutual substitution of the two facets is therefore capable of symbolizing, and it is proven true not because two words are perfect or approximate homonyms, but because one word guarantees, as it were, or lends the authority of its morphological model to a portmanteau word, attesting to the grammaticality of the predication it represents (mes moires).

The mechanics of authority here is the same as for Nerval's ‘rose trémière’ in ‘Artemis’. Nerval's stylistic problem is to solve formally the oxymoron staked in that poem's first two lines: ‘La Treizième revient … C'est encor la première; / Et c'est toujours la seule.’ The ‘mystic’ proof that this paradox is true and that his first love, lost and found again in her thirteenth incarnation, consists in a syllepsis: ‘La rose qu'elle tient, c'est la Rose trémière.’ At first glance, if the lover must tell his beloved by the flower she is holding, it is too bad that her rose should be a lowly hollyhock. But the other side of the botanical adjective must be read as a portmanteau merging ‘treizième’ and ‘première’. As a modifier, ‘trémière’ may indicate that this rose is not a rose. As a compound word invested with the authority of usage, it verifies the identity between the thirteenth and the first, a symbol of love impervious to the passage of time.


When the semiotic system of a poem is so disconcerting, so much at variance with the ways of language, and made outrageously so by the resulting humorous overtones, readers need special guidance to make sense of apparent absurdity.

Two sign systems are at work which over-ride the mimesis, with its web of anomalies and of aberrant representations, and replace the mutilated referentiality of words to things with two structures, one cumulative or paradigmatic, the other narrative. This is not to say that the story so bizarrely told is clarified by amended versions. It is clarified instead by freeing the words of the poem from their anomalous grammar and making them once again meaningful by giving precedence to their significance as variants of a structural invariant over the meanings assigned to them by that grammar.

Both systems are selected by and derived from the syllepsis in the title, now functioning as a matrix. If mémoire represents a happy past made to look even better in retrospect by a wretched present, and if mes moires analyses past happiness versus present despondency in terms of a river substituted for the self and of shimmer as a synecdoche substituted for the river as a whole, then every positive representation of the river as shimmering or reflecting light will bespeak memories, and every negative or negated (that is, represented as absent) representation of the same will bespeak the bitterness of their loss.

The first system of hermeneutic guidance, the paradigm system, manifests itself from the first, with the white and black, light and dark versions of the riverscape. The initial impression of the series that goes from ‘eau claire’ to ‘l'ébat des anges’ is that of a tumultuous jumble of scenes, not unlike the painting on a medieval retable, with knights fighting under crenellated walls, Joan of Arc, convoluted standards, and in the sky angelic witnesses flying here and there in the Giotto manner. Many attempts have been made at assigning a distinct symbolism to every scene or detail. Indeed the paratactic, unorganized sequence encourages such attempts12 in a first reading. But when no coherent picture prevails, an unbroken iteration of whiteness and light still unravels Ariadne's thread: ‘eau claire’, ‘le sel des larmes’, naked females (and therefore exemplary whitenesses), the lily-white silk of French royalty, another insistent exemplarity, and finally ‘pucelle’, humorous and thus the climax of the paradigm, since ‘quelque pucelle’ cancels out Joan of Arc herself, leaving only a virginal essence, that is, a candour that tops the whiteness. The impact of this symphony in white is doubled by the contrasting paradigm of darkness, especially after ‘Non!’ signals the presence of a writerly or painterly persona hesitating between two versions of his rendition of the river (themselves neatly boxed in between ‘l'eau’, l. 1, and the bridge, l. 8). ‘Courant d'or’, however, still subordinates the darkness of the depth to the overwhelming sun playing on water, either a scintillating surface or the shadowy river bottom plumbed by rays of light (curtains are needed, ll. 7-8; ‘l'eau meuble d'or pâle’, l. 10).

A third paradigm, ll. 25-28, harps upon emotional recollection, either by stating it explicitly (‘Regret’, l. 25), or by two signs both positive (‘Or’, l. 26; ‘joie’, l. 26) but both specifically dated and thus references to the past (‘lunes d'avril’, l. 26; ‘soirs d'août’, l. 28).

The depressing present balances all three paradigms with a fourth one that extends from line 31 to the last, a variation on negativity: from ‘sans reflets’ on, a sequence of extinguished reflections I have already discussed; from ‘nappe’ and ‘sans source’, through ‘immobile’ twice repeated and the multiple caesuras of l. 32, to ‘fixe’ and ‘chaîne’ and ‘boue’, a sequence of allusions to a dying current and to stagnation; from the old man of the river to the speaker unable to reach flowers or the bank from his boat, a declension of images of impotence and taedium vitae.

A closer look at the mechanism of the paradigm will show how it can confer symbolic value to all its components without involving tropes in general and metaphors in particular. All members of a paradigm are variants of some invariant. All share a certain function or semantic feature. The aforementioned paradigms, however, are not composed of synonyms or antonyms as most paradigms are. What their components all have in common is a marker, less a semantic feature than a plus or minus sign, an index of negative or positive value. This marker, derived from the matrix title, modifies similarly every word it applies to, irrespective of what this word may represent in isolation or in different contexts. Thus every word so modified becomes a symbol of what the title's latent portmanteau stands for. The shape the marker takes may change but not its function which is defined by the matrix: e.g. in the fourth paradigm, the repetition of ‘sans’, the implicit opposition that makes ‘nappe’ and ‘immobile’ the contraries of ‘courant’ in ‘water’ code, etc., all refer to the lack of light and motion signalling the displacement of memories by a tawdry present.

This system is thus free of the limitations of conventional or ‘natural’ symbols, and free as well of any need to resort to a tropological framework. There is no need for a representation to be figuratively or literally ready to assume a symbolic function. To be symbols, the ‘oriflammes’ do not have to resemble the play of light on the water. ‘Canot immobile’ does not have to suggest the absence of moire. Nor is there any necessity for the reader to evaluate the symbols before accepting them, as he must when faced with a metaphor. Instead of figurative equivalences that may be questionable as tropes often are, the mere physical fact of the paradigm's iteration is all that has to be perceived, and enacted by reading, for symbolism to operate. Symbolism created thus is performative, and therefore always effective, always safe from readers' misgivings.

All this of course only applies to descriptive discourse, to the mimesis. It cannot apply to the narrative aspects of the poem, namely the story of the wife's misfortune and of her runaway mate, because that episode cannot be derived from the matrix title as one more of its variants. The story is a rationalization, purporting to explain the disappearance of light. We suppose it to be a sunset. But nowhere is it said that the departed husband is the sun, nor can we hypothesize or extract from the text a structural authority for that interpretation.

The matrix which generates the narrative is, as we saw, the lit syllepsis. In the same fashion that the weavers and the fruit of their loom were together inscribed in ‘fils’, the river is at once bedroom and that bedroom's occupant, a woman since the French words for river and water are in the feminine. The logic or continuity of the derivation demands that the reflections on the water be feminine as well. Hence an exchange of gazes between the male sun and the female personification who locks eyes with him. It makes sense that the eye of water, the same eye we will soon find dulled by despair, its sparkle gone after the lover's departure (ll. 33, 40), should be a flower similar in shape and colour to the sun so often pictured as a sunflower. Furthermore, it is an established motif of mythical discourse that flowers have faces and eyes, a whimsy attested to in the naive animism of fairy tales, in the not-so-naive fantasies of Lewis Carroll, in the drawings of Granville, and in Rimbaud's own ‘Après le Déluge’: ‘Oh! … les fleurs qui regardaient déjà’.

A combination of sexist stereotypes, of a narcissistic mirroring structure, and of the negative connotations of ‘souci’, translate the gaze of love into one of jealousy. Jealousy in turn generates the portrayal of an overbearing wife and its narrative consequence, her spouse's desertion, and now the abandoned wife in hot pursuit.

Here, however, the superimposition of the fugitive husband on to the retiring sun and of the woman racing after him on to racing water is threatened by the arbitrariness of figurative discourse. For the text's parallel images invite an explicit comparison and soon a metaphor whose arbitrariness is compounded by the tendency of sustained metaphors to veer away from verisimilitude, as their own logic gradually distances them from an initially acceptable given.

This is where a model becomes necessary, an authority—like that of the portmanteau syllepsis—the authority of a reference to an already established wording, to a tableau complete with its ready-made interpretation and its ready-made valorization, to an intertext so familiar that it would be pointless for Rimbaud to name sun and water before metaphorizing them.

The intertext does exist, the explicit counterpart of our text, a sonnet where metaphors are spelled out as a commentary before the fact. It is a poem by Baudelaire which contains all the ingredients of the Rimbaud narrative (see my italics), including the link between memory and light as beauty and a tragic change from luminous recollection to sombre actuality. The sun is an eye already, causing his admirers to swoon. These, a flower and a spring of water, are the very components that ‘souci d'eau’ will combine into one compound word. Spurned lovers pursue the setting sun (the authority for Rimbaud, ll. 21-4), and a victorious night demotes the landscape to the degraded level of a swamp (the authority for the last three stanzas of ‘Mémoire’):


Que le soleil est beau quand tout frais il se lève,
Comme une explosion nous lançant son bonjour!
—Bienheureux celui-là qui peut avec amour
Saluer son coucher plus glorieux qu'un rêve!
Je me souviens! J'ai vu tout, fleur, source, sillon,
Se pâmer sous son œil comme un cœur qui palpite …
—Courons vers l'horizon, il est tard, courons vite,
Pour attraper au moins un oblique rayon!
Mais je poursuis en vain le Dieu qui se retire;
L'irrésistible Nuit établit son empire,
Noire, humide, funeste et pleine de frissons;
Une odeur de tombeau dans les ténèbres nage,
Et mon pied peureux froisse, au bord du marécage,
Des crapauds imprévus et de froids limaçons.

Moreover another intertext deep in the unconscious of language lends its authority to the amorous pursuit, guaranteeing that this Baudelaire symbol of anxiety is genuinely rooted in the rituals of the libido. Racing to a hill to catch a last glimpse of the sunset was a practice of nineteenth-century literary lovers, a token of shared emotions. So do Sainte-Beuve's lovers in chapter 16 of Volupté, so do lovers chapter after chapter, hill after hill, in Jules Verne's Le Rayon vert.

The return from intertext to text is just as overdetermined as are all other transitions in the poem. Indeed, once the intertext's work is done, authority reverts to the sylleptic system. The lover's race in Rimbaud conflates the breathless chase (l. 24) and the river's current (‘le courant d'or en marche’, l. 5, now hurries up). By being sylleptically identified, anguish and running water ‘prove’ the aptness of the river symbol, despite the split at the mimetic level which makes ‘l'Epouse’ run on the road as a woman and in the riverbed as a stream. The linkage of two incompatible scenes is seamless at the very point where visualizing is most difficult.


The wrenching change from happy recollections of the past to the slough of despond of the present is a stereotype of elegy, and that is indeed the genre to which ‘Mémoire’ belongs. But the interest of the piece rests not on what it is about, but on what it is as a verbal artifact, on the circuitous path that destroys meanings to achieve significance, and cancels out metaphors to create symbols.

Rimbaud's characteristic humour prevents his readers from ever becoming inured to verbal scandal. The rigorous overdetermination of the sylleptic linkages enables each successive image to blossom forth into a full representation, irrespective of those details of the tableau that do not fit into the overall significance of the poem. A descriptive entropy results, an apparently wasteful consumption of mimetic riches which traditional aesthetics would have eliminated as foreign to the topic.

These irrelevancies make it hard for readers to find their way, but that very difficulty increases their dependency on the letter of the text. More importantly, irrelevant derivations increase the feeling of reality, thanks to the verbal scissiparity that makes each syllepsis beget two representations for one word, and a triple persona for one character: the river as water, the river as wife, and that wife's double, ‘Madame … trop debout dans la prairie / prochaine’. Her function is to embody the narrative motivation of the story, thus providing the symbolic lexicon with the syntactic means to shift from meanings to significance. Thus Rimbaud's symbols acquire an opaqueness that is justly recognized as essential to the definition of that category of signs, except that this opaqueness is not the result of their materiality as things, but of their semantic two-ply thickness.

Rimbaud's symbols remain, therefore, equally verbal in their function as signs and in their presence as things, whether we perceive their semiotic or their mimetic side. Indeed, their apparent materiality is a purely linguistic effet de réel. It is as if Rimbaud actualized two definitions, at least, for each dictionary entry, or even the encyclopaedic part of that entry. Only the Surrealists will go further than Rimbaud, saturating their texts with automatic writing instead of focussing, as he does, on discrete symbols.

The immediacy of the vision, the grasping together of images that tradition, commonsense and verisimilitude would keep separate, the momentary absurdity we therefore experience when reality seems to crowd our perceptions—all this Rimbaud achieves by using his dictum: ‘Je est un autre’ as a model for text production. ‘Je’ is found in the linearity of the verbal sequence, whereas the Other is steeped in the alternate reference systems of textual paradigms and of the intertext.


  1. ‘Ces vers assemblent des images’ says Antoine Adam after speaking of the ‘pure succession d'images’, adding self-destructively ‘mais il est difficile d'en découvrir le lien’, in Rimbaud, Œuvres complètes, ed. Antoine Adam (Paris, 1972), p. 944, note 7. Cf. R. Etiemble and Y. Gauclère, Rimbaud (Paris, 1950), pp. 165-6: ‘Rimbaud ne prend pas la peine d'établir un lien entre ces images diverses qui se succèdent en lui à la vue du souci’ (l. 13). The assumption is clear that poetry is born through spontaneous generation or as a result of a passive acceptance of verbal associations motivated by nothing more than phonetic or lexical similarities.

  2. Cf. Verlaine, Romances sans Paroles, ‘Bruxelles’: ‘Du mal en masse et du bien en foule’.

  3. Charles Nodier, Poésies (1829), Sainte-Beuve, Poésies de Joseph Delorme (1830), ‘Le Creux de la Vallée’, quoted in Gérald Antoine's critical edition of the latter (Paris, 1956), p. 207, note 385.

  4. ‘Humide’ does not refer as it would in plain French to an objective physical fact (moisture). It is one of the conventional poetic words used to transform any appropriately large, but not marine, object into an image of water: e.g. Virgil's umida regna, ‘the sea’. There is no way the text can be understood even as a mimesis without this opposition; ignoring it causes commentators to resort to grotesque hypotheses, e.g. Robert G. Cohn, The Poetry of Rimbaud (Princeton, 1973), p. 232.

  5. Some are, for instance the opposition between ‘joie’ (l. 26) and ‘jouet’ (l. 33) underscoring the shifting mood from euphoria to dysphoria. Some are only in the imagination of eager interpreters, but in going too far they still testify to the overwhelming thrust of the text's generation, e.g. Jean-Luc Steinmetz extracting the blue flower (l. 36) from the wrong stress in ‘meuble’ (l. 10) (meubleu!), in André Guyaux, ed., Lectures de Rimbaud (Revue de l'université de Bruxelles) (Brussels, 1982), p. 59. On roses/roseaux, see Etiemble and Gauclère, p. 197.

  6. Half-way between the colloquial ‘secouer la poussière de ses souliers’ and Robert Frost: ‘The way a crow shook down on me / The dust of snow / From a hemlock tree / Has given my heart / A change of mood.’

  7. For a more developed demonstration of this, see Riffaterre, ‘Hermeneutic Models’, Poetics Today, 4 (1983), pp. 7-15.

  8. In an ironical piece of Album zutique, ‘Remembrances du vieillard idiot’.

  9. Illuminations, ‘Nocturne vulgaire’.

  10. Théodore de Banville, Les Cariatides, Songe d'Hiver (1842), I, ll. 7-12. Banville returns time and again to the moiré image for water, e.g. in Roses de Noël (1857), ‘Silence’.

  11. Paul Valéry, Charmes (1922), ‘Le Rameur’.

  12. E.g. Ross Chambers, ‘Mémoire de Rimbaud: essai de lecture’, Essays in French Literature, 5 (1968), pp. 22-37, especially p. 29; A. L. Amprimoz, ‘“Mémoire”: la fête de l'oubli d'Arthur Rimbaud’, Orbis Litterarum, 40 (1985), pp. 111-24, especially pp. 119-20.

John Simon (essay date September 1991)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9196

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 fountainhead of modern poetry as we know it. (There is also, to some extent, Stéphane Mallarmé, about whom later.) And he did it all before he fully grew up, after which he rejected literature, his own and everyone else's, forever.

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. We are still stumbling along in his deep footprints in this year of 1991, when you cannot walk a few blocks in New York City without seeing the name of Mozart, another Wunderkind and anniversary boy, plastered all over: Mozart this and Mozart that. But where is Rimbaud in evidence—in books or bookstore windows, magazines or newspapers, lecture halls or cabarets—where?

In France, as might be expected, the situation is somewhat better. Thus the April 4-10 issue of Le Nouvel Observateur was a special Rimbaud number, containing several informative articles, critiques, inquiries, and even a quiz and a news story from Japan, where Rimbaud was helping advertise Suntory whiskey. One of the most useful pieces was the last one, a selection of quotations from nine distinguished and concerned writers looking back at Rimbaud—or, in the case of Mallarmé, across, for the two were contemporaries. The quotations are suggestive, although short and, in most cases, undated, which makes it harder to assess their literary-historical significance. I shall, however, use them as points of departure and reference in a further survey of Rimbaud's achievement and influence, both from my own and other observers' vantage points.

The best way to start, however, is with another item in the Observateur, a mini-interview given by Michel Butor, “le maître du nouveau roman.” Butor tells how, already as a lycéen, he was inspired by Rimbaud first to write “spontaneous poetry,” later also “constructed texts.” “My verbal alchemy [alchimie du verbe, Rimbaud's famous phrase],” Butor says, “stems from the Illuminations. Thanks to it, I wrote what I would never have dared to write before.”

Rimbaud has, indeed, been an influence not only on subsequent poets, but also—and this is extremely rare, perhaps unique—on prose writers. His contribution was to go from formal verse, often in alexandrines, to newer and looser forms of rhymed verse, thence to vers libre, which was an innovation even though, in America, Walt Whitman had published Leaves of Grass, his version of free verse, as early as 1855. But though samples of this had been published in French by the 1870s, Whitman did not make himself felt as an influence in France till after Rimbaud. Finally, Rimbaud moved on to his most important achievement, the poems in prose of Les Illuminations, putting the prose poem as an art form indelibly on the map.

To be sure, the prose poem as a conscious poetic genre had existed since Baudelaire's Le Spleen de Paris, published posthumously in 1869; as an unconscious manifestation, it dates back to the works of Louis (Aloysius) Bertrand and Maurice de Guérin, from circa 1830 and 1835, respectively. But what Rimbaud produced, most likely between 1873 and 1875, was something very idiosyncratic and different even from Baudelaire's well-behaved little poetic anecdotes and sketches in their only slightly heightened prose. For—need I remind you?—Rimbaud set out to realize a bold literary and existential program that he formulated in two famous letters of May 1871—at age sixteen! According to it, the poet has to turn himself into a voyant (seer) by “a long, immense, and systematic dérèglement [derailing, disarray] of all the senses,” whereby, at enormous personal cost, he becomes “the great invalid [malade], the great criminal, the great damned soul [maudit]—and the supreme Scientist.”

Why scientist? Because, delving into the unknown, the poet brings back what he has seen there, formed or unformed, as he found it. The goal would be nothing less than a universal language of soul to soul. The program included the liberation of women, too, into poet-seers; and poetry would no longer merely translate action into rhythms: it would be out ahead. (Italics Rimbaud's.) While awaiting this, we should demand from the poet the new in ideas and forms, but not the way the Romantics understood this. As Rimbaud said in Une Saison en enfer, “One must be absolutely modern.”

The last and most mature works of Rimbaud's, then, are the prose poems of Les Illuminations, a title that did not mean for him mystical illuminations (he had gotten over that stage), but, as in English (he was in England then), medieval illuminated initials, or simply colored plates. Just how did Rimbaud work this, his last and best alchimie du verbe, to use the term he coined in his autobiographical and transitional work, Une Saison en enfer? The easiest way to convey it is by transcribing one of the shortest and loveliest poems from the Illuminations, “Départ” (“Departure”).

Assez vu. La vision s'est rencontrée à tous les airs.
Assez eu. Rumeurs des villes, le soir, et au soleil, et toujours.
Assez connu. Les arrêts de la vie.—O Rumeurs et Visions!
Départ dans l'affection et le bruit neufs.

I translate:

Seen enough. The vision met itself in all airs.
Had enough. Rustle of cities, in the evening, in the sunlight, and always.
Known enough. The stoppages [decrees?] of life.—O Rustlings and Visions!
Departure amid new affection and noise.

This, by the way, is one of the tamer and easier pieces of the collection. Its versets (as the French call lines that are longer than single verses normally are, but shorter than prose paragraphs) are brief enough for vers libre rather than prose poetry. But we can see here clearly some of the Rimbaldian strategies and innovations. First, a very stripped-down language, a sort of telegraphese. (The opposite—baroque—can also be found in Rimbaud.) Second, a prevailing ambiguity because words in a vague, even cryptic, context do not have single indisputable meanings. Thus the airs of line one can mean (1) weather, breeze, atmosphere; (2) tune, melody; (3) facial expression, demeanor. In this particular instance (1) seems likeliest, but even here one cannot be sure; besides, Rimbaud may have wanted to play on two, or all three, meanings. In line three, arrêts is a word with four principal meanings: (1) stops, stoppages; (2) decrees, judgments; (3) seizures, impoundings; (4) arrests. Given the rather nebulous context, any one may be right, though, again, (1) seems likeliest.1

Clearly, this is a poem that creates more mood and music than meaning. Still, as an example of the things people project onto Rimbaud, consider Robert Greer Cohn in his The Poetry of Rimbaud (Princeton, 1973): “The title has the transparent sound of ar, echoed in the ‘airs’ … It is like the airy space over railroad tracks as one is about to go away,” etc., all of which is pure hogwash. Wallace Fowlie (Rimbaud's Illuminations, London, 1953) thinks that the poem is “the announcement of the new mystical experience, the ‘affection’ … that of pure being, and the ‘noise’ … the wings of the new power of movement.” Unsupported and arbitrary daydreaming. Far more sensible is the view of H. de Bouillane de Lacoste (Rimbaud et le problème des Illuminations, Paris, 1949) that the poem “in its laconism, announces a change of existence on which the poet congratulates himself.” The late scholar Suzanne Bernard merely observes that the poem seems to mark Rimbaud's trip to London; this time, let me add, not with the tiresome old lover Verlaine, but with a new friend—perhaps platonic, perhaps not—the painter-poet Germain Nouveau.

But for all the “reality” in the poem, there is also a great deal of deliberate obscurity. What is this vision that has met up with itself in all airs? And just what would make an inveterate city dweller say he has had enough of the murmur of cities? Why, in fact, is sound described as a possession? Although the poem seems deceptively simple, Suzanne Bernard is quite right to insist (in her splendid doctoral thesis, Le Poème en prose de Baudelaire jusqu'à nos jours, Paris, 1959) that this poem, for all its relative coherence and conformity, is still much closer to the rest of the collection than to academic poetry: “The concentration, the terse formulations of ‘Départ,’ its sudden cessation with two accented monosyllables [most unusual in French], all this displays Rimbaud's trademark—and what stylist would dare write ‘Assez eu,’ would dare bracket ‘l'affection et le bruit neufs’?”

In the same year (1959) that Mme Bernard submitted her thesis to the Sorbonne, I handed in my much more modest one to Harvard's Department of Comparative Literature. Mine, The Prose Poem as Genre in Nineteenth-Century European Literature, was a mere 721 typewritten pages, and was not published until 1987, by Garland Publishing, in facsimile. Mme Bernard's 797 Royal Octavo pages in ten-point Long Primer (not to mention the proliferating footnotes in seven-point Minion) were published immediately and deservedly. About “Départ,” she doesn't have much to say, yet this piece, to return to the Observateur, is clearly what inspired Butor. In the Illuminations, he explains, “it is not the end that repeats, but the beginning: rhyme is reversed. … This repetition, combined with a perfect typographical alignment, produces a strong visual impression. Sentences are thus concatenated, like variations. Like Schoenberg. … In Passing Time, to frame the text and facilitate its reading, I introduced a system of versets. I divided every sentence into several paragraphs that begin the same way, like Rimbaud. … One can even say that Mobile was one single giant sentence. … The composition of Mobile, then, is inspired by the prosody of Illuminations.

But about that initial rhyme: it does not occur anywhere in the forty-odd pieces of the Illuminations except in “Départ.” Even anaphora, the repetition of an opening word or words, is rare, occurring only in three or four other poems here. Yet this device so impressed Butor that he perceived it as a major component of Rimbaud's style. But, then, such is Rimbaud's spell that even his less frequent strategies can deeply affect a sensitive reader. Certainly those -u rhymes are striking; I'd like to think that they inspired Mallarmé's “A la nue accablante tu.” And, as Mme Bernard notes, “Assez eu” is very much out of the ordinary.

Most immediately striking about “Départ,” though, is that it contains no imagery. There is no simile, no personification, no metaphor even, unless “La vision s'est rencontrée à tous les airs” is one. But it must be grasped that vision can mean “my faculty of sight” or sight in some general sense, involving all the people of the city or, just as readily, some manner of hallucination (but what, exactly?), or it can be Rimbaud's visionary capacity as such. It is safest to paraphrase the opening sentence as “I have had enough of seeing: there has been so much of it that the air has become stale from all my looking, that my own eyes are looking back at me from every point.” This would constitute hyperbole; but is it really what Rimbaud meant? There is not enough context to corroborate or negate it.

Next, could “rumeurs de la ville” have a relatively positive value, as in the English “babbling” of both brooks and people content at their outdoor badinage, the latter being the metropolitan equivalent of country sounds: in the evening, at sidewalk tables; in the sunshine, as the citizenry rattles about; and then that casual afterthought, “et toujours,” and always, anytime. (But certainly not Fowlie's poeticizing “forever,” which, in any case, would presuppose “à jamais” in the original.) This could then lead into “les arrêts de la vie”—the dawdlings of life, the evenings of getting drunk, the noons when one is sacked out. And then the capitalized “O Rumeurs et Visions!”—perhaps glimpses of a new life elsewhere with a deeper meaning.

And the new affection and sounds? Well, yes, it could be Germain Nouveau, a new companion with whom Rimbaud was uncomplicatedly comfortable, rather than sado-masochistically embroiled, as with Verlaine. Thus far in the poem sounds were rumeurs; now they are bruits, something more assertive and virile—a more masculine relationship perhaps. And affection of any kind might well be a new thing for Arthur, whose strongest emotion hitherto had been his hatred for his strict, miserly, fanatically pious mother, a hypocrite and worldly-success-craving peasant, Rimbaud's curse and—muse. For without the need to escape Vitalie Cuif Rimbaud, as his father did when Arthur was still a small child, and without the equally compelling urge to flee the oppressively bourgeois atmosphere of Charleville, Rimbaud might still conceivably have become a poet, but not this poet.

Now to an early voice in the Observateur's collage. In 1912, writing the introduction to an edition of Rimbaud's poems, Paul Claudel, who was converted to Christianity by his reading of Rimbaud, calls him “Un mystique à l'état sauvage,” a mystic in the savage (primitive) state. For most of the Catholic literati—Claudel, Mauriac, Rivière, Daniel-Rops—Rimbaud's deathbed conversion to Christianity was a fact, on the authority of Isabelle, who nursed her big brother Arthur through his final phase. But Isabelle was, like her mother, a peasant, as Rimbaud, though he once called himself so, was not. And Isabelle, pious like her mother, was desperate to whitewash Arthur in the eyes of God and the world.

Yet hardly any serious scholar now believes in that conversion. In his agony, with one leg amputated, the cancer spreading through his body, the pain intense, the mind unclear, Rimbaud muttered all sorts of things. As Pierre Petitfils explains in his authoritative Rimbaud, hydrarthosis was aggravated by remnants of syphilis, and rheumatism degenerated into synovitis, then into sarcoma and, in due time, carcinoma: “It is probable that by the time he left Harar, Rimbaud was already beyond cure: the disease met no resistance in that undernourished, overworked, exhausted organism.” But Arthur never received extreme unction because, as Alain Borer reminds us in his Observateur essay, he kept spitting and accusing the hospital orderlies and even the nuns of choice abominations.

In any case, as Borer points out, Rimbaud's life and work radically defied any religion preaching salvation and an afterlife. Yet even the Muslims have made a bid for Rimbaud's soul because, dying, he muttered some Mohammedan formulas. And it is also true that during his years as a trader in Africa, he adopted some Muslim ways—names, clothes, manners (such as squatting to urinate)—which were the means to prosperity, indeed mere survival, in those parts. Instead of “mystique à l'état sauvage” Claudel should have said “mystique de l'état sauvage,” the mystic of the savage state, the fellow whose passion for naïve and wild ways elevates them into a kind of mystique. The boy who wrote “Merde à Dieu” on the walls and benches of Charleville lost all interest in God when he became a gunrunner in Abyssinia, and indifference is a more potent weapon than hatred.

The Surrealist Tristan Tzara summed it up neatly: “Rimbaud is childhood expressing itself by means of violating [transgresser] its condition.”2 That transgresser is a superb choice: transgress with a hint of transcend about it. And Tzara elaborates: “He has seen, through the oblivion of each one of us, the possibilities of infringing the laws of gravity of thought, spoiled by the hardening of age … and that only violence can give meaning to freedom.” Such mysticism has no truck with God. One of the Observateur's nine sages, André Suarès, in a long-unpublished but immediate reply to Claudel & Co. (the date in the magazine, 1955, is that of posthumous publication; Suarès died in 1948), wrote: “When they dare to show us God cutting off Rimbaud's leg in order to teach him how to walk straight, and to forsake the paths of paganism to enter those of the Church, they are not only caricaturing God, they are also depicting a Rimbaud who was a stranger to Rimbaud.” Which might give yet another meaning to Rimbaud's most celebrated utterance, “Je est un autre” (I is another). It is revelatory that Michel Drouin (again in the Observateur) quotes a 1966 article by René Etiemble stating that if Suarès had published his views back then in 1912, “I would not have had to write Le Mythe de Rimbaud, I would not have had to spend thirty years of my life fighting against these lies.”

But Etiemble's work—comprising most significantly the two-volume Mythe de Rimbaud (1952 to 1970, counting various importantly revised editions); Nouveaux Aspects du mythe de Rimbaud dans le monde communiste (1964); the book devoted to the famous “Sonnet of the Vowels,” Le Sonnet des voyelles (1968); and the critical study Rimbaud, co-written with Etiemble's wife, Yassu Gauclère (1936, but reissued with radical revisions in 1950 and 1966)—is not a mere demolition of the Christian myth. Rather, it is an attack on all Rimbaud myths. That is why Petitfils's dismissal of Etiemble, “… the ‘Rimbaud myth’ in which nobody ever believed but which a distinguished professor at the Sorbonne saw fit to demolish with the sledgehammer of 3000 printed pages,” is not fair. But there is something to it. In his determination to make a kind of rationalist—or, at least, not an irrationalist—out of Rimbaud and deny him any sort of, even lay, metaphysics, Etiemble went too far. He and Gauclère speak, for example, of “the influence of choice, of intelligence, of rhetoric at the service of the passions.” And, to give only one typical instance, they explain much of the Illuminations as recollections of the theater, “by which we gain access to the imaginary … [T]he multiplicity of possible décor opens up innumerable perspectives.” So if Rimbaud speaks in “Enfance III” of “a lake that rises” (un lac qui monte), he is thinking of a stage backdrop, where perspective is achieved by making a painted lake seem to go upward.

True, but Etiemble and Gauclère disregard that explication de texte (which I, too, devoutly espouse) proceeds in the opposite direction from poetic creation, and that explaining is not the same as explaining away. In other words, textual explication retraces the poet's steps back to the mundane beginnings of the poem, the pre-oyster grain of sand. But creation proceeds inversely toward the fabulous, the finished, the pearl. It is helpful to show whence the miracle of the poem came, but that does not do away with the undefinable, inexplicable miraculousness of it.

Which brings me to the first item in the Observateur's chrestomathy: “The Correspondence starting with Cyprus [the first place where, having chucked poetry, Rimbaud made a sustained effort at a career in business] appears in general, to lovers of good literature, badly written, disappointing, unworthy of so great a writer. … We find that this style without elegance, niggardly, flat, has the same extraordinary dryness as the other, but on the plane of banality, from which one does not see why he should have deviated in writing, since such, henceforward, was his mode of life.” This is from La Part du feu (Paris, 1949), by the important critic and novelist Maurice Blanchot. But though the statement is useful in reminding us that the so-called hallucinatory style of Rimbaud's poetry is also purposeful, polished (rather than automatic writing), “dry”—and that, in a sense, there is no break between the poet Rimbaud and the merchant Rimbaud—there is something misleading here. For Blanchot, in that same Part du feu, also writes, “He has pushed to the farthest extreme ambiguity, which is the essential movement of poetic activity.” And earlier, in Faux Pas (Paris, 1943), Blanchot called Rimbaud “he who, par excellence, is the poet whose poetry welcomes the ineffable [inexprimable], who gave language the assurance of not being limited to language. …” If that is dryness at all, it is surely dryness of a very special kind.

And that leads us to another of the nine quoted views, this one from the poet René Char, in a prose poem first published in 1947 and reprinted in Fureur et mystère (1948): “You did well to leave, Arthur Rimbaud! Your eighteen years antagonistic [réfractaires] to friendship, to the malevolence, to the silliness of Parisian poets, as also to the murmurings, worthy of sterile bees, of your slightly demented Ardennes family, you did well to scatter them to the four winds, to throw them under the blade of their precocious guillotine. You were right to abandon the boulevard of the lazybones, the taverns of the poetry-pissers [pisse-lyres], for the hell of the stupid [bêtes], the commerce of the cunning, and the greetings [bonjour] of the simple.” But a second quotation from Char offers only the confirmation that Rimbaud made a complete break with the past. It might have been better to quote the ending of that poem from Fureur et mystère: “You did well to leave, Arthur Rimbaud! There are some of us who believe without proof that happiness is possible with you.” Or perhaps “who believe with you that happiness is possible.”

However that conclusion is to be read, Char is here on the verge of a major insight: that the same pursuit of happiness made of Rimbaud in turn a poet and a gunrunner. Thus Tzara perceived in Rimbaud's poetry “a fevered desire to fill in une absence”—a lack, absence, void, or deprivation. The consistency that Blanchot detected in Rimbaud's style Char and Tzara find also in his break with the past. I submit, however, that the consistency, which many who marveled at Rimbaud's self-contradiction failed to catch at all, is of a rather different nature from what even its perceivers perceived.

Rimbaud, the child genius whose self-expression, freedom, accomplishments were suppressed by his antipathetic mother and milieu, was—always was—in search of power. Power was his true objective—a hunger, a lust for power. Only the method of acquiring that power kept changing. The first tack was that of the poet as seer, as magician or magus, to quote from that famed section of Une Saison en enfer, “Alchimie du verbe”: “Weeping, I saw gold—but could not drink.” The alchemist's pursuit is gold (potable gold in this case), which is wealth and, in turn, power. The alchemist is the supreme magician, the supreme possessor: “I bragged of owning all possible landscapes.” He becomes “the god of fire,” his life is “a celebration [fête].” Power over words, over poetry is a way to conquer the world.

But when that power was denied him, when the small edition of Une Saison en enfer that he had printed at his expense was destroyed, partly by himself in disgust and partly by the printer for nonpayment of costs, power had to be sought elsewhere. Still, self-contradictory as he was, and under the brief but apparently steadying influence of Germain Nouveau, Rimbaud tried once more to write poetry, hence Les Illuminations. But he gave the manuscripts away and headed for the diametrically opposite method of acquiring wealth and power: commerce. Yet there is a very real sense in which opposites are the same thing—les extrêmes se touchent. Thus Rimbaud's preparations for material success were similar to his poetic preparations. He studied foreign languages (for which he had a prodigious talent) to make business dealings easier in much the same way he had studied French and classical tongues for his poetry; he studied scientific books and technical manuals the way he had devoured mystical and historical works; and he traveled in search of job opportunities just as he had journeyed in search of experience, discovery, knowledge.

Movement was essential to Rimbaud. Clinically, this has been diagnosed as dromomania. More lyrically, Verlaine called his lover l'homme au semelles de vent (the man with soles of wind), and Mallarmé dubbed him ce passant considérable (this passer-by of parts). But even movement, the title of one of Rimbaud's vers libre poems, is power: no person, no place, no entanglement can hold you so long as you keep moving. Quite rightly, in another Observateur piece, “Rimb on the Road,” François Cavignoli compares him to real and fictional travelers, Gambetta and Phileas Fogg, and perceives in him the honcho of the Beat generation, the big brother of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady. He was, we are told, the inventor of hitchhiking, of being publicly funded (e.g., enlisting in the Dutch army to get to Java, then promptly deserting), of taking on odd jobs to support oneself while bumming around. More important, he taught the Beats a literary style and some thematics. Take, for example, this, from Allen Ginsberg's “Howl”: “… who sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset, and were red eyed in the morning but prepared to sweeten the snatch of the sunrise. …” Doesn't this remind you of “Aube” (“Dawn”): “I have kissed the summer dawn. … One by one, I lifted her veils. … Dawn and the child tumbled to the bottom of the woods. …” And Ginsberg's enumeration—the catalogue as a literary device—is very much out of Rimbaud (“Devotion” or “Sale,” for example).

But unlike the Beats, Rimbaud did not keep moving merely to be one jump ahead of failure. Henry Miller, another of the Observateur's pundits, remarks, “Whatever he did, it was always too good. They seem to have reproached the bohemian for being too bohemian, the poet for being too much a poet, the pioneer for being too much a pioneer, the businessman for being too much a businessman, the gunrunner for running guns too well. …” I wonder, though, who were “they”—these carpers who objected to Rimbaud's excessive skill at everything? Miller's etiology is off, but there is no doubt that Rimbaud provoked resentment for being dirty and slovenly, though his poverty had much to do with that; for being arrogant and insulting, though being an under-appreciated genius could sour your disposition; for being brutal and sadistic, though he had had a pretty rotten childhood.

Rimbaud's sadism does not come out only in his life—his enjoyment of games in which he could plunge a knife in another player's outstretched hand, or his carving up his lover's thighs to the point where Verlaine had to make up stories about his limp on the occasion when he met Victor Hugo. It is there also in his poetry, in the way it mocks, misleads, leaves the reader stranded. Consider the famous verset from “Barbare,” “Le pavillon en viande saignante sur la soie des mers et des fleurs arctiques; (elles n'existent pas).” Pavillon has two meanings: pavilion and flag. Since the line, like the entire poem, is obscure, either interpretation makes as much, or as little, sense as the other. Both readings have had their champions. Still, I propose: “The flag made of bloody meat on the silk of the seas and the arctic flowers; (they don't exist).” But there are further ambiguities here. Are both the seas and the arctic flowers silken, or only the seas? Are only the flowers nonexistent, or do neither the flowers nor the seas exist? The line tortures the reader, especially with that palinode that does not make clear just how much it retracts. Yet what a challenge to try to make some sense of it, even if, as Suzanne Bernard warns, in Rimbaud criticism everything is only hypothesis.

Nothing that Rimbaud wrote or did was as much resented as his irruption on the Verlaine household, taking Paul away from his young wife and baby, and flaunting his relationship with the older poet as the two wandered, drank, and fought all over western Europe. This brings us to the much disputed question of Rimbaud's homosexuality, which some commentators revel in, others reject, and still others embrace with major reservations. It is a matter relevant both to his poetry and to his posthumous influence.

The rejecters don't have much of a case; there are too many texts by both Rimbaud and Verlaine that spell things out. Most outspoken is Verlaine's sonnet ending with “Vers toi je rampe encore indigne. / —Monte sur mes reins et trépigne!” (I crawl toward you still unworthy. / —Mount on my loins [back] and prance!) As Petitfils ironically comments, “M. André Fontenas has some difficulty persuading one that this sonnet describes a stained glass window in which the Archangel Michael is—temporarily—brought to the ground by the devil.” This is the same Verlaine who wrote to Rimbaud imploringly from London: “Je suis ton old cunt, open ou opened, je n'ai pas mes verbes irréguliers.”

The tendency nowadays is to assert that, whereas Verlaine, however clandestinely, was a true homosexual, Rimbaud threw himself deliberately, programmatically into homosexuality by way of practicing the seer's disorder of the senses. Whether this is so, or whether (as I and many others believe) he was truly homosexual—and in Africa either heterosexual or bisexual—doesn't much matter. The nineteenth century was no more ready to forgive reckless displays of homosexuality in Rimbaud's France than, a bit later on, in Wilde's England. It is shocking to read that a man and writer as enlightened as Anatole France voted against admitting a submission from Verlaine to the new Parnasse contemporain of 1875: “the author is unworthy,” France declared.

On Rimbaud's homosexuality, the Observateur quotes the prominent contemporary French poet Yves Bonnefoy, specifically his monograph Rimbaud par lui-même (Paris, 1961; English translation, by Paul Schmidt, New York, 1972): “It is certain that his homosexuality was deep-seated, and although it is also true that he did not consider it a moral flaw, he nevertheless described it, not without distress, as the fiasco [catastrophe] of the other [i.e., heterosexual] love. … Homosexuality remains, in his view, a negative passion, a deprivation, a defeat.” (My translation, slightly different from Schmidt's.) If Bonnefoy is right, we have yet another factor that skewed Rimbaud's vision—felicitously—even as the need to escape his background did: the sense of dissatisfaction with the self, and so the urge to flee from the enemy within as well as from the one without. To the need for power is added the need for flight, the two combining into some of Rimbaud's richest poetry.

One escapes from oneself into poetry and hopes it will make one famous, rich, and powerful; when this fails to happen, one escapes from poetry—into commerce or science—with the same expectations. Or, as Bonnefoy puts it elsewhere in his book (known simply as Rimbaud in English): “Rimbaud stopped writing when the end of childhood, more compelling than any intellectual decision, deprived him of the hope that he could change life.” (Translation Schmidt's, italics Bonnefoy's.)

No, he couldn't change life, but he could and did change poetry. The Surrealists recognized him as their precursor, mentor, and presiding divinity until André Breton, their pope, reversed himself in that famous encyclical, the Second Surrealist Manifesto, in a passage included among the Observateur's critical texts: “Rimbaud erred, Rimbaud tried to trick us. He is guilty in our eyes of having allowed, of not having rendered wholly impossible, certain tarnishing [déshonorantes] interpretations of his thought, of the Claudel variety.” This is misleading. For a long time, Breton revered Rimbaud. It is possible, though, that just as the poet's annexation by a rival church infuriated Breton, Arthur's manifest homosexuality also displeased the very heterosexual Surrealist. Ironically, the pope's new god, Lautréamont, may well have been even more homosexual. But he was discreet about it: the celebrated passage about pederasts in Maldoror is grotesque and elegiac by turns, and not at all realistic like certain passages in Une Saison en enfer and Les Illuminations.

It is entirely possible that the radical loosening up of French poetry by Rimbaud—like the analogous process initiated in America by Whitman—has much to do with the poet's sexual orientation. If one studies “Délires I” in Saison and “Vagabonds” from the Illuminations carefully, one can see the connection between the “drôle de ménage” Rimbaud-Verlaine and the kind of poetry that emerged from it. It didn't have to, of course; Verlaine's was never radical. But it could—did—from Rimbaud's particular genius. Consider this from “Vagabonds,” about Rimbaud's escaping from one of Verlaine's late-night recriminations to the window, where “Je créais, par delà la campagne traversée par des bandes de musique rare, les fantômes du futur luxe nocturne.” (I created, beyond the countryside streaked with scrolls of rare music, the phantasms of a future nocturnal splendor.) This, the poem continues, constitutes a “distraction vaguement hygiénique.” Unless one interprets the passage as a mere scene of masturbation, one can view it as an escape from sexual problems into a hygienic activity, a relaxation and release—the creation of the poetry of future splendor, of vers libre and the prose poem, of the freedom of unfettered self-expression and damn all conventions, social, sexual, or poetic.

Sure enough, Rimbaud was to be, in times to come, often taken up by poets precisely because of his homosexuality (just as Whitman was)—most obviously by the Beats. A number of scholars and critics, too, have been drawn to him for that reason, most conspicuously those who carry on about his supposed “angelism.” Some angel, Arthur Rimbaud!

Yet Rimbaud cannot reasonably be blamed for what others, imitators or interpreters, do to him, although even Claudel, as he wrote Gide, was to be revolted by the detritus littering Rimbaud's heritage—“like a beautiful, artistic place,” Claudel complained, “where one finds empty sardine cans.” But, as I have said on many an occasion, Claudel was just as guilty of leaving not a few empty holy-water bottles lying about. Nevertheless, the work of sundry commentators is not unhelpful, especially if one admits with Blanchot—and my thesis—that, on top of the obscurity, there is much deliberate ambiguity in Rimbaud. This was also recognized by Gide in the Feuillets d'automne, where he endorses not only divergent but also downright contradictory interpretations. Etiemble promptly takes issue with this, there being among the French a great need to believe in rationality, Cartesian clarity, unequivocalness even in their poets, even if such a belief in Rimbaud's case requires Olympian mental gymnastics. Thus Yves Bonnefoy, years ago, after sympathetically exploring my then views on Rimbaud, disagreed, claiming that ambiguity was something very un-French, and had not entered French poetry until Valéry, who got it from foreign sources. More recently, during a very brief chat with Bonnefoy, he seemed to indicate that he had somewhat modified his position, though we did not get a chance to pursue the matter.

What further clouds the Rimbaud inheritance is that it has often been betrayed by translators, and not only where it is impossible to know just what Rimbaud meant, but also in the instances where his meaning ought to be unmistakable. Thus the poem “Dévotion,” which catalogues various kinds of devotion and dedication, ends with “A tout prix et avec tous les airs, même dans des voyages métaphysiques.—Mais plus alors.” (At all costs, and with all airs [?], even on metaphysical journeys.—But no longer then.) Clearly, these devotions must be pursued to their metaphysical consummations. But then there can be an end to it. Yet Wallace Fowlie translates, “But no more thens,” for which the French would have to be “mais plus d'alors.” And Louise Varèse has “But even more then,” which would require “mais encore plus alors” in the text. There is, to be sure, something obfuscatory about this curious ending with its odd italicization of one word; no wonder the worthy Bouillane de Lacoste exclaimed that it “smells of mystification a mile off.” Still, that is no excuse for mistranslations, which unfortunately abound in renderings of Rimbaud. Etiemble adduces veritable Tartar hordes of them, often on the order of “jalousie pour les mendiants” (envy of beggars) Englished as “venetian blinds behind which beggars are hiding.”

Let us consider one more, short but typical, piece from the Illuminations, “Antique,” which can mean antique or antiquity:

Gracieux fils de Pan! Autour de ton front couronné de fleurettes et de baies tes yeux, des boules précieuses, remuent. Tachées de lie brune, tes joues se creusent. Tes crocs luisent. Ta poitrine ressemble à une cithare, des tintements circulent dans tes bras blonds. Ton coeur bat dans ce ventre où dort le double sexe. Promène-toi, la nuit, en mouvant doucement cette cuisse, cette seconde cuisse et cette jambe de gauche.3

The assumption is that Rimbaud is describing the statue of a satyr seen in a museum, and that he mistakenly supposed that, what with their goat's feet, satyrs were descended from Pan. The revolving eyes seem to prefigure modern sculpture (Pol Bury), but are presumably self-induced hallucinations. “Spotted with brown dregs” suggests, perhaps, a painting rather than a sculpture; but “joues se creusent” may well be an echo effect, a rhyme on “boules précieuses.” Fauns do not have fangs, but Rimbaud's savage imagination creates them, with the sound of “lie brune” and “creusent” leading into “crocs” and “luisent.” I doubt if a satyr's chest would look like a zither, but Rimbaud, excelling in classics, may have been thinking of Mount Cithaeron, where Actaeon was torn to pieces by the fangs (crocs) of his own hounds, and Cithaeron then suggested “cithare.” The rippling muscles would evoke tinklings; the brown lees, by contrast, blond flesh. The heart (emotion) is to be conjoined with sexuality, hence heart and genitalia meet in the middle ground of the belly. The belly also suggests a drum for the heart to beat on. Is androgyny implied by “double sex”? Or is it that the phallus and the scrotum, sculptured, look like the same organ in duplicate? If Rimbaud is visiting a museum, he may imagine the statue coming to life after dark, when no one is around. Or he may extend to all-day the god Pan's famous noontime siesta. The three legs may have to do with Rimbaud's looking (as Pierre Arnoult put forward) at a statue of a centaur. Or could the third limb be the penis? Some legs don't tread the ground, they trépignent on someone's backside.

“Antique” is more characteristic of prose poetry than “Départ,” with which we began: it is printed as an uninterrupted piece of prose. Taken together, the two represent fairly Rimbaud's technique. “Départ” is disjointed, working by discontinuities or leaps; “Antique” seems to hang together, but conveys a figure, a situation that cannot be fully grasped. Each poem shimmers between lucidity and opacity. As Roger Shattuck observed in his review of two of Fowlie's works on Rimbaud,4 “In the Illuminations a totally hallucinated universe becomes indistinguishable from a literally noted sensuous realism.” Rimbaud, Shattuck writes, “welded together popular and poetic language at the precise moment when Mallarmé was carefully taking them apart.” So of the two great founders of poetic modernism, it was Rimbaud who more or less prevailed, because his mode is, or seems, easier to imitate. Perhaps the best definition of Rimbaud's procedure can be found in Castex and Surer's manual for nineteenth-century studies: “What Rimbaud sees, he transfigures; what he doesn't, he creates.”

This isn't to everybody's taste. The novelist and traveler Victor Ségalen (1878-1919) is quoted as follows by the Observateur:

Many pages in Rimbaud's work remain inert for us. Neither the beauty of the vocables nor the riches of cadence [nombre], nor the unforeseen in the thrust [volte] of the images, nothing manages to move us, even though everything in this prose shivers with sensitivity. Why this impotence? Because among the diverse conceptions of a sentient being, only the generalizable givens move us, those to which our own memories can become analogous, attached. The rest, personal evocations, associations of ideas that the life of the mind has created in one brain and never in others, that, in art, is dead letter. And Rimbaud's writings teem with solipsisms of this kind.

So you can consider our poet fatally inconsistent, or, as the less sympathetic Remy de Gourmont dubbed Rimbaud, “a consistently pustulant toad.”

Mallarmé's portrait of Rimbaud in a letter to Harrison Rhodes is moving despite the crabbed, tortuous prose Mallarmé unfortunately insisted on. The Observateur quotes fairly liberally from it (though not the references to “the stammerings of the last poems” and Rimbaud's hands “like those of a washerwoman”). Most important is the mention of his “very classic” effect, and of the “sumptuous disorder one could only call spiritually exotic.” And the image of the “dazzle of a meteor, lit with no other motive than its presence, emerging solitary and extinguishing itself.” But Mallarmé is mistaken in saying that “everything would have existed since without this passer-by of parts,” though his “special case lives on forcefully.” Of course, Mallarmé could not forgive Rimbaud his “frequentation of the cities' vulgar bazaar of illusions.” But the account is largely sympathetic and climaxes in a passage (unquoted) about “a unique adventure in the history of art. That of a child precociously and impetuously brushed by the wing of literature, who, almost before having had time to exist, exhausted a tempestuous and magisterial destiny [fatalité] without recourse to a future.”

Yet that future, posthumously, was to be his. By 1926, Cocteau noted that, “at present, Rimbaud was more of an encumbrance than Hugo”—the influence for a young poet to crawl out from under. And today Gallimard, France's leading publisher, reports Rimbaud as the house's number-two seller—after Marguerite Yourcenar! As Suzanne Bernard concludes her chapter on Rimbaud, “The man with the soles of wind has truly beaten new paths through the dark forests of language, and … the entire poetry of the twentieth century follows in his tracks.” Almost all the major French poets of the first half of the century—Reverdy, Jacob, Char, Michaux, and Eluard—to mention only the most stellar ones, are his disciples; only the delightfully chameleonlike Apollinaire stands apart, and Valéry, of course, is the one true heir of Mallarmé.

