Arthur Rimbaud is one of those writers who I’ve never been able to connect with. It’s funny because most major writers I don’t enjoy (Hemmingway, Virgil) write about war from a patriarchal perspective. Rimbaud writes of love and misery, my two favorite literary indulgences. Therefore, I decided to spend a few days fully invested in learning to appreciate his work. I still don’t connect with his poetry, but I enjoyed his letters to his mentors and lover, and I found his prose piece, “A Season in Hell” to be effectively haunting.
Rimbaud’s work indirectly tracks his loss of innocence and descent into utter despair. Once a hopeful seventeen-year-old who was determined to change the face of modern poetry, his work went from optimistic, writing often of the joys of young romance, to dark and jaded over the course of his career. He stopped writing at twenty and continued to live until his late thirties in what appears from his letters to be utter misery.
Right before my Rimbaud emersion, I was re-reading James Baldwin’s novella Giovanni’s Room, which I have been struggling to write about. There are a lot of parallels between this book and Rimbaud’s work: the loss of innocence, homosexuality, dark love (I get the feeling that Baldwin was into Rimbaud’s work). There is a quote from Giovanni’s Room that kept popping into my mind when reading Rimbaud: “It would help if I were able to feel guilty. But the end of innocence is also the end of guilt,” (99). In Rimbaud’s work, this is seemingly true.
I decided to start with his letters, which span from 1870-1891. The first few letters are addressed to writers and professors that young Rimbaud looked up to about how stuck he felt in the country, begging for advice, criticism, and amusement. He sent them his poems and tells them of his ‘Emerson-esque’ ideas of what ‘The Poet’ should be and what art should become. Seventeen year old Rimbaud writes in a letter to Theadore de Banville (I didn’t care enough to look him up), “… it is because I love all poets… since the poet is… in love with ideal beauty.” He continues, “I will always worship the two goddesses, the Muse and Liberty,” (363). In these letters, he is comedically melodramatic; he knows it too. He discusses becoming a ‘seer’, and to become one himself, he must learn to inspect his soul to become a ‘True Poet’. But when he leaves his mother’s house to do this, his optimism begins to fade; the letters get darker.
The section of collected letters in my edition is implicitly divided chronologically between youthful letters to mentors and letters to his mother and sister by a few letters to his lover and fellow poet, Paul Verlaine. The first letter opens up with Rimbaud writing that he wants to leave his mother’s house. Verlaine’s responds, dated September 1871, “…Come, great dear soul, we call you, we are waiting for you…” (389). This is followed by two letters from Rimbaud to Verlaine, dated summer 1973, both of which are apologies. The first letter begins, “I couldn’t stop. I am more repentant than I can say. Come back, everything will be forgotten,” (397). He continues with an apology poem:
Yes, I was in the wrong.
Oh you won’t forget me, will you?
No, you can’t forget me.
I still have you here.
Listen, answer your friend, aren’t we to live together any more?
Be brave. Answer me quickly.
I cannot stay here much longer.
Listen only to your good heart.
Quick, tell me if I should come to you.
Yours, all my life.
It then ends the letter with a threat to join the army if Verlaine doesn’t agree to see him again.
The next letter is repentant—until we are hit with the following sentence (caps and italics not by me): “… if you don’t want to come back or don’t want me to join you, you are committing a crime, and you will repent of this for LONG YEARS TO COME by losing all freedom, and by more atrocious suffering perhaps than any you have felt,” (399).
I find these letters amusing, and they are helping me to relate to Rimbaud through his manic love that mimics my own, albeit in a more extreme manner. With awakened self-awareness, half of me says, Oh shit. Did I ever sound that mad? And the other half laughs, These are hilarious! These are insane! How have I never thought of writing apology poems? Although I am warming up to Rimbaud the character, the sub-par apology poem does not strengthen my faith in him as a writer.
The rest of the letters continue throughout his adult life—working abroad, struggling to make money, not writing—and are mostly addressed to his mother and sister, telling them how unhappy he is and asking for money, promising to pay them back. I was disinterested with these letters and did not finish reading them.
Before tackling his poetry again, I decided to read his prose piece, “A Season in Hell” (1873), written during the same time as his letters to Verlaine. About this piece, I am surprisingly enthusiastic. After reading it, I learned from his Wikipedia page that this piece is important to the development of Modernist literature and surrealism. It describes a journey through emotional darkness and holds an eerie similarity to “Life Studies” by Robert Lowell, who must have been inspired by it. I must conclude that if two writers I admire, Baldwin and Lowell, both were influenced by Rimbaud, then there must be more to his work than I had picked up on.
