Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599

“Memory” paints an idyllic river landscape and then abandons it, glorifies escape, and ends in regret. It may refer specifically to the August afternoon of Rimbaud’s first escape from his stern mother and younger sisters, left behind in their riverside city as he went to Paris; there were, however, many abandonments in Rimbaud’s life. His father left when the poet was a young child. When Rimbaud wrote “Memory,” he believed his father to be dead. (The older man died in 1878.) His older brother ran away shortly before Arthur did. When Rimbaud wrote “Memory,” he had left Paris and poet Paul Verlaine to return home. He was contemplating another escape, both from France and from verse. (His flight to Belgium with Verlaine took place in July, 1872.) The composition of prose poems, later entitled Les Illuminations (1886; Illuminations, 1932), soon consumed his attention. Une Saison en enfer (1873; A Season in Hell, 1932), also prose, was his last literary composition and the only book he ever saw into print.

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If abandonment and loss, abundant in the poet’s life, are central in “Memory,” so are the themes of joy and liberation. There is joy in the elaboration of the riverside scene, all purity, golden light, and flowers, with flashes of mythical, angelic figures. Rivers have their tutelary nymphs; Rimbaud’s river has the brilliant, white flesh of women in the first stanza and the young girls, who are almost willow trees by the water, in the second section. The revels of angels, the gaily flashing banners of the warrior maiden, are positive, powerful images. The willow-girls allow birds to spring from them. The last stanza laments the dust shaken from willows by a wing; escape has a price, regret for the “April moons.” Yet the escape, in a flurry of white wings, a bound over the mountain, is also part of the same energy and joy. The birds were already unbridled.

The cold, black, rigid figure of Madame, not only the poet’s mother but also the force of structure, of rules of initials, of Alexandrine rhythm, of alternating rhymes, intrudes in the idyll, standing between the sun and the marsh marigold, crushing flowers, and scattering snowy threads over the prairie. On one side of her there is innocence, motion, warmth, children reading red books in green grass. On the other there are tears, a sheet of dark water, and an old man dredging from an unmoving boat. It is “her” rigidity that forces abandonment and loss, rather than the joy-filled flight for freedom.

The identification between “he,” the man who escapes, and the first person of the last section centers around this old man. He is both the father whom Rimbaud believed dead and the poet himself, returning to dredge the dark waters of memory, repeating a pattern of loss. For Rimbaud, to speak of boats and water must recall his earlier “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”), a wild journey of discovery ending in yearning for “a black, cold puddle wherea stooping child full of sorrows releases a boat frail as a May butterfly.” Longer and more regular in verse form than “Memory,” the “Drunken Boat” sketches the same pattern of intoxicating escape and eventual regret. The boat of “Memory,” anchored to a boundless gray eye, is not identical to the waterlogged “Drunken Boat.” The speaker in the last stanzas of “Memory” laments the past, yet he questions the chain which holds him to the mud beneath those boundless waters. At the heart of “Memory,” in spite of its regrets of lost delight, lies the germ of another attempt at escape.

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