Une Saison en enfer Introduction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Une Saison en enfer

Arthur Rimbaud

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Textual History

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...

(The entire section is 1,709 words.)