The Boy From Hell

Rimbaud – Illuminations (Carcanet, 2018, trans., John Ashbery)

Seth Whidden – Arthur Rimbaud (Reaktion, 2018)

Rimbaud’s Illuminations crashes through the dead wood of its epoch as Baudelaire’s work did, a figure the young poet Rimbaud worshipped as the great seer of modern poetry.

And Rimbaud will only ever be young, he has become a cipher for the beautiful damned youth, too fast to live, too young to die, burning out before fulfilling.

But Seth Whidden’s biography of Rimbaud also impressively chops away some of the myths and clichés that have grown up around Rimbaud’s life like strangling ivy. Rimbaud, who wrote of new urban heavens and hells, sounds like an absolute bloody nightmare.

He was utterly brilliant too, of course, mastering the history of poetry as a schoolboy and then rejecting its slow, traditional and bourgeois forms.

Etienne Carjat destroyed the negatives and remaining prints of the now-iconic portrait of Rimbaud after an altercation with the maniacal youth one evening in Paris. Lucky for us, prints survived elsewhere. The Henri Fantin-Latour painting Un Coin de Table (A Corner of the Table) observes Rimbaud on the very same evening of the spat with Carjat and others.

I was fairly familiar with this painting, but after reading Whidden’s biography, I can now only see an evil brat where I once saw a slightly aloof cherub.

Verlaine too, Rimbaud’s lover, gripped by absinthe mania, is rumoured to have thrown his child against the wall and attacked his wife, eventually imploding into piousness. Before seeking redemption, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist during a heated argument.

Eventually, nobody would speak to Rimbaud. He kept leaving his stuffy rural home for Paris, only to fly back there as it spat him out yet again.

The account of Rimbaud and Verlaine in London is fascinating, drinking in Soho, followed by the secret police, getting to know the routes and leylines of London we still experience: ‘Monstrous city, endless night!’

Rimbaud stopped writing poetry and headed off to sell in the European Imperial adventure. This may or may not have included guns, and if you want the picture under the clichés – ‘gun runner’ flashes up elsewhere as though it’s a solid fact – Whidden’s biography is the place to go. It’s an impressive piece of work, it manages to be scholarly, thrilling and sober in one. Not easy.

The late great poet John Ashbery learned French precisely to read Rimbaud’s Illuminations after reading it first in English in the 1940s. He then translated it again and Carcanet have put his edition out for some time, only now they have re-issued it with a smart new cover as part of their brilliant classics range.

It takes a little immersion to really get Illuminations, you need some context to understand just how radical the work is. What is explained as utterly modern, can in fact seem very old to us now, particularly if you are new to nineteenth century modernism. The same goes for Manet’s painting and Baudelaire himself.

Certainly, there would be no Bob Dylan without Rimbaud, that bizarre burlesque of an environment where reality seems to have been turned off – the first full experience of the modern city – is originally present in Illuminations.

But this little volume is the best way to take it on, and paired with Whidden’s biography, also released this year, it’s possible to really feel the spirit of the Rimbaud carnival. The alienation and togetherness of the city, its pleasures and hells, are one for the first time in a dreamlike scalding of the senses.

Ashbery’s translation comes in the French with the English translation opposite, to allow us to shuttle between the two. MRB recommends a double purchase here: Read these books simultaneously, but stay off the Absinthe, eh?

– Steve Hanson

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