Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The enigma of Arthur Rimbaud


Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) is a riddle in the history of literature. His life is nearly as fascinating as the poetic visions he created. His body of work, concentrated in a very short period of time, left behind it an important influence in poetry, fiction, music or plastic art, which has reached our day. Suddenly, when he was about twenty, Rimbaud would abandon poetry forever to become a completely different being.


He was born in 1854 in Charleville, Ardennes, in Northeastern France. By 1860, his father, Frédéric Rimbaud, a career captain, got fed up of family life and abandoned his wife and four children. Marie-Catherine Vitalie, the mother, vigorously undertook the children´s education. When she thought it time to punish them, she would get them to memorize long Latin verses and recite them. If they missed some, they would be sent to bed without dinner. At school, Arthur was a brilliant student. He would absorb all knowledge like a sponge and won several school awards.


In 1870, Rimbaud began to write poetry, and passionately asserted himself as a poet. In a letter to his tutor Izambard, he declared that the poet "had to become a clairvoyant throughout a rational derangement of all senses, traversing every pain, pleasure, experience. By this time there is a change in his manners and behavior. Thefts in bookstores, alcohol drinking, rough poetry. He becomes foul-mouthed, his appearance careless, he lets his hair grow thick. A friend suggests he send a sample of his poems to French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, who will be fascinated by the sample and will invite Arthur to visit him in Paris.


Rimbaud and Verlaine

That was the beginning of one of the most famous and troubled relationships in the history of literature. In 1871, Paul Verlaine, 27, was married to Mathilde Maute, 17, and with a child on the way. The poet had just quit his job and had started to hit the bottle, his bourgeois life beginning to fall apart.

Verlaine´s virulent homosexual infatuation for the infant Shakespeare (as Victor Hugo called Rimbaud), would lead them both, for a time, to a creeping and bohemian life. There begins a period of absinthe and hashish, with the two wandering about like tramps, and Verlaine abusing his family. Rimbaud´s constant sarcasms and put-downs in the circle of poets introduced by Verlaine become intolerable. Finally, in November 1872, they both leave Paris and make their way to London.

In the English capital, they live hand to mouth. They settle in Bloomsbury and Camden Town, and they are often found without a dime. They place imaginative newspaper ads, in which they present themselves as educated French gentlemen, who offer French language tutoring.

The relationship between the two is becoming increasingly bitter and crazy. At some point Verlaine thinks he's had enough and just runs away to Brussels, leaving a penniless Rimbaud in London. But in Brussels, Verlaine misses Rimbaud. He writes to him offering a reunion, which Rimbaud accepts straight away. In the Belgian capital things will not go any better for the disrupted couple. One afternoon, Verlaine, drunk and infuriated, fires two pistol shots at Rimbaud, one of which strikes him in the wrist. Rimbaud clears off. The incident will cost Verlaine  two years in jail. Mathilde, Verlaine´s jilted wife, did not restrain herself from declaring the sordid nature of the relationship between the two poets.


The "non-literary" years

From this moment on and for the next (and last) fifteen years of his life, Arthur Rimbaud left poetry all together and will carry out, in three continents, completely "material" jobs, not the least "spiritual". In 1876, he enlisted in the Dutch colonial army, which allows him to travel for free to Indonesia. The thing does not work and he ends up defecting. Then he will try his luck in a construction company in Cyprus.

Later on, it will be Yemen and then Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia). Traffic of several kinds: coffee, weapons, perhaps slaves. Native lovers. In Abyssinia he tries self-employment as a dealer, and he manages to make some money. The letters he sent to France do not show the tiniest spark of poetry. In February 1891 he feels a tremendous pain in the knee, which later reveals itself as a bone cancer. His leg is amputated in Marseille. Nevertheless, he tries to return to Africa, but he will repatriate himself in the end. He dies in November.

The Drunken Boat (1871), A Season in Hell (1873) and The Illuminations (1874) are among the impressive books of poems he left. The mystery has not vanished. What was the reason for his transformation, his abandonment at 20 of his true talent? Some speak of a total reinvention, sort of leaving himself behind. Others speculate that, after making some money, he would have returned to writing and poetry without material worries. We'll never know.


But much remains: his poetic art, his powerful clairvoyance, his rampant creativity. His own attitude to life, his sense of rebellion and independence. Arthur Rimbaud is one of the strongest poisons of Western culture. Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan or Dylan Thomas are only among the many intoxicated.

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