A Praiseworthy Poet

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Arthur Rimbaud, b. Oct. 20, 1854, the precocious boy-poet of French symbolism, wrote some of the most remarkable poetry and prose of the 19th century. His highly suggestive, subtle work drew on subconscious sources, and its form was correspondingly supple and novel. Rimbaud has been identified as one of the creators of free verse because of the rhythmic experiments in his prose poems Illuminations (1886; Eng. trans., 1932). His Sonnet of the Vowels (1871; Eng. trans., 1966), in which each vowel is assigned a color, helped popularize synesthesia (the description of one sense experience in terms of another), a device widely exploited by the symbolists. The hallucinatory images in The Drunken Boat (1871; Eng. trans., 1952) and Rimbaud's urging, in Letter from the Seer (1871; Eng. trans., 1966), that poets become seers by undergoing a complete derangement of the senses also reveal Rimbaud as a precursor of surrealism. Following his own dictum, Rimbaud lived an inordinately intense, tortured existence that he described in A Season in Hell (1873; Eng. trans., 1932).

The poet who came to symbolize alienated genius for French letters was the son of an army captain who deserted his family when his son was six years old. (Rimbaud cherished an image of this absent father as a man of action, a powerful force--while his mother represented restraint and weakness.) He was a brilliant student at a provincial school in Charleville, a town in northeastern France, until the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war (July 1870), when the boy turned rebel and fled his home.

Almost a year of vagabondage followed. He had sent some of his poems to Paul Verlaine, and in 1871 the older poet invited him to Paris. The Parisian literati rejected him as an arrogant and boorish drunk, but he and Verlaine became lovers. Their difficult relationship continued sporadically over two years and was a source of the great spiritual disillusionment that formed the core of A Season in Hell. (It was during this time that Rimbaud wrote "The Spiritual Hunt," a poem that Verlaine called his masterpiece. The manuscript vanished during the pair's chaotic travels.) Soon after the affair ended, Rimbaud abandoned his writing. He had not yet attained the age of 20. In another dramatic transformation he became a trader and gunrunner in Africa. Eighteen years later, on Nov. 10, 1891, he died in Marseille following the amputation of his cancerous right leg.

Alfred Engstrom

Bibliography: Fowlie, Wallace, Rimbaud (1966) and, as trans., Complete Works with Selected Letters, by Arthur Rimbaud (1966); Frohock, Wilbur M., Rimbaud's Poetic Practice (1963); Houston, J. P., The Design of Rimbaud's Poetry (1963); Petitfils, P., Rimbaud (1988); St. Aubyn, Frederic Chase, Arthur Rimbaud, rev. ed. (1984); Starkie, Enid, Arthur Rimbaud, 3d ed. (1961; repr. 1978).

Text Copyright 1993 Grolier Incorporated