Poems Under Saturn was the first book published by the twenty-two-year-old Paul Verlaine. Illuminations was the last book written by Arthur Rimbaud, at the age of twenty or twenty-one, after which he not only gave up writing but refused a year or so later even to discuss any literary subject, while his work was gradually becoming famous. In the end, Verlaine and the ten-years-younger Rimbaud, along with Stéphane Mallarmé, are the only French poets of the last third of the nineteenth century to have reached an impregnable position in the pantheon of great classic writers. They are also famous for a scandalous and stormy relationship that lasted almost two years, ending in Brussels with Verlaine (whose drunken rages often skirted the homicidal) shooting Rimbaud in the wrist, for which he spent a year in prison, where he became a born-again Christian. They met only once more and Rimbaud mocked his new devotion, nicknaming him “Loyola,” and took him out to a café to get drunk and blaspheme. (“We made the 98 wounds of Our Lord bleed again,” he wrote to a friend.)
With all his genius and considerable charm, the young Rimbaud must have been difficult to bear. Insolent with most everyone, he was embarrassing in public and he never washed. To the spectacular diary of those inveterate (and homophobic) gossipmongers the brothers Goncourt we owe the story of Rimbaud proclaiming in a café that he didn’t mind being regularly sodomized by Verlaine but found it disgusting that Verlaine demand that he reciprocate on his own less youthful body. A letter from Verlaine of April 16, 1875, to a friend of Rimbaud (Ernest Delahaye) to justify his final breaking-off of the relationship gives a picture, revealing although necessarily prejudiced, of the affair:
Let’s liquidate the Rimbaud question.
In the first place, I did everything not to break with him. The last word of my last letter to him was “cordially.” And I explained there in detail my arithmetical reasons for not sending him money. He responded by (1) impertinences decorated by obscure threats of blackmail, (2) apothecary accountings in which he demonstrated to me that it was a good business investment to “lend” him the sum in question…. In a word, speculation on my former stupidity, on my guilty folly of a short time ago of wishing to live only for him and his inspiration—plus the coarse manners at last insupportable—of a child that I spoiled too much and who pays me (o logic, o the justice of things) with the most stupid ingratitude; For has he not really killed the hen with the golden eggs:
Therefore, I have not broken with him. I am waiting for excuses without promising anything, and if I sulk, well, then, I sulk…. Eighteen months of what you know, my little savings considerably diminished, my marriage destroyed, my advice rejected, with the grossest lack of manners! Thank you!
After Rimbaud’s permanent withdrawal from literature, Verlaine collected as much of his work as had not been burned vengefully by Verlaine’s wife, and began after some years to publish it.
Rimbaud’s precocity was perhaps the most astonishing in the history of literature, with some of his most famous poems written when he was sixteen. His work fundamentally altered the subsequent history of literature, and had a profound influence on the French Surrealists and later French poets, as well as on the Americans Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, and Hart Crane. In an address at Harvard in 1936 on freedom in literature, Stevens chose only a single quotation to illustrate his topic, a paragraph from one of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, called “Ruts” in John Ashbery’s new translation. He introduces the quotation with a comment that gives us a good idea of the fundamental importance of Rimbaud for modern literature. Stevens asks:
When we find in poetry that which gives us a momentary existence on an exquisite plane, is it necessary to ask the meaning of the poem? If the poem had a meaning and if its explanation destroyed the illusion, should we have gained or lost?
Stevens returns to Rimbaud later in the lecture with the observation:
In spite of the cynicisms that occur to us as we hear of such things, a freedom not previously experienced, a poetry not previously conceived of, may occur with the suddenness inherent in poetic metamorphosis. For poets, that possibility is the ultimate obsession. They purge themselves before reality, in the meantime, in what they intend to be saintly exercises.
You will remember the letter written by Rimbaud to M. Delahaye, in which he said:
It is necessary to be a seer, to make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense and reasoned unruliness of the senses…. He attains the unknown.
It was this venture into the unknown that gave Rimbaud his international stature.
Rimbaud admired Verlaine and learned from him. Nevertheless, Rimbaud’s finest work had a classical mastery that equaled the older man’s, and his last works after the age of nineteen contained a radical vision that had no rival except in the very different work of Mallarmé.
Illuminations may not be the absolutely final work of Rimbaud as these prose poems both precede and follow the writing of the semi-autobiographical A Season in Hell, a book that Rimbaud himself had printed, and then left the copies unpaid for at the printers, to be rediscovered more than twenty years later. Verlaine’s work has a variety of effects with a kind of virtuosity that makes him look occasionally like a trickster when compared with Rimbaud; he was technically the most accomplished poet of his time, with the exception of the old Victor Hugo, who overlapped with the beginning of his career.
