Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Hell. Place of damned souls. As in the traditional story of Lucifer, the narrator has, for the sin of pride, been cast out of paradise—here represented as the licentiousness and naïve arrogance of his earlier poetic career. Rimbaud’s hell, however, seems to represent temporary confinement within one’s own selfish desires rather than eternal punishment. Indeed, the narrator relates that he has purged himself of desire and thus is ready to depart.


*Europe. The narrator’s home, whose drab, restricted way of life incited the rebellion that placed him in hell. The narrator repeatedly asserts that he is more of an uncivilized savage than a European and that he envies non-European cultures their ignorance of sin and salvation. He realizes, however, that although he finds Western civilization distasteful, his literary aspirations enmesh him in that civilization. Trapped in a maze of sin he compares to the mythological Cimmerian land, the narrator cannot escape until he renounces his pretensions to the artistic life. Rimbaud includes several of his earlier poems in A Season in Hell; their idyllic rural settings contrast ironically with the narrator’s present torment, and their catalogs of natural beauty mock his attempts to imprison in words the chaos of creation.


Paradise. Like the poem’s hell, paradise is understood not as a fixed location but a state of mind. Rimbaud’s paradise is a state one must earn over and over again. As his narrator, near the end of the poem, renounces poetry, he is able to envision a new Christ and a new form of salvation. The new heaven will be provisional; Rimbaud hints that the narrator will one day outgrow it and be cast into hell again, beginning the cycle anew.