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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 521 words.)