Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1820
The reputation of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud has grown to mythic proportions since his death in 1891. Considered a revolutionary both in his poetry and his life, Rimbaud’s influence on modern literary thought is nothing less than extraordinary. For some, his life has come to overshadow any full appreciation of his poetic legacy. Wyatt Mason makes it clear in his introduction to Rimbaud Complete that readers’ preconceptions of Rimbaud can make it more difficult for them to truly appreciate what the poems have to offer. The translator almost begs his audience to “ignore what we know about Rimbaud or believe we know” and to “focus briefly on what he made rather than what he may have done” because an “opportunity to explore one of the most varied troves of individual expression in literature awaits us.”
Mason understands all too well how irresistible the Rimbaud legend is. Born in 1854 in the provincial town of Charleville, France, Rimbaud was an excellent student who eventually would grow beyond what this Franco-Prussian border town could offer intellectually. One of his teachers, Georges Izambard, encouraged the young Rimbaud’s early creative efforts, and out of this prodding the fledgling poet made his way. He grew into the “boy genius” that generations of teenage poets to come attempted to emulate. With the outbreak of the Franco- Prussian War in the summer of 1870, the school he attended was forced to close. Rimbaud became restless and detached from the world around him. He wrote many poems during this period that expressed his disdain for French provincial society. With his formal education having come to a halt because of the war, Rimbaud was ready to make a clean break with life as he knew it. He was a voracious reader and read everything of interest that he could get his hands on at the Charleville library. He also escaped the tediousness of Charleville by running away to Paris. The myth of Rimbaud was about to become larger than life.
Mason is intrigued by the many facets of the Rimbaud myth—the “Adolescent Poet,” the “Hallucinogenic Poet,” and the “Gay Poet”—but he recognizes that there is a “problem with all these adjectives.” The adjectives do a disservice to the poems. As Mason sees it, the poems are “disfigured” by all of these easy descriptions. For Rimbaud Complete, Mason has gathered together the full breadth of Rimbaud’s poetry. He wants the reader to experience the “neophyte” as well as the “genius.” Rimbaud experimented with various poetic forms, only to discard them when they no longer served a useful purpose for him. While it is common practice for bilingual poetry collections to have the original version and the translation on facing pages, Mason and the Modern Library have concluded that it would be more appropriate to have the English translation in the first section and Rimbaud’s original French works in the second section. The volume also includes a selected bibliography and indexes of titles and first lines for both the French originals and the English translations. Rimbaud Complete is a very handsome edition, and the Modern Library must be praised for the care that went into its making.
Mason has included all Rimbaud’s poetry in this collection, including even his earliest, juvenile attempts at writing poetry. In addition to providing the first English translations of these juvenile poems, Mason also has translated a school notebook and an early draft of the remarkable Un Saison en enfer (1873; A Season in Hell, 1932). There are fifty pages of material in Rimbaud Complete that previously was untranslated into English. For Rimbaud Complete, Mason wished to chart the course toward the genius that Rimbaud became. It was for this reason that he took it upon himself to translate Rimbaud’s earliest work. If for no other reason, this new collection is of importance for connecting the dots of Rimbaud’s evolution from novice to miracle- worker poet. Mason wanted to lay out the poet’s “path to originality.” The notebook is fascinating for numerous reasons, but it is crucial for understanding what Rimbaud was reading, what there was around him that he was soaking up like a sponge. During his school years, Rimbaud was a brilliant student. His early attempts at verse show his ability to absorb what had come before in terms of poetic form. He was challenged by one school assignment and came up with an award-winning poem. While previous scholars may have discounted these poetic “exercises” as not being of sufficient interest, Mason sees them as windows into understanding “how Rimbaud is learning to become Rimbaud.” Each of his early efforts at poetry illuminates how he absorbed other poets in a search to find himself. The rough draft of A Season in Hell points to how miraculous the final version truly is. The draft reveals how much hard work Rimbaud must have put in to complete this visionary work. A Season in Hell is not some fully formed work of genius that dropped out of the sky without revisions; it was won inch by inch.
