Since his death in 1891, there have been numerous biographies written about Rimbaud that have attempted to skew, invent, or cloud altogether who Arthur Rimbaud was. In 1897, Rimbaud’s brother-in-law, Paterne Berrichon, published a biography that attempted to sanitize Arthur’s life. In this biography, Rimbaud is supposedly sorry for all of his “youthful indiscretions,” and he is looked upon as a saint in the eyes of the African natives. Through the efforts of Isabelle and her husband, all the rough edges were removed from Rimbaud. La Vie de Jean-Arthur Rimbaud was no more than a “devotional” biography and muddied the waters of Rimbaud scholarship for many years to come. Whatever truth there was in the Berrichon biography became suspect to all serious critics. As Graham Robb points out in the “Epilogue” of Rimbaud, the legend of Rimbaud became either all black or all white. There seemed to be no room left for any shades of gray. In 1938, French scholar Enid Starkie published Arthur Rimbaud. This remarkable biography quickly became the standard chronicle of Rimbaud’s life. The author revised her extraordinary work in 1947 and again in 1961. While Starkie died in 1970, her biography has remained the benchmark by which all other literary biographies of Rimbaud are measured. Starkie devoted much of her life to the study of Rimbaud, and the many readers of her biography have felt that they know Rimbaud intimately because of Starkie’s portrait. Graham Robb, therefore, comes to his own project with the understanding of the multitude of myths that surround Arthur Rimbaud.
Acclaimed for his biographies Balzac: A Life (1994) and Victor Hugo (1997), Robb has taken on the daunting task of attempting to poke holes in the mythology that has grown up around the great nineteenth century French poet. There seems to be an entire cottage industry devoted to publishing something about him every year. As a visionary, a poet, an explorer, a revolutionary, and more, Rimbaud has become many things to a vast number of devoted scholars, artists, and the reading public. Having created a scandal seemingly at every turn, Rimbaud is both a biographer’s dream and biographer’s nightmare. Robb has read what all of the previous scholars have written. He understands that there are adherents of certain points of view who do not wish to have their version of the myth shredded, picked apart, or even questioned. With this as his challenge, Robb has taken some giant steps forward in sifting through the chronology of Rimbaud’s short life, while still realizing that there are gaps and puzzles in his life that an honest biographer cannot truly decipher. Robb goes about matter-of-factly detailing how extraordinarily cruel this model student could be, how his whole being—not merely his hypnotic poetry—was a rebellious act against all French civilized conventions. While previous biographers may have skirted around the more horrendous offenses against propriety that Rimbaud committed, Robb seems to relish in their telling.
Born in provincial France in 1854, Jean-Nicholas-Arthur Rimbaud grew up in the town of Charleville, near the Belgian border. He was the second son of Frédéric Rimbaud and Vitalie Cuif Rimbaud. His father was an army officer who spent a good deal of time away from home. His mother was devoutly religious and was very stern with her children. In 1860, Captain Rimbaud left the family home in Charleville for good. Robb appropriately takes the time to detail how Captain Rimbaud was fond of writing commentaries on army affairs as well as reports on Africa. He put together a “compendium of Arab jokes” and produced a “parallel-text translation of the Koran.” Although these works were never published, Rimbaud’s father exhibited diligence and an ability to make keen observations. His wife saw no value in literary endeavors. Madame Rimbaud was a difficult person to please and her husband decided that the struggle was no longer worth the effort. It is curious to speculate what influence his father’s travels and writings had on young Rimbaud, even though he would never see his father after he left the family. It cannot be stressed too much how important it was for Robb to flesh out a more complete portrait of Rimbaud’s father. The Rimbaud children would now be at the mercy of their bitter mother. In 1861, both Rimbaud brothers were sent to the Institut Rossat. While his older brother, Frédéric, was not a quick learner, little Arthur proved himself to be a fast study in almost every subject taught at school. He won many prizes at the Institut. In 1865, Madame Rimbaud transferred her sons to the Collège de Charleville. As Rimbaud grew older, his precociousness made it impossible to tolerate his stifling surroundings. He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and diverse experiences. While he was considered a model student, the internal itch to break away from this provincial and ordinary world in which he found himself soon had to be...
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