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.”
These paradoxes, and the extraordinarily conflicted feelings of admiration and dismay that Rimbaud’s story can evoke, are at the center of a powerful mystique that has seduced readers from Marcel Proust to Patti Smith. It had already begun to fascinate people by the time the poet died, in 1891. (He succumbed, at thirty-seven, to a cancer of the leg, after returning to his mama’s farm one last time.) To judge from the steady stream of Rimbaldiana that has appeared over the past decade—which includes, most recently, a new translation of “Illuminations,” by the distinguished American poet John Ashbery, and a substantial novel that wrestles with the great question of why Rimbaud stopped writing—the allure shows no sign of fading.
My evening reading. I highly recommend.