“A Season in Hell” is primarily written in prose, and narrated by a character who declares a few pages in, “I think I am in hell, and therefore I am,” (275). A cross between a journal entry and a stream of consciousness short story, it describes the narrator’s journey through his own emotional and spiritual Hell. He pleas, “God, I want freedom and salvation. How can I peruse it?” (273). The story ends when the narrator, also known as The Infernal Bridegroom and his companion, The Foolish Virgin ascend from Hell.
What interests me most about this piece is the use of surrealism to describe the relation lost innocence and internal darkness. This is best illustrated through two sections, “Delirium I & II”. After establishing the narrator in his internal hell and describing his innate evil due to his Gaelic ancestry, we are put into a discourse between lovers, referred to as The Foolish Virgin and The Infernal Bridegroom, who is revealed as the narrator in the second part. “Delirium I” begins by allowing The Foolish Virgin to speak first. This is shown with quotation marks around almost the entire section. This functions similarly to “‘To Speak of the Woe that is in Marriage’” in Lowell’s “Life Studies”; it gives the other party’s defense of their anger, revealing the ugliness that the narrator refuses.
Clearly, in a discussion of innocence, The Foolish Virgin becomes an important character. As well as referring to the prior sections in “A Season in Hell”, The Foolish Virgin also criticizes things we know about Rimbaud’s life from the letters and poetry. Since this was written at the same time as the two letters to Verlaine and since the gender of The Virgin is suspiciously not referred to (referred to here with ‘they’), it is hard to resist reading this semi-autobiographically by tying it back to their relationship.
The Foolish Virgin aggressively mocks and slanders The Bridegroom, claiming first that “He is a demon, you know. He is not a man,” (281). They go on to describe The Bridegroom’s arrogance and pretense, his threats to leave them and his selfishly charitable desires. “—I used to follow him. I had to!” The Virgin cries, making repeated references to their lack of agency in love. They continually claim that they were corrupted by him and only because of him are they in Hell. They state: “He attacks me and spends hours making me feel shame for everything that ever touched me, and he is shocked if I cry,” (285). Near the end of The Foolish Virgin’s plea they establish a desire to break out of the same emotional Hell: “He told me he has regrets and hopes… Does he speak to God? Perhaps I should appeal to God. I am in the lowest depths and I have forgotten how to pray,” (283). And The Foolish Virgin’s section concludes, “One day perhaps he will disappear as by a miracle.”
Although they were dragged into Hell by The Infernal Bridegroom, The Foolish Virgin, as can be inferred by their name, clings to innocence. Differences between guilt and shame aside (it could just be nuance in translation as well), The Virgin declares the shame The Bridegroom forces them to feel; The Bridegroom does not appear to have shame himself. Although all blame is angrily displaced onto The Bridegroom, it appears that The Virgin, in this surreal world, did not have any choice but to follow him. Both are established to have ‘regrets and hopes’, and both cry out to God to save them from their Hell, but The Foolish Virgin does not believe The Bridegroom’s remorse is genuine; they disbelieve his ‘regrets and hopes’. The Bridegroom, in contrast, is given no innocence and claims no guilt.
“It is my turn,” (285) “Delirium II” opens up. The quotes are removed from the narration, and the established narrator, The Infernal Bridegroom, is declaring is turn to speak. He is much more sympathetic towards his own darkness, and the lover is hardly mentioned outside of the six poems that make up a substantial portion of the section. In fact, two of the poems that interested me while I was first reading his poetry are included in this section—but I digress.
The untitled second poem describes waking “… in summer, [while] Love’s sleep still lasts,” (287). It continues to describe outside disturbances to love and ends, “Venus! leave for a moment the Lovers/Whose souls are crowned,”. Love, disturbed by government and working life, is stripped of its innocence. Returning to prose, The Bridegroom states, “I envied the happiness of animals… the sleep of virginity! My disposition grew embittered. I said fairwell to the world in the form of light poems,” (289). In his envy of virginity, the ultimate sign of innocence, he corrupted The Virgin with him. But his façade of innocence depicted in ‘light’ poems can be seen shortly after in “Song of the Highest Tower”.
Let me first note that I am not a fan of this translation. The translator boasted in the preface of his being the most literal translation, preserving the original French syntax and syllabic count. However, I know just enough French to see that much of the meaning is lost in translation, although I don’t know how to make sense of what I’m missing. However, I do know how to make sense of the poorly translated refrain in “Song of the Highest Tower”. I am addressing this because the English translation provided syntactically implies something so different from the original French that doesn’t preserve it’s meaning.
“Qu’il vienne, qu’il vienne,/ Le temps dont on s’éprenne,” (288) is translated, “May it come, may it come,/The time we will fall in love with,” (289). I am going to argue for a different logical translation of the second line, “Le temps dont on s’éprenne”, in the context of the poem before I return to “A Season in Hell” because this poem shows The Bridegroom feigning innocence. I am going to defend my translation, in which I disregarded poeticism and syntax entirely to get the meaning across:
“May the time come that we will fall in love with one another.”
