Rimbaud

In his study of French modern poets, published in the Little Review, Ezra Pound emphasized the significance of Rimbaud and his place as a pioneer of the then new poetry. Although Rimbaud died in 1891, at the age of 37, and although he wrote practically nothing the last fifteen years of his life, it was only much later that French poets and critics awakened to the precocious achievement of this most mysterious figure of modern French literature. “The thing that stuns me,” Ezra Pound confessed, “is how so much could have escaped me when I read him five years ago. . . . I wonder in what other poet will we find such firmness of coloring and such certitude.” Mr. Pound continues:

“Laforgue conveys his content by comment, Corbiere by ejaculation, as if the words were wrenched and knocked out of him by fatality; by the violence of his feeling, Rimbaud presents a thick suave color, firm, even. . . .

“Rimbaud does not endanger his intensity by a chuckle. He is serious as Cézanne is serious. Comparisons across an art are always vague and inexact, and there are no real parallels; still it is possible to think of Corbiere a little as one thinks of Goya, without Goya’s Spanish, with infinite differences, but with a macabre intensity, and a modernity that we have not yet surpassed. There are possible grounds for comparisons of like sort between Rimbaud and Cézanne. . . . The actual writing of poetry has advanced little, or not at all since Rimbaud. Cézanne was the first to paint, as Rimbaud had written.”

About the time his first volume of poems appeared, in 1873, Jean Arthur Rimbaud disappeared, never again to take an interest in poetry. His life is summarized by Professor Lcwisohn in this manner: with the colonial troops of Holland, deserted and wandered through Java. He returned to Europe, traveled with a circus, but finally, helped by his family, departed definitely for the Orient, oblivious of the life of letters, living his literature, merchant in strange lands, purveyor of weapons to the Negus of Abyssinia, dying of a tumor of the knee in Marseilles whither he had gone to visit his family.”

This brief summary, unfortunately, gives the American reader no adequate idea of the amazing mystery and the fascinating problem of Jean Arthur Rimbaud’s strange life. Recent revelations published in the Mercure dc France, however, recount the story of his amazing precocity. Marcel Coulon states that the boy seemed to assimilate knowledge and languages in half the time of a normal child. At ten his mind was as mature as that of a youth of twenty. He was heartily disliked by his teachers and the townsfolk of Charlcville. His nature was diabolic. He sent his poems to Paul Verlaine, who replied to the boy in enthusiastic terms. Arthur planned to run away and join the Parnassian poets in Paris. At last he succeeded. He tried to “beat his way” on the provincial train and was arrested. Once he was sent home.

But finally the boy-poet did appear before Vcrlainc’s group. They had expected to see a man. Instead, a boy looking as tho he had escaped from a reform school stood before them. To follow the account of M. Coulon, Rimbaud “sponged” on the Vcrlaines, was silent, caustic, and scornful, and often, at the gatherings of the poets, impudent to his “betters.” It is recounted that the great Hugo praised him as “a child Shakespeare.” Rimbaud, with his characteristic surliness, called Hugo an “old windbag.”

A large Rimbaud literature has been produced in recent years. His old schoolmaster, his townsfolk, Madame Isabelle Rimbaud, Madame Verlaine, and innumerable others have spread information and misinformation about this boy-poet who in the early twenties deserted literature and civilization. At the time his name was introduced to the English public by George Moore the Rimbaud myth had grown to enormous proportions. He had become a bête noire [detested person], an imaginary figure of uncanny diabolism. Lepelletier called him Verlaine’s evil genius. It is true that Rimbaud started the quarrel between Verlaine and his wife. Verlaine and Rimbaud went to London together. Both were born tramps. They starved, but soaked themselves in alcohol. When they returned to Brussels and Rimbaud decided to go his own way, he was shot by the drunken Verlaine, who served a term in the prison of Mons for the crime. Yet, as Paterne Berrichon points out in his biography of Rimbaud, the most beautiful of Verlaine’s poems were written after he had felt the vibrant influence of Rimbaud, who was a miraculous alchemist in words. All of “Sagesse” was written in this prison. Verlaine willingly admitted his debt to Rimbaud’s originality. In literary disputes, whenever his opponent exclaimed, “Dante, Shakespeare, Racine! Goethe!” Verlaine would reply: “But you forget Arthur Rimbaud!”

