The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

“The Seekers of Lice” is a twenty-line poem divided into five quatrains of Alexandrines with a rhyme scheme of abab. The title suggests an unpleasant topic, playing against the beauty of the poet’s words. Sensory images are everywhere in the poem. In the first line, “the child” is introduced; his forehead is covered with “the red torment” caused by the lice. Two “tall gracious sisters” appear “with delicate hands and silvery fingernails.” In the second quatrain, these sisters remove the child from his bed and seat him by an “open window.” The child is bombarded by the visual sensations of the outside natural world and the sensual fingers of the sisters running through his infested hair.

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The child is experiencing more than the removal of the lice, however; he is being tenderly loved by these “tall gracious sisters.” In the third quatrain, the child hears the sisters singing through their breathing and whistling as they suck in their saliva. The images and the very words used express the child’s heightened auditory experience. The images from the third quatrain are surreal; the child is almost in a trance. He is under the spell of the sisters as they caress his predicament away. The last line of the third quatrain includes “the desire for kisses.” The child’s experience has taken on an erotic quality. The fourth quatrain describes how he hears the sound of the sisters’ black eyelashes “blinking.” He smells a “perfumed stillness” while “royal nails” squash “the gray and lazy lice.” In this quatrain, the child continues to be overpowered by sensual experiences. He not only inhales the perfume, but he also hears the “crackling” of the lice being squashed. The child is baffled and confused about how to respond to what is happening to him.

Whereas the first quatrain began with “When,” the fifth and last quatrain begins with “Then.” The situation presented at the beginning of “The Seekers of Lice” finds its resolution in this last quatrain. The first line speaks of the “wine of Idleness.” The child is moving ever closer to the realm of rapturous delight. In addition to the wine, there is “the delirium of a mouth-organ’s sigh” in the second line, which, combined with the first line, tips the scales beyond self-control. Pain and pleasure are intertwined, and the child cannot help but feel, in the last line of the poem, “an endless need to cry.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 368

The power of “The Seekers of Lice” is generated by its musical quality, which plays against the unpleasant reality of the poem’s subject. The poet walks a fine line without ever making the poem seem morbid. The rhyme scheme enhances the elegant quality of the poem; the abab rhyming makes the poem seem songlike. The reader is swept up in the rhythm as the sensual images weave their spell. The poem begins with “When,” almost as a fairy tale would begin with “Once upon a time.” As in some fairy tales, the inviting language disguises gruesome happenings.

The child in “The Seekers of Lice” is confronted with a sensual experience that almost overwhelms him. The “tall gracious sisters” have “delicate hands and silvery fingernails” which will move through his hair in search of the “lazy lice.” The poem is much more than the mere squashing of lice. Arthur Rimbaud begins the poem by adding surreal touches, as when the child hears the sisters breathe and makes it out to be singing; when they draw in their saliva, it becomes whistling. The poet takes great care in the progression of his images. In the opening lines of the first and second quatrains the child is identified by the genderless term “child,” whereas in the opening lines of the third and fourth quatrains, the child is identified as “he.” The sisters of the first quatrain become “They” in the second.

Sound, smell, and sight are everywhere in the poem, creating sharp contrasts that show the poet’s skill at dramatizing, at setting up finely woven scenes. The experience for the child is one of total sensual release, and Rimbaud employs alliteration to add to the trancelike quality of the poem. “The Seekers of Lice” moves to its emotional conclusion in which “Then” is the first word of the last quatrain, signifying that there will be a resolution. “Wine of Idleness,” “delirium,” and “slow caresses” bring the child to a heightened sense of happiness that leads to “an endless need to cry.” The subject of the poem is all but lost in the delicacy of the ending. “The Seekers of Lice” is a song that sings both sweetly and sadly.

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Themes