The Poem

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“The Drunken Boat” was written by the sixteen-year-old Arthur Rimbaud as a demonstration of his poetic skills for the audience of poets that he expected to meet in Paris in 1871. The one hundred lines of the poem are divided into twenty-five quatrains, Alexandrines rhymed abab, which are quite traditional and conventional. Beneath the controlled surface, however, seethes a turmoil of complex and conflicting, but interdependent, thoughts and feelings. The poem is a statement of adolescent rebellion and a hymn to liberation and independence. It expresses the young Rimbaud’s personal longing for freedom, adult life, and mature experience.

The poem is a narrative related by a boat that has somehow escaped its moorings and run alone, without control or guidance, down a river to the sea. The “drunken” boat of the title is not intoxicated with alcohol or drugs but with uncontrolled and aimless liberty, an abandonment to whatever forces drive it toward an unknown destination. The boat, lacking haulers, rudder, or grappling hook, finds total freedom in its mad and senseless frolic in the sea. During this long journey—time and the cause of the liberation are never specific—the boat experiences many adventures and encounters previously unknown sights, sounds, and sensations. At the end of the voyage, the boat, weary and deteriorating physically, longs for release from the exhaustion of experience. It seeks tranquillity and rest at the bottom of the sea.

Although there are no formal divisions into parts within the text, the poem breaks rhetorically into five sections. In the first two stanzas, the boat tells of its magical liberation from the control of its haulers and the burdens placed on it by commerce. The next three stanzas describe its physical initiation into the sea world. With triumphant exhilaration, it rushes to unite itself with the element of water, which washes away the traces of the human world and purifies it of both wine and vomit. In the long central section of the poem, which consists of twelve stanzas, the boat elliptically and chaotically relates some of its most startling adventures. Some experiences are acute perceptions of dawn and sunset, as well as of the play of light on the surface of the water. Others describe strange new lands, exotic flowers, and monstrous, fabulous beasts; tropical fish and bizarre marine birds entice the boat onward as it continues its reckless and irregular pursuit of drunken freedom. Gradually becoming sated with freedom and new experience, however, the boat begins to feel languorous and weary. The next four stanzas—one rigorously organized sentence—summarize the boat’s total sea experiences, which have produced a disillusioned homesickness. The last four stanzas express the boat’s disgust with its previous aspirations, its sense of physical weakness and gradual disintegration, and finally its longing for death. Having enjoyed the ecstasy of new physical and spiritual sensations, the boat hopes either to return to its abandoned home or to sink to the bottom of the sea.

Forms and Devices

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Although conventional in conception (narrative) and in structure (rhymed quatrains), “The Drunken Boat” broke entirely new ground in Rimbaud’s invention of poetic images adequate to convey the intensity of the boat’s emotional reactions to its various experiences. Some of Rimbaud’s images, quite simple and conventional, speak to the reader directly with their power and beauty. “Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves,” the boat reveals, and “—from then on I bathed in the Poem/ Of the Sea—.” Throughout the poem, Rimbaud refers to nature in terms that might have been used by many earlier poets: “I know the evening,/ The dawn as exalted as...

(This entire section contains 521 words.)

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a flock of doves” and “Glaciers, suns of silver, nacreous waves, skies of embers.” Emotions are conveyed through common references: “And I remained, like a woman on her knees” expresses the boat’s sense of reverence for the beauty of exotic sea life, while “Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter” reveals the boat’s disgust as it approaches the end of its mad journey. The image of a child releasing a boat as “fragile as a May butterfly” into a black, cold puddle is impressive for the simplicity of its tone and for its expressiveness.

Mingled among these simple images, however, are many others whose significance is neither apparent nor rational and logical. For example, the boat sees the low sun “spotted with mystic horrors” striking the sea so that the waves seem to be “rolling far off their quivering of shutters”; the boat has dreamed of “the yellow and blue awakening of singing phosphorus.” With a willing imagination, a reader may decide that the word “mystic” contributes an aura of mystery to the apprehensions attendant upon the approach of night, while the shutters may allude to Venetian blinds moving in the breeze as the sun sets. Images of exotic marine life complete this striking description of the sea as threatening night descends.

A third kind of image, one which defies efforts at logical analysis, appears frequently in the central section of the poem. The boat notices in “hideous strands” that “giant serpents devoured by bedbugs/ Fall, from gnarled trees, with black scent!” It endures “the quarrels/ And droppings of noisy birds with pale yellow eyes,” and, near the end, describes itself as “spotted with small electric moons,/ A wild plank, escorted by black seahorses.” Such conjunctions of meaning lose logical coherence because they transcend reason to achieve meaning in the realm of the emotions. They suggest fantastic visual images and sensations burdened with intense emotion. Serpents covered with bedbugs, yellow-eyed birds, and electric moons suggest paintings by Salvador Dalí and Marc Chagall. Rimbaud has pressed words and their meanings from the real through the unreal to the surreal by linking concepts that reflect spiritual rather than physical reality. Connotation has taken precedence over denotation; implications and suggestions prevail over literal significations. A new way of forming poetic images was invented, one which served poets and other artists for many generations to come. Perhaps Rimbaud cannot quite be called a Surrealist, but “The Drunken Boat” clearly introduces new poetic techniques.