The tasks of translating the late prose poems of Rimbaud and the intricate and elaborate verse constructions of Verlaine are very different ones. It must be said that John Ashbery’s project of rendering Rimbaud’s prose is the simpler one. Ashbery, already enshrined as a classic in the Library of America, never loses his sense of ease and grace. He is the great surviving representative of the New York School of Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch; but he rarely indulged in the roughhouse that occasionally marked their style, and he had from the beginning an easygoing serenity and a delicate ear for sound that was all his own. His translation has sharpness as well as serenity, and he transmits the elegance of the original. His version of “Mystical” keeps the force as well. This poem conveys with a studied precision the freewheeling power of irrational imagery that so fascinated Stevens in Rimbaud. It opens:
On the slope of the embankment, angels swirl their woolen dresses through pastures of steel and emerald.
Meadows of flame leap to the top of the knoll. On the left, the compost of the ridge has been trampled by all the homicides and all the battles, and all the catastrophic sounds describe their curve. Behind the right-hand ridge is the line of orients, of progress.
This is a landscape not only of imagination, but of an imagination still affecting us profoundly, from which logic has been tossed aside. While “pastures of steel and emerald” gives us a jolt that does not entirely pass away when we realize it is a metaphor for color, the phrase retains its force along with the narrative that follows, which is inexplicable but does not seem to call for explanation.
The opening landscape of another prose poem, “Historic Evening,” is even more challenging:
For example, on whatever evening the naïve tourist finds himself retired from our economic horrors, the hand of a virtuoso animates the harpsichord of the fields; they’re playing cards at the bottom of the pond, mirror that conjures up queens and favorites, they have female saints, veils, and threads of harmony, and legendary chromaticisms, against the sunset.
He shudders at the passing of huntsmen and hordes. Comedy drips onto the trestles of the lawn. And the confusion of the poor and the weak at those stupid levels!
It was with such radical measures that Rimbaud liberated the poetry of the next century when his work was at last discovered by other poets and the public.
As Stevens warned us above, the proper approach to poems like these is certainly not a stern “What do you mean by this?” like a parent dealing with a recalcitrant child. Nevertheless, many of the prose poems in Illuminations have inspired elaborate commentary, some of it useful and even valuable, into which we shall not enter here. There is, indeed, probably always a meaning, but it must be found starting with the effect of the prose on our sensibility and emotions, with analysis playing a secondary role.
There are a few unimportant inaccurate details in Ashbery’s translations. The evident wish to avoid anything stilted causes him to miss a few nuances. In “Childhood” he writes, “That’s her, the dead little girl, behind the rosebushes.—The dead young mother descends the front steps.” But Rimbaud contrasts “la petite morte” with “La jeune maman trépassée.” Trépassée is more highfalutin than morte, and the “dead young girl” should be followed by “the deceased young mother” (or mama). Ashbery often uses colloquial contractions like “that’s” and “don’t.” Some of Rimbaud’s verse is often in a popular vein with demotic slang, but the prose of Illuminations is consistently formal. The long poem called “Genie,” which Ashbery and other critics consider the most impressive of all, is rendered eloquently. It is the invocation of a Christ-like figure, but one that is disconcertingly individual and original. I single out a few details:
He is affection and the future, strength and love that we, standing amid rage and troubles, see passing in the storm-rent sky and on banners of ecstasy….
He won’t go away, nor descend from a heaven again, he won’t accomplish the redemption of women’s anger and the gaiety of men and of all that sin: for it is now accomplished, with him being, and being loved….
His body! The dreamed-of release, the shattering of grace crossed with new violence!…
His day! the abolition of all resonant and surging suffering in more intense music….
O world! and the clear song of new misfortunes!
This is a very modern savior, who comes with the acceptance of violence and new misfortunes.
As Ashbery remarks at the end of his very fine preface, after musing on modernism in the arts:
Somewhere at the root of this, the crystalline jumble of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, like a disordered collection of magic lantern slides, each an “intense and rapid dream,” in his words, is still emitting pulses. If we are absolutely modern—and we are—it’s because Rimbaud commanded us to be.
Reading through the whole translation is an extraordinary and moving experience, however, and we must be grateful to Ashbery for making accessible a great monument of early modern literature in a rendering that is a convincing and continuous pleasure.