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The Poetry of Rimbaud

The Poetry of Rimbaud

by Robert Greer Cohn

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In this proven study on Arthur Rimbaud, the world's leading authority on Stephane Mallarme provides a guide to the understanding and appreciation of Rimbaud's entire poetic oeuvre. Robert Greer Cohn begins with an outline of the poet's life, focusing particularly on a childhood and adolescence that produced astoundingly original and frequently exquisite works, the


In this proven study on Arthur Rimbaud, the world's leading authority on Stephane Mallarme provides a guide to the understanding and appreciation of Rimbaud's entire poetic oeuvre. Robert Greer Cohn begins with an outline of the poet's life, focusing particularly on a childhood and adolescence that produced astoundingly original and frequently exquisite works, the whole body of poetry by a writer who ended his literary creation in his twentieth year.

Cohn's analysis, combined with a substantial introduction, weaves together the known biographical facts with major clues from the poems to present a coherent portrait of the inner and outwardly imaged world of the young poet. Cohn draws on nondoctrinaire and open-minded approaches of modern depth psychology and philosophy and, most particularly, on the dazzlingly integral cosmic vision of Mallarme.

The resulting unified view affords insights into the meaning of many difficult passages, especially in the most hermetic and resistant of the Illuminations. Cohn also reveals the early poems, which heretofore received little attention, to be rich in poetic humanity. He suggests that the seeds of Rimbaud's later development lie in these early poems, which provide convincing paths into subsequent complexities.

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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The Poetry of Rimbaud

By Robert Greer Cohn


All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06244-0



Les Etrennes des Orphelins

This is the earliest of Rimbaud's published poems and the first poem in verse we have of his aside from the Latin exercises. It appeared in the Revue pour tous in January 1870, having been written in Rimbaud's fourteenth or fif teenth year. Various influences have been discovered: Reboul's "L'Ange et l'enfant" (which was the subject given in his school for a Latin verse-composition: Rimbaud's "Ver erat") ; Coppée's "Enfants trouvés," Hugo's "Pauvres gens." The following lines from Hugo's "La Prière pour tous" (Les Feuilles d'automne ) seem to me to have impressed young Rimbaud even more:

    C'est l'heure où les enfants parlent avec les anges

    * * *

    Et puis ils dormiront. — Alors, épars clans l'ombre,
    Les rêves d'or, essaim tumultueux, sans nombre,
    Qui naî't aux derniers bruits du jour à son déclin

    * * *

    Viendront s'abattre en foule à leurs rideaux de lin.

    * * *

    Ainsi que l'oiseau met sa tete sous son aile,
    L'enfant clans la prière enclort son jeune esprit.

The poem has been described as a pastiche (of Coppée, among others), but the self-pitying sincerity of it strikes one even more than whatever ironic intention. This is the earliest of the many references Rimbaud makes to his abandoned state. It is a typical fantasy of nostalgia for nest- or womb-warmth and the lost "happy family" — one is aware of many such sentimental evocations in literature, for example, Dickens' David Copperfield, Charles Kingsley's Water Babies. Whether we regard it as shallow, sentimental pathos or the expression of tragically profound deprivation may depend on how defensive we ourselves are: knowing what was behind it, in Rimbaud's case, I find it suggestive of genuine pain in certain passages.

The poem is useful to us because it presents numerous important themes in simple forms which can help us to see through some very complex imageries.

2. De deux enfants le triste et doux chuchotement.

The presence of two conspiratorial children lightens the orphan burden somewhat, puts the poem in the realm of gentle pathos, the mood of "triste et doux." Richard would call this fadeur — I find that to be a too systematic and condescending approach to such Verlainian moods.

4. Sous le long rideau blanc qui tremble et se soulève ...

The "rideau" is the bed-curtain, by context; like the lovely presence of air lifting and billowing out window-curtains, the "tremble et se souleve" delicately hints at the ghostly hovering of absent and dreamed-of ("reve" in line 3) parents or of some such consoling notion: "il y avait des visions derriere la gaze des rideaux" (second "Lettre du voyant").

