Sunday, July 12, 2009

Rimbaud by Edmund White

What must be underlined is that in 1875 Rimbaud bade farewell forever to literature. He didn't write it and he didn't even read it from from now on to the end of his life. He looked back on his years of creativity (from the age of fifteen to nineteen) as shameful, a time of drunkenness, a period of homosexual scandal, of arrogance and rebellion that led to nothing. He was desperate to be a success- at anything, more or less. First he tried poetry and abandoned it when he could get no one to look at A Season in Hell. He then tried languages, which he could use as a traveler, a businessman, an interpreter. He tried to turn himself into a pianist- and gave that up quickly. He had no bona fide skills- just genius, which no one seemed to appreciate- so he turned to gunrunning, dealing in import-export, exploration, and writing about it (but in the driest possible way). Since he'd failed as a writer he rejected all bohemian values and longed for the sort of respectability and financial gain that his mother would admire...

But Rimbaud's legend has been amazingly long-lasting, self-contradictory, and widespread, far more vigorous that the posthumous reputation of Verlaine, for instance. Perhaps obscure poets (and Rimbaud invented obscurity) become more renowned than transparent ones since only the obscure need interpretation- that is their lasting appeal both to scholarly exegetes and adolescent mystics. In Rimbaud's case he also had his reputation as a teen rebel going for him- his outrageous arrogance, his photogenic looks, his extreme impertinence, his aberrant sexuality, his definitive renunciation of art at age nineteen and his sudden, bold departure for Africa.

He also had a devoted promoter in Verlaine.

To his associates in Harar, Rimbaud spoke of his years with Verlaine either not at all or scornfully. When his boss Bardey, for instance, asked him about his time in London, he dismissed it as "a period of drunkenness". And when another curious colleague in Africa asked him about his career as a poet, Rimbaud said, "Hogwash"-it was only hogwash." The word in French he used was rincure, an unusual one that comes from the word for "rinsing" and means "dishwater" or "slops" and is even used for "bad wine". Quizzed about the poets in his past, Rimbaud once told his boss that he'd known "those birds" rather well; Bardey claimed that Rimbaud once showed him a letter from Verlaine and said that he was sending his old friend a message "to leave me the hell alone"( Foutez-moi le paix!").

Verlaine, despite the contempt and lack of contact with Rimbaud, remained faithful to his genius. In 1883 he published three pamphlets called The Accursed Poets ( Les Poetes Mudits) about Rimbaud, Mallarme, and Tristan Corbiere. All three, now recognized as among the giants of their day, were unknown when Verlaine decided to write about them. The text about Rimbaud was especially courageous since it might have dredged up the scandals of the past: the trial, the imprisonment, his immoral relations with Rimbaud, the divorce. Bitter and angry and derisive towards Rimbaud in the years 1975 to 1880, Verlaine now spoke about him with affection and admiration. In the pamphlet Verlaine reproduced several of Rimbaud's poems, which many people in literary Paris were reading for the first time. They were stunned. As Edmond Lepelletier wrote, no one had very favorable memories of the boy they'd met fifteen years before. All they recalled were his beastly manners and the high opinion he had of himself: "The quotations that Verlaine gave were like a revelation." Without Verlaine's efforts Rimbaud would be just a footnote in the history of a fogotten literary movement, Zutisme.


  1. Soon almost every cause and school and movement, serious or frivolous, popular or classical, was embracing Rimbaud. At one extreme were the Catholics, led by Isabelle Rimbaud and Paul Claudel, the great religious poet and playwright ( "The Annunciation Made to Mary"). At the other extreme were the Surrealists who, starting in the 1920's, declared Rimbaud one of their formative influences and precursors.

    By 1961 a two-volume work in French was published called "The Myth of Rimbaud" ( Le mythe de Rimbaud). Just a glance at the index reveals that a virtual library of thesis and scholarly articles and critical books had already been devoted to Rimbaud the Symbolist, Rimbaud the Decadent, Rimbaud the Surrealist, Rimbaud the Cabbalist, Rimbaud the Magician, Rimbaud the Saint, Rimbaud the Fascist, Rimbaud the French Patriiot, Rimbaud the Communard, Rimbaud the Bolshevist, Rimbaud the Honest Bourgeois, Rimbaud the Voice of the Ardennes, Rimbaud the Man of Action, Rimbaud the Adventurer, Rimbaud the Thug and Rimbaud the Pervert!

    Every important thinker and artist of the last hundred years has had an opinion about Rimbaud, who continues to elude us as he streaks just ahead of our grasp on his "soles of wind" (semelles de vent).

    They say you're dead- you! May the devil
    Take him, whoever is spreading
    This irreparable rumor
    Clamoring at my door!

    I don't want to believe it. Dead, you,
    My little one, full god among the half-gods!
    Those who are saying it are crazy-
    Why, dead, my great radiant sin,

    You, the miracle working poem
    And my all knowing philosophy
    And my homeland and my bohemia,
    All dead? Well, then. live my life!


  2. Rimbaud; The Double Life of a Rebel by Edmund White; Atlas and Company. N.Y., 2008

    "As an unhappy gay adolescent, stifled by boredom and sexual frustration and paralyzed by self-hatred, I longed to run away to New York and make my mark as a writer; I identified completely with Rimbaud's desire to be free, to be published, to be sexual, to go to Paris. All I lacked was his courage. And genius.

    I crammed all my homework into the afternoons, when most of the other boys were playing sports. That way I was free during the two- hour compulsory study hall in the evening to work on my novel. I wrote one novel, then a second. My mother, ever indulgent, asked her secretary to type them up from my neat handwritten pages. My idea was that I would send them off to a New York publishers, have them accepted and make a fortune- and flee. I'd cast aside both my parental households, liberate myself from their money, quit my school and move to New York! I imagined an older man would fall in love with me and do everything for me.

    For some reason I never sent off my manuscripts. Maybe I didn't know where to mail them; after all, I'd never met a published writer, nor did such a fabulous creature seem to inhabit our Midwestern world, anymore than a unicorn might suddenly gallop past my dorm window. Or maybe I was afraid that my book would be accepted, that it would be published, that I would have to live out my fantasies- and the notion of answered prayers I found even more alarming than a continuation of my dependence and frustration.

    After all, in Rimbaud's nineteenth century Catholic village, a homosexual might have been a sinner or a criminal, but in the Freudian 1950's in America, he was sick and in urgent need of treatment. As sinner might insist he wanted to be a Prodigal Son, a criminal might want to be irredeemable, but no one could fight for the right to be sick....

    I found the Rimbaud myth to be at once puzzling and exciting."