Rimbaud: A Biography


"Superb...the single best work to read about this haunting and haunted poet."—Richard Howard, New York Times Book Review
Unknown beyond the avant-garde at the time of his death, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) has been one of the most destructive and liberating influences on twentieth-century culture. During his lifetime he was a bourgeois-baiting visionary, and the list of his known crimes is longer than the list of his published poems. But his posthumous career is even more astonishing: saint to symbolists and ...

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"Superb...the single best work to read about this haunting and haunted poet."—Richard Howard, New York Times Book Review
Unknown beyond the avant-garde at the time of his death, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) has been one of the most destructive and liberating influences on twentieth-century culture. During his lifetime he was a bourgeois-baiting visionary, and the list of his known crimes is longer than the list of his published poems. But his posthumous career is even more astonishing: saint to symbolists and surrealists; poster child for anarchy and drug use; gay pioneer; a major influence on artists from Picasso to Bob Dylan.

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Editorial Reviews

A marvelous biography....Robb elevates himself into the Hilary Spurling class.
Hilary Spurling
Robb's is a powerfully revisionist Rimbaud, written with exhilarating lucidity and historical acumen. —Daily Telegraph
Richard Howard
Superb...the single best work to read about this haunting and haunted poet.
John Simon
Wit, elegance and thoroughness characterize this book...[a] fine new critical biography.
From The Critics
After tackling biographies of Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac, Robb now adds to the long list of books that try to make sense of the legendary French poet and iconoclast Arthur Rimbaud. As a teen in the 1870s, Rimbaud traveled from a small town in France to take Paris by storm with his revolutionary poems and attacks on conventionality. He wooed the renowned poet Paul Verlaine away from a wife and child and into a flamboyant relationship that ended with Verlaine in jail and Rimbaud sailing for Africa. But fame has a way of pursuing those who shun it, and Rimbaud became legendary as a poet in Paris even as he set off to be an explorer and trader in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Robb betters Enid Starkie's definitive biography of Rimbaud; he has a livelier style and provides English translations of some of the poems (with the original French in an appendix in the back). Robb questions conclusions to which other biographers have jumped but also takes some leaps himself, including relying on hearsay to support his interpretations of events. Occasionally, he sounds as overly dramatic as his subject. Sometimes he relies on facile psychology (Rimbaud's father's abandonment of his family is blamed for much of Rimbaud's behavior), but he still manages to deliver a compelling explanation of a very complex man whose legend has obscured the facts of his life.
—Kevin Grandfield

