Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Rimbaud" by Edmond White

Henri Fantin - Latour, Coin de table, 1872, Musée d'Orsay
 left to right seated : Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Léon Valade, Ernest d'Hervilly et Camille Pelletan ; standing : Pierre Elzéar, Emile Blémont et Jean Aicard.

Elle est retrouvée!
-Quoi?- L’éternité.
C’est la mer mêlée
Au soleil

In need of more biographical information on the French poet Rimbaud, I chose, out of a large staple of biographies, a French translation of Edmund’s White’s recent book.
Did I remember this author from one of my earlier Chatwin readings, (White and Chatwin slept together once or twice) or was it force-fed to me through the Amazon France web-machine? Fact is that I got this very readable book in my hands, which I gobbled up in a single afternoon.

White is a teacher of “Creative writing” and it shows. His prose really pulls you through the pages. Not one awkward sentence to stumble over, not one strange word to halt your reading. But it misses, as one says “some passionate blood and intelligent fire”. Strangely this seems to be most fitting to recount a life which was, at least during a short period of time, nothing less than passionate blood and intelligent fire.

White remembers, when a young writer himself, how he tried his hand on a theater piece on Rimbaud. It was never produced and a friend of him explained why: “Either Rimbaud was considered a genius who was permitted everything or he was seen as no more than a “disgraceful little punk”. You cannot represent Genius on scene, so the piece could only show Rimbaud as the unbearable troublemaker he really was, steering people away of his work instead of introducing them to it. The same is a bit with this biography and White is careful to include quite a lot of Rimbaud’s poems, and comments on it, to make sure that the reader would not stick with an entire negative image of the “Poète maudit”.

Reading White’s excellent biography, I have come to understand that the whole relation with Verlaine was meant to be, at least from Rimbaud’s point of view, and certainly in the beginning, instrumental in his adolescent’s aspiration to become a famous Poet. Rimbaud, terribly intelligent, nearly never lost control in his relation with Verlaine. He certainly grew in his relation with him, admired his work and probably loved him because when their relation finished, Rimbaud got rid of Verlaine in a nasty way, such of we can only expect from a disappointed lover.

Another important realization is that with the exception of the four years with Verlaine, Rimbaud’s life, while not exactly the blueprint of a Bourgeois life, seems to be more normal, more acceptable, than his seasons in Hell. White shows the reader that the narration of Rimbaud’s life after his period with Verlaine is infected by embellishments, false reports and myths, as if the Public could not belief that this sacred monster could have been normal after all.


On the second January 1870, Rimbaud publishes his first poem, “Les étrennes des orphelins”. He is fifteen years old and becomes a local celebrity in his hometown Charlesville. Around that same period he and his fellow students are also introduced to a new teacher for Rhetoric, George Isambard. He is only twenty – one, a rebel kind of a guy, and who, according to the Rimbaud family at  least, is the one responsible to have introduced the wrong ideas in the head of impressionable young Rimbaud, a fertile and receptive ground indeed for new ideas on poetry.

Izambard loves poetry and has a lot of admiration for the poets who call themselves “Les Parnassiens”. They form a young literary school advocating “Art for Art’s sake” and react against the Romantic school, which they reproach its sentimentalism and political stance. Together with Théophile Gautier they claim: “Only what is unnecessary is really beautiful. What is useful is ugly”.

Izambard introduces Rimbaud to the work of Paul Verlaine and Théodore de Banville, two poets he especially admires.

Rimbaud, confidant enough after his success with his “Etrennes”, feverishly aspires to become a famous poet and desperately wants to meet his literary - heroes. He decides to travel to Paris in search of them, on his own and against the will of his mother. He travels without money and without ticket and on arrival in Paris, he is immediately arrested and put in prison for vagrancy. Izambard will get him out of prison.

Soon afterwards, he will travel to Paris again. This time, he ends up with the militias of the Commune, and nearly starves and freezes to death. He has no other choice than to walk back home. By then he has understood that without knowing at least someone, he cannot even survive in Paris. He needs an invitation.

First Rimbaud tries his luck with Théodore de Banville, the guru of “les Parnassien”. He writes him a letter and passionately claims that he too will be a Parnassien someday, in two years, maybe already in one. He ends his letter with « Chèr Maître, à moi : levez- moi un peu : Je suis jeune : tendez – moi la main… ». (Dear Master, help me, support me a little, I am young, tend me your hand).

De Banville does not respond.

