Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891) is familiar to me only because I had a single semester of 19th Century French Poetry, a class I took only because I had a crush on the professor. He was exactly as you would picture a teacher who specialized in European poetry: middle-aged with wild grey curly hair and soulful brown eyes. He was a mere slip of a thing that always came off as pessimistically passionate and mindfully melancholic. He seemed the kind of man who would cry after he had an orgasm. I wanted him badly. This is what I have retained from that class 45 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 and was drinking, drugging and amusing himself by shocking the local bourgeoisie with his bohemian clothing and crazy long hair. He began to write about attaining a kind of poetical transcendence through a “long, immense and 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 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 and hashish. The couple scandalized the not easily shocked Parisian intellectual crowd with their outrageous behavior. Rimbaud, the very definition of “enfant terrible” still was able to compose strikingly visionary verse despite the lifestyle he shared with Verlaine.
Rimbaud and Verlaine took their tempestuous love affair to London in 1872. Verlaine left behind his wife and his infant son. The next year Rimbaud announced that he wanted to return to Paris without Verlaine. In a drunken rage, Verlaine shot at him. The wounds were not serious and Rimbaud refused to press charges against his lover.
After the shooting incident, Verlaine took young Rimbaud to Brussels where Verlaine had a nervous breakdown. Rimbaud feared for his life and 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 and accusations from Verlaine’s wife about the nature of their relationship and her abuse at his hands.
Rimbaud withdrew the complaint, but the magistrate sentenced Verlaine to two years in prison. Rimbaud returned home to Champagne and completed his great work Une Saison En Enfer (A Season In Hell), one of the pioneering examples of Modern Symbolist Poetry, whatever that is; I wasn’t really paying attention. In 1874, the 20-year-old Rimbaud returned to London, this time in the company of gay poet Germain Nouveau, where he wrote the landmark free verse poem Les Illuminations.
Rimbaud and Verlaine met for the last time in March 1875, in Stuttgart, after Verlaine’s release from prison and his conversion to Catholicism. By then Rimbaud had given up writing, deciding on a proper working life, seemingly finished with his wild ways, hoping to become wealthy and independent. He saved up money and then explored 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 and settled there in 1880. He finally made that fortune as a gun-runner in Northern Africa, smart from his experience as a youth. In Africa, Rimbaud fell ill and 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 five 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 and by 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 relationship.
Rimbaud’s influence in modern literature, music and 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, and 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 and Jean Claude Brialy as Verlaine, and Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse (1995), based on a play by Christopher Hampton who wrote the screenplay, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud and David Thewlis as Verlaine. He is also the subject of an opera Rimbaud Ou Le Fils DuSoleil (1978) by Lorenzo Ferrero. In 1939, gay composer Benjamin Britten set selections of Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations to music for tenor soloist and string orchestra.
My own favorite is Sahara Blue (1992) an ambient concept album based on his life and poems produced by Hector Zazou, with contributions by gay artists including Dead Can Dance, John Cale and 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 and black wolves
Then you will feel your cheek scratched
A little kiss, like a mad spider
Will run around your neck
And you will say to me: “Get it!” as you bend your neck
And we will take a long time to find that creature
Which travels a great deal