Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) is regarded as one of France's most brilliant poets and twisted human beings. Today, many think of him as a founder of modern European poetry. He one wrote: "The poet makes himself a 'seer' by long, immense and rational derangement of all the sense. All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessence." Rimbaud was an angry, brooding man. He was easily bored and insatiably restless. Just as he was realizing his genus as a writer he abandoned it and set off for Indonesia, where he deserted from a mercenary force after 13 days, and the moved on to Africa, where he ran guns and may have been involved in the slave trade.

On why Rimbaud remains an enticing, enigmatic figure today, Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker, “There was, on the one hand, the dazzling, remarkably short-lived career: all of Rimbaud’s significant works were most likely composed between 1870, when he was not quite sixteen, and 1874, when he turned twenty. On the other hand, there was the abrupt abandonment of literature in favor of a vagabond life that eventually took him to Aden and then to East Africa, where he remained until just before his death, trading coffee, feathers, and, finally, guns, and making a tidy bundle in the process. The great mystery that continues to haunt and dismay Rimbaud fans is this “act of renunciation,” as Henry Miller put it in his rather loopy 1946 study of Rimbaud, “The Time of the Assassins,” which “one is tempted to compare . . . with the release of the atomic bomb.” The over-the-top comparison might well have pleased Rimbaud, who clearly wanted to vaporize his poetic past. [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, August 29, 2011 ^*^]

“That Rimbaud’s repudiation of poetry was as furious as the outpouring of his talent had once been was typical of a man whose life and work were characterized by violent contradictions. He was a docile, prize-winning schoolboy who wrote “Shit on God” on walls in his home town; a teen-age rebel who mocked small-town conventionality, only to run back to his mother’s farm after each emotional crisis; a would-be anarchist who in one poem called for the downfall of “Emperors / Regiments, colonizers, peoples!” and yet spent his adult life as an energetic capitalist operating out of colonial Africa; a poet who liberated French lyric verse from the late nineteenth century’s starched themes and corseted forms—from, as Paul Valéry put it, “the language of common sense”—and yet who, in his most revolutionary work, admitted to a love of “maudlin pictures, . . . fairytales, children’s storybooks, old operas, inane refrains and artless rhythms.”

“These paradoxes, and the extraordinarily conflicted feelings of admiration and dismay that Rimbaud’s story can evoke, are at the center of a powerful mystique that has seduced readers from Marcel Proust to Patti Smith. It had already begun to fascinate people by the time the poet died, in 1891. To judge from the steady stream of Rimbaldiana that has appeared over the past decade—which includes, most recently, a new translation of “Illuminations,” by the distinguished American poet John Ashbery, and a substantial novel that wrestles with the great question of why Rimbaud stopped writing—the allure shows no sign of fading.” ^*^

Rimbaud’s Early Life

The son of a soldier and peasant woman, Rimbaud was born in Charville in northern France. He showed his brilliance early and passionately read and wrote poetry even though his mother considered it shameful. Beginning when he was around 15 Rimbaud ran way to Paris several times but was arrested and brought back to his hometown each time.

Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker, Rimbaud “was born in October, 1854, in the town of Charleville, near the Belgian border. His father, Frédéric, was an Army captain who had fought in Algeria, and his mother, Vitalie Cuif, was a straitlaced daughter of solid farmers; it was later said that nobody could recall ever having seen her smile. To describe the marriage as an unhappy one would probably be to exaggerate, if for no other reason than that Captain Rimbaud was rarely in Charleville; each of the couple’s five children was born nine months after one of his brief leaves. When Arthur was five, his father went off to join his regiment and never came back. The memory of the abandonment haunts Rimbaud’s work, which often evokes lost childhood happiness, and occasionally seems to refer directly to his family’s crisis. (“She, / all black and cold, hurries after the man’s departure!”) Vitalie, devoutly Catholic, took to calling herself “Widow Rimbaud,” and applied herself with grim determination to her children’s education. [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, August 29, 2011 ^*^]

