“What are you rebelling against?” the local girl asks one of the “saintly motorcyclists” in the
1953 movie The Wild One, and Marlon Brando drawls, “Whaddaya got?” That’s a biography in
brief of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who revolutionized literature and then abandoned it at
He was born October 20, 1854, in Charleville, France. When he was six, his father, Capt. Frederic Rimbaud, left his wife, two sons, two daughters, and “walked beyond the mountain, like / a thousand angels parting on the road.” Life with his hard mother was no good: “from her summit / of righteousness, she could not see the boy” (from “Nostalgia” and “The Poet at Seven”, from Imitations, a collection of translations by Robert Lowell). He started writing poetry at eleven, was a remarkable student for eight years, and published a poem at sixteen. He ran away repeatedly – at first he was hauled back, and then he retreated to his mother’s farm. He rejected God, the army, and his mother. He embraced filth, drugs, obscenity. He wrote the famous sea poem, The Drunken Boat, without having seen the sea. In Paris, he lived off friends, starting with the symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, who was ten years older. They became lovers, hanging out in cafés, where Rimbaud shocked or insulted all the writers and artists in Verlaine’s circle with his arrogance. Rimbaud rejected all French literature except, with reservations, Racine and Baudelaire. At a poetry reading, he said “shit” after every line.
He travelled with Verlaine in Belgium and England till their affair ended when Rimbaud walked out on the drunk and sentimental poet, who shot at him three times, hitting him in the wrist. Rimbaud tried to get the charges dropped, but Verlaine was sentenced to prison for two years of hard labor. Rimbaud went home to his mother and, in the barn, wrote A Season in Hell, his incomparable confessional prose poem. He published it, sent copies to Paris, and was disillusioned when he was snubbed there as both man and artist. In Charleville, he burned his manuscripts, letters, and author’s copies of the book.
In a letter to Paul Demeny, he said, “Inventions of the unknown demand new forms,” and he started writing Illuminations, which, preceded by Aloysius Bertrand’s fables in Gaspard de la Nuit, and Charles Baudelaire’s meditations in Paris Spleen, and influenced by Judith Gautier’s loose translations of the Chinese poets Li Po and Tu Fu in Le Livre du Jade, are the first true prose poems.
In every edition of Illuminations published since 1886, “After the Deluge” has been placed first, introducing the central themes of subsequent poems. It began,
As soon as the idea of the Deluge had subsided,
A hare stopped in the clover and swaying flowerbells, and said a prayer to the rainbow, through the spider’s web.
Oh! the precious stones that began to hide,––and the flowers that already looked around.
In the dirty main street, stalls were set up and boats were hauled toward the sea, high tiered as in old prints.
Blood flowed at Blue Beard’s,––through slaughterhouses, in circuses, where the windows were blanched by God’s seal. Blood and milk flowed.
The ‘Deluge’ is the Flood of the book of Genesis, Chapters Six through Ten, sent by God to punish mankind in its wickedness, and to wash the earth. The poem begins as if it were Chapter Eleven, after not only the flood but the idea of it had subsided, after mankind had forgotten its moral lesson. It opens not with men and women offering thanks to God for surviving, but with a hare praying to the rainbow, the sign of God’s covenant with all flesh. Nature is restored, and is pure: animals are reverent, gems under the earth, flowers on it; but humanity is seen as sliding back into wickedness: the streets are dirty, blood flows, Blue Beard kills, there are slaughterhouses, grieving children, overdone cathedrals, luxury hotels. And so a boy, with the weathervanes magically following him, waves his arms in the rain, as if summoning the storm. The poem ends with the poet learning that it’s spring, season of thawing, and, like the angry God, and the boy commands the waters of the high seas, the bursting rain, the pond, to rise and bring the Flood again, to destroy the unbearable world he knows and doesn’t know, in another apocalypse. In the original and in Varèse’s superb translation, we can hear the rising of the liquid ‘r’ – the sound of the waters.
This reading skirts over the actual poetry, which is remarkable for the way it fails to represent. Poets before Rimbaud would imagine a scene and develop it, incrementally and continuously. “After the Deluge” cuts from a meadow to a village on the coast, then without transition to the Alps, the North Pole, the deserts, the orchard, the budding forest. Where are we? The setting is the whole world. But with hares praying, stones hiding, flowers looking, weather vanes understanding, and the moon listening, it’s not our world but a fictional one. The characters are a monster from a folktale, children in a glass house, the boy in the square, the unnamed Madame, shepherds named for the pastoral poems about them, Eucharis, from the poetic novel The Adventures of Telemachus by François Fénelon, the poet, who suddenly appears, and the Witch. But who are they? Other people aren’t shown, but are implied by their place in society: commerce, they set up stalls; travel, haul boats; culture: install pianos; religion, go to Mass; exploration, join caravans; tourism: build hotels. Their actions are as in dreams. The boats are going towards an ocean that looks like a crude etching. The piano is installed in the mountains. The cathedral has a hundred thousand altars. The caravans set out from nowhere, to nowhere. The hotel is built in the Arctic Circle. The settings are dissociated, as are the characters and the actions, and all are unreal.
