Arthur Rimbaud
Arthur Rimbaud; drawing by David Levine

If you happen to be on the right subscription lists, the mails have been delivering some extraordinary “literature” to your address for the past year or so. It is sent out by recently established Institutes engaged in a campaign to correct the categories of our education and to undo and recombine the traditional disciplines of thinking and living. One organization in Chicago offering a curriculum of religious studies for adults describes courses in “creative participation in civilization.” The phrase made me laugh on first reading—and then think again. One of the fancy illustrated brochures from California proposes “More Joy: a Five-Day Workshop.” Life could be different; don’t be left behind because of timidity or lack of the proper catalogue. The mood may even have sprung forth in Austin, Texas. I am writing these words in the eye of Flipped-Out Week on the university campus. It combines protest against the war in Vietnam with a tone of “Mellow Yellow and all things gentle.” When outrage lies down thus with the pastoral, we and our institutions are taken unawares. Even the Presidential helicopter rasping overhead has a new sound.

In the face of these goings-on, it seems perfectly natural to speak of Arthur Rimbaud. Even more than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he carried within him both a revolutionary desire to change life and a bucolic impulse to return to Nature as he knew her in earliest childhood. He had lived through his own momentous flipped-out week, his historic five-day workshop. In the beginning of May 1871, aged seventeen, he ran away for the fourth time from his mother and the provincial town of Charleville, near the Belgian border. This time he went to Paris to join the Commune at the height of its glory. Out of that brief interlude of political euphoria and subsequent disgust came not only several important poems but also two letters. The texts of those lettres du Voyant are now seared into the very flesh of Western culture. They constitute a formal declaration of war against literature as an instrument of order and reason, and sketch out a Promethean program for attaining personal divinity.

Rimbaud’s creative participation in civilization took the form first of joining a social revolution soon to be quelled in horrible bloodshed, and then of trying to act out a personal revolution of poetic living that engaged all the energies of his imperious genius. Both ventures failed, I suppose, but the record is incredibly rich and convincing. In what may have been the last of his works, Illuminations, he appears finally to make peace with the world and to seek, by name, the order and reason he had scorned earlier. A burnt-out case? Not by a long shot.

Rimbaud was the last great poet that our civilization will see—he let off all the great cannon crackers in Valahalla’s parapets, the sun has set theatrically several times since while Laforgue, Eliot, and others of that kidney have whimpered fastidiously. Everybody writes poetry now—and “poets” for the first time are about to receive official social and economic recognition in America.

That is Hart Crane in 1926—aged twenty-six. Two years later in a letter to René Taupin, Ezra Pound wrote that he had systematized into an aesthetic what Rimbaud had discovered by genius and intuition. Young poets have been identifying with Rimbaud for decades. The myth relates the story of an adolescent evil angel who had recapitulated all human history and knowledge in a few years of schoolboy writing, and then forged ahead alone toward becoming himself, an absolute consciousness beyond good and evil. At twenty he had nothing left to try except travel, trading, and gunrunning. The reality of the life and the reality of the work are just as fascinating as the myth. We have been able to approach far closer to them in recent years thanks to Enid Starkie’s biography in English and Yves Bonnefoy’s searching study in French, Rimbaud par lui-même.

ASIDE FROM the still unresolved questions of chronology in a life where every week counted, and beyond all the autobiographical allusions in the work, the central question about Rimbaud has now an acceptable composite answer. How did this poetic sensibility come to burn so bright and so early and for so short a time? I believe we are confronted by a rare coincidence of fusion and fission in a human mind. The fusion process brought together several profound sources of knowledge and inspiration in a boy avid to know all. In Jules Verne and James Fenimore Cooper he discovered the allures of adventure. He was spottily versed in alchemy and magic and ready to accept them as powerful versions of reality. From Michelet he absorbed a form of messianic evolutionism that proclaimed a world made new through the mechanics of history. After the events of the Commune, he saw the need for a real political revolution that would liberate all humanity. He did not shrink from drugs or unnatural sex or any abomination. More than any other writer, Baudelaire instilled in him a belief in poetry as a transformation of life itself. The energy released by the fusion of all these elements gave so great a velocity to Rimbaud’s work that it often appears incoherent. Yet in the process he welded together popular and poetic language at the precise moment when Mallarmé was carefully taking them apart. The pace of Rimbaud’s imagination in all but his earliest work is so rapid that little room remains for any form of comedy or humor. Sarcasm is the best he can do. At top speed he is utterly alone, unaware of any public, talking to himself, lucid.


