Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)
A French poet whose influence would be hard to overestimate on modern literature, arts, and poetry. He impacted the surrealist movement and a variety of poets. And Rimbaud did it all before turning 21, with his most creative work being in his teens.
Yep, you read that right. The morally deviant and restless soul of Arthur Rimbaud left a cultural legacy by influencing dozens of 20th-century writers, musicians and artists…as a teenage boy. Today, we might have called Rimbaud an angst-riddled individualist going through a “phase” of disobedience while using poetry as an expression of his disapproval of, well, everything. So basically every artsy teenager EVER.
Only difference is Rimbaud was revolutionizing a genre and challenging conventional society through his writings with blasphemous gestures, humor, and unorthodox poetic diction. What were you doing at 16?
More info and picture source here!
Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud was born October 20, 1854 in Charleville in northeastern France. He was the second child of Frédéric Rimbaud and Marie Catherine Vitalie Cuif. His father, a captain in the infantry was continually on leave and rarely returned home. He eventually stopped returning home at all, although a divorce never officially happened, Marie let herself be known as “Widow Rimbaud”.
After writing to several poets and receiving no replies, Rimbaud was advised to write to Paul Verlaine, an eminent poet at the time. Verlaine read his work and quickly sent him a one-way ticket to Paris. Rimbaud accepted and arrived in 1871 where he lived with Verlaine. Soon began a short and wild love affair between the two, despite Verlaine having a wife and child.
The relationship came to a bitter end after Verlaine shot and wounded Rimbaud in a drunken rage. Verlaine would later be sentenced to two years in prison and Rimbaud went on to travel more extensively.
He travel to and through various countries, mostly in Europe and on foot. He eventually settled in Aden, Yemen were he lived for over ten years. In 1891 he became sick and was later diagnosed with a bone cancer. He would die on November 10th, 1891 at age 37.
Lucky for us, Rimbaud himself wrote two letters describing his poetic philosophy. The first to Georges Izambard on May 13th, 1871. He wrote in part:
“Now, I louse up myself as much as possible. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working to make myself a Seer: you will not understand at all and I hardly know how to explain it to you. The point is to arrive at the unknown by the dissoluteness of all the senses. The suffering are enormous, but one has to be strong, to be born poet, and I have recognized myself to be a poet. It is not my fault at all.”
Rimbaud says much similar in his second letter commonly called Lettre du voyant (“Letter of the Seer”) to Paul Demeny on May 15th, 1871.
“The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense, and rational dissoluteness of all the senses. All the forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, to only keep their quintessence. Inexpressible torture where he needs all the faith, all the superhuman strength, where he becomes, above all others, the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed, – and the supreme Savant!”
I should note that since both of these were originally written in French and I did find some discrepancies in some of the translations. The source I used for both letters is here.
But the overall message is clear. And wow, Rimbaud certainly had an interesting and unique perspective. Let’s get to some actually poetry, though.
Rimbaud’s early poems, the Poésies, were a collection of poems written between 1869 and 1872. Poetryfoundation.org summed up the Poésies excellently.
“The Poésies…display Rimbaud’s urge to extend the poetic idiom, to transcend the strictures and constraints of orthodox verse and to take poetry on an audacious journey into previously unsuspected technical and visionary realms.”
Many of the poems included satirizing the bourgeoisie through humorous caricature, commentating on exclusion, poverty, and hunger, and rebellious depictions against God and Christianity.
Admittedly, it is difficult to fully appreciate many of his poems as not all are readily available in English and some of the meaning could possibly be lost through translation.
Perhaps one of his most famous poems is “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”). A 100-line verse poem which he included in his letter to Verlaine. It uses vivid imagery and symbolism to describe a journey of discovery of Rimbaud’s “seer”. Here are two stanzas as the poem reaches its high point: The full poem here.
Rimbaud’s vision and technique transformed and shaped modern poetry and poets. That’s all you really need to know. He brilliantly went where no poet had went before. If some of the poems or French-ness is baffling you, you’re not alone. It’s okay, though. Sometimes just knowing a little history about poetry is all you need! Even if we don’t really get it all (I know I don’t–but don’t tell anyone).
Poetry and Comics
One last thing! I’m so excited about this it might have to become it’s own post eventually. I can’t believe the things I keep discovering! This post’s title picture is the first frame of a poetry comic by Julian Peters. That’s right! Poetry Comic! How have I not heard of this? The comic is an adaptation of one of Rimbaud’s earlier poems “Sensations” (1870). Take a look below to see the entire comic and definitely check out Julian Peters’ site. For some more, also check out here. Also the poetry comic for “The Drunken Boat” here!
And here’s the actual poem: Source here.
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.
Each frame is a line of the poem. It is so cool to see an artist’s interpretation of a poem visualized. This is of course translated from French. For those who can read French, here’s the original poem.