Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud, poet and ex-poet, took a 41 shoe – about a seven and a half in British sizes, an American eight. We have his own word on this, in a letter written shortly before his death at the age of 37, requesting a stocking for varicose veins. The jaunty teenager smoking a pipe in Verlaine’s famous sketch – dearer to Rimbaud’s admirers than the simpering soul in Fantin-Latour’s group portrait of the same year – has elegant legs. But of the eight pairs hidden from view in the Fantin-Latour, Rimbaud’s were surely the toughest, the most serviceable, when it came to getting about. Nimble feet on peasant legs which, against every impulse of peasant culture, drove him away from the farmyard across the dank pastures of Northern France and Belgium, and a few years later, down through Italy, racking up great distances in the course of a day.
Rimbaud was of course more of a provincial bourgeois than a peasant. Yet the nomadic disposition of the boy who hiked to the threshold of European Modernism is all the more striking for his redoubtable ‘country’ aspect and his mother’s own prosperous peasant ways. Something of these would surely have sustained the nomad. Verlaine’s vision of the fleet-footed trickster with ‘soles of wind’ is too ethereal. Rimbaud had a rougher and, in the end, more poetic sense of what it was to be on the move: ‘je suis un piéton, rien de plus.’ A poet, he meant to say, needs legs, whether they’re for pacing the same worn patch of carpet – any stamping-ground from Wordsworth’s Grasmere to Olson’s Gloucester, Mass – or trudging towards the evasions of wilderness, which was so often his own preference. That he died following an amputation above the right knee fifteen or sixteen years after writing his last lines of verse is one of the best known details of his life, and it remains the most haunting.
In the work itself, mobility is a relief. In the Illuminations especially, it’s also the animator of landscape and cityscape, giving them lustre and a mobility of their own, and preparing them, typically, for the visionary transmutation to which the work is always tending – to fable, prophecy, aphorism and hallucination. These are poems that can make the most of a room with a view, especially an imaginary one, but only at the risk of a morbid fixation: ‘from my window, I can see new spectres rolling through the dense and endless coal smoke … Dry-eyed death, our diligent daughter and servant, a hopeless Love, a nice little Crime, whimpering away in the filth of the street’ (‘Ville’). Once the poet is on the hoof, however, everything begins to ease up and move with him, in the manner of the city that Benjamin envisaged for Baudelaire. Rimbaud was not a flâneur. There’s too much of the forced march, and the habits of the robust boy from the sticks, in the way he gets from A to B. But in the Illuminations, the effects of parallax and the sense of landscape as a series of accretions – as though writing were a question of pressing forward over one brow after another in the rolling field of the imagination – make him just as much a Modern as Baudelaire. And more fashionably, they deny the poet any tenure at the centre of the poem.
Mark Treharne’s superb English versions of the Illuminations catch these shifts and transections exactly. In his rendering of ‘Les Ponts’, we can also follow the poem as it shears away into an analogical city of music, returns briefly to a moment in landscape, then pulls the plug on the whole thing:
Grey crystal skies. A strange pattern of bridges, some straight, some curved, others sloping down or cutting across the first at an angle, and these figures recurring in the other lamp-lit stretches of the canal, but each bridge so long and light that these dome-laden banks sink and diminish in size. Some of these bridges are still covered with small hovels. Others support masts, signals, flimsy parapets. Minor chords cross over, and sustain their sound, cord ropes rise up from the banks. I can make out a red jacket, perhaps other costumes and musical instruments.
Are these popular songs, snatches of concerts from the castle, the remnants of public anthems? The water is grey and blue, wide as an inlet of the sea. – A ray of white light, falling from high in the sky, obliterates this sham scene.
If walking helped Rimbaud get a thought or a sequence into shape, it was not his only means of production. In 1873, during two stints at the family farm in the Ardennes – one before the break with Verlaine, the other immediately after – he wrote Une Saison en Enfer. Sedentary anguish was the approach here, and it paid off. Yet his former classmate and devoted friend Ernest Delahaye tells us that much of the poetry was frogmarched into existence, ‘murmured’ forth as the poet exercised his lower limbs in the name of his high calling – ‘a senseless and infinite impulse towards invisible splendours and imperceptible delights’ (‘Solde’). Or even visible ones, as in ‘Enfance’: ‘I am the traveller walking the high road through the stunted woods … For a long time I can see the melancholy wash of the sunset.’
The original purpose of walking, of course, had been to get away from the stifling world of Charleville. ‘The town of my birth,’ Rimbaud wrote to his teacher and friend Georges Izambard in August 1870 (making him not quite sixteen), ‘is the most supremely idiotic of all provincial towns.’ To get away, too, from the leaden countryside of the Ardennes. In a letter written at the family farm in 1873 he complained to Delahaye: ‘What a horror the French countryside is.’ Then, of course, there was Mme Rimbaud. To young Arthur, it was worth thirty kilometres on foot any day to forgo his mother’s company. (His father had felt much the same and disappeared for good some years earlier.)
