The Drunken Boat: Selected Writings 
by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by Mark Polizzotti.
NYRB, 306 pp., £16.99, July 2022, 978 1 68137 650 9
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Speaking​ of his remarkable version of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations, John Ashbery said: ‘I myself try to be very literal, and I frequently use cognates even when they might sound a little strange in English.’ ‘Are there times when that doesn’t work?’ his interviewer, Claude Peck, asked. Ashbery replied without hesitation: ‘Oh sure, on every page, many times.’ A great picture of the joys and travails of translation. Rimbaud is an intriguing case in this context, because although the words of his poems can be translated more or less literally, they rarely have literal referents. They are too busy delivering what he calls his phantasmagorias. There is a subtle precision in his saying he is a master in (‘maître en’) such things rather than of them, which Mark Polizzotti catches well with his ‘I am a master at phantasmagoria.’

Do boats talk about how they feel when their haulers have been killed and their crews have vanished, leaving them to float down rivers to the sea and an unimaginable freedom? Do they say they have sometimes seen what men have thought they saw? Has anyone ever been in hell for just one season? Do flowers, even magical ones, buzz like bees? What can it mean to say that when you were twelve years old and locked in an attic you illustrated the human comedy? Or that one night at a party you met all the women of the old painters? These moments are all present in Polizzotti’s engaging selection of new translations, which includes, as he says, ‘about half of the major verse poems, half of Illuminations and the entirety of A Season in Hell, along with most of the known letters by Rimbaud up to 1875’. Polizzotti’s aim, he says, is ‘to provide an approachable, and I hope enjoyable, introduction to Rimbaud’s work’, and this project is a distinct success. It does leave, and perhaps can only leave, an interesting question hanging in the wind. Who or what was Rimbaud?

There have been excellent answers to this question, from long biographies by Graham Robb (2000) and Jean-Jacques Lefrère (2001) to Edmund White’s short but thought-filled account of ‘the double life of a rebel’ (2008). And there is no doubt, so far as I know, that a person called Arthur Rimbaud wrote the works and letters attributed to him. Or that he was born in 1854 in north-eastern France and died in Marseille in 1891, having spent the latter part of his life in Africa. Or that he was a teenage poet who stopped writing when he was twenty. But then what is the relation of a historical person to a work that scarcely ever seems straight – that seeks, in White’s words, to ‘strain meaning to the very limits’? Can history live by metaphors alone? One answer is yes – we may want to hang on to biographical interpretations at any price.

But there are tracks that respect historical destinies and also lead in other directions. Rimbaud himself announced such a possibility when he memorably said, in letters to friends, that ‘I is another,’ or ‘I is someone else.’ We could translate the phrase (‘je est un autre’) more freely as ‘the first person doesn’t exist,’ or ‘the first person is always a third person.’ And of course the claim is most interesting if we take it as the expression of a plan or an ambition rather than a given state of psychological affairs.

With Rimbaud’s texts in hand, we don’t even need to go quite so far. We just have to allow him to be a writer. As in his claim that ‘only I hold the key to this savage parade,’ as Polizzotti translates it. ‘Wild’ would be the idiomatic translation of ‘sauvage’ – but, thinking of Ashbery, we may feel that ‘savage’ is a good cognate here, with its implication of relished cruelty. The ‘I’ here is the narrator of a prose poem called ‘Parade’, a title translated by Polizzotti (and Ashbery) as ‘Sideshow’. The words form the conclusion of the piece, which has evoked the various actors in an extraordinary, very messy play. It could be a circus that has got out of hand, or just a slice of life:

Chinois, Hottentots, bohémiens, niais, hyènes, Molochs, vieilles démences, démons sinistres, ils mêlent les tours populaires, maternels, avec les poses et les tendresses bestiales … Maîtres jongleurs, ils transforment le lieu et les personnes, et usent de la comédie magnétique. Les yeux flambent, le sang chante, les os s’élargissent, les larmes et des filets rouges ruissellent.

Chinese, Hottentots, Bohemians, simpletons, hyenas, Molochs, old dementias, sinister demons, they mix popular, maternal numbers with poses and bestial tenderness … Master jugglers, they transform places and people, use magnetic comedy. Eyes flame, blood sings, bones expand, tears and crimson trickles flow down.

I especially like the idea of bestial tenderness and magnetic comedy. And I am also inclined to see the final line as a signature for almost all of Rimbaud’s work: a savage parade that he controls, or says he controls. This is not an original idea. After I had written that sentence I discovered that the leading journal in Rimbaud studies is called Parade sauvage. Much to be said for walks among the stacks in a library.

I would want to complete the signature with another quotation, though, because control in Rimbaud never lasts long before running into its opposite, a sort of mystical ignorance. There is just such a proposition in another poem from Illuminations: ‘Our desire lacks learned music.’ We note that the person has moved from ‘I’ to ‘we’ without turning into another. It is significant that the ‘I’ is claiming knowledge while the ‘we’ know only that the music of knowing (‘la musique savante’) is absent. Which do we prefer? Bravado or pathos? Sometimes we may not have to choose.

