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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 700

“Barbarian” is a free-verse poem included in the volume Illuminations. The structure of the poem is a loose one in which repetition seems to abolish temporal reference. The poem functions as a tension between two networks of images, one of them agreeable and feminine and characterized by softness, the other violent and threatening. The jumble of imagery has often been seen as revealing Rimbaud’s experimentation with drugs to induce vision.

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In the French title, “Barbare,” with its repetition of two identical syllables, producing an echo effect, several elements of the poem are introduced. The word “barbarian” can function either as an adjective or as a noun. The reader does not yet know who or what is qualified as barbarian. The barbarian suggests first of all that which is not civilized. A certain violence may be implied, along with the notion of otherness.

The free-verse form of the poem, consisting for the most part of noun clauses, presents a high degree of repetition, but no apparent structure. Ending as it does with the beginning of a repetition followed by three dots, the poem seems unfinished. Several temporal indications are present from the start of the poem. The first line begins “Long after,” while the third begins with “Delivered” and continues with “far from.” If verbs are present in the text, they tend to be there in participle form, that is, functioning as nouns and thereby losing their active role, as well as their temporal value. The open nasal sound is very frequent. It is found in many words but especially in the present participle ending: “viande” (“meat”), “saignante” (“bleeding”), “fanfares” (“fanfares”), “encore” (“still”), “pleuvant” (“raining”), “vent” (“wind”), “diamants” (“diamonds”), “éternellement” (“eternally”), “entend” (“hears”), “virement” (“veering”), “flottant” (“floating”), “blanches” (“white”), “bouillantes” (“boiling”), “volcans” (“volcanoes”). In addition, the poem makes great use of the other nasal vowel sounds, creating an overall impression of homogeneity of sound, which reinforces the echoing impression left by the title.

Several elements in the poem seem to refer to other pieces in the volume. If “Matinée d’ivresse” (“Morning of Drunkenness”) is set among the fanfares in “Le Temps des assassins” (“The Time of the Assassins”), “Barbarian” declares itself “delivered from the old fanfares” and “far from the old assassins.” Yet these distancing ideas may simply be wishful thinking. The use of present participles would tend to abolish time in favor of an eternal present. The poem admits that the fanfares “still attach our heart and our head.” The next line, beginning “far from,” ends with “that are known, that are felt.”

The abundance of oxymoron, the union of opposites, in the “Blazing coals, raining in squalls of hoarfrost,” “fires in the rain of the wind of diamonds,” “rain hurls down . . . eternally carbonized,” “Blazing coals and froths,” “collision of ice with the stars’ white tears, boiling,” and finally “volcanoes and arctic grottoes,” suggests that the “old flames” of “Morning of Drunkenness” are not really “far away” at all, but very much present. The memory of these sensations provokes an exclamation: “Douceurs” and “ô douceurs” (“delights,” or “sweetness”) while music is heard, suggesting a state of euphoric ecstasy. Is it the result of drugs, or the effect of having abandoned their use?

The meaning of certain images has posed problems to many critics. “The banner of bleeding meat” against the “silk of seas and of the arctic flowers” is certainly mysterious but may simply convey the heightened sensual experience, the “reasoned deranging of all the senses,” which Rimbaud set as his goal in the “Seer Letter.” In the two places where the image of arctic flowers is given in the poem, it is followed by the remark, “they do not exist.” Rimbaud thus juxtaposes not only discordant images but also different orders of existence, that of vision, hallucination or dream, and that of mundane reality.

The poet has effectively covered his tracks, in this case making a definitive interpretation of the poem impossible. Questioned once as to the meaning of an image, Rimbaud is reported to have said; “I meant it literally and in every sense of the word.” The three dots of the last line of “Barbarian” ensure that the final impression will be one of open-endedness.

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