The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624

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“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 “good, mind-destroying work.” Children retain a few sweet memories of the “Great Day” of First Communion, then go on to banal lives, forgetting the contagion of the touch of Christ’s Priest. The Priest chooses one sickly, sad little girl for distinction, and this child is the center of the next six sections.

In section 3, the child is on the eve of her Communion, sick in bed and counting visions compounded of bits and snippets of ecclesiastic imagery and “Latin endings.” She seeks remission of her “virginities, present and future,” but the pardons of the “Queen of Zion” are icy. In section 4, the vision recedes, becomes a “book virgin,” and is succeeded by immodest curiosity about the nudity of Jesus. Leaving the abstract vision, the poem focuses on the child’s physical and emotional condition. Her head is buried in her pillow, and she thrashes about and drools as she tries to regain her vision, finally opening the curtain to let night air cool her belly and chest.

In the fourth and fifth sections, the child wakes at midnight and goes outside after a “red dream” and a nosebleed. She seeks the night as a locus of both exaltation and degradation, a Virgin Mother who bathes her children in silence and indifference. The child plays the roles of victim and bride, spending her holy vigil night in the latrine. The seventh section, a single stanza, apostrophizes the “dirty madmen” whose divine work deforms worlds and infects the child with leprosy.

The eighth section presents a woman whose lover dreams of “the white million Marys” after a night of love. She confesses that her love is death and disease and that Christ soiled her breath when she was young. Even the most loving woman feels herself thus prostituted and suffering. Her first Holy Communion was also carnal: She cannot feel her lover’s kisses because her whole heart and body swarm with the putrid kiss of Jesus.

The final two-stanza section is an apostrophe to Christ, the “eternal thief of energy.” It is an accusation that his curses separate man and woman because, for two thousand years, his deathly paleness has nailed suffering woman to Earth with shame and headache.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591

“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 twanging, the child drools, the paving stones stink of wash water, the woman has internalized “knots of hysteria,” and her flesh “swarms with the putrid kiss of Jesus.” The use of vigorous, unexpected, and negative descriptions determines the tone of the poem and contaminates its individual elements. There is no ideal or admirable figure.

“First Communions” is built on a system of polar oppositions. Most are implicit, produced by the juxtaposition of two terms, as in the contrast of the “stupid” church of the first stanza with the countryside of the second, where everything is “in heat,” fertile, and trembling with life and color. The opposition of natural vigor and ecclesiastical futility, once established, recurs in the third stanza, in which the white-washed barn of a church, with its relics and straw stuffed images, is contrasted with flies gorging in the sunshine and smelling like inns and stables. “But” and “however” emphasize the opposition in other cases, such as the sunlight shining through church windows opposed to the grotesque priest and his followers, or the nocturnal plots of the Priest set in contrast with the thoughtless banality of young men and girls.

There are many other opposed pairs in the poem. The mystic images of the child’s vision are compared to the “book virgin” and “immodest curiosities” of the fourth section. The heart is exalted and degraded in the night. The white specter of the drying blouse is related to the black specters of the roofs. There is a holy night in the latrines, and there are sorrows of happiness. A woman is the most loving and the most prostituted, and the soul is rotten and desolate. The spirit of opposition and rebellion is knit into the very fabric of the poem.

There is a certain awkwardness in the change from the six-line stanzas of the first two sections to the four-line stanzas of the body of the poem. The change to quatrains changes the tempo, however, and the power of the contrast compensates for the awkwardness. In the first, longer stanzas, the opposition between the Priest and the natural world predominates. In the shorter, quicker stanzas, the more dramatic scenes of the young girl and the woman that she becomes are dramatized.