Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1422
In the spring of 1873, Arthur Rimbaud wrote to a friend that he was preparing a “pagan book” with “half a dozen horror stories.” He called the stories “stupid and innocent,” but he added that his fate depended on them. A few months later, he took the finished manuscript to a printer in Brussels, who was to publish the work at the expense of Rimbaud’s family. Rimbaud was not yet nineteen years old.
Rimbaud gave advance copies of A Season in Hell to his former mentor and lover, Paul Verlaine, and to a few other friends. Snubbed socially and artistically following a scandal that landed Verlaine in prison, Rimbaud burned the remaining copies of the book in a fireplace at his mother’s house. He also burned a sheaf of his unpublished poems. He said he no longer thought about poetry. The boy who had been the talk of Paris at the age of sixteen—“an infant Shakespeare” in the words of novelist Victor Hugo—gave up poetry for a life of wandering and, eventually, running guns to rebel tribes in Africa.
Not until 1901, a full decade after Rimbaud’s death, were the unsold copies of A Season in Hell discovered in a Brussels warehouse and sold to an admiring public. The apparently autobiographical nature of his “horror stories,” which are really prose poems, only added to their appeal. His was the ultimate voice of tragic youth, of a poet risking all to attain the sublime vision that older poets only talked about.
In the opening paragraphs of the work, the speaker refers to the happier times of his childhood, to his first encounters with beauty and inspiration, and to the unspecified disaster that gave rise to his “book of the damned.” (This speaker is a poet but not necessarily Rimbaud.) The first section, “Bad Blood,” goes back to his peasant stock and his French heritage. It also refers to conflicts and retributions that evoke the Paris Commune of 1871 and the revolutionary spirit lingering when Rimbaud first arrived in the city later that year. Then comes the speaker’s “Night in Hell,” after he has died of world weariness. Following are two dreams, or “Deleria,” in which the speaker reveals the secrets of his poetry.
The speaker returns to ordinary reality in the second half of the poem. In “The Impossible,” he recognizes that others consider his dreams impossible. In “Lighting,” he acknowledges that although he has lost all hope of entering a poetic heaven, he can begin to glimpse the light of everyday life. In “Morning,” he listens to the music made by nations and rivers as they move onward. Finally, in “Farewell,” the speaker sees the coming of autumn and, with the death of the year, the death of his youthful identity. He buries his imagination. He laughs off his past, as he thinks women laugh off unhappy loves. He prepares for a new relationship with reality when he will confront truth itself, body and soul.
The two episodes of delirium—in the word’s etymological sense of deviation or deranging—come at the center of the poem and help to identify the speaker’s deepest hopes and fears. The first episode is a dialogue between a Foolish Virgin and a Hellish Husband. In some sense they are no doubt Verlaine and Rimbaud, respectively, but they are allegorical figures as well. Jesus told the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the women who were or were not prepared for the bridegroom who came in the night. In the biblical story, from Matthew, the bridegroom is the messiah, but in Rimbaud’s version he is a parody savior. The section’s original title, “False Conversion,” already suggests the religious dimension of the story, as do earlier references to Jesus and Satan in the section describing the speaker’s arrival in Hell.
The second delirium, “Alchemy of the Word,” presents the speaker’s dream of what poetry could be. He has made experiments with sounds, very much as an alchemist might experiment with elements. He has assigned a color to each vowel in an effort to create a whole new language for poetry. Now he dreams of a shape for each consonant and offers carefully crafted verses about a new age and a new relation between nature and humans. At the center is a new Tower of Babel and the song of a new age sung from its heights. The verses here are pure lyric, not the alexandrines of “The Drunken Boat” and many of Rimbaud’s other major poems. However, all this is folly, he says, like the vanity of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Assured that he has attained the glory of true song, if only for a moment, the speaker recognizes that the dream is done. He has greeted beauty where he found it and is ready to move on, back to the world of everyday life.
The completed poem, displaying the attractive notion of a despairing teenager tossing off brilliant experiments in the heat of passion, shows the marks of careful editing, making the work more unified and objective. Three fragments of Rimbaud’s manuscript revisions were discovered in the twentieth century. As collected and translated by Wyatt Mason in the Modern Library edition (2002) of Rimbaud’s poetry, they show that the author removed personal references to his sojourn in London with Verlaine and to the hallucinations he experienced there while smoking opium. He replaced them with the more general language of Heaven and Hell and allusions to such biblical figures as the Foolish Virgin and the melancholy preacher of Ecclesiastes. Denunciations of poets, both in specific and in general, are left out.
Most scholars now assume that Rimbaud had a mass of writing on hand when he conceived his pagan book and that he salted A Season in Hell with phrases composed during his days with Verlaine. Contemporaries remember having seen two lyrics included in the “Alchemy” section, and Rimbaud actually had written a sonnet, “Vowels.” It began “Black A, White E, Red I, Green U, Blue O: vowels./ Someday I’ll explain your burgeoning births.”
Critics disagree about the overall unity and merit of A Season in Hell. However, almost all consider it a single poem and not a group of fragments. Critical opinion has long been divided. Those who read it as an allegory of Rimbaud’s life—as does, for example, novelist Henry Miller in The Time of the Assassins—have found it the most compelling of his poems. Those who prefer the poet’s more restrained experiments regard it as juvenile or self-indulgent. Paul Valèry, arguably the last of the French Symbolist poets with whom Rimbaud is most often grouped, complained that it offers nothing but exclamations and intensity. Most criticism has steered a middle course. The trend is to treat A Season in Hell as a commentary on the writing of poetry, indeed on the very possibility of writing poetry, and not just on one poet’s personal life.
Critics tend to praise Rimbaud’s virtuosity as he tries different verse forms and moves on to prose poems, continually seeking a closer match of form and content. Some find that he is deliberately uncouth when he wants to shock middle-class readers—épater le bourgeoisie in the French phrase. They suggest that the apparent unevenness of his poetry is there for a reason, that it shows the necessary indeterminacy of all human communications as well as the painful failures one person experienced in both life and art. Especially in France, some regard Rimbaud’s verbal alchemy as an attempt to extend art into esoteric realms, but it seems more likely to have been made as a parody of the esoteric language that was fashionable at the time.
Rimbaud did not suddenly abandon verse for poetry in prose. On his first trip to Paris, he had discovered the “little poems in prose” of Charles Baudelaire, which had been posthumously published in 1869. Rimbaud’s own experiments in the genre include “Deserts of Love” (1871). Forty of his later prose pieces, Illuminations (1880, 1886), had been collected after Rimbaud left Europe. Highly experimental, some are closer to the parables of novelists Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges than to anything previously written.
For all its apparent spontaneity and unevenness, A Season in Hell remains an outstanding example of Symbolist poetry. More than half of the “celebrated citations” quoted in a recent French edition of Rimbaud’s poetry are taken from this remarkable work of an eighteen-year-old genius.
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