In her new book Fables of the Self, poet and scholar Rosanna Warren quotes Arthur Rimbaud’s preface to his groundbreaking book A Season in Hell. The 17-year-old enfant terrible wrote: “One evening, I sat beauty on my knees. And I found her bitter. And insulted her.”
Indeed, Rimbaud was the kind of poet who spent his career giving things like beauty the finger. He was rude to things as varied as his mother; his lover, Paul Verlaine; aesthetic traditions; bourgeois life; and most poets who were his contemporaries. He also did most of his writing at an age when being rude is perhaps most appealing — between the years of 15 and 20. The only difference between Rimbaud and many other adolescents is that his uncouth moodinesses were brilliant enough to change the course of modern poetry.
Among legendary lives of eccentric, challenging, and unconventional artists, Rimbaud’s legend has platinum status. He was an incorrigible boy-genius from the provinces whose father abandoned his family. Though he was smart enough in school to please his straitlaced mother, Rimbaud rebelled in the form of poetry. He began writing it in his early teens, seeking out local teachers and composing copies of the classics in Latin. By 15 or so, he discovered current Parisian poets in his village bookstore. He petitioned to join their ranks and got himself invited to meet them. Once he did, he shocked and annoyed them. He wrote fluidly, musically, with an intoxicating grace — and also with a penchant for destruction.
Rimbaud quickly mastered the French alexandrine — the building block of traditional French prosody — only to strain it with subjects like fleas and diarrhea — or to break it all together by furthering the prose poem, and by developing French vers libre. His most famous poem, “Le Bateau Ivre,” plays the Alexandrine as a metrical base against a counterpoint of rich and difficult rhymes, using extraordinary syntax to embellish and confound the poem’s surface. The poem — which shuttles between reality and dream, is a story of the intoxications of seeing the sea — written at a time when Rimbaud had never seen it. Bathed in a rather psychedelic “Le Poeme de la Mer,” or poem of the sea, where “the gruel of stars mirrors the milky sky, ” the enraptured speaker claims:
You know, I’ve careened into incredible Floridas,
cross-pollinating from flowers, panther’s eyes
among skins of men! Rainbows hung as bridles
for blue-green flocks under the sea’s horizon.
I have seen great swamps ferment, nets
of reeds that held a whole rotting Leviathan.
The translation above is mine, imperfectly meant to capture a bit of the sass. The poem continues much this way, rocking along until at the end the speaker finally confesses a different sort of longing. In Roseanna Warren’s unrhymed translation, the poem’s penultimate stanza reveals:
If I desire a European water, it’s
the Black, cold puddle where, in scented twilight,
A crouching child full of sadness lets loose
A boat as fragile as butterfly in May.
But indeed, this gets the words across without the intense rhythmical rocking (to Warren’s credit, that’s all she was trying to do). That intoxicating sway is audible in the original:
Si je désire une eau d’Europe, c’est la flache
Noire et froide où vers le crépuscule embaumé
Un enfant accroupi plein de tristesse, lâche
Un bateau frêle comme un papillon de mai.
Indeed, in its last lines the whole poem wishes to embody the perspective of a child looking in a muddy puddle — and the dream folds in on in itself and ends from the perspective of someone who does not wish to travel at all.
Dislocation and abandonment were major themes of Rimbaud’s brilliant four-year career. Rimbaud abandoned home and walked all the way to Paris while the Prussian army was occupying it. He got shipped home and walked back to Paris again. He abandoned his various teachers and sought out Verlaine, who was among the greatest poets of the slightly older generation, as his friend, mentor, and eventual lover. He then persuaded Verlaine to abandon his wife. With Verlaine, Rimbaud wrote poems that turned their backs on tradition and foreshadowed some of the 20th century’s most radical achievements. Within the four-year time frame, he used and then left behind at least three distinct poetic styles — an early phase whose sentimentalisms are derivative of Hugo, a middle phase that owes its love of the bilious to Baudelaire, and a final phase of his own, in which he both torques conventional French forms and then rejects them.
At last, in what often feels like the most mysterious turn of all, at the age of 20 Rimbaud abandoned poetry itself. He tried to make money and moved between a series of outpost jobs before working as a gun runner and dying of cancer at the age of 37.