Mason, noted for his translations of the French author Pierre Michon, has over the years immersed himself in the French language, noting that he has “taken nine years of increasingly esoteric French grammar classes.” Mason reached a point at which the only way to connect fully with the French language was to translate French writers into English. It was time for him to get his hands dirty with the process of translation. Translation can be thought of as attempting to navigate through a minefield. One may know a foreign language through years of intense study, but a bold leap is necessary to translate from one language to another. Mason is all too well aware of the pitfalls of translation. For some translators, it is paramount to take a literal approach to the original material. Mason has concluded that a “literally faithful translation can end up being the furthest in feeling from the original.” When translating poetry, it is crucial for the translator to do more than merely get the words right. There are many concerns in translating poetry that are essential to capture in order to reach the qualities that make the work poetry rather than prose, including the subtleties of rhyme, meter, and symbolism. A translator who is merely concerned with what each word literally means in the original language can completely miss the poet’s intent. With this in mind, Mason has taken on the precarious pursuit of molding Rimbaud’s French poetry into striking English poetry. He understands how important Rimbaud is to contemporary poetry. There is the charisma of Rimbaud’s personality that must not blind a translator to the task. Mason was drawn to this nineteenth century teenage poet because he was truly an original poet. There is a seductive quality to Rimbaud’s poetry that most translators have been unable to resist.
Mason has made Rimbaud’s struggle to achieve literary immortality more than just a sleight-of-hand magic trick. He sees Rimbaud as a poet who could not stand still, who could not be satisfied with what he had done at any given moment. He is a poet of motion and his poems “fidget, wander, and won’t stay still.” As a translator, Mason realizes that he must attempt to get the meaning right, no matter the complexity or pitfalls of the original. He has stated that as a translator he must serve to get “the truth of meaning and the truth of music,” and that “Without both, the original gets hopelessly lost.” Over the decades, English readers of French poetry have come to know Rimbaud’s poetry through the translations of Wallace Fowlie, Paul Schmidt, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound, and Louise Varèse. These respected translators have dedicated readerships that, rightly or wrongly, only know Rimbaud through what these translators have put to paper. While Mason is more than willing to give credit to each of these translators for the scholarship brought to the task of rendering Rimbaud into English, he is also more than willing to distance himself from the approach taken by each. According to Mason, both “style and substance” must be served by any careful translator. For this reason, Mason has made himself a target for anyone who has grown up with these previous valued translations. As a result, Rimbaud Complete has received some hostile reviews. There seems to be a vested interest in what came before and, therefore, any new approach to Rimbaud becomes almost blasphemy. Mason went searching for a different Rimbaud, for a poet who did not come into poetry fully formed. While it has been the norm for so-called complete works to be sanitized versions of what a “great” writer wrote as opposed to a warts-and-all approach, Mason wanted to lay out how Rimbaud grew as a poet, how he struggled to go from the imperfect to the perfect. Mason is not shy about stating that biographers have done a disservice to Rimbaud by making him into more “personality” and less “poet.”
Because the Rimbaud mythology is so powerful, Mason must have known that it was a grand undertaking to come up with a fresh and bold slice of Rimbaud the poet. He knew that Rimbaud is “impossible to get right.” This was the very challenge that made it impossible for him to resist. The “fun” for Mason as translator is the very pitfalls of translating such a varied poet as Rimbaud. As Mason has pointed out in various interviews, “translations must be evaluated holistically, not piecemeal, as is commonly thought.” If nothing else, Mason wants to put on display how marvelous a stylist Rimbaud was. He was not a “drunken poet spouting spontaneous, ecstatic verse.” Approaching Rimbaud’s poetry with preconceived notions concerning his celebrity status does a distinct disservice to his poetry. In 1871, he composed one of his most startling and profound poems, “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”). The poem is divided into twenty-five rhymed quatrains. While the poem is structurally conventional, Rimbaud employed vivid images that connect directly with a reader’s senses, as evidenced by the opening quatrain:
Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles, Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs: Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles Les ayant cloués nus aux poteaux de couleurs.
Mason has translated this as
While swept downstream on indifferent Rivers, I felt the boatmen’s tow-ropes slacken: Yawping Redskins took them as targets Nailing them naked to totem poles.
While serious students of French poetry and Arthur Rimbaud in particular may quibble with the occasional English word or line chosen by Wyatt Mason, the fact still remains that Rimbaud Complete is a towering achievement and a stimulating introduction to Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry for a new generation of English-speaking readers.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 98 (February 1, 2002): 918.
Library Journal 127 (April 1, 2002): 112.
Publishers Weekly 248 (December 17, 2001): 84.