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The Sacred and Profane Collages of Arthur Rimbaud

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«Les femmes soignent ces féroces infirmes retour des pays chauds…»
(“Women nurse those fierce invalids home from the tropics…”)
–Arthur Rimbaud, “Mauvais Sang” (“Bad Blood”), from Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell)

The poet Jean Nicholas Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) was one of the chief forerunners of the Surrealist movement. He was a poet-prodigy who produced all of his known work before he turned twenty-one and entirely renounced literature thereafter.

Arthur and the Drunken Boat (2012). Digital collage created & copyright © by Eric Edelman. All rights reserved.

Rimbaud was born in Charleville, a small town in the northeastern region of France that borders  Belgium. His father was an army officer who abandoned the family when Rimbaud was six. His mother was a domineering woman, who strictly disciplined her children and pushed them to achieve high marks in school. Rimbaud excelled in Latin and Greek and in the study of literature. By the age of fifteen, he had produced his first mature poems.

Rimbaud’s life as a poet was shaped early on by his rebellion against his mother. As a teenager, he ran away from home several times to escape Madame Rimbaud’s stifling influence, eventually settling in Paris. There he led a violently dissolute and libertine life, drinking heavily, smoking hashish, and openly carrying on an affair with the older, married poet, Paul Verlaine.

This chaotic, self-destructive lifestyle was the demonstration of one of the poet’s most deeply-held convictions. Writing to his friend Paul Demeny–well before the start of his adventures in Paris–Rimbaud explains his view of how a debauched life furthers the development of poetic gifts:

Le Poète se fait voyant par un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens. Toutes les formes d’amour, de souffrance, de folie; il cherche lui-même, il épuise en lui tous les poisons, pour n’en garder que les quintessences. Ineffable torture où il a besoin de toute la foi, de toute la force surhumaine, où il devient entre tous le grand malade, le grand criminel, le grand maudit–et le suprême Savant!

(The poet makes himself a visionary by means of a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, folly; he seeks himself, in himself he exhausts all poisons so as to keep only the quintessences. An ineffable torture during which he needs all faith, all superhuman strength; when he becomes all: the great invalid, the great criminal, the great accursed one–and the supreme Savant!)

The poetry of Arthur Rimbaud is indeed visionary. It is a kaleidoscope of exotic images, a passionately hallucinatory, seemingly disordered collage of objects, emotions, and situations. A typical passage from one of his most famous poems, “The Drunken Boat,” runs thus:

J’ai vu le soleil bas, taché d’horreurs mystiques,
Illuminant de longs figements violets,
Pareils à des acteurs de drames très-antiques
Les flots roulant au loin leurs frissons de volets!

J’ai rêvé la nuit verte aux neiges éblouies,
Baiser montant aux yeux des mers avec lenteurs,
La circulation des sèves inouïes,
Et l’éveil jaune et bleu des phosphores chanteurs!

(I’ve seen the low sun, stained by mystic horrors,
Illuminating long violet coagulations,
Akin to actors in very ancient dramas
The waves rolling afar their window-shutter shivers!

I’ve dreamed of the green night with dazzling snows,
The kiss rising slowly to the eyes of the sea,
The circulation of saps unknown,
And the yellow and blue awakening of singing phosphorescences!)

Although Rimbaud wrote many poems in strict and beautiful verse, a great many others are written as prose poems: free verse in prose form. The prose poem was most notably used by the English mystical poet William Blake, and in French by Charles Baudelaire, whom Rimbaud acknowledged as a master and an important source of inspiration. A short excerpt from Rimbaud’s prose poem “Enfance” (“Childhood”), from his collection titled Illuminations, illustrates a somewhat more delicate (but no less imaginative) juxtaposition of images than that of “The Drunken Boat”:

Je suis le saint, en prière sur la terrasse, – comme les bêtes pacifiques paissent jusqu’à la mer de Palestine.
Je suis le savant au fauteuil sombre. Les branches et la pluie se jettent à la croisée de la bibliothèque.
Je suis le piéton de la grand’route par les bois nains ; la rumeur des écluses couvre mes pas. Je vois longtemps la mélancolique lessive d’or du couchant.
Je serais bien l’enfant abandonné sur la jetée partie à la haute mer, le petit valet suivant l’allée dont le front touche le ciel.
Les sentiers sont âpres. Les monticules se couvrent de genêts. L’air est immobile. Que les oiseaux et les sources sont loin ! Ce ne peut être que la fin du monde, en avancant.

(I am the saint, in prayer on the terrace–like the peaceful beasts that graze down to the sea in Palestine.
I am the scholar of the dark armchair. Rain and branches hurl themselves at the casement of my library.
I am the pedestrian on the highway by the dwarf woods; the murmur of the sluices drowns out my footsteps. For a long time I can see the melancholy golden wash of the sunset.
I might well be the child abandoned on the jetty headed for the high seas, the servant-boy following the wooded path whose forehead touches the sky.
The footpaths are rough. The hillocks are covered with broom. The air is still. How far off are the birds and springs! This can only be the end of the world ahead.)

The Surrealists–both artists and writers–found Rimbaud’s work to be an important inspiration; a half-century before them, while still in adolescence, he began to mine the rich vein of imagery that they would eventually draw upon so heavily for their work. Even now, his poetry continues to stimulate the imagination of many writers, musicians, and visual artists.

