The Sleeper of the Valley

by Arthur Rimbaud

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“The Sleeper of the Valley,” in manuscript form, dates from October, 1870, and therefore conjures up an image linked to the Franco-Prussian War. Research has shown that there was no fighting in the area around Charleville at the time that the sonnet was written, and it is therefore unlikely that Rimbaud, who was just sixteen at the time, saw the scene described otherwise than in imagination.

This work is one of the best-known and most loved of Rimbaud’s poems. It was not published by the poet himself but first appeared in the Anthologie Lemerre, a collection compiled in 1888. The form of the poem is a traditional one, “The Sleeper of the Valley” being a sonnet in four stanzas, two quatrains followed by two triads. The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd eef ggf. The poet also alternates masculine and feminine rhymes, consonant sounds with vowel sounds in the final syllable of each line. The form, obeying these traditional metrical rules, makes the poem look something like an exercise. The first noun appearing in the poem, trou, or “hole,” used to describe the natural setting of the scene, comes back in the final line, where it serves as a revelation. Color images alone differentiate the green spot (trou) of the opening line from the two red holes in the soldier’s side in the final vision. The repetition of a simple word such as this one renders the formal organization of the sonnet even tighter.

The first stanza is a description of the natural setting; no human figure is yet perceived, yet nature is personified and thus seems very much alive. Its characteristics are positive. The river “sings,” wetting the grass and “silvering” it “gayly,” the mountain is “proud,” and the “little” valley is “quivering” with pleasure under the rays of the sun. The colors of the first stanza are green and silver, and there are numerous references to light.

The second stanza introduces the “young soldier.” The physical description tends to accentuate his vulnerability: “mouth open,” “head bare,” “neck bathing in the fresh blue watercress.” Blue is added to the “green” of his “bed,” and he is “pale.” The light of the first stanza is somewhat attenuated since the young soldier is seen sleeping “under a cloud” and “light rains on his green bed.” The image of light raining constitutes an oxymoron, a union of opposites, and serves as a warning that all is not as idyllic as it seems.

In the third stanza, the soldier is called a child, and he is seen smiling “like a sick child would.” His feet are in wild yellow irises, an image that may seem pleasant and positive, but which also suggests the flowers heaped around a funeral bier. The stanza ends with an apostrophe to Nature, who is begged to “rock the child warmly” for “he is cold.”

The final stanza opens on a negation: “The perfumes do not make his nose tremble.” The reader is told that “he is sleeping” for the third time, which may begin to make the reader suspicious. His hand is on his chest, which is “still,” even as his nose was in the first line of this three-line stanza. All the movement in the, poem has been attributed to nature. The final sentence of the poem, “He has two red holes in his right side,” is brutal in its dry, matter-of-fact succinctness.

“The Sleeper of the Valley” is an excellent example of the poetic mastery attained by the adolescent Rimbaud. Its message, a subtle yet forceful one, can be seen as a denunciation of the society responsible for the young man’s death.

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