Vitalie Rimbaud had, in Izambard’s judgment, an incorrigible blind spot when it came to Arthur. She gave him few signs that she knew who he was, and these were mostly worried or disapproving. As one of literary biography’s bad mothers, she takes much of the credit for this wild boy. The dilemma, for those who have written about Rimbaud’s life, is whether to reproach her or set her down in a stable and send for the Magi. Arthur and his friends, who were good at cruelty, nicknamed her ‘la Mother’, ‘Mère Rimbe’ and ‘la bouche d’ombre’. Once he had given up poetry in favour of a trader’s life in the Red Sea ports and Ethiopia, he wrote home assiduously and, on becoming ill, returned briefly to her side. But the early journeys on foot were epic truancies from the stupors of home. If the train was prohibitively expensive – as a fare-dodger and a doubtful-looking character, Rimbaud spent a week in prison in Paris during his first escapade in 1870 – the cobbler was not. His mother would probably have settled the bills.
That first dash to Paris established the rhythm of flight and return. France and Prussia were already at war and a fog of suspicion hung over the city – whence the spell in jail. After his release, Rimbaud stayed in Douai with Izambard’s ‘aunts’, until his mother had him sent back. Over the next five years, the excursions became longer and the returns briefer. In Rimbaud: The Boy and the Poet (1924), Edgell Rickword, the first English poet to engage wholeheartedly with Rimbaud, said of him that he never ‘wrote a line of impersonal literature’, but the pattern of motion and repose that we find in the work has little to do with these inevitable returns in the life – the last of them in 1891, from the Horn of Africa to the Ardennes via Marseille, and then back to Marseille, to die.
The most celebrated respite in the work is the sonnet ‘Au Cabaret Vert’, one of a pair, which seems to date from the poet’s second truancy – this time to Belgium – after a ten-day spell in what we can only assume was the dog-house, following his removal from Douai in September 1870. The poem starts out, a little like Robbie Robertson’s song ‘The Weight’, with some heavy wear and tear (‘Eight days on the stony roads and my boots in shreds, I pulled into Charleroi’), but takes a turn for the better as the waitress, everything la Mother might have been, revives the poet with beer and buttered bread. It’s datelined ‘Five in the evening’: happy hour; it basks in a satisfied scrutiny of fresh baked ham, pink and white, still warm, and the head of a drawn pint gilded with sunlight.
In Rimbaud en Abyssinie, Alain Borer has useful things to say about repose and restlessness. ‘Rimbaud thought as he walked.’ (And because he covered so much ground in Africa, Borer maintains that ‘he never stopped thinking’, even if he’d stopped writing poems.) He also spots how often, when the poet isn’t on the go, he likes to stretch his legs or lie flat. Chairs are bad news for the visionary. The sedentary habit itself – notwithstanding Une Saison en Enfer – is anathema. It is ridiculed in the description of the crabbed librarians in ‘Les Assis’: ‘one flesh with their seats … don’t make them get up! It’s a catastrophe.’ Borer reminds us that when Delahaye went looking for Rimbaud in Paris in the winter of 1871, he found him slung across a divan. Sitting up with his back straight and his ‘soles of wind’ on the floor was no use to this poet, no way to garage those two great engines of poetic production – ‘Feeling good now, I stuck my legs out under the green table’ (‘Au Cabaret-Vert’). One can see the chair tilted back.
Rimbaud was prone or lounging, mostly at home, during his militant reverie about the Paris Commune, and it is odd that the legend of his youth still has an illusory whiff of the barricades. News of the proclamation of the Commune, Rickword argued, ‘must have aroused Rimbaud’s latent passion for action’, and a sort of action-poetry was the result – in Rickword’s view, ‘a wonderful rhetoric of faith in the rebirth of the Sacred City of the Revolution’. Charles Nicholl repeats Delahaye’s story to the effect that Rimbaud enlisted in a Communard militia, but like most commentators, believes this is a ‘tenuous anecdote’ which doesn’t line up with the dates of Rimbaud’s visits to Paris in 1871. Rickword concedes that the handful of pro-Communard poems written around that time might have been done in Charleville ‘on the basis of newspaper reports’ and a ‘hyper-aestheticised imagination’.
Rickword likes the political poems. So does Frank Jellinek, who said in 1934 that they were ‘more valuable than his presence [in Paris] could have been’. But these poems ought to pose more of a problem than they have for Rimbaud’s admirers on the left. ‘L’Orgie Parisienne’ casts the insurgent classes of the Commune as a furious rabble rising from the depths of dispossession to have their day. ‘Les Mains de Jeanne-Marie’ sets up a bland opposition between a salt-of-the-earth heroine – based perhaps on Louise Michel or Anne-Marie Menand, another stalwart of the barricades – and the powdered lackeys of reaction. The class-sympathies of the poem do not ring true and the dialectic is a parody of more complex feelings elsewhere in the work about change and struggle and writing itself.
