Une Saison en enfer
The following entry presents criticism of Rimbaud's prose poem Une Saison en enfer (1873). For information on Rimbaud's complete career, see NCLC, Volumes 4 and 35.
In both style and substance, Une Saison en enfer (A Season in Hell) is considered a revolutionary work. Unlike earlier authors of prose poems, Rimbaud shunned conventional description, straightforward narrative, and didactic purpose. Une Saison represents a revolt against the naturalism, precision, and objectivity of the Parnassians, who dominated French poetry in the 1860s and 1870s. Its innovative reliance on suggestion and evocation rather than concrete depiction heralds the inception of the Symbolist movement, whose adherents idolized Rimbaud. In basic form, Une Saison is a unique confessional work in which the poet describes a harrowing emotional and spiritual struggle. Though the poem has been subject to widely divergent interpretations, most recent commentators regard it as both a sardonic account of Rimbaud's beliefs and aspirations, and a moving exploration of universal hopes and desires.
Rimbaud was born on October 20, 1854, in Charleville, a town in northeastern France not far from the Belgian border. He was eighteen years old when he wrote Une Saison, and his literary career—inaugurated when he was fifteen—was nearly over. He began the work in April 1873, and composed most of it in the seclusion of his mother's farmhouse in Roche, near Charleville; however, he may have written parts of it in London and Brussels, where he spent brief periods in May and July with the poet Paul Verlaine. Rimbaud and Verlaine had become lovers in 1871, but their two-year affair was marked by frequent quarrels and separations. Their relationship came to a dramatic close in Brussels on July 10, 1873, when Verlaine—outraged that Rimbaud intended to leave him once again—shot him in the wrist. After recuperating in a Brussels hospital for a week, Rimbaud returned to his mother's farm and completed Une Saison before the month was over. The work was published in November, and Rimbaud took a few copies to Paris, seeking critical acclaim. Disappointed at the lack of interest in his latest creation, Rimbaud left France and spent much of 1874 in England. In January 1875 he began the
nomadic career that would occupy the remainder of his life. After traveling throughout Europe, he journeyed to Africa in 1880. He spent the following years chiefly in Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) where he became a commercial trader, an explorer, and an arms dealer. He died in Marseilles on November 10, 1891.
The composition dates and early publication history of Une Saison en enfer have been well documented by modern scholars. In a letter to his friend Ernest Delahaye, dated May of 1873 and written from Roche, Rimbaud described his progress on a prose poem that he had provisionally titled "Livre païen" ("Pagan Book") or "Livre nègre" ("Negro Book"). After completing the work in July of 1873, Rimbaud took the manuscript to a printer in Brussels, where it was published in November. His sister Isabelle fostered the story that Rimbaud was so discouraged by the lack of critical enthusiasm for Une Saison that he burned the entire edition, and for decades it was generally believed that there were only a few copies in existence. However, in 1901 a Belgian bibliophile named Losseau discovered approximately five hundred copies of the book in the attics of the Brussels printer; apparently they were left in storage because Rimbaud had been unable to pay for them. Losseau shocked the literary world when, in 1915, he revealed his discovery.
Form and Content
Une Saison en enfer is framed as a literary, emotional, and spiritual autobiography. In the course of the work, Rimbaud adopted a series of narrative personas, contended with concrete and abstract protagonists, and addressed a variety of audiences. The prevailing rhetorical style follows a pattern of statement—endorsement of a proposed solution, a philosophical premise, or a moral value—followed by an antithetical or counterstatement; this, in turn, is succeeded by a rejection or dismissal of both positions. Verb tenses frequently switch from past to present, and the poetic language alternates between formal and colloquial discourse.
