Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

If the image of a “blackcurrant river” evokes a vagabond’s paradise, the development of the poem expands that image by coupling it with medieval, fairy-tale commonplaces and a little faintly ironic advice to the timid hiker. This pastoral thematic is, however, accompanied by hints of violence. The wind, for example, is not always a tame breeze, but sometimes a violent one. In the first stanza, the movement of the fir thickets is produced by several winds “plunging.” In the second stanza, the wind is set in contrast to the enclosed atmosphere of revolting mysteries, ancient campaigns, dungeon keeps, important parks, and dead passions. It is “salubrious,” healthy and unconfined.

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Also important in “blackcurrant river” are the ravens or crows, harsh-voiced birds of ill omen, which frequently devour dead heroes in traditional ballads. Within a poem that stresses the theme of medieval romance, this link cannot be denied, yet the birds are addressed positively as the forest’s soldiers, sent by the Lord, “deardelicious.” Rimbaud’s poem “Les Corbeaux” (“The Ravens”), published in September of 1872, deals directly with crows as scavengers of the battlefields of the Franco-Prussian War. He uses the same positive language, calling the birds “deardelicious” and addressing them as “saints of the sky.” In both poems, the use of quasi-religious vocabulary is ironic. Nature’s imperative of decay and destruction is carried out by scavengers, and the carrion birds fill this role. They are addressed positively in opposition to traditional values, as the violent unconfined wind is valued above the romantic figures of the second stanza in “Blackcurrant River.”

The third stanza presents the reader with two more figures in opposition: the hiker and the peasant. The first is only hinted at, in a manner suggesting that he is both threatened and in need of reassurance. What danger he fears is not explicitly mentioned, but wicker-work fences seem scant protection. He may be the eye that observes the picturesque features of the earlier stanzas, the tourist in these strange valleys.

The peasant figure completes the disintegration of the picturesque scene. While the knights errant of medieval romance are noble figures, and their ruined castles, formal gardens, and ancient wars and passions are popular clichés for elevated sentiment and beauty, the peasant is common, crafty, and deformed. The ravens are ordered to make him flee, but their role is an ironic one, and the peasant still holds the emphasized position at the end of the poem. It is he, after all, who actually drinks from the blackcurrant river and does so with gusto.

As for the stream from which he guzzles, if it is made of cassis syrup, it is thick and dark red, suggesting blood, another stream that flows unseen in dark valleys. Ravens and crows, as eaters of flesh and blood, reinforce this equivalence. One could go further and see, in the references to ancient romantic and military themes, a source of the river of blood from which the deformed peasant drinks, as well as an attempt to discredit the romantic glorification of war.

Any deliberate step-by-step logical interpretation, however, would directly oppose the declared intentions of the poet. In May of 1871, Rimbaud had formulated a poetic theory that envisioned a direct assault on the senses and sensibilities of his reader through manipulation of poetic form. The reader is, in some sense, placed in the position of the timid foot-traveler, seeking reassurance behind a wicket gate but faced with the uneasy knowledge that the sympathies of the poet lie with the powers of disintegration: the crows, the wind, the crafty peasant with his old stump of a limb. All the forces of the poem, from the unsettling rhythm and uneven rhyme to the seditious and troubling images, combine to provide a vivid landscape that is undercut by an unpredictable black current.

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