Jeremy Harding

  • Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-91 by Charles Nicholl
    Vintage, 336 pp, £7.99, May 1998, ISBN 0 09 976771 6
  • A Season in Hell and Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by Mark Treharne
    Dent, 167 pp, £18.99, June 1998, ISBN 0 460 87958 8

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’.

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