BY FRANCIS GRIBBLE.
ARTHUR RIMBAUD is a writer more talked about than read. His strange career and bewildering personality are interesting even to people whom all poetry leaves cold. His is the literary analogue of the reclaimed drunkard or morphinomaniac. He gave up poetry quite early in life — while still a boy, in fact — in the spirit in which other men give up vices or bad habits. He not only gave up writing it, but ceased to take to take any interest in it. He remained indifferent to it (and to all kinds of literature) even when he woke up and found himself famous. Why?
That is the riddle. Perhaps it is a riddle without an answer. Up to the present it certainly has baffled the biographers — possibly because they have taken their poet too seriously. The explanation can hardly lie in his failure to make poetry pay; nor does it seem reasonable to trace it to the scandal of his quarrel with Verlaine. A poet does not suddenly take a disgust to poetry because another poet had got drunk and drawn a gun on him. Moreover, Rimbaud did not recover his love of poetry when he was reconciled to Verlaine. Poetry, after he had once ceased to write it seemed not to exist for him.
Heredity and early training and environment appear to be the only hopeful clues to follow.
His father, whom Rimbaud can hardly have known, as he was only in his sixth year when his parents separated, was a soldier, an adventurer, and a dissolute Bohemian. From him the boy inherited Bohemian tastes, vagabond habits, and a rebellious contempt for all respectable conventions. His mother, by whom he was brought up, at Charleville, in the Ardennes, was of peasant origin, with the defects and qualities of her class, parsimonious, avaricious, pious, most anxious to keep up appearances and conform to the prescriptions of propriety — a shrewd woman within her limitations, but hard, unsympathetic, imperfectly educated, and quite out of touch with the intellectual life not only of her time but of her provincial town.
She found her clever son, as people say, “a handful,” while he regarded her as a tyrannical oppressor. Their temperaments clashed from the first. His astounding precocity frightened her because it led him to take a premature interest in matters outside her range, which was absurdly narrow. It shocked her to find him reading what she deemed “improper” books — one of the works which she so denounced being Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, lent to him by one of his schoolmasters. So his life with her was a life of continual revolt. He ran away from home and was sent back to often that that adventurous proceeding may be said to have become a habit with him; and he grew up to be a rebel, not only against home influences, but also against everything that the average provincial citizen esteemed reputable.
HE DENOUNCED THE Government. He derided the literary idols of the day. When he won a whole armful of prizes at school he instantly sold them all to a second-hand bookseller for twenty francs. He let his hair grow long, and smoked tobacco which he smuggled across the Belgian frontier. He habitually used coarse and filthy language. At the same time he conceived a passion for self-expression in poetry, in which good judges saw great merit, though the general public took no notice of it.
All that at sixteen or seventeen years of age! He was weak, foolish, brilliant. He needed guidance and got none. There was no one to lick him into shape. He got into the wrong hands, and formed his famous connection with Verlaine.
It is a connection on which it is unnecessary to dwell at length, though it fills a large space in the biographies. The essential facts are these: —
Rimbaud introduced himself to Verlaine by sending him a volume of verse. Verlaine replied by inviting Rimbaud to visit him in Paris. The visit was far from a success. Verlaine and his wife were then living with Mme. Verlaine’s parents — most respectable persons to whom Rimbaud’s Bohemian manners appeared disgusting. Verlaine himself was not particularly enamoured of respectability, though he was, at the time, living a fairly respectable life. He and his guest, therefore, soon acquired the habit of deserting the domicile for the cafés and coming home drunk.
That naturally caused unpleasantness. Rimbaud realised that he had worn out his welcome and removed himself. Verlaine, however, preferred his society to that of the domestic circle. They agreed to travel together, and were together, first in Brussels, then in London, and then in Brussels again, supplementing the small supply of money which Verlaine received from his mother by teaching languages. The second visit to Brussels was terminated by their quarrel. Verlaine fired a pistol at Rimbaud and wounded him. Rimbaud gave Verlaine into custody, with the result that Verlaine spent two years in a Belgian prison, from which he issued, a provisionally altered character, orthodox and devout.
Mme. Verlaine, when seeking her divorce, made, as all the world knows, other and far graver allegations, which Rimbaud scornfully denied. The charges have been interminably debated, but the truth is not discoverable. On the one hand Mme. Verlaine was an angry woman in a mood to believe any report or tell any lie which suited her purpose. On the other hand, Rimbaud had recently proclaimed the doctrine that a poet must plumb the depths of depravity in order to identify himself with the Absolute. We have here the conflicting premisses from which contradictory conclusions might easily be drawn, so it will be wiser to draw none, but to content ourselves with seeing what light, if any, is thrown on the subject by the two men’s subsequent relations.
