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by Bamber Gascoigne

Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)


French poet and adventurer, who stopped writing verse at the age of 21, and became after his early death an inextricable myth in French gay life. Arthur Rimbaud's poetry, partially written in free verse, is characterized by dramatic and imaginative vision. "I say that one must be a visionary – that one must make oneself a VISIONARY." His works are among the most original in the Symbolist movement, which included in France such poets as Stéphane Mallarme and Paul Paul Verlaine, and playwrights as Maurice Maeterlinck. Le Bateau ivre' (1871, The Drunken Boat), Rimbaud's best-known work, sends a toy boat on a journey through fantastic seas, an allegory for a spiritual quest. It was written before Rimbaud had seen the sea.

It is found again.
What? Eternity.
It is the sea
Gone with the sun.

(in 'L'Éternite', 1872)

Arthur Rimbaud was born in Charleville, in the northern Ardennes region of France, the son of Fréderic Rimbaud, a career soldier, who had served in Algria, and Marie-Catherine-Vitale Cuif, an unsentimental matriarch. Rimbaud's father left the family and from the age of six young Arthur was raised by her strictly religious mother.

Until the age of fifteen, Rimbaud was educated in a provincial school . He was an outstanding student but his behavior was considered provocative. Some of his early poems he wrote in Latin and Greek, not just in French. After publishing his first poem in 1870 at the age of 16, Rimbaud wandered through northern France and Belgium, and was returned to his home – filthy and lice-infrested – by police. In his celebrated manifesto for new poetry from 1871, 'Lettre du voyant' (Letter of the Seer), he argued that "A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences." ('Rimbaud to Paul Demeny / Charleville, May 15, 1871,' in Complete Works by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by Paul Schmidt, 2008, p. 116)

In 1871 Rimbaud took the manuscript of 'Le Bateau ivre' with him and joined poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), whose collection of poems, Les Amies (1867) had been banned by a court. Verlaine was an alcoholic who had a taste for absinthe. He left his family – his young wife, Mathilde Mauté, was expecting a baby – and fled with the teenaged Rimbaud to London in 1872. Most of the time they lived in poverty and abused drink and drugs. Rimbaud accepted uncleaniness, including body lice, and he even wrote a poem about them, 'The Seekers of Lice'. The aunts of Georges Izambard used to sit and pick nits out of his hair.

Verlaine was horrified by the English cuisine, especially "the abominable oxtail soup": "Fie on such a horror! A man's sock with a rotten clitoris floating in it." (West End Chronicles: 300 Years of Glamour and Excess in the Heart of London by Ed Gliner, 2007, p. 147)  Usually they ate at the Hibernia Stores at 23-25 Old Compton Street. The tavern was popular among exiles. Their relationship ended next year in Brussels, when Rimbaud tried to leave Verlaine. Drunk and desolate, he shot Rimbaud in the wrist with a 7mm pistol. Verlaine was tried for attempted murder and sent to Brussels' Amigo Detention Center.

Rimbaud returned to the family farm in Roche, where he fought his inner demons by screaming, writing, and crying, and eventually finished Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell). This collection of poetry and prose pieces appeared in 1873. "One evening, I sat Beauty in my lap. And I found her bitter. And I cursed her." (Ibid., translated by Andrew Jary, 2012, p. 51) Rimbaud gave some copies of the book to his friends – one was sent to P. Verlaine at the Petits Carmes Prison – but the spiritual autobiography did not receive any reviews.

After completing in England Illuminations, Rimbaud gave up literature and burned his manuscripts. In 1901 the first edition of A Season in Hell was found at the printers' in its original packing. Eventually the work became a touchstone for anguished poets, artists, and lovers. In 1874 Rimbaud spent some time in London with Germain Nouveau, a young poet, who had only one testicle. Nouveau was member of the Zutistes circle – a group of poets who wrote verses in a notebook, the Zutiste Album. At the British Library Rimbaud was not allowed to read Marquis de Sade's books because he was under twenty-one. Verlaine, whom Rimbaud saw last time in 1875, and with whom he had a violent quarrel, published a selection of Rimbaud's poems and wrote about him in Les Poètes maudits (1884).

In 1875-76 Rimbaud learned several languages, English, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Arabic and Greek, and started his vagabond life again. He worked a teacher in Germany, unloaded cargo in Marseilles, and enlisted in the Netherlands army but deserted in Sumatra. In 1876 Rimbaud robbed a cabman in Vienna. And there is a legend, which originates from Henri Thétard's article 'Rimbaud et le Cirque' (1948), that he was a member of Loisset's circus in Sweden – he was employed as a cashier, not a performing artist.

