October 20, 1854– Arthur Rimbaud is especially familiar to me because of a single semester of 19th Century French Poetry, a class I only took because I had a crush on the professor, & this is what I have retained 40 years later:
As a boy, Rimbaud was a restless but especially bright student in his working-class town in the Champagne region of France. He often ran away from home. At 17 years old he took off for Paris where he found work as a gun smuggler. He was raped by drunken soldiers, an incident Rimbaud recounts in his poem Le Cœur Supplicié.
Still in his teens, he had become an anarchist, drinking, drugging & amusing himself by shocking the local bourgeoisie with his bohemian clothing & long hair. He began to write about attaining a kind of poetical transcendence through a “long, immense & rational derangement of all the senses”.
After Rimbaud had sent him a letter with examples of his poems, he was invited to live in the Paris home of the great Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. Verlaine, who was married, promptly fell in love with the sullen, blue-eyed, auburn-haired youth. They became lovers & they lived a wild, vagabond life driven by absinthe & hashish. The couple scandalized the not easily shocked Parisian Intellectual set with their outrageous behavior. Rimbaud, the very definition of “enfant terrible”, still was able to compose strikingly visionary verse despite their lifestyle.
Rimbaud & Verlaine took their tempestuous love affair to London in 1872. Verlaine left behind his wife & infant son. The next year Rimbaud announced that he wanted to return to Paris without Verlaine. In a drunken rage, Verlaine shot at him, twice hitting the teenage Rimbaud. The wounds were not serious & Rimbaud refused to press charges against his lover.
After the shooting incident, Verlaine & his mother took young Rimbaud to Brussels where Verlaine had a nervous breakdown. Rimbaud feared for his life & he asked a police officer to arrest Verlaine. After the arrest Verlaine was subjected to a humiliating investigation into his private life, including his intimate correspondence with his lover & accusations from Verlaine’s wife about the nature of their relationship & her abuse at his hands.
Rimbaud withdrew the complaint, but the magistrate sentenced Verlaine to 2 years in prison. Rimbaud returned home to Champagne & completed his great work Une Saison En Enfer (A Season In Hell), one of the pioneering examples of modern Symbolist writing. In 1874, the 20 year old Rimbaud returned to London, this time in the company of gay poet Germain Nouveau where he wrote landmark free verse poem Les Illuminations.
Rimbaud & Verlaine met for the last time in March 1875, in Stuttgart, after Verlaine’s release from prison & his conversion to Catholicism. By then Rimbaud had given up writing, deciding on a dependable working life, seemingly finished with his wild ways, hoping to become wealthy & independent enough to afford living as a carefree poet someday.
Rimbaud traveled extensively around Europe, mostly on foot. In the summer of 1876 he enlisted as a soldier in the Dutch Army in order to gain free passage to Java (now Indonesia) where he promptly deserted.
He made his way to Cyprus & settled there in 1880. He finally made his fortune as a gun-runner in Northern Africa, smart from his experience as a youth. In Africa, Rimbaud fell ill & returned to France in 1891 where his right leg was amputated, a particularly cruel fate for one of the world’s great walkers. Rimbaud died in Marseilles shortly after his birthday in 1891, taken by cancer. He was just 37 years old when he left this world.
In that 19th Century French Poetry class 4 decades ago, I found Rimbaud more interesting as a person than interesting as a poet. I was fascinated by his life as a gay figure & his love affair with Verlaine. I was especially intrigued with the notion of a wild young guy controlling an older married man as I listened to my handsome silver fox of a professor speak of their poetry & their relationship.
Rimbaud’s influence in modern literature, music & art can be found in the works of Picasso, Dylan Thomas, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Vladimir Nabokov, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Henry Miller, Van Morrison, & Jim Morrison.
His life story has been made in to several films including: Nelo Risi‘s Una Stagione All’inferno (1970) with Terence Stamp as Rimbaud & Jean Claude Brialy as Verlaine, & Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse (1995), based on a play by Christopher Hampton who wrote the screenplay, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud & David Thewlis as Verlaine. He is also the subject of an opera Rimbaud Ou Le Fils Du Soleil (1978) by Lorenzo Ferrero. In 1939, gay composer Benjamin Britten set selections of Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations to music for tenor soloist & string orchestra.
My own favorite is Sahara Blue (1992) an ambient concept album based on his life & poems produced by Hector Zazou, with contributions by gay artists Dead Can Dance, John Cale & Ryuichi Sakamoto. Also check out the terrific biography Rimbaud: The Double Life Of A Rebel (2008) by Edmund White.
A Dream For Winter
In the winter, we will leave in a small pink railway carriage
With blue cushions
We will be comfortable.
A nest of mad kisses lies
In each soft corner
You will close your eyes, in order not to see, through the glass,
The evening shadows making faces
Those snarling monstrosities, a populace
Of black demons & black wolves
Then you will feel your cheek scratched
A little kiss, like a mad spider
Will run around your neck
& you will say to me: “Get it!” as you bend your neck
& we will take a long time to find that creature
Which travels a great deal