The strange fate of Arthur Rimbuad, boy poet

Pierre Ferrand


rthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) is undoubtedly one of the most puzzling figures among the world’s famous poets. As a result, he has been the subject of endless controversy, and he is forever quoted and interpreted out of context.

A case in point is Henry Miller’s 1946 essay, called The Time of the Assassins. Not that Miller didn’t work at trying to understand Rimbaud. He said that he adored him “above all other writers,” and read and reread his writings and correspondence in French as well as in English, though he confessed that “I come to him through the fog of a language I never mastered.” (Shame on him, since he spent nearly a decade in France in the 30s!). Miller pored over scholarly interpretations of his life and art (in English), such as the well-regarded studies by Enid Starkie and Wallace Fowlie.

Miller is not the only commentator to consider Rimbaud a “voyant,” a seer or a prophet, though he is presumably the first to suggest that he somehow predicted the atomic bomb with his phrase about “the time of the assassins.” While this was clearly timely in 1946, it remains nevertheless absurd. In the first place, Rimbaud himself, who used what he knew to be the fashionable romantic term, “voyant,” to describe his artistic intentions in a letter to a friend, clearly meant little more by it than novel ways of poetic expression. His mention of “the time of the assassins” in his prose poem entitled “A Morning of Intoxication” has no conceivable prophetic meaning in context and may refer to experimentation with hashish.

While Rimbaud was, like many teenagers, a very self-centered and self-absorbed young man, he was somewhat more socially-conscious than Miller, a model of immature irresponsibility. He showed some awareness of the horrors of the Franco-Prussian war in one of his poems, indicated his sympathy for the revolutionary French Communards of 1871, and, in several prose poems, clearly denounced colonialism. He was on the side of the victims and the oppressed, and also rejected with violent sarcasm and, indeed, blasphemy, the religious practices of his childhood and, during his later teens, most aspects of conventional morality.

Miller said that he identified with Rimbaud “as in a mirror.” We may question the similarity between the two writers. True, Miller, too, was a narcissistic outsider, wishing to shock the establishment. He also had something of the French poet’s gift of gab, though he is not memorable, like Rimbaud, for his many haunting and quotable phrases, nor for poems of remarkable intensity and beauty. He had the same urge to scandalize his readers by his often scatological excesses of language and to boast about his wicked ways. Like the French poet, he was very willing to be just a parasite, supported by his friends. Rimbaud, however, had the excuse of extreme youth.

Miller admits that he started to be creative literarily at an age when Rimbaud was dead, after nearly four decades of drifting through dull and frustrating professions. Rimbaud’s dull and frustrating workaday life (in exotic places), began after he had stopped being creative.

Rimbaud had been a gifted youngster who revolted against his petty bourgeois upbringing in the dull provincial town of Charleroi, in the French Ardennes. His family was not poor, but he was raised by an exceedingly devout mother who did not want her teenage boy to read such immoral books as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, frowned at her son’s interest in literature and planned for him some respectable profession, such as businessman, teacher, or engineer. His father (a French colonial officer) had abandoned her and her children when he was a small child.

A good student, Rimbaud read voraciously and without much discrimination, won several prizes in Latin composition and attracted the attention of a young teacher of liberal views, Georges Izambard, some five years older than he was. The very proper and decent Izambard lent him books, encouraged him to write, and treated him like a younger brother. Among the poems directly inspired by his teacher (who had given him Latin homework on the subject) is the lovely one about Shakespeare’s Ophelia, one of my favorites. It has always reminded me of the fine painting by John Everett Millais.

A few weeks after the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, so disastrous for France, Rimbaud, 15 years old, fled from home against Izambard’s advice to go to Paris by train. Arrested for traveling without a ticket, he was rescued from prison by his teacher. He fled Charleroi two more times during the next few months, but had to return home, mostly walking all the way because he had no money.

He tried to interest some established poets in his own verse, with little success, until he was placed in contact with Paul Verlaine, who was enthusiastic. He particularly admired Rimbaud’s best-known poem, “The Drunken Boat,” just completed. Verlaine, a decade older than Rimbaud, had already published several well-regarded volumes of poetry, which Rimbaud had read and appreciated. Verlaine wrote, off and on, some the loveliest French 19th Century verse. He had married less than two years earlier after promising to mend his ways in a beautiful series of poems dedicated to his fiance (he had bohemian morals and was a heavy drinker). He did not hesitate to invite the 16-year-old boy to his Paris home in September, 1871, at a time his wife expected a child, sending him a money order to cover the expenses for the trip.

The liaison with Rimbaud contributed to the break-up of Verlaine’s marriage. So did their drunken debauchery, especially since Verlaine was apt to be quite violent when drunk, even to his own mother and baby son. His wife, fearing for her life, eventually secured a separation and then a divorce from her husband, despite attempts at reconciliation. Rimbaud and Verlaine lived together, off and on, for nearly two years, chiefly in England, where Verlaine supported Rimbaud and his own drinking habit by teaching French. On July 9, 1873, while in Brussels, Rimbaud stated his intention to leave Verlaine. The next day, Verlaine, drunk as usual, shot and wounded Rimbaud in the wrist. Verlaine was arrested and spent over a year in prison though Rimbaud did not press charges.

Shortly after this incident, Rimbaud, now 19 years old, tried to publish A Season in Hell, a remarkable 54-page sequence of significantly confessional sketches or prose poems, which also include some of his most haunting verse. As he could not pay for the 500 copies printed, they were never distributed and were discovered only half a century later in a warehouse.