The last dozen years of his life, Rimbaud spent working in the import-export field for series of French employers. The Irish-born literary critic Enid Starkie launched the story that Rimbaud was a slave trader. "He was an intelligent, though not too scrupulous man, and he earned a good living in a variety of ways, selling ivory and musk and dealing in slaves and arms." (Arthur Rimbaud by Enid Starkie, 1962, p. 366) However, the East African slave trade was totally in the hands of Muslim Arabs.

After short sojourns in Java and  Cyprus, Rimbaud arrived in 1880 in Aden, Yemen. From this port Arabia he journeyed to Harar, a trading center 300 miles form Addis Ababa. During the years 1880-91, he resided there in three periods. Rimbaud had a Christian Abyssinian mistress in 1884, whom he sent away after six months, saying he's had enough of the masquarade!

The Governor of Harar became a close friend of his. Rimbaud made business travels in modern-day Ethiopia and Egypt, and walked occasionally hundreds of miles at the head of trading caravans through dangerous lands.When the future Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II needed guns, he turned to Rimbaud, who was cheated in the transaction. 

Rimbaud was the first European to penetrate into the country of Ogaden. His expertise and learning of the language, religion, and culture of local peoples was acknowledged when the French Geographical Society deemed his commercial and geographical report on East Africa worthy of publication.

"Before Rimbaud," Verlaine said, "all literature was written in the language of common sense." ('Introduction' by Mark Polizotti, in The Drunken Boat: Selected Writings by Arthur Rimbaud, 2022, p. x) He published Rimbaud's Illuminations in 1886. Whether the 43 poems were in the order Ribaud intended remains unclear. This work revealed Rimbaud's longing for spiritual values and reestablished his reputation as a major poet.

A rumor started to spread in September 1888 that Rimbaud was dead and next year Le Décadent published as a joke a list of donors to the statue of Rimbaud. In February 1891 Rimbaud felt pain in his left knee. Sixteen porters carried him to the port of Zeila, from where he sailed to France to see a doctor. By the time his ship reached Marselles, it was too late: the leg had to be amputated because of enormous, cancerous swelling.

Rimbaud died in Marseilles on November 10, 1891, and was buried in Charleville in strict family intimacy. To Isabelle, Rimbaud's sister, it was surprise that her brother had been a poet. Rimbaud's African servant boy, Djami Wadaï, was one of his major heirs apart from his family. Djami was the only friend of whom Rimbaud spoke on his deathbed, but he never received the three thousand francs Rimbaud had sent him.

Tête de Faune
Dans la feuillée, écrin vert taché d'or,
Dans la feuillée incertaine et fleurie
De splendides fleurs où le baiser dort,
Vif et crevant l'exquise broderie,
Un faune égaré montre ses deux yeux
Et mord les fleurs rouges de ses dents blanches.
Brunie et sanglante ainsi qu'un vin vieux,
Sa lévre éclate en rires sous les branches.
Et quand il a fui - tel qu'un écureuil, -
Son rire tremble encore à chaque feuille,
Et l'on voit épeuré par un bouvreuil
Le Baiser d'or du Bois, qui se recueille.
For further reading: La Vie de Rimbaud et de son oeuvre by Marcel Coulon (1929); Flagrant délit by André Breton (1949); Le Mythe de Rimbaud by René Etiemble (1954); The Time of the Assassin by Henry Miller (1954); Rimbaud by Cecil Hackett (1957); Arthur Rimbaud by Enid Starkie (1962); Rimbaud vu par Verlaine by Henri Peyre (1975); Season in Hell by John Le Carre (1979); Rimbaud: A Critical Introduction by Cecil Hackett (1981); Rimbaud by Pierre Petitfils (1982); Arthur Rimbaud: portraits, dessins, manuscrits, ed. by Hélène Dufour and André Guyaux (1991); Delirium by Jeremy Reed (1991); La vie d' Arthur Rimbaud by Jean Bourgignon and Charles Houin (1991); Arthur Rimbaud by Benjamin Ivry (1998); Somebody Else: Rimbaud in Africa 1880-1891 by Charles Nicholl (1999); Arthur Rimbaud by Jean Luc Steinmetz (published 2000); Arthur Rimbaud by Jean-Jacques Lefrère (2001); 'Alkusanat' by Einari Aaltonen, in Kirjeitä Afrikasta ja runoilijakommetan kirjeitä by Arthur Rimbaud, edited and translated by Einari Aaltonen (2004); Arthur Rimbaud,' in Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore by Terry Newman (2017); The Drunken Sailor: The Life of the Poet Arthur Rimbaud in His Own Words by Nick Hayes (2018); Ducharme et Rimbaud: l'océan de la beauté by Gilles Lapointe (2022) - Note: The rock star Jim Morrison was influenced by Rimbaud's poems, and by the 1980s punk rockers, such as Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine, were inspired by the poet's sexual unconventionality and obscenity. Rimbaud Museum: Le Vieux Moulin, quai Arthur Rimbaud, F-08000 Charleville-Mézières, Ardennes - Film: Total Eclipse (1995), a hysterical dramatization of the famous literary conjunction, the destructive love affair of Verlaine and Rimbaud. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, David Thewlis. Suom. Rimbaudin runoja on julkaistu myös teoksessa Kootut teokset, suomentanut Einari Aaltonen (2012)

