The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“First Communions” is a long poem which is cut into nine sections of one to seven stanzas. The first two sections are composed of six-line stanzas and the last seven sections of quatrains, but the rhyme scheme remains a consistent alternation of rhymes. The poem is dated July, 1871, and Arthur Rimbaud included it among the poems sent to Paul Verlaine before their first meeting in September, 1871. Like other early poems of Rimbaud, including “Seven Year Old Poets,” “The Poor in Church,” and “The Drunken Boat,” it is written in Alexandrine verse, a formal verse line of twelve syllables, which is traditionally reserved for serious subjects. The poem is centered on the preparation for first Holy Communion and its effects on a girl from a country town, a theme treated with heavy irony and hostility by the young poet.

The first two sections set the context and present the Priest and the Child. The tone is set by the first phrase, “Really, they’re stupid, these village churches.” The Priest is presented as a grotesque black figure in fermenting shoes, surrounded by ugly children who befoul the pillars they lean against. The church, built of native stones, is part of the countryside; it is a “barn” and attracts flies that smell of stables. The patron saint is stuffed with straw. The parents pay the Priest so that he will leave their children free to work in the sun.

The sun and nature are presented positively; life vibrates in the countryside. Families are dedicated naïvely to...

(The entire section is 624 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“First Communions” is not devoted primarily to formal beauty, because its energy is turned toward polemic. Yet, Rimbaud chose a formal verse structure, frequent in his early works, which is tied closely to beauty and elevated thought. Technical mastery of the Alexandrine lends dignity to the material expressed in it, yet its inevitable ties with classic forms and idealistic themes contrast with the strongly sacrilegious, antiestablishment “First Communions.” There is ironic weight in the juxtaposition of rhyming Alexandrines and the debunking of First Holy Communion and Christianity.

Throughout “First Communions,” the reader encounters expressions that are chosen for their incongruousness or shock value. In the first stanza, for example, the churches are “stupid,” the children are “ugly brats” who soil the pillars of the church, and the Priest is “grotesque” with fermenting shoes. Moreover, his speech is broad, “babbling,” and badly pronounced. The description is enhanced in the seventh stanza: It is the priest’s feet that define him again as his toes tap along to music against his “heavenly prohibitions.” His prestige disappears and his power, mentioned in stanza 4, becomes a contagion which makes the skin crawl.

Churches are “barns,” and their relics “grotesque mysticities.” The girls are called “sluts” by the boys, and the boys “howl out frightful songs,” far-away music is heard as nasal...

(The entire section is 591 words.)