Blackcurrant River

by Arthur Rimbaud

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

“Blackcurrant River” is a short poem, composed in May, 1872, that was not published by the author. It remained a manuscript until 1886, when it was published together with a number of other pieces, entirely without the poet’s knowledge. By the time “Blackcurrant River” appeared, Arthur Rimbaud had abandoned poetry and left Europe to live as a trader in Ethiopia.

The poem is composed of three rhyming six-line stanzas. In the French original, the lines are of unequal lengths, alternating eleven-syllable lines with lines of five to seven syllables. The rhyme scheme is also slightly irregular. While the rhymes of the first and third stanzas alternate in a simple ababab pattern, the second-stanza rhyme repeats a single nasalized vowel (revoltants, temps, importants, entend, errants, vent). Formal deviations such as these are difficult to render in a translation; their effect in the original French is considerable.

“Cassis” is a fruit, a popular flavor of sweetened syrup, and a liqueur. Thus the French title suggests a stream of sweet liquid, an inviting counterpart to the Big Rock Candy Mountain. When translated into English, the title contains a pun (currant-current) that is absent in French. Rimbaud spoke English, however, and may have been conscious of the possibility. In any case, the title helps establish a deceptively mild tone for the poem, although “black currents” run throughout.

The opening stanza evokes a pastoral landscape of a stream that rolls unknown through strange valleys. The stream is accompanied by the voices of a hundred ravens (or crows), and these are true, good “angel voices.” Another element of this scene is the great movements of fir thickets in plunging winds. An undercurrent of tension troubles the ideal countryside: Why is the river unknown? Why are the valleys strange? How can the cawing of crows be hailed as angel voices? Even the winds, in the verb “plunge,” are characterized with unusual violence.

The second stanza adds picturesque references in a guidebook tone. Everything rolls (as the river rolls), with mysteries of campaigns of ancient times, visited dungeons, important parks. All the elements of a country ramble in château country are here, yet the poet compromises his pastoral by terming his mysteries “revolting.” Within these boundaries are heard the passions of knights errant, but the passions are dead. Again, the stanza ends with the wind, here set in opposition to the rest of the scene: “But how salubrious is the wind!”

The final stanza brings human figures to the landscape, a foot-traveler and a crafty peasant. An impersonal voice directs the hiker to look at latticework fences; if he does so, he will feel braver. Ravens are called soldiers of the forests, sent by the Lord. They are “dear, delicious ravens,” directed to chase away the peasant. The peasant figure, crafty and guzzling (the verb used can also mean offering a toast), has the old stump of an amputated limb. In its final image, the poem offers a degraded figure, deformed by some old injury, a blot upon the fairy-tale pastoral landscape. Disturbing undercurrents in the description of that landscape suggest, however, that the sympathies of the poet lie with this “crafty peasant.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 397

“Blackcurrant River” was written during the young Rimbaud’s close early association with fellow poet Paul Verlaine. This was a very productive period, and several poems from roughly the same time, such as “Larme” (“Teardrop”), “Bonne Pensée de Matin” (“Good Morning Thought”), and the four “Fêtes de la Patience” (“Feast Days of Patience”), show the poet’s formal experiments.

One element of experimentation is the length of the lines. Rimbaud’s earliest poems are often written in formal Alexandrine (twelve-syllable) lines—even sonnet form. The poems of May, 1872, use shorter lines, although they rhyme and use regular verse form, sometimes inconsistently. In the “Fêtes de la Patience,” for example, three of the four poems are written in lines of five syllables, the fourth in lines of eight.

The uneven rhythm of “Blackcurrant River” is one of its most distinctive features; it halts briefly after each shorter line, suggesting a limping step or the irregular flow of water over stones. This effect may not be rendered in all translations. The longer lines could be read separately and produce a legible text. The shorter lines throw the poem into its essential imbalance, and their content is emphasized. These lines often carry the more unsettling thoughts and images of the poem. In the briefer lines, crows’ croaks are qualified as “angel voices,” winds plunge and are praised, crows are called “dear” and “delicious,” and an amputated limb serves to lift a toast or guzzle. These lines are longer by two syllables in the last two stanzas, adding to the irregularity of the poem.

Rhythm is not the only element that unifies “Blackcurrant River.” The two first stanzas of “Blackcurrant River” are bound by an internal echo; both have the same main verb, “roll,” and both evoke the wind. The first and third share the image of crows and their qualification as angels or soldiers of the Lord. Within the overall rhyme structure, which tends toward “rich” rhymes (that is, rhymes in which two or more elements of the word ending are the same), the rhyme scheme of the second stanza, which is built around the same nasalized vowel for all six lines and has a full syllable rhyme for the first four, produces a closed atmosphere. It emphasizes the suggestion of confinement that is thematic within this stanza, with its dungeon keep, river banks, and formal park.

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