There have been no fully satisfactory translations of the brilliant modernist forerunner Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891): the rather flat Wallace Fowlie version (Univ. of Chicago) is the most reliable, while the error-ridden Penguin volume by Oliver Bernard and the wildly improvisational try by U.S. poet Paul Schmidt (HarperPerennial) take riskier poetic licenses, with uneven results. After Graham Robb's coarse and insensitive, yet energetic and well-received biography of the poet last year (Norton), more attention is being drawn to Rimbaud's actual writings. Mason is a translator of Pierre Michon (Masters and Servants) and Dante's Vita Nuova, and is senior editor of artkrush.com ("a Website about art," says their banner). He offers a tremendous amount of Rimbaudiana, including "schoolwork," essays and drafts, miscellaneous poems and Rimbaud's two longest works, A Season in Hell and Illuminations. The poems, unfortunately, are inexactly rendered, extending what Rimbaud wrote merely to force a rhyme (Rimbaud's couplet "My hunger, Anne, Anne/ Flee on your mule" is extended by Mason to "Flee on your mule if you can," for example), and sometimes mistranslated altogether. In the famous opening of A Season in Hell, "Bad Blood," Mason renders the French verb injurier as "to hurt" rather than "to insult" at the point when the poet has beauty across his knees. Fragmentary drafts of unpublished material, complete with crossings out, are included, along with a small-type appendix of all the poems in French, but Mason's versions do not surpass previous efforts. (Mar. 26) Forecast: Rimbaud purists will remain with Fowlie, who offers a selection of letters and French versions of the poems (which the Bernard has but Schmidt lacks). For those in search of a "complete" poet's version, Schmidt is still the choice. Yet the Modern Library imprimatur should bring readers to Mason's work, and Mason is preparing a companion volume of Rimbaud's letters for Counterpoint. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
The quintessential Symbolist po te maudit, Rimbaud has achieved a legendary, almost mythic reputation, yet he left behind a relatively small body of work, all of it written before the age of 20. The chronological arrangement in this retrospective includes all of Rimbaud's creative works, not only his most famous ones the synesthetic "Vowels," the allegorical "Drunken Boat," the psychically oneiric "Season in Hell," and all the innovative prose poems of "Illuminations" but also almost 100 of previously untranslated materials: fragments, reconstructions, lyrical juvenilia, and school compositions. Despite the editor's claim to comprehensiveness, however, the collection contains only five letters, a mere fraction of his extant correspondence. The visionary, imaginative verse precludes both a literal translation and convincing English meter; Mason fares no worse than any of his predecessors in that regard. A bilingual index of titles and first lines would have facilitated access for those unfamiliar with the sequence of composition. Nevertheless, this is an important new rendering of a major poet and is recommended for all collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/01.] Lawrence Olszewski, OCLC Lib., Dublin, OH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“The definitive translation for our time.” —Edward Hirsch
“Wyatt Mason has located and tapped into Rimbaud’s voice as it swings from gnarled to straight-ahead to mystic to raucous.” —Roger Shattuck
“An important introduction of Rimbaud to another generation of readers.” —Booklist
“The best opportunity thus far to experience Rimbaud as fully as possible in English. Here is Rimbaud uncensored: the savage maker, the scathing satirist, the rigorous Alchemist of the Word, the master of metrics and innovator of the prose poem, the figure who made himself absolutely modern, the poetic visionary whose work systematically disorders the senses and resonates with a strange beauty, an exultant splendor.” —Edward Hirsch
“A welcome addition to the shelf of Rimbaud in English. Mason’s tireless zeal and endless inventiveness compel unfailing admiration.” —Arthur Goldhammer
Read an Excerpt
Fame is, after all, only the sum
of all the misunderstandings
that gather around a new name.
-rainer maria rilke
We know the face: the delicate features, the pale eyes, the uninflected expression. We know the slight turn of the head, the shadow clouding one cheek. We know the stare, forever directed past us, above us, focusing on some unknown something out of frame. It is an attractive face, but the more we examine it, the more it eludes us. And although it seems somehow benevolent, or at the very least unimposing, it tells us very little. It could belong to a matinee idol, a prince, or the boy next door. It could even belong to Arthur Rimbaud.
The face which comes down to us in a photograph snapped by Etienne Carjat in December 1871 was not the Paris photographer's only stab at Rimbaud. Two months earlier, the poet had visited Carjat's studio a first time. A very different face emerged from that session, one we rarely see.
In this photo, Rimbaud is dressed just as he would be in the second: the neat, dark coat; the pale vest, buttoned all the way up; the haphazardly knotted tie. But delicate features are not in evidence. The poet's cheeks are chubby. His nose looks twice as wide. His mouth, an inarticulate line later on, is full, its corners downturned. It looks like a bruise. Then there are his eyes. While still notably pale, this time they stare directly at us. Open, but like a wound. The expression seems to say: look at me, come on, I dare you. Were we not assured that this is Arthur Rimbaud, we would be hard-pressed to recognize him. As it happens, this is the photo Rimbaud's contemporaries said resembled him most.
Yet in the century since his death, the December photo has become Rimbaud, reproduced in nearly every book devoted to him or his work. The October photo has fallen away. Our preference for the later image is not, therefore, a reflection of how Rimbaud looked in his time, rather how we have come to prefer him to look in ours. Jean Cocteau, describing the appeal of the December portrait, wrote: "He looks like an angel . . . His eyes are stars." Enid Starkie, an early biographer, found a "look of extraordinary purity . . . an astonishing and spiritual beauty." Thus a beautiful face, like how many others before it, helped launch a thousand myths.
For in the short span of the century since his death, Rimbaud has been memorialized in song and story as few in history: a half-dozen biographies in English; fictional accounts in celluloid and print; documentaries; popular songs in many languages; numerous settings of his poems to music; even an opera. The thumbnail of his legend has proved irresistible: the boy genius who abandoned writing at twenty; the rapscallion who seduced a married Paul Verlaine; the thug who bullied everyone, even stabbed Carjat; the visionary who took drugs to expand his creative consciousness; the scoundrel who sold slaves in Africa; the martyr who died young.
Some of these tantalizing elements may even be true. But while the critical and biographical debate continues, readers are faced with an ancillary difficulty. So accustomed have we become to these variations on the Myth of Rimbaud, that when we turn to the poems themselves it is difficult to keep our preconceptions at bay. We find ourselves looking for the Adolescent Poet here, the Hallucinogenic Poet there, the Gay Poet everywhere. The problem with all of these adjectives is that they put too plain a face on the poems. And the poems vessels of indeterminacy, ambiguity and frequently strange beauty are easily disfigured by a blunt critical blade.
But: if we can manage to ignore what we know about Rimbaud or believe we know, if we can focus briefly on what he made rather than what he may have done, the opportunity to explore one of the most varied troves of individual expression in literature awaits us.