“The Drunken Boat” is perhaps one of the poems that Rimbaud presented to the poet Paul Verlaine as an introduction upon arrival in Paris in 1871. There is no manuscript in the hand of the poet, but the work was no doubt written shortly before being given to Verlaine. It was first published in a journal, Lutèce, in 1883 and then in Verlaine’s Poètes maudits in 1884. “The Drunken Boat” is a work upon which Rimbaud counted to make his reputation. It is mysterious and remains so even after generations of scholarly readings. Many people see it as a succession of images noted by a youngster who had been reading adventure stories such as those of Jules Verne and James Fenimore Cooper. Other readers have discovered metaphysical intentions and esoteric symbols.
Some of the obscure images in the poem become clearer if one rereads Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) and “The Manuscript Found in a Bottle,” as well as Jules Verne’s Vingt Male Lieues sou les mers (1869-1870; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1873). Rimbaud had not been to America, nor had he seen the ocean, when he created these images of shores haunted by Indians, of violet sunsets and phosphorescent waves. In spite of the fact that many of the strange images in the poem are borrowed from Verne’s voyage of the Nautilus, “The Drunken Boat” has little in common with an adventure story. It is Rimbaud’s effort to render in poetic form his painful disillusionment during the winter of 1870-1871. The real literary point of departure for Rimbaud is no doubt Baudelaire’s poem “Le Voyage” (“The Trip”), which also tells of dreams of escape followed by despair.
This long poem comprises twenty-five quatrains using the abab rhyme scheme and the classical twelve-syllable Alexandrine line throughout. Thus, the form of the poem is extremely traditional.
“The Drunken Boat” is written in the first-person singular; the prominence of the speaker is apparent from the start and gives the poem a strong impression of being a subjective vision. The first seven stanzas of the poem celebrate the freedom of the solitary sailor in the midst of an exotic maritime world. Yet with the “I know” at the beginning of the eighth stanza, the speaker’s ennui, or boredom, becomes apparent: “I saw at times what man believed he saw.” The poem proceeds largely through enumeration of colorful images drawn from adventure stories, yet which seem Surrealist here, divorced as they are from any logical explanation. The speaker identifies with the drunken boat, a ship that has lost all human guidance and has become a restless “martyr”:
A martyr tired of poles and zones, at momentsthe sea whose weeping fed my gentle rolllifted up shadow-flowers with yellow suckerstowards where I rested like a woman kneeling.
In the twenty-first stanza, the speaker confesses, “I long for the old parapets of Europe.” The exaltation of the opening stanza has given way to fatigue and disillusionment: “Yes, true, I’ve wept too much.” Since there is nothing left to see and nothing else for which to hope, the speaker aspires to end his purposeless voyage at the mercy of the blind waves. Perhaps the most famous line of the poem is the final verse of the twenty-third stanza, “Oh let my keel burst! Let me find the sea!” This wish is somewhat ambiguous, since the boat is already out to sea. In spite of first impressions, however, this is not an invitation to a voyage, but rather a desire to sink to the bottom of the sea, to oblivion.
There are several references to children in the poem. The twenty-fourth stanza provides one positive, but inaccessible, image. After exhausting the marvels of the whole world, the boat longs for “a cold black pool where one unhappy child/ Kneels and releases towards the balm of dusk/ A boat frail as a butterfly in May.” “A Drunken Boat” chronicles the vision of a poet who dared to explore what few of his contemporaries could know and who despaired of ever recapturing the innocence of childhood.