It is no wonder, then, that the legend of Rimbaud’s life is tantalizing. The tale is baffling. It reeks of glamour. Rimbaud’s path is counterintuitive, which makes it sexy. Culturally, the story seems to precede the poems, which is a minor travesty because the poems are where the true intoxication lies. However, legend and life do sit in rather delicious counterpoint to the extravagant sonic bravura the poems offer. There have been several good biographies of Rimbaud, and the latest, Edmund White’s Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel, gives the tale new flesh in jaunty, likable prose. White begins by making recourse to his own first encounter of the author: “When I was sixteen, in 1956, I discovered Rimbaud. I was a boarding student at Cranbrook, a boys’ school outside Detroit, and lights out was at 10. But I would creep out of my room and go to the toilets, where there was a dim overhead light, and sit on the seat for so long that my legs would go numb.”
It’s fitting that White should have read Rimbaud on the toilet in some discomfort. Rimbaud revels in the vaguely expurgative, the directly uneasy. In his poem, “The Bad Little Angel” (here translated by Paul Schmidt), Rimbaud describes houses that “stand / enchanted things / with shutters made of angels’ wings” and then returns to “a small black angel getting sick / From eating too much licorice stick./ He takes a shit, then disappears?” Rimbaud ends with the moon, shining down on what the black angel has left behind him.
White, however, uses his own bathroom encounter to launch us backward into a version of Rimbaud’s life that itself reads like a 19th-century novel, albeit one editorialized by a wry 20th-century narrator — the man who left that particular cold bathroom and went on to become one of the 20th century’s prolific and beloved novelist/critics. Though White doesn’t delve very deeply into the formal life of the poetry (far too grand a task to take on in a 189-page book), he does meditate a fair amount on the shadows of Rimbaud’s mysterious life. White is fascinated with multiple doublings: literal differences between Rimbaud the poet and the man, as well as inexplicable differences between Rimbaud’s first life as a poet and later incarnation as a businessman and trader in the African colonies. White also notes that in his poetic practice, Rimbaud himself had articulated a form of doubleness that would become central to the conception of the self in 20th-century poetry: Je suis un autre. Which is to say: I am an other. The idea works like this: The self that I make as a poet or writer is a translation, the source of which remains obscured. The self in the poem is a construction, a mirror, a relic — however understood, it is not an identity, but rather some doppelgänger, some separate no-longer conjoined twin, in perhaps as much relation to the self as the dreaming sea-farer and the dream boy who launches the paper boat at home.
As he travels through Rimbaud’s life, White weaves between the biography and some treatment of the poetry, deftly and with a fair share of humor. Of the budding relationship between Verlaine and Rimbaud he writes: “Verlaine, as it turned out, was a homicidal alcoholic. He was also an extremely gentle, sensitive poet with a distinctive tone and a remarkable musicality.”
This book ultimately gains its entry to Rimbaud through an outline of the life rather than in-depth criticism of the letters. Necessarily, amid gun duels with Verlaine and travels to and from Paris, London, and Africa, White is somewhat thin on the poetry critic’s perspective. For that, one should go to other criticism, and more preferably into the poems themselves. A thin, readable volume can’t answer all the questions about Rimbaud — and the story probably compels us most because some of the questions can never be answered. As both White and Warren note, by the time Rimbaud himself got to see the ocean or visit the exotic climes he had depicted in his groundbreaking verse, he was no longer writing poetry. By the time Verlaine picked up his ex-lover’s works and began to publish them in 1886, Rimbaud was in Africa, in mountainous Harar, a walled Muslim town 500 miles from Addis Ababa, now the capital of Ethiopia. He thought then of publishing journalism and wrote a few articles — but poetry for him had ended much when his teens did. It may be that the legend lingers because it cannot really be explained. The poems live on, other than the life and equally mysterious. They take language on its own intoxicating voyage.
As for us, we seemingly more explicable mortals, how could we not want to know more? In one love poem translated by Schmidt, Rimbaud writes:
Her clothes were almost off.
Outside a curious tree
Beat at a branch at the window
To see what it could see.
We, Rimbaud’s readers, are a curious forest — scouring those rhythms and letters for some clue inside both life and poems. Only it’s not wind, but deft music that quickens, and keeps quickening, our tempo.