The Harbinger Online

Safe from Larvae and Rust: Arthur Rimbaud Part 1

“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”. – Vladimir Nabokov, 1964

Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) is someone who every teenager aspires to be. He ran away from home to become a poet at the age of 16 and during his teen years drank absinthe, smoked hash, had a love affair with a married, middle-aged man and changed the face of poetry.

The juvenile delinquent, the libertine, the genius. The French poet was 19, barely older than us, when he penned A Season in Hell,  the revolutionary prose poem collection (what are you doing with your life?). He broke conventions and invented a new poetic language, a “disordering of all the senses”, then quit writing altogether at the height of his greatness. Between the ages of 16 and 21, he laid down monumental poetic works that influenced generations of future poets.

For someone who’s never read Rimbaud, jumping head first into his prose poem collections such as A Season in Hell and The Illuminations might be a confusing — even unpleasant — experience. His earlier, more orthodox poems are great entry-level stimulants into his later, hash-influenced deliriums:

These poems were written during the first couple of years of his career. From these one can see that the kid was certainly talented, with a knack for breathtaking beauty and sensibility. Along with others poems such as The First Evening (Première Soirée), Romance (Roman) and The Sleeper in the Valley (Le Dormeur du Val)Rimbaud wrote wonderful lyric pieces about his bohemian lifestyle, nature, girls or any combination of the three, always tingling with beauty. But during his short, five-year career, Rimbaud’s style evolved with every poem:

Perhaps the greatest poem from Rimbaud’s earlier output is The Drunken Boat  (Le Bateau ivre). It’s the first-person narrative of a boat that has been freed from society and tossed about the sea in freedom and ecstasy:

“And from then on I bathed in the Poem

Of the Sea, infused with stars and lactescent,

Devouring the azure verses; where, like a pale elated

Piece of flotsam, a pensive drowned figure sometimes sinks”

The boat sees amazing, fantastic visions ranging from “the green night with dazzled snows/A kiss slowly rising to the eyes of the sea,/The circulation of unknown saps,/And the yellow and blue awakening of singing phosphorous” to “enormous swaps fermenting, fish-traps/Where a whole Leviathan rots in the rushes.”

In the end, the boat realizes that “Dawns are heartbreaking./Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter”. Emotionally drained, it wants nothing more than to sink and be at one with the sea. The poem is a pure distillation of beauty and intoxicating magic; it’s one of my all time favorites.

Ever since the beginning of his career, Rimbaud was in search of a new poetic form and language. This quote lifted straight out of Wikipedia more or less summarizes his poetic vision:

“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… 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…”

With every poem, Rimbaud climbed towards the “rational disordering of all the senses”. The Drunken Boat seemed like a summation of it, but Rimbaud went even further. He eventually shed the traditional 12-syllable line form and rhyming like old skin, took the synesthesia of Vowels to even greater heights, and infused images with irrationality. Part two, concerning the peaks of his vision, A Season in Hell and The Illuminations, would be up next week.

The Stars wept rose-colour

The star has wept rose-colour in the heart of your ears,

The infinite rolled white from your nape to the small of your back

The sea has broken russet at your vermilion nipples,

And Man bled black at your royal side.

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