The Harbinger Online

Safe from Larvae and Rust: Arthur Rimbaud Pt. 2


“…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


“A Season in Hell” (1873)

One evening, I had Beauty sitting on my knees, – Her kisses were bitter. – I cursed her.

I fortified myself against justice.

I fled. O witches, o hate, o misery, even so early, all my treasures were entrusted to you.

I alchemized human hope, and it vanished from my soul. Like some wild animal, I pounced upon joy and strangled it.”

Thus begins Arthur Rimbaud’s long prose poem, A Season in Hell. If you’ve read last week’s entry, you’ll notice a radical departure from his previous poems. Gone is the tingling beauty and sensibility; now, Rimbaud takes you down to the flames of hell itself. Visions of violence and chaos prevail throughout. Poetic conventions are thrown out the window. The whole thing feels like the long delirium of a deranged mind, filled with bitterness and despise, written with abandonment. It’s monumental.

Readers often have trouble understanding this work. Rimbaud rambles on and on in a jumble of thoughts and emotions that leaps in all directions like untended flames. Trying to follow the logic of his mad musings and proclamations is almost impossible. In one section, the narrative flips from a reassurance of innocence and good sense (“Reason dawns me… God gives me strength, and I praise God”) to the complete opposite (Eternal farce! My innocence is enough to make me weep. Life itself is the farce, and everyone’s in it.“) in a matter of paragraphs.

The most linear and refined part of the work is a section called “Delirium 1”, where Rimbaud narrates from the point of view of his former, middle-aged homosexual lover, Paul Verlaine. The two had gone through a destructive relationship that ultimately ruined Verlaine’s marriage and landed him in jail. This section is an unabashed confession, where Rimbaud compares himself to a demon who has slowly ruined his helpless lover.

In “Deliriums 2”, the most beautiful section, Rimbaud continues to explain his theory of the new poetic language and even quotes from his own early poems:


I invented the colors of vowels! – A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green. I laid down rules for the form and movement of every consonant, and, with rhythms instinctive only to me, proudly devised a poetic language which, one of these days, will speak to all the senses.”

The work ends with Farewell, on a note of strengthened renewal, ushering in The Illuminations.

Let us welcome, then, an influx of new strength and real tenderness. Come the dawn, armed with our ardent patience, we enter magnificent cities.


The Illuminations (1873-1875)

This is the pinnacle of Rimbaud’s vision and the height of his maturity. It’s also the last work he set down before he stopped writing forever and embarked to Africa to become a merchant. If you think A Season in Hell was confusing, read this:

None of the forty-two short prose poems in this collection resemble one another. They range from “what did I just read” to beautiful and only mildly confusing:

They’re dreamlike, hallucinatory, surreal, metaphysical… I don’t even know how to talk about these poems anymore. They’re so diverse and unique that all I can tell you to do is: “Read them! That’s what I’m writing this blog for!” To get an idea, to get the feeling and sensation of reading this strange, beautiful, transcendental masterpiece, read the whole thing from start to finish. Please. Enjoy.

But why should anyone read him? He was smoking opium and probably hallucinated half the stuff he writes. He was 18. He was an unpredictable mess who had a relationship with a middled-aged, married man. Why should we take anything he says seriously? It’s true that his works are irrational, but irrational doesn’t mean nonsensical. And at his most lucid (“The Drunken Boat”), it’s easy to see that he indeed had technical perfection. Honestly I can’t rationalize why I love his poems so much. I doubt anyone can. And that, I believe, is the result of the fulfillment of Rimbaud’s vision, his “disordering of all the senses” and “new poetic language”. I truly believe that Rimbaud had tapped into the unknown and had become the seer he had aspired to be.

Rimbaud is also the reason I’ve started to learn French. Reading a translated work is like kissing someone through a veil. Sometimes the type of veil obscures or alters the sensation of the kiss completely. Here are four different translations from an excerpt of Eternity (L’Éternité).


Original French:                    Oliver Bernard version (1962):

Elle est retrouvée.                    It has been found again.

Quoi? – L’Éternité.                      What? – Eternity.

C’est la mer allée                     It is the sea fled away

Avec le soleil.                               With the sun.

Paul Schmidt version (1975):     Wyatt Mason version (2002)

It is rediscovered.                           Rediscovered.

What? – Eternity.                         What? – Eternity.

In the whirling light                         Sea and sun

Of the sun in the sea.                         As one. 

After doing extensive research on various versions and receiving input from friends who take French, I found out that the Bernard version is the most accurate of them all. Many translators attempt to capture the “feeling” and “spirit” of the original, sacrificing meaning and literalness in the process. But even with an accurate, word for word translation, one can never get the sounds and sensation of the original French. That’s when I decided “Screw it, I’m learning French.”

The website from which I linked the poems in the pictures has great translations, but the collection is incomplete. If you’ve read those and fell in love with Rimbaud, buy the Wallace Fowlie translationIt should be the most literal and complete collection out there, with side-by-side bilingual translations.  Good luck and boule dure.

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