Rimbaud’s revolution in language, which is what Rickword and Jellinek, both of them Communists, celebrated to differing degrees in the Twenties and Thirties, is more apparent in poems which are not so obviously to do with the Commune. It is an orthodoxy now, but for English readers at that time, without the glib assurance that every social and political instance was grounded in language, hard labour was required to build the barricade into the work. Thirty years later, when notions of radical textuality could enlist just about anything to any version of the struggle, Rimbaud’s political credentials went without saying. Perhaps that more recent facility is what allows us to stretch a point and salute him as an intellectual in the service of the revolution – the revolution in the streets and the arrondissement committees – as other writers and artists such as Jules Vallès and Courbet assuredly were, during the brief spring of the Commune. In Rimbaud’s case, the revolution served the intellectual rather better.
The wish to co-opt the poet-seer for ‘world historical’ purposes can lead to some odd contortions, especially for his younger admirers. (Perhaps that’s why it’s easy to turn against the work, as the poet himself did, though it’s also easy to see, coming back to it, that it’s far too good to carry the can for a reader’s misspent youth – Treharne’s translation makes this perfectly clear.) But even if one’s heart was hardened against them, the stranger reaches of the mind could conspire in all kinds of trickery. I can recall a dream, about 25 years ago, in which the young Rimbaud appeared as a street-performer in a pedestrian zone, part of some salubrious new city centre: he steps forward in front of a crowd of onlookers, throws up on the paving stones, points prophetically to a shapeless object the size of a pair of rolled-up socks in the pool of vomit and announces in English: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the frog of capital.’ It palpates very slightly. The Surrealists, for whom Rimbaud was so important, would have liked that; and it could always be glossed with a few lofty thoughts about poets purging themselves of the enemy idiom – profit, oppression, injustice, and so on – the better to serve the cause. But this is a delirium. Rimbaud had indeed undertaken a kind of ideological cleansing before the Commune collapsed, but it was more to do with distillation than evacuation: the poet, he says, in the second ‘Lettre du voyant’, written to Paul Demeny in mid-May 1871, must drain ‘all the poisons within him and [keep] only their essences’. The radicalism he had in mind, moreover, was that of the voyou/voyant or wide-boy/seer. He was finished, says Rickword in a briskly undemocratic tone, with ‘the tawdry virtues of the conventional mind’. Indeed, with ordinary civility. In the terminology of the Sixties – when his work found a real following in the US and Britain – he was becoming a head, not an agitator.
It took Rimbaud a few more years and hundreds of miles on foot to have done with this manner. When he did, the writing, too, was over. But, as Borer says, the walking persisted. In 1875 he walked through Liguria and suffered sunstroke. In 1877 he travelled from Charleville to Marseille, doing much of the journey on foot and, having boarded the boat for Alexandria, fell so ill that he had to put off at Civitavecchia. The following year he walked through the Vosges and over the Saint-Gothart pass into Italy, where he boarded in Genoa, again for Alexandria. Both Borer and Nicholl quote a famous passage from Delahaye’s memoir, describing a walk with the ex-poet, most likely in 1877 or ‘78, ‘his long legs moving calmly and very regularly, his body straight, his head straight, his beautiful eyes fixed on the distance and his face entirely filled with a look of resigned defiance, an air of expectation – ready for everything, without anger, without fear’.
Yet even in 1875, when there was plenty of coming and going, there is a niggling sense of redemptive exercise, a touch of the sponsored walk, about the many miles that Rimbaud put behind him. His ‘leagues’ are like beads slipping down a rosary, a mechanical penance for the long days and nights of indulgence during which the poet-idler let the devil fill his hands with cruel and glittering work: ‘I was full of lassitude, prey to a leaden fever’ (‘Délires II. Alchimie du verbe’). And this is part of the puzzle about the break with poetry. If Rimbaud is famous for anything, it is for being ‘meteoric’, and the abrupt descent from a career in letters which follows that rise is intrinsic to the legend: a legend about genius and repudiation in which the poet strips himself of his verses after five or six years of intense production and heads for the horizon.
This is the point at which Charles Nicholl’s wonderful book – ‘expressly not a book about Rimbaud the poet’ – takes up the story in earnest. Rimbaud is about to spend the remainder (11 years) of his life in Aden and the Horn of Africa, trading in coffee, fabrics, hides and obsolete rifles. He will also be taken by sudden enthusiasms, including photography – a substitute perhaps for the abandoned ‘alchemy of the word’. An important moment in this transformation is signalled by a remark in a letter of 1875 to Delahaye: ‘Je tiens surtout à des choses spécifiques.’ It’s as good a line as any in the poetry, so much so that it seems part of it now, and is taken to mean that the matter of the poems – the processes, if not the products – was finally too impalpable for their creator (‘Enough words!’ the poet declared in ‘Mauvais sang’. ‘I bury the dead in my stomach.’) The same letter to Delahaye, written a week before Rimbaud’s twenty-first birthday, includes the last dateable piece of verse, an obscure barrack-room ditty about soldiers farting. After that, nothing in the way of poetry.
