- Category : Poet
- Type : MGP
- Profile : 1/3 - Investigating / Martyr
- Definition : Single
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Laws 3
Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (20 October 1854 – 10 November 1891) was a French poet born in Charleville, Ardennes. As part of the decadent movement, he influenced modern literature and arts, inspired various musicians, and prefigured surrealism. All of his poetry was written as a teenager; he gave up creative writing completely before he turned 20. His "genius, its flowering, explosion and sudden extinction, still astonishes".
Rimbaud was known to have been a libertine and a restless soul. He travelled extensively on three continents before his death from cancer just after his 37th birthday.
Family and childhood (1854–1861)
Arthur Rimbaud was born in the provincial town of Charleville (now part of Charleville-Mézières) in the Ardennes département in northeastern France. He was the second child of Frédéric Rimbaud (7 October 1814 – 16 November 1878) and Marie Catherine Vitalie Cuif (10 March 1825 – 16 November 1907).
Rimbaud's father, a Burgundian of Provençal extraction, was an infantry captain risen from the ranks; he had spent much of his army career abroad. From 1844 to 1850, he participated in the conquest of Algeria, and in 1854 was awarded the Légion d'honneur "by Imperial decree". Captain Rimbaud was described as "good-tempered, easy-going and generous". with the long moustaches and goatee of a Chasseur officer. He had literary ambitions, had written guides for learners of Arabic and had translated the Quran into French (Rimbaud later used his father's material for his own Arabic studies.)
In October 1852, Captain Rimbaud, then aged 38, was transferred to Mézières where he met Vitalie Cuif, 11 years his junior, while on a Sunday stroll. She came from a "solidly established Ardennais family", but one with its share of bohemians; two of her brothers were alcoholic. Her personality was the "exact opposite" of Rimbaud's; she was closed-minded, "stingy and ... completely lacking in a sense of humour". When Charles Houin, an early biographer, interviewed her, he found her "withdrawn, stubborn and taciturn". Arthur Rimbaud's private name for her was "Mouth of Darkness" (bouche d'ombre).
Nevertheless, on 8 February 1853, Captain Rimbaud and Vitalie Cuif married; their first-born, Jean Nicolas Frédéric ("Frédéric"), arrived nine months later on 2 November. The next year, on 20 October 1854, Jean Nicolas Arthur ("Arthur") was born. Three more children followed: Victorine-Pauline-Vitalie on 4 June 1857 (who died a few weeks later), Jeanne-Rosalie-Vitalie ("Vitalie") on 15 June 1858 and, finally, Frédérique Marie Isabelle ("Isabelle") on 1 June 1860.
Though the marriage lasted seven years, Captain Rimbaud lived continuously in the matrimonial home for less than three months, from February to May 1853. The rest of the time his military postings – including active service in the Crimean War and the Sardinian Campaign (with medals earned in both) – meant he returned home to Charleville only when on leave. He was not at home for his children's births, nor their baptisms. Isabelle's birth in 1860 must have been the last straw, as after this Captain Rimbaud stopped returning home on leave entirely. Though they never divorced, the separation was complete; thereafter Mme Rimbaud let herself be known as "Widow Rimbaud" and Captain Rimbaud would describe himself as a widower. Neither the captain nor his children showed the slightest interest in re-establishing contact.
Schooling and teen years (1861–1871)
Fearing her children were being over-influenced by the neighbouring children of the poor, Mme. Rimbaud moved her family to the Cours d'Orléans in 1862. This was a better neighbourhood, and the boys, now aged nine and eight, who had been taught at home by their mother, were now sent to the Pension Rossat. Throughout the five years that they attended the school, however, their formidable mother still imposed her will upon them, pushing them for scholastic success. She would punish her sons by making them learn a hundred lines of Latin verse by heart, and further punish any mistakes by depriving them of meals. When Rimbaud was nine, he wrote a 700-word essay objecting to his having to learn Latin in school. Vigorously condemning a classical education as a mere gateway to a salaried position, Rimbaud wrote repeatedly, "I will be a rentier". Rimbaud disliked schoolwork and resented his mother's constant supervision; the children were not allowed out of their mother's sight, and until they were fifteen and sixteen respectively, she would walk them home from school.