And the influence continues. A typical motif in Rimbaud is the melding of earth and sky, of land and sea. Now here is Yves Bonnefoy (translated by Richard Pevear): “They walk, barefooted / In their absence, / And come to the banks / Of the river earth.” Or consider Rimbaud's trick of converting violence into peacefulness by a sudden leap in moods. Here, again, is Bonnefoy: “Summer: / This screech-owl / Nailed to the threshold / By the star's peaceful iron [Le fer en paix de l'étoile].” And in his afterword to Bonnefoy's Poems 1959-1975, from which I have been quoting, Jean Starobinsky duly invokes Rimbaud.

Philippe Jaccottet, though Swiss-born, has become one of France's preeminent poets. Recall Rimbaud's way of intertwining the world of gods and magicians with that of mortals—his. Here is Jaccottet: “A brief thing, the time of a few footsteps outside, / but stranger yet than the mages and the gods.” Rimbaud has “a white ray, dropping from the high heavens, abolishes this comedy.” Jaccottet writes: “a light that leaps over words as if wiping them out.” Isn't Jaccottet's “And draws from the invisible water / where invisible beasts perhaps drink still” akin to Rimbaud's “silk of the seas and arctic flowers; (they don't exist.)”?

And what about such an older poet of considerable stature as Francis Ponge? In an early poem (1922), “Sunday, or the Artist,” he begins: “Brutally, at noon, the clamor of posters, the publicity of advertisers, plants its barbarous hatchet in the body [masse] of Paris. / It severs with one blow a hundred great green and red walls. It cleaves streets where nervous rails grind to the quick, it quarters wheel-broken, dismembered crossroads. Hoot, discordant trumpets! Collapse, railroad stations!” This could almost be a parody of Rimbaud; but here now is a passage from a 1943 text included in Ponge's Proêmes: “Of course the world is absurd! Of course, the meaninglessness of the world! / But what's tragic about that? / … Ontological suicide is the act only of a few young bourgeois (incidentally likable). / Let there be placed against it birth (or resurrection), metalogical creation (Poetry).” Here is the Rimbaldian repertoire of mysterious italics, orgies of capitalization, exclamation points and parentheses galore.

Clearly, I can provide no systematic survey here, only a spot check, a butterfly's view. Take Germany and Austria, where Rimbaud's influence is everywhere. We find it in two of the most prestigious poets of the early twentieth century, Georg Heym and the Austrian Georg Trakl. Both died young and tragically, like Rimbaud. Talking to Heym in a Berlin café in the winter of 1910-11, Paul Zech, poet and translator of Rimbaud, noted “his extraordinary predilection for Rimbaud, who in those days was hardly known in Germany.” Formally, Heym does not resemble Rimbaud, except perhaps the early, rhymed poems, but thematically he is extremely close. Trakl, on the other hand, is close formally, too, as in the beginning of the prose poem “Metamorphosis of Evil”:

Autumn: black pacing along the woods' edge; minute of mute destruction; suddenly listening [auflauscht] the brow of the leper under the bare tree. Long-past evening now sinking along the stairway of moss; November. A bell rings and the shepherd leads a troop of black and red horses into the village. Under the hazel bushes, the green huntsman eviscerates some game. His hands steam with blood and the animal's shadow moans in the foliage above the man's eyes, brown and silent; the forest. Crows that scatter; three. Their flight resembles a sonata, full of faded chords and masculine melancholy. … etc.

Many Rimbaldian touches here! The inconsistent landscape: bare trees and foliage; the strange grammar: auflauscht die Stirne (literally: up listens the brow); the summation of a paragraph or sentence in a tacked-on word at the end: “November,” “the forest,” “three.” (Cf. Rimbaud's “Métropolitain.”) The unstable reference: does “brown and silent” go with the foliage or with the hunter's eyes? (Recall the verset from “Barbare,” where we couldn't tell where silkiness stopped or how far nonexistence extended.) And these black and red horses à la Franz Marc, relatives of “the great blue and black mares” in Rimbaud's “Ornières.” Even the crows flying in sonata formation seem not unrelated to the bridges in “Les Ponts” that are “minor chords crisscrossing and taking off.”

It is well known that the young Brecht was influenced by Rimbaud, both in his early poems and in his first plays. In Baal, the characters of Baal and Eckart are almost certainly modeled on Rimbaud and Verlaine. And in his journal (October, 1921), Brecht notes: “I thumb through the Rimbaud volume and borrow from it. How glowing it all is! Luminous paper! And he has shoulders of brass.—Whenever I work, when the lava flows, I see the West in lurid fires and believe in his vitality.” And am I alone in encountering Rimbaud in that most magical of later twentieth-century German-language poets, Paul Celan? Take, for example, this from “Windgerecht” (Windrowed): “Later: / Snow-growth through all the casings, free / one single field, / numbered by a light ray: the voices.”

It is no different in Italy, where Rimbaud, again, is much in evidence. A major Italian poet who wandered the earth, went mad, and died young, Dino Campana (1885-1932), was a self-declared Rimbaldian. Consider George Kay's translation of “Ship Under Way”: “The mast swings, beat for beat, in the silence. / A faint white and green light falls from the mast. / The sky clear to the horizon, loaded green and gilt after the squall. / The white square of the ship's light on high / Illuminates the night's secret: from the window / The ropes from above in a gold triangle / And a globe white with smoke / Which does not exist like music / Above the circle with the muted beating of the water.” Here, again, the something that doesn't exist, the story-book colors, the mighty leaps from the visual to the auditory and back, the sense of mystery without any noticeable straining to be mysterious, the indeterminate references: what doesn't exist, the globe or the smoke?

Already as a boy in Alexandria, Giuseppe Ungaretti was reading Rimbaud; here, in a prose translation by Joseph Cary, is his “The Buried Harbor”: “The poet arrives there / and then ventures to the light with his songs / and scatters them // Of such poetry / remains to me / this nothing / of the inexhaustible secret.”5 As Cary points out, this is really a version of Rimbaud's Lettre du voyant. But even such a very different poet as Eugenio Montale is not unaffected by Rimbaud. In a 1949 essay, he compliments Mozart, Bellini, and Verdi on setting “a clear and neutral discourse to which they could do violence.” He begins another essay, on an old mentor, the poet Camillo Sbarbaro, by quoting him: “Rimbaud was the addiction of my adolescence.” Now read a Montale poem such as “Eastbourne,” and see if you are not reminded of Rimbaud; isn't, for example, the personalized goodness of una bontà rather like the reason of “A une Raison”?

Moving over to Greece—and remembering that Rimbaud, whomever else he castigated, unfailingly upheld classic Greek poetry—what do we find? Here is “Thanks,” by Yannis Ritsos, as translated by Edmund Keeley: “You heard your voice saying: thanks / (so unexpected, dumb naturalness)—you were certain now: / a large piece of eternity belonged to you.” This, again, is the private incident given over to the poem without mediation, without any care for universality. And, again, the italics, the parentheses, the laconism, even the unorthodox punctuation.

Now over to Hungary, for an actual prose poem (part of a sequence, as often in Rimbaud) by the marvelous János Pilinszky (1921-1981):

Then at night we went on dreaming the battle, and that was like a stage image, which begins by coming to an end. The guests leave the table, the room empties out. A girl sweeps away the crumbs. Makes order. Night falls.

From here on in everything attacks and everything flees: the inadmissible fates, the inadmissible situations, the inadmissible species of animals. And in the morning, we wakened to war as to order itself, as if with gunfire eternal peace were nearing the world.

True, this is much more coherent than a Rimbaud poem tends to be, but the theatrical trope, the chamois leaps of the imagery, the sudden changes in sentence length, with a two-word sentence summing up a paragraph, the basis in paradox—these are truly Rimbaldian.

An influence, then, that could be traced in all Western literatures. One could find it in Wallace Stevens, a supposed pure Mallarméan, in Geoffrey Hill, in Thom Gunn as in Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and all the Beats and Beat-derivatives. “Rimbaud was the last great poet that our civilization will see” declared Hart Crane in 1926; in 1923, Ezra Pound had already pronounced, “The actual writing of poetry has advanced little or not at all since Rimbaud.”6

Mallarmé may be in the bloodstream of all modern poets, whether they know it or not. He gave the word, beyond its meaning or meanings, over and above its sound, its shape on the page. A word became not a pictogram but a pattern in black on a white background that framed it in different ways with more or less surrounding whiteness, with companionship or isolation. More than that: words assumed the character of precious jewelry fitted into sonorous bracelets, necklaces, belts made up of precious stones in precise yet arcane combinations. Phrases became multivalent, forming strange, recondite, chiseled yet unstable relationships, proffering signification with one hand, withholding it with the other. The high priest was behind each verse, an abstruse smile on his lips, an intoxicating music in his chant. It is the music, in the later poems, of the emperor's nightingale brought to its highest mechanical perfection, inferior to the warblings of the real one only for those who prize folk poetry above all other, who hold Anonymous to be the greatest poet of all.

Rimbaud, too, is in every poet, and more visibly: like the rabbit inside the python, a bulge in the snake's middle. He reaches us sometimes through the mediation of the Surrealists, with their modifications; sometimes undiluted, neat. (I realize that this usage is British, but I can't say “straight,” can I?) His words, individually and in conjunction, seem to be chosen carelessly. They appear to be effusions, gushings; they are a moment's recklessness caught in amber, a form that imitates formlessness to perfection. As Jacques Barzun puts it in An Essay on French Verse, “The form of these prose pieces … is itself an invitation to giving up the rational mind. … [T]he poem mirrors the unreality of what is.”

Rimbaud is the poet of a world gone irrational—ours. As the Pole Tadeusz Rozewicz (born 1921) expressed it in a lyric, translated here by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh: “… Season in Hell / what a glorious age / hell heaven // The metaphor still living / bloomed within / metaphysics // letters and words / appeared in miraculous color … // Poetry began from that moment / to rave deliriously …” Rozewicz goes on to say that the bedeviling colors Rimbaud assigned to vowels are preferable to the post-nuclear-holocaust color scheme: everything simply white, a white desolation. I agree with Suzanne Bernard that Rimbaud was an anarchic demiurge, and would add only that he could exult in disorder because he could still feel himself its creator. We are its creations.


  1. Benjamin Britten has beautifully set eight of Rimbaud's poems in his Illuminations, Opus 18. I have compared the translations of “Les arrêts de la vie” in the booklets of my four CD versions of the work. Two have “Life's decrees,” one “Life's constraints,” one “Life's sentences.” Wallace Fowlie, in his translation of the Illuminations, offers “Life's haltings.”

  2. From the introduction to the 1948 Lausanne edition of Rimbaud's works. Cf. Bernard's “the art of Rimbaud consists … in knowing how to preserve his childlike sense of wonder from the sterilizing intellectual work of the adult, who, with his ‘notions,’ kills the fairy world.”

  3. Graceful son of Pan! Around your brow crowned with flowerlets and berries your eyes, precious balls, move. Spotted with brown dregs, your cheeks are hollowed. Your fangs glisten. Your chest resembles a zither, tinklings circulate through your blond arms. Your heart beats in that belly where sleeps the double sex. Walk about at night, by gently moving this thigh, this second thigh, and this left leg.

  4. The New York Review of Books, June 1, 1967.

  5. The double slash indicates one line's space. The period at the end is mine.

  6. It may be worth a footnote to mention that the intellectually slumming academic of whose protagonist Sylvester Stallone made his second fortune based his hero's name, Rambo, on Rimbaud.

Aimée Israel-Pelletier (essay date spring 1992)

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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 Jean-Louis Baudry in his 1968-69 article in Tel Quel, in which he maintained that to work at decoding Rimbaud's poems is to dismiss the radical nature of his poetics and to undermine his place in the canon of modern poetry. Following Baudry, Tzvetan Todorov has suggested that Rimbaud's contribution to poetry is that he relieves language of its obligation to express and to represent. Rimbaud's Illuminations, suggests Todorov, is not representational but (using the categories of Etienne Souriau) “présentationnel”; the poems, in other words, evoke quite specific objects, places and events but without contextualizing them in real events, in history. The central concern of the poems, according to Todorov, is not the world or the poet but the poem itself and the poetic process. In the same vein, Marjorie Perloff has argued that Rimbaud's poetry celebrates “indeterminacy” and “undecidability”; Leo Bersani has taken the notion of untranslatability still further by suggesting that the ideal Rimbaud utterance would be “non-referential, non relational, and devoid of attitudes and tones” (231).

My purpose in the following essay is to address the limitations of both of these approaches through a re-examination of the nature of representation in Rimbaud's poetry. In the course of doing so, I wish also to address another debate that characterizes criticism of his work: namely, whether his affinities lie more with the Impressionists or with the Symbolists. As I will argue, here again the limitations of the current arguments on either side can be traced to a faulty notion of the mimetic nature of art and in turn to a superficial notion of what constitutes affinities between the verbal and the pictorial arts.

What we need to bear in mind, first and foremost, is the “physicality” which characterizes both Rimbaud's poetry and his world view. To Rimbaud the body is erotically charged; sensations are, so to speak, on the surface ready to respond to the slightest stimulant from the outside world. The poem which best illustrates this eroticism is, of course, “Sensation”; but this physicality is the theme, the context and the underlying “meaning” of many of Rimbaud's poems—like “Bohème,” “Roman,” “Being beauteous” and “Bottom.” The role of language, in turn, is to serve as the medium for communicating the body's sensations, a point which Rimbaud expresses emblematically in “Les Poètes de sept ans,” where the tense body of the boy-poet is pressed against a rough sheet of canvas while the sounds of the neighborhood reach his room above. The line “seul, et couché sur des pièces de toile / Écrue, et pressentant violemment la voile!1 is a metaphor for the poem as the imprint of the poet's body on paper (here, on untreated canvas), a metaphor of poetry as the embodiment of sensations.

As this poem also illustrates, Rimbaud's poetry is grounded in events, scenes and objects in the world. 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. Rimbaud is a poet of reference, as Kristin Ross has argued. His descriptions are contextualized in more ways than one, not the least important of which is the fact that all but a handful of poems were given titles by Rimbaud himself. Specific titles like “Fleurs,” “Promontoire,” “Ville,” “Mouvement,” along with other directive “signs,” help the reader focus on the central concern or metaphor employed and, ultimately, on the poem's meaning or reference. Such markers are indicators of Rimbaud's “intention” and suggest that some kind of mimesis is involved.

To appreciate the referentiality of Rimbaud's poems, however, it is important not to look for exact correlations. The advantage of recuperating the referent in a given poem is that it can be useful in reconstructing the process of figuration (more appropriately, in this case, of disfiguration)—the ways in which Rimbaud represents the “real,” or his perceptions of the real. It might be instructive, for example, to follow Suzanne Bernard's suggestion that in “Fleurs” Rimbaud is describing the interior of a theater, the decor, objects like velvet seats, crystal chandeliers, carpets with large designs, the gold brocade of curtains, and so forth, as these objects would be seen from above, from a loge (510). Of little use, however, is Antoine Adam's suggestion that the “camarade” in “Phrases” refers to Verlaine or to a “poor girl” who befriended Rimbaud when he was in London, or that “Barbare” is a poem about Rimbaud's trip to Java. If indeed many of the so-called “obscure” poems refer to or are inspired by a “real” setting, the important point is not to locate this scene or this place in Rimbaud's experience but to account for how a place or scene, whether real or imagined, is shaped in the process of representation.

For Rimbaud, to name an object is to conjure up an equivalent image in the mind. His esthetics is founded on the desire for pure coincidence between language and being, between language and the world. This explains in part why, throughout his life, Rimbaud was especially interested in a career in journalism. Ideally, poetic language would be direct and transparent, indistinguishable from sensations and from the referent; it would be simply and miraculously their embodiment. Paradoxically, this ideal is also what lies behind his apparent adherence to what is sometimes referred to as the fallacy of optical truth, the idea that words can lie but an image cannot. Instead of reflecting any simplistic bias, this visual preference derives from his sense of the way that words can come between the poet's body, his sensations and the external world. They are a kind of noise, or static which can get in the way of direct and clear expression and reception. Thus when Rimbaud writes “Je ne parlerai pas, je ne penserai rien,” “C'est trop beau! C'est trop beau! Gardons notre silence,” “Je te parlerai dans ta bouche,” or “Je ne dis pas un mot: Je regarde toujours,” when he presents himself as “maître du silence,” he is mainly alerting us to the challenge he faces. Rimbaud believed, especially with Une saison and the Illuminations, that language could be made to embody ideas, desire and objects in the world through the manipulation of syntax, rhythm and other formal elements. Although his nominalism has in turn been used as an argument to suggest that his poetry is non-referential, actually it is a reflection of his linguistic optimism and his pragmatism.

There is in Rimbaud's work and in his conception of language a systematic erasure of distance and of difference. The mind and the world, language and things, inside and outside are not conceived as oppositional constructs. The universe and literature are without seams and the world is magically connected to the self and to language. This theme is a common one in his poetry;

Un coup de ton doigt sur le tambour décharge tous les sons et commence la nouvelle harmonie.
          Un pas de toi c'est la levée des nouveaux hommes et leur en marche.
          Ta tête se détourne: le nouvel amour! Ta tête se retourne:—le nouvel amour!
          “Change nos lots, crible les fléaux, à commencer par le temps,” te chantent ces enfants.

(Illum. 268)

          J'ai marché, réveillant les haleines vives et tièdes, et les pierreries regardèrent, et les ailes se levèrent sans bruit.

(Illum. 284)

There is in Rimbaud a strong sense that objects, ideas and people are connected to each other. As he specifically suggests in “Phrases”: “J'ai tendu des cordes de clocher à clocher; des guirlandes de fenêtre à fenêtre; des chaînes d'or d'étoile à étoile, et je danse” (Illum, 271). Rimbaud's poetry is grounded in the “real.” Though some ambivalence can be found, his work is, to a large extent, the record of a fascination and an enthusiasm for modern life and everyday concerns and pleasures. His so-called “obscurity” is the result of a technique that aims to translate into language the immediacy, the exhiliration, and the disruptive nature of the poet's sensations and impressions in the face of reality.

I am using the word reality to refer specifically to everyday life, to the natural world, and to events and phenomena that exist in space and in time—events that are experienced empirically both as part of the larger field of social life and as part of the more private arena of the body and its sensations. In this context, Henri Lefebvre makes a useful point when he argues that the everyday does not designate a system, but a denominator common to existing systems; what we define as the “everyday” is a “product” of individual perceptions and personal ideology and, accordingly, should not to be confused with notions of objectivity and of fact. It is also useful to stress that the everyday is not necessarily marked by repetition, by boredom, by the non-event. These attributes are not inherent in everydayness but are value judgments we attach to the term. To say that Rimbaud's poetry is focused on the real, therefore, is not to deny or undermine its awareness of itself as art—far from it. Rimbaud's poetry is intensely theatrical, it asserts itself as art in an undeniable way. Yet he does not envisage the poem as a substitute for the world; he does not offer the poetic enterprise and the poet's visions as a more perfect, more desirable, reality. Rimbaud can be said to have found his poetic inspiration in everydayness, in the “real,” and his innovativeness lies in his discovering techniques for reflecting his sensations and his impressions.

For many readers, Rimbaud does not fit neatly into any defined literary category. Jean-Pierre Guisto writes that if it is difficult to speak about Rimbaud, this is because one does not know exactly what kind of text we are dealing with (29-31); to Jean-Pierre Jouve—who reflects a dominant view of Rimbaud's place in the history of poetry—in contrast to all French writers, Rimbaud does not fit into any culture; he is the case of the isolated genius, the man France does not love (174). Rimbaud is no doubt an original poet, a prodigy and a radical, but he appears to be singular because, more so than other writers, his work has been lifted out of its time, considered not only marginal but alien to that time. Beginning in the late 1880s in France, and guided by the Symbolist discourse of those years, Rimbaud's work, especially some of the poems in the Illuminations and poems like “Voyelles” and “Le Bâteau ivre,” have been used to support the view that poetry must seek to free language and art from the vulgar task of communicating its intentions to a general audience; it must be allusive and must exclude or discourage any referentiality. Symbolist critics and poets saw in Rimbaud's poetic style, and his life style, evidence of a rebellion against accessibility in art and against conformity in life style.

Rimbaud's work, however, is not Symbolist. The Symbolist poet, as Paul de Man has noted, is “no longer close enough to things to name them as they are … the light and the grass and the skies which appear in his poems remain essentially other than actual light or grass or sky. The word, the logos, no longer coincides with the universe but merely reaches out for it in a language which is unable to be what it names—which, in other words, is merely a symbol” (16). For Mallarmé, poetry does not represent the world but is a parallel and competing universe. It is a universe built with a “purified” language, a language which seeks to eliminate the contingent. The upshot is his celebrated dream of replacing the world by a book. According to Gustave Kahn, the Symbolists wished to replace the examination of the external world, the “décor of city squares and streets,” with the study of “all or part of a brain” (cited in Shiff 45). The Symbolist critic Emile Bernard notes in a similar vein that “anything that overloads a spectacle [nature] … covers it with reality and occupies our eyes to the detriment of our minds” (cited in Rewald 193). Poetry as a fictional parallel reality (a “more truthful” reality) is at the very heart of Symbolist poetics.

Nothing can be further from this spiritualizing than Rimbaud's positivism and materialism. For Symbolists, nature and mind are manifestations of a higher reality. Things in this world, they maintained, are only signs for other more “real” and more “truthful” realities; “true reality” does not reside in the appearance of things but is hidden. By contrast, for Rimbaud the poet is connected to the visible world through his perceptions; his perceptions guarantee that truth resides in the material, the sensible and the visible.

Indicative of his concern with the visible world is the visual quality of his poetry. Many poems refer to frames and framing (“Tête de faune,” “Première soirée,” “Après le déluge,” “Promontoire,” “Mystique,” for instance). Moreover, descriptions dominate and the act of seeing is suggested in most poems. Words are a kind of paint, a visible mark on canvas, as in “Fête d'hiver,” “Fleurs” “Ponts” and “Enfance.” In turn, to Rimbaud the written word follows the same principles as those which govern speech, and in both cases spontaneity and sincerity are the effects desired. Like speech, the written word must be as transparent as possible, the perfect translation or coincidence of desire and the world. Rimbaud's poetic style, therefore, strives to find the technique that would make language coincide with the referent, to make it the embodiment of his sensations.

Despite Rimbaud's virtuosity in handling language, however, and despite the obvious pleasure he took in writing, for him language and poetry could not ultimately rival the “real.” This attitude may explain why and how he could give up writing poetry and turn to other occupations. As I have argued elsewhere (“Difference”), Rimbaud did not give up writing poetry because he was especially disenchanted with it; he gave it up because it was not uniquely prized by him in the first place; it was replaceable. In contrast to the Symbolist tendency, Rimbaud did not regard the actual or “real” world as imperfect. Although he felt that social injustice and poverty, political oppression and class struggles are facts of daily existence, instead of generalizing this situation into a metaphysics of the imperfections of life or of human nature, he regarded these problems as something that can be faced and addressed by society through solidarity and political action. His poetry as a whole (including Une saison en enfer) manifests an unswerving optimism about social change. “Je me réveillerai, et les lois et les moeurs auront changé,—grâce à son pouvoir magique,—Le monde, en restant le même, me laissera à mes désirs, joies, nonchalences. Oh! la vie d'aventures qui existe dans les livres des enfants … me la donneras-tu?” (Saison 226). This remark, made by the “Je” of “Vierge folle” about the infernal mate, evokes the belief in and the desirability of social change but it does so without rejecting at the same time the world—“the world will stay the same” and provide accustomed pleasures, adventures.

To Rimbaud, it is not the world that falls short of one's desires or expectations; rather, it is lack of desire for what the world has to offer that is the source of dissatisfaction, of boredom and, finally, of despair. The poet, therefore, must find ways to keep himself continually charged, to keep himself in a perpetual state of wonder and of joy—be it through drugs, madness, sex, travel or poetry. In the midst of what he describes as debilitating exhaustion, Rimbaud nearly always finds in the outside world the reasons and the elements which can revitalize or recharge his tired body and his (temporarily) sated desires; he conjures up from this world the elements that will allow him to experience his body as a “new body” and hence also, to experience the world itself, as if for the first time. In this he resembles Monet who, according to John House, wished he had been born blind and then suddenly to have gained his eyesight so as to translate the immediacy of this first contact with the world (1). Rimbaud's desire to experience the (same) world anew is accompanied by the certitude that with the right “formula” this is possible. The real world is desirable; there is no reason to wish it away, or go “beyond” it. In “Départ,” for example, after the famous “Assez vu … Assez connu,” the poet recovers his lost energy by invoking the world, its noise and its cycles: “Rumeurs des villes, le soir, et au soleil, et toujours.” It is only after he has called forth the “real” that he concludes with “Départ dans l'affection et le bruit neufs!” (Illum. 266), so that “départ” connotes a kind of starting point and not an escape. Rimbaud nearly always represents the poet as mobile and the world around him in a state of flux. This is true not only in the case of the poems, but also in the letters he wrote from Charleville and Africa in which he describes his activities and his plans.

The single most important factor which has contributed to Rimbaud's reputation as a Symbolist has been the two letters he wrote to Izambard and Demeny in which he develops his notion of “voyance,” or the role of the poet as prophet and “seer.” The concept of “voyance” in Rimbaud's time was a Romantic commonplace elaborated by Novalis, Hölderlin, Hugo, Baudelaire and others, and in keeping with their practice has been taken to mean that Rimbaud's poetry is concerned with the “fantastic,” the “hidden,” the “unnamed.” Rimbaud, however, gives the word a singular twist; “voyance,” read in the context of the entire letter stresses the idea of metamorphosis: “Mais il s'agit de faire l'âme monstrueuse: à l'instar des comprachicos, quoi! Imaginez un homme s'implantant et se cultivant des verrues sur le visage. Je dis qu'il faut être voyant, se faire voyant” (Cor. 346). Thus “voyance” is a way of sharpening perceptions; it is a technique for recharging the self through the senses, through vision. The emphasis is not on a method for going beyond external or material reality to something “more real” or “more true” but on a technique for making the poet experience the world around as forever new. Thus, in “Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs,” Rimbaud criticizes the Parnassian poets not because of their inability to see behind the appearances of things, as it is often remarked; rather, his complaint is that these poets are not really seeing the world but are looking at it through a filtering lens—namely, art: “Mais, Cher, L'Art n'est plus, maintenant, / —C'est la vérité,—de permettre / A l'Eucalyptus étonnant / Des constrictors d'un hexamètre” (Poésies 117).

One of the more serious consequences of attempts to ally Rimbaud with Symbolist esthetics has been the undermining of his affinities with Impressionism and the downplaying of the mimetic quality of his poetry. Unfortunately, recent discussions of Impressionism in the visual arts have exhibited the same tendency to devalorize referentiality. Impressionist painters, critics like Richard Shiff have argued, depict the external world in a subjective manner; their work cannot be understood without reference to its own definition of “truth” (12). In turn, since both Impressionists and Symbolists acknowledge that their representations of the world are subjective, Shiff challenges the assumption that the two constitute two distinct movements. A further indication of their convergence to Shiff is the common reference to the term “sensation” in contemporary discourses on Impressionism and Symbolism. Yet if it must be admitted that both the Impressionists and the Symbolists value subjectivity and sensation, attention to how sensations are contextualized and to what each group ultimately is concerned with representing enables one to recognize an important difference.

The distinguishing characteristic of Impressionists is the privileging of the real. In Impressionist art we have a clear sense that what interests the poet and the artist and what moves them is almost exclusively that initial contact with the external world, and it is precisely that contact on which their work focuses. For both Impressionists and Symbolists, the subjective and the objective are not contradictory concepts; the governing assumption of both is that “truth” can be apprehended only through the subjective and the particular. For the Impressionists, however, “truth” is in the material, the visible and the immediate. Moreover, for Impressionist painters like Monet (of the early and middle periods), Renoir, Morisot, Pissarro and others, the painter is a participant in the world he depicts and often celebrates.

Impressionism is thus a fundamentally democratic movement and clearly incompatible with the Symbolists' retreat from the world (the French Symbolists, in particular), their sense of alienation and their experience of distance from it. Faced with pretty much the same conditions (political and cultural), the Symbolist position takes the form of a repudiation of common everyday realities; it takes the form of an esthetics of allusion “designed to exclude the real because it is vulgar, designed to disrupt any referentiality outward” (Ross 97). For Symbolists and Impressionists, sensations originate at the point of contact with the world, but to the Symbolist it is only when the artist or poet has “transcended” the particular, when he has perceived “beyond” reality to the Idea, that he is then moved to represent it. Moreover, what is generally represented in Symbolist art is the sensation experienced at the moment the Idea has been perceived. Significantly, the subject matter in Symbolist poetry and art is not the external world but the expression of the Idea “behind” or “beyond” the actual, the material and the individual.

Undoubtedly, many similarities exist between Impressionism and Symbolism, as Shiff has demonstrated. Nevertheless, to reconcile the differences and to ignore the intentions and the ideological base which distinguishes the two movements is, crucially, to risk trivializing the distinctly different appeal that each had and continues to have on the reading and viewing public. The radical and democratic nature of Impressionism cannot be reconciled with Symbolism's deliberate exclusion of all but a select group; the inaccessibility of a Symbolist poet like Mallarmé is not of the same nature as that of Rimbaud. To appreciate the allusions and rich textures in Mallarmé's work, one needs a relatively thorough education in French literature and in Classical mythology. Rimbaud, in contrast, is a more accessible author. He is, for instance, popular among Lycée students, workers and popular artists. Nor is this appeal based solely on the myths that surround Rimbaud's life—the rebellious adolescent who ran away from home to be a poet in Paris, had a wild affair with Verlaine, wrote the most radical poetry to date and, three years later, gave up poetry and left France for Africa only to come back to die eleven years later at the age of thirty-seven.

René Jullian's discussion of Rimbaud's relationship to the artistic currents of his time illustrates how misleading is the assumption that his work is informed by Symbolist esthetics. Jullian's task as a historian of artistic currents is to locate a literary equivalent for Impressionism in the visual arts (and in music). In the process, he rightly recognizes certain Impressionist elements in Rimbaud's poetry, noting for example the way that Rimbaud's poems are tightly focused on the “visible world” and that the “real” is a strong force in many of the Illuminations. Having acknowledged this affinity, however, Jullian concludes that Rimbaud's work is, after all, not Impressionist. As he sees it, Rimbaud is more interested in the “invisible world,” with his evidence being the extent to which the “visible world” in Rimbaud's poetry is not presented in a coherent or totalizing manner. Observing that the visible world in Rimbaud's descriptions cannot be pictured, Jullian concludes:

Rimbaud est … un visionnaire, et cette qualité l'incline au symbolisme: cherchant à exprimer une réalité qui est au-delà des apparences, il ne peut donner au discours poétique qu'une signification symbolique, les mots assumant nécessairement une acceptation autre s'ils veulent refléter l'invisible … ces cristallisations partielles n'aident pas toujours à déchiffrer la réalité—ou les réalités—que dérobe la symbolique du langage; le symbolism de Rimbaud, plus que tout autre, s'enferme dans le mystère.


Jullian's straining to make a point and his insistence on Rimbaud's impenetrability show the degree to which critics want to applaud Rimbaud by dissociating him from the Impressionist movement. Similarly, what Bernard sees as praiseworthy in Rimbaud's work is his concern with the unknown aspects of reality; as she argues, the Illuminations strike us by their “fraîcheur et la nouveauté de vision qui nous font découvrir l'inconnu, non dans quelque lointaine ‘terra incognita,’ mais au coeur même de la réalité sensible, éblouissant pour nos yeux enfin délivrés de la taie de l'habitude et des notions apprises” (251). For readers like Jullian and Bernard, the representation of reality in Rimbaud is seen to be lacking not on the grounds that he is unconcerned with the outside world but on the grounds that his images of this “real” world are not familiar, that they do not conform to our expectations of how the real is visually represented—namely, in paintings, illustrations, photographs. The reluctance to ally Rimbaud with the Impressionists is thus based on the view that Impressionism adheres to standards of “realism” or resemblance in art. Bernard is one of Rimbaud's best readers and is clearly aware of Rimbaud's affinities to Impressionism; she balks, however, at the idea that Rimbaud's accomplishment lies precisely in his capacity to make common reality the subject of his poetic inspiration. These misreadings occur because we have become accustomed to associate esthetic innovation with unusual or radical subject matter, whereas—as in Rimbaud's case and as in the case of the Impressionist painters—esthetic innovation is simply a new way of rendering the familiar.

Dealing with the visual aspect of Rimbaud's poetry is not a simple matter, of course, since we immediately run into the general objection that a literary description is not the same as a pictorial image, that we cannot literally “see” a verbal image; it lacks “embodiment” to use Norman Bryson's term (189). In the case of Rimbaud, the problem is even more complex; for even if we can dismiss this constitutional and material difference between a pictorial image and a verbal image, even if we are convinced that they are both subject to similar cognitive processes and that they are, therefore, subject to many of the same kinds of interpretive moves, we are still faced with the problem that many of his descriptions are difficult to visualize. Representation, which is culturally and historically determined, is not, however, strictly bound to resemblance of reality, and in the work of such “realists” as Balzac, Flaubert and Zola we find many scenes that cannot be “visualized” in any strict sense. Similarly, if we can discover a “hidden” meaning in a text—in other words, if we can argue for the presence of something that is not obvious (“invisible”)—we should also be prepared to see reality in the seemingly unfamiliar images in Rimbaud's poetry. These images may not resemble the “real” but they add up to “reality.”

To date, attempts to relate Rimbaud and Impressionism have focused on images in his poetry which are comparable to the pictorial effects found in the paintings of Monet, Morisot, Renoir, Sisley. Such images include those that describe shadows not as black but as violet (“ombre violette,” in “Ornières,” for example); scenes which describe the sky and the sea as continuous, not differentiated at the horizon, as in “L'azur et l'onde communient” (“Bannières de Mai”), “L'éternité / C'est la mer mêlée / Au soleil” (“Alchimie du verbe”), or “Je serais bien … le petit valet suivant l'allée dont le front touche le ciel” (“Enfance”); descriptions which juxtapose bold and discordant colors, and colors which blur the traditional rigidity of lines, as in “Du détroit d'indigo aux mers d'Ossian, sur le sable rose et orange qu'a lavé le ciel vineux, viennent de monter et de se croiser des boulevards de cristal habités incontinent par de jeunes familles pauvres qui s'alimentent chez les fruitiers” (“Métropolitain”), and “Cette idole, yeux noirs et crin jaune, sans parents ni cour, plus noble que la fable, mexicaine et flamande; son domaine, azur et verdure insolents, court sur des plages nommées, par des vagues sans vaisseaux, de noms férocement grecs, slaves, celtiques” (“Enfance”).

Rimbaud's frequent allusions to a sort of merging of sounds and colors is also used as evidence of his affinities with Impressionist art. In the following lines—“les fleurs de rêve tintent, éclatent, éclairent,—la fille à lèvre d'orange, les genoux croisés dans le clair déluge qui sourd des prés, nudité qu'ombrent, traversent et habillent les arcs-en-ciel, la flore, la mer” (“Enfance”)—Bernard sees resemblances to the “‘peintures claires’ des Impressionnistes” (482). In “Les Ponts,” the following line—“Des accords mineurs se croisent et filent, des cordes montent des berges. On distingue une veste rouge, peut-être d'autres costumes et des instruments de musique”—leads Bernard to conclude that “Les Ponts” is the Impressionist poem “par excellence”; it is a fantasmagorical vision inspired by Rimbaud's stay in London (498).

Although such passages, and others like them so abundant in Rimbaud's poetry, make for valid comparisons between his poetry and Impressionism, such connections are not really sufficient to make a convincing claim for affinities. Many of the same images can be called upon to support the thesis that Rimbaud's descriptions are, say, Romantic, Symbolist, Fauve, Surrealist, and so on. What passes for pictorial resemblances between Rimbaud's poems and Impressionist paintings is ultimately not a determining factor in the relationship between the two. By focusing on such surface and sometimes ambivalent resemblances we often end up saying too much about a pictorial image and too little about a verbal one. Though it tends to privilege the visual, Rimbaud's Impressionism is not uniquely or essentially pictorial. His affinities lie more at the level of shared technical procedures and concerns for the representation of perceptions and sensations.

Moreover, to the Impressionists themselves the visual was essentially a means to an end. As Pissarro, Monet and Cézanne have remarked, what Impressionism attempts is the visualization of sensation, sensations that are provoked by external reality. Monet, for example, wrote Pissarro: “After seeing you I am more certain than ever that ‘the sensation’ is the foundation of everything, a noble thing as long as it comes from a real feeling. … It doesn't really matter if sensation arises from the work painted in front of nature, or not, so long as the sensation is there” (cited in House 218). The same idea was expressed repeatedly by Pissarro in his letters to his son Lucien and by Cézanne.

To the Impressionists, in short, technique was a tool not necessarily for “correct vision” (or “truth” in the term Monet liked to use to refer to optical accuracy) but for infusing energy and evoking temporality and movement on the surface of the poem or of the painting. Rimbaud's techniques are similarly designed to create an effect of immediacy and of freshness, as in his evocations of dawn (“Aube”), of the instant (“Après le déluge”), of movement (“Marine,” “Nocturne vulgaire”), of speed (“Départ,” ”Métropolitain”), of his desire for new places (“moi pressé de trouver le lieu et la formule” [278]).

In the Illuminations, Rimbaud's Impressionism is also evident in the general appearance of spontaneity and roughness in execution. Such a technique conveys the sense that the poems were written as if in one breath, that they capture as in a flash (an “illumination”) and on the spot the immediate impression of a particular scene or event. To the same effect, the sketch is frequently a feature of Impressionist paintings—for example, Monet's sailboats, bridges and flowers, or Degas's pastels of night life in Paris. More particularly, though, Rimbaud's Impressionism is evident in the way that his poems seem at once highly fragmented and mobile. Consider the following from “Jeunesse”:

l'inévitable descente du ciel, et la visite des souvenirs et la séance des rhythmes occupent la demeure, la tête et le monde de l'esprit.—Un cheval détal sur le turf suburbain, et le long des cultures et des boisements, percé par la peste carbonique. Une misérable femme de drame … soupire … Les desperadoes languissent. … De petits enfants étouffent des malédictions le long des rivières.


The many details of isolated images, images of fragmentation, heighten the sense of movement and of speed, as in the case of “Promontoire,” “Le Bâteau ivre.” We find a similar emphasis on motion in Monet's Storm on Belle-Isle, Renoir's Paysage de printemps, Le casbah d'Alger, or Pissarro's Boulevard Montmartre, mardi-gras. In Rimbaud's poems, mobility is expressed thematically, but it is also produced through the syntax and is the effect of the juxtapositions of disparate elements, distortions, dislocations and unexpected relationships between syntagmatic units.

Many Impressionist paintings present objects in motion or in a state of transience; similarly Rimbaud's poems, especially those in the Illuminations, suggest a moving tableau—though not always and uniquely in the sense that they travel or cover distance as would a narrative (or a film). In many instances, these tableaux shimmer in the way that a Monet or Renoir figure or a sea- and landscape are animated by light and a sense of the presence of air: “L'aube d'or et la soirée frissonnante trouvent notre brick en large en face de cette villa et de ses dépendances, qui forment un promontoire aussi étendu que l'Épire et le Péloponnèse” (299); “Les chars d'argent et de cuivre— / Les proues d'acier et d'argent— / Battent l'écume” (287); “nos caresses debout dans les plaines poivrées.—Un envol de pigeons écarlates tonne autour de ma pensée” (264); “A la lisière de la forêt—les fleurs de rêve tintent, éclatent, éclairent” (255).

Rimbaud's concern for seasons, time of day, historical time (“Soir historique,” “Après le déluge,” “Aube,” for example) also finds an equivalent in Monet's integrated series (The Grain Stacks and the Cathedral of Rouen, of the 1890s). Similarly, both attempt to overcome the famous space/time-visual/verbal opposition elaborated by G. E. Lessing. Rimbaud's poems, for example, can be said to evoke space by their focus on descriptions which do not narrate (which are not “récit,” which do not move in time); and Monet can be said to evoke, in a subtle and suggestive manner, passing time—a kind of narrative of light and seasonal changes.

Many of Rimbaud's poems in the Illuminations can be read at once as a series of fragments and as a unified whole; we can read them by stopping to pause at each image or cluster of words or we can read them in one breath for their overall effect. This is why it is both correct and not quite right to claim—as Roland Barthes has—that Rimbaud's words are “stations” (“des stations de mots”) where “Nature becomes a fragmented space, made of objects solitary and terrible, because the links between them are only potential …” (50). Rimbaud's poems are, to continue with Barthes's analogy, speeding trains when we read them this way, when we allow the rhythm and the movement of the poem to carry us to the end. Yet we may choose to stop at certain parts and at certain words and combinations, not necessarily because we are curious about how they can be integrated in what we have just been reading, but because we may be fascinated by their boldness, their violence or their suggestiveness. Similarly, we can look at an Impressionist painting in a totalizing manner, or we can focus on details of execution. Thus the way in which Shiff describes a Monet composition holds equally true of Rimbaud. Shiff suggests that the parts of Monet's compositions “are so similar in visual intensity that his work must appear either entirely uniform or completely fragmented, a juxtaposition of elements never cohering into a whole.” This is because such works lack a sense of hierarchical order, “no gradual passage is conceivable,” no patterns can be easily discerned, and yet the whole can be apprehended (108).

Generally speaking, similarities between Rimbaud's style and the style of Impressionist painters are the result of equivalent techniques in their respective art forms. For example, in Rimbaud's poetry we have a juxtaposition of different types and levels of discourse (mythology, literature, spoken language and street talk), lexical anomalies which disrupt coherence or sense, rhythmic innovations which create the effect of movement and chaos. In Impressionism we have distortions in line, in scale and in perspective, the fragmentation of the colored field through unexpected juxtapositions of colored-marks and brush-marks which heighten the sense of discontinuity and of mobility. In Rimbaud there are also examples of the merging of high art and popular art as in “Fête d'hiver”: “La cascade sonne derrière les huttes d'opéra-comique. Des girandoles prolongent, dans les vergers et les allées voisins du Méandre,—les verts et les rouges du couchant. Nymphes d'Horace coiffées au Premier Empire,—Rondes Sibériennes, Chinoises de Boucher” (288). Similarly, we have Monet's use of fashion illustration or Manet's reference to canonical works and images in a painting which treats a modern subject (Déjeuner sur l'herbe and Olympia, for example).

What constitutes the best basis for comparing certain poems of Rimbaud with Impressionist paintings, however, is the way they create effect. In the case of Rimbaud's Barbare and Monet's 14 Juillet à la rue Montorgueil, for example, both conjure up a sense of chaos and extreme sensations, and they do so by representing the intense and violent movement of a crowd through the street of a city. Monet represents the crowd by a series of comma-like brush-marks, and Rimbaud represents the crowd by forceful syntactic and semantic anomalies and by images of fragmentation: “O Douceurs, ô monde, ô musique! Et là, les formes, les sueurs, les chevelures et les yeux, flottant. Et les larmes blanches, bouillantes …” (292). Both create an effect of spontaneity and chaos through fragmentation; both risk almost complete incoherence to represent their perception of the movement of a crowd through the street.

Another feature which allies Rimbaud with Impressionism may be seen in “Soir Historique”: “Puis un ballet de mers et de nuits connues, une chimie sans valeur, et des mélodies impossibles.” Although we cannot visualize this scene, hear the “impossible” melodies alluded to, or understand specifically what it means, when we read this line in the context of the entire poem we do get a sense of movement, darkness, the poet's expectation (his imagined witnessing) of a new world substituting itself for the old. Such an immediacy of vision is in keeping with the Impressionist evocation of events perceived at the very moment they occur (in the real or imagined-as-real world). Rimbaud's poem conjures up the sense of a coming revolution, but the event is not solely inscribed and described as if it were in the mind—the poet's or the reader's imagination. It is described as the projection of an actual event (sensations and impressions blur the distance between the real and the imagined, between the world and the self, between language and the world). The poem depicts both a subjective experience and an objective or potentially verifiable fact, as the cryptic last line suggests: “Cependant ce ne sera point un effet de légende!” (301).

Rimbaud's relationship to Impressionist artists lies, too, in their mutual depiction of modern life and ordinary people. One thinks of Manet's Argenteuil, les canotiers or his La Musique aux Tuileries; one thinks of Monet's trains, his Déchargeurs de charbon, his La rue Montorgueil and his many garden scenes; one thinks of Monet's and Renoir's La Grenouillère; one thinks of Renoir's Le déjeuner des canotiers, or his Le moulin de la Galette and of Pissarro's city and country scenes. These paintings and many others, like most of Rimbaud's poems (including “Ouvriers,” “A La Musique,” “Parade”) carry a great deal of social meaning. The subjects of Impressionist art are essentially social; the focus is on life, work and leisure in the city, the country, the suburb and at home. A similar concern with modern life characterizes many of Rimbaud's poems (“Ornières,” “Les reparties de Nina” and “Promontoire,” to name only a few).

This concern with modernity is well exemplified in Rimbaud's three “Villes” poems, where it goes hand in hand with the Impressionist emphasis upon effective modes of expression.“Villes [III]”—which begins “L'Acropole officielle outre les conceptions de la barbarie moderne les plus colossales. Impossible d'exprimer le jour mat produit par ce ciel immuablement gris, l'éclat impérial des bâtisses, et la neige éternelle du sol” (279)—suggests the way that finding the appropriate technique is at the heart of the poet's problem: how can he “express” not just the colors of the sky, the buildings and the snow but this “colossal” and “barbaric” modernity? How can the poet, in other words, represent his sensations and his perceptions of the city? How can he represent in words what he sees with his eyes?

The figure of the traveler, the tourist, the stranger, is a suggestive one. It is in a sense a metaphor for experience and sensation in general in Rimbaud. Like Monet's wished-for blindness, the tourist (a privileged persona in Rimbaud's poems and in his life) is a man who can see for the first time. The sense of the city as a vital, moving and disorienting space is especially well evoked in “Villes [II]” which begins: “Ce sont des villes! C'est un peuple pour qui se sont montés ces Alleghanys et ces Libans de rêve!” (276). Here, again, references to foreign lands, to mythological creatures, to sounds associated with various people, with different instruments and places, the use of images which do not congeal into a familiar vision—all create a sense of disorientation and of excitement. Form thus follows function in Rimbaud, in the same way that words, he was sure, could be made to embody desire, intention, perceptions.

In “Ville [III],” the poet walks through the city (the poem) and gets a general sense of the whole, its “colossal” and “barbaric” modernity. Yet he cannot map the city; the details at his disposal do not quite fit together into a neat and coherent tableau: “Pour l'étranger de notre temps la reconnaissance est impossible.” This means that although the tourist, like the reader of the poem, can experience the effect of the whole, it will take an effort or an exercise of a different kind to map the city. What Rimbaud's poems lack, and what they do not care to provide the reader with, is the “key” for putting together a copy (a familiar representation of the “original” site), the blueprint that could perhaps satisfy the requirement for verisimilitude. Because of the focus on the fragmentary aspects of perceptions and sensations, the whole can be apprehended only “a posteriori” through a fictional, linguistic or abstract construct.

Yet to Rimbaud, who preferred experience to the processing of experience through language and art, the lived-moment must necessarily be represented as discontinuous and mobile. When he writes in the same poem “Sur quelques points des passerelles de cuivre, des plates-formes, des escaliers qui contournent les halles et les piliers, j'ai cru pouvoir juger la profondeur de la ville!” the suggestion is that though the tourist (poet, reader, blind man) is within the structure, though he may have a general sense of its “barbaric” and “colossal” dimensions, his perception and his understanding of the exact configuration of the city necessarily escapes him. Thus far from trying to argue that there is no coherence or unity, Rimbaud merely suggests that any attempt to define this “colossal” and “barbaric” modernity must be done outside the text, so to speak. Rimbaud is not interested in how we interpret his poems as long as we participate in the reality they conjure up, as long as we respond to their effect. The poem itself, Rimbaud himself, is interested only in reproducing (re-presenting) what it feels like to be in this city and in communicating as if by contagion that effect to the reader.

The poetry of Rimbaud is thus best approached as his attempt to find ways to convey the sensations which resulted from his perception of the world around him, and herein also lies his major affinities with Impressionism. Although the Rimbaud of “beer, kisses, and country walks,” the Rimbaud of such poems as “Les Reparties de Nina,” “Au Cabaret vert,” “Sensations” shares with the Impressionists an interest in the subjects of everyday life, technically these poems are not as suggestive of Impressionist methods as are many of the poems in the Illuminations. It is as if Rimbaud had discovered progressively that in order to translate the energy felt at the moment of contact with the world, he had to sacrifice formal logic, conventional rules of versification and, finally, coherence; he had to accept and to expect that a certain degree of distortion of meaning and of point of view was necessary, inevitable, to create the effect of reality he needed. Just as the Impressionists thought it would be impossible to paint mobility and the transience of light and its changing effects on the landscape by following the techniques used by the Realists before them, so Rimbaud also could not describe the feelings of contentment, of excitement or of confusion, the tumult of a city or the impact of a seascape, by using conventional forms and techniques. The so-called “obscurity” of his work is the result of a deliberate attempt to make language serve the interests of conveying the real. Far from evidencing the elitism that informs the Symbolist movement, his poetry is, to a large extent, a record of at times a fascination and at times an uneasiness about the facts of modern life.

Many of the difficulties and paradoxes we encounter when reading some of Rimbaud's poems thus become less problematic when we situate his work in the light of Impressionist esthetics and thematics. The visual arts and literature are different entities; they employ different systems of signs. Although they do not share techniques per se, however, their concerns, intentions and attitudes about technical questions and their choice of subject matter are open to the same influences; there are similarities between the kind of questions posed and the kind of solutions implemented to deal with them.

Accordingly, Rimbaud's work is also best interpreted by placing it in its cultural context. At a time when French society faced rapid growth in science, industry and finance, when this progress meant social mobility, the rise of a new class and of shifting class identities, Impressionism addressed these issues of modernity and appealed to a broader and less learned audience. Hence the interest in referentiality—and hence also the decline of Impressionism when artists become progressively less interested in reference and less accessible, as manifested in the paintings of the later Monet, in Seurat to an extent, in Pissarro, and finally in the work of the Symbolists. Impressionism lasted twenty years or so and seemed viable for only as long as artists and writers could believe, as T. J. Clark suggests, that modernity was an appropriate subject for representation and a cause for optimism.


  1. All Rimbaud quotations are from Suzanne Bernard's edition of his Oeuvres. In parenthetical citations, Une Saison en enfer will be shortened to Saison; Les Illuminations will be abbreviated as Illum.; the correspondence as Cor.

Works Cited

Adam, Antoine. “L'Enigme des Illuminations.Revue des Sciences Humaines (décembre, 1950): 221-45.

Barthes, Roland. Writing Degree Zero. Trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. Boston: Beacon, 1970.

Baudry, Jean-Louis. “Le Texte de Rimbaud.Tel Quel 35 (1968): 46-63; 36 (1969): 33-53.

Bersani, Leo. “Rimbaud's Simplicity.” A Future for Astyanax: Character and Desire in Fiction. Boston: Little, 1976. 230-58.

Bryson, Norman. “Intertextuality and Visual Poetics.” Style 22. 2 (1988): 183-93.

Clark, T. J. The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984.

De Man, Paul. “The Double Aspect of Symbolism.” Yale French Studies 74 (1988): 3-16.

Fongaro, Antoine. Sur Rimbaud, Lire les Illuminations. Toulouse: Publications de l'Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, Cahiers de Littératures, 1985.

