Ahh… How does one write today, over a hundred years after Arthur Rimbaud’s death, about the work of a poet so much written about all ready? Simple. One plays dumb. One forgets the mountains of scholarship burying his genius, and begins again. A fresh and naive exhumation, unheedful of all the calcified interpretations setting atop his life like a tombstone. An exercise in innocence.
Rimbaud would be proud.
As I did when discussing the American poet, Adrienne Rich [here] (another poet whose personal life has become intricately bound-up with her work), I will attempt to steer clear of Rimbaud The Person, and talk only of the Voice I hear speaking to me from the work. My interpretation of the Voice may or may not have any overlap with the true life lived by Rimbaud.
My translator for Rimbaud’s work is the best English translator he ever had: Wallace Fowlie. I’m in good hands.
The Voice of Rimbaud that floats to us over the decades is the voice of a Rebel Without A Cause. He wants to have a cause. He greatly desires to find a reason for living. In A Season In Hell (one of the three works Rimbaud is probably best known for; the other two being Illuminations, and the poem The Drunken Boat), the Voice, drifting rudderless, asks:
“To whom can I sell myself? What beast must I worship? What sacred image are we attacking? Whose heart shall I break? What lie should I tell? — In whose blood shall I walk?” [the last question arriving as “Dans quel sang marcher?” from the poet’s own pen, a phrase I enjoy].
The Voice wants to see a purpose, discover a divine plan… find God. I quote here from one of my favorite sections of Sun and Flesh (by the way, not a bad title for a biography of Rimbaud), which begins with the awesome (in the old-fashioned sense) question: “Pourquoi l’azur muet et l’espace insondable?”…
“Why the silent sky and the unfathomable space? / Why the golden stars swarming like sand?/ If one mounted forever, what would one see up there? / Does a Shepherd drive that huge flock/ of worlds journeying through the horror of space? / And do all those worlds, embraced by the vast ether, / tremble at the sound of an eternal voice? / –Can Man see? can he say: I believe?”
Note that, above, the Voice –considering the possibility of a vast, meaningless Universe– speaks of “l’horreur de l’espace.”
The Voice begins to suspect that Man is no more than so much fertilizer run amuck:
“If Man is born so soon, if life is so brief, / whence does he come? does he sink into the deep Ocean / of germs, of fetuses, of embryos, to the bottom / of the huge crucible where Mother Nature / will revive him, a living creature, / to live in the rose, and to grow in the wheat?”
Without a star by which to steer his ship, the Voice sets out for adventure and fortune. What else is there to do? All choices seem equally moral in the empty horror of space. So… he’ll take a walk on the wild side. He begins a savage parade of anti-intellectual pursuits, and only he understands (will ever understand) why he’s doing it: “I alone have the key of this wild circus” [“J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage.”], he says in Illuminations.
So he begins his voyage, looking forward to the “dereglement de tous les sens” [the “derangement of all senses”] — (the phrase is from a famous May 1871 letter sent by Rimbaud).
“My day is done. I am leaving Europe,” he says in A Season In Hell. “The sea air will burn my lungs. Lost climates will tan me. I will swim, trample the grass, hunt, and smoke especially. I will drink alcohol as strong as boiling metal.”
And there’s something else, too, motivating the Voice: he dreams of coming back from his dark voyage as an unqualified success. Currently, on his own shores, he lives as an outcaste, possessing minimal financial resources, and with few if any prospects for advancing his situation by normal channels. But perhaps, he thinks, some lucrative, foreign escapade –in some faraway place where he is not known, not pre-judged– perhaps this could prove his salvation. As he continues in A Season In Hell:
“I will come back with limbs of iron and dark skin and a furious look. By my mask they will think I am from a strong race. I will have gold. I will be lazy and brutal […] I will go into politics. Saved. Now I am an outcast. I loathe my country. The best thing for me is a drunken sleep on the beach.”
Besides, he admits in Illuminations, “Reality is too prickly for my lofty character.”
more posts by Hammering Shield on Rimbaud…