As a boy, Rimbaud was small and pale with brown hair, and eyes that a childhood friend described as "pale blue irradiated with dark blue—the loveliest eyes I've seen". An ardent Catholic like his mother, Rimbaud had his First Communion when he was eleven. His piety earned him the schoolyard nickname "sale petit Cagot". That same year, he and his brother were sent to the Collège de Charleville. Up to then, his reading had been largely confined to the Bible, though he had also enjoyed fairy tales and adventure stories, such as the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Gustave Aimard. At the Collège he became a highly successful student, heading his class in all subjects except mathematics and the sciences; his schoolmasters remarked upon his ability to absorb great quantities of material. In 1869 he won eight school first prizes, including the prize for Religious Education, and in 1870 he won seven first prizes.
Hoping for a brilliant academic career for her second son, Mme Rimbaud hired a private tutor for Rimbaud when he reached the third grade. Father Ariste Lhéritier succeeded in sparking in the young scholar a love of Greek, Latin and French classical literature, and was the first to encourage the boy to write original verse, in both French and Latin. Rimbaud's first poem to appear in print was "Les Étrennes des orphelins" ("The Orphans' New Year's Gifts"), which was published in the 2 January 1870 issue of La Revue pour tous.
Two weeks later, a new teacher of rhetoric, the 22-year-old Georges Izambard, started at the Collège de Charleville. Izambard became Rimbaud's literary mentor, and soon a close accord formed between teacher and student, with Rimbaud for a while seeing Izambard as a kind of older brother. At the age of 15, Rimbaud was showing maturity as a poet; the first poem he showed Izambard, "Ophélie", would later be included in anthologies, and is regarded as one of Rimbaud's three or four best poems. On 4 May 1870, Rimbaud's mother wrote to Izambard to complain that he had given Rimbaud Victor Hugo's Les Misérables to read.
On 19 July 1870, the Franco-Prussian War broke out, between Napoleon III's Second French Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. A week later, on 24 July, Izambard left Charleville for the summer to stay with his three aunts – the Misses Gindre – in Douai. In the meantime, preparations for war continued and the Collège de Charleville became a military hospital. By the end of August, with the countryside in turmoil, Rimbaud was bored and restless. In search of adventure he ran away by train to Paris without funds for his ticket. On arrival at the Gare du Nord, he was arrested and locked up in Mazas Prison to await trial for fare evasion and vagrancy. On about 6 September, Rimbaud wrote a desperate letter to Izambard, who arranged with the prison governor that Rimbaud be released into his care. As hostilities were continuing, he stayed with the Misses Gindre in Douai until he could be returned to Charleville. Izambard finally handed Rimbaud over to Mme Rimbaud on 27 September 1870, but he was only at home ten days before running away again.
From late October 1870, Rimbaud's behaviour became openly provocative; he drank alcohol, spoke rudely, composed scatological poems, stole books from local shops, and abandoned his characteristically neat appearance by allowing his hair to grow long. At the same time he wrote to Izambard about his method for attaining poetical transcendence or visionary power through a "long, intimidating, immense and rational derangement of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but one must be strong, be born a poet, and I have recognized myself as a poet."
Life with Verlaine (1871–1875)
Rimbaud wrote to several poets but received no replies, so his friend, office employee Charles Auguste Bretagne, advised him to write to Paul Verlaine, an eminent Symbolist poet. Rimbaud sent Verlaine two letters with several of his poems, including the hypnotic, finally shocking "Le Dormeur du Val" (The Sleeper in the Valley), in which Nature is called upon to comfort an apparently sleeping soldier. Verlaine was intrigued by Rimbaud, and replied, "Come, dear great soul. We await you; we desire you," sending him a one-way ticket to Paris. Rimbaud arrived in late September 1871 and resided briefly in Verlaine's home. Verlaine's wife, Mathilde Mauté, was seventeen years old and pregnant, and Verlaine had recently left his job and started drinking. In later published recollections of his first sight of Rimbaud at the age of seventeen, Verlaine described him as having "the real head of a child, chubby and fresh, on a big, bony, rather clumsy body of a still-growing adolescent", with a "very strong Ardennes accent that was almost a dialect". His voice had "highs and lows as if it were breaking."