In ‘The Drunken Boat’, the ‘I’ does not turn into a ‘we’, but it works through something of the same dilemma. The key terms here, though, would be independence and disappointment rather than control and lack. The boat escapes into amazing cognitive adventures:

J’ai heurté, savez-vous, d’incroyables Florides
Mêlant aux fleurs des yeux de panthères à peaux
D’hommes! Des arcs-en-ciel tendus comme des brides
Sous l’horizon des mers, à de glauques troupeaux!

J’ai vu fermenter les marais énormes, nasses
Où pourrit dans les joncs tout un Léviathan!
Des écroulements d’eaux au milieu des bonaces,
Et les lointains vers les gouffres cataractant!

I crashed, don’t you know, into fabulous Floridas
Where flowers combine with the eyes of black panthers
In human skin! Rainbows stretched taut like reins
’Neath the surface of oceans to greenish blue herds!

I’ve seen fermenting great swamps, and fish traps
Amid bullrushes where a Leviathan rots!
I’ve seen torrents of water fall into flat calm,
And distant cascades rushing towards the abyss!

But then, at the height of these ecstatic memories, the boat recognises its own sadness, and its ultimately quite different needs. It says it misses Europe, defined by ‘old parapets’, and thinks not of great oceans but of a ‘puddle black and cold’ where a child sails its fragile toy boat. What went wrong, and what happened to the watery parade? The ‘I’ in this case becomes another, as it is supposed to, but only another ‘I’, not so much the truth beneath the travelling self as the other half of a seriously split story.

Elsewhere, even when the ‘I’, still vaguely maritime, is openly sorry for itself – ‘My sad heart slobbers at the poop’ – something else is going on. The form of ‘The Tortured Heart’ requires some lines to appear three times in each of three stanzas, which could produce an appropriately mournful effect, as in a villanelle. But maybe not, if the repeated line is ‘Ithyphalliques et pioupiesques’ and also needs a double rhyme, which in French becomes ‘fresques’ and ‘abracadabrantesques’. Since when do tortured hearts have such a good verbal time?

Here are some lines from a wonderful poem called ‘Memory’. There are only third persons here, but the effect of everything going scenically wrong, of a ‘she’ and a ‘they’ and a ‘he’ failing to connect, is very marked. It’s as if an Impressionist painting were to turn into a short movie. Even the line break between the meadow and its location seems to be part of the camerawork:

Madame se tient trop debout dans la prairie
prochaine où neigent les fils du travail; l’ombrelle
aux doigts, foulant l’ombelle; trop fière pour elle;
des enfants lisant dans la verdure fleurie

leur livre de maroquin rouge! Hélas, Lui, comme
mille anges blancs qui se séparent sur la route,
s’éloigne par delà la montagne! Elle, toute
froide, et noire, court! après le départ de l’homme!

Madam stands too erect in the meadow
nearby where filaments of her labour snow; parasol
between her fingers rolled; careless stroll; too proud;
offspring reading on the flowering knoll

their books bound in red leather! Alas, He, like
a thousand white angels who part on the road
is already setting off past the hills! She,
all frigid and black, runs! after the man is gone!

Polizzotti’s ‘rolled’, ‘stroll’ and ‘knoll’ are very good inventions, but nothing is quite going to catch the jangling irony of the French ‘ombrelle’, ‘ombelle’ and ‘pour elle’ – why would a parasol sound like an umbel, a botanical cluster some of us have never heard of? Or why would a poet dig up the echo? Geoffrey Hill writes of a tendency to ‘crave ambiguity in plain speaking/as I do’ (in ‘In Memoriam: Ernst Barlach’), but Rimbaud seems to be mocking the poverty of his mother tongue, its miserly repetition of similar sounds for such different purposes.

But then of course the very idea of poverty is contradicted by the high jinks Rimbaud is creating with rhymes and echoes. And contradiction is, after all, the name of the game. Unless the game has a related but more elusive title, one that would invoke a knowledge beyond all contradiction but as it happens unavailable, withheld rather than just missing. In one of the poems of Illuminations, a figure appears who may be even more powerful than the boy genius who does or does not have the key to the savage parade. She is ‘the Queen, the Sorceress who stokes her embers in an earthen pot’, and who ‘will never deign to tell us what she knows, and we do not’. ‘Raconter’ is the perfect French word here, suggesting not just information but a whole story that is not going to reach us. All we have – though this is itself a paradoxical form of wealth – is our own stock of crazy shows and tales.

The shifts of tone and register are wonderful, especially in Illuminations. Here is the way we get from mock-casual to urban gothic within a few lines:

Je suis un éphémère et point trop mécontent citoyen d’une métropole crue moderne parce que tout goût connu a été éludé dans les ameublements et l’extérieur des maisons aussi bien que dans le plan de la ville. Ici vous ne signaleriez les traces d’aucun monument de superstition. La morale et la langue sont réduites à leur plus simple expression, enfin! … de ma fenêtre, je vois des spectres nouveaux roulant à travers l’épaisse et éternelle fumée de charbon … des Erinnyes nouvelles … la Mort sans pleurs, notre active fille et servante, et un Amour désespéré et un joli Crime piaulant dans la boue de la rue.