Rimbaud then sends a similar letter to Verlaine. This time he adds some excerpts of his brilliant poem “le bateau ivre”. Verlaine replies immediately: « Venez, chère grande âme, on vous appelle, on vous attend ! » (Come, dear grand soul, we want you, we wait for you) and even adds a train ticket to Paris in his letter. And so, in the last week of September 1871, Rimbaud, still just sixteen years old, travels to Paris once more, but this time to meet his destiny.

Paul Verlaine, we can imagine, cannot belief his luck when he meets Arthur Rimbaud  for the first time. The poet of the magisterial “Bateau ivre” looks like an “Angel in exile”. Arthur still has the face of a child, but his steel blue eyes (the most beautiful eyes, his friends have ever seen) have a disturbing intensity. They mean business when he is serious, but are of a childish softness when he laughs.

Verlaine, on the contrary, does not look like an angel. He is rather ugly and what is worse, he is a dangerous alcoholic, prone to bouts of aggression. His family is trying to bring order to his life by marrying him to a young and kind woman. But Verlaine is more interested in young men than in his wife. Rimbaud immediately understands this weakness and the power it gives him over this older man.

In their relation, bonded on the spot, Rimbaud is the dominant “amant démoniaque” and the weak Verlaine the “vierge folle”. Rimbaud, without hesitation, indulges in Verlaine’s homoerotic passion and celebrates his seventeenth birthday in the arms of his lover. From that moment, Verlaine and Rimbaud will show up as a couple at theatres and cafés, kiss each other openly, exhibit their forbidden passion, and describe their passionate nights, in graphic detail, to their shocked friends. Rimbaud is really acting as a wife for Verlaine and effectively works on driving the poet away from his wife and their newborn child.

At the same time, Rimbaud sets up such a scandalous behavior, that soon enough nobody of Verlaine’s acquaintances still accepts to lodge the young punk. He refuses to wash, he is ridden with flees, turns every room where he stays into a pig sty. He runs around naked, throws his clothes out of the windows, and sells the furniture of the rooms in which he is staying after smashing the porcelain. Verlaine, who can only see the comic of it all, does not realize that his relation with the unsocial Rimbaud, with his vulgarity and arrogance, is driving him away from his friends too.

The painting by Fantin – Latour “un coin de table” shows what is happening in the circle of poets to which Verlaine belongs. The terrible couple sits at the left. While Verlaine is still facing the group, Rimbaud has his back turned to the others and has eyes only for “his lover”. He is positioned by the painter as an obstacle between Verlaine and his friends. Albert Mérat is the flower pot at the right. Mérat has insisted that Fantin – Latour takes him out of the painting after a terrible quarrel with Rimbaud. A few weeks later, when the photographer Carjat tries to drag Rimbaud out of the restaurant when he, again, insults a member, Rimbaud cuts him with his knife.

Rimbaud is now excluded from the reunions. Verlaine, the weakling, sides with his lover and is by this effectively separated from all his former poet friends.

Verlaine becomes more and more aggressive towards his wife. He beats her regularly, even tries to set fire to her hair, and threats to cast their infant son against the wall, when refused money for more drinks. The poor girl escapes to her parents and understandably starts the necessary actions for a divorce.

Verlaine torn apart by remorse and shame keeps gravitating towards his wife and son. Rimbaud, who wants Verlaine all for himself, lures the poet away from Paris, first to Brussels and then to London where they join the Communards in exile. Barely having enough money to eat, sleeping in the most miserable shags, they try desperately to earn a living with translations and French lessons. In the mean time both poets are writing masterpiece upon masterpiece.

These miserable conditions are not benign for their relation and only one more incident is needed to break apart the infernal couple. It comes soon enough. When Verlaine comes back from the grocer one day, Rimbaud spots him from the window and yells: “ You look positively stupid ( tu as l’air con ) with your sour haring in one hand and a bottle of oil in the other”. The phrase will remain a classic, but the insulted Verlaine, who keeps the household money, turns around, is off to the Victoria docks and embarks on the first ship to Antwerp. Rimbaud runs after him, apologies in tears, threatens, but having no money is not allowed to embark on the departing ship and is left on the quay.

Still it gets worse. In Brussels Verlaine, now joined by his mother, is completely devastated, keeps on drinking and begs his mother to send money to Rimbaud so he can join them. The quarrels continue. Verlaine wants to go back to his wife (who is of course not willing to have him back) and Rimbaud threatens to divulge their homosexual relation, if he does not stay with him.

Verlaine has bought a revolver and in exasperation shoots Rimbaud, slightly wounding him at the hand. They make up. The next day, Rimbaud takes the decision to leave for Charlesville. He is followed all the way to the railway station by Verlaine still carrying his gun. Rimbaud, really scared or disgusted by Verlaine’s theatricals, calls a policeman patrolling at the station. Rimbaud tells him that Verlaine wants to kill him. Verlaine is searched, the weapon found. Rimbaud reiterates his accusations against his lover, who is arrested.