If the poet ceased to be a poet around this time, the poems never ceased to be poems. Nicholl is not a debunker, but he doesn’t want a myth of textual purity, on the one hand, or a myth about the life, on the other. He, too, prefers ‘les choses spécifiques’. He sifts and reflects and, a bit like Borer, gets to the places that flesh out his story – Aden, Harar, the Ethiopian Habash, Djibouti and what is now known as ‘Somaliland’. He takes a bag of bare essentials from the life and work with him, and continually opens it for inspection. The result of these foragings is a poignant tale, beautifully told, in which the poet and the former poet intrigue together, across a lifetime and three continents.
What we often get is a retrospective sense of the years in Africa turning the work into a game plan, a series of agitated prophecies about some entirely different being – different even from the ‘somebody else’ Rimbaud had in mind when he wrote to Izambard and Demeny that ‘je est un autre’ (from which Nicholl gets the title of his book). It’s an irresistible paradigm that has us sneaking back to the work before we’ve even put a foot forward in pursuit of the man who can no longer be doing with it. It can be summarised as follows. Une Saison en Enfer was composed in 1873. The mode is valedictory, and self-punishing, but it is not the final work – Rimbaud continued to compose his Illuminations, which had begun as a handful of prose-poems some time in 1872, either in Charleville or during his first stint in London with Verlaine. Meanwhile, in ‘Mauvais Sang’, the first titled section of Une Saison en Enfer, an impatient voice still resonates: ‘My day is done. I am leaving Europe … remote climates will tan my skin.’ Within seven or eight years, this declarative ‘I’ turns out to have been the little voice that spoke the truth, for by the end of 1880, Rimbaud had travelled south-east via Suez and the Bab al Mandab strait and crossed into the Horn of Africa. Which throws us back on the writing again: ‘I was forced to travel, to dispel the enchantments sitting on my brain’ (‘Délires II. Alchimie du verbe’). Here is the greatest truancy of them all, not from Charleville or the family farm, or indeed from Mme Rimbaud, but from a precocious body of work that was destined for the canon. In a neat reversal of the axioms of biography, the man we are asked to follow into Africa is an emanation of French 19th-century literature.
From now on, he takes the form of a wraith-like creature striding away from the poems, a silhouette in long shot, something from a Sembène Ousmane movie, his outline rippling in the haze on a dirt road. But this is only another readerly delirium, in which the new being is neither poet nor trader, neither white nor black, no longer a child but not an adult; an ex-child possibly, or a dead child haunting the outskirts of a village (not Sembène now, but Amos Tutuola). ‘Ici-bas, pourtant!’ – ‘and yet still here on earth!’ (‘Mauvais sang’). And still held hostage by literary history, determined to poeticise his flight from poetry.
As Nicholl explains with great subtlety, what was a radical break for Rimbaud is for us only an affirmation of continuity. At moments we can hear the boy-poet intruding on the hectic, often plaintive letters home. ‘Decisive letters’, as Camus called them in L’Homme révolté, like this one from Aden in 1885: ‘We are in the steam-ovens of springtime now. Our skins stream, our stomachs grow sour, our skulls are troubled, the business is down, the news is bad’ – and, you might almost add, adapting a line from ‘Chanson de la plus haute tour’ (May 1871): ‘a morbid thirst darkens our veins.’ To Abdoh Rinbo, as he came to be known in Africa, the poetry that made him more ‘absolutely modern’ than even he could have imagined was a miserable indiscretion which, by and large, he succeeded in consigning to the past. And if it weren’t for the work, what happened next might be the story of any footloose, enterprising Frenchman who decamped to Abyssinia before the scramble for Africa was regulated at the Conference of Berlin.
The African itinerary was prefaced with a number of false starts. In Rotterdam in 1876 Rimbaud enlisted in the Dutch Colonial Army. He was despatched to the East Indies but deserted within a fortnight and made his way back to Europe on the Wandering Chief, a boat bound for Ireland with a cargo of sugar. In 1879, having succeeded in his second attempt to get to Alexandria, he worked as a quarry foreman in Cyprus – nearer Africa now – until he contracted typhoid and returned to the family in France. He went back to Cyprus in 1880, took a job as a supervisor in a construction company for two or three months and, at the height of the summer, left abruptly. He pitched up in Aden in July.
He made no mention of his previous job to his new employers, Viannay, Bardey and Company, importers of ‘colonial produce’, who engaged his services shortly after his arrival. The reason, according to Ottorina Rosa, an Italian trader who knew Rimbaud in Aden and Harar, was that back in Cyprus, Rimbaud had thrown a stone at a worker and killed him. The story has no second source, but subsequently, in Aden, Rimbaud slapped one of his native staff and a fracas ensued; later still, at the height of his frustrations in Africa, he tore up a contract with his Abyssinian militia – about thirty of them – after they had escorted him 500 kilometres from the Red Sea coast to the Ethiopian highlands, a journey of roughly three months. In the end, he paid them off, but he was not a person to cross.