5. — Au dehors les oiseaux se rapprochent frileux; Leur aile s'engourdit sous le ton gris des cieux;

As in "Les Effarês," there is an ambivalent tone of warmth and cold which dominates the poem; it exists mainly in a mid-realm-something like a delightful shiver-between the pleasure of nostalgia and indoor snugness versus deprivation and external cold. The birds, victims of the outer chill, are associated with the deprivation as are the poor worker's children in "Les Poètes de sept ans," "Les Effarés." The double mood is carried on in:

9. Sourit avec les pleurs, et chante en grelottant ...

12. Ils ecoutent, pensifs, comme un lointain murmure ...
Ils tressaillent souvent a la claire voix d'or
Du timbre matinal, qui frappe et frappe encor
Son refrain metallique en son globe de verre ...

There is, to repeat, the hint of a major theme here: the distant "golden" bell (or hailing voice, or cock-crow ... ), which mysteriously evokes a possible salvation (as in Goethe's FaustI), often at the dramatic moment of daybreak (or sunset): "Le Bonheur! Sa dent, douce a la mort, m'aver-tissait au chant du coq, — ad matutinum, au Christus venit, — dans les plus sombres villes." (Une Saison en enfer: "Alchimie du Verbe"). Baudelaire's "Crépuscule du matin" evokes this shiveringly alive moment with the same cock-crow.

The clock ("grandfather clock"; "Father Time") is vaguely associated with the original Father who divided the light from the dark (the etymon of time is "to cut," according to Cassirer) and ordered Creation (as in "A une raison" or the "ordre, eternel veilleur" of "L'Homme juste") ; the "golden voice" reminds us that Rimbaud will later identify himself as "fils du Soleil." In "La Maline" we get a faint echo of this nostalgia: "En mangeant, j'ecoutais l'horloge, — heureux et coi." And in "Enfance," there is a numb suspension of life when the clock stops, as if the sun had gone behind a cloud.

21. — Il n'est donc point de mère à ces petits enfants, De mere au frais sourire, aux regards triomphants ?

Rimbaud, of course, had a mother; but she was scarcely inclined to "cool smiles" according to descriptions we have of her. Even a more usual mother is of ten rejected by the sensitive child in moments of inevitable bitterness occasioned simply by the imposition of harsh reality onto the original king-like infinite of his lost paradise of "juvenile omnipotence"; then, as in the well-known spiritual, sometimes we feel like a "motherless child."

23. Elle a done oublié, le soir, seule et penchée,
D'exciter une flamme à la cendre arrachée,

Here too we witness the germination of a major theme: the ambivalent black and red pairing — ashes and fire, death and life-blood — which runs through the poetry.

29. — Le rêve maternel, c'est le tiède tapis,

We will re-encounter this maternal carpet in "Veillees," III: "Les lampes et les tapis de la veillee."

30. C'est le nid cotonneux où les enfants tapis,
Comme de beaux oiseaux que balancent les branches,
Dorment leur doux sommeil plein de visions blanches! ...

The white visions involve a complex maternal fantasy of milk, mother's skin or night-dress, the white bed-curtains (mentioned earlier) around the secure "nest." Mallarmé's early poems — and sometimes later ones ("Brise marine," "Une Dentelle s'abolit") — are steeped in these reminiscences.

36. Votre cœur l'a compris: — ces enfants sont sans mère.
Plus de mere au logis! — et le père est bien loin! ...

Despite the possible ironic echo of Coppée in the "Votre cœur l'a compris," the theme of the absent father is solidly sounded. It overlaps with and aggravates the general human condition of the Adamic fall, exile from the All-Father, the lost paradise which is echoed in earthy images of the invisible garden ("Enfance"), the closed inns ("Comédie de la soif"), and the ancient Orient (Une Saison en enfer).

In an essay, "Plumes and Prisons," we took note of the extraordinary number of French writers who were fatherless, in various ways. The male parent teaches one the prevailing games, the male role, which helps one to tame one's emotions and fit in with a group and live somewhat automatically. Failing this, one is inclined to change the rules of the game through new visions, creativity. In any event, one doesn't fit in — one is an "ugly duckling" — and must find unusual compensatory self-justifications. The writer finds father-figures in previous creators who justify his peculiar type (the budding swan). In Rimbaud the father-image will vary considerably, including writers like Baudelaire ("un vrai Dieu"), adventurers, and even criminal types. All represent his need to "smash reality like a moneybox" (Sartre), his revolutionary — both politically and artistically — temperament.