Commentators generally view Une Saison as comprising nine sections, although some regard the fourth and fifth sections—"Délires I" and "Délires II"—as a single entity. The first section, untitled, is usually referred to as the prologue or preface; here the speaker reminisces about his former life and his rebellions against authority, and sets the stage for the poem's ambiguous treatment of good and evil. In the second part, "Mauvais Sang" ("Bad Blood"), the poet explores his pre-Christian, Gallic origins and emphasizes his alienation from modern civilization. "Nuit de l'enfer" ("Night of Hell") is a tortured account of hallucinations, spiritual combat, and damnation, in which the narrator parodies his attempts to become a semi-divine being and change the world. "Délires I" ("Deliriums I")—subtitled "Vierge folle—l'Époux infernal" ("Foolish Virgin—The Infernal Bridegroom")—is generally agreed to be an ironic presentation of the failed relationship between Verlaine and Rimbaud, although several critics have asserted that the two personas also represent the feminine and masculine aspects of the author's temperament. "Délires II"—subtitled "Alchimie du verbe" ("Alchemy of the Word")—evokes Rimbaud's failed literary experiment to find, through the role of voyant or seer, a new mode of poetic expression; it includes seven of the poems he wrote the previous year, in slightly altered form. "L'Impossible" ("The Impossible") is highly intense, abstract, and metaphysical; here the author bitterly denounces nineteenth-century Western civilization, mourns the loss of purity, and acknowledges that his dreams of escape are futile. "L'Éclair" ("The Flash [of Lightning or Insight]") is alternately hopeful and mocking, remorseful and defiant, as it considers alternatives to traditional modes of religion, art, and cultural institutions. In "Matin" ("Morning"), the narrator reflects on his past even as he looks to the future; he appears to accept, with resignation, the necessity of adapting to life's realities. In the final section, "Adieu" ("Farewell"), the speaker advances the possibility of finding a new way of achieving truth and then expressing it in innovative language; the narrator mocks this effort, too, and points out that the search will be a lonely venture.
Perhaps because it is a richly complex work, there is no critical consensus regarding the principal motifs in Une Saison en enfer. Some critics emphasize the theme of evil, others focus on the topic of alienation, and still others stress the significance of sin and redemption in the poem. Many scholars have called attention to the narrator's struggle to reconcile the ideals of Christianity with the hypocrisy and corruption of Western civilization. The poem presents a myriad of dualities or conflicting themes, most of which have their origin in the Christian opposition of body and spirit. The attempt to resolve these dualities—to achieve salvation through some yet unknown means—is diffused throughout the work. The motif of damnation occurs repeatedly and is variously met with hope, despair, mockery, and resignation. The poem's title itself suggests the theme of time and the different stages of life, including innocence as well as corruption. Although the issue of literary aspirations is dealt with most extensively in "Délires II," it appears frequently throughout the poem, as the narrator alternately speaks with pride of his earlier verses and denigrates these lyrics as failures. Whether "Adieu" presents the poet as vowing never to write again, resigned to his role as an ordinary man, or still hopeful that he can find a way to express the ineffable and achieve personal salvation, is unclear. Alluding to the essential ambiguities of Une Saison en enfer, C. W. Hackett has asserted that, like most of Rimbaud's work, it is "both 'closed' and 'open,' final and provisional, an end and a beginning."
The earliest critical appraisals of Une Saison en enfer almost invariably disparaged the poem as the confession of a debauched scoundrel. In the 1890s, however, commentators began to perceive in it a deep spirituality. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics generally believed the myth that Rimbaud personally destroyed every copy of the poem, and they were unaware of the likelihood that he continued working on his other major prose poem, the Illuminations, after completing this work. Thus they viewed Une Saison as Rimbaud's final, emphatic farewell to literature. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, commentators frequently adopted a biographical approach to the poem, tracing—or hypothesizing—connections between the text and Rimbaud's life. This approach yielded a variety of judgments, as various critics concluded that Une Saison reveals its author as a mystic and a blasphemer, an atheist and a devout Catholic, a bourgeois and a communist. To some degree, explications of the poem's biographical resonances are still being proposed; in the 1960s, for example, Enid Starkie asserted that the work demonstrates the nexus between Rimbaud's poetic doctrines and his religious beliefs, and that he was chiefly concerned with the issues of sin, his personal belief in God, and his compromised principles. Similarly interested in the link between art and religion in Une Saison, W. M. Frohock proposed that while the poem displays Rimbaud's rejection of both Catholicism and the poetry he wrote before 1873, it also reveals his determination to continue searching for a new path to wisdom and a new way of expressing the realities of human existence. The 1970s marked the beginning of a movement away from the critical preoccupation with the link between Rimbaud's life and his poetry. In 1979, C. Chadwick adopted a more formal approach to Une Saison, comparing it with Rimbaud's other work and focusing on such issues as structure, tone, and vocabulary. Soon thereafter C. A. Hackett continued this trend, emphasizing Rimbaud's artistry and the unique dramatic technique he devised for Une Saison. In 1987 Jonathan Monroe evaluated the poem's formal and thematic structure, particularly its fragmented narrative and its disjointed presentation of time and space. And in the early 1990s, James Lawler analyzed the self-dramatizing nature of Une Saison, calling attention to its pervasive emotional ambiguities. Common strains running through recent criticism have included a focus on Rimbaud's dramatic technique and on his juxtaposition of pagan and Christian thought, together with forceful assertions about the universal ramifications of this acutely personal narrative.