When Rimbaud made his appearance in Aden, Alfred Bardey was away. Bardey ran the overseas side of the business and was preparing to detach his interests from the parent company in Lyon. The acting deputy branch manager, a Monsieur Dubar, was impressed by the new arrival and hired him to oversee the cleaning and grading of coffee in the company warehouse. Bardey, whose journals were published after his death, noted on his return to Aden: ‘M. Dubar tells me of a young man he has working for him … [he] is very satisfied with Rimbaud, who already knows enough Arabic to give orders in that language.’ By the end of 1880, Rimbaud had signed a three-year contract with Bardey to represent the business ‘in Harar, East Africa, or at any other branch or office on the coasts of Africa or Arabia’. Already a diligent – and shortly an importunate – correspondent, Rimbaud wrote to his mother and siblings: ‘The company has set up a branch at Harar, a region you can find on the map to the south-east of Abyssinia. Coffee, skins, gum etc are purchased in exchange for cotton fabrics and other merchandise. The country is very healthy and cool, thanks to its altitude’ – Harar rises at the edge of the Ogaden, about 6000 feet above sea level. ‘There are no roads at all, and hardly any communications.’
It took about three weeks for Rimbaud’s caravan to get from the port of Zeilah, on the Somali coast, to the fastness of Harar and there is no doubt that the going was hard. He remained in Harar for a year. It was a period of restlessness and self-reinvention that carried his obsession with ‘les choses spécifiques’ to fantastic extremes, as his febrile letters to Europe show. Imagine, for example, the distress of poor M. Batin, a precision-instrument maker in Paris, as he waded through the contents of a letter from Harar penned by an unknown expatriate in February 1881, requesting ‘a full report on the best manufacturers, in France and elsewhere, of mathematical, optical, astronomical, electrical, meteorological, pneumatic, mechanical, hydraulic and mineralogical instruments’. Batin would have gone on with a mixture of relief and alarm to note a deranged concession on the part of his correspondent – ‘I am not interested in surgical instruments’ – only to find him in full spate a few lines later: ‘I would also like catalogues of sports equipment, fireworks, conjuring gear, mechanical models, miniature constructions, etc.’ Quite what Rimbaud intended is a mystery, even if the madness is obvious.
Yet the real change here has to do with the moral ledger, with a realignment of interest away from the old forms of expenditure – the brief, spendthrift surges of work as if through some leak in the soul – to income. The list of disciplines and specialisms in the letter is a groundplan for gain, for time profitably amassed (not spent) in the measurement, and thus the mastery, of the universe, from the earth’s mantle up through the works of man and on to the firmament. Somewhere in all that was the dream of making a substantial fortune.
Alfred Bardey visited Harar in 1881. Rimbaud had gone down with a fever. Bardey told Paterne Berrichon, the first biographer, that it was syphilis – he saw the ‘unmistakable marks of it in his mouth’. ‘It seems,’ says Nicholl, ‘that Rimbaud took some comfort from a streetgirl and suffered the consequences.’ In May, with the heat of the season bearing in but the fever no longer on him, Rimbaud went south on a brief expedition in search of hides. He rode out at the head of his party wearing a red cloth and a turban – his companions made fun of him. Nicholl catches him at the south gate of the city, the Bab el Salaam: ‘He is, for a moment, happy. And beneath the badinage is something deeper: this “orientalising” of himself … is a classic moment of Rimbaldien effacement.’
On his return to Harar, Rimbaud was downcast. He wrote home: ‘I grow accustomed to this life of fatigue … I feed on my angers, so violent and pointless.’ In a short life, this innerly gnawing has a longish history. The famous draining of the poisons within himself, announced in the letter to Demeny ten years earlier, can very well be understood as a form of consumption. (In the letter, Rimbaud uses the verb épuiser, to exhaust, to use up, to drink dry.) Two years on, in Une Saison en Enfer, he proffers a short, brilliant, three-stanza lyric, probably written earlier and now appended contemptuously to a random slice of ‘Fêtes de la faim’ (also earlier), as proof of a wayward urge to write stuff and nonsense. The first verse of the add-on is a vivid precursor of the letter home from Harar:
Beneath the bushes howled the wolf
Spitting out fine feathers
From his feast of fowl:
And I, likewise, devour myself.
‘Fêtes de la faim’ and its supplementary verses in Une Saison en Enfer revel in the gigantism of desire – need even. But this was not the mood of the isolated trader in a thriving town on a remote promontory, towering over the Ogaden but not yet part of Abyssinia.