Guisto, Jean-Pierre. “S'il est difficile de parler de Rimbaud. …” Revue des Sciences Humaines 64.193 (1984): 29-31.

House, John. Monet; Nature into Art. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

Israel-Pelletier, Aimée. “Demystifying Difference: Rimbaud's Passions for Poetry and Money.” SubStance 58 (1989): 58-73.

Jouve, Jean-Pierre. Défense et illustration. Paris: Charlot, 1946.

Jullian, René. Le mouvement des arts du romantisme au symbolisme: arts visuels, musique, littérature. Paris: Michel, 1979.

Lefebvre, Henri. Critique de la vie quotidienne. Paris: L'Arche, 1958-81.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Rewald, John. Post-Impressionism. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1956.

Rimbaud, Arthur. Oeuvres de Rimbaud. Ed. Suzanne Bernard. Paris: Garnier Frères, 1960.

Ross, Kristin. The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.

Shiff, Richard. Cézanne and the End of Impressionism: A Study of the Theory, Technique, and Critical Evaluation of Modern Art. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Todorov, Tzvetan. Les Genres du discours. Paris: Seuil, 1978.

Michael Bishop (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10411

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 and Hugo, straining under the limitations of family and province, Rimbaud soon broke loose in wild vagabondages as far as Belgium and Paris in the midst of the Franco-Prussian War. At sixteen he was already composing sociopolitical-cum-poetical “Manifestos” to his friends and mentors, Delahaye, Izambard, Demeny. Verlaine's invitation, upon receipt of sample poems, brought him quickly to Paris, to riotous and scandalous scenes with his mentor, but also to enlarged discussion and creation. The summer of 1872—Rimbaud is still only seventeen—took the pair to Belgium and England. Delahaye argued that Les Illuminations (The Illuminations) dates back to this period, despite Verlaine's placing of the work's composition in the 1873-1875 period. The year 1873 sees both poets—Verlaine is ten years Rimbaud's senior—quarreling back in London, then engaged in the fateful shooting scene in Brussels that sends Rimbaud back to mother, sister, and brother in Roche and the feverish completion of Une saison en enfer (A Season in Hell) and Verlaine to nearly two years of prison in Brussels and then Mons.

The following year Rimbaud again sets off for England, this time with Germain Nouveau. He teaches in London and Scotland, and seems to have renounced literature. The next few years find him exploring all means of nonpoetic self-renewal and -discovery: journeying to Germany, going on foot to Switzerland and Italy, returning to Charleville with illness, voraciously learning languages, joining only quickly to desert the Dutch colonial army, being robbed in Austria, further folding back upon Charleville with protesting that Rimbaud was drunk or drugged: he is acceding here to an alternative, illuminating state of consciousness. The avertissement (“Notice”) to Rimbaud's “Les Déserts de l'amour” (Deserts of Love, OC [Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Gallimard, Pléiade, 1963], 169) renders clear the degree to which the “dreams to follow,” in the text proper, carry with them “de douces considérations religieuses” (“sweet religious considerations”) in the broadest sense of the term. Dream thus seems, for Rimbaud, to give or promise access to some greatly expanded sense of the Real, beyond the constraints imposed by the ego, yet ever in relation to them.

The opening section of “Veillées” (“Vigils”), from Les Illuminations, evokes something of this newly awakened consciousness that dream ushers in: “The air and the world not sought after. Life. / —So, was this it? / —And dream freshens” (OC, 192). Dream's passage, “intense and rapid” (OC, 192), renders the distinctions between realities or psychical dimensions not so much dubious as hallucinatory, difficult to stabilize or hierarchize. Rimbaud's dream(ing) may be termed “evasion”—he himself uses such language in “Délires” (“Deliria,” I, OC, 230) and “L'Impossible” (OC, 239)—but evasion clearly connotes expansion and not just an “adieu au monde dans d'espèces de romances” (“farewell to the world in kinds of romances,” OC, 234). Dream may mean plunging into “les rêves les plus tristes” (“the saddest dreams”) (“L'Alchimie du verbe,” OC, 237); it may mean “monster loves and fantastic universes” (OC, 241, “L'Eclair” [“Lightning”]). But it can mean tenderness, passion, wonder, multiple otherness, profound transformation. And even the “sadness” of dream remains part of this new spaciousness of the real. Rimbaldian dream thus always implies deepening and extension—of self and other joined.


Before moving to an assessment of the Rimbaldian theory and practice he calls voyance, (OC, 270) I should like to refocus the kind of attention it is possible to give to the work of Rimbaud. If “Le Soleil était encore chaud …” opens on an idyllic, romantic note, by the time it is over we understand that many other dynamic forces are at work—social and psychological analysis, protest, irony, youthful disgust—and that Rimbaud will not be a pastoral or confidential poet, even though these elements will persist and grow.

There is no surprise in finding that for Rimbaud, as for all other poets of his century, a great sensitivity develops to existential problem, social and spiritual imperfection—to le mal and its resulting malheur. Such a sensitivity is clearly fostered by Rimbaud's readings of the great poets preceding him, but it is equally a visceral, instinctive sensitivity, making his perception of problem crucially distinct. Problem and its perception imply many things for Rimbaud. The “Bal des pendus” (“Dance of the Hanged,” OC, 53-54) evokes the implicit devilishness of human action, in a tone ironic, somewhat detached. “Vénus anadyomène” (“Venus Anadyomene,” OC, 55) offers a distanced perception of the beauty of horror, but it also hints at a further problem beyond the deformation of flesh: the reversibility of the horror-beauty equation. This does not just mean that the ugly, the imperfect are recuperable, but that aestheticism may be intrinsically suspect: beauty equals horror. Deep ethical and spiritual questions thus float up, vaguely perceptible below the poem's surface.

Problem can be that ennui inundating the postromantic and symbolist era (OC, 176, “Enfance”), or the incapacity and sense of fatality penetrating existence (OC, 187, “Ouvriers” [“Workers”]). Seen in this perspective, not only is “the world vicious” (OC, 135, “Age d'or” [“Golden Age”]), but it exiles or appropriates the observing-participating self, curses or cajoles him, rendering him that “Maudit suprême aux nuits sanglantes” (“Supreme accursed one, of bloody nights”) Rimbaud evokes in “Le Juste restait droit …” (“The Just Remained Upright …”; OC, 94). If, as he will insist in “Mauvais sang” (“Bad Blood”), “je n'ai point fait le mal” (“I have not done evil,” OC, 224), the self can reach a point obliging him to confess, “misfortune has been my good” (OC, 219). Not only may consciousness of problem abound, but it may be chosen, privileged, despite contradiction and destruction (OC, 219).

Rimbaud's perception of le mal and le malheur, however, may be differently angled and couched. The existential problems of fright, bewilderment, and poverty depicted in “Les Effarés” (“The Bewildered,” OC, 60-61) are treated with evident tenderness. The appalling stupidities of war and political and religious abuse are made, in “Le Mal” (“Evil”), to contrast with the sacredness of creation. And, then again, as “Le Forgeron” (“Blacksmith”) stresses, as Rimbaud mulls over the aftermath of the 1789 Revolution, the perception of “evil” is predicated upon its end, not its perverse sorties into Sweden, Denmark, and, again, Italy (en route for Egypt), then, in 1878, to Hamburg, whence, on foot and in the snow, to Switzerland and Italy once more, and, this time, away to Cyprus. Illness again forces Rimbaud home, but in 1880 he returns to Cyprus and then moves on to Aden and Harrar, where he becomes a buyer-trader for Bardley's. He is the first known European to penetrate into the interior as far as Bubassa and Ogaden, and is outwitted in his gun-selling to the powerful King of Choa, Menelik. In 1891, a tumor developing in his knee forces him to seek medical help in Marseille. After an amputation and attempted rehabilitation in Roche, he returns to Marseille for further treatment, dying on 10 November of the same year.

“Fleur hâtive et absolue, sans avant ni après” (“Hasty and absolute flower, nothing before nothing afterward”), wrote Laforgue of the meteoric and inimitable Rimbaud. But if no model was ever truly followed nor offered, Rimbaud's work has had the profoundest of effects upon every generation of poets since the partial publication, in 1886, at the hands of Verlaine, of Les Illuminations. Breton both adulated and turned from it; Reverdy deemed it a personally determining threshold; Claudel remained in awe of it, while seeking to overdetermine and appropriate its powerful spiritual thrust. Char, who accords an unusually long text to Rimbaud, gives him corresponding praise: his work spells the end of poetry's banal genericness and offers itself to “a civilization not yet appeared.” Today, poets such as Michel Deguy, André Frénaud (Notre inhabileté fatale [Our Fatal Incapacity]), Jacques Dupon (Une apparence de soupirail [An Air Vent Appearance]), and Yves Bonnefoy, in his superb Rimbaud par lui-même and many essays since, continue to meditate the pertinence of this child prodigy.


Rimbaud was in all likelihood only ten years old when he wrote “Le Soleil était encore chaud …” (“The Sun Was Still Warm …”) at the Institution Rossat in Charleville. It is his earliest known poetic piece, prophetically in prose (OC, 3-5). It is interesting not the least for its sure portrayal of the setting sun lighting up green leaves and wilting flowers, flicking the tops of huge pines, poplars, and ancient oaks as the evening breeze cools the simple, quick sleep of the poem's je; but no less for its recounting, in the second, broken sequence, of the self's dream of one of its other lives. “Sensation,” from the Poésies (Poems) and dated 1870 (OC, 41) reveals, too, this joy within corporeal, sensory immediacy, and yet, also, the “dreaminess” of such primary experience—of vesperal blues, summer warmth, stinging wheat stalks, soft grass, freshening wind—which remains mental, spiritual. The opening verses of the exquisite “Soleil et chair” (“Sun and Flesh,” OC, 46-51), also dating from 1870, may similarly plunge us into a visceral sense of the earth's splendor, but again nothing is perceived in flatly materialist terms.

All of Rimbaud's poetry manifests this chiasmal consciousness. On the one hand it roots itself in sensation, place, time, the physical: the station square of Charleville (OC, 59), an experience “on the train, 7 October 1870” (OC, 65), a visit “Au Cabaret-Vert, cinq heures du soir” (“At the Cabaret-Vert, 5 p.m.,” OC, 66); on the other hand, sights, sounds, smells, and so on seem to escape their strictly physical rootedness: the crows of “Les Corbeaux” (“Crows,” OC, 104) become a “delight,” the wind of “La Rivière de Cassis” (“The Cassis River,” OC, 126-27) is “salubrious,” Nina's “raspberry and strawberry taste, / O flowered flesh, / Laughing at the keen wind kissing you” of “Les Réparties de Nina” (“Nina's Replies,” OC, 56), the summer morning of “Aube” (“Dawn,” OC, 194) with its forest path “empli de frais et blêmes éclats” (“filled with fresh and pallid brilliance”): everywhere slippage occurs between the sensory and the extrasensory, demonstrating the hybrid nature and affective origin of all physicality. The early “Roman” (“Novel”), from Poésies (OC, 62-63), hints at the “dreamed,” fictional nature of the “real”; and the “splendeur de la chair! ô splendeur idéale!” (“splendor of flesh! oh ideal splendor!”) of “Soleil et chair” is not so much an immersion in physiological ecstasy, as a consciousness of the correspondence between idea and matter, ideality and realisation, inside and outside. The corporeal is thus transcended at the same moment as the ideal becomes immanent. Does not the end of the poem—“the Gods, upon whose brow the Bullfinch nests, / —The Gods listen to Man and the infinite World!” (OC, 51)—succeed in articulating the equivalence of the microcosmic and the universal? And does not this stanza from “Les Réparties de Nina”—

—Ta poitrine sur ma poitrine,
                    Mêlant nos voix
Lents, nous gagnerions la ravine,
                    Puis les grands bois! …
—Your breast upon my breast,
                    Mingling our voices
Slow, we would reach the ravine,
                    Then the great woods!

—surpass the sensational, the physical?

For all the “indiscretion” and “brutality” that may be associated with Rimbaldian desire (“A la musique” [“To Music”], OC, 59-60), this desire remains subtle, seeking a higher expression, as in the “regret des bras épais et jeunes d'herbe pure” (“longing for thick, young arms of pure grass”) of “Mémoire” (“Memory,” OC, 122-23). Desire in Rimbaud, moreover, quickly leaves behind the sexual and the sensory. “Soleil et chair” shows desire as that inner force compelling Rimbaud to “fathom—and know, everything!” (OC, 49); “Vagabonds” reveals the poet soaring through and beyond familiar experience in search of “le lieu et la formule” (“the place and the formula,” OC, 190); “Conte” (“Tale,” OC, 179) concludes: “La musique savante manque à notre désir” (“Our desire falls short of the music of knowledge,” OC, 179). Desire, perhaps by definition, is above all a sense of lacuna and possibility. It lacks focus to the extent that it is precariously founded upon a not-there, yet its emotional force is such that an inner sensing can rapidly focus realities either familiar or exotic, as “Le Bateau ivre” (“Drunken Boat”) demonstrates (OC, 100-103). These realities may be good, bad, indifferent, or incomprehensible: “My hungers are bits of black air,” Rimbaud writes in “Fêtes de la faim” (“Celebrations of Hunger”), “the ringing azure; / —My stomach tugging away. / Unhappiness” (OC, 138).

Reality, sensory perception, desire, and dream are not conflicting realms of action and experience. Rimbaud, despite later misgivings, has a precocious sense of their convergence. Reincar-national dream blends easily into Rimbaud's first known poem, “Le Soleil était encore chaud …”; the first poem of Poésies, “Les Etrennes des orphelins” (“Orphans' New Year's Gifts,” OC, 37-40), gives over a large place to dream: the children emerging from it, returning to it, the mother's “dream” shrouding her orphaned loved-ones, and so on. Although romanticized, this is still a powerful commitment to a real beyond the real, well prepared by Desbordes-Valmore and Lamartine, Nerval and Verlaine, yet pushed beyond the confines of the dream proper, daydreaming, or Rousseauist rêverie to a more deliberate and psychically aggressive mode. In this mode, “splendid loves” may be dreamed into phantasmatic reality (OC, 69) or “green, snow-dazzled night” may be conjured up (OC, 101); there may be “crusades, voyages of discovery for which no account exists, republics without histories, stifled wars of religion, revolutions in mores, shifts of race and continent,” as “Alchimie du verbe” (“Alchemy of the Logos”) puts it (OC, 232). “A thousand dreams within me gently sting and burn,” Rimbaud observes in “L'Oraison du soir” (“Evening Orison,” OC, 72). And, although dream slips away from the willfully driven logic of desire, it is clear that they join to the extent of seeking uplifting and ideal (thought-)forms of being.

Ophelia thus dreams a “wild” reality of “Heaven! Love! Freedom!” (“Ophélie,” OC, 51-52); the rêve maternel of “Les Etrennes des orphelins” (OC, 38) projects warmth, protection, perhaps the very vision that becomes the angelic, blissful dream of the children themselves at the poem's conclusion (OC, 39-40); and “Rêvé pour l'hiver” (“Dreamed for Winter,” OC, 65) shows dream's purpose to be often simple, again a means of rerooting possibility in actuality. This simplicity of dream's purpose is, however, doubled with the same cosmic complexity implicit in Ophelia's “great visions” (OC, 52). “Les Soeurs de charité” (“Sisters of Charity,” OC, 85-86) evokes those “vast ends, Dreams or immense / Strollings, through the nights of Truth” that tug at our existence, orienting our seeming blindness through the symbolic labyrinth of the human condition.

Dream may thus reaffirm distance, but it also reinstates meaning, the immediate psychical connection between what is, here and now—including “your hatreds, your fixed torpors, your lapses, / And your brutalities suffered yesteryear” (OC, 86) and all that is beyond. Dream may be momentarily felt to be pure perte (“pure loss”; “Comédie de la soif” [“Comedy of Thirst”], OC, 129), but more compelling is dream's clarifying, revelatory dimension: “les fleurs de rêve tintent, éclatent, éclairent” (“dream flowers tinkle, burst forth, enlighten,” OC, 176). And there is no use in beauty: “Oh splendid glowings of the ironworks,” cry out the workers, plunged into misfortune, “no more evil, / None!” (OC, 45). Likewise “Mauvais sang” bids a second farewell, this time not to the world, but to Rimbaud's perception of what he might accomplish via his poetic action upon the world, which he trenchantly calls “chimères, idéals, erreurs” (“chimeras, ideals, errors,” OC, 224).

Implicit in the “withdrawal” articulated in “Mauvais sang” and “Le Bateau ivre” is a mode of revolt and self-transformation that links up with his ideas of progress and future. Curiously, the earlier poetics of revolt—as in “Le Soleil était encore chaud …” and “Les Poètes de sept ans” [“Seven-year-old Poets”], OC, 77-78), dated 28 mai 1871—can go from irony and buffoonery to disgust and even hatred, yet always “intelligence” is balanced by “obedience.” Revolt, in short, is real but unrealized. “L'Orgie parisienne ou Paris se repeuple” (“Parisian Orgy or Paris Repopulated,” OC, 81-83) emphasizes the need to let go of “cowardice” in order to accomplish a total revolution that implies a degree of “wildness” or “madness.” Revolt, too, entails exposure and chastisement: “Voilà! voilà! bandits!” (“There they are! there! rogues!” OC, 83). Rimbaldian revolt of this kind may stem from personal and observed suffering. “I am he who suffers and has rebelled!” he exclaims in “Le Juste restait droit …”—where revolt is shown to be an essential mechanism of inquiry, protest, and potential modification. Such revolt is, therefore, not merely narcissistic, but seeks progress toward an end. The “atrocious solitudes” (OC, 86) from which spring revolt's critical energies—“Et le poète seul engueulait l'univers” (“And all alone the poet balled out the universe,” OC, 107)—seek to incite joining, construction, creation. And Rimbaud's second farewell, or second withdrawal, as articulated in Une saison en enfer from beginning (“Jadis, si je me souviens bien …” [“Before, If I Remember Well …”], OC, 219) to end (“Adieu”), remains a revolution of the first order. Revolt redefines itself in the light of love, patience, divineness; the adieu of “Adieu” “hold[s] on to the ground gained” (OC, 244), while reviewing the means of attaining to “future” and “dawn.”

“Le Forgeron,” like many of Rimbaud's poems, makes crucial use of the future tense in projecting, out of the teeming imperfections of peasant, bourgeois, industrialized and anachronistically aristocratic France, a “victorious” time-space freed of its grands effets and its grandes causes, a “great moving dream of living simply, ardently” (OC, 45). Nothing seems to separate present and future. The human being, as Rimbaud writes in “Soleil et chair,” “will return to life, free of all his Gods, / And as he is of the sky, he will scan the heavens” (OC, 48). What Rimbaud calls l'Idéal in the same poem will guide toward this “redemption,” just as it manifests itself as future, now (OC, 48). The questions, the doubts, which are essentially repressed knowledge for Rimbaud, need only that self-liberation generated by revolt at the idea of our stunted finiteness, for that visceral “faith” in being to be restored. “Lanky mare, long, so long oppressed,” Rimbaud claims, “shoots forth from her brow! She will know Why! … / Let her leap free, and Man shall have Faith!” (OC, 49). Such liberation seems at once feasible and unfeasible in Rimbaud's eyes. “Le Bateau ivre” returns us from a past of dazzling discovery, via the vacuous “present” of the poem, to yet another vision arisen of the flight of a “million birds, o future Vigor” (OC, 102). Future thus slips into a particular mode of itself: progress, which is a mode of being rendered linear, more plodding and dogged, more geared to a poetics of long struggle than instantly available transformation; “faith” is at once maintained and deferred. “The vast child Progress,” as Rimbaud calls it in a fragment from the Album zutique (Damned Album, (OC, 113), thus engages in “our vengeful march” (OC, 124), “the rising up of new men and their on-the-march” (OC, 183), along what, in “Mystique,” he terms “la ligne des orients, des progrès” (“the line of Orients, of progress,” OC, 193). As “Démocratie” (“Democracy”) insists (OC, 204), the motion is “true,” but the logic of progress is one of postponement of unfulfilled desire. “Science, the new mobility!” Rimbaud can be reduced to exclaiming in “Mauvais sang”; “Progress. The world is marching. Why would it not be turning?” (OC, 221). Such a vision of the future reign of “l'Esprit” (OC, 221) may well maintain the essence of Rimbaud's hope, but there is no doubt that the bitterness and irony prevalent diminishes the impact of this vision. Just as, in the powerful and poignant “Angoisse” (“Anguish,” OC, 196-97), we cannot but be struck by the immense tensions that have sprung up between Rimbaud's sense of possibility and his avowal of “la honte de notre inhabileté fatale” (“the shame of our fatal incapacity,” OC, 196).

“Angoisse” remains, however, a splendid testimony to what transcends all reduction of Rimbaud's poetics to labored and platitudinous progressiveness: the constant idea of creative (self-)transformation, grounded in “love, strength—higher than all joys and glories” despite the “demon” that threatens to crush his “youth” (OC, 197). Such a future leaps far beyond past experience and its memory, current physical experience and its limitations, and, as “Jeunesse” (“Youth”) from Les Illuminations makes clear, radically modifies our conception of what is:

Ta mémoire et tes sens ne seront que la nourriture de ton impulsion créatrice. Quant au monde, quand tu sortiras, que sera-t-il devenu? En tous cas, rien des apparences actuelles.

Your memory and your senses will be but the food of your creative impulse. As for the world, when you leave, what will have become of it? At all events, nothing of present appearances.

(OC, 208)

The closing texts of Une saison en enfer, like the future Vigueur of “Le Bateau ivre,” point beyond voyance as textual or existential practice, to an ontology of new wisdom and new adoration. “Matin” (“Morning,” OC, 242) is politically and spiritually inspired in a way beyond the wild excess of pure anarchy and in a spirit of an embrace of life at once transcendent and quotidian. “The song of the heavens, the march of peoples!” he concludes, “Slaves, let us not curse life” (OC, 242). In “Adieu” there is, on the one hand, a poetics of the “I, I who called myself magus or angel, freed from all morals, [who] am brought back to earth, with a duty to seek out, and rough reality to embrace! Peasant!”. “But no friend's hand!” Rimbaud cries out, “and where shall I draw my succor?” (OC, 243). On the other hand, “Adieu” draws, in conclusion, upon Rimbaud's power of spontaneous self-regeneration: “Recevons tous les influx de vigueur et de tendresse réelle. Et à l'aurore, armés d'une ardente patience, nous entrerons aux splendides villes. // Que parlais-je de main amie! … il me sera loisible de posséder la vérité dans une âme et dans un corps” (“Let us receive all influx of vigor and real tenderness. And at dawn, armed with ardent patience, we shall enter splendid cities. // Why was I speaking of a friend's hand! … I shall be free to possess truth in a soul and in a body” (OC, 244). Exploitation of the self's resources can give to the “future” what the present does not seem to have, the power of a truth filled with splendor.


Rimbaud's letters of 13 and 15 May 1871, to Georges Izambard and Paul Demeny respectively, demonstrate eloquently the remarkably conscious nature of that poetic program of voyance for which he opts at the age of sixteen. “Il s'agit d'arriver à l'inconnu par le dérèglement de tous les sens” (“It's a matter of reaching the unknown via derangement of all the senses”), he writes to Izambard (OC, 268). “The poet,” he goes on to say to Demeny, “becomes a seer via a long, vast and reasoned derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, madness; he seeks himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, so as to keep only their quintessence” (OC, 270). The dangers to the self are again recognized, the plunge into “accursedness”; yet the chance of “supreme knowledge,” and the feeling that voyance is an ultimate “cultivation of the soul” (OC, 270), sweep aside reservation and concern. Moreover, Rimbaud remains sensitive to a certain absoluteness attaching to private visionary experience that is beyond criticism: “et quand, affolé, il finirait par perdre l'intelligence de ses visions, il les a vues!” (“and even if, crazed, he ended up losing comprehension of his visions, he has seen them!” OC, 271). Seeing is experience, and transcends all explanation. The Demeny letter goes much further in historically situating voyance—in relation to the early Romantics, Lamartine, Hugo, and the Baudelaire generation of Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, and Banville, Baudelaire himself being “a true God” despite his aestheticism and formal oldness: “Les inventions d'inconnu réclament des formes nouvelles” (“Inventing unknownness demands new forms,” OC, 272-73). It is hard not to see, however, the divergences between the work of these poets, including the much admired Verlaine, and Rimbaud's Les Illuminations, the purest poetic concretization of Rimbaud's theory of voyance.

The act of poetic seeing is many things. “Le Bateau ivre” suggests by quasi-anaphoric, quasi-paradigmatic association that seeing is an accomplishment of what others only “thought they saw” (OC, 101). Like the sadomasochistic prince-genius of “Conte,” seeing seeks out “truth, the hour of essential desire and satisfaction” (OC, 178). Voyance can involve plunging into the surreally exotic, into exalting metamorphosis (OC, “Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs” [“What Is Said to the Poet About Flowers”], OC, 95-100); it can participate in the “processing of the fairylike” (“Ornières” [“Ruts”], OC, 188-89), of the magical, the alchemical; it can accede to dance and joy, the flashing, fragmented experience of multi-levelled being quite inadequately transcribed into “sentences” (“Phrases” [“Sentences”], OC, 185-86). “Voyelles” (“Vowels,” OC, 103) points to the Baudelairian synaesthetic potential of seeing, its fusional capacity; just as the centrally significant “Vies” (“Lives,” OC, 181-82) evokes our ability to realize with Rimbaud the extent to which one is “réellement d'outre-tombe” (“really from beyond the tomb”), to know from experience “the stupor that awaits you”—which is “something like the key to love” (OC, 181-82).

When Rimbaud states, at the conclusion of “Parade” “I alone have the key to this wild parade,” he seems to be raising a fundamental question about the validity of his acts of voyance. In “Soir historique” (“Historic Evening,” OC, 200-201), is the experience of harmonies “impossible” and yet heard to be swept aside as esoteric self-truth, outside sharing? Is the Rimbaud with the key merely one of those “master jugglers” that “Parade” describes, or merely the owner of a key to a private circus? Certainly, he can speak of “phantasmagories” (“Métropolitain,” OC, 197) or conjure “seen” realities only to say immediately that “they don't exist” (“Barbare” [“Barbarian”], OC, 198). Or, again, his poetic reportages may be termed “délires” (OC, 228), “hallucinations” (OC, 234), in which, as Rimbaud argues in “Alchimie du verbe,” the “simple hallucination” of voyance is compounded by the “hallucination of words,” and mental disorder is merely deemed “sacred” (OC, 234). Self-doubt? Lucidness? Redefinition of his existential and spiritual program? Does he not write, in a brouillon of Une saison en enfer: “Now I can say that art is a foolishness” (OC, 251, “Bonr” [“Happiness”]). “Nuit de l'enfer” evokes the vast visions of “conversion” and “spiritual concert” seemingly realizable via voyance, while swinging all the way to a loss of “principles,” lassitude, and near-despair. Yet, in its midst, the poem tellingly speaks of the logic of belief in the structure of the real (“Je me crois en enfer, donc j'y suis” [“I think I'm in hell, so I am”]); and, despite all, in “Fiez-vous donc à moi …” (“So trust me …”), Rimbaud plunges back into the full power of his voyance, into a guidance and a healing in which, “decidedly, we are out of the world” (OC, 226-28).

A number of points need to be retained with regard to the theory and practice of voyance. First, the latter does demand a preparedness to bid farewell to “current appearances” (OC, 208), conventional modes of seeing the real. Sensory limitations are understood as restrictions blocking access to other dimensions, equally valid, of the real: dream, meditation, clairvoyance, out-of-body experience, all psychic experience of (our) otherness. “Voices reconstituted,” as Rimbaud writes in “Solde” (“Sale,” OC, 208-209), “the fraternal awakening of all choral and orchestral energies and their instantaneous applications; the unique opportunity to free up our senses”—in an “infinite and wild surge toward invisible splendors, unsensed delights” (OC, 208-209). Secondly, voyance remains embedded in a paradoxical vision of more simple, physically knowable joy: the plainly “seen” country barns, carts, and June wheatfields of “Le Forgeron”; the “white visions” of children's dreams (OC, 38) or the rêverie in “Sensation.” Voyance, in short, may be an altered state of consciousness, but it is nevertheless a part of our totally available consciousness. As “Being Beauteous” shows, seeing plugs us into a wider reality in which “the colors intrinsic to life deepen, dance about and move freely around the Vision, upon the worksite” (OC, 181).

Thirdly, despite those inevitable interruptions in seeing recounted in “Départ” (“Departure,” OC, 183), voyance can willfully turn away from the “excessively seen,” in a new “affective” mode (OC, 183), to achieve what, Rimbaud elsewhere calls “harmonic ecstasy” and “heroic discovery” (OC, 202). Voyance is, over and above affective and intellectual ambiguities, (self-)revelation, (self-)illumination, a discovery less of the mystical character of being than of the very real immensity of its psychical gestalt(s). “A chaque être” (“To every being”), Rimbaud writes in “Alchimie du verbe,” “plusieurs autres vies me semblaient dues. Ce monsieur ne sait ce qu'il fait: il est un ange” (“several other lives seemed to me to be due. This man doesn't know what he's doing: he's an angel,” OC, 237). Only in brilliantly lit flashes do we accede to a deeper, inner sense of our spiritual nature and purpose: “I saw that all beings are fated to be happy” (OC, 237, “Alchimie du verbe”). Voyance at its most attuned affective best, leaps beyond the struggling reversals of the logic of le mal of Vigny, of Baudelaire, Lamartine, beyond the progressive visions of Hugo, sees and senses the inner logic of love and happiness within each of us, despite “current appearances.” Fourthly, voyance, in its very accession to the “fecundity of the spirit and [the] immensity of the universe” (OC, 206), stumbles back upon two sources of frustration: language and reason. The contradiction inherent in “noting the inexpressible” and “fixing vertigos” (OC, 233, “Alchimie du verbe”) is painfully evident to the skeptic of Une saison en enfer. And the unimaginable psychic wealth of being does not fare well when brought under the limited and limiting scrutiny of reason. Not that Rimbaud, any more than the admiring surrealists, has much choice: reason, as his Lettre du voyant to Paul Demeny originally maintained, is brought to bear upon the psychically and sensorily unsettled and unsettling. Reason seeks to understand, to enlarge itself. It may, as in Une saison en enfer especially, retreat into fear, doubt, rejection. But Rimbaud never loses sight of the difficulties in matching the rationally focused with the mental “fecundity” of l'esprit. “Notre pâle raison” (“Our pale reason”), he argues in “Soleil et chair,” “nous cache l'infini! / Nous voulons regarder:—le Doute nous punit!” (“hides the infinite from us! / We want to see with our eyes:—Doubt punishes us!” OC, 49). When Rimbaud writes in “Mauvais sang” that “la raison m'est née. Le monde est bon. Je bénirai la vie” (“reason was born to me. The world is good. I shall bless life,” OC, 224), the “reason” dominating this changed consciousness inherits its visionary buoyancy precisely from the illuminations of higher consciousness that voyance makes available. “Reason” is transformed; consciousness has been expanded; voyance does continue, in its more spiritually and ethically transparent form.

Fifthly, and lastly, if Rimbaud can maintain to Izambard, in his letter of 13 May 1871, that “it is false to say: I am thinking. One ought to say: I am being thought” (OC, 226), he espouses a position capable of varying interpretation, but in which being is defined from the outside. Rimbaud's statement in “Nuit de l'enfer,” however, attributing being to belief—“I think I am in hell, therefore I am”—demonstrates that he also sees all forms of reason and voyance as involving belief and therefore choice, self-definition. The self may be in the process of being thought, but it is also thought itself. Voyance thus moves back and forth between a poetics of psychical receipt, passivity, openness, and a poetics of intervention, chosen belief, willed psychical creation. That such a tensional logic anticipates all the debates of cubism and surrealism, l'absurde and existentialism, structuralism and deconstruction, is less important in my view than the ultimate lesson of voyance: there is no contradiction between inside and outside, self and other, je and autre, thinking and being thought. We just need to think about it, and, as Rimbaud says, reason can be (re)“born” (OC, 224).


“Le Soleil était encore chaud …” has already shown the young Rimbaud stepping eagerly into the otherness of (his) existence: “I dreamed … I was born in Reims in the year 1503 …” (OC, 3). “Alchimie du verbe” reports that “to each being, several other lives appeared due. … Before several men, I chatted aloud with a moment of one of their other lives” (OC, 237). One cannot read Rimbaud intelligently and not take him in a substantially literal way. Of course, Rimbaud can question the very phenomenon of the existential otherness he, other-wise, proclaims. “Vite! est-il d'autres vies?” (“Quickly! are there other lives?”) he queries in “Mauvais sang.” Yet we have already seen a great deal of the will for otherness, the perception of otherness via voyance, the affirmation that the otherness seen remains despite loss of its conscious “intelligence.” And “Nuit de l'enfer” and “Délires,” which immediately follow “Mauvais sang,” are clearly predicated upon the idea that “la vraie vie est absente” (“true life is absent,” OC, 229), a “being-in-the-world” that voyance, consciousness of otherness in its innumerable forms, renders a “being-out-of-the-world,” a “not-being-in-the-world” (OC, 227, 229). “Vies” hints at the feeling of “exile” that may spring from the consciousness of the “untold riches” of seen and enacted otherness; the sensation of being “really from beyond the grave” may carry with it concern and “atrocious skepticism” about Rimbaud's ontological exploration; but none of this takes away from the reality of existence's layered or multidimensional psychicalness (OC, 182). “Lives” are very much what is at issue in Rimbaud's conception, and perception, of life. This section shows the scope of the existential in Rimbaud, the ampleur of life as we temporally perceive it.

The child and childhood constitute a major theme in Rimbaud's poetry, and indeed his entire oeuvre is that of a prodigious teenager or child-poet—as Verlaine called him. What interests me here is Rimbaud's awareness of the nature of childhood. “Les Etrennes des orphelins” stresses innocence, pensiveness, attentiveness, availability to some “distant whispering” within and beyond them. Rimbaud does not gratuitously or cynically evoke the orphans' contact with angelic forces: it is their very “sensitivity” that renders possible such access to the Other. Rimbaud's work, in this sense, may be said to be a witting pursuit and fostering of the childlike within himself. Like those “children in mourning” of “Après le déluge,” he peers through inner and outer windows upon “the marvelous images” (OC, 175).

Certainly, Rimbaud's poetry reveals many child personas. “Les Poètes de sept ans” sheds much innocence and knows exile; but dreams of freedom abound, and “visions crush his bewildered eye.” Rimbaud('s child) is many children, a child acceding to its many others, “here below” and “beyond.” If childhood can be confusion, as in “Les Poètes de sept ans” or “Les Chercheuses de poux” (“Women Looking for Lice,” OC, 87), it is also a fusion of the fragments of being. “Enfance” (OC, 176-78), captures superbly this experiential multiplicity, in which the self is at once “saint,” “savant,” “pedestrian of the highway.” And “Guerre” (“War,” OC, 205), too, seems directly to conjure this multivocalness:

Enfant, certains ciels ont affiné mon optique: tous les caractères nuancèrent ma physionomie. Les phénomènes s'émurent.

Child, certain skies have sharpened my perception: all characters gave nuance to my countenance. Phenomena were deeply moved.

“Ah! that life of my childhood” Rimbaud reflects in “L'Impossible,” for childhood is becoming, “progress” (OC, 113), disturbance, active gêne (OC, 141). “O mon Bien! O mon Beau … Cela commença sous les rires des enfants, cela finira par eux” (“Oh my Wealth! oh my Loveliness! It began beneath the laughter of children, it will end with it” (OC, 184, “Matinée d'ivresse” [“Morning of Intoxication”]).

Rimbaud's poetry is penetrated at once by the experience of temporality and uniqueness, and by that of eternity and nonfragmentation. Although we remain uncertain as to the attribution of titles to Rimbaud's principle collections, it is apt that Poésies and Les Illuminations evoke plurality, whereas Une saison en enfer—whose title is Rimbaud's—points to singularity, particularity: one season in the seasons of Rimbaud, just like the experience of Beauty as bitter, “one evening” in a “life [of] feasting” (OC, 219). “For you I pull out these few hideous pages from my diary of damnation,” Rimbaud tells us at the threshold of Une saison en enfer (OC, 219). Such focusing upon the part, “these few … pages,” allows for an experience of the full intensity of particular existential features. Particularity, giving full-blown life to the fragment, entails reversal, generating poetry and then a poetics of silence: “Plus de mots” (“No more words,OC, 223); a discourse of (self-)liberating movement—as in “Le Bateau ivre”—and then a discourse of self-fixity: “One does not leave” (OC, 222); a “farewell” to “people who die upon the seasons” in search of “divine clarity” (“Adieu”) and then a reversed “farewell” to “ideals” (“Mauvais sang”). These reversals are seemingly endless: the world as vice, the world as goodness; the self as hiddenness, the self as revelation; experience as sophistry, experience as truth; and so on.

No wonder Rimbaud's poetry escapes our reductive, thematicizing grasp: contradiction and combination abound. The “whispering” of the children of “Les Etrennes des orphelins” is “sad and sweet”; “Les Réparties de Nina” shows the convergence of love and filth, poverty and illumination, just as spiritual delight and material shabbiness may be telescoped in “Les Effarés” or, in “Morts de quatre-vingt-douze” (“The Dead of Ninety-Two,” OC, 63), human beings may be “ecstatic and great in torment.” The parts conjure up a larger and potentially transcendent whole; the whole still has seemingly contradictory component parts. Rimbaud's vision here might be said to be metonymic, synedochic. His accumulations in “Enfance”—“Il y a … Il ya a …”; “Je suis … Je suis …”—push toward a cosmic vision of the “differences of sameness,” as Michel Deguy would say. Existence is perceived as the dreamlike site of “des êtres de tous les caractères parmi toutes les apparences” (“beings of all types amid all appearances,” OC, 193, “Veillées”).

At the conclusion of “Ou'est-ce pour nous, mon coeur …” (“What, For Us, My Heart …” from Derniers vers (OC, 124), Rimbaud declares, in the midst of visions of cataclysmic transformation of “the old earth,” “Ce n'est rien: j'y suis; j'y suis toujours” (“It's nothing; I'm in it; I'm still in it,OC, 124). Despite or within contradiction and reversal, Rimbaud's consciousness maintains a sense of what we might think of as buoyant ongoing rightness of participation. “Vis et laisse au feu / L'obscure infortune” (“Live and leave to the fire / Obscure calamity”), Rimbaud throws out as a response to the world's “viciousness” in “Age d'or.” His “wolflike self-consumption” (OC, 139, “Le Loup criait …” [“The Wolf Screamed …”]) seems perfectly to fit with an acceptance of the ephemeralness of what constitutes him as a poet: “Que comprendre à ma parole? / Il fait qu'elle fuie et vole! // O saisons, ô chateaux!” (“What is there to be understood in my speech? / Made to flee and fly! // Oh seasons, oh castles!” OC, 140). Such self-parading, however, involves letting the self go to death, to nature's course—as described in “Bannières de mai” (“May Banners,” OC, 131-32). This is not despairing self-abandonment, but a curious self-constitution: “We know how to give our life away in its entirety every day” (“Matinée d'ivresse”). If Rimbaud adds, “This is the time of ASSASSINS” (OC, 185), the deathly catharsis remains also an “intoxicating dawn.” The wanderings or vagabondages (OC, 190) in which Rimbaud engaged are an appropriate metaphor for this going that is also an on-going, of which he speaks at the outset of Une saison en enfer: “You know neither where you are going nor why you are going, enter everywhere, be responsive to everything” (“Mauvais sang”). The “world [is] your fortune and your peril,” Rimbaud writes in “Jeunesse,” a now problematic, now ecstatically privileging experience of life as that teeming energy he calls “Faim, soif, cris, danse, danse, danse, danse!” (“Hunger, thirst, screams, dance, dance, dance, dance!”, “Mauvais sang”).


“Soleil et chair” offers, once again, a sure entry into much that is central in Rimbaud's discourse of the divine. Fundamental is the sense of the godlike, loving soul of the earth (OC, 47), the fact that all is bathed in love “within God” (OC, 47). If love continues to be deemed “the great Faith,” Rimbaud is already sensitive to a certain disappearance of divinity as humankind moves to usurp godliness (OC, 47). “The other God [of Catholicism] teaming us up to his cross” renders the path of divineness “bitter” (OC, 48), shifts us from the natural rhythms of earth-godliness and from a more natural intuition of our inner “celestialness” that remains “free of all [our] Gods” (OC, 48). Thought can, then, assume the confidence, the “Faith,” in a divineness that earth's loving and “redemptive song” ceaselessly conveys (OC, 48-50). Our fabricated gods yield to “the Gods within whose brow the bullfinch makes its nest, / —The Gods listen to Man and the infinite World!” (OC, 51).

“Les Poètes de sept ans,” however, pulls Rimbaud's discourse of the divine along crucially different lines: a distrust and even dislike of God—“l'autre Dieu” (“the other God”) (OC, 48) of religion and dogma—and a love of mankind. “Les Pauvres à l'église” (“The Poor at Church,” OC, 79-80) insists upon the irony of social and spiritual hierarchy and power in the context of a would-be divineness lost in habit, fear, gross contrasts with, “outside, the cold, hunger, carousing men” (OC, 79). Here, “faith” is “beggarly and stupefied” (OC, 79). “Les Premières Communions” (“First Communions,” OC, 88-92) tops off this trilogy of satirical deconstructions of doctrinaire divinity, focusing upon the foolishness involved in “grasseyant les divins babillages” (“reading the divine prattle with thick accents”); the reduction of the Virgin to some bookish ghost; the sapping of “mystical soarings” through repetition, mediocre iconography, or what Rimbaud calls “the poverty of images” (OC, 90); the wretchedness of the intervention, within the mystical, of all those “filthy madmen / Whose divine work still distorts worlds” (OC, 91); the sad fact—for Rimbaud remains nostalgically sensitive to the beauty of Christian symbolism—that Christ constitutes an “eternal thief of energies” (OC, 92).

Thus is it that Rimbaud's poetry can generate a degree of critical dismantling of the divine that pushes his “atrocious skepticism” into direct refusal of “ma vieille part de gaieté divine” (“my old share of divine gaiety,” OC, 182). Such skepticism leads only to madness. There yet remains, in Rimbaud, a “vigilance of soul” (“L'Eternité”), and never does he cease to search for a key to the divineness of our being. Poems like “Mystique” (OC, 193), “Aube,” “Fleurs” (“Flowers,” OC, 194-95) speak of recognition of “the goddess,” of things “like a god,” just as “La Rivière de Cassis” (OC, 126-27) speaks of “the voice of a hundred crows …, true / And good voice of angels' (OC, 126). Rimbaud's entire oeuvre, as he suggests in “Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs” (OC, 95-100), is an act of “self-exaltation toward candors / More candid than Marys” (OC, 99). Two of the great, later poems of Les Illuminations, “Dévotion” (“Devotion,” OC, 203) and “Génie” (“Genius,” OC, 205-206), are pertinent here, for the first is a poem of (re)affirmation pointing to the discovery of that “very high clergy” needed to celebrate the divineness of all things; and the second evokes the genius of “love, a reinvented and perfect measure, an unforeseen and marvelous reason, and eternity” (OC, 205). Superstitions may be set aside, but the “promise” of love and “adoration” remains in this vision redolent of Catholic symbolism yet beyond all but its purest principle.

Une saison en enfer demonstrates that, with this sense of distilled and transcendent divineness, there continues that darker hantise of “hellishness” pervading the great poetic work of the entire century. “Mauvais sang” argues that this obsession is linked to a loss of evangelic confidence; to feeling cut off from “Christ's counsel”; to the temptation of clinging to any old “divine image”; to the self's foolishness after the intense experience of “mon abnégation, … ma charité merveilleuse” (“my abnegation, … my marvelous charitableness,” OC, 222). “L'Impossible” presents a similar tension: “C'est cette minute d'éveil qui m'a donné la vision de la pureté!—Par l'esprit on va à Dieu! // Déchirante infortune!” (“This moment of awakenness gave me the vision of purity!—Through the spirit one goes to God! // Heart-rending misfortune!”; OC, 241). Much that is central to Rimbaud's sense of divineness elaborated from “Soleil et chair” onward suffers loss, then, indeed to the point where in the brouillon “Bonr” he declares: “Je hais maintenant les élans mystiques et les bizarreries de style” (“I now hate mystical upsurges and stylistic oddities,” OC, 251). But this loss should not be thought of as more real or conclusive than what we find in “Adieu” or “Mauvais sang.” The latter declares that “God makes my strength, and I praise God,” though Rimbaud is quick to clarify: “I do not believe I am embarked upon a wedding with Jesus Christ as father-in-law. // I am not a prisoner of my reason. I did say: God” (OC, 224-25). Rimbaldian divineness eschews dogmatism, remaining “divine love alone,” for he still craves “freedom in salvation.” “Adieu” speaks of la clarté divine (OC, 242), though it does retain as fundamental the notion of “spiritual combat” (OC, 244). Divineness moves, in Rimbaud's work, between the pole of givenness and that of problematized future accomplishment, and there is no reason to privilege one place or moment of perception over another.


“The world thirsts for love,” Rimbaud tells us in “Soleil et chair.” “Amour, appel de vie et chanson d'action” (“Love, call to life and song of action”), he reaffirms in “Les Soeurs de charité” (OC, 86), linking love to language, song, and poetry itself. “Le Forgeron,” however, suggests that, if love may become a revolutionary fervor, such fervor remains “something in one's heart like love.” It completes reason and logic, giving depth to idea, felt possibility to pure theory. When Rimbaud exclaims in “Chanson de la plus haute tour” (“Song From the Highest Tower,” OC, 132-33), “Ah! Que le temps vienne / Où les coeurs s'éprennent,” (“Ah! May the time come when hearts are amorous”) (r)evolutionary ideology slips into pure emotional aspiration, a cri de coeur. Such recourse to the visceral logic of emotion takes us right back to that nonintellectualized immediacy of Rimbaud's early poems. Love, in “Soleil et chair,” is the giving and receiving of sun and earth, the root principle of a cooperative, non-Darwinian world. A synonymy of love and divineness is thus rapidly generated: “C'est la Rédemption! c'est l'amour! c'est l'amour” (“It's Redemption! it's love! it's love,” OC, 50). Rimbaud's “ideal,” which is shaken but never dislodged, is that of “infinite love” (OC, 49).

Such a love would seem to exceed the frontiers of Stendhal's four-pronged concept of amour-passion, amour-goût, physical love, and amour de vanité, being much more spiritualized, as Rimbaud hints in his albeit tendentious Un coeur sous une soutane (A Heart Beneath a Cassock): “I, moreover, had been born for love and for faith” (OC, 159). Certainly, love, as witness “Les Déserts de l'amour” can experience loss of the Adored and the Adorable (OC, 172); and love can, as “Le Bateau ivre” proclaims, be “acrid” and render “torpid” (OC, 103). Love is, however, never reduced to pure cynicism or bitterness. Les Illuminations makes clear the degree to which “something like the key to love” lies at the heart of its poiesis (OC, 182, “Vies”). “Dévotion” confirms this logic of a love much closer to agape than to eros; and “Génie” deems love a “genial” sharing or equality, what “Mauvais sang” calls “divine love” (OC, 224).

“Charity,” Rimbaud argues in “Jadis, si je me souviens bien …,” is the “key to the ancient feast” (OC, 219), thus seeming to equate love and charity. This is a charity, in its quintessential Christian form, greater than faith and hope but accompanying them, but also a charity or primal love knowing difference but not fostering division. “Mauvais sang” is not merely some vestige of Catholic regret (“de profundis Domine,OC, 222), it is addressed as much to the self's “marvelous charity, here below, however!” (OC, 222), a charity felt to be somehow endangered. “Adieu” closes Une saison en enfer with a question that seems to have haunted Rimbaud since at least 1871, when he wrote “Les Soeurs de charité”: “Am I deceived? Could charity be the sister of death for me?” (OC, 243). “Les Soeurs de charité” sketches out the story of heroic (male) youth turning from “the uglinesses of this world” toward some desired “sister of charity.” This feminine force, however, is not woman herself, not physical love nor even love's “charming and grave Passion” (OC, 86). Rather is “charity” poetry and justice: these will be his twin “implacable Sisters,” who will yet abandon him to his “atrocious solitudes” and to the final resort of charity or love as pure aspiration, “out of this world,” continuing in “mysterious Death, o sister of charity” (OC, 86).

The essence of Rimbaldian charity does not change, only the conditions surrounding its accomplishment; and while Rimbaud bites deeply into “la réalité rugueuse” (“rugged reality,” OC, 243, “Adieu”), he is ever ready to redefine the real from a psychic and spiritual perspective. Life and death are thus highly relative terms. Charity as sister of life or sister of death: charity remains a sister to Rimbaud, an integral part of that “magical study / Of happiness” which he deems central in “Ô saisons, ô chateaux” (“Oh seasons, oh castles,” OC, 140). Rimbaldian love, charity and happiness step beyond the bounds of the conventionally received and perceived. “Mauvais sang” makes clear his refusal of “established happiness, domestic or not” (OC, 225). Like the acts of charity and love, the state of happiness lies on both sides of a line separating life and death, “real” and “ideal”: “sisterhood” and “fraternity” are notions that transcend strict physicality. The experience of happiness in “Sensation” is compared to being “heureux comme avec une femme” / “happy as with a woman” (OC, 41). “I had glimpsed conversion to good and happiness—salvation,” he writes in “Nuit de l'enfer”—a happiness wherein emotion and ethics merge, and “hellishness” is understood to be a merely passing “season.”


My final analysis of poetic form and mode may be usefully framed by two assessments Rimbaud himself provides. On the one hand, his letter of 15 May 1871 to Paul Demeny argues that, although Baudelaire may be deemed “the first seer, the king of poets, a true God,” his poetic form remains “shabby” (OC, 273). “Inventing unknownness,” he insists, “demands new forms” (OC, 273): a revolution in sensibility and thinking must be accompanied by transformation at the formal level. On the other hand, the second part of “Délires” declares that “poetic old-fashionedness had a good share in my alchemy of the logos” (OC, 234). Of course, Rimbaud is not referring here to earlier poems such as “Les Etrennes des orphelins,” whose composition (December 1869) predates his consciousness of the radical expressive options available to him; the poem's use of conventional alexandrine meter, rimes plates, a narrative mode, standard dramatic divisions à la Vigny will continue to be stylistically pertinent well into Rimbaud's career. The remaining pages will look at meter, stanzaic form, rhyme, vocabulary, overall tone and mode; address the notion of illumination; assess the form of the prose poetry, consider it as “theater” and as roman (romance); wrestle with the concept of poetry as illusion and truth.

First, meter: Poésies is dominated by the alexandrine, with even the texts of the so-called bribes (“fragments”), Les Stupra (The Stupra) and Album zutique, espousing this form in sixteen of twenty-two cases. Of the nineteen poems of Derniers vers and Fêtes de la patience (Celebrations of Patience), however, only two choose the alexandrine: the impair molds the latter “collection” (2×11 syllables, 1×7, 4×5, 3 mixtures of impair and pair), and in the former, two of the seven texts opt again for the 11-syllable structure, three others for mixed metric orchestration. Only one poem, “Vieux de la vieille” (“Old Woman's Old Man,” OC, 116), elects free verse, Rimbaud clearly preferring to shortcut directly to the prose poem, after various Verlainean experiments with poems of 1 or 2 syllables in the “Conneries” (“Bloody Absurdities”) of Album zutique (OC, 114-15). None of this is to say that 8- and 10-syllable meters are eluded, the former playing an important role in the first group of forty-four poems in Poésies (7 of 44), balancing the alexandrine's presence (31 of 44); the second, 10-syllable line popping up twice in the impair environment of the twelve Fêtes de la patience. Various other stylistic features may be critical in coloring and giving texture to meter, so that the 10-syllable “Bruxelles” becomes a relatively audacious poem via enjambment, ellipsis, enigmatic allusion, rapid-fire evocation, pure sonority, and general impishness of tone and turn of phrase.

