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.