By the end of 1881, Rimbaud had ridden down from the holy Muslim city of Harar, headed east to the plains of Somalia and boarded a boat at Zeilah, bound for Aden. When he returned to Africa in 1883, he took a camera, which he had arranged to be sent from Europe at some cost. It is the object we associate most strongly with the African years because it had manifest results in three self-portraits and a magnificent study of a Harari trader surrounded by pots and hides and fragments of bark – perhaps medicinal, perhaps an aromatic for the ritual preparation of coffee. In the self-portraits, as Paul Claudel noted, there is something of the convict, an effect of the plain calico suits that Rimbaud wore at the time. The self-portrait ‘in a coffee plantation’ is the most extraordinary. We must cast our eye back to the androgynous cherub in the Fantin-Latour as we look at this caricature of manhood, the face and hands of stained mahogany, the hair wiry, close-cropped, the brow so drastic that it blots out all trace of intention in the eyes. (And yes, the prison clothes, which suggest that this order of manhood, like youth, is an incarceration.) The strongest impression is of there being no one here, just as there is no one in the Fantin-Latour. ‘Je est un autre.’ Both the painting and the photograph are likenesses of ‘somebody else’ and at the same time of an indeterminate missing person, or two missing persons. What is real in the photo is the rock and scree, the ragged vegetation that looks like thorn but may be a coffee bush, and the fact that the new Rimbaud no longer seems thoroughly European. Once more, the prophecy in ‘Mauvais sang’ stakes its claim to accuracy: ‘remote climates will tan my skin.’
It would not be long before Rimbaud sold the camera. His interest in the transformation of the visible world, the game of resemblance and difference, was waning. Perhaps the magical fixations of photography seemed too flip. For the moment, however, he hung on to his toy in the vague hope that he would be able to record feats of exploration. Above all, he was interested in trying to open up a series of routes from Harar. In August 1883 Rimbaud sent Constantin Sotiro, another Bardey employee but very much his own man, on a trip into the Ogaden. It was a success and duly followed by other excursions. By the end of the year, Rimbaud had produced a report for Bardey on the basis of Sotiro’s debriefings, and very likely a journey of his own. Bardey thought the report so interesting that he sent it on to the Société de Géographie in Paris. Rimbaud’s ‘Rapport sur l’Ogadine’ was read out at a meeting of the Society in February 1884 and published soon afterwards.
Rimbaud’s own subtitle, ‘a commercial and geographical report’, suggests how keen he was to give the art of exploration a worldlier-than-thou twist. In a letter to Aden about Sotiro’s expedition, he makes a wonderfully invidious comparison with another venture by the Italian explorer Pietro Sacconi, who entered the Ogaden at the same time and was killed, along with three of his retinue, by hostile ‘indigènes’. To Rimbaud this was a case of just deserts. Exploration for its own sake is a waste of time. It must be grounded in trade. ‘Sacconi purchased nothing and had no other goal … than to win a measure of glory.’ He was a fool, moreover, to stick to his European habits in the lands of Islam: ‘he ate ham and tossed back spirits in the sheikh’s councils, urging the sheikhs to drink with him; he conducted suspicious-looking geodesic surveys and’ – Nicholl’s translation, which evokes the disdain of the former poet so well – ‘he twiddled his sextants at every stage of the journey.’
It was around this time that Alfred Bardey came to know about the past of his young branch manager in Harar. He was returning from Europe. With him on the boat was Paul Bourde, a French journalist who had been at school with Rimbaud in Charleville. Bourde apprised Bardey of Rimbaud’s growing reputation in France (largely thanks to Verlaine). Nicholl teases the story out:
When Bardey next saw Rimbaud in Aden … he presented him with Bourde’s carte de visite, and told him – not without a smirk of success perhaps – that his secret was out. Rimbaud was visibly shaken, angry. He spat the words, ‘absurd, ridiculous, disgusting’. It is not quite clear from Bardey’s wording whether this is Rimbaud’s comment about his poems, or about his former lifestyle in general, or about the fact that Bardey had found out about it.
Rimbaud concedes that ‘he had known some writers and painters in the Latin quarter, “but no musicians”’ – an echo there of the mad exemption of ‘surgical instruments’ in the letter to M. Batin.
Then, with an almost visible gesture of dismissal: ‘assez connu ces oiseaux-là’. Enough of these types. Of his friendship with Verlaine he will say nothing. Bardey presses. But you lived together in England? Rimbaud shrugs it off. ‘Une ivrognerie.’ This is all he will say of it. It was drunkenness; it was just a binge.
By Nicholl’s reckoning, the poet’s past has now caught up with him, after ‘three years in this strange zone of silence’, which may explain why, when the Société de Géographie wrote to him requesting a photograph and a curriculum vitae, he failed to reply.