Secondly, poem and stanza structure: Poésies demonstrates considerable variation, though all within existing guidelines. Thus, “Les Etrennes des orphelins” and “Le Forgeron” offer conventionally splayed-out dramatic-narrative structure with, respectively, stanzaic organization, in lines per stanza, of 9-26-28-20-28 and 13-13-30-21-23-31-23-16-8; one is not far from Lamartine or Vigny in this respect. Poésies generally, however, is structurally governed by the traditional quatrain, rather than this earlier more ample stanzaic and textual form. Not taking into account the fifteen sonnets of the first forty-four poems and the three sonnets of Les Stupra—all of which display that classic 4-4-3-3 stanzaic structure so dear to Baudelaire and Verlaine—the quatrain dominates throughout, to a lesser degree in the more boisterous texts of the Album zutique, but manifestly in Derniers vers and Fêtes de la patience. The number of quatrains can go as high as forty, with “Le Bateau ivre” at twenty-five and “Les Réparties de Nina” at twenty-nine, but tend to be in the mid-to-lower range, Rimbaud never being long-winded. For example, the first forty-four poems give one single quatrain, one of two quatrains, one of three, one of five, three of eight and nine, one of ten, two of eleven, one of twelve, one of sixteen, one of nineteen, plus the longer examples quoted; Derniers vers gives one each of four, five, seven and ten quatrains; Fêtes de la patience one each of two, three and seven, with two of five and six. And the quatrain may combine with other stanzaic forms, as in “Les Premières Communions,” with eight × 6-line, followed by twenty-two quatrains; or “Comédie de la soif” (“Comedy of Thirst,” OC, 127-30), with three × 8-line, two quatrains, one 8-line, two × 6-line, three × 5-line, two quatrains. Other stanzaic structures may be used, but are rare: “Les Effarés,” with its twelve 3-line (non-terza rima) structure; “Accroupissements” (OC, 76-7), seven 5-line stanzas; “Le Coeur du pitre” (OC, 80-81), three 8-line stanzas; “Les Corbeaux” (OC, 104), four 6-line stanzas; “L'Angelot maudit” (“Accursed Cherub,” OC, 117-18), seven 2-line stanzas; and so on. With constancy and consciousness of the relative charm of la vieillerie poétique, Rimbaud achieves inflection and change within harmony, and aspires to that punchy succinctness admired in Baudelaire and Verlaine.

Thirdly, rhyme: here, quantitatively, Rimbaud's Poésies breaks no new ground. The rimes plates of Vigny's modern myths or Hugo's massive “legendary” or visionary works may appear; the quatrain dictates its implacable rimes croisées or rimes embrassées; other stanzaic forms largely follow tradition. Very rare even are those Verlainean audacities such as the abaaabab structure employed in “Le Coeur du pitre.” Rich and weak rhymes may come and go, and it is perhaps in the use of bold enjambment, marked lexical dash, and general semantic punchiness that Rimbaud's use of rhyme attains to its greatest power. Assonance is nearly disregarded (see “Jeune ménage” [“Young Household”], OC, 136), and free verse makes but one scant appearance before the leap into prose poetry. Fourthly, Rimbaud's lexicon: though not Hugolian, it remains considerable and, especially in certain verse forms, seems to provide an outlet for revolutionary poetic energy. The Jarry- or Ubu-like saperlipopettouilles and saperpouillottes of “Le Soleil était encore chaud …” foreshadow the youthful lexical invention running through Poésies: neologisms and deformations, exoticism and innuendo, use of proper names and capitalization. This is partly in line with the lexical adventurousness of Laforgue, Verlaine, Banville; partly intrinsic and adolescent genius; partly French poetic tradition going back to St. Amant and even Villon. In Rimbaud, however, the desire for lexical rampage is quickly assuaged; he remains a poet of great classicism, always clear and pertinent no matter what the impulsiveness pressing upon his language.

Fifthly, a few observations on tone and mode: irony and simple gaiety, satire and ease, may coincide, as in “Au Cabaret-Vert,” where form mimics this “tension.” “Oraison du soir” also generates deep personal truth and irony within the confines of a sonnet at once stylistically complex and simple. Part of the power of Poésies—and of the prose poems, too—comes from Rimbaud's sense of aesthetic orchestration, harmony, closure. Yet does the inclusion of bribes and brouillons in Poésies give the poems naturalness and impulsiveness. Thus does the etc. … at the close of “Age d'or” mock the very closure it accomplishes and invite us to think beyond and step out. Rimbaud's conventional mode is matched by a mode of “fancifulness”—“Ma bohème” is simultaneously a fantaisie, for example (OC, 69). And, again, the alternation and range of tone in Rimbaud does not simply take us from, say, “Les Poètes de sept ans” to the connerie of the Album zutique, “Cocher ivre” (“Drunk Coachman,” OC, 115), for within the Album zutique itself tone, purpose, and mode may vary so greatly as to give us “L'Humanité chaussait le vaste enfant Progrès” (“Humanity Outfitted the Vast Child Progress,” OC, 113). “Que comprendre à ma parole?” (“What can be understood in my speech?”) Rimbaud asks in “Ô saisons, ô châteaux!” (OC, 140), “il fait qu'elle fuie et vole!” (“it is all flight and fugue”): poetic language and mode as movement, or what “Mauvais sang” calls dance: “Faim, soif, cris, danse, danse, danse, danse!”

Sixthly, poetic mode as mental painting: illumination as poetry's “colored plates.” Even in Poésies Rimbaud is taken at times by a certain type of visual representation. “Le Buffet” (“Sideboard,” OC, 68-69) would seem to offer a kind of poetic nature morte, just as “L'Eclatante Victoire de Sarrebrück” (“The Dazzling Victory of Sarrebrück,” OC, 68) is related to a “brilliantly colored Belgian engraving selling for 35 centimes in Charleroi” (OC, 68). These two poems of 1870 either describe an anonymous, perhaps naive piece of art or else evoke a scene in largely objective descriptive terms. Les Illuminations are mainly to be seen metaphorically as landscapes. Such a “reinvented,” “enchanted,” and “alchemical” poetic mode (OC, 232-33) may seem to correspond insufficiently to known mental landscapes, but accession to the unknowns of self and other remains the central conceptual axis along which his work travels. At once esoteric and available, Rimbaud's illuminations are “studies” (OC, 233), in every sense of the word. Choosing the verb to express the “inexpressible,” the “fixing” they offer is necessarily relative (OC, 222).

Seventhly, some brief observations on the prose poem to which Rimbaud may be said to return after “Le Soleil était encore chaud …”: 1. the syntax of Rimbaud's Les Illuminations is very largely as sure, as coherent as that of any surrealist poem or text; 2. fragmentation can occur, however, and paratactic structures can result, giving an architectural or sculpted quality to poems like “Veillées” or “Barbare” (OC, 198); 3. at other times, and frequently throughout Les Illuminations, the sentence (“Phrases,” OC, 185) tends to establish an independence of function and semantic impact despite its insertion within the continuity of paragraph or overall text; 4. there is often in Rimbaud's prose poems, despite his tendency to denigrate anything that could be described as pure aesthetic play, an impulse to recognize them as “studies” or “colored plates” and thus to grant them the kind of closure found in “Les Ponts”; 5. the sudden appearance of free verse poems in the middle of Les Illuminations—“Marine,” “Mouvement”—shows Rimbaud to be indifferent to the formal or aesthetic innovation implicit in his prose poem inventions, and yet alert to form per se; 6. while the titles of the poems of Les Illuminations are not inherently esoteric, they do often possess a simple enigmaticalness, as if straining to convey the maximum within the minimum. “Bottom” (OC, 202) and “H” (OC, 202-203) are excellent examples, but even titles such as “Antique,” “Fleurs,” “Promontoire” (“Promontory,” OC, 199) reveal their unsettling force when reread in the context of the poems; 7. Rimbaud's conception of the poem as roman/ce: already he termed “novel” one of his Poésies (OC, 62), no doubt as a provocation anticipating his remarks a year later to Paul Demeny about the silliness of so many poets' “rhymed prose” (OC, 269). But if poetry is not merely telling stories in verse, both Poésies and Les Illuminations constitute “tales” of a kind (OC, 178, “Conte”) and d'espèces de romances (OC, 234, “Délires”). If Les Illuminations are romans, contes, romances, they are so as anti-novels and anti-songs of the self's others; 8. these tensions result in Rimbaud's feeling, as expressed in “Alchimie du verbe,” that not only are his psychic experiences “hallucinations,” but so too are the very words he uses in Les Illuminations, “magic” thus becoming sophistical, fallacious. A poetics of new poetic form and mode as locus of illuminated truth flips, via a crisis of confidence, into a poetics of illusion and deception. Poetry and experience are questioned by the revamped poetry and experience of Une saison en enfer. The “truth in a soul and in a body” of which “Adieu” speaks (OC, 244) recedes from the presence of voyance to a future locus of possession. But the self-doubt of “Alchimie du verbe” is but a feeling about world and word among other feelings. It is not a dénouement, the end achievement of a poetic purpose. The new forms of Rimbaud's voyance remain, and, as his letter of 15 May 1871 to Paul Demeny makes clear they are not just forms, passing though they inevitably are.

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9140

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 attitude of emotional detachment on the poet's part, in a somewhat uncanny return of a repressed Classical rigor, now triumphant over the excessive and unruly affects of the Romantic period. Leconte de Lisle's strict alexandrine verse poem entitled “Le Sommeil du condor” illustrates that belated type of aristocratic sublimity, as the majestic, solitary bird of prey mournfully rises beyond everything visible, to find finally sleep in the frozen air above, oblivious to the sphere of human interests. Such elevated expectations from the skillful, but distant artist, who promises to remain indifferent to human pathos—neither taking a stand, nor passing judgment on his fellow men—established a hegemonic standard of bon goût among a predominantly middle-class buying and reading public; and the imposing presence of a few notable writers controlled what got published during the 1850s and 1860s in the Parisian literary world. In his monumental study of Flaubert and mid-nineteenth-century poetics, L'Idiot de la famille, Jean-Paul Sartre ironically characterized such major writers as Leconte de Lisle, Hérédia and Mallarmé “les chevaliers du Néant,” and he condemned them for promoting the cause of “l'Art Absolu,” generally known as the doctrine of Art for Art's sake, to the detriment of the French people.2 From early on the young Rimbaud had become aware that this trend-setting, nihilistic aesthetics was intended for an elite readership only, and that its apolitical precepts fell in line with the political order established by Louis-Napoléon's Second Empire—the last instance of despotic rule in French history—to keep the nose of its artists and intellectuals out of the business of State. Moreover, the powerful shock of the Parisian Commune of 1871 made him aware that neither ideological program was serving the interests of France's oppressed population. In his fine study of the Commune's impact upon Rimbaud's artistry, Ross Chambers stated that this major political event “radicalise chez Rimbaud son imagination esthétique,” and that in the context of the poet's evolution, “la période de la Commune assume une étape essentielle, qui est celle d'une prise de conscience fondamentale, en ce qui concerne la fonction poétique.”3

Rimbaud already had taken a strong oppositional stance to Second Empire policies—condemning the War of 1870, satirizing religious institutions, criticizing hypocritical bourgeois values and sexual mores—in his first regular verse poems, written a year before the political upheaval of 1871. The stunning events of the Commune further sharpened his awareness of the social responsibility of artistic practice, and the budding poet's attention now turned to problems involving the dominant conventions of lyrical form and content. During that embattled summer of 1871, the seventeen-year old writer composed an important parodic poem entitled “Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs.” Written as a war cry and provocatively sent to the dean of the Parnassian movement, Théodore de Banville, this reflexive verse poem raised issues of lyric content, form and function, and clearly shows the poet's constant resistance to the contemporaneous cultural text. Again according to Ross Chambers, the hegemonic pressure exerted by Second Empire ideology over its artists and intellectuals resulted in the development of an oppositional aesthetics, establishing “the sign as the site of repression.”4 Pointing to the referential destabilization incurred by the poetic sign through the double recourse to formalism and supernaturalism found in writings of Nerval and Baudelaire, Chambers interprets these “forms of textuality that produce constant instability (instability about the text's referent, about how and what it ‘means,’ instability of the reader caught up in the dynamics of a text that always means more than it says, or says more than it seems to mean) as a response, with its own political force, to the imposition of order and control that characterized the dominant social discourses and practices of the Second Empire” (712). In the process of analyzing the poem, I will discuss some of these issues in the background of the debate over the ideological value of aesthetic form provided by the cultural theories elaborated by Walter Benjamin and Sartre, in order to stress the range of Rimbaud's ironic response to the dominant lyrical norm of his times.

The chronology of “Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs” is interesting for two reasons. First, the sending of the letter containing this poem, August 15, 1871, coincides with the final days of the Paris Commune. Second, Rimbaud's autograph date of the poem in that letter is significant since he arbitrarily assigns its composition to July 14, that is, to the day commemorating the taking of the Bastille and the toppling of the Ancien régime. The conjunction of these dates can be interpreted as evidence of the influence of French political life upon Rimbaud's aesthetic evolution, and of his awareness of the confluence of artistic and social interests. For what seems most at stake in these nasty lines is the Old Regime of poetry. Another significant aspect of this poem's background concerns the history of Rimbaud's relationship to Théodore de Banville, to whom the former had sent before—a year earlier, in a letter dated May 24, 1870—three lyrics he had written during that spring, “Sensation,” “Ophélie” and “Credo in unam,” asking him to include them in the last issue of the prestigious Parnasse contemporain of which he was in charge. “Cher Maître,” Rimbaud started writing, “si je vous envoie quelques-uns de ces vers, c'est que j'aime tous les poètes, tous les bons Parnassiens,—puisque le poète est un Parnassien,—épris de la beauté idéale; c'est que j'aime en vous, bien naïvement, un descendant de Ronsard, un frère de nos maîtres de 1830, un vrai romantique, un vrai poète.”5 The mixture of enthusiasm and flattery in these words makes it difficult to tell whether Rimbaud, at the time, really held the powerful director of the Parnasse contemporain in esteem, or whether he was merely eager to see his name in print. “Anch'io, messieurs du journal, je serai Parnassien!” he went on. “—Je ne sais ce que j'ai là … qui veut monter … —Je jure, cher maître, d'adorer toujours les deux déesses, Muse et Liberté.” Théodore de Banville never bothered to answer this letter; and for the best, perhaps, since this slighting might have forced Rimbaud to reconsider over the course of that eventful year whether he was really infatuated with “la beauté idéale,” as he put it, and whether it was actually possible during those days to be equally faithful to the two antagonistic goddesses of poetry and politics (“Muse et Liberté”). In any case, by August 15, 1871, when he mails “Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs,” all marks of respect toward Théodore de Banville and the Parnassian school, as well as any sense of admiration for conceptions of pure, ideal or absolute beauty, would disappear from Rimbaud's text.

Baudelaire had already suspected the Parnassian movement's affiliation with the Art for Art's sake trend—which had risen in a moment of desire for artistic independence during the 1830s, as a defiant response to the frustration of Republican hopes during the July Revolution—and he called the dream of aesthetic autonomy a “puérile utopie.” This formalist trend, which shaped the era's sense of “good taste,” and ultimately provided the Symbolist movement with its theoretical foundation, also advocated the complete isolation of artistic practice, the withdrawal of literature from social or political concerns, and a high degree of craftsmanship in the production of the aesthetic artifact. Because many among the major figures of the 1830s generation, such as Théophile Gautier, who had generated the l'art pour l'art movement's manifesto in his notorious preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, and Sainte-Beuve, the poet turned conservative literary chronicler and critic, would be occupying center-stage in Parisian literary life during the 1850s and 60s, and often act as quasi-official arbiters of taste, the continuity between the July Monarchy's aesthetics of artistic autonomy and the Second Empire's formalist norm of technical perfectionism and emotional effacement was insured for another generation through the daily commerce of literary groupings, sponsorships and affiliations.

The historical debate between the supporters of l'art pour l'art and the partisans of l'art pour le progrès reached another peak after the 1851 coup-d'Etat by Louis-Bonaparte, which repolarized opinions over the artist's responsibility to society and participation in political struggle and social change. It had even moved the young Baudelaire to take a public stand in the aftermath of the 1848 events, although he was deeply divided at the time between, on the one hand, his admiration for the masters of the earlier and now established aestheticist generation—Théophile Gautier, for instance, to whom he would politely dedicate Les Fleurs du mal, or Sainte-Beuve, whom he humorously called “mon oncle”—and, on the other hand, his sympathy for the miseries of the underclass and their representatives, such as Pierre Dupont, a working-class writer he had befriended and whose popular lyrics he praised. The young Baudelaire actually went as far as to passionately articulate the proletarian poet's class consciousness and political point of view, in August of 1851, in the Notice to Pierre Dupont's twentieth installment of his Chants et chansons.

Baudelaire's important participation in the debate over the artist's social function and responsibility reappears in another essay entitled “L'Ecole païenne,” published by La Semaine théatrale, in January of 1852. Both pieces had been composed during the period of impassioned public opinion following the usurpation of State power by Louis-Napoléon, and contain a social subtext. In the latter essay, Baudelaire denounced the writers associated with the Parnasse contemporain, identified as “l'école des Impassibles,” accusing them in no uncertain terms of running away from the urgent social problems facing their own times through a convenient obsession with formal perfection and a thematic fixation upon a remote past. “Le goût immodéré de la forme pousse à des désordres monstrueux et inconnus,” stated the twenty-eight year-old Baudelaire. “Absorbées par la passion féroce du beau, du joli, du pittoresque, car il y a des degrés, les notions du juste et du vrai disparaissent. La passion frénétique de l'art est un chancre qui dévore le reste; et, comme l'absence nette du juste et du vrai dans l'art équivaut à l'absence d'art, l'homme entier s'évanouit; la spécialisation excessive d'une faculté aboutit au néant,”6 he concluded.

The turn of events between 1848 and 1852 had ultimately demoralized those writers who had been initially outraged by the duplicity of bourgeois ideals, with the effect of depoliticizing their own image and activity, in a response similar to the one experienced by the earlier generation of 1830. Quoting Baudelaire's 1852 remark, in a letter, to the effect that “the 2nd December [had] physically depoliticized [him]” (“m'a physiquement dépolitiqué”), Ross Chambers observed that “disabused by the failure of the 1848 revolution and now subject to strict political and moral surveillance, writers retreated from their intense and enthusiastic involvement in the making of history” (710). But history again was in the making in France during the spring of 1871, and after the national defeat of the war of 1870, the Commune offered a fresh opportunity for Rimbaud to examine the relation of his aesthetic to his ethical practice. The historical convulsions of the period thus can be taken to constitute the grounds for the radicalization of Rimbaud's literary revolt, as these disturbing events raised the poet's suspiciousness of the cult of art prevailing at the time.

“Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs” must be read as Rimbaud's first self-conscious declaration of an oppositional poetics. The long poem's forty stanzas are divided into five uneven parts, and the rhythmically light octosyllabic lines are grouped into quatrains, according to a crossed rhyme scheme. The poem's division into distinct sections, numbered by Rimbaud, corresponds to a polemical rhetorical development, an organization of topics and issues relevant to the situation of poetic discourse at that juncture in nineteenth-century France. In other words, this critical piece is as close to the enunciation of an Art poétique as we have from him. Banville is addressed directly in the first part of the poem; the second takes on his followers, the third returns to the direct address mode and raises questions regarding poetry's raison d'être; the fourth section throws new challenges to future poets; and the conclusion, while extending these challenges, surprisingly links the conventions of the lyric to the vested interests of the bourgeoisie and the policies of colonial imperialism. Thus, in spite of its lighter mood and facetious tone, one feels that this poem contains a serious political agenda. Although the parodic mode in which it is written, as well as the adoption of regular meter and stanzaic patterning, can be considered to be binding the poem—in spite of its defiant gesture—to the literary tradition it opposed, the combination of anger and irony conveyed through that antagonistic mode can also be seen to act as a centrifugal force that decentered the piece toward a space in the process of deconstruction, repositioning its message along the repressed margins of the period's cultural text. The parodic reiteration of clichés and commonplaces also might have moved his intended readers to pay the same attention to other, equally charged, cultural constructs or dominant ideological discourses. In her recent marxist study of Rimbaud's poetry's relation to the Commune, Kristin Ross convincingly traces the radical intertextual dimension of his écriture, relating it to a number of areas wherein the socio-political and aesthetic practices of the period often intersected. Basing her cultural analysis on the figure of the barricade—the outcome of bricolage, rather than “designed around the notion of a unique ‘proper place’”—Ross argues that this type of spatial imagination was a form of resistance to “monumental ideas of formal perfection, duration or immortality;” and she finds “a similar awareness of the tactical mission of the commonplace” in the parodic mode of “Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs.”7

This parodic force is made all the more effective in the poem by Rimbaud's tone of anger, conveying a sense of moral outrage expressed, here as in other pieces, by an excessive flow of scatological imagery.8 This hostile feature is at work starting from the first quatrain's shocking closing metaphor, that of a “blissful clyster,” an enema, qualifying “Les Lys,” that is, the all-too-pure products of royalist or absolutist, reactionary poetics:

Ainsi, toujours, vers l'azur noir
Où tremble la mer des topazes,
Fonctionneront dans ton soir
Les Lys, ces clystères d'extases!(9)

Both the emblem of French royalty and the traditional figure for the poetic artifact, the lily's familiar connotations of whiteness, purity and elegance—common denominators of aristocratic sensibility and good taste—are all subverted by the daring scatological trope. But the importance of the excremental imagery does not reside in its shock value only; the purgative sense of the metaphoric vehicle standing for the poetic artifact also links the sentimental lyricism associated with Banville's poetry to cathartic functions. The nominal complement (“d'extase”) to the clyster metaphor defines an idealistic poetic protocol, characterized by the externalization, swelling and discharge, of sublime lyrical subjectivity. “Le lys est le symbole de la poésie classique et éthérée,” noted Suzanne Bernard. (O [Oeuvres] 416, n. 2) This degrading metaphorical play is reinforced by the conspicuous presence of the signifier lys in the word clystère. Finally, the verb Rimbaud selected to designate this sublimatory aesthetics, fonctionner, was also highly unusual in the poetic lexicon of the times, and stresses its mechanical or industrial aspects. In the second quatrain, Rimbaud predicts a contradiction between the historical moment and its all-too-pious aesthetic taste:

A notre époque de sagous,
Quand les plantes sont travailleuses,
Le lys boira les bleus dégoûts
Dans tes proses religieuses!

The unusual sign “sagous” could at first be taken for the more common noun sagouins, which would humorously characterize the epoch as a time of monkeys, and, by extension, of slobs. But the word is actually of Malaysian origin, and refers to the edible starch found in a palm tree, the sagoutier. This exotic lexeme, pastiching Parnassian writers' predilection for rare terms, serves to evoke, in the micro-context of the image of the “working plants,” the bizarre commodification of nature, the world of industrialization and colonialist exploitation, a sub-context that will be expanded later on in the poem. This stanza thus opposes the image of oppressed labor to the mystifying vision projected by the Parnassian's “proses religieuses” that can only inspire “disgust,” that is to say, moral and aesthetic revulsion.

The next two quatrains provide specific examples of the type of reactionary lyricism Rimbaud is attacking. Line 9 ties neo-classical poetic conventions to the politics of monarchic restoration. The phrase “Le lys de monsieur de Kerdrel” clearly associates the flowery genre with the hereditary provincial nobility traditionally supportive of French royalty. And in the following line, the condemnation of “le Sonnet de mil huit cent trente” reiterates Rimbaud's suspicion of the second Romantic generation's unwitting complicity with reactionary interests, perhaps aiming here in particular at the Fantaisiste splinter movement, which grew in Théophile Gautier's cénacle, and whose preferred lyric form was the sonnet—as opposed to the first generation's Romantic elegy. Gautier was an artiste whose influence on Théodore de Banville's thinking about poetry was determinant. Like his illustrious predecessor, Banville excelled in reviving the fixed lyrical forms of the past, rondeaux, ballades, villanelles, all feats that Rimbaud, at the end of this stanza, contemptuously characterizes as outdated and ritualized floral games, honored by worthless rewards bestowed upon old minstrels. Thus, just as the preceding quatrain criticized contemporary poetry on account of its content, this stanza suggests that fixed poetic forms such as the Renaissance sonnet are inappropriate to keep up with changing historical realities. The following stanza concludes these reproaches in a tone of moral indignation, denouncing the idealized quality of the Parnassian poet's all-too-pious referents:

Des lys! Des lys! On n'en voit pas!
Et dans ton Vers, tel que les manches
Des Pécheresses aux doux pas,
Toujours frissonnent ces fleurs blanches!

Starting with the first stanza, Rimbaud had appealed to the Parnassian poet in the familiar form of address (“ton soir”). This irreverent vocative mode is further expanded in the fifth stanza, where Banville is first insolently addressed as “Cher,” then more insultingly as “tu” in the same breath, a tactic reminiscent of the interlocutionary situation at work in “Le Forgeron,” where the dignity and authority of Louis XVI is also linguistically undercut by the familiar mode of address. The king of the Parnassus finally gets portrayed in a ludicrous place, the bathtub, a site reminiscent of the setting of “Vénus Anadyomène.” This trivializing domestic decor creates a blatant contrast between the needy materiality of his physical being and the ethereal contention of his verbal gusts:

Toujours, Cher, quand tu prends un bain,
Ta chemise aux aisselles blondes
Se gonfle aux brises du matin
Sur les myosotis immondes!

Extending this sordid physiological imagery, the concluding quatrain of the poem's first part targets the privileged theme of Parnassian lyricism—love—sarcastically reducing its stereotypical expression to sweetened spit: “Crachats sucrés des Nymphes noires! …”

One cannot appreciate the reasons for Rimbaud's negative feelings toward his time's programmatic aesthetic norm without recalling the ideological options available to the epoch's intellectuals. Sartre identified in Qu'est-ce que la Littérature? the particular moral division faced by the writer born into the ranks of the bourgeoisie during this period. Finding himself caught in the struggle between an undeserving middle-class audience and an all too distant popular readership, the mid-century writer, according to Sartre, chose instead to suffer the contradictions of an impossible artistic independence, deciding to write for nothing, and about nothing—and most importantly, not to dedicate his verbal effort to any one class in particular.

L'écrivain se vante d'avoir rompu tout commerce avec le public bourgeois, mais en refusant le déclassement par en bas, il condamne sa rupture à rester symbolique: il la joue sans relâche, il l'indique par son vêtement, son alimentation, son ameublement, les mœurs qu'il se donne, mais il ne la fait pas. C'est la bourgeoisie qui le lit, c'est elle seule qui le nourrit et qui décide de sa gloire. En vain prend-il du recul pour la considérer d'ensemble: s'il veut la juger, il faudrait d'abord qu'il en sorte et il n'est pas d'autre façon d'en sortir que d'éprouver les intérêts et la manière de vivre d'une autre classe. Comme il ne s'y décide pas, il vit dans la contradiction et dans la mauvaise foi puisqu'il sait à la fois et ne veut pas savoir pour qui il écrit. Il parle volontiers de sa solitude et, plutôt que d'assumer le public qu'il s'est sournoisement choisi, il invente qu'on écrit pour soi seul ou pour Dieu, il fait de l'écriture une opération métaphysique, une prière, un examen de conscience, tout sauf une communication.10

Sartre's analysis of the bourgeois writer's conflicting situation during this period, as an alienated being who attempted to withdraw himself and his work from the public social space, and claimed for his “heroic” endeavor the abstract force of “pure negativity,” is pertinent to the present study for two reasons. In the first place, it is precisely to this double alienation between the writer and the two classes in conflict that Sartre traces the start of French poetry's reflexive turn upon itself. “La littérature, tout absorbée encore par la découverte de son autonomie, est à elle-même son propre objet. Elle est passée à la période réflexive” (153). Moreover, it is specifically in this narcissistic impulse that Sartre locates a concurrent hypostatization of poetic form in the aesthetics of l'art pour l'art. For it is at this very moment in history that the work of art's form loses a dynamic relationship to its content—because the form no longer derives the reason for its technical innovations from a relationship to determinate aspects of historical necessity, or conditions external to itself. “Si elle [the form] se découvrait un contenu spécifique, il lui faudrait s'arracher à sa méditation sur soi et dégager ses normes esthétiques de la nature de ce contenu,” (153) he wrote, observing in poetry's denegation of its inherently historical dimension the impoverishment of its value as cultural experience during the Parnassian literary period.

Still according to Sartre, the commitment on the part of the Fin d'empire bourgeois writer to finding new ways of representation for “la révolution concrète qui tente de naître,” that is, for the discourse of the uneducated masses, would have actualized a fall from his class of origin—from its grace, favors and rewards. Thus the Parnassian writer would opt to maintain the ambivalence of his ideological position through an obsession with technical matters, activities that Sartre calls “les jeux abstraits auxquels il se livre,” remaining all the while unaware of the fact that his claims of aesthetic autonomy were actually objectively serving the conservative interests of the governing group. Further analyzing the contradictions of this sad inheritor of eighteenth-century France's undivided revolutionary bourgeois tradition, Sartre is conclusive about the Parnassian writer's reluctant dissociation from his once progressive class, now transformed into an oppressive instrument of capitalism:

Aussi l'écrivain refuse-t-il, de bonne foi, d'asservir la littérature à un public et à un sujet déterminés. Mais il ne s'aperçoit pas du divorce qui s'opère entre la révolution concrète qui tente de naître et les jeux abstraits auxquels il se livre. Cette fois, ce sont les masses qui veulent le pouvoir et comme les masses n'ont pas de culture ni de loisirs, toute prétendue révolution littéraire, en raffinant sur la technique, met hors de leur portée les ouvrages qu'elle inspire et sert les intérêts du conservatisme social.


Alerting his readers to this conservative effect in the second section of “Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs,” Rimbaud apostrophized all poets who had turned their backs on the social scene (“O Poètes”), including Théodore de Banville whose name is capitalized in the eighth stanza. Other writers such as Leconte de Lisle, Catulle Mendès and the young Mallarmé, generally were identified by scholars through the references to roses, the lotus and sunflowers. Scornfully calling these artists “très paisibles photographes,” capable only of reproducing “[des] sujets saints / Pour de jeunes communiantes,” Rimbaud qualifies their mimetic industry as that of selling worn-out clothes, that is, literary clichés and stereotypes: “Vieilles verdures, vieux galons!”, in an aggressive tone brought out by the fricative alliteration. Rimbaud here is also questioning formal conventions and generic assumptions, since, in the twelfth stanza, he condemns the usage of anachronic fixed forms, such as the ode. Through another exotic reference to an Asiatic tree, the hilarious semantic effect achieved by the redundancy “Aço / ka ca / dre” in the following lines stresses the undesirability of such outputs of the merely contemplative imagination:

L'Ode Aço ka cadre avec la
Strophe en fenêtre de lorette.

The idiom of painting (“cadre” = to frame) also points to the violence of the framing enacted by generic conventions, through the imposition of narrow fits upon the poetic object (turning Beauty into a harlot, a “lorette”), effectively distorting the empirical or inherent relationship between form and content. Dismissing all such educated society games as “Fleurs fantasques des vieux salons,” the point Rimbaud makes is that on account of generic or formal limits, the grasp or reach of these poets does not go far enough toward imagining—not sameness (“This french vegetation, always”)—but otherness, variety and diversity:

Toujours les végétaux Français,
Hargneux, phtysiques, ridicules,
Où le ventre des chiens bassets
Navigue en paix, aux crépuscules.

The poet was thus calling for a more eccentric vision, divergent from the stereotypical components of French culture and from the false homogeneity of its self-proclaimed universal bourgeoisie. Kristin Ross observed that Rimbaud was “quick to link Parnassian exoticism to an elitist artistic posture and its attendant racism” (84). She also carefully demonstrates in her cultural study how, during this period of colonial expansion, the aesthetic construction of a space “where all alterity is absent” (87) coincided with the foundation of the science of geography, which “was to play a large role in physically naturalizing the foundations of national ideology” (87).

This sharp criticism of the closure of the Western cultural horizon, and the limits of its systems of representation, is extended into the poem's third section, as Rimbaud puts a number of witty questions to a “blanc Chasseur” (the “white Hunter” is Leconte de Lisle, who was born on the Ile Bourbon and whose family was ruined by the abolition of slavery, which led him to accept an Imperial pension in 1864, after a Republican youth), condemning him again for turning anything really distant and different into the sameness of a watery amalgam, and concludes with these caustic remarks:

Tu ferais succéder, je crains,
Aux Grillons roux les Cantharides,
L'or des Rios au bleu des Rhins,—
Bref, aux Norwèges les Florides.

Then, in the next quatrain, Rimbaud returns to addressing Banville directly, as he impudently admonishes him regarding the untimeliness of his poetics:

Mais, Cher, l'Art n'est plus, maintenant,
—C'est la vérité,—de permettre
A l'Eucalyptus étonnant
Des constrictors d'un hexamètre.

This famous rebuke takes the 1870s intellectual to task not only for masking difference and alterity through the imposition of prosodic order, but also for enforcing the basic constraints of the Parnassian program, with its insistence upon formal virtuosity and closure. Denouncing that agenda as untimely, the following stanza links it to the fundamental issue of art's function or usefulness (“servaient”), in the loaded context of France's infamous penal colonies (“nos Guyanes,” my italics, to note the ironic possessive adjective) for exiled political prisoners:

Là! … Comme si les Acajous
Ne servaient, même en nos Guyanes,
Qu'aux cascades des sapajous,
Au lourd délire des lianes!

Further focusing on this crucial problem regarding poetry's social value and function, Rimbaud repeatedly raises the question of literature's worth (“vaut-elle?”) in respect to being, and more particularly, to social ills and misery, as evoked by the candle tear of the stanza's final image:

—En somme, une Fleur, Romarin
Ou Lys, vive ou morte, vaut-elle
Un excrément d'oiseau marin?
Vaut-elle un seul pleur de chandelle?

He then goes on deriding and charging with arrogance the contemplative poet's posture, portraying him enclosed in his distant, exotic bamboo shack (a subtle turn on the Romantic ivory tower we find in Vigny, for instance), with shutters and senses closed to the outside world and reality, as he sits on the throne excreting more distasteful flowery flows!

—Et j'ai dit ce que je voulais!
Toi, même assis là-bas, dans une
Cabane de bambous,—volets
Clos, tentures de perse brune,—
Tu torcherais des floraisons
Dignes d'Oises extravagantes! …
—Poète! ce sont des raisons
Non moins risibles qu'arrogantes!(11)

Rimbaud had personal reasons to deplore this indifference to the plight of the French people. Born in 1854 to a lower middle-class family of rural background, he had experienced firsthand the social conditions resulting from the increasing proletarianization of France that led the nation to the 1871 Civil War. One of his sisters died young, and his alcoholic brother socially sank to the status of a servant. He could therefore easily identify the cause of freedom—the essence of writing, according to a Sartrian philosophy of art—with that of the impoverished masses who were fighting for relief from brutal economic exploitation. This may be the reason why his transformation of the means of poetic production—semantic resources, verse conventions and generic assumptions—did not yield to the kind of formalistic narcissism and self-satisfaction prevailing over this period in literary history. Instead, he questioned the ethical value of lyrical discourse in a world warped by profiteering and the exploitation of human labor, and after briefly penning some more terse and bitter verse in the Derniers vers, he moved, like Baudelaire, into the uncharted territory of the prose poem, and mapped out new areas of intersection between the class struggle and the literary field in Une Saison en enfer and the Illuminations.12

At the start of the section entitled “The Bohème” which opens his description of “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” Walter Benjamin had apparently intended to introduce his subject by a general discussion of the effects of political despotism upon the French capital's urban design and to point out its contribution to the production of a new type of urban poetic consciousness, which he later identifies as that of the “flâneur” under the guise of the alienated producer of Les Fleurs du mal in the main essay of his unfinished study, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. The second stage of Benjamin's brilliant interpretation of this moment in French literature seems to have included an analysis of different phases in the formation of the Bohemian counter-cultural resistance to the hegemony of the bourgeoisie. Benjamin's provisional notes suggest the need to distinguish between the socio-historical consciousness articulated by proletarianized writers such as Vallès, or Rimbaud, or Jules Laforgue, and that expressed by earlier generations of France's more traditional literary bohemia, such as Gérard de Nerval and Théophile Gautier. Benjamin observed three historical moments of (de)gradations in the (d)evolution of a miserabilistic attitude, each coinciding with a different relationship between the writers and their readers, and differentiated, not so much by the material fate the economic system allotted its artists—since they were almost all equally impoverished—but by the extent and the way in which an intellectual represented his class's existential experience in his work; that is to say, by the measure of his participation in—and commitment to—that group's collective endeavor for the improvement of its condition. In his fine translation and edition of Benjamin's manuscripts, Harry Zohn provides what is left of the cultural critic's thoughts on the matter, and his footnote, which translates the Editorial note of the 1969 Frankfurt edition of Benjamin's unfinished work on Baudelaire, is worth quoting here in toto:

At the beginning of this manuscript there are two sheets with the following notations. Sheet 1: A section of approximately nine pages is missing here. It presents the connection between the increasing standardization of Paris architecture, Haussmann's work, and the Bonapartist despotism. It characterizes the attempt of the feuilleton to create, by means of its phantasmagoria, a diversion in the tedium of urban life. Sheet 2: A section of approximately six pages is missing here. It gives a brief history of the various generations of the bohème. It characterizes the bohème dorée of Gautier and Nerval; the bohème of the generation of Baudelaire and Asselineau, Delvau; and, finally, the latest proletarianized bohème whose spokesman was Jules Vallès.13

Although he does not mention Rimbaud by name in these notations, selecting instead the outspoken public figure of Jules Vallès—a writer whom Rimbaud admiringly mentions in an April 17, 1871, letter to Paul Demeny—as most indicative of the later type of industrialized bohemian writer, the missing six pages of this section of the essay may very well have included Rimbaud as another example of a great artist issued from the provincial lower middle class, but wholeheartedly committed to the interests of the proletarian cause during this crisis period marked by war and the extreme abuses of “savage capitalism” in all areas of production and consumption.

In another fragment entitled “Paris—the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” Benjamin observed that the barricades, the enduring signature of Parisian working-class insurrectionists throughout the century, had been “resurrected anew during the Commune,” and here he explicitly referred to Rimbaud's work in a radical political context. Establishing a parallel between the illusions fostered by the dominant class upon the laboring masses both during the Revolution of 1789 and the 1871 Commune, while paradoxically seeing in this mystified state “the condition of the immediate power and enthusiasm with which it [the working class] set about the construction of a new society,” Benjamin concluded:

This enthusiasm, which reached its peak in the Commune, at times won over to the working class the best elements of the bourgeoisie, but in the end led it to defeat at the hands of its worst elements. Rimbaud and Courbet declared themselves for the Commune. The burning of Paris was a fitting conclusion to Haussmann's work of destruction.


As Harry Zohn explains in the Bibliographical note to his English edition of Charles Baudelaire, the part of Benjamin's manuscripts from which this citation is drawn “was completed in 1935 as an exposé or draft of the (Passagenarbeit) project as a whole,” (7) and, owing to this outline format, it unfortunately does not offer the details of Benjamin's perception of the Rimbaldian text's connectedness to France's socio-cultural fabric at this critical moment in its history. But it significantly relates the young poet's involvement in the emancipatory proletarian drive, placing him in the company of Courbet, the militant Realist painter who was also among the Commune's principal activists and spokespersons, a commitment for which he was condemned and banished without a trial or due process by Thiers and the leaders of a vindictive Third Republic. Walter Benjamin's projected reading of late nineteenth-century French poetics might thus have sought to stress in Rimbaud's work the kind of constructive, positive revolutionary moment which he felt was lacking in Baudelaire's anarchist aesthetics, qualifying the latter as those of the conspiracy and of the coup-d'Etat, that is, of an action destined to repeat itself endlessly, insofar as he thought that the suicidal violence and irony of Baudelaire's writings did not offer a redeeming dialectical moment, or a space of social reintegration and affirmation.

Benjamin's association of Rimbaud's writings with the freedom drives of the 1871 Civil War in France was thus made without reservations. His perceptions rely on textual evidence, and his views actually provide a better perspective on Rimbaud than Sartre did. The great attention Sartre paid throughout his career to both the linkage of literary language to socio-historical experience and to the relationships between artists and social groups is well known. But it is equally well known that Sartre never thought too highly of poetry, granting prose instead the analytic muscle he felt good writing should exhibit. Although he continued investigating the antagonistic communicative practices between literati and their public during the second half of the nineteenth century up to his last work, Sartre unfortunately showed no interest in distinguishing Rimbaud from other post-Romantic writers.

Rimbaud however had been careful to distinguish his thinking from that of his contemporaries. Starting with the eleventh stanza, Part four of “Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs” further articulates his oppositional poetics, now drawing on the discourse of political economy in order to show its collusion with a given lyricism. The verbal mood switches to the imperative, and the writer challenges future poets to update their repertory of themes and images in order to adjust their perception of a changing reality:

Dis, non les pampas printaniers
Noirs d'épouvantables récoltes,
Mais les tabacs, les cotonniers!
Dis les exotiques récoltes!
Dis, front blanc que Phébus tanna,
De combien de dollars se rente
Pedro Velasquez, Habana;
Incague la mer de Sorrente
Où vont les cygnes par milliers;
Que tes strophes soient des réclames
Pour l'abatis des mangliers
Fouillés des hydres et des lames!
Ton quatrain plonge aux bois sanglants
Et revient proposer aux Hommes
Divers sujets de sucres blancs,
De pectoraires et de gommes!

What is surprising in the (dis)figurations of reality multiplied by these lines is not so much their phenomenal inventiveness, but the prevalence of a financial and colonial semantic paradigm throughout the passage. Evoking with a sarcastic tone the economic features of an imperialist nation, he lashes out at those writers whose aesthetic vision had excluded the concrete conditions of life in Second Empire France. Bringing attention to the ugly facts of slave labor in the colonies (“révoltes”) and to the new markets of commercial advertisement (“réclames”) for the raw materials imported from these same distant lands, like sugar, cotton and rubber, can be considered to be a novel type of endeavor for the lyric poet of the future, as Rimbaud would usher him into modernity facing the trivial social reality of the Troisième République.

The subsequent seven quatrains further expand this subversive mixture of the idioms and territories of poetry and commodities, as Rimbaud both deflates and exalts the cognitive (“sachons”) and the creative (“trouve,” from the latin tropare: to trope) dimensions of poetic speech through an excessive anaphoric accumulation of the imperative mood, used at the start of each stanza. This sequence culminates in the final line of stanza thirty-one, with a call for the most banal transformation of nature into commodities: “Trouve des Fleurs qui soient des chaises!” Reminiscent of “Les Assis,” this satirical vein is extended to the end of the section, concluding with the funny evocation of bourgeois eating comforts, by way of a pastiche on the advertisement for appealing kitchen consumer goods:

Sers-nous, ô Farceur, tu le peux,
Sur un plat de vermeil splendide
Des ragoûts de Lys sirupeux
Mordant nos cuillers Alfénide!

The poem's concluding section extends this mixing of semantic registers, equally drawing on the speech of imperial merchant capitalism, on the lexicon of technological innovations recently introduced into the industrial landscape, and on the clichés of lyrical discourse. The ideal poet hears himself summoned in turn as tradesman, colonizer, medium and juggler (perhaps another allusion to Banville); and in an ultimate sequence of futuristic images, in which the modern bard's strange destiny is sealed on the cross of telegraphic poles, he is given a future mission and identity:

Commerçant! colon! médium!
Ta rime sourdra, rose ou blanche,
Comme un rayon de sodium,
Comme un caoutchouc qui s'épanche!
De tes noirs Poèmes,—Jongleur!
Blancs, verts, et rouges dioptriques,
Que s'évadent d'étranges fleurs
Et des papillons électriques!
Voilà! c'est le Siècle d'enfer!
Et les poteaux télégraphiques
Vont orner,—lyre aux chants de fer,
Tes omoplates magnifiques!

In the poem's final two stanzas, Rimbaud's vision shifts to the conditions surrounding literary production in the Paris of the times. Suddenly introducing a sense of the economic determinations that dominated literary life during the period, the young unpublished writer sarcastically ends his epistle to Banville by recommending recipes for churning out commercial successes in the mainstream literary market place:

Surtout, rime une version
Sur le mal des pommes de terre!
—Et, pour la composition
De poèmes pleins de mystère
Qu'on doive lire de Tréguier
A Paramaribo, rachète
Des tomes de Monsieur Figuier,
—Illustrés!—chez Monsieur Hachette!

“Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs” thus ends on a parodic and satirical reading of the domination of middle-class public taste at the start of the era of commodity production and consumption, unequivocally stating Rimbaud's recalcitrant position in the standard circuit of exchange, and taking to task those established poets who in his view had sold out to the system. And he closed his letter to Banville with yet another touch of sarcasm, as he asked the master of the Parnasse, tongue in cheek: “Ai-je progressé?”

According to Walter Benjamin, it is during the Second Empire's phase of consolidation of commercial capital and of triumph for the mass commodity form of production and exchange over other modes of labor that the Parnassian poet's indifference to the public sphere, for either the fate of the industrial worker, or for the interests of his patron, turns into a normative expectation on the reader's part. From then on, the middle-class consumer of literature will ask for nothing better from his cultured representative than not to meddle in his public affairs, to void the historical content out of the aesthetic object and preoccupy himself with technical issues of poetry only.

In a short note on the notion of cultural taste that seems to be part of an uncompleted methodological introduction to his unfinished book on Baudelaire, and published as an addendum to “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” Benjamin identifies the particular impoverishment of the poetic experience at the end of the nineteenth century as a result of the increased importance the appearance of a commodity acquires within the process of exchange, as ignorance regarding both processes and conditions of production in an industrializing society increases, and the consumer (of cultural signs) is no longer able to judge for himself the worth of the aesthetic object facing him.

Taste develops with the definite preponderance of commodity production over any other kind of production. As a consequence of the manufacture of products as commodities for the market, people become less and less aware of the conditions of their production—not only of the social conditions in the form of exploitation, but of the technical conditions as well. The consumer, who is more or less expert when he gives an order to an artisan—in individual cases he is advised by the master craftsman himself—is not usually knowledgeable when he appears as a buyer.


Benjamin attributed to these new market conditions the rise in the importance of the notion of taste, now made necessary as a marketing procedure destined to compensate for the consumer's lack of understanding of the object of consumption addressing him. “In the same measure as the expertness of a customer declines,” Benjamin reflected, “the importance of his taste increases—both for him and for the manufacturer” (105). In this distancing from the verbal aesthetic object created by the new market conditions and the general disaffection between the writer and the experiences and interests of his class, is located the socio-economic “development which literature reflects in l'art pour l'art. This doctrine and its corresponding practice for the first time give taste a dominant position in poetry,” wrote Benjamin (105). And in terms compatible with those Sartre used in his analysis of the mid-century writer's loss of energy in the dialectic relationship of form to content in the aesthetic work, Benjamin explains why poetic taste acquired such an inflated value at the time.

In l'art pour l'art the poet for the first time faces language the way the buyer faces the commodity on the open market. He has lost his familiarity with the process of its production to a particularly high degree. The poets of l'art pour l'art are the last about whom it can be said that they ‘come from the people’. They have nothing to formulate with such urgency that it could determine the coining of their words. Rather, they have to choose their words. … The poet of l'art pour l'art wanted to bring to language above all himself—with all the idiosyncrasies, nuances, and imponderables of his nature. These elements are reflected in taste. The poet's taste guides him in his choice of words. But the choice is made only among words which have not already been coined by the object itself—that is, which have not been included in its process of production.


Benjamin's incisive materialist insights into the fabric of literature are still in advance of most sociocritical approaches to literature in that they investigate problems concerning the historicity of poetic form, as opposed to a sole concern with content. In asking how genre and style tend to mediate between writer and reader—producer and consumer—of the aesthetic object, Benjamin analyzed the impact of history and of the language of labor in these processes of production and reception, and in these mediations affecting the aesthetic work he identified the seal of alienation.

Furthermore, Benjamin not only noticed this alienation in the process of reception of the work of art, that is, in the contractual understanding between writer and public, but also in its process of production, that is, in the relationship of the writer to his own productive force. This process included in the case of Parnassian poetry elevated diction, classical rhetorical turns, and worn-out conventional molds and devices, regenerated to maintain a pact between the public and the artist as producer of discursive representations for others, now perceived from their point of view as purchasers of aesthetic commodities—that is, of signs of taste and social distinction to be learned and reiterated to others. This communicative process wherein the exchange value of the semiotic product determines its quality from the start of the process of production is enforced by the occultation of use value specific to the industrial mode of production. It would thus seem to have impoverished the lyric mode, as the words and images the poet picks are selected according to a social criterion of taste—as opposed to need—and are no longer motivated by necessities external to the order of convention. Benjamin's observations about Art for Art's sake or formalist aesthetics in general thus consider an excessive investment of form as a diversion of poetic energies from the socio-political scene, and from repressed, potentially disturbing historical memories. The “otherwordliness” of such art, which Benjamin primarily associated with the emergence and the rapid commercial success of the roman-feuilleton genre, satisfied the middle-class customer's demand both for distraction and for insulation from further reminders of the social ills for which members of the bourgeoisie doubtless felt vaguely responsible, and this uncanny desire can also be extended to a decoding of the language of the lyric.

It is thus in a certain lack of responsiveness to empirical possibilities of change that the normative poetic form defining the taste of the Second Empire bourgeois readership itself stopped being challenged into creativity by new material circumstances, since according to Benjamin, the poetic word no longer bore the pressure of the affect, object or event that gave rise to the need for the expression of the poem in the first place, and to the concurrent need for its being read by someone. Finally, Benjamin compares this process of symbolic alienation and substitution in the experience of literary discourse to the manner in which buyers are led to settle for a commodity about whose use value they know little, and for which they have no real need. Since he is no longer shopping for signifiers, that is, for new means of subjective production that could be put to use in the objective world, it is enough that the consumer of elegant verse should be made to feel he is being tasteful or fashionable in his selection of signifieds—the aesthetic sign thereby acquiring a narcissistically acceptable psychological exchange value.

In L'Idiot de la famille's analysis of the play of contradictions haunting this epoch's consciousness of itself, Sartre aimed to identify the deep ideological complicity between the promoters of l'Art Absolu and the material and cultural interests of the Second Empire's dominant class. Sartre described the objective solidarity between the aesthetic idealism and ethical nihilism of this period's writers, and the bourgeoisie's (the buying and reading public's) demand from its intellectuals and artists for illusory representations of its own image and values. This collective work of self-representation was vital to the “positive consciousness” or good conscience of the middle-class, as it was setting itself up into the universal class all the while going about its business of exploiting a majoritarian work force. In this context, Sartre offers a valuable understanding of the ideological repression organized around the representation of the human body's material dimension of need—a reality the guilty bourgeoisie did not care to recall—and of the reinforcement of this repression through the epoch's artistic practice, a collusion that Rimbaud however resisted through his corporeal imagery and forceful language of the body's sexuality and needy nature. Walter Benjamin had also drawn attention to the continuity of this idealistic aesthetic doctrine and how it ultimately served the material and cultural interests of the ruling class in his sketch of nineteenth-century French literary trends. Quoting Marx's analysis of the relationship between the bourgeoisie and its intellectuals during the crisis brought about by Louis-Napoléon's coup de force, he linked the success of the aesthetics of Art for Art's sake to the period's politics.