A mere mingling of these elements would never have led to fusion unless something else had been happening at the same time in the very center of his consciousness. I believe I can get at it best through a widely known and erroneous theory applied by T.S. Eliot to literary history. Eliot borrowed the theory and the term “dissociation of sensibility” from. Remy de Gourmont and applied it to the loss, in English poetry after Donne, of any real sensitivity to ideas as sensuous entities. In Remy de Gourmont, however, an individual poet and not a poetic tradition was the subject. He was trying to describe “The Sensibility of Jules Laforgue.”

He had a lively intelligence, but closely linked to his sensibility. All original minds are constituted this way: they are the expression, the flowering of a physiology. But by dint of sheer living one acquires the faculty of dissociating one’s intelligence from one’s sensibility. Sooner or later it comes about through the development of a new faculty, indispensable even though dangerous, known as skepticism. Laforgue died before having reached this stage.

Laforgue died at twenty-six and his sensibility can be best explained by the exact reverse of Gourmont’s theory. Skepticism, irony, the sardonic mood divided his sensibility very early, and the entire tonality of his work testifies not to a prolonged unity but a precocious inward division. Under even greater pressure, Rimbaud went through the same fission process very early, so that he was capable of being detached, of observing himself even at his moments of greatest intensity. We all come to it, as Gourmont says, sooner or later. But when this inner distance declares itself so prematurely that a boy of sixteen can declare lucidly “Je est un autre” he is obviously living on two sides of his experience at once. The I of “The Drunken Boat” is both a boat and a person, both object and consciousness, submitting and directing. At sixteen Rimbaud seemed already to have lived long enough to have lost his childhood and to be in search of it. Yet that can have been the case only if he had split off from himself in some exceptional fashion. He seemed to be two ages at once.

AN EARLY ONSET of the dissociation of sensibility defines Rimbaud’s particular kind of precociousness. It lies a long way from the sheer superfluity of talent that produced a phenomenon like Mozart. Rimbaud’s career displays a strong element of deliberate decision to follow a course despite its perils. In effect, Rimbaud chose quite lucidly to become Rimbaud, including our myth of him. Even Keats and Büchner caught onto themselves late in comparison.

Throughout his teens Rimbaud was forever watching himself. He also had limitless self-assurance and unyielding egoism. He would have been a supremely obnoxious person to meet in the flesh—pretentious, calculating, humorless, and outrageous in his willingness to employ even an obvious physical attractiveness to further his own arrogant ends. The photographs tell the story pretty clearly, from the tightfaced boy in his first communion collar to the tanned, emaciated adventurer in a sailor’s blouse. But we are now concerned with what this monster wrote.

On the surface his work appears to divide itself naturally into three parts. There are the poems, highly personal and written in more or less regular verse, something like a hundred pages spaced out across the three years from 1870 to 1872. Then there is the auto-biographical prose work, A Season in Hell, thirty intense and loosely connected pages composed in four months beginning in April, 1873. Passing harsh judgment on his recent past, Rimbaud appears to bid farewell to the long turbulent relationship with Verlaine and to the “madness” that Rimbaud had cultivated in order to achieve a new level of living and writing. Thirdly, there is the miscellaneous collection of prose poems called Illuminations, which were probably written and reworked between 1872 and 1874. Like Finnegans Wake and Un Coup de dés, they mark one of the furthest frontiers of literature. But Rimbaud lies in a different direction from Joyce and Mallarmé. In the Illuminations a totally hallucinated universe becomes indistinguishable from a literally noted sensuous realism. Language is not extruded as an autonomous reality but absorbed as the most direct instrument of thought.