“At school, Rimbaud was a star, regularly acing the daunting prize examinations. (One exam required students to produce a metrically correct Latin poem on the theme “Sancho Panza Addresses His Donkey.”) Not long after his fifteenth birthday, he composed “The Orphans’ New Year’s Gifts,” the first poem he published. It’s a bit of treacle—two children awaken on New Year’s to realize that their mother has died—but it is notable for its thematic preoccupation, the absence of maternal love, and its precocious technical expertise. It seems likely that Rimbaud inherited his gifts and intellectual ambition from his father, who, while serving in North Africa, had produced an annotated translation of the Koran and a collection of Arab jokes. Rimbaud, who seems to have retained a romantic view of his father, sent for these texts when he moved to Africa; a formidable linguist, he became fluent in Arabic as well as a number of local dialects and even gave lessons on the Koran to local boys. His mother’s glumly concrete practicality (“Actions are all that count”) stood in stark contrast to these cerebral enthusiasms. It’s tempting to see, in the wild divergence between his parents’ natures, the origins of Rimbaud’s eccentric seesawing between literature and commerce. ^*^

“Certainly the teen-rebel phase that began when he was around fifteen looks like a reaction to life with Vitalie. The frenetic pursuit of what, in one letter, he called “free freedom” runs like a leitmotif through Rimbaud’s life: few poets have walked, run, ridden, or sailed as frequently or as far as he did. Late in the summer of 1870, a couple of months before his sixteenth birthday, he ran away from Vitalie’s dour home and took a train to Paris: the first of many escapes. Since he didn’t have enough money for the full fare, he was arrested and jailed on his arrival and, after writing a plaintive letter to a beloved teacher back in Charleville, Georges Izambard (and not, as far as we know, one to his mother), he was bailed out and slunk back home. The pattern of flight and return would recur up until his final return, a few months before his death.” ^*^

Rimbaud’s Begins His Wild Life as a Poet

Rimbaud quickly mastered the poetic conventions of his time and then threw them all out and with his manifesto, “Lettre du Voyage” ("The Prophet's Letter") in which he wrote the goal of poet was a "long, immense and systematic derangement of all senses."

Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker, Two days after Rimbaud’s arrival in Paris, “France was defeated by Prussia and the Second Empire fell; soon after he got back home, the Paris Commune was established. Stuck in Charleville while great things were happening in the world (“I’m dying, decomposing under the weight of platitude”), the once model schoolboy let his hair grow long, sat around mocking the passing bourgeoisie, and smoked his clay pipe a lot. His yearning to break away now made itself felt in the poems he was writing. Some of these, as Izambard once put it, could have “the cheek to be charming.” (“Off I would go, with fists into torn pockets pressed. . . . Eh, what fine dreams I had, each one an amorous gest!”) But the desire to break out could express itself as well in a kind of literary vandalism. He’d already mocked the poetic conventions of the times (one early poem gives the goddess Venus an ulcer on her anus); to the period of frustrated ennui following his first escape, we owe such poems as “Accroupissements” (“Squattings”), which in elegantly metrical verse describes the effortful bowel movements of a priest, or “Les Assis” (“The Sitters”), which pokes vicious fun at the habitués of the town library where Rimbaud himself spent hours. Occasionally, he stole books. [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, August 29, 2011 ^*^]

“However illicit the acquisition of those volumes, it reminds you that Rimbaud’s restless intellect continued to seethe. As Wyatt Mason points out in the vigorous and sensible introduction to his translation of the poet’s letters, as much as we now like to romanticize Rimbaud as a Dionysian rebel, spontaneously tossing off revolutionary verses, the fact is that he made himself a poet by following a distinctly Apollonian trajectory—“a long, involved, and sober study of the history of poetry.” The combination of adolescent rebellion and poetic precocity yielded, in May, 1871, a grand statement of artistic purpose. In two letters, one to Izambard and the other to his friend Paul Demeny, also a poet, Rimbaud set out what he had come to see as his great project. ^*^

To Izambard Rimbaid wrote: “I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a Seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. And I’ve realized that I am a poet. It’s really not my fault. ^