The theory of l'art pour l'art assumed decisive importance around 1852, at a time when the bourgeoisie sought to take its ‘cause’ from the hands of the writers and the poets. In The Eighteenth Brumaire Marx recollects this moment, when ‘the extra-parliamentary masses of the bourgeoisie … through the brutal abuse of their own press,’ called upon Napoleon ‘to destroy their speaking and writing segment, their politicians and literati, so that they might confidently pursue their private affairs under the protection of a strong and untrammeled government.’ At the end of this development may be found Mallarmé and the theory of poésie pure. There the cause of his own class has become so far removed from the poet that the problem of a literature without an object becomes the center of discussion.


The theoretical ground of a formalist or aestheticist position in the poetic field can be derived from a lasting philosophical antinomy between ethics and aesthetics, on the one hand, and from a traditional generic opposition between prose and poetry within the literary domain, on the other. The formalist stand is not one limited to discrete moments in the former or current centuries, but a recurrent ideological position in literary history. The stress on form usually emerges at the height or in the aftermath of extreme historical tensions and social crisis, in different appropriations of the philosophical discourse of the times and with varying justifications of the apolitical option. Through his subversive mixing of the discourses of lyricism and of political economy, Arthur Rimbaud actively resisted such generic divisions, and advocated a performative, world-oriented aesthetics. “L'art éternel aurait ses fonctions, comme les poètes sont citoyens. La Poésie ne rythmera plus l'action; elle sera en avant,” he emphatically stated, taking sides against Plato's exclusion of poets from the Republic, in a letter written over that spring of 1871 (OC 252). Kristin Ross again nicely summed up his oppositional poetics when she concluded: “By arguing and enacting a definition of the poetic that embraces sociopolitical themes and practical, utilitarian concerns, Rimbaud sets himself against not only the Parnassians but against what would become the dominant nineteenth- and twentieth-century avant-garde stance, the one best exemplified by Mallarmé's lifelong concern with hygienically rescuing a truly ‘poetic’ language of evocation from the hegemonic vulgarity of bourgeois utilitarianism and precision” (89). It thus seems necessary at a time around the centennial of his death to distinguish anew Rimbaud's writerly position from any tradition of “pure poetry,” and to carefully reinterpret his fiery works at a critical distance from the sanitized Symbolist Company with which a conservative reading establishment has generally associated him.


  1. Among the many books on the Parnasse movement, Pierre Martino's Parnasse et Symbolisme (Paris: Armand Colin, 1925) and Robert Denommé's The French Parnassian Poets (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, year?) are still very helpful.

  2. Jean-Paul Sartre, L'Idiot de la famille; Gustave Flaubert de 1821 à 1857 (Paris: Gallimard, 1972).

  3. Ross Chambers, “Réflexions sur l'inspiration Communarde de Rimbaud,” in Revue des Lettres Modernes 370-373 (Paris: Minard, 1973): 64.

  4. “Literature Deterritorialized,” in A New History of French Literature. Edited by Denis Hollier (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989) 716.

  5. Œuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1972) 236.

  6. “L'Ecole païenne,” Œuvres (Paris: Gallimard, 1932) 2: 423.

  7. Kristin Ross, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune (Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1988) 36.

  8. For a recent psychoanalytical study of this imagery in Rimbaud, see Anne Berger, “L'or à la bouche: portrait du poète en buveur et pisseur,” in PO & SIE 56 (Paris: Belin, 1991): 109-121.

  9. Œuvres (Paris: Garnier, 1981) 113.

  10. Jean-Paul Sartre, Qu'est-ce que la Littérature? (Paris: Gallimard, 1986) 154. Author's italics.

  11. The slang verb “torcher” (to wipe) extends the scatological paradigm.

  12. For a thorough study of the emergence of this new genre, see Jonathan Monroe, A Poverty of Objects: The Prose Poem and the Politics of Genre (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987).

  13. Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (London: New Left Books, Verso Edition, 1983) 11. Author's italics.

James Lawler (essay date 1994)

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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 Verlaine.—Alors, rien du tout … des lunes blanches, des lunes noires, qui se poursuivaient.”1 The experience hardly seems to have gone deep. Much has nevertheless been made of it by a number of critics who call it decisive and associate it with “Matinée d'ivresse.” One thinks, for instance, of Antoine Adam (“il est certain que Rimbaud s'inspire de sa première séance de haschisch”) and Suzanne Bernard (“il est fort probable qu'il a écrit ce poème peu après cette première expérience”).2 Other commentators proceed along similar lines, whether cursorily (Louis Forestier: “Ce poème a été inspiré par l'expérimentation du haschisch”) or at some length and with uncustomary stress (Yves Bonnefoy: “une découverte bouleversante”; again: “aussitôt formulée l'hypothèse de cette drogue, tout le poème s'éclaire”; again: “Le poison de ‘Matinée d'ivresse’ est assurément le haschisch”).3 Approached in these terms, the poem bears witness to a private event, the apprehension of an artificial paradise.

On the other hand, there are those who believe that “Matinée d'ivresse” expresses a concerted destructiveness having little—perhaps nothing—to do with drugs. The Rimbaud who shows his colors in this poem enunciates dissolution (Jean-Pierre Richard: “Le monde ‘un,’ un moment entrevu, se défait en une multiplicité vertigineuse”), disconnectedness (W. M. Frohock: “obviously, Rimbaud abandons normal syntax just where the reader will be sure to miss it”), mocking detachment (Pierre Brunel: “Dérision de la foi traditionnelle; mais peut-être aussi, à l'avance, dérision du nouvel évangile rimbaldien”), and philosophical doubt (again Pierre Brunel: “la fragilité de toute position, l'incertitude de toute démarche”)4; he attacks traditional thought and feeling (Robert Greer Cohn: “ruthlessly destructive of the sentimental or ‘calumniating’ as Nietzsche would say, old ways”), turns from logocentrism (Atle Kittang: “un désir de fuite hors de la clôture discursive”), and subverts the nature and function of the meaningful poem (André Guyaux: “le texte n'a plus d'exacte situation chronologique, comme s'il pouvait s'absorber dans l'espace défini par le discours poétique”).5 Such readings tend to imply an anti-poet—voyou rather than voyant—who took arms against his own identity, his language, the France of his time.

Elatedly to enjoy or willfully to undo? The contrast is great. All can be said to turn on the way the reader interprets the last words: “Voici le temps des ASSASSINS.” Is not Rimbaud developing the hashish/assassin relationship mentioned by Baudelaire in Les Paradis artificiels, by Gautier in Le Club des hachichins, by Michelet in Histoire de France? Each puts the drug's effect on the fidâ'îs, or followers of the Old Man of the Mountain, in characteristic fashion: Baudelaire underlines a passivity he condemns (“une obéissance passive et irréfléchie”), Gautier, devoted service (“un dévouement absolu”), Michelet, mad valor (“ce courage furieux”). With various nuances the authors directly or indirectly follow the way opened by a common ancestor who was the most famous Arabist of his day. Silvestre de Sacy read a memoir to the Institut de France in 1809 concerning the origin of “assassin” in which he showed that the Arabic form (haschâshîn or hashîshiyyûn) could be held to signify the users of intoxicating hemp. In his explanation he emphasized the total obedience—”passive” and “unthinking,” Baudelaire puts it—of the Imâm's fidâ'îs once they had imbibed the drug: “Toute leur education avait pour objet de les convaincre qu'en obéissant aveuglément aux ordres de leur chef, ils s'assuraient, après leur mort, la jouissance de tous les plaisirs qui peuvent flatter les sens.”6

De Sacy saw a clear connection between the poles of pleasure and violence since the latter, in his version, depends on the former: the assassins do not act in a state of drugged ecstasy (as one category of Rimbaud critics would have us believe in their readings of “Matinée d'ivresse”); nor is destruction an end sufficient to itself (as other interpreters have said with regard to the same poem). Rather do they seek to recover, by way of blind obedience, the original ecstasy. This detail I believe to be crucial to our understanding of the poem. Rimbaud's starting-point, I would propose, is etymology more than raw experience. His imagination is fired by the paradoxical interconnection of “haschisch” and “assassin” which his poem will enact with expressive intensity.

Yet we need to go further. Rimbaud gives focus to an element that de Sacy recognizes but does not develop and that goes largely unspoken by Baudelaire, Gautier and Michelet. I refer to the religious connotations. Rimbaud translates, as it were, the energy of reformed Ismailism which, Henri Corbin observes, is “une insurrection de l'Esprit contre toutes les servitudes.”7 That Rimbaud was sensitive to the call of the Orient we know from several of his poems (“Je retournais à l'Orient et à la sagesse première et éternelle”)8 and from his life after poetry. This habit of mind sprang not only from his refusal to accept contemporary society and its conventions, nor from his willed bonding with the absent father, Arabist and rebel. Such reasons, if they no doubt obtain, do not suffice, since we must also take into account his ability to give voice to religious feeling—still more, quasi-mystical expectancy (“J'attends Dieu avec gourmandise”).9 “Matinée d'ivresse” places before us a Bien and a Beau, an éternité, a salvatory promesse; it proclaims a sacred investiture, a sanctification, a faith. The adolescent who at one stage in Charleville was called a “sale petit cagot” (Delahaye), and who later lampooned institutionalized religion, writes a text as inspired as “Génie.”

Who, we ask, is speaking? Rimbaud adopts the voice of an initiate who plays out his drama of belief.

O mon. Bien! O mon. Beau! Fanfare atroce où je ne trébuche point! Chevalet féerique! Hourra pour l'œuvre inouïe et pour le corps merveilleux, pour la première fois! Cela commença sous les rires des enfants, cela finira par eux. Ce poison va rester dans toutes nos veines même quand, la fanfare tournant, nous serons rendu à l'ancienne inharmonie. O maintenant, nous si digne de ces tortures! rassemblons fervemment cette promesse surhumaine faite à notre corps et à notre âme créés: cette promesse, cette démence! L'élégance, la science, la violence! On nous a promis d'enterrer dans l'ombre l'arbre du bien et du mal, de déporter les honnêtetés tyranniques, afin que nous amenions notre très pur amour. Cela commença par quelques dégoûts et cela finit,—ne pouvant nous saisir sur-le-champ de cette éternité,—cela finit par une débandade de parfums.

Rire des enfants, discrétion des esclaves, austérité des vierges, horreur des figures et des objets d'ici, sacrés soyez-vous par le souvenir de cette veille. Cela commençait par toute la rustrerie, voici que cela finit par des anges de flamme et de glace.

Petite veille d'ivresse, sainte! quand ce ne serait que pour le masque dont tu nous as gratifié. Nous t'affirmons, méthode! Nous n'oublions pas que tu as glorifié hier chacun de nos âges. Nous avons foi au poison. Nous savons donner notre vie tout entière tous les jours.

Voici le temps des ASSASSINS.10

The poem has no narrative or logical development; on the contrary, it carries ellipsis to a supreme degree (“Nous tenons cette prose,” one critic writes, “pour l'une des plus difficiles à interpréter dans la série des Illuminations”).11 The initiate multiplies nonsequiturs, exclamations, parataxis, changes of tense; uses typography in what seems to be a gratuitous way; invokes and commands an addressee (“tu”), or more than one addressee (“vous”)—or is it his vision itself?—that seem enigmatic; repeats words and phrases by which we realize the urgency of the mood, yet in a manner that is elusive. May not the reader consider “Matinée d'ivresse” to be a hymn—of pleasure or destruction, call it what we may—whose power is its very incoherence?

Nevertheless the poem has no incoherence in its form, which marries clarity with movement, cogency of binary, ternary, and quaternary rhythms with composition. Of all the details worthy of remark, the refrain, or quasi-refrain, is the most original in the way it organizes the poem. It occurs on three occasions:

Cela commença sous les rires des enfants, cela finira par eux.

Cela commença par quelques dégoûts et cela finit,—ne pouvant nous saisir sur-le-champ de cette éternité,—cela finit par une débandade de parfums.

Cela commençait par toute la rustrerie, voici que cela finit par des anges de flamme et de glace.

The circumflex pattern appears first in the guise of past and future children's laughter, then bitterness that becomes sweetness, then country roughness that becomes supernatural image. The words each time resolve the tensions they posit by telling of resolution. It is possible that we do not at once hear the refrain (it has, surprisingly, not drawn the close attention of commentators); but when we do hear it, we recognize the source from which it springs. We know it already as we know a round like “La Ronde du muguet.”

Ça finit comm'ça commence,
La romance, la romance
Ça finit comm'ça commence,
La romance du muguet.

Naivety offers its freshness. The Rimbaud poem that has shocked its readers advances in concert with a lyrical intention. The meaning cannot be separated from song.

I would submit that the intertextual model is the dithyramb, or impassioned chant,12 in which a refrain punctuates the development. Instead of a document of drug-taking or destructiveness, we are first and foremost sensitive to vocal modulation. At the same time Rimbaud conducts his poem with such suppleness that we are not necessarily aware of the changes as they take place. But “Matinée d'ivresse” contains a sequence of attitudes. Let me indicate what I take to be the five-part progression. The first section declares the euphoria (“O mon Bien! O mon Beau! …”) of an ecstatic apostrophe to the divine; the second looks to the future (“Ce poison va rester dans toutes nos veines …”), affirms the promise (“promesse,” “promesse,” “promis”) implicit in the initial moment; the third treats ecstasy as memory (“Rire des enfants …”) by looking back to the revelation from the distance of the morning after (“sacrés soyez-vous par le souvenir de cette veille”); the fourth transforms the past event still further (“petite veille d'ivresse, sainte …”) for it is now held to have engendered an attitude, a method, a faith; the fifth, brutally short (“Voici le temps des ASSASSINS”), returns to a present that is invigorated by the previous four scenes and that can suddenly be identified with violence. “Matinée d'ivresse” leads from ecstasy to action like hashish to assassin, image to deed. The self evolves, traces a cycle of viewpoints, reaches its truth: the morning drunkenness of the title is known at the end to be the same, yet not the same, as the initial drunkenness evoked in the body of the text, for it is that visionary experience realized by the poem.

With two invocations the ideal presence is declared. “O mon Bien! O mon Beau!” The words draw us by their italicized possessives, capitalized nouns. The poet names values from which no distance separates him—indeed, as if he and they were face to face. They are for him as unarguable as a living god.

The good and beautiful are hailed in their uniqueness, celebrated in their harmony. The next sentence, however, spells out hidden tensions that change the register from passionate abstraction to passionate metaphor.

Fanfare atroce où je ne trébuche point! Chevalet féerique!

The oxymoron focuses the encounter of cruelty and pleasure, musical flourish and intense suffering, machine of torture (but “chevalet” also suggests the labors associated with the artist's easel) and childlike wonder. The self, looking contradictions in the eye, finds them an ordeal it welcomes and embraces in a chiastic balance like an essential initiation. No halt intervenes: the strong negative demonstrates resolve; alliteration (“atroce,” “trébuche”; “fanfare,” “féerique”) designates linkage.

Again the voice rises, its force magnified by a ternary rhythm and three uses of “pour” that praise the work—is it the ideal poem or a new world?—as miraculous creation (“pour l'œuvre inouïe”); the body—is it a god or the poet himself?—as resurrected being (“pour le corps merveilleux”); the moment—is it origin or end?—as apocalypse (“pour la première fois”).

Hourra pour l'œuvre inouïe et pour le corps merveilleux, pour la première fois!

Attention shifts from fullness of work, to fullness of being, to fullness of time. Where the previous two sentences pointed up extremes, these words subsume extremes in a jubilant shout (“hourra”). It is the exultant apprehension of grace (we compare St. Jean of the Cross: “un subido sentir / de la diuinal essencia”).13

A refrain is heard encompassing past, present, future in an ultimate innocence: “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be: world without end. …” Children's laughter will triumph no less surely than a round sung over and over.

Cela commença sous les rires des enfants, cela finira par eux.

The poem reduces all things to the simplicity of the neutral pronoun “cela.” Nostalgia is excluded; memory and expectation are one; lyricism is synonymous with a happy teleology.

The initiate begins the second section, or “stanza,” of his poem by turning confidently to the future.

Ce poison va rester dans toutes nos veines même quand, la fanfare tournant, nous serons rendu à l'ancienne harmonie.

Alliteration and assonance open a chain of sound that grasps the tensions of the first section from a different angle. The fanfare already invoked (“fanfare atroce”) will pass as inevitably as the refrain (“la fanfare tournant”); harmony will be followed by the return of discord (“l'ancienne harmonie”). Yet this fall from grace is only a semblance for the poet knows that, having experienced the good and beautiful to the depths of his being, he cannot lose them. (We compare St. Paul: God “delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us”).14 The ecstatic vision has become internal like a poison that kills the man he was, so that he can look at himself in a new mode. He who spoke in the first person singular (“mon,” “mon,” “je”) now uses the royal singular (“nos,” “nous serons rendu”) which marks the change from past enthusiasm to present trust. At the same time the future tense encapsulates the promise by which he will live, his loss being countered by gain.

The longest sentence of the poem moves in three sharply graduated parts like the previous sentence, but unlike the binary groups of the first section. It addresses the self, assumes its own suffering. If ecstasy has ended, the time has come to affirm the fruitfulness of this “furnace of affliction” which serves coming fulfillment.

O maintenant nous si digne de ces tortures! rassemblons fervemment cette promesse surhumaine faite à notre âme et à notre corps créés: cette promesse, cette démence!

The will is strong (“rassemblons”), feeling is passionate (“fervemment”). “Promesse” occurs twice; it prolongs first the transcendent good and beautiful by “surhumaine,” then “oeuvre inouïe” and “corps merveilleux” by “notre âme” and “notre corps créés.” The poem is image and act inscribed in the sensibility like a sign we foreknow yet cannot explain.

A rhyme that recalls nonsense poems or ancient charms (“enfants difformes de la rime et du rythme,” Colette writes) takes up the last word of the previous sentence.

L'élégance, la science, la violence!

The three words propose a new trinity that combines beauty with organized knowledge, knowledge with emotional force: the grace that is elegance and science, the passion that is violence. If to combine these words outside the poem would be gratuitous, they become here a chorus that accords sensibility, intellect, feeling.

The two uses of “promesse” have prepared the new verb and the accompanying vision.

On nous a promis d'enterrer dans l'ombre l'arbre du bien et du mal, de déporter les honnêtetés tyranniques, afin que nous amenions notre très pur amour.

Who is this “on”—god, priest, unmediated ecstasy? We know only that “it” has declared the future in oracular fashion, rejected the authoritarian Jehovah. The echo of Genesis 2:17 shows the moral and metaphysical gravity of a poet who would go beyond the old dictates and who expects the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to be buried like a corpse or a lifeless body of thought.15 The biblical intertext is evident. “Honnêtetés tyranniques,” on the other hand, is not a traditional expression but an ironic Rimbaldian periphrasis for codes of behavior that are stifling: the land will be returned to its original state, unencumbered.

The third part of the ternary sentence describes love as child/loved figure/Messianic idea (“notre très pur amour”), and resolution as concrete action (“amenions”). The grain will come to ripeness (“Avoine, avoine, avoine, / que le beau temps t'amène”),16 love will triumph over the conventions of good and evil.

The section concludes on a recurrence of the pattern of the refrain which introduces a feast of sensations—auditory, gustatory, olfactory.

Cela commença par quelques dégoûts et cela finit,—ne pouvant nous saisir sur-le-champ de cette éternité,—cela finit par une débandade de parfums.

The beginning coincides with disaffection for that which is (“quelques dégoûts”), hence a need for change. But the vision cannot be grasped whole and entire: a participial phrase is introduced as causative, though the syntactic relationship to the main clause is weak. Yet the failure to have and hold is never final. Does not the poet even now smell perfumes as intoxicating as any liquor, as heady as some rout of reason? The climactic moment of the second section is not one of joy as in the first lines, but enthusiasm that finds the answer to disaffection in pleasure beyond any conventional order (“débandade”), beyond any precise thought (“parfums”).

A new paragraph and syntactic mode signal the altered viewpoint. Having advanced from ecstasy to promise, the poet has recourse to memory.

Rire des enfants, discrétion des esclaves, austérité des vierges, horreur des figures et des objets d'ici, sacrés soyez-vous par le souvenir de cette veille.

The invocation is fourfold. “Rire des enfants” repeats the already valorized innocent pleasure of the first refrain, “discrétion des esclaves” points to those who recognize their dependence on the original vision and live by and for its promise: they are not wild but judicious, not rash but prudent, in obedience to a freely accepted law (as we read in the second section: “rassemblons fervemment cette promesse surhumaine …”); “austérité des vierges” designates, not a “given” purity, but purity aware of itself and of its deliberate choice of austereness (again, the first and second section foreshadow the phrase: “le corps merveilleux, pour la première fois,” “notre très pur amour”); “horreur des figures et des objets d'ici” takes up the previously expressed disgust with the world as it is (“l'arbre du bien et du mal”), and impatience to cleanse society of its compromises, hypocrisies, reifications (“les honnêtetés tyranniques”). Here the “elegance” of laughter, the “science” of discretion and austerity join with the “violence” of horror. Change is demanded by an initiate who would reject appearances in favor of what he knows to be the good and beautiful. His courage lies in the memory of the epiphany he assuredly enjoyed the day before (“le souvenir de cette veille”), by whose values he will live. Like a liturgical thanksgiving, an imperative stylized by inversion (“sacrés soyez-vous”) declares that the wisdom he draws from remembered experience—not from any named god—is holy. The self is bound to the past, tied (re-ligio) to a founding revelation.

The section ends on a further intrusion of folk-song. The origin has become peasant roughness as natural as laughter, as jubilant as the first cries of the poem.

Cela commençait par toute la rustrerie, voici que cela finit par des anges de flamme et de glace.

The imperfect tense indicates an evolving state; “voici que cela finit” actualizes dynamic perception. Time is the means by which the epiphany becomes endless devotion. If critics have explained “flamme” and “glace” as the representation of the physical effects of drug-taking (thus, Yves Bonnefoy: “Baudelaire … fait allusion à une ‘sensation de fraîcheur aux extrémités’ et cela explique sans doute les anges de flamme et de glace de ‘Matinée d'ivresse’”),17 we do not need to reduce the significance to a borrowing. Do they not evoke the numinous? The poet finds the language of religion, speaks in paradoxes.

Inspiration leads to adherence. The hour has come to see the past from another angle that hallows, transforms, institutes, sanctions, espouses.

Petite veille d'ivresse, sainte! quand ce ne serait que pour le masque dont tu nous as gratifié. Nous t'affirmons, méthode! Nous n'oublions pas que tu as glorifié hier chacun de nos âges. Nous avons foi au poison. Nous savons donner notre vie tout entière tous les jours.

Like the second section, the fourth comprises five sentences, but shorter and more intense because of the repeated syntactic pattern of simple periods introduced by “nous.” The tone is one of lucid commitment which holds us by direct address to the intimate “tu” like a lover mindful of the past. The poet recalls a meeting, now affectionately invoked in its temporal limits (“petite veille d'ivresse”), which announced this morning after (“matinée d'ivresse”) of intoxicated recollection. The past bounty is pronounced to be saintly for it has transformed the present, bequeathing at the very least (“quand ce ne serait …”) an attitude, an approach, a carnival disguise (“masque”). The sentence, purposely understated, conveys sharp self-appraisal. Nevertheless, more than an attitude, past experience provides a plan of action that brings order to disorder, method to madness (“méthode”): a logic, a technique, a poetics (for method is also the branch of rhetoric that teaches the art of composition). Does that sound too coldly systematic? On the contrary, the self expresses the depth of its gratitude for the riches received. In rhythms that swell with emotion it intones its allegiance to the past (“Nous n'oublions pas …”), its awareness of blessing (“tu as glorifié hier chacun de nos âges”). It is as if the “tu” had invested the initiate with splendor. From the exact moment of his vision (“hier”), past, present, and future—“chacun de nos âges”—share a single favor; time is redeemed. Now, after the act of thanksgiving, the poet can formulate his confession of faith: “Nous avons foi au poison.” This poison, evoked in the second section, is no longer the perilous workings of promise but the substance of things hoped for—that is, means and end, mortality and eternity—no less ambiguous than hashish/assassin. The initiate can affirm his fidelity in a last broad sentence without fear of hyperbole (“notre vie tout entière tous les jours”). He answers grace with self-sacrifice, life received with life given. Only tautological language can express the measure of this love.

The abrupt octosyllable on which the poem closes brings a return to the concrete. A new time, a meaningful present have come.

Voici le temps des ASSASSINS.

On this morning of self-appraisal the enthusiasm and promise of the day before, the emotional memory and intellectual commitment that followed, are resolved into action. The poet will inflict death on the world that is: the martyr will be murderer, the changed being will bring change. By his use of capital letters he recalls the “Bien” and “Beau” of the opening, but goes further. For if “ASSASSINS” shocks by its bold typographical face and semantic truculence, it also anchors the poem as rite. Involving the faith and commitment of the activist, it is end that is beginning, death that is life, intoxication that is recognition of a charge. By imagination and intellectual resourcefulness on the one hand, by passion and strength of will on the other—“l'élégance, la science, la violence”—dream can become reality.

In one of his early essays T. S. Eliot attacks those critics “who peer lasciviously between the lines for biographical confession.”18 We may say that Rimbaud has had more than his share of such readers, and that the reception of the Illuminations in general, and of “Matinée d'ivresse” in particular, has been closely tied to the poet's real or imagined life. I have endeavored, on the other hand, to show a poem which grasps an initiatory act. A time of consecration is named that we do not limit to a hypothetical Rimbaud but take into ourselves.

The form recalls the Dionysian fervor of the dithyramb marked by the occurrence of a refrain. The five parts modulate angles of vision as we move from present to future, future to past, past to present. We attend to rhymes, insistent sound, dramatic rhythms; we find a richly articulated serial development that explicates the epiphany stanza by stanza.

Can we not, if we think of the letter to Demeny of May 1871, find striking parallels? Rimbaud designates the unsolicited grace that visits true poets (“le cuivre s'éveille clairon …”)19 and the consequential self-exploration and self-creation that imply a disordering and reordering of the natural man: “il épuise en lui tous les poisons”; again: “Ineffable torture où il a besoin de toute la foi, de toute la force surhumaine …”. Poison and torture, faith and determination are the elements of an experience that turn the original awakening into a willfully assumed meeting with the unknown: “Car il arrive à l'inconnu!” The ecstatic moment leads to an adventure that serves mankind. Thus one of the levels on which we may interpret “Matinée d'ivresse” is that of the poetic act advancing from inspiration to application. Art is seen in the most immediate terms as a manner of unpredictable yet consciously elaborated deep sea-change. In this respect “Jeunesse” is analogous to “Matinée d'ivresse” inasmuch as it is a similarly complex enactment of the poet no less strong in his dream (“impulsion créatrice”) than in his will to subvert (“rien des apparences actuelles”).20

The sociopolitical dimensions are likewise apparent: the poem encapsulates an uncompromising movement of revolt. The adolescent who rejoiced in the Commune and who may well have fought alongside the francs-tireurs in late April and early May 1871 internalizes insurrection. Elsewhere he writes: “O le plus violent Paradis de la grimace enragée!”; again: “Restitution progressive de la franchise première”; again: “L'affection et l'avenir, la force et l'amour que nous, debout dans les rages et les ennuis, nous voyons passer dans le ciel de tempête et les drapeaux d'extase.”21 “Matinée d'ivresse” possesses an excitement that springs from a vision of revolutionary praxis.

Yet such approaches do not circumscribe the sense. The contradictions of pleasure and pain, laughter and poison, harmony and discord, life and death write a properly religious language. The voice is not only that of the poet as voyant and voyou but of the initiate; and this figure of the initiate is projected in terms of the drama that is fundamental to the relationship of hashish to assassin. The poet speaks with the zeal of a fanatic for whom ecstasy leads to destruction but destruction to ecstasy since, if hashish explains assassin, assassin reinscribes hashish-eater. Resonant, economical, “Matinée d'ivresse” embodies the sacrificed-and-sacrificer within us, paradigm of the dedicated life.


  1. Ernest Delahaye: Souvenirs familiers. Paris: Messein, 1925; republished in Frédéric Eigeldinger and Albert Gendre, eds., Delahaye témoin de Rimbaud (Neuchâtel: La Baconnière, 1974), p. 141.

  2. Antoine Adam, “L'énigme des Illuminations,Revue des Sciences humaines (December 1950): 240; Suzanne Bernard and André Guyaux, eds., Arthur Rimbaud, Oeuvres (Paris: Garnier, 1987), p. 460. Ernest Delahaye had spoken of alcohol: “Quant à l'alcool, il lui a inspiré un poème qui est un chef d'œuvre: ‘Matinée d'ivresse …’” (Rimbaud l'artiste moral et l'être moral. Paris: Messein, 1923, p. 94).

  3. Louis Forestier, ed., Arthur Rimbaud, Poésie (Paris: Gallimard, “Poésie,” 1973), p. 277; Yves Bonnefoy, Rimbaud par lui-même (Paris: Seuil, 1961), pp. 156-161.

  4. Jean-Pierre Richard, Poésie et Profondeur (Paris: Seuil, 1955), p. 219; W. M. Frohock, Rimbaud's Poetic Practice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), p. 167; Pierre Brunel, Rimbaud (Paris: Hatier, 1973), p. 84, and Rimbaud, Projets et réalisations (Seyssel: Champvallon, 1983), p. 271.

  5. Robert Greer Cohn, The Poetry of Rimbaud (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 293; Atle Kittang, Discours et jeu: essai d'analyse des textes d'Arthur Rimbaud (Grenoble: Presses universitaires, 1975), p. 168; André Guyaux, Illuminations (Neuchâtel: La Baconnière, 1986), p. 166.

  6. Silvestre de Sacy, in Le Moniteur, No. 358, 29 July 1809.

  7. Henri Corbin, Histoire de la philosophie islamique (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), 2 vols., 1, p. 142.

  8. Oeuvres, p. 236.

  9. Ibid., p. 215

  10. Ibid., p. 269.

  11. Pierre Brunel, Rimbaud, p. 90.

  12. It is not surprising that enthusiasms connected with the reformed Ismailism of Alamût should suggest those of Dionysus. The Greek dithyramb has been defined as a “ronde destinée à l'occasion du sacrifice d'une victime à produire l'extase collective avec l'adjuvant de mouvements rythmiques et d'acclamations et vociférations rituelles …” (H. Jeanmaire, Dionysos: Histoire du culte de Bacchus. Paris: Payot, 1951, p. 248).

  13. St. John of the Cross: “Coplas del mismo hechas sobre un estasi de harta contemplación.”

  14. II Corinthians 1:10.

  15. “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

  16. Georges Izambard says that Rimbaud sang this refrain as he walked with him one day near the Escrébieu stream close to Charleville. See A Douai et à Charleville (Paris: Kra, 1927), pp. 92-96.

  17. Rimbaud par lui-même, p. 157.

  18. “A Brief Introduction to the Method of Paul Valéry,” The Serpent, Faber, 1924.

  19. Oeuvres, pp. 346-352.

  20. Ibid., 298. Cecil Arthur Hackett's comment on the last line of “Matinée d'ivresse” is eloquent: “… à la fin, menaçante et triomphale, de ce texte, les Assassins ne seraient-ils pas, dans l'esprit de Rimbaud, les poètes, qui ont la mission de détruire notre civilisation en vue de la refaire?” (Arthur Rimbaud, Oeuvres poétiques, ed. Cecil Arthur Hackett. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1986, p. 340).

  21. Ibid., p. 308.

Roger Little (essay date 1994)

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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 as far as Mallarmé in Un coup de Dés … or, later, Apollinaire in his Calligrammes, Rimbaud displays, in his use of prose for poetry in Illuminations for example, a concern for form no less responsive to his object than they, however much less obvious to the reader's eye. His approach to the literary imitation of reality must be understood to go beyond a concern with narrative alone. Each text espouses its object to the point where it becomes an equivalent object incorporating an expression of the poet's relationship with what he has seen and felt. The decorative is therefore relinquished in favour of the organic, integrated and hidden in often surprising and stimulating ways.

This study will first show how rewarding the investigation of selected examples and features can be, revealing some patterns of form unexpected in the usual use of prose for the communication of messages and ideas. Rimbaud's subversion of our lazy assumptions about the potential of prose for poetry will then be linked to a pattern of subversiveness apparent in his earlier writings. That pattern will finally be associated with ‘now-you-see-it-now-you-don't’ visual metaphors drawn from physics and popular imagery (for which Rimbaud expressed fondness) and which seems both to encapsulate a singularly appropriate image of his preoccupations and to suggest a way of reading his elusive and fascinating work.1

The very title Illuminations is, at least in some of its principal meanings, a programme for an instructive approach. We do not know whether the word is to be understood in English or in French, nor even indeed if it is the title Rimbaud intended. There is a general consensus, however, that it is an appropriate title for the collection, the primary sense being visionary flashes of insight, supported by a strong connotation of the jewel-like intensity of medieval illuminated manuscripts.

Rimbaud never lets us rest easy. Form is not fixed even though he may use certain narrative paradigms such as the riddle in ‘H’, the wondrous tale in many a text, lists in ‘Solde’ and ‘Dévotion’, travelogues and descriptions elsewhere. If ‘Conte’ does indeed, with whatever ironies, tell a story, such a title as ‘Sonnet’ (the second part of ‘Jeunesse’) challenges our expectations by heading a text in prose. It is an invitation to decipherment. We are impelled to seek ways in which features of a sonnet might be present in the text; and because the syntax and sense seem so unclear, we explore the overall structure and the details of the phonetics more closely. Because we are not then disappointed, we are not only duly compensated for our efforts but also willing to give Rimbaud his due for consciously constructing his text. Analysis shows that the persistent view of him as a wild wordsmith is untenable.

‘Sonnet’ consists of three sentences, the first two of almost equal length and the last approximately as long as the first two together:

Homme de constitution ordinaire, la chair n'était-elle pas un fruit pendu dans le verger;—ô journées enfantes!—le corps un trésor à prodiguer;—ô aimer, le péril ou la force de Psyché? La terre avait des versants fertiles en princes et en artistes et la descendance et la race vous poussaient aux crimes et aux deuils: le monde votre fortune et votre péril. Mais à présent le labeur comblé,—toi, tes calculs,—toi, tes impatiences—ne sont plus que votre danse et votre voix, non fixées et point forcées, quoique d'un double événement d'invention et de succès une raison,—en l'humanité fraternelle et discrète par l'univers, sans images;—la force et le droit réfléchissent la danse et la voix à présent seulement appréciées.

The opening sentence is a question, addressed to a normally constituted man, but ends with a series of exclamations which disrupt the interrogative flow. The second is a statement, clipped after the colon by a verbless element. The third, a series of statements, is dislocated and redirected at various turns by subsidiary phrases or clauses in an accumulation which seems both self-reflective through its repetitions and bewilderingly tumultuous in its effects. Yet one feature stands out as a clear realization of the title: the ‘turn’ of the sonnet, as between octave and sestet, on ‘Mais à présent’.2 And the reader looks to the repetitions of word and sound as a life-raft for his or her intelligence of the text and is not disappointed. Indeed, the patterns which emerge show shifts of tone and emphasis and an increase in intensity which mirror, however obscurely, the increase in syntactical complexity. A cluster of [εr] sounds informs the opening lines: ‘ordinaire’, ‘chair’, ‘verger’, ‘terre’, ‘fertiles’. The sound does not reappear until ‘fraternelle’ and ‘l'univers’ towards the end. Likewise [or] sounds are grouped at the beginning (‘ordinaire’, ‘corps’, ‘trésor’, ‘force’, plus the reversed form [ro] in ‘prodiguer’) but more thinly scattered later on (‘fortune’, ‘forcées’, ‘force’).

More remarkable, however, are the cases of phonemes which recur intensively only in the second half of the text (in the case of [wa]: ‘toi’, ‘toi’, ‘voix’, ‘point’, ‘quoique’, ‘droit’, ‘voix’) or with far greater frequency there: [ã] in ‘pendu’ and twice in ‘enfantes’ develops into [sã] in ‘versants’ and the second syllable of ‘descendance’ before shifting to [ãs] in the last syllable of the same word and figuring massively, like [wa], in the last sentence in ‘à presént ce’, ‘impatiences’, ‘danse’, ‘invention’, ‘sans images’ (voiced), ‘danse’ and ‘à présent seulement’. Repetitions of whole words support this increased intensity in the latter half, the more so as they all involve the insistent phonemes to which attention is drawn: ‘à présent’, ‘danse’, ‘voix’ and ‘force’, only the last being picked up from the first half of the text. Only ‘péril’ is repeated within the first two sentences, though it ‘rhymes’ with ‘fertiles’ and includes the [e] sound which clusters towards the end of the opening sentence and in the last: ‘verger’, ‘journées’, ‘prodiguer’, ‘aimer’, ‘péril’, ‘Psyché’, ‘péril’, ‘présent’, ‘fixées’, ‘forcées’, ‘l'humanité’, ‘réfléchissent’, ‘présent’, ‘appréciées’. To present all the details of related sounds (such as ‘prince’ and ‘race’ playing around [ãs]) would be inappropriate here: the patterns already traced show clearly enough how Rimbaud's poetic sense led him to shape his phonetics to compensate for the bewilderment that his syntactic and semantic obscurities might cause.

If the phonetic armature is as tightly organized as in a traditional sonnet, it seems legitimate to seek ways in which the text might be divided into octave and sestet and even into individual lines. One such hypothetical presentation, with the ‘rhyming’ pattern indicated, might be as follows:

a          Homme de constitution ordinaire, la chaira
a          n'était-elle pas un fruit pendu dans le ver-
b          ger;—ô journées enfantes!—le corps un trésor
b          à prodiguer;—ô aimer, le péril ou la for-
c          ce de Psyché? La terre avait des versants fertiles
— (e)          en princes et en artistes et la descendance
—          et la race vous poussaient aux crimes et aux deuils:
c          le monde votre fortune et votre péril.
e          Mais à présent le labeur comblé,—toi, tes calculs,—toi, tes impatiences—
f          ne sont plus que votre danse et votre voix, non fixées et point forcées,
{f}          quoique d'un double événement d'invention et de succès
{e}          + une raison,—en l'humanité fraternelle et discrète par l'univers, sans
e          images;—la force et le droit réflechissent la danse
f          et la voix à présent seulement appréciées.

However approximate some of the rhymes (such as those in curly brackets), the dispositions shows graphically at least how tightly the prose is organized while at the same time benefiting from the very fluidity of prose in its game of hide-and-seek with the reader.

Another approximation to a prose sonnet in the Illuminations may help to suggest that ‘Sonnet’ is not an isolated example of the poet's using appearances as a foil for his exploration of a higher reality. The syntax of ‘Mystique’ is more conventional and the careful balancing of features more evident than in ‘Sonnet’, but it confirms this balance in the phonetic structure in support of the meaning:

Sur la pente du talus les anges tournent leurs robes de laine dans les herbages d'acier et d'émeraude.

Des prés de flammes bondissent jusqu'au sommet du mamelon. A gauche le terreau de l'arête est piétiné par tous les homicides et toutes les batailles, et tous les bruits désastreux filent leur courbe. Derrière l'arête de droite la ligne des orients, des progrès.

Et tandis qui la bande en haut du tableau est formée de la rumeur tournante et bondissante des conques des mers et des nuits humaines,

La douceur des étoiles et du ciel et du reste descend en face du talus, comme un panier, contre notre face, et fait l'abîme fleurant et bleu làdessous.

We are formally alerted to the fact that these are not ordinary prose paragraphs only by the comma at the end of the third phrase, but it is sufficient to make us investigate the structure more closely than we might otherwise have done. Indeed, the very balance and consistency of the presentation, with its emphasis on curvature (‘tournent’, ‘mamelon’, ‘courbe’, ‘tournante’ and ‘conques’, which thereby influences our apprehension of ‘pente’, ‘ligne’, ‘bande’ and ‘panier’) and careful positioning of features evoked (‘Sur la pente’, ‘dans les herbages’, ‘au sommet’, ‘A gauche’, ‘Derrière l'arête de droite’, ‘en haut du tableau’, ‘en face du talus’, ‘là-dessous’), makes this comma more surprising and provocative. The repetition of words is no less marked than in ‘Sonnet’, though more evenly spread across the text. Three are repeated without change: ‘talus’, ‘l'arête’ and ‘face’; three others shift to the adjectival form of the present participle: ‘tournent’—‘tournante’, ‘bondissent’—‘bondissante’ and ‘fleurie’—‘fleurant’. The reader's eye is guided from the centre of the landscape first to the left, then to the right, then upwards, and finally downwards in a grand sweep encompassing the universe. The movement is logical and all-embracing, as befits the investigation of the allegorical picture of heaven and earth, good and evil, which is described.

Closer investigation of the final line reveals a particular phonetic organization which can only be described as palindromic. Around the pivotal word ‘panier’, working backwards and forwards, one finds echoing pairs of words: ‘comme’—‘contre’, ‘face’—‘face’, ‘fleurie’—‘fleurant’ and finally ‘La douceur’—‘là-dessous’. The eye follows the descent from the sky towards the abyss with the curvature of the basket which acts as a crucible or a concave mirror for the vision. The principal semantic feature which escapes this phonetic balance occurs equidistantly from ‘panier’ and commands closer attention: ‘des étoiles et du ciel et du reste’ is mirrored by ‘l'abîme’. The formulation invites us to consider three possible meanings of ‘abîme’ which correspond to the tripartite presentation of the night sky. Firstly there is a physical gulf below the poet's gaze; secondly there is ‘the deep’, the sea; thirdly, in recognition of the fact that ‘le ciel’ means heaven as well as the sky, is the moral notion of the abyss of hell.

Once again the organization proves exceptionally tight, a fitting climax to a text whose length and shape readily suggest a prose sonnet, even to the point where the last two lines form separate ‘tercets’. If the ‘quatrains’ are less manifest, it is rather because Rimbaud is once again hiding his game: the natural division of sense in relation to the spatial disposition of the references comes not after ‘émeraude’ but after ‘mamelon’. A line break at that point would have made the ‘sonnet’ form all too obvious.

Whether we should take Rimbaud's reference to a picture literally is uncertain, but its style is suggested by the presence of angels (unless they are sheep, with their ‘robes de laine’, envisioned as such), by the mineral brilliance of the colouring (‘d'acier et d'émeraude’, ‘flammes’), by the pitting of man's evil on the left against rays of hope rising to the right, by the speech scroll (‘la bande’ with its conch-like ends) at the top of the picture, carrying the angels' or the painter's message as a ‘rumeur’ literally ‘tournante et bondissante’ on the canvas or parchment. There is something medieval or, at the latest, quattrocento about its allegorical basis which seems unmistakable, and its colouring could well lead us to look for it among illuminated manuscripts.

While the title of Illuminations would justify such a search, it is not in high art that Rimbaud expresses an interest. François Boucher (1703-70) warrants a passing mention in ‘Fête d'hiver’. Otherwise, reference is restricted in Rimbaud's writings to such painters as he knew in Paris. The most extended comment he makes on the subject, in the ‘Alchimie du verbe’ section of Une Saison en enfer, leads us firmly in the direction of popular art:

Depuis longtemps je me vantais de posséder tous les paysages possibles, et trouvais dérisoires les célébrités de la peinture et de la poésie moderne.

J'aimais les peintures idiotes, dessus de portes, décors, toiles de saltimbanques, enseignes, enluminures populaires; la littérature démodée, latin d'église, livres érotiques sans orthographe, romans de nos aïeules, contes de fées, petits livres de l'enfance, opéras vieux, refrains niais, rhythmes naïfs.

Only recently has criticism begun to take a serious interest in popular culture. Rimbaud's stated preference for popular over high art subverts traditional critical assumptions. As usual, however, we have to take a poet's declarations about himself with a grain of salt: in his adolescent revolt, he could afford to be lofty about high culture because he had so thoroughly absorbed and mastered it at school.

It is not my purpose here to trace individual sources of inspiration for Rimbaud's poems—the many recent editions of his work cater well for that legitimate interest3—but rather to suggest a cast of mind and a consequent manner. The expression of the particular kind of ambivalent relationship that Rimbaud has with his subject matter and with his reader changes as his poetry evolves. His apprenticeship, not surprisingly, includes pastiche, whether of French or Latin poets. He then develops an interest in parody analogous to the art of caricature and with a keen sense of the obscene.4 Such areas of interest cannot but involve duplication of reference and duplicity of manner, and Rimbaud raids the polysemy of language to sustain the balance between the referentially obscene and the ostensibly anodine. The experience of such writing continues to inform the Illuminations, many of which appear as conundrums to the uninitiated.

I should like to propose two visual metaphors of that conundrum which help to throw light on the nature of Rimbaud's writing. Each involves seeing and not seeing, almost but not quite simultaneously, with time and memory therefore performing a function similar to that which is required by the reading of ambivalent or even contradictory meanings into a text.

The first is stroboscopic lighting, familiar to those who go to the theatre or discos, but also used by psychiatrists provoking their patients to crisis point. At certain rates of change from light to dark, a continuous but different turning speed will be perceived, as is well known from fast-moving wheels apparently rotating slowly forwards or even backwards on the cinema or television screen. Such interplay between the discontinuous and the non-discontinuous (i.e. the continuous of the third kind) is closely analogous to our sense of Rimbaud's poetic vision. We are conscious both of the flickering interruptions of light and of the different reality to which the phenomenon gives rise, both of the dynamism and of the ambiguity. The stroboscope, invented around 1830, gave rise to the diorama, with which Rimbaud would undoubtedly have been as well acquainted as were the pensionnaires of Balzac's ‘maison Vauquer’, and eventually to the cinema. That a sequence of still images should give rise to moving pictures had not lost its almost magical fascination in Rimbaud's day.

A singularly apposite example of this effect may be found in ‘Marine’, one of the two free-verse poems in Illuminations:

Les chars d'argent et de cuivre—
Les proues d'acier et d'argent—
Battent l'écume,—
Soulèvent les souches des ronces—
Les courants de la lande,
Et les ornières immenses du reflux,
Filent circulairement vers l'est,
Vers les piliers de la forêt,—
Vers les fûts de la jetée,
Dont l'angle est heurté par des
tourbillons de lumière.

The careful interweaving of references to land and sea grants a line to each to begin with and then, in lines 5, 6, 8 and 9, has each appear as an attribute of the other. The sequence of images has speeded up. The dynamic seventh and closing lines seem to relate to either or both, as befits a seascape seemingly painted, as would be usual, from dry land, setting the sea off against features of the shore. The swirling interactions are nonetheless even more complex than at first they appear, since ‘char’ could mean a vessel as well as a cart, and ‘les souches des ronces’ not merely bramble-stumps but also nests of rays (the fish). Rimbaud seems so aware of this effect that the last line is almost a straight translation of the Greek roots of ‘stroboscope’: sτρόβοs, ‘a whirling round’, and sκοπεὶν, ‘to observe, to look at’.

The second, and related, metaphor drawn from the visual field is more directly linked with popular traditions. It is perhaps most familiar to us in playing-cards, where all the cards, and the court figures most colourfully, are so designed as to be legible from either end. Nowadays, the topsy-turvy heads and trunks are identical, but this has not always been the case, nor is a single figure an absolute requirement. … We are aware of the coexistence of the upside-down form but have to use our memory to carry its features over into our reading of the whole, just as with the stroboscope our total perception is dependent on creating non-discontinuity out of discontuity and being simultaneously aware of both. Ernst Gombrich draws attention at the beginning of his Art and Illusion to the ambivalent image ‘Rabbit or Duck?’ drawn from the humourous weekly Die fliegenden Blätter, which can be read as either creature depending on the importance attached to certain features of the drawing and notably on the extent to which, as the gaze swithers between one interpretation and another, the two shapes jutting out to the left are seen as ears or beak. Gombrich's comments are germane to the present argument:

… we are compelled to look for what is ‘really there’, to see the shape apart from its interpretation, and this, we discover, is not really possible. True, we can switch from one reading to another with increasing rapidity; we will also ‘remember’ the rabbit while we see the duck, but the more closely we watch ourselves, the more certainly will we discover that we cannot experience alternative readings at the same time.5

The psychoanalyst might wish to press the point and see in Rimbaud's double-takes something that Freud discovered through his observation of his grandson responding ‘Fort’ when an image struck him and ‘Da’ when it disappeared. His interpretation of this relating to the lost mother-figure will doubtless appeal to those who seek the origins of Rimbaud's attitudes in his strained relations with his mother, but that would be matter for another study.

Popular imagery and caricature have used the tête-bêche form over the ages to symbolize duplicity and show the interplay between appearance and reality … or merely to relish the fun of the fair.6 The popular French prints known as ‘images d'Épinal’, to which Rimbaud refers directly in ‘L'éclatante victoire de Sarrebrück’,7 gave rise, towards the end of the nineteenth century, to what are known as ‘devinettes d'Épinal’, in which there are either reversible heads … or more complex visual games in which the eye has to hunt for hidden features. …

My argument is less that Rimbaud's is a topsy-turvy world (though to some it may well appear to be) than that the ‘now-you-see-it-now-you-don't’ qualities of stroboscopic effects or of ‘devinettes d'Épinal’ and their like are analogous to the fascination he had with words in general and with the potential of verbal ambiguity in particular. Our difficulty in reading him is adumbrated by Gombrich's observation: ‘Illusion … is hard to describe or analyse, for though we may be intellectually aware of the fact that any given experience must be an illusion, we cannot, strictly speaking, watch ourselves having an illusion.’8 Rimbaud is not indulging idly in illusionism, but his fondness for an interactive multiplicity of meanings and bravura effects of semantics, of structure and of phonetics is integral to his style, where obscurity seems an essential partner for brilliance.

The mastery as well as the attendant difficulties increase as his writing develops. Pastiche and parody necessarily relate to a model: we know we have to take account of that model, and that its existence is integral to the total effect achieved. In such cases, because of the passage of time and taste, we may need instruction (as we do for Lewis Carroll or W. S. Gilbert) about the text parodied. Likewise, an obscene sub-text is precisely that: inseparable from the text which both bears and conceals it. Again, light must be thrown on period slang, that most transient and least well recorded of sociolinguistic phenomena, and on meanings of words which have slipped, sometimes out of sight, over the years, for us to appreciate Rimbaud's intentions and achievement. Our reading of the texts must be double (at least) to take account of the poet's artful ambivalences.

Structurally, Rimbaud's sleight of hand may be seen at the closure of many of the Illuminations: rarely do endings conclude. They invite us rather to reread the text in a new light and so make it stand outside the temporal, sequential assumptions of narrative. We have seen how ‘Marine’ closes in a whirl of light which requires us to reconsider the coloration of what precedes. The same is true of ‘Les Ponts’, where ‘Un rayon blanc, tombant du haut du ciel, anéantit cette comédie’. This final word seems curiously at odds with the description that has preceded and makes us investigate more closely the way in which the picture is animated. Seen first in terms of a black and white drawing, the poem offers its first non-visual reference more than halfway through, when muted minor chords lend a musical equivalent to the grey tones. Light is then made to fall on ‘une veste rouge’, as if the sunrise had singled it out for attention, rather as Monet's near-contemporary ‘Impression: soleil levant’ (1872), which gave its name to Impressionism, lends colour to such details in the early mist. With the increase in colour comes a crescendo in the music, emblematic of the three estates of the ancien régime: ‘airs populaires’, ‘concerts seigneuriaux’ and ‘hymnes publics’. Blue appears in the water thanks to the revolution of the light, so the shaft of white light at the end logically completes the tricolour and lends the text an unsuspected sociopolitical and historical dimension which legitimizes the use of the word ‘comédie’. The shadowy figures, whose presence is not stated but implied, emerge from the grey background to force a rereading of the text and bring the picture to life.

