Fleeing the Mother Tongue

Jeremy Harding

  • Rimbaud Complete edited by Wyatt Mason
    Scribner, 656 pp, £20.00, November 2003, ISBN 0 7432 3950 4
  • Collected Poems by Arthur Rimbaud, edited by Martin Sorrell
    Oxford, 337 pp, £8.99, June 2001, ISBN 0 19 283344 8
  • L'Art de Rimbaud by Michel Murat
    Corti, 492 pp, €23.00, October 2002, ISBN 2 7143 0796 5
  • Arthur Rimbaud by Jean-Jacques Lefrère
    Fayard, 1242 pp, €44.50, May 2001, ISBN 2 213 60691 9
  • Arthur Rimbaud: Presence of an Enigma by Jean-Luc Steinmetz, edited by Jon Graham
    Welcome Rain, 464 pp, US $20.00, May 2002, ISBN 1 56649 251 3
  • Rimbaud by Graham Robb
    Picador, 552 pp, £8.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 330 48803 1

Arthur Rimbaud, the boy who gave it all up for something different, is a legend, both as a poet and a renouncer of poetry. He had finished with literature before the age of 21. By the time his work began to appear in the 1880s, to great acclaim, he had become a trader and a minor explorer in inhospitable country, working for a French company in Aden which sent him across the Red Sea to run a branch of the business – coffee, hides and ivory for the most part – in the town of Harar, between the Ogaden and the highlands of Abyssinia. He looked back at his earlier life as a poet with some unease. This transition from the adventure of language to adventure proper is crucial to the legend.

Wyatt Mason’s is the latest in a long line of Rimbaud translations. Some distinguished figures have taken a swing at it, in one-offs or batches, including Pound, Beckett, Lowell and Norman Cameron. There have also been the thorough, proselytising translators, above all Wallace Fowlie, who wanted the whole oeuvre turned into English and the legend retold to Anglophone readers. And there was Edgell Rickword, in whom the two strands coincided to produce remarkable poems in English from a small number of Rimbaud’s originals as well as a book-length exposition of the legend in Rimbaud: The Boy and the Poet (1924). Mason belongs with the translators proper rather than the poet-appropriators, and he disapproves of the legend, for all the right reasons.

Far more distracting, in his view, than the dust cloud of the absentee ex-poet are the myths of the precocious boy, or ‘Adolescent Poet’; the deranger of the senses, or ‘Hallucinogenic Poet’; and, as the lover of Paul Verlaine, the ‘Gay Poet’. Mason means myths, I think, in the sense of true stories which become more than the sum of their parts. The problem with them all, he believes, is that they ‘put too plain a face on the poems’, which are ‘vessels of indeterminacy’ and ‘ambiguity’. As for the haunting, post-poetic phase of Rimbaud’s career, he does not feel this is ‘any of our business’: ‘Let our business be Rimbaud’s poetry.’

But what we know about the poet – or ‘think we know’, as Mason insists – is never far from what we bring to the work. Myth itself is a sort of discipline, muzzy in parts, edgy in others, and we can make our way into a poem, across several readings, with or without the life of the poet at our side. Besides, some of Rimbaud’s poems scoop up the riches of biography quite deliberately and redistribute them according to the hungry demands of form. ‘Memory’, for example, is a Life encrypted in ten stanzas. In the third section of this troubled riverbank meditation, a portentous ‘Lui’ appears – a version of the poet’s fugitive father momentarily bonded with the runaway poet – and a haughty, damaged ‘Elle’, also ‘Madame’, surely the silhouette of Rimbaud’s mother:

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!

In Mason’s translation:

Madame stands too upright in the neighbouring field
where threads of work snow down; parasol
between fingers; trampling flowers; peacock proud;
children read Moroccan-leather books

in the flowering field! Alas, He, like
a thousand white angels dividing on the road,
flees to the mountain! She, perfectly
cold, and black, gives chase.

‘Memory’ is an extensive poem opening up large tracts of grazing far from the designated sites of family business, before ending at the bottom of a river-bed. It is so ‘ambiguous’, so dense, that there is no chance of putting too plain a face on it: ‘He’ is more than one kind of absence darkening a landscape – the loved ‘man’, for sure, but also the sun going down behind the hills – while ‘She’ is precisely desolate, like a river darkened by shadow that seems to flow in pursuit of the light; in any case nothing as simple as someone’s mother. Certainly this is how it feels in Mason. Most of his translations are attractive and underwrought, yet they catch the rigours of the original – he hates the idea that because Rimbaud was famously all over the place, we might think his poetry sloppy or easily won.

The ‘threads of work’ in Mason’s ‘Memory’ translates ‘les fils du travail’, a phrase that has intrigued French commentators, and produced some interesting results in English. In the poem the world is seen through the eyes of a child, who conspires with the poet, under the shared pronoun ‘I’, to uncover its content of longing and loss. The ‘field’ with something thread-like falling through the air above it seems briefly to stand for the task they are performing. But what is that something? Martin Sorrell, whose translations are often less free than Mason’s, and never less impressive, takes a bolder turn:

Madame holds herself too stiff in the next field
where sons of toil flurry like snow; clutching
parasol; trampling umbels; too proud for her,
children in the flower-strewn grass, their noses

in books bound in red morocco! Alas, He, like
a thousand angels dispersing down the road,
fades beyond the mountain! She, utterly
cold and dark, runs! after the man has left!

That’s good, though rather different. Nobody quite agrees on who or what is ‘proud’, and both translators get over the problem fine, even if there’s a case for the umbels, or Mason’s generic ‘flowers’, being too tall for Madame’s liking. Sorrell is more literal with the figure of the running woman: it’s not just that she ‘gives chase’, but that she starts to do so after ‘He’ has already gone. This matters because ‘Memory’ is unsentimentally, almost pedantically, interested in our wish to reverse the irreversible. But in the Sorrell version, those ‘sons of toil’ snowing onto the field remain perplexing.

At first sight there appears to be a plain mistaking of the word fils – ‘son’ or ‘sons’ – for the plural of fil, ‘thread’. It is in fact a complex imaginative reading. According to Jean-Luc Steinmetz in his fine edition of Rimbaud (Flammarion, 1989), these threads are the drifting lines on which young spiders hang in the air in order to migrate, and which the French call ‘fils de la Vierge’ – ‘Our Lady’s threads’. In the original – no doubt this is Sorrell’s reasoning too – the lost ‘Vierge’, replaced by ‘travail’, is still audible to a French ear. And so, with the suggestion of labour pains and flurries of children, a disparaging little jeu de mots on virgin birth, quite in keeping with Rimbaud’s distaste for Christian fable, pings in the poem, resonating with an earlier, ironic reference to a young maid defending a parapet, and the later appearance of a ‘sacred bed’ in which the devastated ‘She’ had once revelled, post-virginity and pre-desertion. The same formulation, ‘fils du travail’, appears almost untranslatably in ‘Remembrances of an Old Idiot’. Perhaps it was a phrase that went round in the poet’s head, gathering associations and resisting meaning. It is brave of Sorrell to take the difficult option, yet both these robust translations reveal the lengths to which Rimbaud could go after a first flush of virtuosity to ensure that his poems were not some elegant form of self-congratulation: there was always another step worth taking away from the well-turned ornament.

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