“The sixteen-year-old went on to make an assertion that Graham Robb, in his idiosyncratic yet magisterial 2001 biography, refers to as the “poetic E=mc2”: “Je est un autre” (“I is someone else”). His insight, plain perhaps to us in our post-Freudian age but startling in its time, was that the subjective “I” was a construct, a useful fiction—something he’d deduced from the fact that the mind could observe itself at work, which suggested to him that consciousness itself, far from being straightforward, was faceted. (“I am present at the hatching of my thought.”) He suddenly saw that the true subject of a new poetry couldn’t be the usual things—landscapes, flowers, pretty girls, sunsets—but, rather, the way those things are refracted through one’s own unique mind. “The first study of the man who wishes to be a poet is complete knowledge of himself,” he wrote in the letter to Demeny. “He searches his mind, inspects it, tries it out and learns to use it.” ^

“In this letter, he tellingly added the adjective “rational” to “derangement of all the senses”—here again he was more Apollonian than we often think—and further asserted that this project required a new kind of poetic language, in which one sense became indistinguishable from another, sight from touch, hearing from smell: “summing up everything, perfumes, sounds and colors, thought latching on to thought and pulling.” In one of his most famous poems, he assigns colors to each vowel: “A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue.” Here, as so often, he was following the example of Baudelaire, the great iconoclast of the previous generation and the champion of synesthesia. ^*^

“Thought latching on to thought and pulling” is an ideal way to describe the workings of the major poem he produced during this crucial period, “Le Bateau Ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”). The poem is characterized by a formal correctness (it’s composed of twenty-five rhymed quatrains of alexandrines, the classic French six-beat line) placed in the service of a destabilizing fantasy—a dream of liberation from correct form. It ostensibly describes the downstream journey of a vessel that has lost its haulers, its rudder, its anchor, wandering to and fro and witnessing bizarre sights en route to nowhere in particular. (“Huge serpents, vermin-plagued, drop down into the mire / With black effluvium from the contorted trees!”) But as you make your way through the poem, each stanza seeming at once to latch tightly on to the last and yet move further into imaginative space, it seems to expand into a parable about life and art in which loss of control—of the boat, of the poem itself, of what we think “meaning” in a poem might be—becomes the key to a kind of spiritual and aesthetic redemption: The wash of the green water on my shell of pine, / Sweeter than apples to a child its pungent edge;/ It cleansed me of the stains of vomits and blue wine/ And carried off with it the rudder and the kedge.

“Here, the two faces of Rimbaud’s desire to break out—the charming and the destructive—seamlessly come together, as the desire for consummation melds with a desire for annihilation: “Swollen by acrid love, sagging with drunkenness— / Oh, that my keel might rend and give me to the sea!” Whatever else it is—and many find its inscrutability insurmountable—“The Drunken Boat” is the work of a poet who has achieved his mature voice.” ^*^

Rimbaud and Verlaine

When he was 17 Rimbaud sent some of his poetry to Verlaine, a poet he greatly admired, who answered him "Come dear great soul." Rimbaud forced himself on Verlaine and the two of them indulged in absinthe, hashish and sodomy. Verlaine was surprised by Rimbaud's youth and uncouth behavior, and his wife found him downright disgusting. But Verlaine recognized Rimbaud's genius and introduced him to Paris salon society where he was labeled as both a "Jesus in the midst of doctors" and "a Satan." Victor Hugo trumpeted the poet as "a child Shakespeare," a remark that Rimbaud seem to take as an insult when he said that the English bard was "an old dottard."

Verlaine feel in love with the "devilishly seductive" boy who in turn called his patron the "Son of the Sun." Rimbaud wrote his Baudelaire-influenced “Les Illuminations” during this period which was characterized by tempestuous fights with Verlaine and studies of alchemy and magic. In 1873, after they had only been together for 18 months, Verlaine’s and Rimbaud’s decadence and escapaded forced them to flee to London and then Brussels, where the two poets had a violent quarrel. When Rimbaud threatened to leave Verlaine shot and wounded his friend and served a two-year prison sentence for the crime.

Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker, In September, 1871, Rimbaud made another bid to escape Charleville. He wrote a letter to Paul Verlaine, who, like Baudelaire, was one of the few poets whom Rimbaud admired, and enclosed a number of his poems. It was not long before he received the older poet’s invitation to come to the great city, expressed in words that proved prophetic: “Come, dear great soul. We await you; we desire you.” [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, August 29, 2011 ^*^]

The rules of poetry weren’t the only things that Rimbaud broke when he arrived in Paris. Among other things—bric-a-brac, dishes, and furniture in the various homes where he was offered hospitality, and where his boorish behavior inevitably led to his eviction—he broke up Verlaine’s marriage. The two men apparently became lovers soon after Rimbaud’s arrival, embarking on an affair that scandalized Paris and made literary history. Verlaine’s brother-in-law, for one, was never taken in by the angelic face and striking pale-blue eyes; he dismissed Rimbaud at once as the “vile, vicious, disgusting, smutty little schoolboy whom everyone is in raptures about.” ^*^

“Between the autumn of 1871 and July, 1873, the couple wandered from Paris to Belgium to London and, finally, back to Brussels again, drinking absinthe, smoking hashish, engaging in outrageous public displays of affection (one newspaper article cattily referred to the younger man as “Mlle Rimbaud”), quarrelling, and—as Verlaine once boasted—making love “like tigers.” They apparently liked to puncture each other with knives, and jointly composed a poem called the “Asshole Sonnet,” complete with beautifully wrought, anatomically minute descriptions of that orifice. Many readers and biographers see the couple as what one critic calls “the Adam and Eve of modern homosexuality,” but the evidence suggests that, as far as Rimbaud was interested in anyone other than himself, he was interested primarily in women. It is hard to escape the feeling that Verlaine, an ugly man whose appearance Rimbaud made cruel jokes about, was a kind of science experiment for the poet, part of his program of “rational derangement of all the senses,” his strident adolescent ambition to “reinvent” love, society, poetry. Indeed, for someone who uses the word “love” so often in his poetry, Rimbaud comes off as a cold fish; the tenderer emotions seem hypothetical to him. ^*^

“Whatever the nature of the relationship, the period of their affair was one of tremendous growth for Rimbaud, whose work was undergoing a dramatic evolution. Entranced, at one point, by the charmingly simple lyrics of eighteenth-century operas, he wrote a number of poems so delicately attenuated, so stripped of descriptiveness, that they seem to have no referent at all. (“I have recovered it. / What? Eternity. / It is the sea / Matched with the sun.”) But the tranquillity of the verse was not reflected in everyday life; by the time the pair were living, impoverished, in London (they took to placing desperate ads for their services as French tutors), the relationship had seriously frayed. After a catastrophic scene that ended with Verlaine running off to Belgium, Rimbaud—more terrified of being poor and alone, you suspect, than of losing his lover—joined him in Brussels. There, on July 10, 1873, after yet another drama, the distraught Verlaine, who had been making suicide threats, used a revolver he’d intended for himself to shoot his lover in the arm. And then, as the French writer Charles Dantzig puts it in a tartly shrewd essay on Rimbaud, “our anarchist called the police.” Following an official inquest that included a humiliating medical examination, Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison. Rimbaud went home to his mother.” ^*^

Rimbaud saw his Verlaine one last time after he was released from prison: in 1875, when Rimbaud was living in Germany. Having supposedly found religion in prison, Rimbaud wrote, "Verlaine arrived here the other day with a rosary between his paws...Three hours later he had denied his God and made the 98 wounds of our Saviour bleed afresh." Rimbaud gave Verlaine a stack of papers to take back to France. Verlaine gave them the title; “Illuminations”. The word was meant to evoke the minute illustrations on old manuscripts.

Rimbaud’s Season in Hell

After shooting Verlaine Rimbaud returned to his hometown and wrote “A Season in Hell”, finished before his 19th birthday. "Long ago," he wrote, "if my memory serves me, my life was a banquet where everyone's heart was generous, and where all wines flowed. One evening, I pulled Beauty down on my knees. I found her embittered and I cursed her."

Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker, “This sordid emotional cataclysm surely goes some way toward explaining Rimbaud’s desire for a new life: it’s hard not to feel that, perhaps for the first time, he realized that deranging his and other people’s senses could have serious and irreversible consequences. Home at Vitalie’s farm, a chastened Rimbaud spent the summer of 1873 hard at work on the text he’d begun earlier that year. This collection of “atrocious stories” in prose, as he described them in a letter to a friend, would become “A Season in Hell,” his best-known work and a founding document of European modernism. [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, August 29, 2011 ^*^]

“If you were to take Dante’s “Inferno,” Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground,” a pinch of William Blake, and a healthy dash of Christopher Smart’s madhouse masterpiece “Rejoice in the Lamb,” throw them into a blender and hit “purée,” you might well find yourself with something like “A Season in Hell.” On one level, it looks like a narrative of abasement and redemption, tracing the story of a Rimbaud-like artist who has wantonly corrupted his childhood innocence (“Once, if I remember well, my life was a feast where all hearts opened and all wines flowed”) and, after wallowing in a rehearsal of his sins, seeks a kind of healing. Interlaced with political slogans (“Wealth has always been public property”) and grandiose vatic pronouncements (“I am going to unveil all the mysteries”), much of “A Season in Hell” is, as one indulgent critic said of Rimbaud’s work, “aggravatingly beautiful and too frequently hermetic.” Most interesting are what look suspiciously like verbatim quotes from his life with Verlaine. The older poet appears as a character called “the Foolish Virgin,” endlessly bemoaning his involvement with the seductive youth: “He was hardly more than a child. His mysterious delicacies had seduced me. I forgot all my duty to society, to follow him. . . . I go where he goes. I have to. And often he flies into a rage at me, me, the poor soul. The Demon! He is a demon, you know, he is not a man.” ^*^

Ultimately, “A Season in Hell” is a kaleidoscopic evocation of a man who comes to terms with the limits of the self; a heavy sense of failure, of wrong paths taken, hovers over the vignettes. Even the overweening and narcissistic fantasies of artistic transcendence (“I became a fabulous opera”) are reoriented, in the end, toward reality: “I who called myself angel or seer, exempt from all morality, I am returned to the soil with a duty to seek and rough reality to embrace!” It is this understanding—that fantasy and romance must be eschewed—that leads to the famous closing utterance: “One must be absolutely modern.”

Rimbaud’s Illuminations

After “A Season in Hell” Rimbaud wrote “Illuminations”, his last piece of literature, finished around the time of his 20th birthday. Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker, “If “A Season in Hell” is seething, anguished, and dialogic, Rimbaud’s next, and final, work speaks with an air of quiet authority and calm. It feels like the writing of someone who’s forgiven himself. These strange, exquisite prose poems—a “crystalline jumble,” as John Ashbery calls them, which, like the work itself, is sometimes willful but often has its own crystal purity—are intensely visual, bringing before your eyes fleeting images that have the oddness, the intensity, and the subterranean logic of dreams. Scholars have long argued over which poem was written first, but it seems clear that “Illuminations” begins in a kind of post-apocalyptic calm after the crisis evoked in “A Season in Hell.” [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, August 29, 2011 ^*^]

The opening gives you a sense of what’s in store:
No sooner had the notion of the Flood regained its composure,
Than a hare paused among the gorse and trembling bellflowers and said its prayer to the rainbow through the spider’s web.
Oh the precious stones that were hiding,—the flowers that were already peeking out.

Reading this remarkable and, it must be said, often incomprehensible work (“Since then the Moon has heard jackals cheeping in thyme deserts”) can be a startling, frustrating, and yet exhilarating experience. Among its more uncanny features is the way it often seems to look ahead to the twentieth century. One vignette suggests the grandiose architecture of Hitler’s dream Berlin: “The official acropolis beggars the most colossal conceptions of modern barbarity. . . . With a singular taste for enormity, they have reproduced all the classical marvels of architecture.” Another prefigures the visual puzzles of M. C. Escher: “A bizarre pattern of bridges, some of them straight, others convex, still others descending or veering off at angles to the first ones, and these shapes multiplying.” Rimbaud, who had found the industrial vigor of London exciting, was never more a seer than he was here. ^

There is much more—not least, a description, delicate as rice paper, of what may or may not be ideal love. (“It’s the friend who’s neither ardent nor weak. The friend.”) In a final section called “Génie,” whose haunting, incantatory rhythms Ashbery renders more precisely and more beautifully than any previous translator, the poet exhorts us to embrace the vaguely Christlike figure of the title—perhaps the same genie who appears in an earlier section, described as holding “the promise of a multiple and complex love”: ‘He has known us all and loved us all. Let us, on this winter night, from cape to cape, from the tumultuous pole to the castle, from the crowd to the beach, from glance to glance, our strengths and feelings numb, learn to hail him and see him, and send him back, and under the tides and at the summit of snowy deserts, follow his seeing, his breathing, his body, his day.’ Ashbery, for whom this translation was clearly a labor of lovecalls this “one of the greatest poems ever written.” It was, very probably, the last poetry that Rimbaud ever wrote. He was twenty years old.”