Three years later, in 1887, Rimbaud prepared another report for the Society, an account of a journey east from the highlands of Abyssinia – and the domain of the Shoan king, Menelik II – to Harar. His notes on the trip (‘beautiful, wooded countryside, not much cultivated’; ‘splendid valleys crowned with forests in whose shadows we walk’) are the jottings of a free man, out in the open again, after what had become a disastrous confinement in Shoa. Between the time of Sotiro’s expedition and this one, Rimbaud had left Bardey’s company and embarked on a range of money-making ventures including the notorious arms deal with Menelik that cost him so dear in terms of morale and physical health. It involved hair-raising bouts of anxiety on the coast in the summer of 1886, assembling a large caravan and clearing it for departure. Pierre Labatut, his original partner in the enterprise, fell ill in June – and later died – and when Rimbaud found another, he, too, was obliging enough to drop dead in September. Rimbaud set out for Shoa in October, where he met with a series of bitter disappointments and was held for three months as a captive guest in Menelik’s court.
He had arrived in Shoa with about 1500 decommissioned percussion rifles, a handful of elephant guns, twenty Remingtons and three-quarters of a million rounds of ammunition for Menelik, whose star was on the rise. (Menelik incorporated Harar into his Abyssinian domains early in 1887. On taking the town, he climbed the minaret of the Grand Mosque and urinated down it; then he ordered it razed and had an Orthodox church built in its place.) Menelik was an astute character who knew he had Rimbaud trapped in Shoa, his potential profit being whittled away as Labatut’s Shoan creditors, genuine and specious, beset him with claims. Around him, meanwhile, the King span a web of abstruse Amhara courtesies and protocols – the kind, says Nicholl, that can still be found in Addis Ababa today:
Anyone who has stumbled into the snares of Ethiopian bureaucracy, who has stared at the peeling, eau-de-nil walls of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who has rattled the padlocked gates of the consular official, who has waited in drowsy antechambers for the signings and counter-signings and stampings and frankings of florid-looking documents quite indispensable until finally issued and never once demanded or perused thereafter – they will know just a little of the knuckle-whitening frustrations that Rimbaud underwent during the spring of 1887.
When he left the highlands, he was exhausted. Menelik had beaten him down. Rimbaud let him have the whole consignment for about one fifth of what he’d hoped to make on the sale. And he had been paid with a promissory note redeemable in Harar. A year later he was still trying to convert it. From Harar he wrote to the Swiss expatriate, Alfred Ilg:
Write it down in your notebooks, and get others to write it down in theirs, that one of the nastiest tricks they can play on you in Shoa is to land you with these Orders of Payment at Harar … It is better to accept goods in Shoa, at whatever price, than a payment here. These payments here are tortures, disasters, tyrannies, an abominable slavery. The cash box is in the hands of [the new Shoan Governor, Ras] Makonnen’s slaves, who behave like hydrophobic monkeys and don’t let a single piastre slip out.
For the remainder of his days, Rimbaud was his own man. He set up shop in Harar and dealt in pelts, coffee, fabrics, kitchenware, aromatic gum. But he never fully recovered from the business with Menelik and all the creditors. Nicholl describes him surrounded by merchandise in a ‘simple single-storey house’ – one of three he lived in at Harar – checking inventories (‘scissors, fancy buttons, religious artefacts’, pots and pans, dyed wools) as his ‘clanking caravans’ headed up into Shoa. With all the bric-a-brac, the store must have had the same hermetic air as the parlour of a herbalist or a spirit-medium almost anywhere in Africa.
Well south of Ethiopia, a few years back, I watched a medium as she ‘became’ a leopard, stalking the sickness in two children brought for consultation by their parents: in the thin figure of the trader moving about the interior of his dark store – the outer walls and parts of the compound raked with sunlight – one imagines something of the same magical capacity. The great change, however, had already been effected. It had taken years to mutate from impatient teenage shaman into worldly commerçant, and mostly it had been a success. But where is the end of the line, and what an earth is the opposite of ‘magic’, if a magician can only divest himself of his powers by virtue of the fact that he has them?
Settled now in Harar, Rimbaud regaled the Europeans who came through with sardonic stories and elegant jokes. He was said by these companions to be excellent company when he wasn’t ‘serious and sad’. He had become an eccentric, a colonial type, heaving like a lover under the welcome afflictions of ‘Africa’, a little racist, and a little rougher with the locals, as they say. He could be sharp with Europeans, too, especially when it came to money, which he fastened on with a fury. ‘I never needed your wretched coffee,’ he wrote in the throes of this consuming passion to the trader Armand Savouré. ‘I only took it to close your account, as you were in a hurry. If I hadn’t done so you would have got nothing for it, nothing, absolutely nothing, nothing times nothing. Everyone knows this and everyone will tell you this.’ Some time towards the end of 1888 or early the following year, tired of the town curs pissing on hides he had set out to dry, he laid down strychnine. Two thousand dogs were said to have died in Harar as a result. A Shoan dignitary’s livestock were also poisoned and Rimbaud was eventually summoned before a tribunal.
