When it comes to the poetry of Rimbaud, the hype is justified. Especially when one considers the good-verse-to-total-output ratio; perhaps only Keats would score higher on this measurement.
I don’t expect the work of Rimbaud to fade from human memory anytime soon; his themes are too powerfully expressed, those themes being: 1) nostalgic recollection of childhood innocence, 2) the Fall from innocence and idealism into a state of disillusionment and cynicism, and 3) the resultant nihilistic plunge into a shallow, decadent adventurism.
History is tiresomely cluttered with young rebels who burn through their initial rage-ful feelings of betrayal at finding humanity so mind-numbingly inept, short-sighted, and barnacled with bad habits– so utterly hypocritical and morally bankrupt— only to eventually step back into the fold, to sell-out, to re-adopt the very middle-class, bourgeoisie values they once revolted against. The work of Rimbaud reflects a different reaction to disillusionment: eternal alienation; he rejects the values of his culture, and yet —search the globe as he might— he can find nothing better to replace them with. As I said in the previous post, he becomes a rebel without a cause.
The Voice we hear in the words of Rimbaud comes from someone who, finding nothing particularly valuable in this life, rejects all values. Not only does he remain an outcast from his own world, he never adopts, or is adopted by, another world. It is the Voice of a fiery heart that has run out of fuel and so begins to consume itself, of a man who not only chooses to stay off the beaten path, but insists upon walking on coals.
For Rimbaud, the vacuity and rotten core of civilization is epitomized by the city of Paris. I quote from his work, Paris Orgy, below:
“Syphilitics, fools, kings, puppets, ventriloquists, what does Paris the whore care about your souls and bodies, your poisons and your rags?” […] “And when you are down, moaning on your guts, your sides dead, calling out for your money, bewildered, the red courtesan with breasts fat on battles, far from your stupor, will clench her hardened fists!” […] “Although one has never made of a city an ulcer more foul-smelling on green nature, the Poet says to you: ‘Splendid is your Beauty!’ ”
Looking back upon an unnamed city, probably inspired by his worst vision of Paris, in A Season In Hell, he laments: “the huge city under a sky stained with fire and mud. Ah! The rotten rags, the rain-soaked bread, the drunkenness, the thousand loves that crucified me! She will never be done, then, that ghoul queen of a million souls and dead bodies, and which will be judged! I see myself again, with my skin eaten by mud and plague, worms in my hair and armpits and still bigger worms in my heart, lying among strangers without age, without feeling… I could have died there… It is an unbearable memory! I despise poverty.”
Of course, to become disillusioned, one must first have been illusioned. Some of Rimbaud’s most exquisite poetry comes when he is writing of childhood. He always speaks of childhood as an idyll, as a magical storybook place, and a nostalgia for those sweeter days runs as an undercurrent beneath so many of his lines…
“Long ago, if memory serves, my life was a banquet where everyone’s heart was generous, and where all wines flowed” he says in A Season In Hell, and in The Drunken Boat, he writes: “If I want a water of Europe, it is the black / cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight / a squatting child full of sadness releases/ a boat as fragile as a May butterfly”
The following passage comes from The Blacksmith; its era is pre-Fall, when the Voice was still in possession of idealism, an idealism obviously inspired by the rhetoric of the Marxism of his day:
“We are Workers, Sire! Workers! We are/ for the great new times when men will want to know, / when Man will forge from morning to night, / a hunter of great effects, hunter of great causes, / when, slowly victorious, he will tame things/ and mount Everything as one mounts a horse! / Oh! glorious glare of the forges! No more evil, / No more! — What isn’t known is perhaps terrible: / we will know it! — Our hammers in our hands, let us sort out / all that we know: then Brothers, forward! / Sometimes we have that great moving dream/ of living simply, ardently, without speaking/ any evil, working beneath the solemn smile / of a woman we love with a noble love: / and we would work proudly all day, / listening to duty like the sound of a trumpet: / and we would feel happy.”
But as the Voice experiences more and more of mundane reality, he finds the average man petty and insipid (“this people is inspired by fever and cancer” he says in A Season In Hell).
The Voice believes that men have become self-satisfied after a few successful tricks of reason and science, and that they thus have ceased to progress: “Apes of men, fallen from our mothers’ wombs, our pale reason hides the infinite from us!” he says in Sun And Flesh, and from A Season In Hell: ” ‘Nothing is vanity; science and onward!’ cries the modern Ecclesiastes” [“Rien n’est vanite; a la science, et en avant!” crie l’Ecclesiaste moderne.]