Selected works:

  • Le Bateau ivre, 1871
    - The Drunken Boat (translators: Lionel Abel, in Some Poems of Rimbaud, 1939; Brian Hill, 1952; Andrew Wylie, in Agenda, 6/3-4, 1961; Louise Varese, in A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat, 1961; Samuel Beckett, ed. James Knowlson and Felix Leakey, 1976; Edgell Rickword, in Collected Poems, edited by Charles Hobday, 1991) / Le bateau ivre = The Drunken Boat (translated by Wallace Fowlie, in Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, 2005)
    - Humaltunut venhe (suom. Kaarlo Sarkia, 1934) / Humaltunut laiva (Kaarlo Sarkian suomennos, toim. Aale Tynni, 1957) / Juopunut pursi (suom. Tuomas Anhava, 1958) / Känninen paatti (suom. Einari Aaltonen, kokoelmassa Hirtettyjen tanssiaiset, 2000)
  • Album zùtique, 1871
    - From the Album Zutique (translated by Wyatt Mason, in Rimbaud Complete, 2002) Album zutique / Album called "zutique" (translated by Wallace Fowlie, in Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, 2005)
    - Runot kokoelmasta Album zùtique (suom. Einari Aaltonen, teoksessa Arthur Rimbaud: Kootut teokset,  2012)
  • Une Saison en Enfer, 1873
    - A Season in Hell (translated by Dennis J. Carlile, in Rimbaud: the Works: A Season in Hell, Poems & Prose, Illuminations, 1983) / Une saison en enfer. Les illuminations. A Season in Hell. The Illuminations (translated by Enid Rhodes Peschel, 1973) / A Season in Hell (translated by Paul Schmidt, 1986) / A Season in Hell and Other Poems (tr. Norman Cameron, 1994) / A Season in Hell, with Illuminations (translated by Mark Treharne, 1998) / A Season in Hell and Other Works = Une saison en enfer et oeuvres diverses (translated by Stanley Appelbaum, 2003) / A Season in Hell & Illuminations (translated by Wyatt Mason, 2005) / Une saison en enfer = A Season in Hell (translated by Wallace Fowlie, in Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, 2005)
    - Säteilevät kuvat ja Kausi helvetissä (suom. Pekka Parkkinen ja Jaakko A. Ahokas, 1983) / Illuminaatiot ja Kausi helvetissä (suom. M. T. Erholtz, 1983) / Kausi helvetissä = Une saison en enfer: runoja (suom. Einari Aaltonen, 2003) / Kausi helvetissä (suom. Einari Aaltonen, teoksessa Arthur Rimbaud: Kootut teokset,  2012)
  • Illuminations, 1886 (ed. Paul Verlaine)
    - Rimbaud's Illuminations. A study in Angelism (translated by Wallace Fowlie, 1953) / Illuminations, and Other Prose Poems (tr. Louise Varèse, 1957) / Illuminations (translated bt Daniel Sloate, 1971) / (translated by Dennis J. Carlile, in Rimbaud: the Works: A Season in Hell, Poems & Prose, Illuminations, 1983) / Une saison en enfer. Les illuminations. A Season in Hell. The Illuminations (translated by  Enid Rhodes Peschel, 1973) / Illuminations, with A Season in Hell (translated by Mark Treharne, 1998) / A Season in Hell & Illuminations (translated byWyatt Mason, 2005) / Illuminations (1872-1874?) = Illuminations (1872-1874?) (translated by Wallace Fowlie, in Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, 2005) /  Illuminations (translated by John Ashbery, 2011)
    - Säteilevät kuvat ja Kausi helvetissä (suom. Pekka Parkkinen ja Jaakko A. Ahokas, 1983) / Illuminaatiot ja Kausi helvetissä (suom. M. T. Erholtz, 1983) / Illuminaatioita = Illuminations: runoja (suom. Einari Aaltonen, 2003) / Illumimaatioita (suom. Einari Aaltonen, teoksessa Arthur Rimbaud: Kootut teokset, 2012)
  • Le reliquaire, 1891 (edited by L. Genonceaux)
  • Poèmes, 1891
  • Poésies complètes, 1895 (publ. by Paul Verlaine)
  • Lettres de Jean-Arthur Rimbaud – Égypte, Arabie, Éthiopie, 1899 (introduction by Paterne Berrichon)
  • Œuvres, vers et proses, 1912 (preface by Paul Claudel)