Rimbaud had complained of a rheumatic condition ever since his fleecing in Shoa, but he first wrote home about trouble with his right leg in February 1891. By March he had ‘rigged up a bed between my cash-box, my ledgers, and a window from which I could keep an eye on my weighing-scales on the far side of the courtyard’. As the pain became unbearable, he designed a litter to carry him to the coast. The party, including 16 porters, left Harar by the Zeilah gate on 7 April and arrived about 12 days later. The first long descent was hellish and damaged the litter. Rimbaud tried to ride on a donkey with his leg secured to its neck, but gave up after a few minutes. On the fourth day, with the caravan lagging behind, he lay under ‘an Abyssinian hide’ through 16 hours of rain. The following day he sent back for the caravan, which arrived in the late afternoon. ‘We eat,’ he noted in his journal, ‘after 30 hours of total fast.’ From now on, when the party rested up, he had the privacy of a tent. The bearers pitched it over the litter, from which he could barely move; he would dig a hole to the side of it with his hands and ease himself over to defecate. On the eighth day he slapped fines on four of the men for ‘throwing me down on the ground’ after a four-hour hike.
He came off the boat at Marseille on 20 May. His leg was amputated on the 27th. After two months of convalescence he was brought to the family home in the Ardennes and summered under unseasonably dark skies. He was feverish, insomniac, riven by excruciating pain in his right arm. He resolved to get back to Africa. There was a final gruelling journey by train to Marseille, where he died 11 weeks later in the Hôpital de la Conception. Cancer was the final diagnosis of the illness that had struck him down. He was attended at the hospital by his sister Isabelle, whom he sometimes mistook for his servant in Harar. His last recorded words were dictated to her in a delirium the day before his death. They take the form of a letter to the steamship company, Messageries Maritimes:
ONE LOT: A SINGLE TUSK
ONE LOT: TWO TUSKS
ONE LOT: THREE TUSKS
ONE LOT: FOUR TUSKS
ONE LOT: TWO TUSKS
To the Director
I have come to inquire if I have anything left on account with you. I wish to change today my booking on this ship whose name I don’t even know, but it must, in any case, be the ship from Aphinar. There are shipping lines everywhere, but helpless and unhappy as I am, I can’t find a single one – the first dog you meet in the street will tell you this. Send me the prices of the ship from Aphinar to Suez. I am completely paralysed so I wish to embark in good time. Please let me know when I should be carried aboard.
By all accounts, when Rimbaud left the Somali coast and ran the arms consignment up to Shoa – a three or four-month trip, across one of the hottest places on the continent – he did most of the journey on foot, ‘with his hunting rifle, at the head of his caravan’. In the hour of his death he could only dream of trading in a cache of ivory for passage to a place where the sun would warm what remained of his body, set down somewhere on a pallet, surrounded by a clutter of goods for sale or barter, with no more walking in prospect. ‘Where or what “Aphinar” is,’ says Nicholl, ‘no one is sure.’ It might be ‘the ship from Aphinar’ or ‘the Aphinar line’. Isabelle may have misunderstood what her dying brother was saying. It may even be ‘al Finar, the Arab word for “lighthouse”’ – an image of solace that occurs nowhere in Rimbaud’s most famous poem, ‘Le Bateau ivre’, composed 20 years earlier. The fourth stanza, in Samuel Beckett’s astonishing translation, tells us what Rimbaud – one Rimbaud at any rate – thought of guiding lights:
I started awake to tempestuous hallowings.
Nine nights I danced like a cork on the billows, I danced
On the breakers, sacrificial, for ever and ever,
And the crass eye of the lanterns was expunged.
Whatever Rimbaud’s penchant for hardship – ‘if I have any taste, it’s for earth and stones and not much else’ (‘Fêtes de la faim’) – and however well it suited him to become his own most relentless creditor, the journey down from Harar to the coast remains an intolerable moment in the story. Adversity has got the upper hand and it is gloating: the poet long ago fell silent and now the man is undone. Alain Borer sees the party that left Harar as a kind of funeral cortège, and the journey as more final than the later crossing to Marseille, or the passage, later still, to and from the Ardennes. When he thinks of Rimbaud designing his litter in Harar, Borer is reminded of Malevich painting his own coffin. ‘At what age,’ he asks, ‘should you begin painting your own coffin?’ Rimbaud began in his teens. But one coffin was not enough. There are the little deaths in the poems (the death of the heart, for instance, in ‘Le Coeur volé’); there is the death of the idea of poetry, announced in Une Saison en Enfer, then the death of poetry itself; there is the death of the ambitious profiteer in Shoa, followed within a few years by the death of the idiosyncratic trader, the death of the walker and, finally, the death of the invalid. All except the last seem premature. But we know where to look for the poet and, when we do so, often enough we will encounter the walker, alive and well. He can still be found in ‘Ma Bohème’, resting up under the stars (‘my stars’) and inspecting his footwear after a hard day on the road – plucking ‘the laces of my ravaged boots like lyre-strings, one foot close to my heart’.
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