Themes and Meanings

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Rimbaud not only believed that the poet was destined for greatness by a gift for revealing ideas previously unknown, he also saw the process through which the poet would gain this enlightenment as extraordinarily painful. In a letter he wrote to his friend Paul Demeny on May 15, 1871, Rimbaud described the process of creation thus: “The Poet makes himself into a seer by a long, immense and reasoned disordering of all his senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness.” The poet must undergo the great pain of this process because of his duty to fulfill the poetic potential he senses vested within him.

Descriptive elements throughout “Vowels” recapitulate this creative process. In the first quatrain, the adjectives parallel the first efforts of the poet, with latentes and subsequently éclatantes suggesting first the latent nature of his talent and then its bursting forth; cruelles (“cruel”) brings him to the suffering of disordered senses that must accompany this birth. The sang craché (“spit-out blood”) and the ivresse (drunkenness) of the second quatrain echo the letter to Demeny in which Rimbaud wrote that the poet “uses up all poisons within himself.”

While poets at Rimbaud’s time sometimes sought inspiration in hallucinogenic substances, his biographers have indicated that Rimbaud found more physical sickness than mental exaltation in these experiences. Thus the “penitent drunkenness” of the octave seems closer to his actual experience than the “divine vibrations” to which he sees the poet progressing in the sestet. Throughout the agitated questing of his life, Rimbaud never reached the peace of pastoral tranquillity he posits in the “pastures sown with animals.” Perhaps this choice of image for that peaceful state, a land rich with animals but devoid of human beings, hints at Rimbaud’s flight in later years to isolation in Africa, far from his countrymen.

Yet perhaps Rimbaud himself offers a better explanation. His desire was not so much to flee humankind as to approximate the experience of the animals. In A Season in Hell, he describes at considerable length his own evolution as a poet. Once he began to discover the “hallucination of words,” he wrote, “I was lazy, prey to a heavy fever: I envied the happiness of beasts.” The peace of the animals may then be linked to their absence of language. The poet, arriving at this stage, must evolve beyond the use of words or, if he is “lazy,” refuse to use them at all.

This discomfort with words may offer a clue to why Rimbaud abandoned poetry in his final years. Sound, even that of the Clairon, becomes strange and strident (the dual suggestion of étrange), incorporating an element of foreignness as the music of poetry grows ever more remote from the poet. Rimbaud has not, as it turns out, freed himself from the menace of death suggested in the octave. Like Hamlet at the end of his life, Rimbaud finds that “the rest is silence.”

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