NOW THE PERENNIAL problem in Rimbaud studies has been to reconcile two facts. One is that the Illuminations would appear to be the kind of writing he was saying goodbye to in A Season in Hell. The other fact is that, among the extensive quotations in the section called “Delirium II,” A Season in Hell cites nothing from the Illuminations. In other words, is it possible that the Illuminations were composed entirely or in part after A Season in Hell? Verlaine said so in the beginning and no one listened. Recent debate has brought in handwriting experts and the whole artillery of polemics. Scholars and critics are still very attentive to this dilemma of chronology and interpretation. It looks doubtful that many more hard facts are going to be added to what we already know. But one question has been asked too seldom. Are we to take “Delirium II” at face value and accept the short, delicate, transparent poems it does in fact quote as the ultimate expressions of Rimbaud’s “derangement,” of his systematic unhinging of his mind? During the first few readings, these little song-like verses seem entirely out of place as illustrations of the truculent prose. (I use Wallace Fowlie’s translations unless otherwise indicated.)

I grew accustomed to pure hallucination: I saw quite frankly a mosque in place of a factory…. At the end I looked on the disorder of my mind as sacred…. My disposition grew embittered. I said farewell to the world in the form of light poems [romances]:


Qu’ù jamais j’oublie.
Le temps dont on s’éprenne.

J’ai tant fait patience
Qu’à jamais j’oublie.
Craintes et souffrances
Aux cieux sont parties.


May it come, may it come
The time we will fall in love with.

I have been patient so long
That I have no memory left.
Fear and suffering
Have fled to the heavens.

A child could have written it; a child could understand it—or so it seems. All five of the texts he quotes (or rather misquotes: he keeps forgetting his own lines and supplying an inferior approximation) as the products of his madness and terror on the very edges of the world surrounded by darkness and the whirlwind—all these texts display a comparable simplicity. Is he being ironic? Is he mocking himself? On the other hand, it is virtually impossible to assign a single meaning to any of these poems; they are pure rhythm and music, a congeries of evocations that has not congealed into rational discourse. Three out of the four such poems called “Festivals of Patience” are written in end-stopped lines of five syllables, with more half-rhymes than correct rhymes, and using a child’s vocabulary. Even Verlaine, in his famous presentation of Rimbaud in Les Poètes maudits, seems not to grasp the importance of these romances even though he went on himself to echo their style in his own Romances sans paroles.

Can it be true that these beautiful, almost invisible poems represent Rimbaud’s most extreme effort to “note down the inexpressible”? Indeed it is true, even though we are now confronted with a paradox of style. The intricate, fast-paced texts of the Illuminations reach out toward the smoothness and order of a newly created universe. By an inverse relation of things, it is out of the throes of Rimbaud’s deliberate dislocation of mind and sensibility that issue the deceptively cool tonalities of “Festivals of Patience.” In this Rimbaud is not alone. Like magic buoys, Shakespeare’s songs often mark the real depths in his plays, moments when his usual rhythms would seem inadequate and when the most feeling use of words is a child’s ditty. And there are Yeats’s Crazy Jane poems. The educated Frenchman may tell you that Michelet is the French Shakespeare. I find a far more exciting encounter in Rimbaud’s romances and Shakespeare’s songs.

Elle est retrouvée
C’est la mer allée
Avec le soleil.

It has been found again.
What has?—Eternity.
It is the sea gone off
With the sun.

But for such an encounter, translation is all.

PROFESSOR WALLACE FOWLIE’S two volumes now make all Rimbaud’s texts available in English for the first time, and contain in addition a commentary on the most difficult sections. The Complete Works really are as complete as one could ask, including all the prose and poetry (except three minor satires out of the playful Album Zutique), and a fine selection of thirty-odd letters. The only omission one could possibly regret is the first drafts of A Season in Hell. It is all cleanly printed with facing English and French in one mediumsize volume with a brief Introduction and a minimum of footnotes. The texts appear in rough chronological order, with the Illuminations following A Season in Hell. The only liberty Fowlie has taken is to arrange the Illuminations not in the random order in which they have been discovered (we remain ignorant both of the order of composition and of Rimbaud’s intended arrangement) but in five categories according to theme. Reading them thus imposes a kind of sequence which I very much doubt Rimbaud would have wanted and which strikes me as too tidy. It mutes some of the inner contrasts and reflections that a less systematic arrangement brings out. The reason for this order is that the volume of texts conforms to the groupings proposed in the companion volume Rimbaud: A Critical Study. The two are intended for use together; in effect the one is a sustained commentary to the other.

