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...
(The entire section is 1820 words.)