I am the transitory and not too disgruntled citizen of a metropolis considered modern because any appreciable taste has been evaded, in the furnishings and fronts of houses as in the city plan. You’ll find no trace here of any monument to superstition. Morals and language have been reduced to their simplest expression, at last! … I watch from my window new spectres, new Furies, gliding through the dense, eternal soot … Death without tears, our active maidservant; and a desperate Cupid; and a handsome Crime whimpering in the street filth.

A Season in Hell has a sort of narrative sequence, and parts of it are plainly, if also luridly and metaphorically, autobiographical. There is a section that depicts Rimbaud’s violent and much interrupted affair with Paul Verlaine – you can see a plaque recording their stay in London on Royal College Street in Camden Town. Verlaine is the Foolish Virgin and Rimbaud the Infernal Bridegroom, and the section is called ‘Deliria I’. The Virgin reports that she has ‘neglected all my human duties to follow him’, and wonders whether he has ‘the secrets to change life’. He laughs ‘long and horribly’. Altogether a ‘drôle de ménage’, as she says. There is a second Delirium, entitled ‘Alchemy of the Word’, which is Rimbaud’s account of his career as a poet – ‘one of my follies’, as he says. ‘I transcribed silences and nights,’ he says, ‘recorded the inexpressible. I captured whirlwinds.’ The last phrase is inventive, but ‘je fixais des vertiges’ is even more … dizzying. ‘I got used to simple hallucinations,’ Rimbaud continues. ‘I saw clear as day a mosque in place of a factory.’ ‘I became a fabulous opera’ – a way of saying that even if he didn’t have the key he was the parade.

And all these remarks point to one of Rimbaud’s favourite and most powerful literary moves: the flight into a mythology that seems less mythological every minute, not literal but definitely real. There is, for example, the Christian framework of hell and sin. Rimbaud addresses the devil as ‘dear Satan’, a personage who momentarily becomes the reader, since ‘these hideous pages from my notebooks of the damned’ are ‘torn out’ for him. There is the colonial framework in which the natives with whom Rimbaud identifies have ‘always been of inferior race’. Later on he dramatises the recurring invasive moment: ‘The white men have landed. Cannons! We must submit to baptism, wear clothes, go to work.’ And there is also the myth of what Rimbaud calls ‘the decline of the Orient’. Everything the West does is far from ‘the thinking and wisdom of the East, the primary fatherland. Why a modern world at all, if it invents such poisons!’ Rimbaud rebukes both clerics and philosophers, who don’t see what they are missing, don’t realise that their ostensible progressive gain is all loss. ‘You are in the West, but you’re free to live in your East, however ancient you need it to be.’ We see why the Beats loved Rimbaud.

But we also need to see the desperation in such an invitation to freedom, and Rimbaud explicitly invites us to do this. He had, he insists in the last section of A Season in Hell, entitled ‘Farewell’, ‘called myself magus or angel’, but has now ‘crashed back down to earth’ and earned a new name: ‘peasant’. Nothing wrong with being a peasant, of course, even if you would rather be a magus or an angel. But for many of us, much of the time, any single name is going to be wrong.

I don’t want to end on this note, though, because its solemnity leads us away from the delicacy and lightness of much of Rimbaud’s writing. This is a strange thought, I know, given the violence of his imagery and of his actual, alienated life, but poets inhabit strange places in their words. One of the poems in Illuminations has all the force of a fairy tale, delivers the fragile truth of its desire, but also reminds us, with a tenderness that is not at all bestial, that defeats of reality are often short-lived. This poem, ‘Royalty’, is not in Polizzotti’s selection; the English version below is John Ashbery’s:

Un beau matin, chez un peuple fort doux, un homme et une femme superbes criaient sur la place publique. ‘Mes amis, je veux qu’elle soit reine!’ ‘Je veux être reine!’ Elle riait et tremblait. Il parlait aux amis de révélation, d’épreuve terminée. Ils se pâmaient l’un contre l’autre.

En effet ils furent rois toute une matinée où les tentures carminées se relevèrent sur les maisons, et toute l’après-midi, où ils s’avancèrent du côté des jardins de palmes.

One fine morning, in the country of a very gentle people, a magnificent man and woman were shouting in the public square. ‘My friends, I want her to be queen!’ ‘I want to be queen!’ She was laughing and trembling. He spoke to their friends of revelation, of trials completed. They swooned against each other.

In fact they were regents for a whole morning as crimson hangings were raised against the houses, and for the whole afternoon, as they moved towards groves of palm trees.

‘Regents’ is not a literal translation but it does add to the sadness of the story, suggesting that even fulfilled wishes may have to make do with replacements.

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