Rimbaud Renounces Poetry to Become a Vagabound

Rimbaud renounced poetry at the age of 20 because it brought him misery and never wrote again. Rimbaud traveled to Stuttgart, Milan, Marseilles and Vienna but he didn't stay long. In 1878 he signed as a mercenary for colonial Dutch army in Sumatra. He deserted after only 13 days. After that he worked at a circus in Hamburg and as a foreman of a construction gang in Cyprus.

Bruce Duffy wrote “Disaster Was My God”, a reimagining of Rimbaud’s in the form of a novel that attempts among other things to explain why Rimbaud gave up poetry.Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker, Although the new novel treats the entirety of Rimbaud’s life—it begins with his sour-faced mother reinterring his body in the Charleville cemetery, ten years after his death, and unfolds as a series of flashbacks—its real preoccupation is, inevitably, the question that continues to haunt admirers of Rimbaud. As Vitalie watches the gravedigger at work, she thinks of the journalists and professors who have come calling over the years, asking, “But why did he stop writing?” [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, August 29, 2011 ^*^]

There are many lovely touches in Duffy’s novel. Rimbaud at one point sits “like a tongue awaiting Holy Communion”; Vitalie in the graveyard arranges some small bones as if they were silverware on a table. More important, Duffy persuasively penetrates the layers of myth and produces characters who suggest the real people they once were. By far the most impressive—and, in its way, the most moving—of these characterizations is that of Rimbaud’s mother, who here emerges not as the familiar harpy of many biographies but as a figure of almost tragic stature, a woman as tormented as she was tormenting. Duffy has the marvellous idea of making Vitalie the real seer in the family: she hears voices and has prophetic dreams. The notion that Rimbaud somehow owed his visionary poetics to his difficult parent has a nice psychological irony. The central emotional drama of the novel is, in fact, the ongoing war of attrition between the son and the mother, resolved—in the only way possible for these two implacable characters—in the final, very moving lines of the book. ^*^

“More problematic, inevitably, is the representation of Rimbaud himself. The interior of an artist’s mind is notoriously difficult to represent on the page. But Duffy gets one thing absolutely right. Toward the end, there’s a scene in which the alcoholic Verlaine, accompanied by his prostitute pal Eugénie, consents to give an interview to a journalist who’s burning to unravel the mystery that pervades the novel: “how a poet of almost unfathomable abilities could willfully forget how to write.” At one point, the bustling Eugénie interjects with her own theory: “Rimbaud was simply burned out. A dead volcano. Shot his wad.” Verlaine, who seems to be speaking for Duffy here, has a larger insight. “Well,” he says, “one big reason, perhaps obvious, is he grew up . . . the child in him died.” ^*^

“Indeed, the mystery of Rimbaud’s renunciation may not be such a mystery after all. The apparently irreconcilable extremes of his thought and behavior are easier to account for when you remember that Rimbaud the poet never reached adulthood: violent oscillations between yearning and contempt, sentimentality and viciousness, are not unheard of in adolescents. (The Surrealist André Breton described Rimbaud as “a veritable god of puberty.”) Like J. D. Salinger, another beloved celebrant of youthful turmoil, Rimbaud may simply have found that, as he grew up, the urgency of his subject was gone. There was nothing left to say.” ^*^

