The Poem

“Shame” is a short poem of twenty lines whose five stanzas are presented (in the original French) in a standard abab rhyme scheme. The poet makes use of an anonymous first-person voice to speak about his enmity for an anonymous other, referred to simply as “him.” Alluding to a rift that has occurred between the poet and his enemy, the poem expresses vividly the poet’s hostile feelings after the separation. Many critics familiar with Arthur Rimbaud’s biography believe that the poem communicates Rimbaud’s angry reaction after his falling out with his close friend and fellow poet Paul Verlaine.

The title of the poem “Shame” obviously refers to a feeling the poet wishes to express or evoke, but it is not immediately clear which persona (“I” or “he”) feels the shame or why it is felt. By his spiteful tone, the poet would have his reader assume that his enemy, “he,” should be feeling shame—presumably because of an injustice the poet has suffered at his enemy’s hand. In any case, if the poet feels shame, it is well concealed behind the exaggerated and almost childish violence he would like to inflict on his enemy.

The poem begins in a grotesque and violent mood, making graphic reference to corporeal mutilation: “As long as the blade has not/ Cut off that brain/ That white green fatty package.” The reader can presume that the poet here is making reference to himself, saying that as long as nobody has...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Forms and Devices

Rimbaud is associated with the French Symbolist movement, whose reputation for opaque language and formal complexity is well known. Since Symbolist poets tend to suggest their referents rather than openly naming them, readers should be cautious about pulling meaning too quickly from Rimbaud’s deceptively simple poem. The first thing to emphasize in this light is that while the poem’s visual appearance and fairly rigid rhyme scheme suggest a strict adherence to poetic tradition, the poem reads as if Rimbaud has simply strung together three more or less prosaic sentences. Unlike some of his more obviously difficult and elegant poetry, this poem seems facile, almost overly accessible. In that sense, the poem embodies a highly wrought tension between tradition and modernity, between complex poetry and accessible prose.

On a first reading, the reader is certain that the central opposition is between the poet and an “other” (perhaps Verlaine). That certainty occurs because the poem’s prosaic quality and conventional grammar make this opposition so blatant. For example, the reader readily assumes from Rimbaud’s grammatical distinction between “I” and “he” that these pronouns refer to two different people. To further emphasize this opposition between “I” and “other,” Rimbaud brackets his appeal to his enemy within parentheses and he repeats in an exaggerated fashion the third-person possessive pronoun “his” in the second and third stanzas: “his nose,” “his lips,” “his ears,” “his belly,” “his legs,”...

(The entire section is 638 words.)