Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

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In 1870, Arthur Rimbaud had become tired of living in Charleville, France, with his domineering mother. He wished to set off for Paris and taste a new life that he could only imagine. He was merely sixteen at the time, yet his poetic genius was on the verge of full flower. A teacher by the name of Georges Izambard had become a friend and adviser of young Rimbaud when Izambard was teaching in Charleville. Izambard encouraged Rimbaud by being sympathetic to his situation and his poetic need to expand his horizons beyond the provincial life of his hometown. Rimbaud did escape to Paris, but there he was arrested, since he did not have enough money to pay the full fare. Izambard was contacted, and he sent money to bail Rimbaud out of prison. It was arranged that the young rebel would travel to Douai, which was northwest of Charleville, and stay with Izambard’s aunts. He spent two enjoyable weeks with the Gindre sisters before he was forced to return home to Madame Rimbaud.

This episode is important in relation to “The Seekers of Lice,” which Rimbaud wrote when he was no older than eighteen. The “tall gracious sisters” introduced in the poem are the Gindre sisters, and—almost certainly—the child is Rimbaud himself. The sisters most likely gave the runaway child tender care that probably both excited and confused him. His experience with his own mother was not of the same kind. The child came to these two women in need of being rid of the lice that had infested him at his previous location. At sixteen, Rimbaud was in the throes of being awakened erotically. The world of the senses is both intriguing and frightening, and the adolescent wishes to recapture the innocence of childhood even as he yearns to explore the sensual world. Because of the Franco-Prussian War, the schools in Charleville had to be closed down, so Rimbaud’s formal education came to a halt. The Gindre sisters served to educate the young poet, in a different way, in the fresh-air world of Douai.

It speaks to the genius of Rimbaud that he was able to encapsulate his experience with these two older women in such an intriguing fashion. The reality of why the child is being caressed never quite disappears totally, but the surreal and sensual images almost win the day. The poem is particularly effective because of the emotional power of its contrasting images. The subtlety of the tenderness expressed speaks to the young Rimbaud’s realization of how wonderful it can be to be under the care of concerned females. Inspired by his two weeks in Douai, he wrote a delicately beautiful poem on a distasteful subject. In so doing, Rimbaud harkened back to the beautiful and disturbing poems of Charles Baudelaire.