Appeal of Rimbaud to Teenagers and Patti Smith

Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker, “The peculiarly adolescent quality of the poet’s life and work, the desire to rebel against whatever milieu he happened to find himself in—the schoolboy against school, the wunderkind against his admiring hosts, the poet against poetry—undoubtedly accounts for his particular appeal to teen-agers. (One statistic that Rimbaldians like to cite is that one in five French lycéens today claims to identify with the long-dead poet.) A striking feature of many of the translations and biographies of Rimbaud is the seemingly inevitable prefatory remark, on the part of the translator or biographer, about the moment when he or she first discovered the poet. “When I was sixteen, in 1956, I discovered Rimbaud,” Edmund White recalls at the start of his nimble “Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel,” by far the best introduction to the poet’s life and work; Graham Robb observes early on that “for many readers (including this one), the revelation of Rimbaud’s poetry is one of the decisive events of adolescence.” [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, August 29, 2011 ^*^]

Ashbery, too, was sixteen at the moment of impact, as was Patti Smith, the author of what is, perhaps, the most moving testament to the effect that a reading of Rimbaud might have on a hungry young mind. “When I was sixteen, working in a non-union factory in a small South Jersey town,” she writes in an introduction to “The Anchor Anthology of French Poetry,” “my salvation and respite from my dismal surroundings was a battered copy of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations, which I kept in my back pocket.” The anthology, she adds, “became the bible of my life.” ^*^

“I suspect that the chances that Rimbaud will become the bible of your life are inversely proportional to the age at which you first discover him. I recently did an informal survey among some well-read acquaintances, and the e-mail I received from a ninety-year-old friend fairly sums up the consensus. “I loved Rimbaud poems when I read the Norman Cameron translations in 1942,” she wrote—Cameron’s translation, my favorite, too, is among the very few in English that try to reproduce Rimbaud’s rhymes—but she added, “I have quite lost what it was that so thrilled me.” In 1942, my friend was twenty-one. I was twice that age when I first started to read Rimbaud seriously, and, although I found much that dazzled and impressed me, I couldn’t get swept away—couldn’t feel those feelings again, the urgency, the orneriness, the rebellion. I don’t say this with pride. Time passes, people change; it’s just the way things are. On the day before his death, a delirious Rimbaud dictated a letter to the head of an imaginary shipping company, urgently requesting passage to Suez.” ^

Rimbaud in Indonesia

In 1876 French poet Arthur Rimbaud joined the Dutch colonial army, sailed to the Indonesian island of Java and then deserted and fled into the jungle. No one knows what happened next. "It remains one of the most elusive enigmas among the many that constitute his tumultuous life and is often overlooked outside Rimbaud circles," Jamie James wrote in "Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage.” "He never wrote anything about Java because he was a fugitive. He could have been arrested" by the Dutch for desertion, said the Texan, who has lived in Indonesia since 1999 and has been a Rimbaud enthusiast since childhood. [Source: Loic Vennin, AFP, January 28, 2012 /*]

Loic Vennin of AFP wrote: “The only fact known about Rimbaud's eastern sojourn is that he embarked on June 10, 1876, at age 21, for the Dutch East Indies, or modern-day Indonesia. In a typically whimsical decision Rimbaud, who wrote the anti-militarist "The Sleeper in the Valley", embarked on the journey after signing up for six years in the Dutch colonial army. "It was the call of money and the Orient," said James, adding that 300 florins were paid to all recruits, a small fortune at the time. /*\

“Rimbaud, he said, grabbed the opportunity to finally reach the East, which had attracted him so much. On July 22 he and hundreds of other recruits arrived in Jakarta, or what was then called Batavia, to join their garrison at Salatiga, a village in central Java perched on the foothills of Merlabu, a dormant volcano. In Java "The man with the wind at his heels" — as fellow poet and friend Paul Verlaine once described Rimbaud's wanderlust — had never been this far from home. /*\

“Author of "The Drunken Boat," and a big fan of alcohol, Rimbaud must have been overjoyed that gin was not only permitted but encouraged by the Dutch as a way of instilling bravery in soldiers. But he remained only two weeks at the garrison. On August 15 he deserted, leaving his possessions to be sold for the benefit of the local orphanage. He reappeared only on December 31, 1876, when he returned to his mother in Charleville-Mezieres in northern France. Between the dates of his disappearance and reappearance lie four-and-half months of mystery, which have raised all manner of speculation. /*\

Book "Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage" by Jamie James, 2011]

