«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.
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!
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.