Time and again, Rimbaud's poetic closures throw us back provocatively upon our ignorance and thereby alert us to unsuspected readings. Negatives abound as the blank page reasserts its right not to explain. ‘Après le déluge’, ‘Conte’, ‘Vies’, ‘Ouvriers’, ‘Jeunesse’ and ‘Dévotion’ end on explicitly negative formulations which challenge our assumptions about what we have read. Elsewhere, the sense may be negative (or at best ambiguous) even if the syntax is not; such is the case in ‘Parade’, ‘A une raison’, ‘Matinée d'ivresse’, ‘Aube’, ‘Nocturne vulgaire’ and ‘Angoisse’. Questions and defiant claims leave us in suspense or make us bridle and search for a justification. At every turn, Rimbaud toys with our expectations and deploys his panoply of ambiguity and ambivalence in the texts and their microstructures. Their challenge to our assumptions about form and meaning, however daunting, is invigorating in the extreme, the more so as they straddle high and popular linguistic and more broadly cultural traditions.

An exceptional quality of control is required to master such material, hence the importance of demonstrating that despite certain appearances Rimbaud does indeed possess a supreme poetic intelligence. He knew well that expectations were best subverted if interest was to be sustained, and he did so by engaging in those aspects of language neglected by communicative prose: phonetic and structural patterns redundant and indeed obtrusive in the conveyance of a message, semantic ambivalences and ambiguities disruptive of logic and obstructive to clarity. Gestures towards the fixed forms of prose or even the sonnet, as we have seen, are two-edged, not to say two-fingered. It is hardly surprising that they proved unsustainable: they reflect the wilful brilliance of youth. The fluctuating, probing nature of the stroboscope and the topsy-turvy model of the ‘devinettes d'Épinal’ seem apt visual analogies for their characteristic qualities, metaphors of metaphor which can be instructive when a more straightforward approach proves difficult or impossible.


  1. I have presented several of these ideas before on different occasions and in different contexts. For a general study, readers may wish to refer to my book Rimbaud: ‘Illuminations’, Critical Guides to French Texts 29 (London: Grant and Cutler, 1983). Relevant articles I have published include ‘Rimbaud's “Mystique”: Some Observations’, French Studies, XXVI (1972), pp. 285-8; ‘Rimbaud's “Sonnet”, Modern Language Review, 75 (1980), pp. 528-33; ‘“H”: l'énigme au-delà de l'énigme’, Revue des Sciences Humaines, LVI, 184 (oct.-déc. 1981), pp. 129-44; ‘Réflexions sur les effets de forme et de style dans les Illuminations‘, in Minute d'éveil: Rimbaud maintenant (Paris: CDU et SEDES réunis, 1984), pp. 159-66; ‘Quelques choses vues dans les Illuminations: retraverser “Les Ponts”’, in Rimbaud à la loupe: Parade Sauvage: Colloque N° 2, Cambridge 10-12 septembre 1987, Hommage à C. A. Hackett, 1990, pp. 172-7; ‘Forever Alien: The Prose Poem’, PN Review, 81 (Sept.-Oct. 1991), pp. 34-5; ‘The Shaping of Modern French Poetry: Cratylian Nostalgia’, PN Review, 82 (Nov.-Dec. 1991), pp. 27-9; ‘The Shaping of Modern French Poetry: Rainbow Rimbaud’, PN Review, 84 (March-April 1992), pp. 41-4; and ‘Stroboscopies rimbaldiennes’, in Parade Sauvage: Actes du colloque du centenaire de la mort de Rimbaud (Charleville-Mézières, septembre 1991), Charleville-Mézières: Musée-Bibliothèque Rimbaud, 1992, pp. 270-77.

  2. A further feature, first drawn attention to by André Guyaux and myself, is that the manuscript of the text comprises fourteen lines. His 1983 Classiques Garnier edition of the collection (and Steinmetz's 1989 ‘GF Flammarion’ one) reproduce these fourteen lines but unfortunately have to use a smaller and different typeface for the text, thereby singling it out for special attention. Guyaux's 1985 edition (Neuchâtel: La Bacconière) presents all the texts line by line according to the manuscripts (where these are available in some form). There is no evidence that Rimbaud intended his texts (with the exceptions of ‘Marine’ and ‘Mouvement’) to be other than sequential prose, partly no doubt to create just the kind of surprise which we are investigating here.

  3. Since Antoine Adam's edition of Rimbaud's Œuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, Pléiade, 1972), the principal relevant editions have been: Illuminations, ed. Nick Osmond, ‘Athlone French Poets’ (London: Athlone Press of the University of London, 1976); Œuvres, ed. Suzanne Bernard and André Guyaux, Classiques Garnier (Paris: Garnier 1983; rev. ed. 1987); Illuminations, ed. André Guyaux, (Neuchâtel: La Baconnière, 1985); Œuvres poétiques, ed. C. A. Hackett, ‘Lettres françaises’ (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1986); Œuvres, III: Illuminations, suivi de Correspondence (1873-1891), ed. Jean-Luc Steinmetz, ‘GF Flammarion’ (Paris: Flammarion, 1989); Œuvres, ed. Louis Forestier, ‘Bouquins’ (Paris: Laffont, 1992).

  4. This aspect of Rimbaud's writing has been extensively explored by Steve Murphy in a series of important recent studies: Le Premier Rimbaud ou l'apprentissage de la subversion (Lyon: CNRS, Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1990); Rimbaud et la ménagerie impériale (Lyon: CNRS, Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1991); Chant de guerre parisien: essai d'archéologie symbolique, in Parade Sauvage: Bulletin, 7 (septembre 1991); Arthur Rimbaud: Un Cœur sous une soutane, ‘Bibliothèque sauvage’, 2 (Charleville-Mézières: Musée-Bibliothèque Arthur Rimbaud, 1991).

  5. E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (London: Phaidon, 1960; 3rd ed. 1968), p. 5. For ‘Rabbit or Duck?’, see ibid., fig. 2, p. 4.

  6. For example, two clowns playing at ‘pet-en-gueule’ figure on an eighteenth-century Dijon carnival banner reproduced in Daniel Fabre's delightful Carnaval ou la fête à l'envers, Coll. Découvertes (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), p. 69 (appropriately, for its sexual inference). More philosophically, the traditional symbol of the Chinese yin-yang principle, a circle divided equally by an S-shaped line between black and white complementarities, represents the totality of the universe divided between day and night, male and female etc.

  7. For a black and white reproduction of the ‘image d'Épinal’ entitled ‘Prise de Sarrebrück’, see Rimbaud, Œuvres, ed. Bernard and Guyaux; and for the same in colour, see Murphy, Rimbaud et la ménagerie impériale, fig. 35.

  8. Gombrich, p. 5.

Reinhard H. Thum (essay date 1994)

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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 close interrelationship, the poems of Une Saison en enfer may be far better understood if one keeps the earlier works in mind as a point of departure.

The references to the city are rather scanty in Une Saison en enfer. Still, it is difficult to overlook their disproportionate importance either in this work or in Les Illuminations. In both cases, the city and the images associated with it represent a very important part of Rimbaud's thought.

If one disregards Une Saison en enfer, the poem “Promontoire” may at first sight appear as the promised discovery of a resolution for which Rimbaud had long been searching. It unites both his spiritual and material strivings in a kind of equilibrium not seen in the earlier city poems. Indeed, the last sentences of “Adieu” in Une Saison en enfer would seem to lend credence to such a supposition, since they reiterate the faith expressed in “Promontoire” and appear almost as a continuation of the train of thought in that poem:

Cependant, c'est la veille. Recevons tous les influx de vigeur et de tendresse réelle. Et à l'aurore, armés d'une ardente patience, nous entrerons aux splendides villes.

(Rimbaud 244)

Rimbaud appears here to be entering the realm described in “Promontoire.” However, these words should not be read simply as a sequel to that poem. The vision of “Promontoire” is relatively untouched by the despair which brought about the painful examination of conscience in Une Saison en enfer. “Adieu” on the other hand, is the final statement of this acute and excessively severe self-analysis and self-castigation. After the statement in “Adieu,” or at least after such thoughts have gained ascendancy in his mind, the poet Rimbaud falls silent while the human being Rimbaud continues a never-ending quest.1

From the beginning, the poems of Une Saison en enfer express an attitude whose contradictions arise on the one hand from the poet's desire to come to terms with his previous stance, and with his own self-deception; and, on the other, from his refusal or inability to reexamine his past experiences without a certain amount of exculpatory and consoling embellishment. In the opening lines of the collection, Rimbaud looks back on his recent past: “Jadis, si je me souviens bien, ma vie était un festin où s'ouvraient tous les coeurs, où tous les vins coulaient” (Rimbaud 219). Despite these protestations to the contrary, Rimbaud's life has not been an uninterrupted feast whose hedonistic pleasures and intellectual hubris the poet rejects and will henceforth shun. The depression expressed in many of his previous poems, as well as the poet's present doubts about the reliability of his memory in this regard, clearly indicate that Rimbaud's past life was far from untroubled. And when the poet now claims to be seeking and to have found the key to reenter this supposedly splendid realm of his more recent memory, then this key is certainly not charity, love or fellow-feeling as Rimbaud maintains: “J'ai songé à chercher la clef du festin ancien. … La charité est cette clef” (Rimbaud 219). Such selfless and laudable impulses certainly do not explain most of the thoughts expressed in Les Illuminations, or in the works composed after the spring of 1871.

While it is true that Rimbaud's season in hell may have been confined to the period during which he wrote this work in 1873, he had certainly sojourned in that realm before, at least briefly and intermittently. Thus, the suggestion that he has begun to see the error of his former ways, and has begun to suffer only now, is quite untenable. Indeed, the suffering consciousness and the intense feelings of guilt which brought about this last literary outburst of Rimbaud's genius were also a prerequisite for much of the work written after the fall of the Commune. What is new in Une Saison en enfer is the terrifying knowledge that the escape into a realm of pure, undetermined imagination has become impossible. He can no longer deceive himself about the fact that this proud, accusing anti-world invariably reveals itself to be a hell, a state of mind with which he has gradually become all too familiar.

This recognition does not, of course, mean that Rimbaud could or even wanted to return to the relatively unproblematic world of his childhood. Nor did he intend to embrace the religion and morality of contemporary society. He had no illusions about the hypocrisy and blindness of his fellow human beings and the corresponding hollowness of their proclaimed beliefs. Instead, he wished to fashion an authentic moral outlook, a guide to conduct in keeping with his self-knowledge and his proclaimed convictions. However, this undertaking proved to be a dilemma, particularly after his less than generous behavior toward Verlaine during the tumultuous break-up of their friendship in London and Brussels, in July of 1873, a break-up which led to Verlaine's eighteen months incarceration.

Rimbaud's evident share of guilt in this unnecessarily sordid affair found expression in Une Saison en enfer despite the fact that the poet refused adamantly to admit it either publicly or to himself. Indeed, this very refusal to come to terms with the role he had played in the incidents of this period probably made such an expression of his guilt a necessity. There can be little doubt that Rimbaud tried to embellish the truth or to hide from himself the unflattering knowledge that he had left Verlaine twice at his mother's behest so as not to be implicated in the separation proceedings started by his friend's wife. And even were this not the immediate or only motive for Rimbaud's behavior, it did—or at least Rimbaud suspected that it did—play a certain role. Thus, the erstwhile messenger of a glorious new beginning obeyed the hitherto despicable moral dictates of his stifling petty bourgeois origins. It would certainly be revealing to know what parts of Une Saison en enfer were written before or after the beginning of July, 1873, or to find out in which way the earlier parts were subsequently altered. On these possibilities, we can only conjecture. What is certain is that Rimbaud's self-assessment in Une Saison en enfer is at least partly determined by the humiliating—but accepted—dependence on his mother at this time. His self-analysis is also colored by the fact that this temporary obedience to her wishes and the evident feigned respect for her judgment were counterbalanced by the longing for a friend whom he had “left in the lurch” after having enjoyed whatever support, financial or moral, this fellow poet had been able to offer him.2

The section “Mauvais sang” expresses conflicting impulses and states of mind. The poet accuses himself of cowardice, laziness, evil, vice, betrayal. He despairs at being alone and longs for the city, wishing “que les villes s'allument dans le soir” (Rimbaud 221). At the same time, he makes the apparently contradictory assertion, “Ma journée est faite. Je quitte l'Europe. L'air marin brûlera mes poumons” (Rimbaud 221) and so forth. These and similar statements bespeak Rimbaud's attempt to appear as an extraordinary victim, condemned to a state of debasement quite different from the rather more shameful (i.e. common and pedestrian) degradation he has actually incurred, but which he wishes to conceal from himself. It is true that he had come to the end of one journey, and in more ways than one. The poet was forced to concede that the contemporary society of Europe would not provide him with the realization of his imperious, if not to say monomaniacal dreams, and that he must accept an ignominious defeat. This fact he puts rather slyly into the mouth of the somewhat deranged spouse in “La Vierge folle,” in this way undermining the validity of his statement, even while admitting its truth:

Par instants, j'oublie la pitié où je suis tombée: lui me rendra forte, nous voyagerons, nous chasserons dans les déserts, nous dormirons sur les pavés des villes inconnues, sans soins, sans peines. Ou je me réveillerai, et les lois et les moeurs auront changé,—grace à son pouvoir magique,—le monde, en restant le même, me laissera à mes désirs, joies, nonchalances. Oh! la vie d'aventures qui existe dans les livres des enfants, pour me récompenser, j'ai tant souffert, me la donneras-tu? Il ne peut pas.

J'ignore son idéal.

(Rimbaud 231)

This ironic attempt to see himself through the eyes of another human being, albeit a seemingly despised companion, shows that Rimbaud was well on his way to regard his dreams and utopias as a burden which he had imposed without mercy on his fellow men.3 He had begun to find the “unknown”—not only the “unknown” he had been searching for—unexpectedly within his own heart. He had to confront a part of his own nature whose existence, given his former outlook—his belief in his ability to lead all of mankind to a glorious future and the subsequent disheartening fate of these grandiose schemes—he could only perceive with loathing and terror. He had to come to terms with his own rancour and lack of charity which he had paraded as virtue, even an excess of sensitivity. The state of mind induced by such a painful recognition of his own dubious motives, and his own relative position in the scheme of things, account for the title of this work. This time of excruciating revelation is indeed the equivalent to a sojourn in hell.

Rimbaud's wavering in “Mauvais sang” between different possible stances is the unmistakable sign of his ironic and harrowing self analysis. He sees himself as departing to exotic regions for an adventure from which he would return as a rich and powerful beast who can fulfill his desires by imposing them on others by force:

Je reviendrai, avec des membres de fer, la peau sombre, l'oeil furieux: sur mon masque, on me jugera d'une race forte. J'aurai de l'or: je serai oisif et brutal. … Je serai mêlé aux affaires politiques. Sauvé.

(Rimbaud 222)

But, he must admit dejectedly that “on ne part pas” (Rimbaud 222) and acknowledge the genuine moral demands of present reality: “Reprenons les chemins d'ici, chargé de mon vice” (Rimbaud 222). This admission indicates that his will to find the truth will prevail against the long harbored temptation to join and make common cause with the revolting creatures he portrayed in “Parade,” the future suppressors who will conquer and corrupt the city. This desire to join the brutal and the powerful in order to exercise his will explains the cryptic epigraph of “Parade”: “J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” (Rimbaud 180). Since he is not only unable to accomplish his heroic role as founder of a new society, but is rejected by those he wished to lead, he harbors the secret longing to become one of the very predatory beasts he had so much despised in the past.

This key, which Rimbaud gives for the first time in “Mauvais sang,” explains why the poet abandoned so abruptly and unaccountably the social ideals which had appeared as the principal—if not the sole—source of his poetry before the fall of the Commune. It also reveals the true significance of “Le coeur du pître,” which portrays the poet's feelings of revulsion and his deep humiliation at being mistreated by those he sought to inspire and lead. And finally, it clarifies the poet's motives in Part V of “Enfance,” in which Rimbaud attempts to close himself off from an imperfect reality in his imagined “tomb” below the city.

As Rimbaud discloses in “Mauvais sang,”—with some self-aggrandizing exaggeration—he was attracted to the great cities because they were often the principal abodes of the impenitent and intractable convict, his brother in spirit (Rimbaud 222-223). He then refers to what must have been his most memorable experiences in Paris at the time of the Commune:

Dans les villes la boue m'apparaissait soudainement rouge et noire, comme une glace quand la lampe circule dans la chambre voisine, comme un trésor dans la forêt! Bonne chance, criais-je, et je voyais une mer de flammes et de fumée au ciel; et, à gauche, à droite, toutes les richesses flambant comme un milliard de tonnerres.

Mais l'orgie et la camaraderie des femmes m'étaient interdites. Pas même un compagnon.

(Rimbaud 223)

He saw the city as the gigantic manifestation of a will intent on overthrowing the established order, and he made the obvious, if understandable, mistake of seeing this will as conforming to his own. More than that, he saw it as a tool which he could use to realize his most fervent hopes. But, he was forced to discover, almost simultaneously, that the revolutionaries, the would-be executors of his supreme will, did not take him seriously enough. By failing to do so, on the other hand, they prevented him from becoming an all too ready victim of what one must call a delusion of grandeur that, temporarily at least, got out of hand.

Not only does Rimbaud show here the reasons for his rancour and lack of charity which drove him to his “Orient,” the realm, supposedly, of detached contemplation. He also reveals the persistence with which he continued to delude himself about his motives for “abandoning” an imperfect reality. The totally imaginary events depicted after the passage just quoted suggest that Rimbaud would have continued to cling to a misleading—i.e. somewhat flattering—picture of his subsequent behavior and its underlying motivations if he had not become rather too conscious of the fact that such an endeavor was quite useless:

Je me voyais devant une foule exasperée, en face du peleton d'exécution, pleurant du malheur qu'ils n'aient pu comprendre, et pardonnant!—Comme Jeanne d'Arc!—“Prêtres, professeurs, maîtres, vous vous trompez en me livrant à la justice. Je n'ai jamais été de ce peuple-ci; je n'ai jamais été chrétien; je suis de la race qui chantait dans le supplice; je ne comprends pas les lois; je n'ai pas le sens moral, je suis une brute: vous vous trompez …”

Oui, j'ai les yeux fermés à votre lumière. Je suis une bête, un nègre. Mais je puis être sauvé.

(Rimbaud 223)

As the imperfect tense—“Je me voyais”—indicates, he had tried for some time to hide his somewhat gratuitous abandonment of his social ideals—which he shared with those who fought and died for them—behind an exaggerated heroic stance. This was a role he had never actually played, a role which—to his immense disillusionment—no one had asked him to assume. In “Délires,” his imaginary heroism is mere provocation:

“Général, s'il reste un vieux canon sur tes remparts en ruine, bombarde-nous avec des blocs de terre sèche. Aux glaces des magasins splendides! dans les salons! Fais manger sa poussière à la ville. Oxyde les gargouilles.

Emplis les boudoirs de poudre de rubis brûlante …”

(Rimbaud 235)

In his portrayal of these imagined events, Rimbaud does, it is true, affirm the ideas of the Communards, even though he claims a role he did not actually play. But, by holding himself aloof from the actual survivors—an attitude implied by his disdainful escape into an artificial paradise, his “Orient,” with himself as absolute ruler—he necessarily betrays the very memory of those who actually faced the firing squads and died for their beliefs.

Rimbaud's sarcastic rejection of the proclaimed morality of the victors is certainly justified. Unlike the Versaillais, the brutal adherents of this ethical code, the revolutionaries, whether agnostic (“paien”) or not, too often believed in the very spirit of the law which their opponents had long regarded as little more than a useful prop for an unjust status quo. Indeed, they became victims, at least in part, because their social ideals forced them to practise, even clandestinely, what the other side was preaching publicly. When Rimbaud saw himself as the outcast, he undoubtedly had some justification, but he did not enter “au vrai royaume de Cham” (Rimbaud 223), the true kingdom of Noah's son, Ham. This was the community of the disenfranchised outcasts who believed themselves to be rejected by God—meaning the God presumably appropriated by the victors, the God whom the community of victims therefore had to reject in turn.

Although Rimbaud certainly shared his co-revolutionaries' “atheism”—their hatred for a church collaborating with their oppressors—he was not a member of their community. His refusal to recognize his comrades as his equals (“Je n'ai jamais été de ce peuple-ci”) led him to regard the defeat of the Commune not as a common disaster, but as an avoidable failure, a defeat resulting from the moral shortcomings of the Communards themselves. Asserting that the demands of individuality take precedence over the requirements of collective goals, Rimbaud barely stopped short of blaming the Communards for a failure which prevented the epiphany of his own generous genius.

The poet now asks himself two questions: “Connais-je encore la nature? me connais-je?—Plus de mots. J'ensevelis les morts dans mon ventre” (Rimbaud 223). By asking the first of these questions, Rimbaud suggests that, in a sense, he had forgotten his former knowledge of nature. He had tried to see it and despise it as the expression of a perverse godhead, as a bitter, uninhabitable realm: “J'aimai le désert, les vergers brûlés” (Rimbaud 235). He had equally good reasons for asking whether he knew himself, when he tried, like Baudelaire, to prove that God's intentions and motives were malicious, by a calculated restriction of reality to its most negative aspects: “Je me traînais dans les ruelles puantes et, les yeux fermés, je m'offrais au soleil, dieu de feu” (Rimbaud 235). Rimbaud refuses to give a clear answer to these two questions, offering instead an italicized: “No more words” i.e. no further comment. This refusal to answer does not mean that the poet was unable to assess reality correctly. It indicates instead a protracted unwillingness to face himself. He finds now that, even though his dead comrades have been buried, even though he has failed to recognize them for some time now, he cannot forget them as readily as he had assumed. He himself has become their tomb. The disdain for himself cannot conceal the poet's admission that his conscience has become, perhaps unwillingly, perhaps necessarily, the long ignored shrine of a living past.

While it is impossible to interpret Rimbaud's final decision as a return to the hitherto despised fold, one cannot deny his contrition for having forsaken those human beings whose efforts were directed toward “Nöel sur la terre” (Rimbaud 242), toward a manifestation of the divine in man. “Adieu” is the title of the last section of Une Saison en enfer. The poem is as much the moral imperative contained within this well worn locution—“A Dieu”—as it is the poet's farewell to a world view which he was forced to abandon as untenable. The terror contained in the somber opening phrase: “L'Automne déjà!—” (Rimbaud 242) becomes all the more striking in the mouth of a mere nineteen year old, who, upon returning from a dangerous intellectual journey, finds that his ultimate quest for “la clarté divine” will have to take place in the solitude and darkness of winter:

L'Automne déjà!—Mais pourquoi regretter un éternel soleil si nous sommes engagés à la découverte de la clarté divine,—loin des gens qui meurent sur les saisons. L'automne. Notre barque élevée dans les brumes immobiles tourne vers le port de la misère, la cité énorme au ciel taché de feu et de boue. Ah! les haillons pourris, le pain trempé de pluie, l'ivresse, les mille amours qui m'ont crucifié! Elle ne finira donc point cette goule reine de millions d'âmes et de corps morts et qui seront jugés! Je me revois la peau rongée par la boue et la peste, des vers plein les cheveux et les aiselles et encore de plus gros vers dans le coeur, étendu parmi les inconnuns sans âge, sans sentiment … J'aurais pu y mourir … L'affreuse évocation! J'exècre la misère.

(Rimbaud 243)

Rimbaud evokes again the desperate nature of this enterprise in the single word repeated: “l'automne.” He and his fellow travellers, those like him in spirit, know that the harbor for which they will set out on this journey will be no safer than the sea they will have to brave. As the ship turns toward the “port of misery,” still shrouded in fog, Rimbaud is not looking for another opportunity to hurl a curse at life and the world. He has recognized that this harbor, under a filthy, flaming sky, is—despite man's defilement—part of God's creation, even though it is a creation abused, perverted and betrayed. It is the image of a reality he may not ignore unless he would gainsay his own moral nature. Paradoxically, the entry into this imaginary harbor, the hyperbole of a degraded civilization, symbolizes Rimbaud's unshakable determination to return to the reality he had forsaken. It is the rejection of the “hallucination simple” (Rimbaud 234), which he describes in “L'Alchimie du verbe.” These words describe a seemingly inconsequential attitude which he adopted once he had begun to realize that this was the best way to express his metaphysical pride:

Je m'habituai à l'hallucination simple: je voyais très franchement une mosquée à la place d'une usine, une école de tambours faite par des anges, des calèches sur les routes du ciel, un salon au fond d'un lac; les monstres, les mystères; un titre de vaudeville dressait des épouvantes devant moi.

Puis j'expliquai mes sophismes magiques avec l'hallucination des mots!

Je finis par trouver sacré le désordre de mon esprit.

(Rimbaud 234)

At first, it may have seemed no more than playful mockery. He ignored, perhaps, the dangers such a stance entailed. It was simply a habit he slipped into. And yet, as many of the poems of Les Illuminations clearly indicate, he did not slip into this stance unconsciously. The poems of Une Saison en enfer, on the other hand, prove quite clearly that he no longer regards this attitude—which he now refers to as a ‘disorder’ of the mind—as sacred, since it isolated him from a world in which he, as a human being, must necessarily live. He now accepts reality:

Moi! moi qui me suis dit mage ou ange, dispensé de toute morale, je suis rendu au sol, avec un devoir à chercher, et la réalité rugueuse à étreindre! Paysan!

Suis-je trompé? la charité serait-elle soeur de la mort, pour moi?

Enfin, je demanderai pardon pour m'être nourri de mensonge. Et allons.

(Rimbaud 243)

He must view reality and the human condition with the tenacity and understanding of the peasant who tills the soil and works patiently with the seasons, in cooperation with the natural, inescapable order of things.

But this acceptance does not mean that humanity can or should be content merely with the rotting rags, the soggy bread and the pains of unrequited love which this world all too frequently has to offer. Rimbaud acknowledges man's deep felt need to pursue a goal beyond himself, even if that goal is ill-defined and elusive, as it is portrayed in the vision of the city in “Promontoire.” And, he acknowledges the necessity that it be a common goal, shared with other human beings. His use of the pronoun “we”—“Nous entrerons aux splendides villes” (Rimbaud 244)—clearly indicates a community of effort, rather than a solitary undertaking. In the past, Rimbaud had tried frequently to ignore the fact that millions of others, both good and bad, shared his destiny and suffered as did he. He refused to accept solidarity as a moral duty. Now, while Une Saison en enfer does not betray a desire or an ethical intent to return to the officially sanctioned Christianity of his childhood, it is no less certain that the new communion he seeks with his fellow human beings is the expression of a profound religious longing.

But this longing does not manifest itself as the singing of praises to God in the traditional manner of worship; Rimbaud recognizes that, instead, all human beings must “tenir le pas gagné” (Rimbaud 244). They must work slowly and tenaciously toward the ideal despite the sufferings inherent in the human condition:

Point de cantiques: tenir le pas gagné. Dure nuit! le sang séché fume sur ma face, et je n'ai rien derrière moi, que cet horrible arbrisseau! … Le combat spirituel est aussi brutal que la bataille d'hommes; mais la vision de la justice est le plaisir de Dieu seul.

(Rimbaud 244)

When Rimbaud speaks of the horrible little tree, it is evident that he is referring to the tree of knowledge and the expulsion from Eden. Within the context of “Une Saison en enfer” and this poem, however, Eden appears not so much as a glorious past state which we long to recapture, but as an artificial condition, an infantile existence which we must leave in order to assume responsibility for our own fate, and thus to fulfill the destiny which God intends for each human being as a free individual. It is clear that Rimbaud sees humankind as fulfilling God's purpose, but he does not see this task in comforting terms. Entrance into the realm of the ideal cannot be gained without paying a price. The poet knows that this new hour will be taxing: “Oui, l'heure nouvelle est au moins très-sévère” (Rimbaud 243). And yet, despite the suffering involved, he affirms the positive nature of this struggle, and he believes, no less than St. Paul that man's resolve, his will and his faith can move mountains. That is, man's will and his faith are the ultimate reality. In this sense, he sees the victory as his:

Car je puis dire que la victoire m'est aquise: les grincements de dents, les sifflements de feu, les soupirs empestés se modèrent. Tous les souvenirs immondes s'effacent.

(Rimbaud 243).

Whereas the sailors in “Promontoire” merely contemplated their imagined ideal abode, Rimbaud sees himself, together with others of a like mind, as entering this realm:

Cependant c'est la veille. Recevons tous les influx de vigueur et de tendresse réelle. Et à l'aurore, armés d'une ardente patience, nous entrerons aux splendides villes.

(Rimbaud 244)

Unlike “la plus haute tour,” the imaginary tomb of “Enfance V”, or the solipsistic mental constructs in the city visions of Les Illuminations, this realm is not a place of refuge, a shelter from reality.

It is rather the hypothesized space of a dynamic state of mind, an unfolding ethical realm. It objectifies humanity's will to fashion a place in accordance with its nature, its limitations and its highest possibilities.


  1. Despite the controversy about the dating of the poems of Les Illuminations in relation to Une Saison en Enfer, I am discussing Une Saison en Enfer last. Both Cohn and Friedrich follow this order in their discussions. The poems in both collections approach each other in outlook, and may be seen as representing complementary or parallel rather than opposing or mutually exclusive states of mind.

  2. The “Brussels' Affair” has been discussed and analyzed at great length by a number of critics. See particularly Marcel Coulon's account in La Vie de Rimbaud et son oeuvre (271-72). Coulon was one of the first critics who attempted to dispel the myth, first advanced by Rimbaud's sister Isabelle and by Paterne Berrichon, that Rimbaud had actually been blameless in the incident and had defended Verlaine like a brother. Etiemble's account is very informative (Vol I 116 and 138). See also Pierre Arnoult's entertaining and colorful reconstruction of the events in his Rimbaud (271-289). A more recent, very detailed and well documented discussion gives good insight into the incident and the roles played by Verlaine and Rimbaud. This is Daniel DeGraaf's Arthur Rimbaud. Sa vie, son oeuvre. (161-184); the same is true of A. E. Carter's account in his Verlaine: A Study in Parallels (122-127).

  3. While it is certainly true that there are strong autobiographical elements in this poem, I would not go so far as Cohn in saying that the foolish virgin is simply “a speaking portrait of Verlaine,” and that “it presents few difficulties, and outside of a few famous lines and some anecdotal qualities, little of interest” (423). Rimbaud's portrait is not limited to an exploration of his relationship to Verlaine; it presents a far more complex analysis, as the present interpretation of this passage from the poem suggests.

Works Cited

1. Works by Rimbaud

Illuminations. Paris: Menard, 1967.

Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Rolland de Renéville and Jules Moquet. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1963.

Oeuvres, ed. Suzanne Bernard. Paris: Garnier, 1960.

Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Antoine Adam. Paris: Gallimard, 1972.

2. Secondary Sources

Arnoult, Pierre. Rimbaud. Paris: Editions Alvin Michel, 1943.

Carter, A. E. Verlaine: A Study in Parallels. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969.

Cohn, Robert G. The Poetry of Rimbaud. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Coulon, Marcel. La Vie de Rimbaud et son oeuvre. Paris: Mercure de France, 1929.

DeGraaf, Daniel. Arthur Rimbaud. Sa vie, son oeuvre. Netherlands: Van Gorcam & Co., 1960.

Etiemble, René. Genèse du Mythe (1869-1949). Vol. I of Le Mythe de Rimbaud. Paris: Gallimard, 1956.

Friedrich, Hugo. Die Strukture der modernen Lyrik von Baudelaire bis zur Gegenwart. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1956.

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

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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 stressed these figures' enigmatic nature. Following the lead of André Breton, who characterized the women of the Illuminations as “ces mystérieuses passantes” (Œuvres 536), writers have shown themselves to be intrigued by the presence of characters who seem both to invite and to block identification by the reader. It is perhaps for this reason that, although the numbers of masculine figures and feminine figures in the Illuminations2 are approximately the same, it is the feminine figures who have typically attracted greater attention. Certainly mystery, on both thematic and rhetorical levels, is central to the Illuminations; the poet himself issues the challenge in “H” (Œuvres 303): “Trouvez Hortense.” But is the creation of mystery the only role played by these feminine figures?

Many critics' discussions of the role played by feminine figures treat the character or characters strictly within the context of the individual poem in which they appear. Other critics treat at some length the question of the feminine figure in Rimbaud's poetry, using a variety of critical approaches. André Guyaux, in a 1984 article, discusses in particular those feminine figures of the Illuminations who have names. Each name seems to indicate an exact identity to be discovered, yet this identity is deferred, an indication, according to Guyaux, that we should resist the temptation to pin down an exact referential identity for each feminine figure.3 He asserts that although, in the Illuminations, “on ne peut trouver de généralité de la femme,” nonetheless “chaque image intervient dans des formes où la généralité recouvre l'occurrence” (65). For Atle Kittang, the mysterious nature of “la femme” in Rimbaud's poetry is one more indication of what he calls the texts' fundamental “illisibilité.” The presence of these mysterious women implies not only the impossibility of a representational identification of the personages depicted, but also the “retrait du signifié” (228) as a whole. The portrait of “la femme” is an empty point at the center of a “force centrifuge” (230) emblematic of the disappearance of meaning in the Illuminations (232).

Jean-Pierre Giusto's 1980 study of Rimbaud's poetry does not speak of the texts' “illisibilité” but rather their “ouverture” (7), as he traces a number of “champs associatifs” through the poems. The word “Femme” is for him a centrally important “champ associatif” which, in combination with the other “champs associatifs” such as “eau” or “soleil,” figures the poet's relationship to “l'autre” (19) and, finally, the poet's progress toward his goal, described by Giusto as “une conquête de la libération sur l'angoisse” (10). With Pierre Brunel we return to the concept that the female figures of the Illuminations are representative of enigma: “Si l'énigme prend forme de baleine dans le Moby Dick de Hermann (sic) Melville, elle prend forme de femme dans les Illuminations” (193). He warns against a reductionistic effort to find a single key to these feminine figures, suggesting instead that the function of enigma is to ignite and maintain “la force mystérieuse du désir” that animates all of the Illuminations (195).

In fact, although the female figures of the Illuminations participate in the creation of enigma, the role they play is not limited to creating mystery but is multi-faceted, and lies at the core of Rimbaud's poetic project. Concentrating on several of the prose poems, but also discussing feminine figures who appear in other poems, I will show that these figures grow from a nineteenth-century cultural construct that defined woman's nature and woman's role. Further, we will see that that nature and that role make them a voie de communication between the poet and the natural world, holders of secret and mysterious elemental power, creatures who provoke desire, and, indeed, beings who provide the very body of poetic creation. Hence, they are simultaneously essential to the poetic project and fundamentally threatening to it.

At the heart of Rimbaud's poetic project is, I believe, the desire to go beyond the present world and to create, through the language of poetry, an ideal world that is energetic and varied, that presents renewed relationships among people. In poems such as “Villes” (“Ce sont des villes!”) and “Ornières” we see glimpses of that world with its jumble of urban and rural, its sense of possibility. And “Being Beauteous” and “Génie” show us the kind of creatures that populate that world, beings whose affection, strength and beauty promise to transform those who look upon them. Images evoking the desire for what is new and what is transformed are plentiful, from the movement toward “l'affection et le bruit neufs” in “Départ” (266) to the “nouvelle harmonie” and “nouvel amour” joyfully present in “A une Raison” (268). And though expressions such as “nouvelle harmonie” may seem abstract, in fact the Illuminations remain rooted in the sphere of intense physical sensation, celebrating bodily experience. That intense physical sensation has as its end result a state of ecstasy such as that seen in “Matinée d'ivresse,” a state that thus allows the poet to get beyond the mundane, limited world surrounding him and to experience what is beyond, to arrive at “l'inconnu,” as Rimbaud puts it in the “Lettre du voyant” (15 May 1871) (Œuvres 348).4 Whatever Rimbaud's method, however, this experience of “l'inconnu” is not easily achieved, and, as we will see, feminine figures play a central and multifaceted role in the poet's quest, both facilitating and blocking his attempts.

Within a male-dominated society, woman, in particular and in general, is always perceived as an other, lying outside the norm of human—read, male—existence. As an other, she is perceived of in the roles she plays relative to that norm. The artistic and cultural representation of these roles is what Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have called “the mythic masks male artists have fastened over her human face” (17), and these masks seem to cluster around two extremes—woman as angel and woman as monster. In his book entitled Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-siècle Culture, Bram Dijkstra looks at the variations on these two extreme representations of woman as they appear in the visual arts and literature in the second half of the nineteenth century. Drawing on the evidence of salon and published art as well as written material, Dijkstra documents a public discourse regarding the nature and position of women of which Rimbaud would not have been ignorant at the time he was writing. Advances in scientific knowledge meant that “artists and intellectuals of the second half of the nineteenth century saw themselves as standing in the vanguard of a new era of evolutionary progress” (Dijkstra vii), with a correspondingly “scientific” understanding of woman's nature. Rimbaud placed himself in this line of believers in scientific progress, speaking of the poet in positivistic terms in the “Lettre du voyant”: the poet, he says, “serait vraiment un multiplicateur de progrès!” (Œuvres 349). Furthermore, the changing social and economic conditions that resulted from the rise of the mercantile-industrial society in the nineteenth century also meant “the establishment of a fundamentally new, massively institutionalized, ritual-symbolic perception of the role of woman in society” (Dijkstra 5). Within this perception women play a variety of roles. Dijkstra shows that during this period women were portrayed as everything from the self-sacrificing domestic angel to the pallid Ophelia, to the earth mother, to Circe, to the Vampire, to the threatening Salome and Judith. These representations, says Dijkstra, became increasingly misogynistic by the end of the nineteenth century (6).

Before the fin de siècle explosion of pejorative images of women as infinitely dangerous creatures, however, the mid-nineteenth century saw numerous representations of woman as angel, pure and virginal, “the essence of unearthly purity and sacrifice” (Dijkstra 13). In his 1860 book La Femme, Michelet said of this ideal feminine role, “Woman is a religion. Her destiny is such, that the higher she stands as religious poetry, the more effective will she be in common and practical life. … She is the altar” (Femme 79-80). In the Illuminations, however, there are not many examples of saint-like female figures, and those that are present do not perform the function of mediator between man and God—or at least godliness—that traditional Christianity, or Michelet, envisioned.5 In “Soir historique,” for example, female saints are mentioned ironically, as part of the “petit monde blême et plat” whose destruction is required. The “soeurs” of “Dévotion,” be they serious, ironic, or parodic, are objects of the poet's devotion (“the poem is an act of worship that honors other acts of worship, from the cult of sexuality through the range of virtues and vices,” says James R. Lawler [198]) but they are not to be worshiped for their pure and angelic nature: the power to transform that Rimbaud sought was not that available in Christianity, even when he used the language of Christianity. Further, in “Matinée d'ivresse,” the poet writes, “Rire des enfants, discrétion des esclaves, austérité des vierges, horreur des figures et des objets d'ici, sacrés soyez-vous par le souvenir de cette veille. Cela commençait par toute la rusterie, voici que cela finit par des anges de flamme et de glace” (269). Children, slaves, austere virgins—these passive creatures are to be consecrated, not through the power of God but through the power of the “Veille d'ivresse,” a completely different kind of transformative force. In fact, what is specifically identified as holy is the “petite veille d'ivresse,” alone described ecstatically as “sainte!” This is transformation not through traditional religion and not through the mediating force of a saint-like woman, but through a hallucinatory experience, through “ce poison.”6

The concept of woman—saint-like or not—as passive, as physically weak and unable to withstand the shocks of intense emotional experience, was also widespread in the nineteenth century. Michelet quotes “an eminent anatomist” as saying, “‘If people only knew how delicate these muscles are in women, how weak the nerves of motion, how tender the nerves of sensation!’” (Femme 43). But this portrait is not one that predominates in the Illuminations. For the most part the female figures are strong and active, a contrast to the pale dead creature described in Rimbaud's 1870 poem in verse, “Ophélie” (46-47). In this latter text, the poet watches “la blanche Ophélie” floating past; he explains that although Ophelia has dreamed of Liberty, has heard the winds of “des grands monts de Norwège” and “le chant de la Nature,” her frail body and psyche were unable to withstand the passion of this encounter. Terrified by her sight of “l'Infini terrible,” she has melted like snow before the fire.

The women of the Illuminations are made of sterner stuff than poor Ophelia. Far from being overwhelmed by the natural world, they are often part of Nature, reveling in its energy and immediacy. Such are the women of “Enfance I,” the idol whose domain is “azur et verdure insolents,” the “fille à lèvre d'orange” who is sensuously described as a “nudité qu'ombrent, traversent et habillent les arcs-enciel, la flore, la mer” (255). Nature, in fact, plays a central role in the project of creation and transformation expressed in the Illuminations. Here, the poet does not seek to lose himself in Nature, but rather to use the natural world.7 His desire is to get beyond—even to destroy—the civilized, bourgeois environment that surrounds and stifles him and his poetic instinct, and to tap the essential characteristics he sees embodied in Nature. First, in the natural world, sensation can be experienced in its pure, unmediated, unintellectualized form, allowing an unadulterated access to the universe beyond the intellect. This desire is expressed in the “Lettre du voyant,” where Rimbaud exclaims that the Poet “arrive à l'inconnu, et quand, affolé, il finirait par perdre l'intelligence de ses visions, il les a vues!” (348). Second, the poet seeks to bring together extremes, to create a dialectic of opposing forces that do not cancel each other out but rather play off each other to create yet more energy—a situation in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.8 He finds these extremes in Nature: fire and ice, the stillness of dawn and the violence of thunder, seen in “le soleil des pôles” of “Métropolitain” or the merging land and sea of “Marine.” Finally, the natural world can be seen as a place where the process of transformation is possible, where rebirth, new beginnings, and the erasure of boundaries are facilitated, as in “Aube,” “Fleurs,” or “Ornières.” One who is reborn in Nature knows the freedom of living beyond stultifying and repressive civilization. As Bruno Claisse puts it, in a discussion of “Villes” (“Ce sont …”), “La nature est encore l'école de la liberté” (72).

Woman, of course, is seen as having a special connection to Nature. Sherry B. Ortner discusses the “tendency in cultural thought to align male with culture, and to see female as closer to nature” (7) in her influential 1972 article.9 Though the formulation of this tendency has been modified in some ways by researchers since that article's appearance (7), we can see clearly the connection between woman and Nature in writings and artistic representations from the late nineteenth century in France. Woman's link with Nature means that she is governed by instinct rather than reason, and that her angelic side is coupled with an earthly side quite literally embodying the maternal function of fertility and nurturing and the dangerous lure of sexuality, of bodily passion.10 Dijkstra tells of the late nineteenth-century public rediscovery of female sexuality and resulting depictions of woman as “[a] creature that was nature, who both frightened and fascinated” the late nineteenth-century man (89). This sense of woman as Nature appears in Rimbaud's verse poems (as in “Soleil et chair” and “Sensation”), and permeates the poems of the Illuminations, from the exotic “idole” with her “domaine, azur et verdure insolents” (255) of “Enfance I,” to the delicate feminine flowers of “Fleurs” (285), to “la main de la campagne” of “Vies I” (264). With her intimate connection to Nature, woman can serve as an important mediator with the natural world, allowing the poet access to Nature's sensations, allowing the poet to know Nature in the most intimate of ways. In “Aube,” for instance, Nature in the form of the summer dawn is personified. The child/poet pursues her avidly, attempts to probe her mystery by lifting her veils, and attains, at least temporarily, possession of her “immense corps” (284). The singular connection between woman and Nature, and the female's ability to mediate for the poet, to give him access to Nature's power, can also be seen in “Barbare” (292) where the feminine voice arrives “au fond des volcans et des grottes arctiques,” linked with the music that itself gives voice to the movement of the universe—“virement des gouffres et choc des glaçons aux astres.” Claisse points out that in “Dévotion” also, it is as though “l'homme se mettait, grâce à la médiation de la femme, à l'unisson de la nature” (“Circeto” 131). And Marc Eigeldinger emphasizes the theme of “l'harmonie charnelle du poète avec le corps féminin de la nature” (79) that appears in both “Aube” and “Vies I.”

In the poem “Villes” (“Ce sont des villes!”) (276-277), multiple feminine figures play this liminal or mediating role, literally bringing together the natural world and the human world. There are six feminine figures or groups of feminine figures in the poem, one a personification of a natural body (“la Lune”), the others all characters from myth, either classical—centauresses, Vénus, Diane, Bacchantes—or Shakespearean—“les cortèges de Mabs.” In “Villes,” the poet ecstatically describes a locus amoenus, an ideal place where Nature and the urban conjoin, creating a transformed “city.”11 And here, the feminine figures taken from the world of myth are doubly important. As women, they have an automatic link to the natural world, as we have seen. But their identity as mythological figures connects this scene with a time when the boundary between Nature and the human world was more porous—a time (and a place) when people could become trees, when such hybrid creatures as centaurs and centauresses—half human, half animal—existed. This is a time referred to in “Soleil et chair” as “les temps de l'antique jeunesse, … où [Pan] entendait autour / Répondre à son appel la Nature vivante …” (40).

What is more, the scene depicted is in fact the world seen at the moment of transformation, when the energies of Nature fill the human world and effect a change, creating “la musique inconnue.” We see platforms in the middle of gulfs; masts are decked out with the ardor of the sky for flags. Again, the feminine figures are vital in enacting this encounter: they are Nature, but these females in particular are part of the world of culture, and of high culture—the world of classical mythology. Thus Venus emerges from the waves, then enters the caves of humans: “forgerons et ermites.”12 Diana, rather than hunting deer and thus asserting control over nature, suckles the animals, in a nurturing role emblematic of the positive encounter between Nature and the human. The witches, “cortèges de Mabs” with their special connection to Nature's secrets, do not hide but emerge from the ravines. Even the frenzied “Bacchantes des banlieues” are an echo of the urban. Change is in the air: the centauresses are evolving; indeed, the poet tells us that all legends are evolving, as “les élans,” both the animal and a new and vital energy, rush into the towns. Here, then, the feminine figures play a crucial, and positive, role in joining the poet and his vision with Nature.

Her link with Nature also gives the feminine figure power. I believe that it is with this power that woman is depicted, in the “Lettre du voyant,” after the liberation granted to her by man: “Quand sera brisé l'infini servage de la femme, quand elle vivra pour elle et par elle, … elle sera poète, elle aussi! La femme trouvera de l'inconnu!” (350). Woman will find “des choses étranges, insondables, repoussantes, délicieuses,” which will become valued parts of man's poetry: “nous les prendrons” (350). Yet, although Rimbaud anticipates that these visions will be understood by man, their source is still unalterably other: “Ses mondes d'idées différeront-ils des nôtres?” he wonders (350).

Powerful women can choose to withhold their mediating services from men. They can choose to deny men access to Nature, to withhold the secret and essential knowledge they possess—a knowledge that the poet-voyant particularly seeks—and thus to challenge men's power. Thus we see, in the Illuminations, a number of strong and threatening feminine figures, one of which is the sorcière. The shadowy mist that blocks knowledge, and the witch, with her mysterious powers, are evoked together in “Phrases” (271): “Le haut étang fume continuellement. Quelle sorcière va se dresser sur le couchant blanc? Quelles violettes frondaisons vont descendre?” The threat that is implicit in these questions is quite explicit in “Après le déluge.” The Sorceress-Queen may choose to withhold from the speaker her knowledge of the secrets of Nature: “la Reine, la Sorcière qui allume sa braise dans le pot de terre, ne voudra jamais nous raconter ce qu'elle sait, et que nous ignorons” (254). Sergio Sacchi points out that though this witch may seem reduced in power, her caldron “se rédui[sant] à un simple ‘pot de terre,’” (177) in fact she is capable of a most powerful act, bringing forth flame from this elemental material (one is again reminded of the Promethean image of the “Lettre du voyant”). Lawler points out what is truly at stake in this superhuman power: the sorcière “is at the source of creation like the eternal mother, for she is poetry itself” (139). Nathaniel Wing underlines the likely relationship between the sorceresses evoked in the Illuminations and Michelet's La Sorcière (31). “‘Nature makes them Sorceresses,’—the genius peculiar to woman and her temperament,” says Michelet. “She is born a creature of Enchantment. … Woman contrives and dreams. … She possesses glimpses of the second sight. … She holds in her hand the magic wand of natural miracle, she has Nature to aid and abet her like a sister” (Sorcière 1-3). Yves Bonnefoy describes the importance Michelet's image of the sorceress must have had for Rimbaud in a positive sense (181): the sorceress was a figure of resistance to contemporary society and mores, held in contempt by that (corrupt) society but possessing elemental powers. These are qualities the voyant hoped to emulate: all the more dangerous, then, if access to these powers is withheld.

In other poems, the strong feminine figure is not specifically a sorcière, but nonetheless embodies a power that is set up in opposition to the poet, a complex force against which he measures himself in his struggle to carry out his poetic project. In “Bottom” (302) the sexual tension is obvious as the poet, “chez [sa] dame,” finds himself mutating into ever more abject forms, from a bird—which at least has the power of movement—to a bear, presumably a bearskin rug, “au poil chenu de chagrin”; to a simple ass—the humiliation of the situation highlighted by the syntactic isolation of the apposed noun “âne”—braying pitifully until attacked by yet other women, “Sabines” seeking vengeance. The picture of humiliation painted here is lightened only by the possibility of continued struggle hinted at in the image of the “aube de juin batailleuse.”

At the heart of the poem “Angoisse” (289) is the power that “Elle,” referred to later in the poem as “la Vampire,” holds over the speaker. “Elle” has the power of grace (“Se peut-il qu'Elle me fasse pardonner …”), the power to tame the poet's energy (“la Vampire qui nous rend gentils”), and, in a paradox not unfamiliar to readers of Rimbaud, to torture the poet and thereby allow his access to “l'inconnu.” With her double nature (distributor of grace and torture), the feminine figure defines herself as essential to Rimbaud's project, which, we come to understand, requires that the poet suffer to attain his ideal. Within this paradox, says Lawler, “Anguish remains, which is the duality of ‘Elle’ and ‘Vampire’” (183). Thus, this fundamental contradiction is embodied by a feminine figure.

A portrait of complex feminine power coupled with sexual tension in which the poet seems an equal antagonist is presented in “Métropolitain” (290-291). At the end of this poem, the speaker evokes the dramatic clash between himself and a figure identified simply as “Elle”; we cannot help but be reminded of the paradoxical “Elle” of “Angoisse.” The conflict here is evoked directly; it is of cosmic proportions, involving all the senses, “parmi les éclats de neige, les lèvres vertes, les glaces, les drapeaux noirs, et les rayons bleus et les parfums pourpres.” Here, there is no mention of the “force paralysante” (Giusto 286) of “Elle” in “Angoisse”: the threat the feminine figure poses is evident only in the verb “se débattre” and in the scale of the battle. What is clear here, however, is the necessity and the paradoxical joy that the speaker takes in this all-important struggle with this feminine figure, whose knowledge, insight, passion, and power are as necessary as they are threatening. For Rimbaud, there is no poetry without struggle, there is no ascent to truth without a worthy antagonist. Thus, “Elle,” raised to mythic status by the capitalized first letter, is the power that elicits, finally and crucially, the poet's own power: his final words emerge like a banner flying above the battlefield—“ta force!”—and show dramatically his willingness to continue the battle.

The necessary struggle for mastery and thus for control of the poetic project is also enacted in “Being Beauteous” (263), the almost literal staging of the poet's desires, both erotic and artistic. The visual predominates throughout the Illuminations, but particularly so in “Being Beauteous,” where we see a statue-like feminine figure,13 “l'Etre de Beauté,” set up before a background of snow. This figure, on the worksite—“sur le chantier”—is presented as passively receiving the attacks of “des sifflements de mort” and “des cercles de musique sourde”; her only reaction is to rise, expand, and tremble, as black and scarlet wounds erupt in her superb flesh. The torturous activity surrounding “notre mère de beauté” rises in intensity, and the poem's syntactic and rhythmic complexity builds, in the fourth sentence, as the Being moves in reaction: “elle recule, elle se dresse.” And the speaker tells of his response to this vision, capable of effecting a marvelous bodily transformation: “nos os sont revêtus d'un nouveau corps amoureux.” The climax of this violent experience of love and beauty comes in the final ecstatic enumeration of body parts and the annihilation of the speaker in love, using images that combine the military, the sexual, and the natural world. The poem thus traces an arc from the sight of a body that is whole yet without animation or completeness, following it on the chantier to its appearance as a body brought so explosively to life that the viewer/narrator is similarly ecstatically exploded.14

As we watch “ce corps adoré” with the speaker, we see her bodily transformation, her reaction to the violence that wounds her. Dijkstra shows the ways in which the idea that “woman's natural pleasure was to suffer” was represented in late nineteenth-century European culture, citing paintings such as Cabanel's “The Birth of Venus” (1863), Gérôme's “The Slave Market,” and Delacroix's “The Death of Sardanapalus” (1827-28) as portraits of women whose very passivity and helplessness seemed to suggest a primal need for sexual fulfillment, seemingly inviting violence (116). In “Being Beauteous,” as well, there is an important link between the visual, the violent, and the female body, as Rimbaud pursues his poetic project.