Verlaine, when they met again, was not only a pious man, but a temporary evangelist,1 eager to convert Rimbaud, who wished to keep out of his way, and had gone to Germany to learn the German language. Their encounter, after Verlaine had, with some difficulty, obtained his address from a common friend, is thus described by Rimbaud’s latest biographer:—
A day or two afterwards Verlaine got out of the train at Stuttgart, brimming over with religious fervour and apostolic zeal. Rimbaud received him with his sinister sneer, his cruel and obscene raillery, his leading him into temptation, dragged him from tavern to tavern, got him drunk, towards evening, and, in the course of a stroll through the suburbs, engaged the evangelist in a heated argument, which ended in a fight. Being younger and more active than the evangelist, he naturally got the better of him, and gave him a blow which laid him out, vomiting beer, on the banks of the Neckar. The next morning they were reconciled to each other, but talked no more of religion.
And Rimbaud wrote to the friend who had given Verlaine his address:
Verlaine turned up here, the other day, gripping a rosary. Three hours later he had denied his God and set Our Lord’s ninety-eight scars bleeding. He remained, for two days and a half, in a reasonable frame of mind, and my remonstrances induced him to return to Paris, on his way to England, to complete his studies.
It is not much to go upon, but the impression left, for what it may be worth, certainly is not that there was, or ever had been, any abnormal aberration in this singular friendship between two reprobates of genius, and that Mme. Verlaine’s grievances, though great, were not exactly what she said or imagined. Otherwise, one feels, there would have been either no meeting at all or else a renewal of cordiality.
After the Brussels fracas he had returned to Charleville, with his arm in a sling, and collapsed in a fit of hysterics. His mother, alarmed at his condition, reasoned with him to the best of her ability, and even made an unusual concession. By all means let him write, she said, if writing relieved his feelings. Perhaps, after all, there was money to be made in that way. He had better go to Paris, or back to Brussels, to look for a publisher. She would pay his travelling expenses.
In those circumstances, and under these conditions, he wrote Une Saison en Enfer. Poot, of Brussels, published the work in October 1873, and in November of the same year the author pitched nearly the whole edition into the fire.
What was it about? Why was it thus treated?
Nobody knows. This time it was not only the poet’s mother who failed to make head or tail of his poetry, or of his reply to her question as to his meaning that he “had meant exactly what he had said.” Critics who have studied the work are equally at variance as to its significance. According to one of them it is “a poignant testimony to the Catholic reality.” According to another it is the expression of a moral crisis which culminated in “the rejection of God.”
One need not take a side. Whether Rimbaud’s blasphemies were really piety in masquerade or not, his illiterate mother seems to have been right in her conjecture that the expression of them would relieve his feelings. It was, in Aristotelian phrase, his emotional cathartic, and operated with the expeditious thoroughness of the Fascist’s doses of castor oil,2, leaving him a new man, with a new outlook on life, though he had only reached the age of an Oxford freshman in his first year.
Literature had, so to say, killed certain devils which were besetting him. After it had fulfilled that function he had no further use for it, and it may very well be that his distaste for it was intensified by the cold looks which he encountered in literary circles in consequence of the rumours, slanderous though they may have been, started by Mme. Verlaine and her friends. His literary ambitions, in any case, gave place to other ambitions, half practical and half romantic, in the pursuit of which we find the traits inherited respectively from his father and his mother, first clashing and then blending.
He had his father’s Wanderlust and his father’s passion for the tropics and the Orient. He had something of his mother’s common sense and a good deal of her acquisitiveness. He was not disposed to follow the former in mere Bohemianism. Still less could he comply with the latter’s wish to see him a safely salaried rond-de-cuir in a bureau. Only in the career of a merchant adventurer could his two ideals be simultaneously realised, and he took the trouble to prepare himself for that career by the study of languages.
He became a schoolmaster in England in order to learn English, in 1874, and it would be interesting to have the reminiscences of some pupil or colleague who remembers him in that capacity and can tell us what sort of a figure he cut in it. He was a schoolmaster in Germany when Verlaine, fresh from prison, ran after him to reclaim his acquaintance and preach the Gospel to him. Other languages in which he is understood to have made some progress were Italian, Russian, modern Greek, Dutch, and Hindustani. He even had the idea, though he never realised it, of taking the trouble to pass a public examination.
