Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 487 words.)