French poet Arthur Rimbaud was born on October 20, 1854 in the Ardennes region of north-eastern France. By the time he was my age, he’d already been dead for a decade. By the time he was my daughter’s age, he already written all of his work.
Rimbaud’s father left when Arthur was six. He and his several siblings were raised by his mother with strict Catholic principles. Even once the boys were old enough to go to the local school, maman ruled with a rod of iron, imposing punishments – including depriving them of meals – if they failed to live up to her expectations. Young Rimbaud was academically talented and maman hired a tutor to push him to greater heights. It was this tutor who encouraged him to write poetry.
His first poem was published when he was only 15. Right after its publication, a new teacher came to town who became Rimbaud’s mentor. When the teacher left during the Franco-Prussian war, Rimbaud ran off to Paris. This started a cycle of running away from home, arrests, returning home in disgrace, trouble in school, petty thefts, and – horrors! – long hair. He remained in contact with his former teacher and described to him his efforts to achieve transcendence in his quest to become a great poet.
He wrote to poet Paul Verlaine, enclosing some of his poems, including “Le Dormeur du Val.” Poetry isn’t usually my favorite thing, but I do really like this poem that I first studied in university.
Le Dormeur du Val
C’est un trou de verdure où chante une rivière,
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D’argent ; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,
Luit : c’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.
Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort ; il est étendu dans l’herbe, sous la nue,
Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.
Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme :
Nature, berce-le chaudement : il a froid.
Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine ;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine,
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.
It’s about a young soldier who appears to be sleeping by a stream, but the last line reveals that he is dead – shot in the side. I think it’s the most powerful anti-war poem I’ve ever come across.
Verlaine liked what he saw and sent Rimbaud a one-way ticket to Paris. Rimbaud moved in with Verlaine and his pregnant teen bride. Rimbaud and Verlaine became lovers, fueled by hashish and absinthe. The painting above, a detail of a much larger work by Fantin-Latour shows Verlaine on the left and Rimbaud seated next to him. Their turbulent relationship didn’t stop Rimbaud from writing poetry.
The two moved to London; Verlaine abandoned his wife and child. The man and boy lived in squalor and their relationship became increasingly bitter and violent. Rimbaut spend much of his time in the library of the British Museum where he could get access to pen, ink, and paper for free to work on his poetry. Things got so bad that the men separated and then attempted a reconciliation in Brussels. To put it mildly, that was not a success. Verlaine fired two shots at Rimbaud; fortunately, he was drunk at the time, so he only wounded him. Charges were filed and Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison. The motivation for the sentence had more to do with his sexual orientation than the shooting, however. While they were apart, Rimbaud wrote Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell), a work in prose that alluded to his tormented relationship with Verlaine.
Rimbaud enlisted as a soldier in the Dutch Colonial Army in order to get free passage to Indonesia, where he deserted. He found his way to Cyprus, where he worked as a foreman in a stone quarry (what possible qualification he had for that job is a mystery). He eventually made his way back to France where he was diagnosed with typhoid fever. Still, he continued with his peregrinations. He moved to Yemen as an employee in an overseas trading operation, then he was sent to run their office in Ethiopia. There, he set himself up as a merchant on his own account.
Rimbaud developed an excruciating pain in his right knee. He returned to France for treatment. The leg was amputated; the diagnosis was cancer. He tried to return to Africa after his recuperation, but his condition deteriorated and he died on November 10, 1891. His poetry has served as an enormous influence on subsequent generations, particularly his “Bateau Ivre” (“Drunken Boat”) that describes the journey of a seeking soul. Did Rimbaud find the transcendence he sought? His grave marker simply reads “Priez pour lui” (pree-ay poor luhwe) or “Pray for him.”
Total Eclipse, a film about Rimbaud, starring Leonardo DiCaprio
- The unshackled cultivation of Rimbaud (oup.com)
- Claire de Lune by Claude Debussy and Paul Verlaine (silverbirchpress.wordpress.com)
- 23 Writers Who Were Famous by Age 23 (mentalfloss.com)