Rimbaud and Verlaine began a short and torrid affair. They led a wild, vagabond-like life spiced by absinthe and hashish. The Parisian literary coterie was scandalized by Rimbaud, whose behaviour was that of the archetypal enfant terrible, yet throughout this period he continued to write striking, visionary verse. Their stormy relationship eventually brought them to London in September 1872, a period over which Rimbaud would later express regret. During this time, Verlaine abandoned his wife and infant son (both of whom he had abused in his alcoholic rages). In England they lived in considerable poverty in Bloomsbury and in Camden Town, scraping a living mostly from teaching, plus an allowance from Verlaine's mother. Rimbaud spent his days in the Reading Room of the British Museum where "heating, lighting, pens and ink were free". The relationship between the two poets grew increasingly bitter.
In late June 1873, Verlaine returned to Paris alone, but quickly began to mourn Rimbaud's absence. On 8 July he telegraphed Rimbaud, asking him to come to the Hotel Liège in Brussels. The reunion went badly, they argued continuously, and Verlaine took refuge in heavy drinking. On the morning of 10 July, Verlaine bought a revolver and ammunition. About 16:00, "in a drunken rage", he fired two shots at Rimbaud, one of them wounding the 18-year-old in the left wrist.
Rimbaud initially dismissed the wound as superficial but had it dressed at the St-Jean hospital nevertheless. He did not immediately file charges, but decided to leave Brussels. About 20:00, Verlaine and his mother accompanied Rimbaud to the Gare du Midi railway station. On the way, by Rimbaud's account, Verlaine "behaved as if he were insane". Fearing that Verlaine "might give himself over to new excesses", Rimbaud "ran off" and "begged a policeman to arrest him". Verlaine was charged with attempted murder, then subjected to a humiliating medico-legal examination. He was also interrogated about his correspondence with Rimbaud and the nature of their relationship. The bullet was eventually removed on 17 July and Rimbaud withdrew his complaint. The charges were reduced to wounding with a firearm, and on 8 August 1873 Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison.
Rimbaud returned home to Charleville and completed his prose work Une Saison en Enfer ("A Season in Hell")—still widely regarded as a pioneering example of modern Symbolist writing. In the work he referred to Verlaine as his "pitiful brother" (frère pitoyable) and the "mad virgin" (vierge folle), and to himself as the "hellish husband" (l'époux infernal). He described their life together as a "domestic farce" (drôle de ménage).
In 1874 he returned to London with the poet Germain Nouveau. They lived together for three months while he put together his groundbreaking Illuminations.
Rimbaud and Verlaine met for the last time in March 1875, in Stuttgart, after Verlaine's release from prison and his conversion to Catholicism. By then Rimbaud had given up writing in favour of a steady, working life. Some speculate he was fed up with his former wild living, or that the recklessness itself had been the source of his creativity. He continued to travel extensively in Europe, mostly on foot.
In May 1876 he enlisted as a soldier in the Dutch Colonial Army to get free passage to Java in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Four months later he deserted and fled into the jungle. He managed to return incognito to France by ship; as a deserter he would have faced a Dutch firing squad had he been caught.
In December 1878, Rimbaud journeyed to Larnaca, Cyprus, where he worked for a construction company as a stone quarry foreman. In May of the following year he had to leave Cyprus because of a fever, which on his return to France was diagnosed as typhoid.
In 1880 Rimbaud finally settled in Aden, Yemen, as a main employee in the Bardey agency, going on to run the firm's agency in Harar, Ethiopia. In 1884 his "Report on the Ogaden" was presented and published by the Société de Géographie in Paris. In the same year he left his job at Bardey's to become a merchant on his own account in Harar, where his commercial dealings included coffee and weapons. During this period, he struck up a close friendship with the Governor of Harar, Ras Makonnen, father of future Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.
Rimbaud worked in the coffee trade. "He was, in fact, a pioneer in the business, the first European to oversee the export of the celebrated coffee of Harar from the country where coffee was born. He was only the third European ever to set foot in the city, and the first to do business there."
