The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

Arthur Rimbaud’s sonnet “Vowels” follows the standard Petrarchan form of octave and sestet, in Alexandrine lines. While Rimbaud’s use of imagery was highly experimental, he retained traditional verse forms.

The opening line, which gives the sonnet its name, has caused considerable critical comment and interpretation. Rimbaud simply names the five vowels, linking each to a color: “A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels.” Questions immediately arise concerning why he links certain vowels to certain colors.

Rimbaud seems quite aware that his arbitrary assigning of colors to vowels will mystify the reader when he continues in the second line, “I will some day tell of your latent birth.” Subsequently, in his work Une Saison en enfer (1873; A Season in Hell, 1932), Rimbaud would write, “I invented the color of vowels!. I withheld the translation of it.” Despite this mocking refusal to explain, the balance of the sonnet presents a series of images that do suggest reasons for these associations.

The images of the octave contrast with those of the sestet in that all are fairly specific references to living creatures. The letter a suggests a “corset black with flies.” The basis for this association seems questionable, for while flies do appear black, they have no clear link with the letter a. Critics have suggested, however, that a source for Rimbaud’s images may lie in children’s alphabet books, which at the time showed a for abeille, or a bee, a flying creature easily assimilated with a fly.

Once this technique of positing a word beginning with the requisite letter is established, the next two vowels become easily intelligible: e for esquimau and i for indien. The latter is not so clearly spelled out in the text of the sonnet as are the ice and “white kings” that represent the Eskimos, but critics have noted the parallel allusion to American Indians as Peaux-Rouges in Rimbaud’s poem “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”). These two evocations of peoples of distant North America introduce an element of exoticism into this poem written, as was all of Rimbaud’s verse, before his departure for the travels to distant lands that consumed his later years.

In the sestet, the imagery becomes more expansive. In addition, here, as in the initial line of the poem, the alphabetical order of the vowels is reversed, with u before o. The “cycles” and “final bugle” suggest alliterations for these vowels with univers and the last word supplied by Rimbaud himself, “Omega.” Thus the reason for the deviation from alphabetical order becomes clear. What began with the alpha of a must end with omega, the o capitalized to emphasize the letter’s cosmic significance, a vision of “His Eyes” seen in a context of “silences crossed by Worlds and Angels.” The poem has progressed from the minute and repugnant image of the flies through the realm of humankind, the extent of which is suggested by the examples of distant peoples, and the wide vision of seas and fields, to a final transcendent invocation of divinity, consistent with the reference to alpha and omega.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

Many explanations have been offered for the source of Rimbaud’s linking of colors to vowels, ranging from the child’s alphabet book to the color variations that base metal is supposed to undergo as the alchemist attempts to change it into gold; the latter explanation draws upon the “alchemy” mentioned in the sestet. One important influence on Rimbaud’s imagery was the work of Charles Baudelaire, who, in his sonnet “Correspondences,” defined synesthesia—the linking of sensations of two different senses—as a source of...

(This entire section contains 485 words.)

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poetic inspiration.

Baudelaire’s fusion of senses relies heavily on perfumes, while Rimbaud’s linking of vowel sounds to visual colors retains the single link of eye and ear. Still, his imagery becomes more coherent when read in the context of the dual world of good and evil Baudelaire posits in Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1909). The moral dualism within the poem coincides almost perfectly with the contrast between octave and sestet.

The octave presents the repugnant imagery of an imperfect world. Just as the boat in Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat” had to traverse polluted waters before arriving at the sea, the progression of “Vowels” begins with the image of flies surrounding cruel, stinking objects. In this context, the “gulfs of shadow” that begin the second quatrain appear to be an emblem of death.

The second vision, that of the Eskimos, seems initially less repugnant than the first. The frozen landscape may be preserved from the corruption of death (though in Baudelaire’s imagery, polar areas are linked with the spiritual death of the poet). The shivering flowers that end the sixth line eloquently reflect this linkage. Flowers, an emblem of poetry from The Flowers of Evil, cannot flourish in such a hostile climate.

The images of blood and drunkenness that close the octave return to the repugnant elements of “The Drunken Boat,” the link with this poem reinforced by its reference to Peaux-Rouges. After the harsh octave, the repeated references to “peace” in the first tercet, along with the pastoral image of grazing animals, turns to a homely, European context, much as Rimbaud at the end of “The Drunken Boat” sought to return to calm “European water.”

The image of the alchemist’s wrinkled forehead abandons the essentially geographical motifs that have dominated the poem to this point. Given Rimbaud’s own interest in alchemy and his concept of the vocation of the poet, the reader may take this figure to represent the poet himself. The proximity of the alchemist to the figure whose eyes alone are revealed in the last line conveys Rimbaud’s sense of the importance of the poet. The final tercet, with its sounding horn seeming to call the world to judgment and its multiple capital letters, invokes the image of God. The poet, godlike in his inspiration, has arrived through permutations not unlike those of alchemy at a transcendent vision.