Having sown his literary wild oats, Rimbaud returned home and then entered into a number of vocations. He was for a time a teacher in Germany. It is said that he sold key-rings in Paris and was even a longshoreman in Marseilles. This Gavroche [a fictional character from Hugo’s Les Misérables] of literature became truly, as a recent biographer notes, a sort of Peer Gynt—a more complete and more perfect Peer than Ibsen’s. Finally he buried himself in Africa. Before the age of twenty-three he had already joined the Dutch troops and had gone with them to Java and Sumatra. He had acted as interpreter for a French circus touring Scandinavia. His literary and poetic originality had completely transformed itself into daring adventure and vagabondage. In his twenty-fifth year, we read, he mocked at the literary achievements of his adolescence. Rimbaud never confessed why he abandoned poetry, tho many explanations have been offered. His sister, Isabelle Rimbaud, declared that poetry was part of her brother’s nature, but that it was only by prodigious will-power and for superior reasons that he held himself indifferent to literature. He was completely disdainful of fame. Neither his talent, his family, the charm of his native land, nor the attractions of European society held him.

Years after his disappearance the faithful Verlaine collected his verses and published them. Rimbaud, buried in the dark continent, had thought these follies of his youth were lost. He went into a towering rage upon hearing that his name was attracting attention in Paris. Until 1880, he was a trader in coffees and perfumes, “. . . and found repose in some place that pleases me. . . . But who knows how long my life may drag out in these mountains? And then to disappear among these tribes without ever being heard of again. . . . You speak to me of political news. If you only knew how indifferent I am to all that! For more than two years I haven’t seen a newspaper. All those debates are incomprehensible to me at present. Like the Mussulmans, I know that what happens happens, and that is all.”

In 1886 Rimbaud organized a caravan to carry guns and munitions into Abyssinia, to be sold to the emperor Menelik. The expedition was a failure. The hardships he was forced to undergo then and afterward resulted in the tumor of the knee which finally brought about his death in a Marseilles hospital, whither he had hastened in 1891. His complete poetical works were published four years later. Subsequent revelations of the extraordinary genius of Arthur Rimbaud have practically wiped away the sinister reputation the earlier critics had given him. Paterne Berrichon claims that he used the thirty-seven short years of his life in a superhuman and miraculous manner. At 16 he was a great poet and esthetic pioneer, the greatest stimulating influence of Verlaine’s poetic genius. Later in Africa, in an entirely different role, he won the love and respect of primitive tribes, mainly through his uncanny power of language and understanding.

Few of Rimbaud’s poems have been translated and published in English. Paul Scott Mowrer and Ludwig Lewisohn have both chosen “The Sleeper in the Valley,” written at the age of 15, as an example of Rimbaud’s mastery of the sonnet. Here is Ludwig Lewisohn’s version:

There’s a green hollow where a river sings
Silvering the torn grass in its glittering flight,
And where the sun from the proud mountain flings
Fire—and the little valley brims with light.
A soldier young, with open mouth, bare
head,
Sleeps with his neck in dewy water cress.
Under the sky and on the grass his bed.
Pale in the deep green and the light’s
excess.
He sleeps amid the iris and his smile
Is like a sick child’s slumbering for a
while. Nature, in thy warm lap his chilled limbs
hide!
The perfume does not thrill him from
his rest. He sleeps in sunshine, hand upon his
breast, Tranquil—with two red holes in his right
side.

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Published in: on December 30, 2009 at 11:03 AM  Leave a Comment  
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