45· Dans quelque songe etrange où l'on voyait joujoux,
Bonbons habilles d'or, etincelants bijoux,
Tourbillonner, danser une danse sonore,
Puis fuir sous les rideaux, puis reparaître encore!

The movement from reality through a process of sublimation or etherealization often, in art or fantasy, takes the form of a whirlwind, which not only lifts but accelerates reality and, despite the exciting experience of escape, involves it in a narcissistically contained round like the traditional magic circle which expresses a centripetal impulse toward a center of intimate meaning, the focus of depth, the beyond. Hence Mallarme used it as a symbol of art on page 6 of the "Coup de Dés" (as well as in an early story, "Ce que disaient les trois cigognes" which is rather close in mood to this poem). Essentially, this is Rimbaud's notion of his art: the contained delirium of "Délires II: Alchimie du Verbe" in which he boasts "Je fixais des vertiges." In more sophisticated guise, this pattern will repeat itself in various Illuminations such as "Being beauteous": "Les couleurs propres de la vie se foncent, dansent, et se dégagent autour de la Vision." Compare also "Cimmerie, patrie de l'ombre et des tourbillons" ("Délires II"), and "Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs," part II, where there is a whirlwind of roses a la Banville.

59. Un grand feu pétillait, clair, clans la cheminée,
Toute la vieille chambre était illuminée;
Et les reflets vermeils, sortis du grand foyer,
Sur les meubles vernis aimaient à tournoyer ...
— L'armoire etait sans clefs!. ... sans clefs, la grande armoire!
On regardait souvent sa porte brune et noire ...
Sans clefs! ... c'était étrange! ... on rêvait bien des fois
Aux mystères dormant entre ses flancs de bois,
Et l'on croyait ouïr, au fond de la serrure
Béante, un bruit lointain, vague et joyeux murmure ...

The warmth of the quondam "happy family" was embodied in the fire on the hearth (later, the foyer will become sadly rejected, a mere point of departure for wild fantasy, in the prose poem "Nocturne vulgaire": "Un souffie disperse les limites du foyer").

The "tournoyer" again speaks of a welling- or spiraling-up of joy. But the ambivalent mood again is in the red firelight versus the dark ("noire") mood of the armoire which is clearly associated, as in the later poem "Le Buffet," with the deepest maternal mystery — the same that gave rise to those childhood dreams of a fairy godmother who lives up high in a secret room (as in The Princess and the Goblins) when one's own mother had too seriously let one down.

The opposition of the fire and the dark (ashes) will be found again associated with a mysterious and sad mother-figure (the sorrow of loss of ten seeps into the substitute figure, as in the Sad King of Rouault, the wounded Fisher King, or the wistful King of playing cards). Thus: "la Reine, la Sorciere qui allume sa braise clans le pot de terre, ne voudra jamais nous raconter ce qu'elle sait, et que nous ignorons" ("Après le Déluge").

Mothers are in a major sense a source, and we depend on them utterly at first — until they let us down thoroughly and we are spiritually weaned. We believe for a while that they are rooted in deep wisdom, are omniscient, like Norns, or Sibyls. Ousted, this belief remains at our core, but of ten the bitter disappointments and the emotional blockage ("noire ... sans clefs!") causes the image to be transferred to other figures, perhaps a kindly aunt, or the Virgin, or, in this case, the generous cornucopia-like maternal totem of the buffet, with its frequent breast-like bombé shape (as in Baudelaire's "Le Beau Navire": "Ta gorge triomphante est une belle armoire / Dont les panneaux bombés...."). In the present instance it is womb-like, with its "flancs de bois."

Finally the quoted "bruit lointain, vague et joyeux murmure" is a quasi-divine calling to us to join the source of joy (perhaps the stir of a distant fete or fair), like the golden voice of the clock mentioned earlier.

74. leurs grands yeux bleus.