Furthermore, what little volition and worthy knowledge men do possess, they put to ill use: war, avarice, and –the great mixture of the two– colonialism; from Illuminations:
“The flag’s off to that filthy place, and our speech drowns the sound of the drum. In the centers we’ll feed the most cynical whoring. We’ll smash all logical revolts. To the peppery dried-up countries! — In the service of the most gigantic industrial or military exploitation. Goodbye to this place, no matter where we’re off to. We conscripts of good will are going to display a savage philosophy; ignorant in science, rakes where our comfort is concerned; and let the whole world blow up! This is the real march. Forward, men!”
“Voici le temps des Assassins.” is his harsh judgment: “Behold the age of murderers.”
Surveying the women of his day, he is no happier with them than with the men; he finds the feminine ideal has annoyingly fallen off her pedestal. Crass and immodest, woman’s “flounces resemble public announcements,” he says in To Music. And in A Season In Hell he speaks of the coarse and petty ambitions of the modern female: “All they can want now is a secure position. When security is reached, their hearts and their beauty are set aside. Only cold scorn is left, the food of marriage today” On those rare occasions when he does find women of value, he witnesses them waste their potential by throwing themselves at men unworthy of them: “Or I see women, with signs of happiness, whom I could have made close comrades, devoured first by brutes as sensitive as a log of wood… !”
Disillusioned with the City Of Man, the Voice finds no more comfort in the City In God. Organized religion is so unworthy of serious consideration that the subject hardly comes up in his poetry at all. And when it does, we find that he sees there a hypocrisy that makes him want to retch; from First Communions: “Listen to the grotesque priest whose shoes stink as he mouths the divine babble.”
Grown bitter and cynical, the Voice is all too aware of his former naïveté, and berates himself for his idealistic and over-sensitive youth: “Idle youth / enslaved to everything, / through sensitivity / I wasted my life,” he complains in Song Of The Highest Tower [ “Oisive jeunesse / a tout asservie, / par delicatesse / j’ai perdu ma vie.“] .
And in Ophelia, the poet seems to be speaking as much to himself as to Hamlet’s poor lost love: “Heaven! Love! Freedom! What dream, oh poor mad girl! / You melted to him as snow to a fire; / your great visions strangled your words / –and fearful Infinity terrified your blue eyes!”
Once he understands just how putrid are the waters of his home shores, the Voice feels he can no longer return to what he was before. Speaking of profiteering and patriotism, wage-slavery and exploitation in The Drunken Boat, he declares: “No longer can I, bathed in your languor, oh waves, / follow in the wake of the cotton boats, / nor cross through the pride of flags and flames, / nor swim under the terrible eyes of prison ships.”
But does he turn and fight this corrupt system? Hardly. Like Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, in Casablanca, he merely turns his back on his cannibalistic fellow men and flees Paris; from an untitled poem:
“What does it matter for us, my heart, the sheets of blood / and coals, and a thousand murders, and the long cries/ of rage, sobs from every hell upsetting / every order; and the north wind still over the debris // And all vengeance? Nothing!”
So the Voice leaves behind all faith and optimism and turns instead “toward the harbor of wretchedness” and the living of life as one big, nihilistic escapade; again from A Season In Hell:
“I was able to expel from my mind all human hope. On every form of joy, in order to strangle it, I pounced stealthily like a wild animal. I called to my executioners to let me bite the ends of their guns, as I died. I called to all plagues to stifle me with sand and blood. Disaster was my god.”
The path of debauchery he has chosen, he knows, will lead him to his doom, and yet he cannot help himself. Even after his months in “Hell,” when “Spring brought me to an idiot’s terrifying laughter” he cannot divert his course but pleads with the devil driving him onward, “Ah! I’ve taken too much on. Dear Satan, I beg you, show a less glaring eye!”
At last, after trying to fill an empty, meaningless life with empty, meaningless diversions, the Voice begins to sputter, the flame of rebellion burning too quickly through the available oxygen, the mad screams and shouts gone hoarse in throat. He is tired:
“But, in truth, I have wept too much! Dawns are heartbreaking / every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter. / Acrid love has swollen me with intoxicating torpor / O let my keel burst! O let me go into the sea!”
The Poet bids adieu, leaving us with “these few pages” that he has torn “from my notebook of the damned.”
In the end, the world proves too overwhelming even for words. He will write no more poetry. As he says in Flowerbands Of Amaranths: “It is too beautiful! Too beautiful! Let us keep silent.” [“C’est trop beau! Trop! Gardons notre silence”]
And Rimbaud put down the pen and walked away from poetry forever.
more posts by Hammering Shield on Rimbaud…