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 …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.