#25: RIMBAUD. Where did this revolutionary genius come from? Nineteenth-century France, you might say, a country of such passion for the arts and such rigidity in their practice that in 1830, at the premiere of “Hernani,” Parisian audiences rioted when Hugo varied the placement of the caesura in the alexandrine line. Or specifically Charleville, the bourgeois-to-the-bone northeastern city Rimbaud spent his life trying to escape and which now, ironically, has his bones. But no fact or agenda—cultural, historical, biographical, sexual—can encapsulate or explain Rimbaud. His work is most often read biographically: the brilliant and intractable child, the roadside bodies of the Franco-Prussian War, the barrack-room sodomy of the Commune, the scandalous affair with Verlaine, the vertiginous and self-hypnotizing attempts to become a seer. Having revolutionized poetry—and with Rimbaud, that word is not hyperbolic but merely accurate—he abandoned writing and disappeared into parts of Africa where Europeans had hardly been seen, and was dead of cancer at thirty-seven. His manuscripts were discovered and published shortly after his death, like the unexploded mines people still dig up in the Ardennes. From the supple and inventive early verse—“Ophelie,” “Le Dormeur du Val,” “Au Cabaret Vert,” “Ma Boheme”—it’s hardly a year to “Voyelles,” “Le Bateau Ivre,” “L’Eternite,” “O Saisons O Chateaux,” where Rimbaud goes into areas of vision and incantation not touched before in European verse, and two years, maybe three, to the hallucinatory dramas of the Illuminations, in which the dramatic and syntactic elements are broken down and recombined—the first mesmeric style of the surreal. In “Un Saison en Enfer”—“A Season in Hell”—not just the biographical elements but the possibilities of literary French seem to be broken down, barbarized and remade, to end with one of the most moving passages in French, shorn of the old elegance and clarity but with a new, convincing voice of anguish, honesty and hope: “Il me sera loisible de posseder la verite dans une ame et un corps.” “It will be allowed me to possess the truth in one soul and one body.”
There are several new translations of Rimbaud, but the best complete one in English is still Wallace Fowlie’s, from the University of Chicago Press; it includes a good selection of Rimbaud’s letters. Louise Varese’s versions of “The Drunken Boat,” “A Season in Hell,” and the “Illuminations” are good as well (New Directions). The definitive text in French is in the Bibliotheque de la Pleiade (Gallimard), the most recent version of which, edited by Andre Guyaux, was published in 2009. Enid Starkie’s biography (New Directions), despite some sentimentalities, is probably still the best in English, superior to Graham Robb’s more recent attempt. Jean-Jacques Lefrere’s Arthur Rimbaud (Paris, Fayard, 2001) is an exhaustively detailed biography, if a bit spotty in critical analysis. Passion Rimbaud: L’Album d’une Vie (Editions Textuel, 1998) is a spectacular visual collection. Charleville, about which Rimbaud said little except in vituperation, now honors its embarrassingly famous renegade son with a very fine museum full of his effects, above the millstream near which Rimbaud spent his childhood. Several websites now have the entirety of Rimbaud’s poetry online, some with translations. Henry Miller’s famous study The Time of the Assassins (New Directions, 1962) is going to tell you at least as much about Miller as about Rimbaud (surprised?) but it does show Miller’s generous affection for Rimbaud and his urgent sense of the plight of the artist in modern times. For Verlaine—Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud’s friend, pursuer, lover and victim as well as one of the important and most musical of the nineteenth century French poets—my suggestion is to read One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine, a selection and superbly inventive translation by Norman R. Shapiro (Chicago, 1999).
Literature is the secondary focus of a lot of my non-fiction reading: I read about the American Civil War to understand the world of Walt Whitman, about the English Civil War to understand Izaak Walton. The Franco-Prussian War, with the siege of Paris and the period of the Commune—the disastrous end of Louis-Napoleon’s Second Empire—is one of the still tenderly felt and disgraceful scars on French history, and it’s the historic background across which Rimbaud skips, like a malignant recording imp. An excellent book for the general reader is The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-1, by Alistair Horne (Macmillan, 1965).