I will start with on with the reflexive eprendre. On, the indefinite subject pronoun that English, unfortunately, does not have, is frequently used in conversation as an informal replacement for nous. Since on is conjugated in the third person singular, it takes the reflexive pronoun se, regardless of how many people it refers to. It could be similarly written: “… nous nous éprenions,” with the same meaning.
Emprendre is defined : se prendre de passion pour une personne, pour une chose/‘to have passion for a person or a thing’. In this context, it is conjugated as present subjunctive.
The relative pronoun dont replaces de + [object]. Like it’s root word prendre, the verb eprendre is often followed by de. Prendre + de means ‘to have or take’ an object, for example: Je prend de la soupe translates to ‘I’ll have the soup’. Since dont contains the direct object, it is ambiguous as to what that is, but there is no indication that the direct object of emprendre would refer back to Le temps in the original French, and it is much more likely that it refers to quelqu’un.
My book’s translation has the direct object as ‘it’ from the first line, which refers only to ‘the time’ rather than the complete noun phrase, ‘the time when we will fall in love”. This implies that the speaker is waiting for the time to fall in love rather than waiting to fall in love. Since the refrain is repeated before and after each of the two sestets, the difference in meaning in the refrain changes the meaning of the poem. The first sestet describes the pain in longing and the second describes the beauty of ‘it’.
If the translator is correct, the speaker is longing to fall in love with a time in the future—not at, with. Then he continues to describe the beauty of this period of time in the future in the second sestet. This does not present the ‘light’ poem described, but a poem that laments for a better future.
Returning to the context, the ‘light’ poem presented, Song of the Highest Tower, is not a lament for the future, but a sweet song of love—the longing described in the first sestet and the beauty of it described in the second. This poem shows The Bridegroom’s desire to mask himself with innocence.
“Delirium II” continues with a self-critique of The Bridegroom’s arrogant belief that he was too important to be happy: “Happiness was my fatality, my remorse, my worm: my life would always be too immense to be devoted to strength and beauty,” (295). However, the next poem concludes with discovering otherwise. He says, “That is over. Today I can greet beauty.” However, in spite of his journey through Hell, it seems that the narrator has hardly changed.
There is one final element of this story that I would like to address as evidence of this: Charity. I briefly mentioned this in the context of The Virgin’s criticism of The Bridegroom, but it is a common theme that ran throughout the piece. The narrator starts the journey saying, “Charity is the key. This lofty thought proves I dreamt it!” (265). But by the end of the journey, he asks, “Was I wrong? Could charity be the sister of death for me?” (303). By metonymically personifying charity as ‘a friendly hand’, he declares that he must return from Hell without help from it.
The poem continues by describing the return from Hell, using the first person plural ‘we’, which can only refer to The Foolish Virgin and The Infernal Bridegroom. “Let us welcome all the influxes of vigor and tenderness. And, at dawn, armed with ardent patience, we will enter magnificent cities.” But just because The Bridegroom dragged back The Virgin with him from Hell does not mean that his happiness will be shared. He indicates this by referring back to ‘the friendly hand’.
Thus, “A Journey to Hell” concludes, “What was I saying about a friendly hand? One fine advantage is that I can laugh at old lying loves and strike with shame those lying couples… and shall be free to possess truth in one body and soul,” (305). We can see in the closing lines that the malicious romantic narcissist The Foolish Virgin described has not evolved in hell, but simply became a bitter one—and worse, a bitter narcissist alone.
This brings up many questions about emotional torment, love, and how we can grow from them. These questions I am too mentally exhausted to answer, but it brings to mind a final quote from Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Giovanni says to his lover, David, after getting fired, begging David not to leave him, much in the way that Rimbaud did in his letters to Verlaine. David had been attempting to soothe him so he can leave Giovanni when his fiancé (coincidentally named Hella) returns without feeling responsible for his lover’s pain: “‘Maybe everything bad that happens to you makes you weaker,’ said Giovanni, as though he had not heard me, ‘and so you can stand less and less,’” (97).
It’s not a statement I agree with, although it might have been in the depths of my personal Hell, so to speak, but it seems to be the answer provided by Arthur Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell”, especially when read autobiographically. This was one of Rimbaud’s final works, written at age twenty. As can be seen in his later letters to his mother and sister, he grew more and more miserable until his death of cancer in his late thirties.
As this has gotten to be about three times as long as I intended it to be, I’m not going to address the actual poetry of Rimbaud; I still don’t love it. On Monday, my two weeks free of all obligations will end, so I won’t be able to writing anything more about his work until this summer. I have plenty of time to digest what I have read, and maybe I’ll enjoy his poetry more when returning to it with fresh eyes. However, I have accomplished my goal: I developed an appreciation for Rimbaud’s poetry and an admiration for him as a literary figure.