Reading the fourth paragraph, after a metaphorical look at the sanctity of nature, with the hare praying, we’re in a coast town, with a fictive-looking ocean, when with “Blood flowed at Blue Beard’s,” we’re in a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, from a book which includes “Sleeping Beauty,” and which can be taken as a metaphor for human vice. Then the blood flows “through slaughterhouses, in circuses” – we’ve left the town and the tale, and entered the world, but when does blood flow in a circus? – “where the windows” – slaughterhouses and circuses with windows into their awful or strange spectacles? – “were blanched by God’s seal” – if the seal is the rainbow, the sign of the covenant after the flood, it’s many-colored; does it pale the windows by being glorious? “Blood and milk flowed” – what milk? Is it flowing where the blood’s flowing? at Bluebeard’s? in the slaughterhouse? inside a child? Each phrase has many possible meanings, but flies away from the others. Tzvetan Todorov, who discovered how to read Rimbaud, defines this discontinuity – “…each word may evoke a representation, but taken together they do not make a whole, and we are thus led to settle for the words.” Rimbaud has reinvented poetry as abstract art.
There’s a parallel in painting, as in the collages of Kurt Schwitters, which use scraps of paper found in the street, and make no attempt to represent reality, only their own internal harmony. In A Season in Hell, Rimbaud proposed a new poetry, inspired not by what was eminent in the past, but by what was scorned: subliterary genres, which occur as collage elements in “After the Deluge.”
A Season in Hell “After the Deluge”
I loved. . .
old inn signs, popular prints; the sea, high tiered as in old prints
antiquated literature, Caravans set out
church Latin, Mass and first communions
erotic books. . . the Queen, the Witch who lights her fire
the novels of our grandfathers, Eucharis told me it was spring
fairytales. . . Blood flowed at Blue Beard’s
Critics with mystical leanings, encouraged by Rimbaud’s saying, “I am working to make myself a seer” and the sense of illumination as enlightenment, have tried to read spiritual meanings into these enigmatic poems, but as Marjorie Perloff, in The Poetics of Indeterminacy, said of a similar misreading, “Nothing in the text…either confirms or refutes this interpretation.” Perloff was developing the ideas of Todorov, who, looking for symbolism in these prose poems, said they were “structurally. . . undecidable, rather like those equations with several unknowns that can have an indefinite number of solutions.“ He reasoned that, “Rimbaud has used the absence of organization as the very principle of organization that governs these texts.” It’s as if the poem is rebelling against itself.
Rimbaud appeals to rebels. Kerouac wrote Rimbaud, a long biographical poem which eventually became a City Lights broadside, alluding to “After the Deluge”:
Study of languages!
On foot Rimbaud walks
& looks thru the Alpine
passes into Italy, looking
for clover bells, rabbits. . .
In his first novel, The Town and the City, he accurately portrayed Allen Ginsberg as carrying “under his arm, the works of Rimbaud.” Ginsberg was obsessed with Rimbaud, including him in the first draft of the “who read…” reading-list line of “Howl.” In his Naropa University lecture on “The History of Poetry,” after quoting and reflecting on “After the Deluge,” he said: “I was in love with Rimbaud. I was, in fact, physically, erotically, in love with Rimbaud when I was eighteen. It was my first…‘Voici le temps des Assassins’ just turned me on completely, and I went downtown to Times Square to meet the local criminals with their ‘pretty Crime howling in the mud of the streets.’”
During the rest of his life, Rimbaud went on the road, as a teacher in England, a student in Germany, a soldier in Java, a circus manager in Sweden, a farm worker in Egypt, a quarry foreman in Cyprus, a coffee exporter in Arabia, and a trader, explorer, and gun-runner in Abyssinia, where he published reports of his travels, and lived with a native girl for one year, and a native boy for eight years. On November 10, 1891, stricken with syphilis and cancer; delirious, paralyzed, his right leg amputated, he died in Marseilles, at the age of thirty-seven.
Critics have called Rimbaud the father of symbolism, antisymbolism, surrealism, primitivism, and existentialism. The prose poet René Char was closer to the truth when he said, “Rimbaud is the first poet of a civilization which hasn’t appeared yet.”
Ginsberg, Allen, “The History of Poetry, Part 15”, 1975
Hackett, C. A., Rimbaud: A Critical Introduction, 1981
Houston, John Porter, The Design of Rimbaud’s Poetry, 1963
Kerouac, Jack, Rimbaud. Scattered Poems, 1971
Perloff, Marjorie, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage, 1981
Rimbaud, Arthur, Illuminations and Other Prose Poems, translated by Louise Varèse, 1957
Rimbaud, Arthur, A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat, translated by Louise Varèse, 1961
Rimbaud, Arthur,Rimbaud Complete, translated by Wyatt Mason, 2002
Starkie, Enid, Arthur Rimbaud, 1961
Todorov, Tzvetan, Genres in Discourse, 1978
Todorov, Tzvetan, Symbolism and Interpretation, 1978