The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 494 words.)