Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud

Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), the marvelous boy-poet of French literature, established in a few short years his reputation for hallucinative verbal creation, only to give up poetry at the age of 19.

The tempestuous life of Arthur Rimbaud his relations with Paul Verlaine, his idea of the poet as seer and of the derangement of the senses are all part of the legend. His literary fame depends primarily upon the poem Le Bateau ivre and the remarkable volumes called Les Illuminations and Une Saison en Enfer. His abandonment of art and "the ancient parapets of Europe" has made Rimbaud a symptomatic and fascinating figure of alienation in the modern world.

A brilliant student in his native town of Charleville, Rimbaud published his first known French verses (Les Étrennes des orphelins) in La Revue pour tous for Jan. 2, 1870. Other early poems were Sensation, Ophélie, Credo in Unam (later called Soleil et chair), and Le Dormeur du val. Les Chercheuses de poux is a memorable example of beauty created from what seems at first a most unpromising subject; and Voyelles, with its coloring of the vowels ("A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels…"), aroused considerable interest in the aspect of synesthesia known as audition colorée (colored hearing).

On May 15, 1871, Rimbaud wrote his famous Lettre du voyantto a friend, Paul Demeny: "I say that one must be a seer, make himself a seer. The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense and reasoned derangement of all the senses… . He exhausts in himself all the poisons, to preserve only their quintessences… . For he arrives at the unknown …."

In late September 1871 Rimbaud joined Verlaine in Paris, bringing with him the manuscript of Le Bateauivre, one of the most remarkable poems of the century. It describes the adventures of a boat left free to drift down American rivers after its crew have been murdered by screaming Native Americans. The boat's progress is traced from its first exaltation at its freedom to its awakening on the stormy "poem of the sea," through a wild tumult of snows and tides and suns and hurricanes, amid vast imagery from the beginning of the world, until it becomes at last only a waterlogged plank, nostalgic for Europe and no longer worth salvaging. The poem is a marvel of hallucinative evocation and seems in a way to foreshadow Rimbaud's own strange life.

The turbulent relationship between Verlaine and Rimbaud ended finally with Verlaine in prison for shooting his friend in the wrist and with Rimbaud disoriented and restless. Rimbaud had Une Saison en Enfer printed in Belgium in 1873 and distributed a few copies, but he did not even claim the rest of the edition. Les Illuminations did not appear until Verlaine published the volume in 1886. Meanwhile, Rimbaud had given up poetry forever.

After years of wandering, Rimbaud lived as an African explorer, trader, and gunrunner. In 1888 he was at Harar working for an exporter of coffee, hides, and musk. A tumor of the knee forced his return to Marseilles in 1891, where his right leg was amputated. He died in the hospital there on Nov. 10, 1891, at the age of 37.

Critics have called Rimbaud one of the creators of free verse for such poems as Marine and Mouvement in Les Illuminations. Rimbaud had written in Une Saison en Enfer: "I believed I could acquire supernatural powers. Well! I must bury my imagination and my memories!" He apparently wrote nothing more after his farewell to letters at the age of 19.

Further Reading on Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud

Rimbaud's works have been extensively translated into English. Biographies in English are Enid Starkie, Arthur Rimbaud (1938; rev. ed. 1961), and Elisabeth M. Hanson, My Poor Arthur: A Biography of Arthur Rimbaud (1960). Useful critical studies of the poet include Cecil Arthur Hackett, Rimbaud (1957); Wilbur Merrill Frohock, Rimbaud's Poetic Practice: Image and Theme in the Major Poems (1963); John Porter Houston, The Design of Rimbaud's Poetry (1963); Gwendolyn Bays, The Orphic Vision; Seer Poets from Novalis to Rimbaud (1964); and Wallace Fowlie, Rimbaud (1966), a rewriting of his earlier Rimbaud: The Myth of Childhood (1946) and Rimbaud's Illuminations (1953).

Additional Biography Sources

Borer, Alain, Rimbaud in Abyssinia, New York: William Morrow, 1991.

Carre, Jean Marie, A season in hell: the life of Arthur Rimbaud, New York: AMS Press, 1979.

Delahaye, Ernest, Rimbaud, Monaco: Editions Sauret, 1993.

Forbes, Duncan, Rimbaud in Ethiopia, Hythe, England: Volturna Press, 1979.

Hare, Humphrey, Sketch for a portrait of Rimbau, New York, Haskell House Publishers, 1974.

Petitfils, Pierre, Rimbaud, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987.

Starkie, Enid, Arthur Rimbaud, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978, 1961.

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