None the less, he got off with difficulty. His friends — and some of his schoolmasters had remained his friends — seem to have been either unwilling or unable to help him. Probably they knew too much about him to care for the responsibility of recommending him for a position of trust. Already at nineteen he was a man with a past. His manners were ordinarily atrocious, though he could make himself agreeable when he chose, and everyone who knew him at all knew that he was addicted to drugs as well as to profane language and strong drink. Consequently he made many false starts — some of them painful and others picturesque — before he succeeded in establishing himself in the East.
FIRST, STARTING FROM Stuttgart, he set out on foot for Brindisi, hoping to join a friend who had a soap factory in one of the Ægean Islands. He had a sunstroke on the road, and was sent back to Marseilles by the French Consul at Leghorn. There he worked as a dock labourer, enlisted in a corps which some agent of Don Carlos was recruiting, but deserted a few days afterwards, spending the bounty which he received on a ticket to Charleville. Then, being exempt from military service in France because his brother was with the colours, he tramped all the way to the Helder and obtained another bounty by enlisting in the Dutch Colonial Army, deserted again as soon as he got to Java, and, finding no other opening for his talents, worked his passage back to Europe on an English wind-jammer.
His next idea was to get to the Near East by way of the Danube. He got as far as Vienna, but there fell into bad company, was robbed by a cabman, fought with a policeman, and was put over the frontier as an “undesirable.” Having tramped to Hamburg, he joined a travelling circus in the capacity of interpreter, but tied of the position and was shipped home, at his own request, from Stockholm by the French Consul. He then started for Alexandria, but got no farther than Civita Vecchia, where he was put ashore, suffering from gastric fever, and had to make yet another fresh start, walking all the way from the Ardennes, over the Saint Gothard, to Genoa, whence he managed to get to Alexandria at last.
He had hoped for a post in the Egyptian Customs Service. He was actually offered, and accepted, the position of superintendent of a quarry in Cyprus, but caught typhoid and went home. It was his last visit to Charleville and his last opportunity of meeting the provincial “intellectuals” who had marvelled at his precocious genius. He met them sometimes in the cafés, and they assumed that he was still hankering after a literary career, but he undeceived them. When the talk turned on literature he became irritated and contemptuous. “I have nothing more to do with it,” he said to Professor Delahaye, in the tone in which a young English Philistine might have said: “Literature be damned.”
Then, having fired his shaft and brought a new and gaudy suit of clothes, telling the tailor to send the bill to his mother, he was off to the East again. For the first time in his life he contrived, in the capacity of clerk of the works to a cypriot building contractor, not only to pay his way but to save money — the modest sum of 400 francs. At last, when he quarrelled with his employer, he was able to go on instead of going back; and we find him presently writing to his mother from Aden: —
I have been looking for work in all the Red Sea ports, at Jeddah, Suakim, Massouah, Hodeidah, etc. I have arrived here after trying to find a job in Abyssinia. As soon as I have scraped a few hundred francs together I mean to start for Zanzibar.
His position at Aden was that of clerk to a firm of coffee merchants, at a salary of five francs a day, with board and washing. He was, he wrote, “the only intelligent employee in the place”; and his intelligence had its reward. He was went to establish himself as the firm’s representative at Harrar, with a stipend of 330 francs a month and a percentage on the profits of all the business that he did.
Like Mr. Micawber, he had imagined that a “permanency” was what he wanted. He had got one, and he was still restless and discontented — still asking from life something which life refused to give him. Harrar was a filthy hole. Life there was a round of boredom, tolerable only because it enabled him to save money. It occurred to him to seek relief in exploration. With that end in view he sent his mother 2,500 francs to be spent on technical books and a photographic apparatus. It seemed to her, however, that the extravagance was unwarrantable, and the exploration of Darkest Africa as absurd a folly as the composition of poetry. She replied, scolding him, and tell him that she had thought it more advantageous to invest the money in the purchase of a strip of land in the Ardennes.