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this robust biography, Robb (Balzac; Victor Hugo) contemplates the life of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) as if the French poet/ vagabond's deeds were those of a mythic hero. Rimbaud's every impulse is viewed as the expression of a coherent, wildly innovative vision of the world; his artistic accomplishments are assumed to have redeemed his devious and destructive tendencies. Thus, when the academically gifted Rimbaud produced other students' homework for a price, the burgeoning genius was operating "a parasitic service industry feeding on the education system," which Robb posits as a "splendid achievement for a child of fifteen." When Rimbaud spread his own excrement on the table of a Parisian caf as if it were plaster for a fresco, he was making the critical point that "flat canvas and oils could not compete with the three-dimensional kaleidoscope of reality." And when discussing the poet's use of blackmail to secure the attentions of his lover, poet Paul Verlaine, Robb dryly notes that Rimbaud "never allowed conventional morality to ruin a practical arrangement." The author seldom admits ambiguity. He is most effective in his effort to blend Rimbaud's early life as a bohemian social deviant with his subsequent 16-year career in Africa as a fledgling anthropologist and explorer. Rimbaud's childhood wanderings through the French countryside matured into caravans across the deserts. His youthful willingness to venture the unmapped lifestyle of the homosexual prepared him to encounter the exotic cultures of Abyssinia. His literary works, from "Le B teau ivre" to "Voyelles" and "Une Saison en enfer," invariably focused on fluctuation, on moments of departure. According to Robb, these poems were crowbars that pried Rimbaud loose from family, tradition and society. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Though he did not live long and his artistic output was small, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) was one of France's most influential poets. He had a great impact on the Surrealist movement and on many other poets and artists, including Pablo Picasso, Bob Dylan, and Jim Morrison. Robb (Victor Hugo; Balzac) here presents the many facets of Rimbaud's life, including his childhood in Charleville, rebellion against religion and conventional morality, development as a poet at an early age, and eventual abandonment of poetry at age 21 for a life of travel and exploration. He traces Rimbaud's attempts to redefine society and poetry by shocking many with his behavior and with his poetic voice, which they found incomprehensible. Robb also re-examines traditional interpretations of Rimbaud's life regarding such issues as his sexual orientation. Overall, this solid combination of biography and literary criticism is a necessary addition to literary collections. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Having written biographies of several other French writers, Robb examines the life of poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91). He characterizes him as a bourgeois-baiting visionary, a re-inventor of language and perception, and a breaker of all taboos whose known crimes is longer than his list of published poems. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Mr. Robb offers a lucid and engaging encount of a truly extraordinary life. His book is sure to gain Rimbaud still more admirers—while hopefully also prompting them to delve further into his incomparable and beguilingly beautiful poetry.
Michael Sheringham
Graham Robb's biography is the fullest yet in English. He incorporates the most significant recent developments in French Rimbaud scholarship, particularly in relation to the status of letters once held to be, or now exposed as, forgeries, and skilfully separates ascertainable fact form the beckoning shadows of legend. The book is fluently written, well paced, and excellent on cultural and historical contexts.
Times Literary Supplement
Richard Howard
Superior to all its predecessors in English or French . . . The excellence of this biography is the consequence of a close (and responsible) reading of everything Rimbaud wrote . . . A luminous yet explicit vision of the continuous life of a man."
New York Times Book Review
David McConnell
Robb is a reliable researcher and guide. His book deserves to be the new reference of choice in English.
Lambda Book Report
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393322675
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/28/2001
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 588
  • Sales rank: 827,585
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.31 (d)

Meet the Author

Graham Robb is the author of three prize-winning biographies, each one selected as New York Times Best Books. His most recent works, The Discovery of France and Parisians, have earned several awards and much acclaim between them. He lives on the Anglo-Scottish border.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Introduction xi
Part 1 (1854-1871)
1. Bad Blood 3
2. Filth 15
3. 'Perfect Little Monster' 26
4. 'Mad Ambition' 33
5. Convictions 46
6. Tour de France 56
7. Needful Destruction 64
8. The Seer 81
9. Departure 96
Part 2 (1871-1874)
10. 'Nasty Fellows' 109
11. Savage of the Latin Quarter 120
12. 'Mlle Rimbaut' 131
13. Dogs 145
14. Songs of Innocence 154
15. 'The Good Disciple' 163
16. Fugitives 172
17. Underworld 183
18. Pagan 195
19. Household in Hell 207
20. 'No Serious Motive'? 214
21. Harvest 227
22. 'Metropolitain' 237
Part 3 (1874-1880)
23. Pigeons 253
24. Philomath 262
25. Mr Holmes 276
26. John Arthur Rimbaud 287
27. Explosive 298
Part 4 (1880-1891)
28. Empires 309
29. The Unknown 318
30. 'Poor Arthur' 330
31. Paradise 338
32. Abdo Rinbo 352
33. Guns for Africa 362
34. Horror 371
35. Profit 383
36. At Home 393
37. 'Odious Tyranny' 404
38. Opportunities 414
39. 'Ferocious Invalid' 425
40. Maritime 435
Epilogue 441
I. Family Tree 448
II. Poems by Rimbaud published in his lifetime 450
III. Historical Events 452
IV. Maps 454
V. French Texts 456
Notes 473
Select Bibliography 511
Index 531
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