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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689

“Dawn,” one of the prose poems included in Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1886), is particularly representative of the concerns in most of his writing. Subjectivity, underlined by the use of a first-person speaker; erotic desire, rendered by the image of pursuit of the object; and a final depersonalization accompanied by fainting are the principal themes of the work.

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The poem begins and ends with short declarative sentences, each of them forming its own paragraph or stanza. In between, the poet has arranged his dream-narrative in five brief paragraphs of approximately equal length. After the first sentence, “I embraced the summer dawn,” which in fact summarizes the entire action of the poem, the story is presented chronologically. The final sentence questions the reality of the action evoked.

Perhaps the most striking literary technique apparent in the first stanza is personification. The façade of the palaces is called a “forehead.” The water is “dead.” Shadows are “encamped,” and nature is “breathing,” while precious stones “watch” the speaker. By attributing life to the inanimate, the poet tends to make it more active than his speaker.

The next short paragraph reinforces the notion that the speaker is passive. “My first enterprise was, in the path already filled with cool pale glimmers, a flower that told me her name.” Not only is the flower personified, but the “enterprise,” a word that suggests action, is not really that of the speaker at all, for the only initiative belongs to the flower.

The fourth paragraph, or stanza, represents the center of the poem. It is a sort of climax as the speaker catches a glimpse of the “goddess.” Rimbaud uses a neologism in French, wasserfall, for waterfall, and the strange but comprehensible word renders the goddess exotic, yet accessible. Personification is still present, for the waterfall is “blond” and “tosses its hair.”

In the next stanza, the speaker becomes more active “lifting, one by one, her veils.” The erotic encounter is the unveiling of a mystery. The technique of personification still has an important part to play as the speaker seems to communicate with nature by waving his arms, clearly demonstrating an intimate relationship. “I betrayed her coming to the cock” attributes reactions to the cock that are not usually his. The speaker assumes considerable power, able now to “betray” the divinity. Dawn “fled,” “running like a beggar.” The goddess, hitherto evoked in terms of gold, silver, and precious stones, has suddenly lost her prestige. The speaker is now definitely active: “I pursued her.”

The physical limits of the speaker become vague; perhaps he is disembodied as he “surrounds” Dawn. Her body is felt as “immense”—but what kind of body does he have if he can “surround” her? The reversal of active/passive elements, effected through the use of personification, continues as the goddess becomes finite and even degraded while the speaker dissolves into the whole. Then, the poem makes an abrupt shift from a first-person narration, where the speaker assumes responsibility for the action, saying “I,” to a third-person narration: “Dawn and the child plunged to the bottom of the wood.” The plunging fall suggests a loss of consciousness at the paroxysm of emotion.

If the speaker suddenly becomes a child, this transformation of the poem may be linked to the final sentence: “Upon awakening it was noon.” The English translation would read more smoothly, “When I awoke,” yet it is important to note that Rimbaud has left the final sentence without an agent. The speaker has in fact disappeared from the poem as though his only reality were a dream existence. The absence of the speaker in the final sentence, and the transformation of the “I” into a “child” in the second-to-last sentence, may seem to function as a disavowal of the erotic content of the dream-poem.

Sigmund Freud has noted that one of the functions of dreams is to allow the dreamer to continue sleeping. In this case, the final line of the poem, “Upon awakening it was noon,” presents a definite letdown. Dreaming about Dawn has occupied the entire morning: The poet seems to imply that imagination is preferable to waking reality.

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