A Season in Hell contains a wickedly sarcastic account of his relationship with Verlaine (whom he does not name), and passages indicating his feeling that his revolt against social norms had been a meaningless folly. He also says that his creative efforts, undertaken with great enthusiasm, were equally foolish. Few students of his writings have agreed with this judgment.

After this little booklet, Rimbaud still wrote other prose poems which are part of a collection of 42 pieces known as The Illuminations. While some of them are pleasant or striking, most of them have defied interpretation to this day. He had transmuted French phrases into rich and strange imagery. Even when well-read students can trace his motifs (such as his visions of gigantic cities) to sources like Baudelaire’s prose poems, his own presentation remains fresh and novel. Moreover, his oracular fragments are often eminently quotable.

Apart from three minor poems issued in out-of-the way periodicals and his own abortive attempt at publishing The Season in Hell, nothing of Rimbaud’s French prose and poetry had been printed by 1875, when he was 21. He seems to have considered himself a failure, and totally lost interest in literature.

He then drifted for some five years through much of Europe and the Near East, was a dock worker in Marseilles, an interpreter for a circus in Scandinavia, tried to enlist in the U.S. Army and did enlist in the Dutch Army in Indonesia (but deserted), and supervised a construction site in Cyprus, looked for jobs in Alexandria, periodically returning to the family farm in the Ardennes, exhausted and defeated.

From 1880 on, he stayed in Aden and in Ethiopia as a clerk and later as a trader for his own account. Over 100 letters by him to his family during this time are evidence that after nearly a decade to his dull commercial jobs in the oppressive heat of Aden and the more temperate but dangerous highlands of Abyssinia. He dreamt of further travels to China and elsewhere, but constantly wrote about his need for staying on to accumulate gold. He always carried his hoard around his waist for fear of being robbed. His stated ambition was to retire eventually to France on his accumulated earnings, marry, and raise a family. He lived very soberly, without any drinking or taking of drugs, though, for a couple of years, he had an Abyssinian mistress.

His only readings at this time were technical manuals and treatises on native languages he had asked his family to get him. He also procured some photographic equipment (he did not do well as an amateur photographer). His employers and associates testify that he was hardworking, honest, taciturn, and generally decent, though given to outbursts of rage.

It makes little sense to glamorize the last 16 years of his life as many have done. True, he did organize a trading caravan into an area of Ethiopia where no white man had gone before and wrote to geographic societies and others about his trips which were exhausting and dangerous, but his brief memoirs about them are dull and uninspiring. Contrary to a legend which has survived to this day, he traded in coffee and other products, but never in slaves. He did sell some guns to Menelik, later the ruler of Ethiopia who defeated the Italians, but this was no gun-running venture but a routine business transaction. He apparently lost money on the deal.

Indeed, his long stay in the Middle East, far from being a great adventure, was more of the nature of penance for his excesses as a teenager. Except for religious feelings, he had adopted the conventional bourgeois values of his family with a vengeance. Like his self-proclaimed “mirror image,” Henry Miller, he never escaped the bondage of his childhood, and he never really grew up.

Rimbaud was unaware of the fact that by the mid-1880s, he had been published and promoted in prose and verse by his erstwhile bosom friend Paul Verlaine and had become famous in Parisian literary circles. Verlaine, who had taken copies of much of Rimbaud’s literary production a decade earlier, was definitely a drunken bum by then, despite his talent, though he proclaimed that he had “got religion.” He simply exploited Rimbaud’s work to earn some money for himself, and did not know or really cared whether his former companion was living or dead. He featured him and his verse in his series of essays, “Les Poetes Maudits,” and elsewhere.

Rimbaud returned to France, a very ill man, in 1891, and died after his leg was amputated. He had no idea of his literary fame and no interest in the subject. His pious kid sister Isabel theatrically claimed that he converted on his deathbed, but this is most questionable. There is no independent evidence, and Isabel openly admitted that she omitted and distorted facts to create a myth of her brother’s ultimate quasi-sainthood, and with her husband and some others, engaged in wholesale alteration of documents.

Bibliographical Note: Henry Miller’s The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud, was originally published in 1946 by New Directions. Though not without some insights, it is a striking illustration of the way books about Rimbaud take on the subjective characteristics of Rorschach tests. Enid Starkie’s and Wallace Fowlie’s biographies of Rimbaud, though valuable, still perpetrate a few myths and contain questionable interpretations. Fowlie has also translated Rimbaud.

In French, the best overall guides are several studies of the Rimbaud myth by Prof. Etiemble of the Sorbonne, though perhaps overly negative, and the Edition de la Pleiade edition of Rimbaud’s works, with a full bibliography. The most thorough investigation of the last decade of his life I know is Alain Borer’s Un Sieur Rimbaud, Soi-disant Negotiant, Paris, 1984, who, among other things, effectively debunks the myth of Rimbaud as a slave trader, still accepted by Starkie and Etiemble. The account of his teacher, Georges Izambard, Rimbaud Tel Que Je L’ai Connu, Paris, 1946, is still worth reading. Those by Verlaine are usually misleading and disingenuous.

Woodcut of Jean-Arthur Rimbaud

Woodcut of Jean-Arthur Rimbaud from Francois Ruchon’s biography of Rimbaud, Paris, 1929. Used through the courtesy of the Newberry Library.

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