This was originally a part of an overly large out of control post that I have since sliced up. To see the various slices, go to Two Poets.
Rimbaud is a prototype rocker, or perhaps an original rebel without a cause., but neither really works. His writing career ended at 21 and he died at the age of 37. He lived a year longer than Lynott. A short life, He was born in 1854 and died in 1891. His actual writing career, again, ended at the age of 21. He started writing at 15 or 16, something like 1870. And it ended when he was roughly 21, which was 1875. Six years.
The rest of his years, from 1876 on wards he wandered and explored. He became a successful trader in Africa. It appears he even did some some gunrunning. Anything but write poetry. Rimbaud could not survive much less thrive doing that. Little did he know that while he made his fortune in Africa, his name, his reputation, his body of work in poetry, was growing. Sadly he never enjoyed that recognition. Rimbaud returned to France in poor health and ultimately had both legs amputated trying to avert the malignancy, the tumors, that had invaded them. Those procedures were not successful and he died in 1891.
Again, from 1870 to 1876 he was writing poetry. That and much more. In his youth, prior to 1870, his home life was chaotic. Home was it appears a farm in the Ardennes. His father, an officer in the French Army during the time of the Prussian War was simply missing. This was partly out of duty, partly because of Rimbaud’s mother. Rimbaud privately it seems referred to his mother as “the Mouth of Darkness”. When he was in school he did well, especially with languages. Around 1870, however, he had had enough of his mother, the Ardennes, and school. He ran away to Paris. He did this three times.
In that same period he was also writing to various recognized poets in Paris, sharing the beginnings of his work. Paul Verlaine, one of these poets responded, encouraging him to come to Paris and live with him and his wife. Verlaine replied to him, “Come, dear great soul. We await you; we desire you,”. Also included was a one-way ticket to Paris. This was in 1871. A relation developed between Verlaine and Rimbaud, a relation that eventually ended Paul Verlaine’s marriage. Verlaine had fallen for the seventeen year old Rimbaud.
Rimbaud and Verlaine, now gay lovers, continued to write and push the limits of their craft, especially Rimbaud. They wander between London, Paris, Brussels, and Rimbaud periodically returns to the Ardennes. They are routinely at odds, fighting and then making up. At one point Verlaine shoots Rimbaud in the wrist. Ultimately, Verlaine is prosecuted for this and sentenced to two years in prison. That takes place around August 1873. Rimbaud, meanwhile continues to write. He again returns to London with another poet. I cannot believe I have not seen a movie made regarding this man and his life.
Rimbaud is considered by some to be the father of modern poetry. His mastered in his early teens Latin and Greek, in addition to his native French. Many still do that. This, however, would continue through his life, learning multiple European and ultimately African tongues. His first published poem, “Les Étrennes des orphelins” (“The Orphans’ New Year’s Gifts”) was written in both French and Latin. He was 16 years old at that time.
Perusing on the web, looking at random commentaries regarding his poetry you find references to it being irrational, an exploration of the unconscious and the repressed. His offerings are perceived as scatological and at times simply perverse. Yet, that said these works open the door to new ways of engaging poetry, new levels of abstraction, where the writer is entirely diminished. Yet, despite this diminishment, a case is made for a view of the poem’s meaning, and of the poet. It is here that the work becomes modern.
Regarding Rimbaud’s poetry it goes from the ideas we have touched on regarding the romantic. His poems routinely embrace nature. Some do involve a mysticism and point to religious ideas. All things we alluded to in Blake and the romantic tradition. The poem “Sensation” is a small sampling of that:
On the blue summer evenings, I shall go down the paths,
Getting pricked by the corn, crushing the short grass:
In a dream I shall feel its coolness on my feet.
I shall let the wind bathe my bare head.
I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing:
But endless love will mount in my soul;
And I shall travel far, very far, like a gipsy,
Through the countryside – as happy as if I were with a woman.
It is in his exploration of poetry and the subjective, however, that he leads us out of romanticism. Up to now, nature, mysticism, mythology, any or all of these could lead us to the subjective, unique experience, something beyond reason and rationality. Rimbaud now offers criticism, protests, rebellion. You find this approach in his Illuminations collection, which was published by Verlaine. Below is a sample of this:
‘The flag goes with the foul landscape, and our dialect muffles the drum.
In the Interior we’ll nourish the most cynical prostitution. We’ll massacre logical rebellions.
To the spiced and sodden countries! – In the service of the most monstrous exploitations, industrial or military. Farewell here, no matter where. Voluntary conscripts we’ll possess a fierce philosophy: ignorant of science, wily for our comforts: let the world go hang. That’s true progress. Forward – march!’
Rimbaud, however, offers not only criticism of politics but contemporary poets and styles. In the Album Zutique you find him and several others in his group including Verlaine offering such musings, parodies and critiques of poetry and culture in Paris in 1870. These did not make there way to a wide audience it seems till the 1930s, but still interesting. Further, poems such as the below are now included in his body of work.
Bluish roofs and white doors
Just like every nocturnal Sunday,
At the town’s noiseless edge
The Street is white; it’s night.
Angelic shutters shut
Strange houses on the street.
But, near a milemarker, look:
One the run, bad and chilled to the bone,
A black Cherub staggering around
After eating too many jujubes.
He poops: then poof! Disappears:
But, his fallen poop seems,
Beneath the hazy holy moon,
Like a delicate bog of dirty blood.