Speculation Over What Happened to Rimbaud in Java

Loic Vennin of AFP wrote: “An American author followed in the Frenchman's footsteps to try and solve the mystery. "It's like a Sherlock Holmes story," said Jamie James, alluding to the detective work needed to trace where the enigmatic Rimbaud. Nearly 200 letters by the tortured poet, who described his process of attaining visionary insights as "a long, involved and logical derangement of all the senses," map out all — or nearly all — of his travels in Africa and the Middle East. [Source: Loic Vennin, AFP, January 28, 2012]

“Paterne Berrichon, who had never met the poet but became his self-proclaimed biographer after marrying Rimbaud's sister, affirmed that his late brother-in-law had hidden in the jungle, where orangutans had taught him to survive — despite the fact orangutans disappeared from Java two centuries ago.” /*\

“Rimbaud experts are at odds over when he sailed back to Europe. Most believe it was aboard the "Wandering Chief", a Scottish ship that sailed from Java on August 30 and arrived in Ireland on December 6, 1876. "That may be true," said James, although there is no evidence Rimbaud was on board. James has made numerous trips to Java for clues to Rimbaud's whereabouts, and despite the absence of new information his book attempts to interpret the troubled poet's state of mind at the time. "Since it's impossible to know, I tried to describe the environment at this time and how he (Rimbaud) was influenced by the readings he'd have had," James explained. "It's possible he kept a journal and it could turn up in a flea market in Paris," he said. "But no French poet has been subject to so much research, so chances of discovery are slim. "It's as likely as snow in Bali."

Rimbaud in East Africa

In 1880, Rimbaud made his way to Aden, where he hired by a French coffee trader to join a caravan to Harrar in Ethiopia. He spent the last thirteen years of his life traveling and working as trader in Africa. Most of his letters home referred to money.

Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker, “On a winter day in 1883, aboard a steamer that was returning him from Marseilles to the Arabian port city of Aden, a French coffee trader named Alfred Bardey struck up a conversation with a countryman he’d met on board, a young journalist named Paul Bourde. As Bardey chatted about his trading operation, which was based in Aden, he happened to mention the name of one of his employees—a “tall, pleasant young man who speaks little,” as he later described him. To his surprise, Bourde reacted to the name with amazement. Until that moment, for all Bardey or anyone else in his circle knew, this man was simply a clever trader who kept neat books. When Alfred Bardey got back to Aden, bursting with his discovery, he found to his dismay that the former wunderkind refused to talk about his work, dismissing it as “absurd, ridiculous, disgusting.” [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, August 29, 2011 ^*^]

In Abyssinia (Ethiopia), Rimbaud lived with a strikingly good-looking local woman who wore Western clothes and smoked cigarettes while he dressed in native costume. Describing the sultan of Harrar, Abou Bekr, a member o the fierce Danakalu tribe, Rimbaud wrote, "You are ushered unto his courtyard. He lounges in a couch of animal skins. He is wearing a dirty white Arab “gandourah”, and an enormous gourd-shaped turban of white muslin. He has prayer beads in his left hand, which he sifts and turns and flicks with a sound like miniature billiard balls. In his right hand he holds a tooth-cleaning stick, and all the while you converse he is working away at his teeth, which are still good despite his age. After each polishing, with a soft hiss, he ejects a gob of saliva, without much caring where it lands."

Rimbaud it seems wanted to have a second career as an explorer. He wrote to the French equivalent of the National Geographic Society to request funds for an expedition. His request was turned down and he was forced to support himself by running guns to King Menelik of Shoa. As part of that venture he spent 11 months in the dismal town Tadjoura in Djibouti waiting for the guns and then needed four months to deliver them only to have his profits largely taken away by the creditors of a dead associate.

In 1888, Rimbaud returned to Harrar, where he became a "commission agent" and settled with his mistress and his beloved servant boy, Djami. In 1891, Rimbaud came down with synovitis, an excruciatingly painful disease, in his knee and was carried to Aden. From there he sailed to France. In November 1891, after returning to his family farm one last time, he died in Marseilles at the age of 37 due to complications following the amputation of his leg.

Book: “Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, 1880-91" by Charles Nicholl (University of Chicago Press, 1999)

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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