On a winter day in 1883, aboard a steamer that was returning him from Marseilles to the Arabian port city of Aden, a French coffee trader named Alfred Bardey struck up a conversation with a countryman he’d met on board, a young journalist named Paul Bourde. As Bardey chatted about his trading operation, which was based in Aden, he happened to mention the name of one of his employees—a “tall, pleasant young man who speaks little,” as he later described him. To his surprise, Bourde reacted to the name with amazement. This wasn’t so much because, by a bizarre coincidence, he had gone to school with the employee; it was, rather, that, like many Frenchmen who kept up with contemporary literature, he had assumed that the young man was dead. To an astonished Bardey, Bourde explained that, twelve years earlier, his taciturn employee had made a “stupefying and precocious” literary début in Paris, only to disappear soon after. Until that moment, for all Bardey or anyone else in his circle knew, this man was simply a clever trader who kept neat books. Today, many think of him as a founder of modern European poetry. His name was Arthur Rimbaud. (…) When Alfred Bardey got back to Aden, bursting with his discovery, he found to his dismay that the former wunderkind refused to talk about his work, dismissing it as “absurd, ridiculous, disgusting.”
That Rimbaud’s repudiation of poetry was as furious as the outpouring of his talent had once been was typical of a man whose life and work were characterized by violent contradictions. He was a docile, prize-winning schoolboy who wrote “Shit on God” on walls in his home town; a teen-age rebel who mocked small-town conventionality, only to run back to his mother’s farm after each emotional crisis; a would-be anarchist who in one poem called for the downfall of “Emperors / Regiments, colonizers, peoples!” and yet spent his adult life as an energetic capitalist operating out of colonial Africa; a poet who liberated French lyric verse from the late nineteenth century’s starched themes and corseted forms—from, as Paul Valéry put it, “the language of common sense”—and yet who, in his most revolutionary work, admitted to a love of “maudlin pictures, … fairytales, children’s storybooks, old operas, inane refrains and artless rhythms.”
Stuck in Charleville while great things were happening in the world (“I’m dying, decomposing under the weight of platitude”), the once model schoolboy let his hair grow long, sat around mocking the passing bourgeoisie, and smoked his clay pipe a lot. His yearning to break away now made itself felt in the poems he was writing.
The sixteen-year-old went on to make an assertion that Graham Robb, in his idiosyncratic yet magisterial 2001 biography, refers to as the “poetic E=mc2”: “Je est un autre” (“I is someone else”). His insight, plain perhaps to us in our post-Freudian age but startling in its time, was that the subjective “I” was a construct, a useful fiction—something he’d deduced from the fact that the mind could observe itself at work, which suggested to him that consciousness itself, far from being straightforward, was faceted. (“I am present at the hatching of my thought.”)
But as you make your way through the poem, each stanza seeming at once to latch tightly on to the last and yet move further into imaginative space, it seems to expand into a parable about life and art in which loss of control—of the boat, of the poem itself, of what we think “meaning” in a poem might be—becomes the key to a kind of spiritual and aesthetic redemption:
The wash of the green water on my shell of pine,
Sweeter than apples to a child its pungent edge;
It cleansed me of the stains of vomits and blue wine
And carried off with it the rudder and the kedge.
Here, the two faces of Rimbaud’s desire to break out—the charming and the destructive—seamlessly come together, as the desire for consummation melds with a desire for annihilation: “Swollen by acrid love, sagging with drunkenness— / Oh, that my keel might rend and give me to the sea!”(…) Indeed, for someone who uses the word “love” so often in his poetry, Rimbaud comes off as a cold fish; the tenderer emotions seem hypothetical to him.
Full article by Daniel Mendelsohn at The New Yorker
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