  • Les Mains de Jeanne-Marie, 1919
  • Œuvres completès, 1921
  • Les Stupra, 1923 (first published in a private edition)
    - L'Idole. Sonnet de Trou du Cul,' 'Ancient Animals Sullied Themselves,' 'Our Asses Aren't Like Theirs' (translated by Wyatt Mason, in Rimbaud Complete, 2002) The Stupra (translated by John Sturrock and Jeremy Harding, in Selected Poems and Letters, 2004) / 'Sonnet du trou du cul = Sonnet to an Asshole,' 'Nos fesses ne sont pas les leurs = Our backsides are not theirs,' 'Les ancients animaux = Ancient animals' (translated by Wallace Fowlie, in Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, 2005)
    - Stupra (suom. Einari Aaltonen, teoksessa Arthur Rimbaud: Kootut teokset, 2012)
  • Un Cœur sous une soutane, 1924 (preface by Louis Aragon and André Breton)
    - Un cœur sous une soutane (translated by Wyatt Mason, in Rimbaud Complete, 2002) / Un cœur sous une soutane = A Heart under a Cassock (translated by Wallace Fowlie, in Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, 2005)
    - Kaavun verhoama sydän (suom. Einari Aaltonen, teoksessa Arthur Rimbaud: Kootut teokset, 2012)
  • Lettres (1870-1875), 1931
    - I Promise to Be Good: the Letters of Arthur Rimbaud (translated by Wyatt Mason, 2003) / Letters (translated by John Sturrock and Jeremy Harding, in Selected Poems and Letters, 2004) / Correspondance (translated by Wallace Fowlie, in Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, 2005)
  • Oeuvres, 1931
  • Poésies, 1939
  • Selected Verse Poems, 1942 (translated by Norman Cameron)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1946 (edited by André Rolland de Renéville and Jules Mouquet)
    - Kirjeitä Afrikasta ja runoilijakomeetan kirjeitä (valikoima, alkuteoksesta Œuvres complètes, suom. Einari Aaltonen, 2004)
  • Poems of the Damned, 1960 (translated by Jacques Leclercq)
  • Selected Verse, 1962 (translated by O. Bernard)
  • Correspondance 1888-91 (with Alfred Ilg), 1965 (edited by  J. Voellmy)
  • Complete Works: Selected Letters, 1966 (edited by Wallace Fowlie)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1972 (edited by Antoine Adam)
  • Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works, 1975 (translated by  Paul Schmidt)
  • Oeuvres, 1981 (edited by Suzanne Bernard and André Guyaux)  
  • Poems, 1994 (selected by Peter Washington)
  • Poésies complètes, 1998
  • Collected Poems, 2001 (includes parallel French text; new translations by Martin Sorrell)
  • Rimbaud Complete, 2002 (translated by Wyatt Mason)
  • From Absinthe to Abyssinia: Selected Miscellaneous, Obscure and Previously Untranslated Works of Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud, 2002 (translated by  Mark Spitzer)
  • I Promise to Be Good: the Letters of Arthur Rimbaud, 2003 (translated by Wyatt Mason)
  • Selected Poems and Letters, 2004 (translated by John Sturrock and Jeremy Harding)
  • Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, 2005 (translated by Wallace Fowlie, updated, revised and with a foreword by Seth Whidden)
  • Œuvres complètes, 2009 (edited by André Guyaux and Aurélia Cervoni)
  • Poèmes politiques, 2012
  • Les manuscrits Arthur Rimbaud: l'intégrale, 2012
  • The Poems, 2012 (introduced and translated by Oliver Bernard; rev. and enl. ed.)
  • Une saison en enfer: Un recueil de poèmes en prose d'Arthur Rimbaud, 2020 (publisher: Books on Demand; 1st edition)
  • Festivals of Patience: The Verse Poems of Arthur Rimbaud, 2021 (translated by Brian Kim Stefans)
  • The Drunken Boat: Selected Writings, 2022 (a bilingual edition; edited, translated, and with an introduction and notes by Mark Polizotti)

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