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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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,...

(The entire section is 485 words.)