Wallace Fowlie has been writing on all aspects of French literature and culture for some thirty years, translating and editing and reviewing indefatigably. When collected under catch-all titles as books, his essays are uneven and sometimes show a Catholic bias (A Guide to Contemporary French Literature; The Clown’s Grail). When he works on a single author who challenges his sensitivity to literary values, he can produce a work of genuine substance. Fowlie’s Mallarmé is one of the two or three important books in English on a very difficult poet. A Reading of Proust has the modesty to remain a reader’s hand-book of great practical and intellectual value. At his best, Fowlie is a superb interpreter whose learning rarely interferes with a direct reading of the text. This kind of writing clearly springs from a lifetime dedicated to the teaching of literature. There is no hiatus here between “teaching and research.”

Fowlie’s critical volume on Rimbaud is a re-make of two earlier volumes: a not very successful biographical study, now completely revised and tightened; and a study of the Illuminations, reproduced with only a few changes. Not so well sustained as the Mallarmé and the Proust studies, this is nevertheless a very useful book. It deals judiciously with disputed issues such as Rimbaud’s doubtful deathbed conversion, and subsequent billing as a Catholic poet, and the dating of the works. The interpretations are suggestive and cite many other critics. My reservations about the book concern its critical approaches. Fowlie has a tendency to value a poem according to its autobiographical content. “Every major poem by Rimbaud is the microcosm of his complete story” (p. 20). Such statements are either commonplace or misleading. The adjective “ornate” crops up a few times applied to Rimbaud’s style. But his sensibility was too impatient to traffic with rhetoric and ornament; any ornateness belongs to the vision itself and is not glued on. Fowlie’s last chapter, “Angelism,” elaborates a metaphor for Rimbaud that was dear to Claudel and Cocteau. In A Season in Hell, for example, Rimbaud referred to himself as “magician or angel, exempt from all morality.” But there is just as much about the devil and even more about an exasperated, supercharged humanity that sounds very much like Nietzsche. I do not feel the force of the angel figure and believe it will be a distraction to most readers.

The book as a whole, however, does not turn on the theme of angelism. Fowlie makes his points well when he demonstrates how in Rimbaud “the word is an action, rapid and devastating,” and how in the Illuminations particularly he achieves a nearly total fusion of dream and reality. These are the essentials.1

NOW THE TRANSLATIONS. There is no other complete collection in the field. New Directions keeps available Louise Varèse’s translations with the French of A Season in Hell and “The Drunken Boat,” and of Illuminations. Almost thirty years ago New Directions also published Delmore Schwartz’s translation of A Season in Hell. After a second edition it was allowed to go out of print.2 Individual poems and prose selections have appeared in translation in hundreds of reviews and little magazines in this country and England since the Twenties.

In Fowlie’s volume, with the original staring implacably across from the lefthand page, one has to be content with a faithful prose version of everything.3 The regular verse neither rhymes nor scans in English and no apologies are made. We are given the sense; the sound is left behind. The pressure, inevitably, is off, and the pleasure halved. Take one of the crucial stanzas near the end of “The Drunken Boat.”

Mais, vrai, j’ai trop pleuré! Les Aubes sont navrantes.
Toute lune est atroce et tout soleil amer:
L’âcre amour m’a gonflé de torpeurs enivrantes.
O que ma quille éclate! O que j’aille à la mer!

The language revels in two pairs of sonorous rhymes, several series of harsh alliterations, and an explosive rhythm at the end. Fowlie renders it thus:

But, in truth, I have wept too much! Dawns are heartbreaking.
Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter.
Acrid love has swollen me with in- toxicating torpor.
O let my keel burst! O let me go into the sea!