Sickness and death (1891)
In February 1891, in Aden, Rimbaud developed what he initially thought was arthritis in his right knee. It failed to respond to treatment, and by March had become so painful that he prepared to return to France for treatment. Before leaving, Rimbaud consulted a British doctor who mistakenly diagnosed tubercular synovitis, and recommended immediate amputation. Rimbaud remained in Aden until 7 May to set his financial affairs in order, then caught a steamer, L'Amazone, back to France for the 13-day voyage. On arrival in Marseille, he was admitted to the Hôpital de la Conception, where his right leg was amputated a week later, on 27 May. The post-operative diagnosis was bone cancer—probably osteosarcoma.
After a short stay at the family farm in Roche, from 23 July to 23 August, he attempted to travel back to Africa, but on the way his health deteriorated, and he was readmitted to the same hospital. He spent some time there in great pain, attended by his sister Isabelle, before dying on 10 November 1891 at the age of 37. He was interred in Charleville.
In May 1871, aged 16, Rimbaud wrote two letters explaining his poetic philosophy. The first was written 13 May to Izambard, in which Rimbaud explained:
I'm now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I'm working at turning myself into a seer. You won't understand any of this, and I'm almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. It's really not my fault.
Rimbaud said much the same in his second letter, commonly called the Lettre du voyant ("Letter of the Seer"). Written 15 May—before his first trip to Paris—to his friend Paul Demeny, the letter expounded his revolutionary theories about poetry and life, while also denouncing most poets that preceded him. Wishing for new poetic forms and ideas, he wrote:
I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed – and the great learned one! – among men. – For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul – which was rich to begin with – more than any other man! He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!
Rimbaud expounded the same ideas in his poem, "Le bateau ivre" ("The Drunken Boat"). This hundred-line poem tells the tale of a boat that breaks free of human society when its handlers are killed by "Redskins" (Peaux-Rouges). At first thinking that it is drifting where it pleases, the boat soon realizes that it is being guided by and to the "poem of the sea". It sees visions both magnificent ("the awakening blue and yellow of singing phosphorescence", "l'éveil jaune et bleu des phosphores chanteurs",) and disgusting ("nets where in the reeds an entire Leviathan was rotting" "nasses / Où pourrit dans les joncs tout un Léviathan). It ends floating and washed clean, wishing only to sink and become one with the sea.
Archibald MacLeish has commented on this poem: "Anyone who doubts that poetry can say what prose cannot has only to read the so-called Lettres du Voyant and 'Bateau Ivre' together. What is pretentious and adolescent in the Lettres is true in the poem—unanswerably true."
French poet Paul Valéry stated that "all known literature is written in the language of common sense—except Rimbaud's". His poetry influenced the Symbolists, Dadaists, and Surrealists, and later writers adopted not only some of his themes, but his inventive use of form and language.
Le Soleil Était Encore Chaud (1866)
Poésies (c. 1869–1873)
Soleil et chair (1870)
Le bateau ivre (1871)
Proses Évangeliques (1872)
Une Saison en Enfer (1873) – published by Rimbaud himself as a small booklet in Brussels. Although "a few copies were distributed to friends in Paris... Rimbaud almost immediately lost interest in the work."
Rimbaud's poetry, as well as his life, made an indelible impression on 20th century writers, musicians and artists. Pablo Picasso, Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Vladimir Nabokov, Bob Dylan, Luis Alberto Spinetta, Patti Smith, Giannina Braschi, Léo Ferré, Henry Miller, Van Morrison, Penny Rimbaud, Jim Morrison, and Trent Reznor have been influenced by his poetry and life. His life has been portrayed in several films. Italian filmmaker Nelo Risi's 1970 film Una stagione all'inferno ("A Season in Hell") starred Terence Stamp as Rimbaud and Jean Claude Brialy as Paul Verlaine. In 1995 Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland directed Total Eclipse, which was based on a play by Christopher Hampton who also wrote the screenplay. The film starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud and David Thewlis as Paul Verlaine. He is also the protagonist of the opera Rimbaud, ou le fils du soleil (1978) by Italian composer Lorenzo Ferrero. In 2012 composer John Zorn released a cd titled Rimbaud featuring 4 compositions inspired by Rimbaud's work—Bateau Ivre (a chamber octet), A Season in Hell (electronic music), Illuminations (piano, bass and drums), Conneries (featuring Mathieu Amalric reading from Rimbaud's work). The name of Sylvester Stallone's character "Rambo" was taken from Rimbaud's phonetic pronunciation.