The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

“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...

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  • Themes
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“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 committed such violence against the poet, he will be thinking about taking revenge against his enemy. In the second stanza, the poet makes a direct appeal to his opponent to mutilate himself, implying that such a self-mutilation would satisfy the poet’s desire for justice. The poet lists in stark, clinical detail the various body parts he believes his opponent should cut off, appearing to take joy in spinning out his sadistic fantasy (“O miracle!”).

In the third and fourth stanzas the poet recognizes the futility of his appeal; he knows that his opponent will not commit such acts, that there will be no justice. In response, the poet declares that he will continue to cause trouble for his enemy as long as “he” is alive: Like a child, the poet will constantly pester “him”; like a skunk, the poet will foul “his” territory. In the last two lines of the fifth stanza, the poet seems to pull back from his vengeful mood when he summons God to have prayers said for his enemy once “he” has died. Rimbaud seems here to hearken back to his early religious instruction, rejecting finally the sin of vengeance and invoking the Christian principle of forgiveness. Perhaps, in the end, the shame is Rimbaud’s for harboring sinful feelings. Then again, since Rimbaud is famous for his frequent use of irony, he may not be pulling back at all.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638

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,” “his head,” “his side,” “his guts,” “his death.” The excessive repetition of “his” convinces the reader that Rimbaud must be referring to the body of an “other.” Yet such obvious repetition suggests an indirect appeal to look for deeper poetic meaning.

Indeed, upon closer inspection, the reader begins to notice that the poem’s tightly structured rhythm and its frequent uses of enjambment strategically interrupt the poem’s linear syntax; they jar the natural flow of prosaic meaning and throw the reader off balance: “He should cut off his/ Nose,” “his ears/ His belly! and give up/ His legs!” Whatever Rimbaud’s intent, the effect of this strategic positioning of enjambment is to mark a formal division between grammatical subject and object and thus perhaps between “self” and “other” as well.

Rimbaud also strategically undercuts the opposition between “I” and “he” by subtly replacing the demonstrative adjectives in the first stanza (“that brain,” “thatpackage”) with possessive adjectives (“his”) in the second and third. As mentioned above, the reader assumes from the sharp opposition between the first and second stanzas that the two stanzas refer to two different people and assumes, from the continued use of the possessive “his” from the second to the third stanza, that the second and third stanzas refer to the enemy, not to the poet himself. Upon closer inspection, however, the reader notices that the theme of cutting a head from the third stanza actually circles back to the idea of cutting “that brain” from the first stanza. Logically, this would suggest that the subject of the first and third stanzas are the same and thus that the poet is imagining this violence inflicted upon himself. The parentheses around the second stanza, in this case, would seem to indicate formally that the “other” actually lies within the poet.

Such a blurring between self and other is further reinforced by the poet’s refusal to name the personas that figure in the poem. Rimbaud restricts himself to a highly ambiguous use of pronouns and he also relies on metonymy and simile to make reference to the poet (“the troublesome child,” “the so stupid animal,” “like a Rocky Mountain cat”). This poetic device of suggesting and partially naming serves to withhold the poem’s concrete referents from the reader’s view. In the end, Rimbaud’s ambiguity undercuts the reader’s initial certainty about precisely who is doing what to whom.

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