Themes and Meanings

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Numerous allegorical interpretations can be generated by the poem, but none is so coherent as to exclude all others or to provide a definitive explanation of all details: “The Drunken Boat” is not a structure of simple symbols which can be translated into single concepts. A rational order cannot be pressed upon it, and it is useless to insist that the poem conform to the mental restraints of clarity and coherence. Its images bristle with suggestions and resonances that must be understood on their own terms while being integrated into the whole poetic structure. Rimbaud’s poem is not an enigma to be solved but rather a complex structure of episodes, details, and emotions which the reader must explore carefully.

“The Drunken Boat” is an extraordinary example of a Symbolist poem, astonishing in the perfection of its conception and execution. The structure rests on the presentation and elaboration of one term of a metaphor—the symbolic one. The reader, after comprehending various aspects of the symbol, is left to perceive their relationships to an unnamed term which is the true subject of the poem. Charles Baudelaire and the Parnassian poets Paul Verlaine and Théodore de Banville had been working in this mode of poetry for some years, experimenting with techniques that would reveal the subject without disclosing it, leading the reader to discover the significance of the poem through a thoughtful interpretation of the symbol. Rimbaud’s boat, telling of its reckless, aimless voyage and referred to always in terms appropriate to a boat, implies a corresponding term of a metaphor relating to humankind. The boat—sentient, thoughtful, capable of feelings—conceals within it the image of all those who break the ties that bind them in their quest for both physical and spiritual fulfillment.

“The Drunken Boat” is an autobiographical poem about growing up. Ernest Delahaye, a schoolmate of Rimbaud, wrote that, as a child, the young poet liked to play in a rowboat tied in the Meuse river near his home, dreaming of the freedom and adventures that it represented. This small boat probably inspired Rimbaud to imagine a magical freighter escaping from the stability of its moorings to pursue extravagant and exotic adventures on the oceans of the world. Provoked by his feelings of constraint and confined within the repressive atmosphere of middle-class values and views represented by his mother, his teachers, and the clergy in Charleville where he was born, Rimbaud embodied in the symbol of the boat his dream of reckless independence. Sometimes clouded by fear and apprehension, the boat nevertheless established its identity—“Free, smoking, topped with violet fog”—as the young poet himself was soon to do.

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