The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

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“Memory” is a poem of ten quatrains, divided into five sections. The lines in French are twelve syllables, cut with pauses and run on at unpredictable intervals. The stanzas rhyme in a regular abba pattern. “Memory” does not capitalize the initial letter of each line. Most probably composed in the spring of 1872, it remained unpublished until the posthumous Poésies complètes.

Formed around a riverside scene, perhaps drawn from memory of the August day in 1870 when Arthur Rimbaud first ran away to Paris, “Memory” is precise in its reference yet vague and fluidly suggestive in its language and imagery. The first line invokes “Clear water,” an opening followed by two distinct sets of images. The first set gathers around concepts of purity, as in children’s tears, white flesh, silk, and exalted emotion, with references to the old French monarchy and angels. An abrupt “No” cuts this thread and introduces a series of less abstract images: impressions of the river, moving gold, with cool, heavy plant arms; and a bed canopy of blue sky and bed curtains of shadow.

In the second section, the river frames little girls in green, who act the part of willow trees from which birds spring. A marsh marigold, qualified as a coin, an eyelid, and a mirror, rivals the heat-hazy sun. The exclamation—“Your conjugal vow, o Spouse!”—is tied to the next quatrain and the figure of Madame. It compromises the glowing flower image.

Section 3 presents Madame as well as He, the man. Madame was prefigured in the “Spouse” of the fourth stanza. She is rigid; threads of handwork fall about her like snow. She holds a parasol and proudly crushes a flower underfoot. Nearby, children are reading, red books set on flowery green, but this scene is cut by “Alas!” It is a background for the man’s escape. “He” joins earlier images of purity, since his flight is “like a thousand white angels.” “She” is “all cold and black.” She runs after Him, leaving the riverside scene.

The poem plunges into the emotions of Section 4, regret for the arms of pure plants and April’s moons in the river bed, joy in riverside wanderings on August evenings with their seeds of decay. “She” weeps under the city walls; poplars breathe from above. The poem returns to water, a dull, gray sheet with an old man dredging in an immobile boat.

A first-person narrator in the last section speaks of himself as a toy, with arms too short to reach flowers. Like the dredger, he is in an unmoving boat on dark water. As the poem ends, the voice laments willows and roses of the past and his own impotence, fixed as he is in place on a boundless eye of water. The last phrase, “. . . to what mud?” sounds a note of seeming hopelessness. The poet stresses emotional immediacy; the poem is written in the present tense.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

“Memory” came late in Rimbaud’s poetic career as one of the last of his verse poems. One of the usual identifying marks of verse is missing, as Rimbaud uses lowercase initial letters in all but sixteen of the poem’s forty lines, contrary to his usual practice. Another suggestive point is that all of the rhyming words of the poem end in a mute e, what the French call “feminine” rhymes. Standard French verse form decreed the alternation of “feminine” with “masculine” rhymes. Rimbaud’s “Drunken Boat” (1871) follows this rule scrupulously. This distinction is lost in translation, but it is unlikely to be a random variation in verse form. These are examples of deliberate formal experiment.

By far the most interesting formal variation in “Memory” is Rimbaud’s off-beat use of the twelve-syllable verse line. An Alexandrine contains twelve syllables and pauses between the sixth and seventh syllables (the caesura). In orthodox French poetry, Alexandrine verse is chosen for serious and exalted subjects. Use of enjambment, the running on of a sentence from one line to the next without a pause, was a striking variation in form. In “Memory,” the verses flow one into another with no respect for syntactical unities. They are broken by exclamations and interjections. The measured flow of classic Alexandrines is absent. In its place is a seemingly random ripple of language. The images of “Memory” also run one into another with the same disregard for formal structures.

Not only do the original French verses use end rhymes, they use interior rhymes, for example in stanza 2, “sombre—ombre,” and in stanza 5, “ombrelle—ombelle.” Assonances are used, as in stanza 3, “saules—sautent—oiseaux”; stanza 5, “prairie prochaine”; and stanza 10, “roses des roseaux.” In their close sound relation, these words knit a structure within the compromised formal framework of “Memory,” a doubled system of end and internal rhymes and assonance uniting the whole text.

The rapid succession of images and their juxtaposition in clear pictures are also distinctive. In the first stanza, clear water evokes a set of ideas tied with purity, and follows them to the Maid of Orleans and angels at play. The associations are linked through silk, which is like women’s skin and lilies, and is also the stuff of the oriflamme, the red silk banner symbol of French kings. The pure lily is also a symbol of the Virgin Mary and of the French monarchy. Joan of Arc, who led an army to relieve Orleans in defense of the French monarchy, is a virgin and an exalted figure of religious nationalism. These links do not exhaust the images, but rather may be expanded until the river running through sun and shadow is the nucleus of a starburst of connections. “Memory” is formally dense; its many images, its complex pattern of rhyme and rhythm, and its breaking of traditional rules all contribute to its final richness.