For all the use that the land was to him she might as well have thrown his money into the deep sea; but it was nevertheless at the time of this correspondence that Rimbaud’s diabolic pride and contempt for the common lot began to show signs of breaking down. He had deliberately turned his back on mankind, and now solitude palled on him. He began to wish that he had been, and was, more like other people. A letter which he wrote from Harrar, in 1883, when he was only twenty-nine, shows him beginning to lose courage:
Solitude is a bad thing out here, and I begin to regret that I am not married and have no family. As it is, I am condemned to wander about, attached to a remote enterprise, and losing, day by day, my taste for the climate, the manner of life, and even the language of Europe.
Alas! What is the good of all these comings and goings, and these fatigues, and these adventures among strange races, and these languages with which one loads one’s memory, and these nameless burdens which I have to bear, if I am not, some day or other, in a few years time, to be able to rest in some place fairly agreeable to me, and found a family and have a son to bring up as I think a boy ought to be brought up, and equip him to become a renowned engineer, a powerful man, enriched by science? But who knows how long my life will last in these mountains? I may easily disappear in the midst of these people with any news ever being heard of me.
IT WAS ONLY the expression of a mood. The time had not yet come for Rimbaud to give in. The call of the hearth was not yet really alluring to him as the call of the wild. He found the means, in spite of his mother’s obstruction, of exploring unknown country, and was formally thanked for his services by the French Geographical Society. He proposed himself, unsuccessfully, as war correspondent to Le Temps, and made the best of things by living connubially with an Abyssinian lady. He entered into business relations with Menelek. Leaving his employers, he set up a business of his own at Harrar, did passably well, and had, at last, a modest fortune of forty thousand francs sewn up into his belt.
And then he fell ill and came home to die, a beaten and baffled man, thrown back upon quite humble and ordinary ambitions, and incapable of realising even these.
Fame of a sort had come to him. An increasing coterie had come to recognise the merit of his verse — helped thereto, perhaps, by the scandalous association of his name with Verlaine’s. His memory was destined to be kept alive by a bronze bust, which the German invaders were destined to steal for the sake of copper. But he neither foresaw this tribute nor would have been much elated if he had foreseen it, the call of the East having, long since, upset his scale of values.
Yet he had found the East as barren as he had found Parnassus. His place in the sun had been too hot for comfort. The gorgeous East had turned out not to be so gorgeous after all, but merely a malodorous market, endurable only for the sake of the sordid gains to be amassed in it. He was now as eager to come home, and wanted to find a French wife to take the place of his Abyssinian concubine. His plans were laid.
“Suppose I come to you to get married,” he wrote to his mother. “Do you think I should be able to find a wife who would be willing to travel with me?”
It was as if the wheel had come full circle and the defiant warrior who had challenged fortune and made a mock of the commonplace ideals of Philistia and now found himself reduced to throwing up his hands and crying “Kamerad.” And even that gesture of surrender was in vain.
Hardly had Rimbaud made it when the first symptoms of his fatal malady began to show themselves. It was a case of osteo-sarcoma, advancing with rapid strides. Hurrying back to France, he got no farther than a Marseilles hospital, where his sister, whom he had not seen since he was a child of thirteen, sat beside his bed, and where the amputation of a leg only delayed the end. Here is his pathetic admission of defeat:
How bored and tired I am! How sad I feel when I think of all my travels, and how active I was only five months ago! What an end to all my journeys across the mountains, the deserts, the rivers, and the seas! Henceforth I am a cripple — just as I had made up my mind to come back to France and marry. Farewell my marriage! Farewell my family! Farewell my future! Henceforth I shall be only an immobile stump of a man.
Then another surrender followed. His sister had come to him as a missionary as well as a nurse. He, an atheist and blasphemer all his life, was persuaded, on his deathbed, to send for a priest and accept the last offices of the Church. Yet it is a question whether that surrender was complete, for, after the priest had left him, rejoicing to think that a soul had been won for Christ, he whispered to his sister:
“Tell me. Tell me. Do you really believe it all?”
Francis Gribble was a writer and critic and a prolific literary biographer (of Dumas, Balzac, Sand, et al.) This essay first appeared in the 1 April 1927 issue of The Fortnightly Review, on pp. 509-518. It has been manually transcribed for the New Series.
Also in the Fortnightly: Rimbaud’s mad boat: Some thoughts on translating poetry by Martin Sorrell.
- See Martin Sorrell’s translation of Two poems from the hôpital Broussais, September 1893 by Verlaine, also in the Fortnightly. —Ed. ↩
- Administering larges doses of castor oil, a laxative, was a means of torture frequently employed by Mussolini’s Italian Fascists. See Bosworth, Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship (Penguin, 2007). — Ed. ↩