Rimbaud's eyes were blue, like his mother's. It is a symbol of this childish sublime innocence (as in line 90: "Par la fenetre on voit là-bas un beau ciel bleu") and a desired communion with the mother's intimacy — but that blue lies, as we learn in "Les Poètes de sept ans."

88. paradis rose.

The pink (and blue) is a baby-joy color par excellence, originally symbolic no doubt of the warmly suff used cheeks of maternal love. It is again in "une fée a passée ... pres du lit maternel, sous un beau rayon rose" in line 99. Compare Mallarmé's "Apparition."

91. La nature s'éveille et de rayons s'enivre ...
La terre, demi-nue, heureuse de revivre,
A des frissons de joie aux baisers du soleil ...

The simple paradigm of sun-father and earth-mother goes back to the Greeks (passing perhaps by way of Banville's "La Voie lactée"), and Lucretius; it will remain persistent in Rimbaud's most advanced art, such as "Mémoire." It is part of the "Happy family" fantasy, here dispersed amid consoling nature.

100. Là, sur le grand tapis, resplendit quelque chose ...
Ce sont des medaillons argentes, noirs et blancs,

* * *

Ayant trois mots graves en or:"). "À NOTRE MÈRE!"

Rimbaud clearly had trouble finishing this poem; the emotion is exhausted and the infinite mystery is not. How familiar this is: all our adolescent poems came a cropper in this way! The medallions engraved with À notre mère offer an air of monumental (or tomb-like) finality, but, even leaving room for the possible irony, how pathetically clumsy and juvenile!


    Par les soirs bleus d'été, j'irai clans !es sentiers,
    Picote par les blés, fouler l'herbe menue:
    Rêveur, j'en sentirai la fraîcheur à mes pieds.
    Je laisserai le vent baigner ma tête nue.

    Je ne parlerai pas, je ne penserai rien:
    Mais l'amour infini me montera dans l'âme,
    Et j'irai loin, bien loin, comme un bohémien,
    Par la Nature, — heureux comme· avec une femme.

In this poem one feels some roundly Rimbaldian qualities; "roundly" in the sense that in his world the beyond and the here and now are fully integrated; the poetic and the real are blissfully married. An earthily concrete yet transcendent world, like a fresh evening stroll on a sentier, which is a "male" Way embedded in mother earth.

The title embodies the Romantic acceptance of the "lower" self, the child's immediate apprehension of the world through his senses. And like the later title, "Méemoire," it indicates Rimbaud's awareness of the modern psychological phenomenon. "Sensation" is in a Romantic, or late-Romantic, vein on its way to Symbolism — very close in tone to Paul Bourget's "Beau soir" from about the same period. The incipient Symbolism, or Impressionism, is evident in the delicacy of "l'herbe menue" and "picote."

The expression of the boy's wedding with an eternal-womanly nature is put in immediate, familiar, personal terms — as in "Aube" he will "embrass [er] l'aube dété'." He is "heureux comme avec une femme." Nature responds: like a woman, she hits back, penetrates physically into his intimacy: he is "picoté par Jes blés" (these drypoint touches dialectically raise the Romantic emotion to something finer). The wind is like a caress, a generous maternal attention he lacked: "Je laisserai le vent baigner ma tete nue." And altogether he bathes — as in the mother-sea of the "Bateauivre" — in the surpassing calm and splendor of a summer evening, "blue" as the waters of the later poem which cradle and hold him up in life and through their transparency offer communion with the allsoul. But, too, he has his moments of male initiative: the wandering along paths far, far away — "loin, bien loin" — in the wake of his errant and ecstatically free father. At first, Rimbaud as a young schoolboy lacked the courage to break with the stifling home; here his escape is as wildly imaginary as his physical life was restricted. The dream of a bohemian freedom was later fulfilled and then described in passages of "Ma Bohème," in certain Illuminations and in the Saison en Enfer.

The underlying tone is a Romantic legato, almost Lamartinian. In "l'amour infini me montera clans l'âme" the a's do much to sustain the broad, calm, sweepingly melodious effects. "Loin, bien loin," by its neutral sound and repetition, prolongs this mood.


Excerpted from The Poetry of Rimbaud by Robert Greer Cohn. Copyright © 1973 PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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