After abandoning writing, Arthur Rimbaud spent the next seventeen years wandering restlessly through Asia and Africa, working as a soldier, quarry foreman, merchant, and trader, and coming back home sporadically. He returned to France for the last time at the age of thirty-seven, dying shortly afterward from complications of cancer.


(All artwork, descriptions, translations, & other text [except for quotations] created & copyright © by Eric Edelman. All rights reserved.)

22 Comments… add one

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22 comments… add one
Jeanna October 23, 2012, 11:13 am

Sounds like he had some good times anyway. Too bad he didn’t write at the end after 17 years of adventure.

Eric Edelman October 23, 2012, 11:44 am

I’ve often thought that too, Jeanna. What a fascinating story he would have told. Thanks for your visit and your thoughtful comment.

stevebethere October 23, 2012, 11:30 am

One word “Fantastic” 🙂

Good post

Have a great rest of week

Eric Edelman October 23, 2012, 11:42 am

Thanks, Steve! Hope you have a great rest of the week as well.

Joyce October 23, 2012, 6:31 pm

Great as always!

Eric Edelman October 23, 2012, 6:51 pm

Thanks for your kind words, Joyce!

Claudia October 23, 2012, 7:01 pm

I really love to stumble on to your blog, Eric. It may make me sad – because of the story and because I regret not studying art, but nonetheless, I love reading up on artists you like to share with us. Thank you.

Eric Edelman October 23, 2012, 8:44 pm

Thank you very much, Claudia!

I appreciate your kind comment. Yes, the story of Rimbaud’s life is rather sad: he left us all a legacy of beauty (directly through his poems, and indirectly through their influence on other creative people) but was unable to enjoy or profit by it. Many people who read his life story may be shocked by how immoral it was, but he truly suffered for it, both during and after his life as a poet. In a strange way, I believe he was a martyr to his “derangement of all the senses” theory of creativity.

About your not studying art: it’s never too late! If there’s one lesson I always take away from doing collage, it’s that all of us have the potential to be creative. Collage is one way that nearly everyone can discover his or her creativity, without the obstacle of lack of training. It’s truly a great medium.

Aussiepomm October 23, 2012, 7:51 pm

Oh how I wished I was on a boat and drunk!!! lolol

Great pic… Mines up as well at AussiePomm – Movable Feast?!!!!

Have a great day!!

Eric Edelman October 23, 2012, 8:48 pm

Haha! I wouldn’t mind being on a boat, but the drunk part…not so much.

Thanks for your comment & your visit! Going over to your picture now…

Mary October 23, 2012, 11:41 pm

I love the boat in a bottle. Sad end to his life.

Eric Edelman October 24, 2012, 12:44 am

Thanks very much, Mary. Yes, Rimbaud’s life did end sadly; and it is questionable whether it was ever a happy life at all.

Daryl October 24, 2012, 6:46 am

A fabulous ship in a bottle .. a sad ending but perhaps a fitting one?

Eric Edelman October 24, 2012, 4:08 pm

Rimbaud’s end was certainly sad; however, I’d like to believe that had things gone differently, he’d have been able to live a happier (if not longer) life. Thanks for your visit and your kind words, Daryl!

Paula J October 24, 2012, 8:38 am

Ships in bottles always amaze me..

Happy WW 🙂

Eric Edelman October 24, 2012, 4:35 pm

Me too, Paula! So much so that I began some time ago to bottle objects…if you click on the links below, you can see some of my efforts:

Bottle Whimseys:

Minis, Smalls, & Teeny-Tinies:

Rosey October 24, 2012, 11:04 am

Doesn’t it seem the most talented writers (artists, entertainers, etc.) often have so much turmoil in their lives? I wonder why that is…

Eric Edelman October 24, 2012, 4:05 pm

Thanks for your comment, Rosey. I’ve also wondered about this. The answer, I think, is that we may not be seeing the true numbers: how many more stable than unstable creative people there are. Perhaps this is so because well-adjusted creative types don’t draw as much attention to themselves as unstable ones do.

self sagacity October 24, 2012, 4:23 pm

I don’t know, but somehow reading about his life made me very sad for him. I wondered if he would still be successful with his poetry if his mother wasn’t so strict and domineering? What do you think in general, will people excel if they were treated nicely and fairly versus, strict and forceful?

Eric Edelman October 24, 2012, 4:56 pm

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I don’t blame you for feeling sad. In general, I believe that people always grow up better when their gifts are encouraged and they’re treated well, rather than when they’re severely disciplined and beaten, as I suspect Rimbaud was. (That doesn’t mean that I believe children should always get their way, especially where respecting the rights of others is concerned; but now there are better ways to raise and educate creative and responsible children than the parents and teachers of the nineteenth century had.)

Tracy @ Ascending Butterfly October 24, 2012, 10:40 pm

I love Poetry, thanks for sharing the Poem! And are those really his eye color or was that enhanced?

Linked up (this time I’m on time, it’s still Wednesday, YAY Me!), Happy WW

Tracy @ Ascending Butterfly

Eric Edelman October 25, 2012, 12:25 am

Thanks very much, Tracy! Actually, I added color to the entire portrait of Rimbaud. The only images of him available were in black and white, like most nineteenth-century photographs.

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