In addition to the criticism there is a playful crudeness found in this verse. We have a gluttonous cherub staggering, pooping, and even an examination of his poop. Rimbaud takes decadence or goes from decadence, an exaggerated or intensified emotion, to simply the gutter. It is really an act of deconstruction. This idyllic creature pooping. So much for idyllic. He is here recreating and reclaiming poetry. He is saying poetry needs not cherubs. Be done with the cherub. It is a criticism of the poetic or at least a poetic theme, done poetically.
Lastly, we must introduce the associations, both free and not, and likewise, the stream of consciousness. These related ideas can both be found in Rimbaud, and provide a certain richness to his poems. They can also potentially cause a poem to become a play of words with no meaning. No doubt with Rimbaud’s work you are at times uncertain of who or from where the poem or poet is speaking. The individual, the subjective, and the scene before them become much more ambiguous and uncertain.
Now the subjective is arrived at through an exploration of what is associated, what is within one’s stream of consciousness. The poem exploring this stream no longer conveys the subjective. The poem no desribes a subjective state or view of the world, it creates it. The question of whether poetry and metaphor carry on the meanings of the past or start fresh have met their match in Rimbaud. Regardless of such these works inspire and point to a style embracing both free association and simple stream of consciousness. What follows is a sample of such:
(Illuminations II: Enfance)
That idol without ancestors or court, black-eyed and yellow-haired, nobler than legend, Mexican and Flemish: his land insolent azure and green, skirts beaches named by the waves, free of vessels, with names ferociously Greek, Slav, Celtic.
At the edge of the forest – flowers of dream chime; burst, flare – the girl with orange lips, knees crossed in the clear flood that rises from the meadows, nudity shadowed, traversed and clothed by rainbows; flowers, the sea.
Ladies who stroll on terraces by the sea: many a girl-child and giantess, superb blacks in the verdigris moss, jewels arrayed on the rich soil of groves and the little thawed-out gardens – young mothers and elder sisters with looks full of pilgrimage, Sultanas, princesses with tyrannical costumes, little foreign girls and gently unhappy people.
What tedium, the hour of the ‘beloved body’ and ‘dear heart’!
It’s she, the little dead girl, behind the roses. – The young mother, deceased, descends the steps. – The cousin’s carriage squeaks over the sand. – The little brother – (he’s in India!) there, in front of the sunset, in the meadow of carnations. The old ones buried upright in the ramparts overgrown with wallflowers.
The swarm of golden leaves surrounds the General’s house. They are in the south. – You follow the red road to reach the empty inn. The chateau’s for sale: the shutters are loose. – The priest will have carried off the key to the church. – Around the park the keepers’ cottages are untenanted. The fences are so high you can see nothing but rustling treetops. Besides, there’s nothing there to be seen.
The meadows rise to hamlets without cockerels, without anvils. The sluice gate is raised. O the crosses and windmills of the wild, the isles and the stacks.
Magic flowers buzzed. The slopes cradled him. Creatures of fabulous elegance circled round. Clouds gathered over the open sea made of an eternity of warm tears.
There’s a bird in the woods, its song makes you stop and blush.
There’s a clock that never chimes.
There’s a hollow with a nest of white creatures.
There’s a cathedral that descends, and a lake that rises.
There’s a little carriage abandoned in the copse, or running down the lane, beribboned.
There’s a troupe of little players in costume, glimpsed on the road through the edge of the woods.
There’s someone, at last, when you’re hungry and thirsty, who drives you away.
I’m the saint, praying on the terrace – as the peaceful beasts graze down to the sea of Palestine.
I’m the scholar in the dark armchair. Branches and rain fling themselves at the library casement.
I’m the traveller on the high road through the stunted woods: the roar of the sluices drowns out my steps. I watch for hours the melancholy golden wash of the sunset.
I might well be the child left on the jetty washed to the open sea, the little farm-boy following the lane whose crest touches the sky.
The paths are rough. The little hills are covered with broom. The air is motionless. How far away the birds and the fountains are! That can only be the world’s end ahead.
Let them rent me this tomb at the last, whitewashed, with the lines of cement in relief – very deep underground.
I lean on the table, the lamp lights brightly those magazines I’m a fool to re-read, those books without interest.
At a vast distance above my subterranean room houses root, fogs gather. The mud is red or black. Monstrous city, night without end!
Lower down there are sewers. At the sides only the thickness of the globe. Perhaps gulfs of azure, wells of fire Perhaps on these levels moons and comets, seas and fables meet.
In hours of bitterness I imagine balls of sapphire, of metal. I am master of silence. Why should a semblance of skylight pale in the corner of the vault?
Perhaps not the best poem to illustrate the idea of free association. Perhaps it is actually ideal. That said it is rich enough to leave one wondering what is going on. There are references to nature, to the play of light and dark, of sky and earth, land and sea, of ghosts and others. It comes from various angles but barely a child. Childhood perhaps? And is that not part of childhood-to deny such? The child often is heard denying that he or she is a child. And the poem is not limited to a child, one child, but rather glimpses of childhood and more. It abstracts away from the one, the speaker. Look at the progression we have made. We have gone from individual, the subjective, the storm and drive of one, to nature and myth, even religious. Now we abstract away from these via free association and stream of consciousness. Through we can be critical of and challenge old and new ways, traditions and mores. Through these new methods we do not point to something else, whether it be nature or our past, we create something new. The subjective creates; it is the act of creation.