The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 519 words.)