In his book, Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative, Peter Brooks shows the connection between the body and writing. Although his study examines narrative prose rather than lyric poetry, his observations nonetheless shed light on our understanding of how the female body of “Being Beauteous” functions within that poem. Speaking of the role that representation of the body plays in literature, Brooks says, “although the body often seems opposed to Spirit, its other, the realms of unmeaning, it can also be Spirit's very material support, as the letter is the material support of the message” (21). He continues to say that writing frequently dramatizes this situation “as the recovery of the letter for spirit, of the body for signification.” Thus, particularly when the body is marked, or signed, it “is made a signifier, or the place on which messages are written” (21). Hence, marking the body—as happens so dramatically in “Being Beauteous”—“indicates the body's passage into the realm of the letter, into literature” (22). Drawing on Freud's theories of the origins of the epistemophilic urge, Brooks demonstrates further that “[the] recreated body realizes simultaneously erotic desire and the creative desire to know and to make” (24). Thus, if the marking of the body signifies its passage into meaning, and if that marked body is a locus of both erotic and artistic desire, we can interpret the wounding of the woman's body in “Being Beauteous” as the act that transforms that body from a simple object of desire to a necessary vehicle for Rimbaud's poetic project, his vision of creation and transformation. And as we have seen—and as is clearly demonstrated by the action that takes places in “Being Beauteous”—it is a vision bringing together extremes, blending discord and harmony, demanding suffering as a prerequisite for ecstasy.

Although the forces that torture “ce corps adoré” are primarily auditory in nature, the speaker, and we the reader, watch the Etre de Beauté as she reacts. Despite Richard's assertion that “Rimbaud se veut voyant, non voyeur” (241), here we are conscious of spectacle and audience, as the very concrete verbs “monter, s'élargir, et trembler,” “éclatent,” “se foncent, dansent, et se dégagent,” “recule,” “se dresse,” pass before our eyes. As Brooks points out, sight and power are intimately connected: “Seeing and knowing are attempts at mastery” (106). Thus, the desire to see and to know this female body is an attempt to gain mastery over her. This struggle for power is presented, as we have seen, in other of the Illuminations—in the “Elle” of “Métropolitain,” for instance. But in “Being Beauteous,” we come to know the results of that struggle for power: the female body is wounded yet rises up; the speaker's body is transformed and, finally, annihilated, exploded in ecstasy.

The evocation of that ultimate annihilation in the last part of the poem begins with the ecstatic naming of the Etre de Beauté as though she were herself already exploded, perceived only through her body parts—“la face cendrée, l'écusson de crin, les bras de cristal!” This verbless sentence recalls the poem's opening sentence, also verbless, so that over the course of the poem, our view has moved from the figure as a whole, complete, to the body as separate parts.

It is not surprising that in this climactic moment, the body is not viewed as whole. Brooks points out that vision “can never quite see what it claims to want to see, since sight cannot give access to the living body” (105). Since the whole body cannot, finally, be grasped, it is represented by its parts. “We know the body in the erotically charged field of vision only partially or metonymically” (106). If the woman's body has been brought to life on this chantier, then, in the end it is fragmented. The violence enacted on the body of the “Being Beauteous” and her ultimate fragmentation are inevitable as the poet acts out his erotic and artistic desire, his desire for mastery. For the marked female body has become a signifying body, the literary vehicle by which the poet creates and experiences his new, ideal world, the inconnu.

Thus we see again the central and troubling role played by woman in Rimbaud's poetic project. She is not just an indicator of mystery. Not only does she provide a powerful and necessary—though threatening—link to Nature; her body also becomes the very stuff of poetic creation, marked as a signifying entity. Her presence in the Illuminations is, in essence, inevitable.


  1. The edition of Rimbaud's works referred to throughout this study is Œuvres, ed. S. Bernard and A. Guyaux (Paris: Garnier, 1987).

  2. By masculine and feminine “figures,” I mean characters or images that are identifiably human or human-like; this includes figures with proper names such as “Léonie Aubois d'Ashby,” mythological figures like Venus or the faun of “Antique,” characters such as “la jeune maman trépassée” of “Enfance” or “ce saint vieillard” of “Dévotion,” and personifications such as “la Lune” which “entendit les chacals” in “Après le déluge.” For the purposes of this study, in ascertaining that the numbers of masculine and feminine figures are approximately equal, I have not counted figures whose sex could not be determined (as in groups, such as “voyageurs” or “nobles” of “Promontoire”). I have also not included references to “vous” or “tu” if the sex of that interlocutor was not made clear elsewhere in the poem. Nor have I included the many first-person references—“je” and “nous”—that occur.

  3. This is a particular temptation for critics focusing on Rimbaud's biography. Antoine Adam, for instance, in his notes to “Dévotion,” finds it “infiniment probable” that “Léonie Aubois d'Ashby” “était religieuse, employée dans un hôpital comme Louise Vanaen, et affectée au service de la maternité. On voudrait savoir quel était cet hôpital …” (Œuvres complètes 1017). Such conjecture adds little to our understanding of the poem itself.

  4. Edward Ahearn provides an excellent discussion of the ecstatic experience in Rimbaud. He speaks of “the ambivalence of the ecstatic as deriving from a troubling re-experiencing of the savage and animal in our nature,” (154) drawing on the ideas of Mircea Eliade who links the ecstatic to a paradisal phenomenon: the ecstatic “evoke[s] an idealized time when man supposedly communed with the animals” (156). This paradisal myth, “with its structure of origin, loss, nostalgia, determination, rediscovery, and possibilities for failure and disintegration,” suggests Ahearn, “accounts for the syncretism, the divergent forms of trance and frenzy that Rimbaud evokes, as well as for the conflicting methods that he suggests” (160).

  5. In the 1870 poem “Soleil et chair” (40-45), Rimbaud praises “la grande Vénus,” an earth-mother who, when man raises his head from his present degraded state, “triste et laid,” (42) “viendras lui donner la Rédemption sainte!” (49) Even this, however, is not Christian redemption, despite the vocabulary Rimbaud uses. Rather the poem expresses nostalgia for the days of pagan myth, and expresses the hope that man, redeemed, will revel in a “renouveau d'amour” (44) that has at its center the “splendeur de la chair” (44). This is a celebration of man in “l'immense splendeur de la riche nature” (44), not a celestial Christian vision.

  6. See Ahearn for a discussion of the “transformation of being” expressed in “Matinée d'ivresse” (192-198).

  7. Porter discusses this tendency in the context of the poet's relationship to his audience and to his self-consciousness (200).

  8. Lawler points out this dialectic in regard to the images of “Being Beauteous”: he characterizes the sentence beginning “Et les frissons s'élèvent et grondent …” as “this place of antagonisms that do not cancel each other in the name of a Mallarméan centrale pureté … but create the intensity of extremes” (188).

  9. See Gilbert and Gubar also on the equation of woman and nature, man and culture (19-20).

  10. See Dijkstra, 64-66, 237-238, for example.

    In their article “Women and the Dialectics of Nature in Eighteenth-Century French Thought,” Maurice Bloch and Jean H. Bloch discuss the nature/culture dichotomy as it is explored in the thought of several French Enlightenment thinkers. They point out the contradictions in the writings of Rousseau, from whose ideas about the positive value of Nature Rimbaud's idealization of Nature is in part descended, stating that “his position was profoundly radical … on a wide range of subjects, but when he turns to women he is not only orthodox but profoundly conservative” (35). Rousseau argues, they say, that “because of woman's power to excite man's desire to a greater degree than it can be satisfied, she is in fact in the stronger negotiating position and it is through this ‘natural’ hold over man that she too can effect moral regeneration …” (35).

  11. Claisse states, “ces villes représentent un stade de l'humanité où l'opposition de la nature et de la civilisation a disparu” (“Villes” 73).

  12. While Pierre Brunel sees this image as evidence of an element of parody in “Villes”—“Vénus ne recherche guère la compagnie de son forgeron de mari, et il est tout à fait irrévérencieux de troubler par sa présence la chasteté des ermites” (Désastre 158)—I believe that here it is appropriate to remember that the hermit is in some senses also a liminal figure, on the edge of the human and natural worlds, and that the forgeron bends nature to human use. We are further reminded of the verse poem “Le Forgeron,” and the transformation of society represented by that character.

  13. According to Jean-Pierre Richard, the “Etre de Beauté”—which appears at the beginning, he says, as a “danseuse”—“abandonne bientôt tous les traits qui faisaient d'elle un individu particulier, elle cesse même d'être femme: surhumaine, désexuée, élevée à l'échelle d'une vie plus vaste et moins personnelle …” (195). While it is true that the “Etre de Beauté” has a significance beyond that of any one individual, it is not the case that “elle cesse même d'être femme.” In fact, she gains a sexual identity rather than losing it, moving from a neuter “Etre de Beauté” to the unmistakably feminine “notre mère de beauté … elle … elle” at the end of the first paragraph. This is a feminine figure, combining in a complex way connotations of fecundity and sexual desire.

  14. André Guyaux asserted, in a 1977 article, that the lines beginning “O la face cendrée …” are a separate poem, unconnected to the lines that precede it (807). Lawler (184) has argued persuasively that the two are part of a coherent whole. I agree: my argument shows that the final lines provide a necessary climax to the poem's dramatic development.

Works Cited

Ahearn, Edward J. Rimbaud: Visions and Habitations. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

Bloch, Maurice, and Jean H. Bloch. “Woman and the Dialectics of Nature in Eighteenth-Century French Thought.” Nature, Culture, and Gender. Ed. Carol P. MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.

Bonnefoy, Yves. Rimbaud par lui-même. Paris: Seuil, 1961.

Brooks, Peter. Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1993.

Brunel, Pierre. Arthur Rimbaud ou l'éclatant désastre. Paris: Champ-Vallon, 1983.

———. “La poétique de l'énigme: Une devinette: ‘H.’” Minute d'éveil: Rimbaud maintenant. Paris: CDU-SEDES, 1984.

Claisse, Bruno. “‘Circeto’ et l'autoparodie.” Parade sauvage (Bulletin) 4: 1988. Rpt. in Rimbaud ou le dégagement rêvé. Charleville-Mézières: Musée-Bibliothèque Rimbaud, 1990.

———. “‘Villes’ [I] et ‘Villes’ [II] ou le jeu de miroirs.” Rimbaud: Le poème en prose et la traduction poétique. Ed. Sergio Sacchi. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1988. Rpt. in Rimbaud ou le dégagement rêvé. Charleville-Mézières: Musée-Bibliothèque Rimbaud, 1990.

Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Eigeldinger, Marc. “L'Image de ‘l'heure indicible.’” Rimbaudà la loupe.Colloque du 10-12 septembre 1987. Ed. Steve Murphy and George Hugo Tucker. Charleville-Mézières: Musée-Bibliothèque Rimbaud, 1990.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. A Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Giusto, Jean-Pierre. Rimbaud créateur. Paris: PUF, 1980.

Guyaux, André. “A propos des Illuminations.Revue d'Histoire Littéraire de la France, September-October 1977: 795-811.

———. “Noms de femmes.” Parade Sauvage (Revue) 1 (1984): 59-65.

Kittang, Atle. Discours et jeu: Essai d'analyse des textes d'Arthur Rimbaud. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1975.

Lawler, James R. Rimbaud's Theatre of the Self. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1992.

Michelet, Jules. Satanism and Witchcraft: A Study in Medieval Superstition. Trans. A. R. Allison. New York: Walden Publications, 1939. Trans. of La Sorcière. 1862.

———. Woman. Trans. J. W. Palmer. New York: Carleton, 1870. Trans. of La Femme. 1860.

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” Woman, Culture and Society. Ed. Michelle Z. Rosaldo and Lillian Lamphere. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1974.

———. and Harriet Whitehead. Introduction to Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Porter, Laurence M. The Crisis of French Symbolism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Richard, Jean-Pierre. Poésie et profondeur. Paris: Seuil, 1955.

Rimbaud, Arthur. Œuvres. Ed. S. Bernard and A. Guyaux. Paris: Garnier, 1987.

———. Œuvres complètes. Ed. Antoine Adam. Paris: Gallimard, 1972.

Sacchi, Sergio. “Rimbaud: après l'allégorie. Lecture de ‘Après le déluge.’” Omaggio a Marcella: Studi in onore di Marcella Deslex. Ed. Mariagrazia Margarito and Sergio Zoppi. Torino: Tirrenia Stampatori, 1992.

Wing, Nathaniel. Present Appearances: Aspects of Poetic Structure in Rimbaud'sIlluminations.” University, Mississippi: Romance Monographs, 1974.

Gerald Martin Macklin (essay date 1997)

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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)

The earliest use of the term “crotesque” in French can be traced to 1532 or thereabouts and about a century later this term was replaced by “grotesque” in English. Interestingly, the original connotations of the term now seem far removed from what it has come to designate for the late twentieth century reader or literary analyst. What was signified by “grotesque” was a decorative ornament consisting of “medallions, sphinxes, foliage, rocks and pebbles” which was found in grottoes called “grotteschi.”2 The word came to refer to paintings which combined human, animal and plant elements and then “architectural embellishments like gargoyles, hideous diabolic shapes and … the complex interweaving of themes and subjects.”3 Its literary application only came later in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century where “grotesque” was used to denote all that was unnatural, freakish and bizarre or, to put it another way, anything that deviated from accepted canons of beauty, harmony and balance. The “grotesque” has an important function in the work of numerous painters ranging from Brueghels and Goya to the surrealism of Dali and, while it is essentially its literary role that concerns us here, it is helpful to note that it is associated in painting with elements of caricature and exaggerated comic effects that draw attention to the absurd via a process of satirical exposition. This brings us very close to the Rimbaldian deployment of the grotesque which we shall explore at greater length in this paper. However, one also needs to stress that Rimbaud was writing in the context of a nineteenth century fascination with the grotesque that can be seen in the work of Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe, among many others, and which led to twentieth century variations upon it in the personage of Jarry's Ubu, the legless Nagg and Nell in Samuel Beckett's play Endgame and the proliferation of bizarre characters in the theatre of Eugène Ionesco where we see humans transformed into rhinoceroses. Additionally, one might point to Rabelais and Swift as predecessors in this vein and to the whole field of Gothic and neo-Gothic literature with its emphasis on the monster (Shelley's Frankenstein, Stoker's Dracula), witches, vampires and bizarre events in gloomy locations. Indeed, the Gothic strain highlights the element of the horrific which is an essential ingredient in the grotesque and which both Rimbaud and Baudelaire emphasise in various ways in their work. We shall return to some of these connections and influences in the course of our analysis.

Particularly striking in Rimbaud's early verse poems, as part of a wider syndrome of discontent and protest, is the way in which the poet tends to select individual characters for debunking through the technique of grotesque distortion and exaggeration of their imperfections. It is as if he sees himself as the poetic equivalent of the cartoon caricaturist and one can rapidly identify “Le Châtiment de Tartufe,” “A la musique,” “Les Assis,” “Accroupissements,” “Bal des pendus” and “Vénus Anadyomène” as examples of this sense of the absurd, the exaggerated and the repulsive. It is the triple purpose of this present paper to explore a selection of verse poems from the Poésies in order to attempt a definition of the Rimbaldian sense of the grotesque; to specify his objectives in presenting characters in this light; and to attempt to locate the Rimbaldian grotesque in the wider context of the period on which he was writing.4

As part of any definition of the grotesque, as understood in the nineteenth and twentieth century, one must include a comic inflation or distortion which involves elements of ugliness and the repugnant. These enable the poet to ridicule designated figures and induce the reader both to see them in a negative light and, in a metonymical manner, to condemn not only them but the institutions, values and practices which they may be held to represent. The beleaguered king in “Le Forgeron” is a good illustration for, in an interesting inversion of roles, the monarch is intimidated by the lowly smith who has the support of the teeming crowd of insurrectionists behind him. Rimbaud clearly relishes this opportunity to reduce the despot to the level of a puny rogue:

Or le bon roi, debout sur son ventre, était pâle,
Pâle comme un vaincu qu'on prend pour le gibet,
Et, soumis comme un chien, jamais ne regimbait …

(B/G [Oeuvres, Edition de Suzanne Bernard et André Guyaux] p. 51)

First likening the king to a convict ready for execution, Rimbaud goes further and lowers him to the status of an animal in what is clearly a transference of power from one end of the social scale to the other. This prepares us for the total lack of respect shown to the king by the smith later on when he grabs the tyrant by the arm to bring him to the palace window from which “la foule épouvantable” can be seen. At this point Rimbaud refers to the “roi pâle et suant qui chancelle debout / Malade à regarder cela!” As we shall rapidly discover, it is very common for Rimbaud to insist upon the unattractive physical appearance of the authority figures whom he seeks to satirise and debunk. Indeed, he regularly draws attention to their state of ill health, this sickness in turn clearly being a metaphor for the baleful influence that their regime has exercised over others. The final three lines come as both a typically memorable Rimbaldian finale5 and as a fitting summation of the character presentation of the king as seen throughout “Le Forgeron”:

Alors, de sa main large et superbe de crasse,
Bien que le roi ventru suât, ‘Le Forgeron,’
Terrible, lui jeta le bonnet rouge au front!

(B/G p. 57)

This is the second time that the poet has drawn attention to the king's paunch, this bloated belly representing here and elsewhere the self-indulgent lifestyle of the affluent and powerful while simultaneously rendering them physically unappealing in contrast with characters such as the lean and heroic smith. In a similar way, Baudelaire creates grotesque effects in Les Fleurs du mal by emphasising the unattractive physical features of old men and old women in poems such as ‘Les Sept Vieillards’ and ‘Les Petites Vieilles’ and drawing our attention to the strange demeanour of the blind in ‘Les Aveugles’. Of course, Baudelaire went further and argued that even the horrific could be beautiful and so the grotesque, decaying corpse on ‘Une Charogne’ has its own aesthetic value. This challenge to conventional definitions is one that has heavily influenced Rimbaud's own responses to the dialectics of beautiful and ugly, good and evil, normal and abnormal.

Although ‘Le Forgeron’ is typical of Rimbaud's interest in socio-political themes, another major area of enquiry for him in the early verse is the whole question of religion and conventional images of piety and devotion.6 Not surprisingly, then, he takes the figure of Tartufe, as immortalized in Molière's play, and devotes a satirical sonnet to him entitled ‘Le Châtiment de Tartufe’. Here Rimbaud targets the hypocrisy of polite society through a personal portrait of a widely known paragon of insincerity and false religious devotion. The poet's predilection for bedecking his characters is advertised as early as the second line of ‘Le Châtiment de Tartufe’ where reference is made to the eponymous character's “chaste robe noire” but, of course, it is the essence and spirit of Tartufe concealed by his holy apparel which fascinates Rimbaud. A master of oxymoron, the poet emphasises for us Tartufe's unique blend of superficial kindliness and disguised monstrosity in the formula “effroyablement doux” and the colour effect “Jaune,” so prominently positioned at the start of line four of the opening stanza, characterizes Tartufe as suffering from a moral and spiritual sickness obscured by his insistent protestations of Christian faith. The grotesque nature of the hypocrite is underlined by the use of the verb “baver” whose unpleasant connotations are strengthened by the image of saliva escaping from a toothless mouth (“bouche édentée”).

Rimbaud quite daringly includes the Latin term “oremus” in stanza two, as he develops his picture of a profane egoist who puts on an outward display of piety and self-sacrifice. Yet, in a manner similar to that found in ‘L'Homme juste’ and ‘Le Forgeron’, the villain is presented in dramatic encounter with someone come to expose and remove him—in this case the “Méchant” who takes him comically by the ear as might a teacher with a recalcitrant or disruptive pupil. Rimbaud's sense of the absurd is abundantly evident here, it clearly being his purpose to precipitate Tartufe into an ignominious fall from grace which will have the effect of shattering the aura of superiority and holiness in which he has basked. Just as the smith speaks aggressively and disrespectfully to the king in ‘Le Forgeron’, so the “Méchant” uses “des mots affreux” in this instance and strips away the “chaste robe noire” to reveal yet another symptom of Tartufe's sickliness in the unattractive “peau moite.” Rimbaud uses this act of physical stripping as a simple metaphor for the exposure of Tartufe's inner corruption and one notices that the same adjective “pâle” is used to describe him as was applied to the king in ‘Le Forgeron’. Even at this stage Tartufe maintains his show of religiosity in a grotesque travesty of the confessional, a grating admission of sins from a defrocked monk which elicits nothing but contempt from the poet:

—Peuh! Tartufe était nu du haut jusques en bas!

(B/G p. 50)

Eve keen to conclude with a memorable final line, Rimbaud here summarises his deconstruction of Tartufe on a note of characteristic irreverence and summary condemnation. Again one might turn to Baudelaire for comparison and contrast in terms of how a conventionally holy and revered figure is treated. One thinks of the poem ‘A une madone’ in the “Spleen et Idéal” section of Les Fleurs du mal where Baudelaire interweaves traditional veneration of the Madonna figure with a blasphemous sado-erotic ritual which culminates in the transformation of the object of worship into a target for his wrath expressed in a violent and orgasmic climax. This climax is designed to “mêler l'amour avec barbarie,”7 to be a truly horrific conclusion to what had seemed to be an act of devotion, and it is this mixing of opposing elements that is central to the effect of the grotesque.

In “Bal des pendus” Rimbaud's subject is not a single character but rather an unusual grouping, not a recognisable figure from history, literature or legend but a collection of anonymous skeletons. Clearly modelled on the danse macabre associated with Villon and Hugo among others,8 ‘Bal des pendus’ is an excellent illustration of the Rimbaldian fondness for black humour. It opens and closes with the same four-line formula which seems to suggest that this bizarre dance will go on eternally;

Au gibet noir, manchot aimable,
Dansent, dansent les paladins
Les maigres paladins du diable
Les squelettes de Saladins.

(B/G p. 48)

Here the inspiration would seem to be the Gothic predilection for cemeteries, vaults and frightening images of the dead as found in the stories of Poe or in the locations in Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula. Stoker's novel posits an opposition between the correctness and moral virtue of Victorian English society and the horrifying breed of the UnDead led by Count Dracula whose journey to London serves as a metaphor for the invasion of a wholesome world by a corrupt and deadly virus. The biting, bloodsucking, vampire-hunting and decapitation that go on in the novel, along with its intensely sexual sequences, form a fascinating counterpoint to the stability and rectitude seen in the relationship between Jonathan and Mina Harker. Poe's stories, on the other hand, take us into murky psychological depths where characters tend to lose their sanity and where the pure, healthy air of the natural world is replaced by a grim and disturbing realm of the subterranean with crypts, vaults and labyrinths, itself a metaphor for the darker recesses of the human psyche. Interestingly, Rimbaud chooses to mingle a grotesque cocktail of comic and disturbing effects in ‘Bal des pendus’ to achieve a deeply satirical treatment of death. His personification of the gallows as a one-armed man confirms his propensity for including various details of grotesque physicality, the fact that we witness a line of skeletons of executed men who were never cut down serving to accentuate our sense of the weird and distasteful. We are taking a long step backwards in time to an era of mediaeval barbarity and yet one suspects that these are the skeletons of people eminent in their own day but now reduced to grotesque insignificance through the effects of death, decomposition and their undignified predicament.

The introduction of the Devil in the person of Belzébuth in line 5 recasts the original image as one taken from a morbid type of puppet show. These skeletons react to the promptings of a demonic puppeteer who sadistically enjoys compelling them to perform their bizarre dance and refuses to allow these dead bodies to “rest in peace.” As erstwhile knights, they no longer have the attentions of their ladies and instead are thrown into a travesty of a loving embrace with each other in Rimbaud's wicked parody:

Et les pantins choqués enlacent leurs bras grêles:
Comme des orgues noirs, les poitrines à jour
Que serraient autrefois les gentes damoiselles,
Se heurtent longuement dans un hideux amour.

(B/G p. 48)

What is interesting here is that Rimbaud chooses to combine the horrible with the comical in a way that is not found in Shelley or Stoker but which is hinted at rather frequently in the rich ironies of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. In Poe's The Cask of Amontillado, for example, the story of how the narrator has buried his friend alive to achieve revenge for slighted honour conveys both a sense of horror and a wicked amusement to the reader. Of course, the Theatre of the Absurd which began at the mid-point of the twentieth century was to develop the fusion of comic and tragic in a much more sustained way so that the characters of Beckett and Ionesco react to their misfortunes on a way best summed up by the grotesque Nagg and Nell in Beckett's Endgame who opine that “rien n'est plus drôle que le malheur” and that misfortune is “la chose la plus comique au monde.”9 Returning to Rimbaud's ‘Bal des pendus’, the exhortations “Hurrah!” (line 13) and “Hop!” (line 15) seem to sit incongruously with the gruesome spectacle being laid on here but it is precisely the poet's intention to create a sense of irreverence and to disorientate the reader by treating death in such an off-hand manner. One also notices the Rimbaldian predilection for anatomical vocabulary (“panse,” “peau,” “talons,” “crânes,” “chair,” “menton,” “fémur,” “ossements”), this being a central constituent of the grotesquerie that ‘Bal des pendus’ and other of these early verse poems seek to create. The theatricality of the performance of this danse macabre is underscored by the use of the term “tréteaux” and the way in which the naked skeletons are bedecked by Rimbaud through the falling snow which gives them “un blanc chapeau.” Yet Rimbaud is keen to stress the macabre nature of the dance and this is why he draws attention to the crows who have been presiding over the dead bodies of the hanged men:

Le corbeau fait panache à ces têtes fêlées,
Un morceau de chair tremble à leur maigre menton:

(B/G p. 48)

One might contrast this with Baudelairean theories of Beauty whereby even the horrific can be seen to be beautiful10 and even with Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris where the physically deformed hunchback Quasimodo is gradually revealed to the reader as a heroic figure capable of love and devotion and tragically misunderstood by those who see but his ugliness. As with Hugo's Quasimodo, so with the creature in Mary Shelley's early nineteenth century novel Frankenstein where the eponymous Victor Frankenstein sets out to understand the mystery of creation. He succeeds only in creating a physically deformed creature whose feelings and need of love and companionship he fails to understand in any proper way. It is Rimbaud's intention however to display his dangling figures as a representation of corrupt, grotesque and fallen aristocracy but at the same time to challenge the Parnassian conception of the poem as the venue for the celebration of the artistic and the beautiful and from which unseemly elements must be excised. Further features are added to this ghastly scenario as the poet sets it against a sky that is “rouge d'enfer,” uses the sound effect of the wolves howling from neighbouring forests and refers to the “bise” which helps to maintain the jangling cacophony of the skeletal cadavers.

Rimbaud is again keen to poke fun at religious practice and belief, in this case stripping death of its traditional association with salvation and the afterlife. What we find is a grotesque parody of prayers for the dying as the skeletons are seen to be reciting some bizarre form of rosary:

Holà, secouez-moi ces capitans funèbres
Qui défilent, sournois, de leurs gros doigts cassés
Un chapelet d'amour sur leurs pâles vertèbres:

(B/G p. 49)

Always apt to conclude on a surprising note, Rimbaud indulges his taste for black humour to the extreme in the last two stanzas before the reprise of the opening four lines. We have the image of a skeleton eccentrically stepping out of line and disrupting the choreography of this grotesque dancing formation, only to be peremptorily yanked back to his fellows by the power of the rope around his neck. The picture is of a skeleton clutching his decaying thigh bone, the crack of his joints seeming to constitute a type of bizarre chuckling which is perhaps the only suitable response from the onlooker to the whole scene.

Turning to the sonnet ‘Vénus Anadyomène’ we find further insights into the Rimbaldian blend of the horrible and the comic—his focus of satirical attention being in this instance the revered goddess Venus, traditionally taken to represent the epitome of beauty and love. Basing his poem on Botticelli's picture of Venus emerging from the waves,11 Rimbaud daringly parodies this archetype by portraying a hideously deformed female figure arising from her bath-tub. Bernard and Guyaux appropriately identify the piece as representing “cette poésie de la laideur”12 as seen in other early poems such as the amusing ‘Mes petites amoureuses’. The opening stanza clearly serves as a hint of the repugnant detail that is to follow:

Comme d'un cercueil vert en fer blanc, une tête
De femme à cheveux bruns fortement pommadés
D'une vielle baignoire emerge, lente et bête,
Avec des déficits assez mal ravaudés;

(B/G p. 61)

This is reminiscent in its detail of Baudelaire's Une Charogne but it is fascinating to see how Rimbaud prefers to develop his text into a parody of traditional canons of beauty whereas Baudelaire's text takes on a repugnantly graphic style and notes the mortality to which physical beauty is subject. Rather than take us on a journey into the dark and terrible beauty of the decadent fin-de-siècle writers as does Poe in The Fall of the House of Usher, for example, the young Rimbaud is much more interested in “cocking a snook” at traditional incarnations of taste, beauty and grace and a dated aesthetic. As opposed to an elegant appearance by the embodiment of all that is naturally appealing, we have here the ungainly emergence of a monstrous figure artificially patched up and this inauspicious beginning is immediately confirmed as Rimbaud adds further detail in the next four lines. As expected, he insists on anatomical features with the terms “col” and “omoplates” being plucked from registers at the margins of everyday terminology and so drawing attention to the freakish nature of this creature whose “dos court” identifies her as a physically deformed being. But it is line eight that is most obviously designed to induce disgust in the reader:

La graisse sous la peau paraît en feuilles plates;

(B/G p. 61)

We have been taken from one pole to another, from our expectation of the embodiment of perfect beauty to a totalizing vision of all that is repulsive because deformed, bloated and infected. One thinks of Shelley's Frankenstein with its tale of a noble ambition to create a figure of stature, beauty and harmony which becomes a nightmare of deformity, spite and revenge. Rimbaud, no less than his Gothic contemporaries, shows himself to be fascinated by images of monstrosity and one recalls how even in the later Illuminations we still find figures such as the Sorcière in ‘Après le déluge’ and the Vampire in ‘Angoisse’, even though these figures have a much less physical presence and are monsters of a different order.

Emphasising Rimbaud's rigorous examination of all that he sees is line 11 which speaks of “des singularités qu'il faut voir à la loupe.” Yet the impact of the poem is not exclusively a visual one for “le tout sent un goût / Horrible étrangement.” It is as if the poet wants to offend not only the eye but indeed all the senses including smell and taste. In typical fashion, however, he reserves his most grotesque and shocking detail for the concluding couplet:

—Et tout ce corps remue et tend sa large croupe
Belle hideusement d'un ulcère à l'anus.

(B/G p. 61)

The oxymoron “belle hideusement” is only one of countless such in Rimbaud's work and it again reveals to the reader the impact of the Baudelairean theory of the beauty of horror. Yet it is surely the image of an ulcerated anus which Rimbaud wishes us to retain. This represents, as Yeats has pointed out in one of his poems on human love and sexuality,13 the ultimate irony in that the long-standing tradition of the beautiful face has been totally subverted by this obsession with all that is least attractive in the human form. One might speculate that this grotesque finale is designed to clinch Rimbaud's objective in writing the poem, namely the overthrow of traditional aesthetics and the birth of a poetry that seeks its inspiration in the rawer aspects of human experience which it then transcends in the imaginative exultation of “voyance.” In many ways, ‘Venus Anadyomène’ is aligned with “Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs” as an attack upon Romantic and Parnassian definitions of “le Beau.” On a more ideological level, it is only fair to acknowledge a recent interpretation of the piece. Steve Murphy's reading of the poem is surely very valid in referring to “la logique d'ensemble du poème qui, sans être féministe, n'a cependant rien d'un manifeste misogyne.”14 ‘Venus Anadyomène’ does not represent an attack upon the female sex but rather what Murphy has identified as “la souillure de la femme prolétarienne par l'homme,”15 a picture of woman waiting to be sodomised by man. As Murphy concludes, “la poésie mâle, parnassienne en paraticulier, a trompé et sodomisé la Femme, la Beauté, l'Amour.”16

At this point, it seems appropriate to consider two poems, ‘Les Assis’ and ‘Accroupissements’, which both emphasise in their titles physical postures suggesting inertia, self-satisfaction and conservatism. To begin with ‘Les Assis’, it should be acknowledged that many critics are united in seeing the authoritarian librarians of Charleville as being the inspiration for the piece. But one only has to think of Rimbaud's condemnation of Georges Izambard, his teacher, as one “qui n'a rien fait, n'ayant rien voulu faire”17 to realize how wide an applicability the idea of passivity and inertia has for him. The opening quatrain of ‘Les Assis’ sets the tone for the riot of grotesque imagery that is to follow:

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;

(B/G p. 83)

Unlike ‘Vénus Anadyomène’, this text does not gradually lead us into the grotesque but rather confronts us immediately with repulsive imagery of aged bodies which have been discoloured and deformed through time and which now lack any energy or dynamism that might stir them from their sedentary position. The word “sinciput” is yet another of those anatomical terms so favoured by Rimbaud and the adjective “lépreuses” in line four is a clear indicator that Rimbaud feels these “assis” to be contaminated and dangerous. Their wens, darkened eyes and arthritic limbs lend them a monstrous18 quality which intimidates their young observer, all the more so as they are seen to be cantankerous figures of authority. Yet it is their introverted nature which is one of their most salient characteristics. Incapable of forming a fruitful human relationship with someone else, these “assis” are locked in a grotesque love affair with their chairs. Indeed their limbs and the rickety structure of the chairs have become inextricably intertwined as if in some bizarre act of copulation but the terms “épileptiques” and “squelettes” underline the sterility of this “love.” These are static, unproductive creatures who rarely, if ever, stir from their station:

Ces vieillards ont toujours fait tresse avec leurs sièges,
Sentant les soleils vifs percaliser leur peau,
Ou, les yeux à la vitre où se fanent les neiges,
Tremblant du tremblement douloureux du crapaud

(B/G p. 83)

One notes how they are here reduced to the level of the most indolent of creatures, the toad19 and how they are cut off from the healthy, life-giving forces of the elements out of doors. Yet, as a distant reminder of youthful days in the sun, they keep squashed under their buttocks “l'âme des vieux soleils” in the form of the spikes that make up the very fabric of the chairs. The capitalization of “Assis” in line 17 lends an almost mythical quality to this species who are never individualized through use of a proper name but who listen to an internal symphony of “barcarolles tristes” and fantasize in “des roulis d'amour.” Typically, line 20 uses the term “caboches” rather than “têtes,” the effect being as with “sinciput” earlier to defamiliarise these characters and put a distance between them and the reader. Indeed, this is one of the primary functions of the grotesque in these early verse poems, namely to create a sense of dépaysement and to portray as aliens those who traditionally occupy roles as leading figures in society—librarians, church-men, customs-men, lawyers and so on. Of course, a second function is to amuse and entertain the reader but this humour is often vigorously undercut by a sense of fear induced by those depicted as bizarre and monstrous:

—Oh! ne les faites pas lever! C'est le naufrage. …
Ils surgissent, grondant comme des chats giflés,
Ouvrant lentement leurs omoplates, ô rage!
Tout leur pantalon bouffe à leurs reins boursouflés.

(B/G p. 83-84)

The last line of this stanza represents yet another instance of an insistence on a bloated bodily form as part of the Rimbaldian concept of the grotesque, it being quite plain that this obesity is a symptom of the inactivity of the “assis” just as it typifies the bourgeois in ‘A la musique’ and the “goddess” in ‘Vénus Anadyomène’. When one takes into account that so much of Rimbaud's early poetry is written from the perspective of the vulnerable and disinherited child, one can more readily appreciate the impact of the horrific in this and other Rimbaldian depictions of the monster. One might wish to contrast this ugliness with the splendid nudity of “la fille à lèvre d'orange” who figures in the list of fascinating female characters in the opening section of ‘Enfance’ in the Illuminations. The orange-lipped girl represents purity, spontaneity, vitality and freedom—all qualities that are antithetical to the closed, dead world of the “assis.”

Yet even when the “assis” do move physically, one is also made aware of their baleful presence in a number of other ways. Firstly, they can be heard knocking their heads (bald, of course, to heighten the sense of the grotesque) against the wall and stamping their feet as evidence of their bad humour and general irascibility. Secondly, their buttons flash like menacing eyes in the darkness as indicators of their eternal vigilance and desire to castigate. And finally they have “une main invisible qui tue,” a death-dealing propensity ominously underlined by the sinister poison in their eyes which seems to identify them as carriers of the plague of death itself. By way of conclusion, Rimbaud refers to these monsters resuming their seats after being disturbed and returning to the sickly pleasures of their sedentary existence. It is obvious that the poet has in mind here the very grudging service offered by these officials in public places, authority figures whom he associates with intimidation, hostility and contempt towards those they “serve.” Significantly, the expression “des grappes d'amygdales” (the grotesquerie of the language clearly being designed to match the grotesquerie of the characters) restores the by now familiar pattern of clinical and anatomical vocabulary denoting the bizarre physical configuration of the “assis” who eventually drift off to sleep in their chairs, dreaming of office furniture still more comfortable than their own. Not surprisingly, Rimbaud's final stanza is a piece of black humour and affords him the opportunity to enjoy the discomfiture of the “assis” while maintaining his interest in their physical characteristics:

Des fleurs d'encre crachant des pollens en virgule
Les bercent, le long des calices accroupis
Tels qu'au fil des glaïeuls le vol des libellules
—Et leur membre s'agace à des barbes d'épis.

(B/G p. 84)

Here they are reduced to the level of insects hovering over plants, obsessed with their own miniscule world, and yet Rimbaud cannot resist a taboo reference to their chairs betraying them as the straw on which they sit irritates their penis. This is a last line that gives a very literal meaning to the notion of “a sting in the tail” conclusion as the poet audaciously links the “assis” and their chairs in a sexual way. The suggestion of a grotesque sexuality is unmistakable with Rimbaud maintaining the coda of ill-health and physical oddity to the very end. Indeed, as in ‘Les Premières Communions’ where local priests are his subject, Rimbaud heavily implies in ‘Les Assis’ that these civic custodians have a dark sexual desire that might find expression in distasteful ways.

Rimbaud's anti-clerical venom has already been noted in this study and ‘Accroupissements’ stands as a persuasive testimony to his distaste for the conventional face of religious practice and belief. Whereas in ‘Les Assis’ Rimbaud takes a group of characters for grotesque presentation, here he singles out “le frère Milotus” for special attention. Clearly indisposed late at night, Milotus leaves his bed to excrete into his chamberpot. As elsewhere, Rimbaud is conscious of devoting a poem to a function that many find shameful, disgusting and intrinsically unpoetic. Yer this ploy enables him to demystify the cleric, to reduce him to the most lowly common denominator and to portray him in a most bizarre light. Line 5 yet again emphasises an abdominal preoccupation (“son ventre de curé”) as a prelude to the undignified posture that Milotus must adopt to relieve himself:

Car il lui faut, le poing à l'anse d'un pot blanc,
A ses reins largement retrousser sa chemise.

(B/G p. 93)

This posture gives Rimbaud the ideal opportunity to create a caricatural image of a “spiritual” man at a moment when he is reduced to an exclusively physical level and the sunlight filtering through the window gives a vivid theatrical effect. As Marie-Joséphine Whitaker comments on Rimbaldian characterization:

Chaque personnage—et Rimbaud a mis en scène tout un monde—est disséminé en une série de portraits partiels, d'instantanés, d'images décalées …20

and also finds very apposite here this comment from Jean-Pierre Richard on the same subject:

Rimbaud aime à ce que ses visions, et plus particulièrement ses personnages, danseuses, idoles, génies, se détachent, sur une toile de fond.21

Like the “assis,” the crouched Milotus is the epitome of inertia and stasis; his is an essentially vegetal existence with his prime concern apparently being his own physical comfort. Rimbaud also disdains the implicitly conservative nature of this lifestyle, the verb “mijoter” in the following sequence serving to capture that sense of idleness and passivity that is at the opposite pole to the youthful poet's idealism and dynamism:

Le bonhomme mijote au feu, bras tordus, lippe
Au ventre; il sent glisser ses cuisses dans le feu,
Et ses chausses roussir, et s'éteindre sa pipe;

(B/G p. 93)

These lines stress deformity but also the fact that Milotus has lost control over his own body, a fact perhaps underlined by the incontinence which is the basis for what is described in ‘Accroupissements’ as a whole. Indeed the text regularly returns to the fact that Milotus has abdominal problems (“l'estomac écoeuré,” “monceau de tripe,” etc.) before proceeding to contextualize the cleric in his house full of “meubles abrutis”:

Autour, dort un fouillis de meubles abrutis
Dans des haillons de crasse et sur de sales ventres;
Des escabeaux, crapauds étranges, sont blottis
Aux coins noirs: des buffets ont des gueules de chantres
Qu'entrouvre un sommeil plein d'horribles appétits.

(B/G p. 93-94)

There is an element of the horrific here as the furniture takes on a grotesque life of its own and it is also significant that Rimbaud refers again to the toad as an emblem of inertia and indolence. The squatting posture of the toad seems to mirror that of Milotus, the suggestion being that the cleric takes his place as but one more weird object in a bizarre collection of grotesque pieces. Seeking to disgust his reader, Rimbaud refers to the “écoeurante chaleur” and to the damp skin of the perspiring Milotus who sits uncomfortably in this insalubrious environment. Never afraid to shock by making reference to bodily functions, Rimbaud euphemistically refers to “hoquets fort gravement bouffons” while making it clear that it is Milotus's breaking of wind which he is suggesting here. As a final grotesquerie, the caricatured brother is pictured in his archetypal accroupissement, his bottom silhouetted by the rays of light while “Fantasque, un nez poursuit Vénus au ciel profond.” Rimbaud cannot resist this ultimate juxtaposition of the disgusting and the bizarre with the highest standards of beauty and aesthetic delight as established by classical tradition and convention.

By way of conclusion it is interesting to pursue the connection between the thematics of the grotesque in the early poetry of Rimbaud and aspects of language in these same poems. In ‘Mes Petites amoureuses’ we find the poet sarcastically saluting a string of former lovers, it being very apparent that he now views them with contempt. Rimbaud creates a sense of the grotesque and the bizarre on this text by deploying a concatenation of strange and rare terms—“hydrolat lacrymal,” “bandoline,” “fouffes,” “éclanches,” “bâtées”. Furthermore, he expresses a violent and disgusted attitude towards these “petites amoureuses” by sadistically urging them to begin a most eccentric knee-knocking dance. A double effect of defamiliarization is thus exerted upon the reader as he is forced to come to terms with what Bernard and Guyaux have called “un sursaut d'antisentimentalisme qui se traduit par une explosion de fureur et de grossièreté”22 and simultaneously with the exigencies of a grotesque new lexicon. We have the scientific term “hydrolat” (a distilled liquid); the unusual term “pialats” which Bernard and Guyaux describe as “un hapax” and “le problème le plus aigu de la lexicologie rimbaldienne;”23 and “fouffes,” a localized word used in the Ardennes to designate scraps of material, Thus the poem itself becomes a grotesquerie, every bit as bizarre as the grotesque dance that Rimbaud choreographs for the “petites amoureuses” at the end. The irreverent sonnet ‘Oraison du soir’ operates in a comparable way. Here we have a fascinating self-portrait of the poet as an inebriated angel, this in turn providing an ideal opportunity for a blasphemous travesty of the act of prayer to a merciful god. The term “chope” in line 2 is striking in its incongruity on this allegedly spiritual context and this is rapidly succeeded by the anatomical words “hypogastre” and “col” as Rimbaud depicts himself in a grotesque and amusing light. The “Gambier” is a type of pipe, this underscoring the paradox of an angel bent on physical self-indulgence, and the use of the term “excréments” in line 5 both challenges the received aura surrounding evening prayer and prefigures the need to relieve himself which the angel will satisfy at the end. The text does reserve its most irreverent language for the finale (“Je pisse … très haut et très loin”) and enhances the parody of prayer by linking the angel to “le Seigneur du cèdre et des hysopes” so that Biblical language and a crude vernacular are brought into a juxtaposition that is designed to shock and outrage. As a final example of how the Rimbaldian preoccupation with the grotesque is intimately linked to his attempt to extend and amplify what we might understand as a “poetic lexicon,” the poem ‘L'Homme juste’ is a revealing text. A fresh illustration of the Rimbaldian impulse to defy figures of authority, this poem sets up an opposition between the pharasaical and eponymous “Juste” and the poet as “celui qui souffre et qui s'est révolté!” But it is in the text of the révolté's address to the “Juste” that the linguistic audacity of the poem emerges most forcefully:

C'est toi le Juste, enfin, le Juste! C'est assez!
C'est vrai que ta tendresse et ta raison sereines
Reniflent dans la nuit comme des cétacés!
Que tu te fais proscrire, et dégoises des thrènes
Sur d'effroyables becs de canne fracassés!

(B/G p. 113)

Again the effect of such a thicket of unusual terms is to defamiliarize the subject for the reader, to underscore the grotesque nature of the “Juste” by linking him to the unpleasantness of death (“thrènes” are funeral lamentations); by stressing distasteful physical features (the verbs “renifler” and “dégoiser” both have very unattractive connotations); by emphasising the horrific nature of this holy figure (“effroyables”); and by suggesting in the word “cétacés,” which denotes marine mammals such as the whale and the dolphin, that this “Juste” is a predatory creature bent on domination. What all three of these texts have in common is that they exploit the gap that exists between the sensibility of the reader and that of the author, between what one is accustomed to in terms of language and vision and what the poem challenges us to understand, between the everyday and the extraordinary. Yet, whereas the grotesque in Rimbaud's early verse is incontrovertibly related to the satirical agenda of a precocious poet discontented with the society around him, in a later prose poem like ‘Parade’ and the Illuminations in general it is much more an indicator of a new vision and of a radically altered reality where the “apparences actuelles”24 of everyday experience have been overthrown.


  1. Rimbaud, Oeuvres, Edition de Suzanne Bernard et André Guyaux, Garnier, Paris, 1987, p. 83. All subsequent references to the poetry will be to this edition.

  2. J. A. Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 3rd edition, Penguin, London, 1991 p. 393.

  3. Ibid. p. 393.

  4. The letter to Demeny of 15 May 1871 would suggest that, with a few exceptions (principally Baudelaire, to a lesser extent Hugo), the work of his contemporaries did not impress Rimbaud and that he saw himself essentially as one reacting against prevailing tastes and trends in literary matters.

  5. My article “A Study of Beginnings and Finales in Rimbaud's Illuminations,” in: Neophilologus, Vol. 68, 1984, pp. 22-36 sets out to attempt to classify the various types of distinctive moments of opening and closure which are such a feature of Rimbaud's prose poems.

  6. In Dévotion the strange terms “baou” and “spunck” seem to be generated by the same fascination with bodily functions which is seen passim in the early verse. However, because the prose poem is constructed on the model of the religious litany, one thus finds a grotesque and incongruous mixture of the spiritual and the physical, the pure and the defiled, the reverential and the familiar.

  7. See “A une madone” in: Les Fleurs du mal in Baudelaire, Oeuvres complètes I, texte établi, présenté et annoté par Claude Pichois, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris, 1975, p. 59.

  8. Bernard and Guyaux draw attention to the influence of Villon and possibly Hugo in their notes to Bal des pendus—op. cit., pp. 368-369.

  9. See Samuel Beckett Fin de partie, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1957, pp. 33-34.

  10. In the poem “Une Charogne” in: Les Fleurs du mal Baudelaire describes a decaying female corpse but fascinatingly sees it as a “carcasse superbe” opening out like a flower. Even the horrible stench of death has its beauty here and one is reminded of the Baudelairean statement on Beauty in Hymme à la beauté in the same collection. Addressing the personification of Beauty, the poet writes “De tes bijoux l'Horreur n'est pas le moins charmant” [Baudelaire, Oeuvres complètes I, texte établi, présenté et annoté par Claude Pichois, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris, 1975, p. 25].

  11. The Florentine painter Botticelli [1444-1510] is famous for his depictions of the Madonna and the religious and mythological nature of the subject-matter of his paintings. The Birth of Venus portrays the emergence of Venus from the waves as the emblem of beauty and harmony. Significantly, Rimbaud inverts Botticelli's Venus by showing her not from the front but from the back and her anal ulcer is the very opposite of the pudenda screened by the tresses of the goddess in Botticelli's painting.

  12. Bernard and Guyaux, p. 376.

  13. In the poem “Crazy Jane talks with the bishop” in: Yeats, Selected Poetry, Pan Books, Macmillan, London, 1979, p. 161, the eponymous Crazy Jane declares “But Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement.” Rimbaud seems to have been acutely aware of this paradoxical relationship between physical beauty and ugliness and thus turns to the ulcerated anus for shock effect at the end of ‘Vénus Anadyomène’.

  14. See S. Murphy Le Premier Rimbaud ou l'apprentissage de la subversion, Editions du CNRS et Presses Universitaires de Lyon, Paris and Lyon, 1990, p. 192.

  15. Ibid. p. 206.

  16. Ibid. p. 209.

  17. From the letter to Izambard of May 13th 1871 [B/G. pp. 345-346] on the subject of “poésie subjective” and “poésie objective.” Rimbaud seems to draw a distinction between conventional types of “travailleur” like his former teacher, whom he designates a “satisfait” lost in routine and complacency, and a new breed of which he is the originator.

  18. Rimbaud's poetry has its share of monsters. One thinks of the Leviathan in ‘Le Bateau ivre’, the demonised customs-men in ‘Les Douaniers’, the bizarre characters in ‘Parade’ as well as the Vampire in ‘Angoisse’ and the Sorcière in ‘Après le déluge’.

  19. In “Mauvais sang” in: Une Saison en enfer, Rimbaud writes “… et plus oisif que le crapaud, j'ai vécu partout.” [B/G p. 213] Here he seems to extol the laziness of the toad as indicative of a refusal to accept normally agreed values such as industry and assiduity. However, in the case of the “assis” the toad is a more conventional symbol of ugliness and inertia as features to be avoided and deprecated.

  20. M.-J. Whitaker La Structure du monde imaginaire de Rimbaud, Nizet, Paris, 1972, p. 25.

  21. J.-P. Richard in “Rimbaud ou la poésie du devenir” in: Poésie et profondeur, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1955, p. 246.

  22. Bernard Guyaux, p. 393.

  23. Ibid. p. 393.

  24. Words taken from the conclusion of ‘Jeunesse IV’ and used in translation by Nathaniel Wing in the title of his book Present Appearances: Aspects of Poetic Structure in Rimbaud's ‘Illuminations,’ Romance Monographs Inc., University, Mississippi, 1974.

Daphne Merkin (essay date winter 2003)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3962

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 his back on literature at the age of nineteen to wander the globe in search of mercantile success. In the handful of years during which he produced his slender body of work, Rimbaud brought the rank odors of sex and the street to the pristinely elevated Parnassian tradition of French poetry. Tales of sordid habits and defiant, épater-les-bourgeois gestures swirled around him already in his lifetime, conjuring up an image of someone who lived outside the law. It doesn't hurt his legendary status, either, that he died young and ingloriously in 1891, at the age of thirty-seven, after a team of doctors amputated his leg in an effort to stave off a raging infection. (Like many other aspects of his life, the exact cause of his death, which has been attributed variously to syphilis and cancer, is the stuff of informed speculation rather than hard-and-fast facts.) Nor does it detract from his darkly glamorous aura that at various times in his vagabond existence, Rimbaud lived in what was presumed to be a homosexual liaison with the married poet and father-to-be Paul Verlaine, and worked at a variety of unsavory occupations, including gun runner and mercenary, in exotic and unexplored parts of the world.