It is accurate; no neophyte, looking for a reliable platform from which to plunge into the French, will be misdirected. But the lines are limp in English. It reads like unsuccessful free verse. Most poetry is translated in just this fashion today. The trot serves a genuine purpose, but what happens to one’s ear? Louise Varèse tries a more compressed line.

True I have wept too much! Dawns are heartbreaking:
Cruel all moons and bitter the suns.
Drunk with love’s acrid torpors,
O let my keel burst! Let me go to the sea!

It comes off better if only because faster moving. But for that reason it makes a less satisfactory trot, without yet being a poem. Robert Lowell found he could hammer out only fifteen stanzas when he squared off with this twenty-five stanza poem. Having, naturally, eliminated the facing original, he introduces some startling new elements.

I cannot watch these purple suns go down
Like actors on the Aeschylean stage.
I’m drunk on water. I cry out too much—
Oh that my keel might break, and I might drown.

Oddly enough the first two-and-a-half lines read more like Baudelaire than Rimbaud, even though ivre d’eau is salvaged from an earlier stanza. The rhymes do not begin to rival the richness of the French. Nevertheless, if only because of its rhythm (echoing the St. Louis Blues?), one wants to sound out these four lines with conviction and excitement. And, though not strictly accurate, Lowell has found a convincing version of the last words.

The songs of “Festivals of Patience,” quoted in A Season in Hell, are if anything harder to translate. Pure crystal:

J’ai tant fait patience
Qu’à jamais j’oublie.
Craintes et souffrances
Aux cieux sont parties.

I have been patient so long
That I have no memory left.
Fear and suffering
Have fled to the heavens.

Why, oh why not use a contraction to catch the beat? Why retain a superfluous “that” in English? Merely replacing “heavens” with “skies” clips off a dangling line.

I’ve been patient so long
My memory’s gone.
My griefs and my fears
Have fled to the skies.

Not much better. But it is the direction one must go with such a poem. Louise Varèse opts for rhyme, but the result is still clumsy.

I’ve been patient too long,
My memory is dead,
All fears and all wrongs
To the heavens have fled.

There should be a trophy permanently awaiting anyone who can English such a poem, or even improve on earlier versions. Delmore Schwartz whittles it down even finer.

Patient so long,
I forgot forever.
Fear and Suffering
Are lifted away.

Now let us take a prose passage and see how far apart three translators can move.


On ne part pas.—Reprenons les chemins d’ici, chargé de mon vice, le vice qui a poussé ses racines de souffrance à mon côté, dès l’âge de raison,—qui monte au ciel, me bat, me renverse, me traîne.

La dernière innocence et la dernière timidité. C’est dit. Ne pas porter au monde mes dégoûts et mes trahisons.

(Mauvais Sang—Bad Blood)


You cannot get away.—Let me follow the roads here again, burdened with my vice, the vice that sank its roots of suffering at my side as early as the age of reason—and that rises to the sky, batters me, knocks me down, drags me after it.

The last innocence and the last shyness. It has been said. I will not take into the world my betrayals and what disgusts me.


We’re not going.—Back over the old roads again, laden with my vice, the vice whose roads of suffering have flourished at my side since reason dawned,—that rises to the skies, belabours me, knocks me down, drags me along.

The last innocence and the last timidity. It’s settled. Not to display my betrayals and disgusts to the world.


There is no escape.—Let’s go over the track once more from here on, carrying my vice, the vice which has put forth roots of suffering in my side since the age of reason,—the vice which rises to the sky, strikes me, throws me down, drags me along.

The ultimate innocence and the ultimate timidity. That’s settled. No parading before the world my disgusts and my treacheries.

Is it sheer perverseness that makes me find Schwartz’s out-of-print version the best? “In my side” is not very accurate, but it hardly does violence to the passage. The hardest parts seem to be the short sentences. “On ne part pas…. C’est dit.” Schwartz alone catches both of them.

I can best describe Rimbaud’s writing, poetry and prose, as an endlessly renewed coming to his senses. Having punished them, over-stimulated and overtaxed them, he finally arrests the hallucination thus induced and releases his senses to seek innocence and peace. It is not a savory story but a true one, in the flesh and in the work.

This Issue

June 1, 1967