Arthur Rimbaud’s meteoric career has forever earned for him a place as the brilliant enfant terrible of French verse. Since his death, he has attracted more critical attention than any French poet save Stéphane Mallarmé. A revolutionary both in his life and in his art, Rimbaud exerted a radical influence on the scope and direction of French poetry. He has been credited with introducing vers libre (free verse), which would come to dominate modern poetry, and his systematic cultivation of dreams, hallucinations, and madness anticipated modern interest in the irrational side of the human mind. He became, for a time, the patron saint of André Breton and the Surrealists. Rimbaud’s conception of the poetical “I” as “other” (“Je est un autre”) has been acclaimed as an intuitive perception of the unconscious that predated its mapping by Sigmund Freud. Finally, Rimbaud was the first French literary figure to sound a distinctly feminist note in his writings, condemning the cultural repression of women and looking forward to a future day of liberation when they would assume their rightful place in society and art. Faithful to his own precept, “Il faut être absolument moderne” (“We must be absolutely modern”), he prefigured key trends in modern art and thought.
What influences in Arthur Rimbaud’s life seem most vital in helping him to be a poet at such an early age?
What principles of literary construction, if any, did Rimbaud’s Illuminations exemplify?
Rimbaud’s poem “Dawn” begins conventionally: “I embraced the summer dawn.” Trace the unconventional development that follows.
Some works in Rimbaud’s Illuminations are written in recognizable verse forms, and some are not. Does there seem to be a thematic or other recognizable difference between the works in these two forms?
Does the later part of Rimbaud’s life suggest that he had come to reject the idea that poetry should change life?
Ahearn, Edward J. Rimbaud: Visions and Habitations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Discusses the influence of Rimbaud’s early life and surroundings on his brief poetic career, including the anticlerical and anticonventional guidance he received during his teen years, when he began writing poetry. Points out links between Rimbaud’s poetic images and his actual physical environment.
Fowlie, Wallace. Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994. For devotees of pop culture. Relates Rimbaud to the 1960’s counterculture.
Hackett, Cecil Arthur. Rimbaud: A Critical Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981. A good introduction for those beginning to explore Rimbaud’s poetry. Contains much poem-by-poem explication, as well as analyses of Rimbaud’s overall poetic achievement and cultural influence.
Lawler, James L. Rimbaud’s Theatre of the Self. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. A unique book which translates Rimbaud’s work into a theatrical progression, explaining why the poet stopped writing to explore the dark side of his personality.
Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000. This work contains only one chapter on Rimbaud but is highly useful in placing him within his historical context. Discusses his influence on modernist poets such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams, as a transitional force between Symbolism and modernism.
Robb, Graham. Rimbaud: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) Presents a “reconstruction of Rimbaud’s life”; discusses the revolutionary impact his poetry had on twentieth century writers and artists, especially since Rimbaud’s admirers primarily arose after his early death. Examines the influence of Rimbaud’s early family life, in particular his stormy relationship with his mother, and presents thoroughly his checkered career after his abandonment of poetry at the age of twenty-one.
Steinmetz, Jean-Luc. Arthur Rimbaud: Presence of an Enigma. Translated by Jon Graham. New York: Welcome Rain, 2001. A comprehensive biography, this work focuses on Rimbaud’s numerous self-contradictions and extremes of behavior, particularly in his stormy relationship with the older poet Paul Verlaine. The author analyzes Rimbaud’s poetry primarily in its relation to the poet’s life.