The Poem

“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 Most probably composed in the spring of 1872, it remained unpublished until the posthumous Poésies complètes.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...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Forms and Devices

“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...

(The entire section is 482 words.)