One wonders what this implacable misanthrope—whose hometown funeral was served by a beadle, a bell ringer, eight choirboys, and twenty orphan girls with candles, but was attended only by his mother and sister—would have made of the lavish scrutiny that has been accorded his abbreviated life and work. Within a day of Rimbaud's death, an edition of his poems called Le Reliquaire (to which the publisher had hastily appended a sensationalist preface describing the late poet as “a brutish little vagrant who made himself at home in the murkiest parts of the human mind”) was seized by the police. This was at the behest of a young journalist, Rodolphe Darzens, who had become intrigued by Rimbaud after reading an article in Verlaine's Poètes maudits. Darzens would be the first of many to attempt to decipher the story of Rimbaud's disappearing act, so he had a vested interest in keeping other people's grubby hands off the elusive bard-cum-failed-entrepreneur whose scattered writing he had been assiduously tracking down.

This cultural fixation on a laconic, not particularly likable, and antisocial figure who renounced everyone and everything, including his own talent, has endured over the years and shows no sign of abating. The most recent ripple in the ongoing wave of posthumous celebrity was Rimbaud's induction last spring into the Modern Library pantheon of authors. Rimbaud Complete includes fifty pages of previously untranslated material, and was edited and newly translated to a gritty rather than polished effect by Wyatt Mason, a writer who is now translating Rimbaud's complete correspondence; anyone who has managed to overlook the scatological and anal imagery on earlier readings cannot help being struck by it this time around. (The penultimate translation, by Paul Schmidt for Everyman's Library, was published in 1994; Mason commends that version for its “musical qualities” but deems it “wrong-headed.”) Now Rimbaud keeps canonic company with such heavyweights as Saint Augustine and Thomas Mann—but not, curiously, with his fellow symbolistes, who stirred up the placid, formulaic universe of French poetry at roughly the same period. Stéphane Mallarmé, who crossed paths with Rimbaud only once and found him repugnant (he later described him as having the vast, reddened hands of a laundress), is absent from this august congregation, as is Charles Baudelaire, Rimbaud's confrère in self-loathing. It was Baudelaire, after all, who in Les Fleurs du mal virtually invented the notion of the poet with a terminal case of nostalgie de la boue; Baudelaire, whose abject imagination and hashish-inspired visions helped inspire Rimbaud's own belief that the best writing came from, as he famously put it, “a deliberate derangement of the senses.” Then again, these gaps in the lineup of authors who have earned the Modern Library's seal of approval are hardly conclusive, and one imagines that Baudelaire and Mallarmé may yet have their day. (Baudelaire's absence would doubtless have pleased Rimbaud, who was disinclined to admit to any literary precursors—least of all one who embraced the artistic uses of intoxication before he did.)

The first definitive biography of Rimbaud, by Enid Starkie, came out in 1947, and was revised several times as new material came to light. Despite its somewhat baroque style and its impressionistic, almost free-associative mode of interpretation, Starkie's account remains perhaps the best at intuitively comprehending the Inner Rimbaud. “He had never been capable, and was never to be capable,” Starkie observes, “of the warm animal intimacy of the young, their instinctive and physical intimacy, like that of kittens rolling together in the basket. There was much in him that could be hurt and he needed to protect his spiritual privacy from invasion.” Starkie's portrait of a wounded, brooding Rimbaud opened the gateway; following her lead, there have been four exhaustive biographies in the last twenty years alone. According to Graham Robb, whose excellent biography was published in 2000, Rimbaud scholars are producing “an annual average of ten books and eighty-seven articles.”

Although it has become hard to imagine Rimbaud as other than hell-bent on notoriety from the very start, his tame beginnings suggest nothing of the sort. The man whose nose-thumbing behavior scandalized even the more jaded of his Parisian contemporaries, and who continues to fascinate both highbrow and pierced-brow fans more than a century later, earned his first bit of acclaim as a star pupil—a teacher's pet and show-off who was taunted by his older schoolmates. Indeed, to judge by his student days, this self-contained boy from an inflexibly bourgeois, churchgoing background might have been more likely to become a mild-mannered schoolteacher than the patron saint of adolescent attitude—the sneering rebel who declared, “Morality is a weakness of the brain”—he came to be.

Born in 1854, Rimbaud grew up in the provincial town of Charleville in the north of France. He was the second of four children. His father, a career officer who rose to the rank of captain, disappeared from sight shortly before his son turned six, never to be heard from again. (This ghostly paternal presence may help, at least in part, to shed light on the origins of his son's literary gifts, especially his encyclopedic impulse. Captain Rimbaud found time between his military duties to produce an almost-nine-hundred-page summary of Arabic grammatical rules, as well as a collection of Arabic jokes and a translation of the Qur'an. Graham Robb speculates that, had his works been published, “they might have earned him a serious reputation as an Orientalist.”) In any event, young Arthur was a solitary and dreamy child whose fingernails were kept clean and whose ears were frequently boxed by his penny-pinching, germ-obsessed martinet of a mother; Rimbaud would later refer to her as “la bouche d'ombre” [the mouth of darkness], a name derived from the title of a Victor Hugo poem. His light blue serge trousers, like the clothes of his siblings, were made by her. He escaped from the grim atmosphere at home—Robb reports that the Rimbaud children “were said to have a slightly cretinous appearance, like beaten animals”—by reading adventure stories, such as Robinson Crusoe or the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, and dreaming of the sea.

The future wanderer—Rimbaud eventually alighted in thirteen countries and would be the first European to settle in the “Forbidden City” of Harar, in what is now southern Ethiopia—was kept on a tight leash. There is a way in which Rimbaud's childhood might be said to resemble the closely tethered one of a true mama's boy, except that in his case Mama was one of the great antinurturers of all time, more Ma Barker than Old Mother Hubbard. What little affection did exist was, as Robb remarks, “inextricably bound up with coercion.” Mme Rimbaud picked her son up from school every day, the better to keep him from getting into mischief with other children, and his two sisters oversaw his homework. Noted for his eerie reserve and his disconcertingly pale blue eyes, he cut a brilliant academic swath at the two schools he attended, hauling home cartloads of prizes (including a first prize in Religious Education when he was fourteen), and astonishing his teachers with his intellectual aptitude. His primary engagement was with language; he warmed to the Latin hexameters of Horace and Catullus, and shone at French alexandrines and Greek verse as well. He devoured Romantic literature and was particularly smitten with Victor Hugo and Baudelaire. Endowed with a remarkable memory and superb imitative skills, Rimbaud was a natural literary poacher. He could effortlessly copy the styles of other writers, both those who were worth imitating (François Villon) and those who were not (Théodore de Banville, the leading Parnassian poet of the day). “Rimbaud,” Robb observes, “was treating French poetry as a private boudoir, dressing himself in different genres, inspecting his development in other poets' mirrors.”

The earliest of Rimbaud's published poems, “The Orphan's New Year's Gifts,” appeared when he was sixteen, and is one of only three pieces that earned him notice in his lifetime. (The other two were “First Evening” and the prose poem “A Season in Hell,” which was self-published.) The poem is soggy with a borrowed sentimentality and specious piety, both of which suggest the performing-monkey aspect of Rimbaud's talent. But it also has an immediacy of engagement and an almost physical rendering of emotion that points to the elasticity of his later poems: “The room is full of shadow; you vaguely hear / Two children whispering, sadly, softly. / Heavy with sleep, their heads are bowed / Beneath the long white curtain that trembles and rises. …”

Within the next year and a half, everything would change. Somewhere along the way, through some inextricable combination of proclivity and circumstance, the rejected child became father to the rejecting adolescent; the mother-dominated grind who lived in fear of getting his clothes dirty turned into a bored dropout with a taste for subversion and a vagrant's soul. Rimbaud's discontent was further fueled by his towering literary ambition; he may have longed for the raw experience to be found in the world beyond the smug confines of Charleville, but he yearned even more for the admiration he assumed would be his once the tastemakers in Paris had read his poems. For all the misery of his childhood, it is clear that Rimbaud was possessed of that preternatural faith in his own gifts which self-styled visionaries often have. He saw himself as destined for greatness very early on, in spite of the humiliations he suffered at home. This attitude was encouraged by his friend Ernest Delahaye, who idolized Rimbaud and would continue to put himself at his service for the duration of Rimbaud's life. But by far the more important influence was that of his twenty-two-year-old teacher and long-suffering mentor at the Collège de Charleville, Georges Izambard.

Recognizing that he had before him a “first-rate cerebral mechanism” in the guise of a seemingly compliant local prodigy, Izambard advised Rimbaud on his writing and lent him books from his own library. (These included Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, the discovery of which elicited a stern letter of protest from Mme Rimbaud, taking the teacher to task for allowing such a “dangerous” book to fall into “the hands of children.”) Soon after, on August 31, 1870, his mother's worst fears were realized when her sixteen-year-old son escaped to war-torn Paris, only to be thrown into a prison cell and exposed to influences far more pernicious than those to be found in a Victor Hugo novel. He was returned to his furious mother less than a month later by the devoted Izambard, but soon enough would be chafing to escape again.

These changes—and whiffs of more to come—were all reflected in “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”), which is often regarded as Rimbaud's signature poem, if so protean a writer can be said to have a signature. It's the work, at any rate, from which people who have read his poetry are likely to be able to recite a line or two—much like the opening of Robert Frost's “The Road Not Taken.” By the time this poem was written, within eighteen months of “The Orphan's New Year's Gifts,” Rimbaud, not yet seventeen, was set on his future course, which was to be characterized by severed connections and abrupt departures. (“He was always,” as Robb notes, “on his way to somewhere else.”) Having already flung himself at an unwelcoming Paris three times, Rimbaud was about to descend on the post-Communard capital once again, newly fortified by a personal invitation from Verlaine, whose attention he had caught by sending him urgent dispatches of his own poetry. “Come, dear great soul,” the older poet had grandly suggested. “We await you; we desire you.” (The worshipful Delahaye, convinced that Rimbaud would “enter the world of letters like a bullet,” had copied his pal's poems in roundhand so Verlaine would find them easier to read.)

In his introduction to the Modern Library's new edition, Wyatt Mason observes that “Le Bateau ivre” was a radical step forward in Rimbaud's “poetic apprenticeship”—a process that had begun in “scrupulous imitation” and arrived with astonishing speed at a point of “utter originality.” And the poem is indeed singularly modern both in the poise with which it establishes its own unfamiliar context—“The Drunken Boat” is narrated from the perspective of the boat—and in the lyric intensity of its anthropomorphic habitation. It begins without benefit of throat-clearing, immediately plunging the reader into the sensation of being adrift on a river that has taken control. (Part of Rimbaud's innovativeness is his refusal to ease the reader in by spelling out the implicit comparison between himself and the boat—i.e., “I am like a drunken boat.”) The poet's tone becomes eerily nostalgic toward the end, as though some irrevocable break with the past has already occurred: “If I still long for Europe's waters, it's only for / One cold black puddle where a child crouches / Sadly at its brink and releases a boat, / Fragile as a May butterfly, into the fragrant dusk.” Perhaps Rimbaud was envisioning a future in which he had already taken leave of his vulnerable, poetry-making self and the culture that bred him. Or perhaps this tone of inexplicable regret was no more than a useful pose, one of many in his ongoing campaign to become a prophet in his own time: “I'm now making myself as scummy as I can,” the eighteen-year-old Rimbaud wrote to Izambard. “Why? I want to be a poet and I'm working at turning myself into a Seer.

The next year or two would be packed with more poems, more of what Robb calls “buggery business” with Verlaine, more travel, and more uneasy reunions with Mme Rimbaud. There would be drugs, seamy living, and low-level jobs, inflammatory talk in cafés and extravagant theorizing in the form of Une Saison en enfer. Rimbaud had great hopes for this book, which appeared in the fall of 1873, shortly after his nineteenth birthday. As it turned out, Une Saison en enfer was roundly ignored, and would be reviewed only after his death. (The prose-poems collected under the title Les Illuminations were first published, without his knowledge, in 1876—years after Rimbaud had stopped writing, and was presumed to be dead; their authorship was ascribed to the late Arthur Rimbaud.)

By May of 1876, Rimbaud had sworn off literature and signed on as a mercenary with the Dutch colonial army, from which he deserted in short order. He was twenty-one. His journey into self-imposed exile had begun, and would end thirteen and a half years later with a feverish letter dictated to his younger sister, Isabelle, from his deathbed in a Marseilles hospital. In the letter, Rimbaud addressed an imaginary “Directeur,” describing himself as “crippled and unhappy,” and eager to pay up his “account.” We are left with the impression of a man who has been rendered immobile but is compelled to keep moving, who still dreams of escaping his condition of self-confinement by sailing away over the waters. The tone is both abject and imperious: “I am completely paralyzed,” Rimbaud concluded, “and so I wish to embark in good time. Tell me at what time I must be carried on board.”

Perhaps because there are fewer mysteries more glamorous than the mystery of renouncing great creative gifts, Arthur Rimbaud has retained his hold over our imagination. Most of us have little idea how to live with the selves we happen to be stuck with—much less how to go about shedding them in order to acquire new ones. People who do manage such acts of re-invention—who appear to break the stranglehold of a given identity—acquire an almost talismanic stature. Small wonder, then, that decade after decade Rimbaud is discovered anew as a galvanizing force by just those unsalubrious types that Mme Rimbaud so valiantly strived to keep her son clear of: those intent on changing (or at least challenging) the world. Often the fascination takes a purely literary form, as in the translation Samuel Beckett made, early in his career, of “Le Bateau ivre,” or the poem by Malcolm Lowry that consists entirely of a list of the many identities (tutor, beggar, quarry foreman, and more) that Rimbaud adopted in his lifetime. But an interest in Rimbaud's myth doesn't necessarily imply a finely tuned grasp of the nuances of his actual work. In the forties, for instance, the writer and poet Delmore Schwartz, who was given to bouts of manic enthusiasm, attempted a translation of “A Season in Hell,” notwithstanding his faltering grasp of French. (The critics had a field day pointing out the gaffes, which included Schwartz's rendition of “je revais” as “I review.”) And Rimbaud also inspired visual artists: Picasso did a sketch of him, Modigliani admired him, and the thrice-married painter Max Ernst paraphrased his views on romance—“Love, as Rimbaud said, must be reinvented”—although it is not a subject one usually associates with this poet.

In the fifties, the Beats—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the rest of the on-the-road gang—were linked to Rimbaud in what seems at first glance an obvious connection. But although the Beats trafficked in a permanent state of transience, as he did, their laid-back style of disengagement was very different from Rimbaud's bilious outlook. In the late sixties, with revolution in the air, Rimbaud's cachet began to skyrocket. He was taken up by a throng of professional renegade-artists that included both Morrisons (Jim and Van), Bob Dylan, and Patti Smith. In 1968—at the peak of his fame and two years before his death in a Parisian bathtub—Jim Morrison sent a fan letter to Wallace Fowlie, who had published the first translation of Rimbaud's complete works: “I am a rock singer,” he wrote, “and your book travels with me everywhere.” Van Morrison wrote “Tore Down a la Rimbaud,” which he described as being about “artistic block and lack of inspiration.” And Bob Dylan, in “You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” somewhat melodramatically compared his own tattered romantic history to Rimbaud's doomed relationship with Verlaine (which had crash-landed when Verlaine made several suicide attempts and then shot Rimbaud in the arm): “Situations have ended sad, / Relationships have all been bad. / Mine've been like Verlaine and Rimbaud. …” Patti Smith, of course, is foremost among contemporary Rimbaud cognoscenti, having apparently channeled him in her formative youth. Already in 1973 she was writing liner notes for a friend's album in the form of a stream-of-consciousness incantation: “devotions. To Arthur Rimbaud. He was young. he was so damn young. he was so god damned. …” Like a cheerleader dressed in black leather, Smith growled, “Go Rimbaud Rimbaud Rimbaud,” as part of the lyrics for the centerpiece track of her first album, Horses, and focused another of her albums, Easter, entirely on the figure of the “been there, done that” poet.

Closer to our own moment, Rimbaud continues to rule as the cultural referent of choice. In 1995 his affair with Verlaine was made into a film, Total Eclipse, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of the pervy poet. That spring, the journal Critical Inquiry published an article solemnly entitled “Rimbaud and Patti Smith: Style as Deviance.” And in January of last year, a day-long Stanford University conference on Bob Dylan included a talk called “Visionary Road: Rimbaud, Kerouac, Dylan.” (Rimbaud would surely have derived some satisfaction from having engendered enough recondite scholarship to inspire a parodic bibliography—a counterhistory of sorts—called Le Mythe de Rimbaud.)

Still the question lurks: What do people talk about when they talk about Arthur Rimbaud? Is it his oblique and strangely impersonal verse that has outlived him, or is it his high-pitched but ultimately impenetrable life that casts such a long shadow? “The more perfect the artist,” T. S. Eliot categorically observed, “the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” Try telling that to the hipster fans who have appropriated Rimbaud's glowering anguish, jangling around his persona like so much pocket change, and see how far you get. In the case of this artist, for better and worse, Eliot's somewhat priggish decree falls by the wayside—if only because Rimbaud's cultural presence has less to do with his stylistic influence and more to do with his embodiment of a particular artistic stance. And although each generation likes to discover the politics of subversion for itself, with him the Bad Boy came of age, thumbing his nose at the establishment not because he was an angry bumpkin but because he had seen into its corrupt and unknowing depths and had rendered his verdict: he didn't want any part of it.

“One must be absolutely modern,” Rimbaud declared, and promptly went on to be absolutely modern from the moment he died (just as Eliot was old-fashioned from the day he was born). There was more than a bit of the poseur in him, but there was also the unarguable talent. As one of his peers indelicately put it: “He stank of genius.” Perhaps the most poignant irony of the Rimbaud saga is that, for all the great distance he traveled, he wasn't able to leave home. He never really gave up on his unyielding mother, never stopped looking to her to bail him out of fixes or to offer a liberating glimpse of affection and concern—the “warm maternal gaze” he wistfully invoked in “The Orphan's New Year's Gift.” It may well be that his defiance was just another form of attachment, his being a poet a phase he had to go through before settling down to embrace his mother's bourgeois convictions that money counted for everything and that loftier pursuits were to be snubbed. “One can never leave,” Rimbaud wrote in Une Saison en enfer. He passed this confession off as an aside, but in a life full of secrets, this may have been the best-kept of all. Cherchez la mère.

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5872

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 ni simplement délaissée mais hantée plutôt par le sens et la culture.

—Jacques Derrida1

Triste nouvelle! Le feu a pris lundi dernier au Moniteur. La bibliothèque tout entière a été la proie aux flammes. … J'ai désiré, parfois, que le même malheur atteignât à tous les monuments de Paris, pour que le lendemain, sur les cendres encore fumantes de l'édifice écroulé, une nouvelle génération vînt jeter les bases d'un art nouveau et faire le poème de pierre du XIXe siècle. La rédaction m'a défendu de mettre le feu.

—Jules Vallès, following an 1857 fire that consumed the library manuscripts of the Second Empire's official journal, Le Moniteur2

The open or empty ruin is a familiar ruinist trope, owing to a certain perceptual ambivalence it affords the gaze: I simultaneously perceive the inside and the outside of the architectural object in ruin. My perception breaks through the object, through corridors conjugated in perspective or onto the sky. In its ambivalence, in this throughness that gives onto the open sky, the ruin disturbs the normal order of perspective and engenders a vista that had not been intended. By its physical form as by its symbolic associations, the open ruin links up with the azure sky, the desert, the abyss—so many anti-sites—because it tends toward the indistinct, undifferentiated, informe. If the ruin is an architectural object that disrupts the confines of architecture per se, if it undermines architecture's attempt to divide and give measure to space, then the open ruin is one of its most synthetic models.

Not surprisingly, the open ruin emerged as one of the primary visual and verbal tropes in the representation of Paris Commune ruins. The open ruin supported a variety of historical interpretations for the capital as it reflected on its own state of desolation.3 Photographs, woodcuts, and paintings of the capital in ruins after the Bloody Week foreground the spatial or perceptual ambivalence of many edifices destroyed during the Commune, including the Palais des Tuileries, Hôtel de Ville, Cour des Comptes (or Palais d'Orsay), and Ministère des Finances. The ruin's visual characteristics offer up a figurative association for Commune Paris in the same way that the very structure of edifices corresponds to the moral or historical circumstances of a story: with some resonance, artists exploited the ambivalent ruin as a spatial figure for the political implosion of the Empire, the humiliating military invasion by Prussia, and the internal disruption of civil conflict, whereby in each case the spatial relations of social entities violently collapse and are left without legitimate form.

For Rimbaud, the open ruin mediates his relation to poetic activity while allowing him to proxy his participation in the Commune. What follows is a brief reading of his 1871 poem “Qu'est-ce pour nous mon cœur” and its recent critical reception, which traces reflections on Commune aesthetics and Rimbaud's politics to one logical convergence: that the ruins of the Paris Commune served as an imaginary genius loci for this poem's creation. If ruins mediate the status of the capital, then the Commune open ruin also generates a suggestive model for revolutionary aesthetic activity; it became an impetus for poetic destruction in this poem that gutted the classical edifice of the French Alexandrine verse. Jacques Roubaud, keenly aware of its historical context, imagines “Qu-est-ce pour nous mon cœur” as a “catastrophe” in the history of the Alexandrine for precisely this reason (19). More specifically, it might very well be that the Commune ruin is a way for Rimbaud to think the spatiality of the 1870-71 crisis and to conceive an aesthetic catastrophe that undoes the support structure of a longstanding literary establishment while foregrounding the spatial conditions of existence inherent in former metrical forms (it indicates a historical shift away from metrical toward “typographical” verse, the spatiality of which is virtual in all verse poetry). For Rimbaud's poem defiantly strips the identity of French metrical forms, leaving only its walls standing—only the barest metrical structure remains. In parallel with the subject position construed by so many images looking out through ruins, Rimbaud makes it possible for the next generation of poets to imagine a different poetic construction, a different verse spatiality. “Qu'est-ce pour nous mon cœur” is not in itself a new art of stone dreamed of by Vallès just prior to and eerily prescient of the Commune (see the epigraph). But it does enact a catastrophe of art, leaving the old form in ruins, and through its “pseudo-metrical” form, playing as the double or “simulacre” of metrical practice, it haunts the French verse tradition.4


The perceptual ambivalence of the ruin connects with a broader dialectic of inside/outside central to the social and spatial dynamics of the Commune. Indeed, the Commune has been understood as a “primarily spatial event” (Ross 4), a “fait urbain” (Gaillard 838), and its mythic heritage should be linked to its spatial characteristics. This is not to say that the Commune is not social, but that the social is a necessary but not entirely sufficient factor in its analysis. For Jeanne Gaillard, the Commune is spatial according to three urban dynamics decentralization, marginalization, and reconquest. The Commune follows a broader ideological tendency toward decentralization dating from the Second Empire. In its demand for decentralization, the Commune sought an autonomous power of governance outside of federal authority. In this way, the Commune attempted to reappropriate the space of the city—not only in terms of class conflict, but also as the local or regional manifestation of social will against a national entity. The Commune is an event in which the identity of the state dissolves and is reconstructed through a sort of domestic dispute, an internal violence that founds the new social order (the Third Republic). This internal violence is a product of what Gaillard calls “marginalisme,” which refers to the displaced situation of Parisians pushed out toward the eastern periphery of the city as a result of the reconstruction of the increasingly monumental center of the city. What had once been a secure if insalubrious home for hundreds of thousands, had disappeared and become the familiar space of a growing bourgeoisie invested in the city as a cultural center remade in the image of the Second Empire—this is the grand narrative of Haussmann's Paris. Thus, one of the primary factors that led to the Commune was a fundamental alienation from the “house” experienced “within” by a major portion of the population. This displacement—a virtual exile or homelessness—did much to prompt what Gaillard calls the Commune's desire for the “reconquest” of the city: “les marginaux de 1871 sont des exilés malgré eux qui frappent aux portes de la ville” (843). However, the crisis of 1870-1871 ends in a different reconquest: the prorepublican bourgeoisie and conservative provinces reclaimed the city, even though the violence required to do so left the city partially disfigured.

The effect of the Commune on writing is sparse and for the most part belated.5 But the troubling of a spatial difference between inside and outside—where the city is configured as a secure domestic space protected from some external threat—became a recurrent motif in post-Commune representations of Paris. Through the turn of the century, the 1870-71 crisis led Parisian writers to imagine the capital as “un organisme poreux qui se défend mal contre les agressions et les déperditions” (Bancquart 10). The city was perceived as being porous, open to attack and invasion by outsiders. The “peaceful” entry into Paris by the Prussian army on March 1, and the forceful entry on May 21 by Republican troops—breaching the city's thresholds, compromising its integrity—gives sufficient historical cause for the abstraction of “porosity.” The domestic space has redrawn its boundaries, the inside-outside relation has been disturbed.6 Thus, any reflection on the disturbance to an inside/outside relationship cannot be taken as arbitrary when contextualized within the crisis of 1870-1871, and underwrites a variety of figures that include the open ruin precisely because of the inside/outside dialectic it engages.

Contemporary accounts of the Commune made much of the open ruin, but they seemed to do little with it beyond using it as a commonplace. Gautier's writing on the Commune ruins, entitled “Une visite aux ruines,” published first as a series of articles in the Journal d'Oise and subsequently collected in his Tableaux de Siège, repeatedly use the preposition “à travers” to announce the open ruin, as when he describes the Ministère des Finances on the Rue de Rivoli, just down from the Place de la Concorde: “La chute du mur démasquait l'intérieur du bâtiment, et par cette brèche énorme on voyait des perspectives, des enchevêtrements et des superpositions d'arcades qui rappelaient le Colisée de Rome. À travers les ouvertures, le ciel apparaissait par places et complétait la ressemblance” (622). To change how the ruin undoes the cloistering power of architecture would be a crime, for the Parthenon itself “perdrait de son charme divin si l'on bouchait la lacune qui met une tranche d'azur dans la blancheur doré de son marbre” (621). Edmond de Goncourt's description of the Hôtel de Ville on the 28 May (the last day of the semaine sanglante) likewise capitalizes on an inherited use of the ruin to evoke pathos and curiosity: “Avec ses niches vides, ses statuettes fracassées ou tronçonnées, son restant d'horloge, ses découpures de hautes fenêtres et de cheminées restées, je ne sais par quelle puissance d'équilibre, debout dans le vide, avec sa déchiqueture effritées sur le ciel bleu, cette ruine est une merveille de pittoresque à garder” (258-59). In Gautier's account, the allusions to other conceptions of the ruin multiply with facility: allusions to the architectural fantasies of Piranesi, the melancholia of Dürer, and the haunted spaces of Anne Radcliffe. The old sites are all visited: Thebes, Egyptian tombs, the Rhine, Venice, the Parthenon, and, of course, Rome and Pompeii. The Commune for Gautier and so many others is an occasion to return to a familiar concept of the ruin; the Romantics had learned how to frame the ruin, but like Gautier—who earlier in his writing career had helped to define and celebrate the romantic ruin7—they tended not to go beyond identifying the few special characteristics of the Commune ruins in terms reminiscent of ruinist ideas from earlier in the century. In other words, Gautier and so many others are content to leave the ruin as it is, to recall the old. Gautier's assimilation of the ruin is evident: as a commonplace, it serves no unique purpose, it has become a cliché, and along with Goncourt's typical description it may efface the ideological specificity of these particular ruins.

My point here is that in these contemporary Commune accounts the ruin remains merely a theme, an idée reçue. While the ruin appears as a motif in these writings, it does not become a structuring aesthetic principle of any sort. With this in mind, one can appreciate how the spatial conditions of the Commune suggested by figures such as the Commune open ruin inflect sociological understanding, but might also become models for aesthetic production that pays heed to specifically spatial issues. Indeed, socio-spatial categories much more adeptly capture the truth of the Commune. Kristen Ross convincingly describes how the Commune put into relief the “social space” of the capital, by identifying the “vertical” (political, economic) and “horizontal” (assumptions in “social imagination”) elements of the Commune. She argues that the everyday life aspired to by the Commune aggressively attacked “deep forms of social regimentation,” including hierarchical “divisions solidly in place under the rigid censorship of the Empire and the constraints of the bourgeois market—between genres, between aesthetic and political discourses, between artistic and artisanal work, between high art and reportage” (4-5). The exceptional figure in her analysis is Rimbaud, because he calls into question these divisions in his poetry by means of virulent attacks on the bourgeoisie, a systematic undermining of literary forms, and a discourse continually renewed through combining a variety of social registers. His Commune poems become, in effect, “bombs” against the social, economic, and political order. Ross's work aligns with that of Roubaud and invites a reassessment of the force of Rimbaud's “Qu'est-ce pour nous mon cœur,” written shortly after the fall of the Commune. In 1871 Rimbaud takes the ruin of Paris during the semaine sanglante as a paradigm for a disruptive literary act—in this, the open ruin is not the object represented, but the conceptual model and mode of representation for verse, appearing as part of the content but more importantly enabling a radical transformation of form.


Even among Rimbaud's several poems on the crisis of 1870-71, the most significant text in terms of radical poetics comes in “Qu'est-ce pour nous, mon cœur.” The poem violently reacts to the Versailles repression and expresses despair at the obliteration of the Commune. It is just as significant for the way it gives expression to the fires of the Commune,8 as it is for its inflammatory assault on the French metrical tradition. Jacques Roubaud has brilliantly marked the origins of the “dissolution” of the regular alexandrine line in “Qu'est-ce pour nous, mon cœur”; in fact, he insinuates a resemblance between the devastating effects of the Commune and the poem's “catastrophe”—the Commune's destruction of Paris becomes a model for an act of poetic ruination that destroys the metrical past, much in the spirit of Vallès's dream.

Qu'est-ce pour nous, mon cœur, que les nappes de sang
Et de braise, et mille meurtres, et les longs cris
De rage, sanglots de tout enfer renversant
Tout ordre; et l'Aquilon encor sur les débris
Et toute vengeance? Rien! …—Mais si, tout encor
Nous la voulons! Industriels, princes, sénats,
Périssez! Puissance, justice, histoire, à bas!
Ça nous est dû. Le sang! le sang! la flamme d'or!
Tout à la guerre, à la vengeance, à la terreur,
Mon Esprit! Tournons dans la Morsure: Ah! Passez,
Républiques de ce monde! Des empereurs,
Des régiments, des colons, des peuples, assez!
Qui remuerait les tourbillons de feu furieux,
Que nous et ceux que nous nous imaginons frères?
A nous! Romanesques amis: ça va nous plaire.
Jamais nous ne travaillerons, ô flots de feux!
Europe, Asie, Amérique, disparaissez.
Notre marche vengeresse a tout occupé,
Cités et campagnes!—Nous serons écrasés!
Les volcans sauteront! et l'océan frappé …
Oh! Mes amis!—mon cœur, c'est sûr, ils sont des frères:
Noirs inconnus, si nous allions! allons! allons!
O malheur! je me sens frémir, la vieille terre,
Sur moi de plus en plus à vous! la terre fond,
Ce n'est rien! j'y suis! j'y suis toujours.

According to Jacques Roubaud, Rimbaud virtually obliterates the “integrity” of the metrical form here, in both the structure and seams of its construction.9 His analysis identifies two radical attacks on verse practice strategically carried throughout the poem, namely, the deviant use of the caesura and a surplus of enjambment. We know the alexandrine is a twelve-syllable line organized around the caesura at the sixth syllable, which divides the line into two equal segments, or hemistiches; the sixth and twelfth syllables almost overwhelmingly carry the tonal accent, which in French falls on the last syllable, other than a mute e, of a major word or syntagmatic group (verb, noun, adjective, adverb). We also know it is not merely the number of syllables that counts (in determining verse identity) in the numeric system of French verse. It is also the placement of the caesura, because the latter defines the constituent parts of its internal structure (e.g., the two half lines of six syllables each in the alexandrine).10 In addition, since the caesura functions regularly with tonal accent, it compels a reformulation of syntactic groups into a variety of rhythmic sequences, now expected, now not. As a discriminating marker related to rhythm and syntax, breaking lines into individual subunits of meaning, the caesura is an absent, nonsemantic force in the production of meaning in verse. Though in French versification the caesura has its variant uses, such deviance tends to gain significance precisely because it occurs so rarely.

While “Qu'est-ce pour nous” does follow classical practice in some lines, including the first (others: 4, 8, 20, 21, 23, 24), Roubaud catalogues how it is impossible to consistently place the regular caesura where it should fall in half of the poem's twenty-five lines. Not only does it fall on words that normally do not carry the tonal accent (e.g., the preposition dans in 10), or immediately following mute e (mille, 2; de, 3; ce, 11), more importantly, it systematically violates a hard and fast classical rule in falling in the middle of a word six times (6, indu/striels; 12, co/lons; 13, tour/billons; 16, travail/lerons; 17, Amé/rique; 18, venge/resse). In other words, “Qu'est-ce pour nous” repeatedly breaches expectation of some significant portion of language that comes at the six-syllable mark, such that it displaces or undermines the aural cues and nonsemantic factors in the construction of meaning. As if recalling the division of civil conflict, Rimbaud divides these words with metrical means, splitting them in half (the split noun Amérique might in this sense recall the Civil War of the United States), sparing neither the “industrialists” nor “colonials” whose presence at this time is announcing the age of European expansion, but destroying words associated with labor (travaillons) and associated with revolution itself (tourbillons). It is not simply the referents that are split apart by his caesura, but language itself.

Moreover, Rimbaud makes of enjambment a principle of chaotic transgression. Enjambment, of course, is an authorized figure in French verse, though it may at times acquire a discordant resonance, and, as with the displacement of the caesura, it is the relative rarity of its appearance which invests it with expressive value. “Qu'est-ce pour nous” displays an astonishing surplus of enjambment, including continuations between the two hemistiches of a given line (verses 2, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15, 17, 22, 23, 24), and between successive lines (1, 9, 10, 11, 23, and including limits of the stanza from verses 4-5). It will be admitted that neither of these effects—noncaesurability, enjambment—represent anything inherently dangerous enough to bring down the house of French verse form. But they reach a critical accumulation of transgression in this poem. Consequently, when Roubaud adds to these two the matter of the poem's “exasperated punctuation,” he completes the tableau of an “antimetrical” verse act that convincingly shows how “certaines caractéristiques essentielles du vers alexandrine s'y trouvent massivement niées” (Roubaud 21). As such, the very identity of the alexandrine is destroyed, the result of a “catastrophe” analogous to the destruction surrounding the Commune. Indeed, what interests me is that the theoretical language Roubaud adopts in his demonstration, and in the resemblance this language bears to the representational problematic of Paris in ruins, a city breached at its fortified thresholds, left empty, bloody, yet still standing.

The poem is replete with allusions to fire, which is consistently equated with bloodletting (nappes de sang / Et de braise; … le sang! le sang! la flamme d'or!, vv. 1-2). The vast expanse of the fires is figured by the “nappes,” this cloth of blood and flames covering the city from its western limits at the Point du Jour, through the fires of 24 May (Hôtel de Ville, Palais des Tuileries, Palais de Justice), all the way to the Place de la Bastille/La Roquette quartier in the east. The “tourbillons de feu furieux” and the “flots de feux” complete a scene of volcanic imagery (“Les volcans sauteront!,” v. 20). Here, perhaps, Commune Paris becomes a Pompeii of sorts, struck with a lava flow of social indignation and the exasperation of the Communards against the Versaillais troops. A Pompeiian immobilization comes in an odd form, however. If the repression crushes (“écrasés”) these brothers (“frères” is twice repeated, vs. 14, 21), then their state of immobility is a social rejection of the work model imposed by bourgeois Europe. In perhaps the most important individual metrical breach, the very act of verse is struck dumb, the line frozen halfway when the caesura falls precisely in the middle of “travaillerons” (“Jamais nous ne travail/lerons”)—in direct imitation of the refusal of verse to work properly, of the “brothers” themselves refusing to work, to budge under the conventional constraints, forcing instead the verse convention of the caesura to move its place or be lost. Finally, the “j'y suis! j'y suis toujours!” expresses immobility, the poet frozen in his disastrous despair. This aligns perfectly with Ross's argument that Rimbaud's poetry intricately weaves together the social and spatial interests of “la paresse,” and here it is obvious that it works both on a referential level to the Parisian as well as in a register internal to verse conventions (Ross 53).

It seems reasonable in reading Roubaud's account of this “catastrophe” to be struck by the spatialization of verse in the poet-critic's metaphors. It would appear that the architecture of verse is in question, its walls subject to a massive demolition blow. Two examples will suffice. If enjambment already encodes movement in space in its etymology as an encroachment or straddling by the leg (jambe), then the spatiality inherent in the term is reinforced by his allusion to the “frontières d'hémistiche” (enjambment within the line), and the “frontières de vers” (line-to-line enjambment). Roubaud also talks of the “frontières syntaxiques,” which are “hacked apart” (“à la hâche”) by a strident, staccato punctuation. In Roubaud's view, Rimbaud categorically displaces or tears down the “frontiers” that mark the space of the alexandrine by pushing them to their quantitative limits (24). As for the problem of the caesura, it is practically obliterated. The internal structure is deeply troubled. The metrical identity is thus called into question, along with the syntactical continuity. This violent disruption to the verse tradition is meaningful enough as it stands, but Roubaud rounds off his examination by raising the elements of number and rhyme, which remain intact: “L'effet de cet extraordinaire exile intérieur à l'alexandrin, est encore renforcé si l'on tient compte, maintenant, de qui n'est pas atteint dans l'opération et demeure donc comme signe de ce qu'on détruit: le nombre et la rime, prise comme supports vides” (25). Rimbaud's rhyme scheme remains intact, as well as the numeric requirement of the alexandrine having twelve syllables (if not the stanzas—common quatrains). Rhyme and number—in the space of the verse these constitute external or limit characteristics of the line. Roubaud's interpretation reads metaphorically as a spatial problem. More often than not, the measure attributed to verse forms is temporal—consider Poulet's phenomenological studies of the temporality of poetic language. The effect I wish to trace proceeds, rather, along a spatial axis as has been eloquently anticipated by Jenny (116-17). The catastrophe of “Qu'est-ce pour nous” leaves the architecture of verse gutted, empty, barren; only its external structure remains intact, enough of it to recognize the form—verse poetry (rhyme) with twelve syllables (alexandrine). The walls are left standing, but its internal structure has disappeared (caesura). For this reason, Roubaud speaks of an exile from within the alexandrine edifice.

What is more, “Qu'est-ce pour nous” anticipates future verse forms in a mode akin to the perceptual experience of certain ruins. This is not to say that the poem dramatizes the perceptual experience of the open ruin. Rather, it nourishes a conceptual experience of the spatiality of verse. For the spatial carryover of syntactic elements in enjambment, whereby the continuity of thought and language trespasses beyond the external walls of metrical form if you will (césure, syllable count, stanza, etc.), opens up a perspective onto future verse forms, a chaotic vista in which metrical language is released in order to anticipate the impending arrival of vers libre and the broader displacement of metrical verse with the advent of typographical verse. There were no doubt other forces at work on free verse form; nevertheless, if regular verse would inevitably unravel in the years following 1870, the Commune prompted Rimbaud to precipitate its revolution. In his influential study of late century verse practices, Clive Scott identifies 1886 as the “annus mirabilis” during which vers libre emerges, but notably the critic returns to the ambivalent status of Rimbaud's “Marine” and “Mouvement,” written most likely between 1872-73, to suggest through close readings of both their place in the development of vers libre.11 One point perhaps bears repeating: “Qu'est-ce pour nous mon cœur” was not a new verse architecture but the willfull destruction of the old in the spirit of Vallès's call for the destruction of Paris monuments. And it was prompted, precisely, by the fiery consumption of Paris monuments at the hands of the Communards. In short, Rimbaud's poem makes of French verse a ruin, an open ruin, through the walls of which the visionary eye (which recalls the celebrated figure of/for Rimbaud as “voyant”) can perceive something truly new. In this poem Rimbaud does not cleanly move into a new verse form, as the final line—“Ce n'est rien! j'y suis! j'y suis toujours”—suggests he is caught in between, perhaps in the breach between standard metrical forms and the anticipated typographic forms to come. In this, Rimbaud's stance represents a formal or conceptual ambivalence, because this verse act makes an articulation between regular metrical verse and typographical verse. But he effectively explodes the tradition from within the house, haunting it from the inside. Rimbaud ruins metrical verse. This ruination evokes the destruction that took place during the semaine sanglante. To the same extent that the Alexandrine line, and metrical verse in general, make up a conventional—hence, collective or social—order, Rimbaud's violence parallels the destruction of the city. Paris is disturbed, troubled by this internal “exile” that is civil war, and the result is an empty space, a city gutted and ruined by death and raging fire.

It is doubtful that any single visual image of the Commune ruins inspired Rimbaud. But I have tried to show that the Commune ruin connects to his ruination of French verse. It may be that the open ruin's conceptual force, tied to these figures of the city breached, vertically and horizontally, offers Rimbaud a model for verse practice. Just as Kristen Ross shows Rimbaud's search for a new verbal aesthetic with ideological identifications, using conceptual and primary discursive matter for his poetry—slogans and other elements of Commune discourse woven into his text—such that his poems become “bombs” against a long-established literary heritage, so too here “Qu'est-ce pour nous mon cœur” terrorizes French verse.


  1. Derrida's compares the city to the literary object once structuralism has analyzed it, “neutralizing the meaning by form.” I have given this powerful image a different role in this paper. See “Force et signification” 13.

  2. Vallès's remarks appear in his September 16, 1857, “Chronique” for Le Présent, OC 1:78.

  3. In an analysis that underscores the tensions between objectivity and the sensationalism of an emergent journalistic discourse, Jeannene Przyblyski mentions this key trope in the ruinist aesthetic, namely, the visual stimulation permitted by the open ruin: “The ruins are pictured through multiple frames or archways and apertures—the rubble-strewn streets of the modern city seen through timeworn, crumbled forms reminiscent of Roman viaducts. Such engravings are careful in their marshaling of the cues of perspective and comparative scale to channel the viewer into the image and offer a means by which to measure the magnitude of destruction” (265). Przyblyski describes the optical effect in photography and other iconography of the Commune ruins. There are several ways to read the perceptual ambivalence of the open ruin, but for the most part they each foreground the spatial disruption of civil conflict.

  4. Laurent Jenny has suggested this potential of Rimbaud's poem by calling it “pseudométrique” (having the proper number of syllables without the proper caesura) and “aleatory” (without a “law” or set of formal regularities capable of explaining it), “Logique du vers français,” graduate seminar, Yale University, Fall 1992. Jenny's eloquent essay on verse form, La parole singulière, underwrites my argument, though he never specifically treats Rimbaud's poem. See in particular Chapter 4, “Du vers au dispositif” (113-65), in which he defines the “community” of form between metrical and typographic or free verse, a definition which revolves around the “figure” principle of enjambment. I am deeply indebted to his theory.

  5. The most important works of late are the anthology Écrire la Commune: Témoignages, récits et romans (1871-1931) (Eds. Roger Bellet and Philippe Régnier. Tusson, Charente: Lérot, 1994), and Marie-Claire Bancquart's study, Images littéraires du Paris “fin-de-siècle,” 1880-1900, which does consider Rimbaud's Commune poetics but does not specifically tie together issues of the ruinist aesthetic as I am attempting here.

  6. Zola's La Débâcle revolves around this question and thematizes the immanent relationship between the siege of Paris and the Commune. The novel appeared two decades after the Commune (1891-92), when political sentiment for or against had generally tempered. It is evident from his studies for the novel (dating from May 1891) how Zola conceived the central dynamic between the two main male characters, Jean Macquart and Maurice Levasseur, who as complementary characters, brothers for all practical purposes through Jean's love for Maurice's sister Henriette, oppose each other on a Commune barricade. Together they form a single figure for France in 1870-71. If France's internal weakness had stemmed from the excesses of the Second Empire, which emptied its moral zest from within, then its humiliating defeat to Prussia, external invaders, left it divided against itself. The domestic space turns (in) on itself. Thus, consistent with the conception of his “Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire,” Zola exploits the integral sociological model of the family to demonstrate the internal, fratricidal conflict of civil war, in which hatred from within the family results in Maurice's dying in Jean's arms. But Zola's sociological model stands for what is also necessarily spatial: just as Jean and Maurice turn against each other and meet on a Commune barricade, so too France divides itself: Paris, following the battle of Sedan in September of 1870, becomes an integral inside, Versailles an outside.

  7. The fantastic does not share a direct link with this study, but one could consider Gautier's tale “Arria Marcella: Souvenir de Pompéi” and the castle ruins in Capitaine Fracasse.

  8. For Ross, this poem comments on late nineteenth-century social and spatial history. The fourth stanza—“Jamais nous ne travaillerons”—figures the whirlwind agitation (“tourbillons de feu furieux”) that stands in opposition to the “triumph of [this period's] work model, the moment when all activities are translated into possible or virtual work,” 67-71. Moreover, in addressing the “European construction of space as colonial space,” Rimbaud's “geopolitical perception” in the fifth and sixth stanzas calls into question the “mass displacements, movements of populations and human emigrations”; Rimbaud unites oppressed workers with the “dark strangers” of colonized continents against the same geopolitical forces of global capitalism, 76.

  9. My conclusions regarding Rimbaud's ruinist poetic are built upon Jacques Roubaud's close reading of the poem in his study La Vieillesse d'Alexandre, which Laurent Jenny introduced me to. Consider also François Regnault, “Comment dire du Rimbaud.” Le Millénaire Rimbaud (Ed. Jacques Rancière. Paris: Belin, 1993: 115-29).

  10. The caesura is a limit of words conventionally placed to organize the space of a given verse line over nine syllables. It may be mobile or fixed, depending on the type of verse. For example, in the enneasyllable, it may fall in a number of places (3//6, 6//3, 4//5, etc.). Its placement is more rigid in the decasyllable, however, where classically it falls on the fourth syllable (4//6), with a variant structure of 5//5. Thus, a single type of verse can in actuality have several different metrical configurations. The caesura defines the meter. In this case, the same type of verse, i.e., the decasyllable, has two different meters (4/6, 5/5) based on the caesura. Most rigid of all, traditionally speaking, is the medial caesura of the alexandrine, which divides the line 6/6. The only regular rhythmic exception is the Romantic alexandrine trimeter: 4/4/4.

  11. Scott, while arguing for the e atones of “Marine” as coupes enjambantes, insists that the “spatially juxtaposed [characteristics yield] to the temporally fused” (187-88). He concludes that “for all its conversion of the pictorial into the linguistic, ‘Marine’ works within a limited syllabic field of vision, and only in its final line does it break through the psychological dodecasyllabic barrier. ‘Mouvement’ on the other hand reaches beyond the field of vision more frequently, delivers itself up to the uncharted seas of the ultra-dodecasyllabic. Its terms of reference are characteristically the superlative and what lies on the other side of the superlative—‘le gouffre,’ ‘lumières inouïes,’ ‘vertige,’ ‘lumière diluvienne,’ monstrueux,’ ‘sans fin,’ ‘les plus surprenants’” (197). It may be that Scott's critical language yields here to the “spatial” he is anxious to avoid or call into question in ‘Marine’ because Rimbaud's linguistic practice is referentially and typographically spatial in nature. Rimbaud's work thus announces concretely the spatial potentialities of vers libre.

Works Cited

Bancquart, Marie-Claire. Images littéraires du Paris Fin-de-Siècle, 1880-1900. Paris: Éditions de la Différence, 1979.

Derrida, Jacques. “Force et signification.” L'Écriture et la différence. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967. 9-49.

Écrire la Commune: Témoignages, récits et romans (1871-1931). Ed. Roger Bellet and Philippe Régnier. Tusson, Charente: Éditions du Lérot, 1994.

Gaillard, Jeanne. “La Commune: le mythe et le fait,” Annales. 28 (1973): 838-52.

Gautier, Théophile “Une visite aux ruines, 3 et 11 juillet, 5 août 1871.” Paris et les Parisiens. Paris: La Boîte à Documents, 1996. 619-34.

Goncourt, Edmond de. Paris Under Siege, 1870-1871: from the Goncourt Journal. Ed. George J. Becker. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1969.

Hollander, John. Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse. New and enlarged edition. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Jenny, Laurent. La Parole singulière. Paris: Belin, “L'Extrême contemporain,” 1990.

Przyblyski, Jeannene. “Moving Pictures: Photography, Narrative, and the Paris Commune of 1871.” Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life. Ed. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz. Berkeley: The U of California P, 1995. 253-78.

Ross, Kristen. The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune. Minnesota: The U of Minnesota P, 1988.

Roubaud, Jacques. “Ce n'est rien! j'y suis! j'y suis toujours.” La vieillesse d'alexandre. Paris: François Maspero, 1978. 19-35.

Scott, Clive. Vers Libre: The Emergence of Free Verse in France 1886-1914. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.

Vallès, Jules. Œuvres complètes. 2 vols. Ed. Roger Bellet. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard, 1975.

Further Reading

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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 Understanding French Poetry: Essays for a New Millennium, edited by Stamos Metzidakis, pp. 87-97. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Analysis of complex phoneme patterns in Rimbaud's poem.

Houston, John Porter. “Rimbaud in 1871.” In Patterns of Thought in Rimbaud and Mallarmé, pp. 11-22. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum Publishers, 1986.

Examines those events of late 1871 and early 1872 that had a significant effect on Rimbaud's poetic style.

Israel-Pelletier, Aimée. “Demystifying Difference: Rimbaud's Passions for Poetry and Money.” SubStance 18, no. 1 (1989): 58-73.

Studies Rimbaud's abandonment of literature in favor of a second career in commerce.

Macklin, G. M. “Perspectives on the Role of Punctuation in Rimbaud's Illuminations.Journal of European Studies 20 (1990): 59-72.

Considers Rimbaud's highly original use of punctuation as an important part of his experimental form.

Nadine, Claudia. “JE est une phrase: The Subversion of Rimbaud's ‘Being Beauteous’.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 42, no. 2 (summer 2000): 177-200.

Maintains that the poem “Being Beauteous” presents a challenge to conventional representations of women.

Noland, Carrie Jaurès. “Rimbaud and Patti Smith: Style as Social Deviance.” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 3 (spring 1995): 581-610.

Explores connections between twentieth-century popular culture, such as punk rock, and the high cultural avant-garde of the past, such as Rimbaud's poetry.

———. “Traffic in the Unknown: Rimbaud's Interpretive Communities, Market Competition, and the Poetics of Voyance.” In Poetry at Stake: Lyric Aesthetics and the Challenge of Technology, pp. 16-36. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Overview of the various critical discourses surrounding Rimbaud's work, particularly the twentieth-century attempt to separate his poetry from history.

Paliyenko, Adrianna M. “The Dialogic Je in Rimbaud's Illuminations: The Subject of Self and Other.” French Forum 19, no. 3 (September 1994): 261-77.

Analysis of Rimbaud's emphasis on objective poetic discourse in Illuminations.

Ross, Kristin. “Rimbaud and the Transformation of Social Space.” Yale French Studies 73 (1987): 104-20.

Contends that Rimbaud's poetry resists both the biographical interpretations of the past as well as the more recent textual approaches.

Treharne, Mark. Introduction to A Season in Hell and Illuminations, translated by Mark Treharne, pp. xix-xxxi. London: J. M. Dent, 1998.

Surveys Rimbaud's life and writing career.

Additional coverage of Rimbaud's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 217; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Poets; European Writers, Vol. 7; Guide to French Literature, 1789 to the Present; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 4, 35, 82; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 3; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; Twayne's World Authors; World Literature Criticism; and World Poets.

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