Rimbaud afterwards deeply regrets his accusation with the disastrous result. Verlaine will be incarcerated for two years. We are the eight of August 1873. Their affair is over.

Rimbaud returns to the farm of his mother where he will finish “Une saison en Enfer”.  
This book on which Rimbaud’s reputation depends is published on his nineteenth birthday, the twentieth October 1874. Rimbaud collects ten of the five hundred volumes to distribute to his few remaining friends. One is even send to Verlaine in prison. Typically Rimbaud does not pay the printer and the remaining four hundred ninety books remain in stock until they are discovered thirty years later.

Incredibly Rimbaud’s literary period lasted a mere 48 months. After his “Verlaine – period”, Rimbaud will finish one last volume of poems in prose, “Illuminations” and then, at the age of nineteen, turn his back definitely on literature. In just four years this incredible young man has mastered it all. From Latin verses to surrealism “avant la letter”, from the romantics, to the “Parnassiens” , from the Zutistes to the Symbolistes.

Rimbaud will wander around Europe for a time and then work for different companies  in Yemen and Ethiopia until he dies of cancer, at the age 37, in an hospital in Marseilles. His sister Isabelle is at his side. She will claim that Rimbaud converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. But this White cannot believe.


Besides bringing us the fascinating story of how young Arthur, the precocious, bright and brilliant student, turns into a poetic rebel in a flash of time, White clarifies and debunks some myths.

A first one is that Rimbaud, with the exception of those four years, this interval in which the adolescent tries to become a poet, leads a life which can be qualified as adventurous but still normal enough and within the acceptable norms of France in the Colonial era. It is his brilliant intelligence that sets him apart during his four creative years, a period where he works towards his objective with an unseen passion, a fascination and an intensity which still baffles today. Both prior to that period, when he is still a mother-loving child, as afterwards, he really is a different man. That Rimbaud, once liberated from his demonic passion for poetry, is just a normal guy is proven by the fact that all Rebel that he is, each time he gets in trouble, he turns to his mother for help. All the years that Rimbaud is in France he will celebrate Christmas at home.

In his African years, Rimbaud will never mention his past. He writes a few letters to family and friends where he shows some regrets for his behavior in those days: his arrogance, his homosexuality, his alcoholism. He tries to become an honest man through hard and honest work. He is not a slave trader (another myth) but he deals in weapons. Deals which will turn out badly because Rimbaud is too honest and his customers more crooked than him.

All this, White says, explains the famous words of Rimbaud “ I am another one”. He really is two man in one and hence the explanation for the subtitle of White’s book: “Rimbaud, the double life of a Rebel”.

Also, with the exception of his 4 years with Verlaine, Rimbaud does not show any homo- erotic interests. It is girl friends he fantasies about in his poems written before his fifteenth and he lives with a black mistress afterwards. The possible rape he suffered when he was lost in Paris is a myth according to White. Enid Starkie, Rimbaud’s best known biographer, who had a lot of influence on other works on Rimbaud, builds this assumption on a single albeit disturbing poem. Starkie is wrong says White. Starkie is a Freudian, therefore she presumes that homosexuality is an unnatural behavior for which there must have been an external cause, a trigger. The rape scenario comes in handy to explain Rimbaud’s later behavior. But there are no reasons, according to White, to assume that this really happened.


As said earlier, White adds quite a few lines of poetry to his biography. He takes time to explain some of Rimbaud’s best achievements: “Le Bateau ivre”, some parts of “Une saison en Enfer” and “illuminations”.

White quotes Paul Valery when he says “ All known literature is written in common language. Except that of Rimbaud”. Rimbaud did reinvent poetry and reinvented his own poetry by developing three completely different styles, separated only a few months of each other. He did succeed in uncovering the whole range of innovative poetry and brought it to a higher level. And because of his influence on Verlaine, he pushed his work too to a higher level

Rimbaud considered himself a failure. He understood that if he had become famous within the circle of poets and the literary establishment, it was because of his scandalous behavior, not for his poetry. Back in Paris, after his break with Verlaine, he realized that he was shunned by everybody and given responsibility for Verlaine’s incarceration and humiliation. While previously untouched by the opinions of others, he left Paris in shame.

Rimbaud could of course only be the poet he wanted to be within an asocial context. Only by setting himself apart from all others in the most brutal way, could his poetry become what it was. His non conformism during his four years was the non conformism of his poetry.

He knew it then and we know it now, he simply was the greatest of them all.