Authors: Arthur Rimbaud

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

French Symbolist poet

October 20, 1854

Charleville, France

November 10, 1891

Marseilles, France


The life of Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud (ram-boh) was brief, lasting a scant thirty-seven years, and his life as a poet was briefer still, ending with the completion of A Season in Hell in 1873, only a little over three years after his stormy entrance into Paris in 1870. Yet in this brief tenure as a poet he managed to compose enough verse to fill a volume and managed to write with such power and vision that he changed the course of the French Symbolist movement and exerted an influence that is still being felt in literature today. His life’s vision was a dual one, angelic and diabolic at once. He followed it compulsively and agonizingly, or, rather, he was driven by it from one excess to another, and from one country to another, until finally his spiritual agony became physical, and he was consumed completely. {$I[AN]9810000463} {$I[A]Rimbaud, Arthur} {$I[geo]FRANCE;Rimbaud, Arthur} {$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Rimbaud, Arthur} {$I[tim]1854;Rimbaud, Arthur}

Arthur Rimbaud

(Library of Congress)

The story of his life has been called a saint’s legend in reverse. Like the saint, he was seeking complete truth, a perfect communion with God: That was the angelic side of his vision. Like the saint, he knew that he would have to put aside completely the things of this world, but he would do so not through deprivation but through excess. That was the diabolic side of his experience, the descent into hell. Another way to look at the life of Rimbaud is to say simply that he was the victim of a compulsive neurosis. Whether by vision or neurosis, he was driven, and his life was one of pain.

Born in Charleville, France, on October 20, 1854, Rimbaud was writing poems by the time he was fifteen, and by sixteen, through the guidance of a rhetoric professor named Georges Izambard, he had already become an anticlerical revolutionary. When he was sixteen he left the college in Charleville and made his first pilgrimage to Paris. He started out by train, but because he did not have enough money for his fare he was thrown in jail upon arrival. Shipped back to Charleville, he refused to return to his studies but set off again for the capital, this time on foot.

On this second trip to Paris he met Paul Verlaine. Some of Rimbaud’s early poems had been printed in La Revue and La Charge, and Verlaine, having read them, was anxious to meet their young author. Verlaine had only recently been married, but he found the handsome younger poet more attractive than his pregnant wife, and their tempestuous homosexual relationship began. Rimbaud returned home for a time, composed a number of poems at Charleville, and then traveled to Brussels, where Verlaine, leaving his wife and newborn child, met him. The two continued to London, remaining there for almost a year while Rimbaud wrote his Illuminations.

He left Verlaine for the second time in April, 1873, for unknown reasons. His career as a poet was almost over when he returned to France and began A Season in Hell. His relationship with Verlaine was not entirely finished; Rimbaud went once more to Brussels, where Verlaine was staying, reunited with his wife. Rimbaud sought one more opportunity to be happy in civilized society. When the three met, however, an altercation ensued in which Verlaine wounded Rimbaud in the wrist with a bullet from the pistol he had bought to take his own life. Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison, and Rimbaud left Brussels.

Once more in Charleville, he resumed his writing, finishing his Illuminations and A Season in Hell and finding, with the latter, that there was no more in poetry for him. With the end of his writing career, his wanderings began. He traveled throughout Europe, mostly on foot, searching for the true action that would mean life to him. Not finding it, he joined the Dutch colonial army, but he soon deserted and traveled home once more. Finally, in April, 1880, he left for Africa, and there, for eleven years, he remained as an exporter, a gun-runner, a dealer in opium and other drugs, and even, it has been suggested, a trader in slaves. He died shortly after his thirty-seventh birthday, after a rheumatic infection of the right leg had sent him to Marseilles for treatment. When his condition grew worse, the leg was amputated, but the infection spread. Rimbaud died, feverish and tormented, on November 10, 1891. His condition may have been worsened by syphilis, but this is uncertain.

The influence of Rimbaud on French poetry is as obvious now as ever. No serious discussion of French poetry of either the nineteenth or the twentieth century can proceed very far without Rimbaud’s name being evoked. His influence on Symbolism eventually became an influence on the Beat poets of the United States, starting in 1950 with proselytism by Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure. His influence has permeated twentieth-century poetry, affecting such poets as Robert Bly, George Oppen, and Charles Reznizoff.

Author Works Poetry: Une Saison en enfer, 1873 (A Season in Hell, 1932) Les Illuminations, 1886 (Illuminations, 1932) Les manuscrits Arthur Rimbaud: L'intégrale, 2012 Nonfiction: I Promise to Be Good: The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud, 2003 (Wyatt Mason, editor) Correspondance, 2007 (Jean-Jacques Lefrère, compiler) Miscellaneous: Œuvres complètes, 1948 (Complete Works, Selected Letters, 1966) Bibliography Ahearn, Edward J. Rimbaud: Visions and Habitations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Discusses the influence of Rimbaud’s early life and surroundings on his brief poetic career, including the anticlerical and anticonventional guidance he received during his teen years, when he began writing poetry. Points out links between Rimbaud’s poetic images and his actual physical environment. Fowlie, Wallace. Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994. For devotees of pop culture. Relates Rimbaud to the 1960’s counterculture. Hackett, Cecil Arthur. Rimbaud: A Critical Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981. A good introduction for those beginning to explore Rimbaud’s poetry. Contains much poem-by-poem explication, as well as analyses of Rimbaud’s overall poetic achievement and cultural influence. Lawler, James L. Rimbaud’s Theatre of the Self. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. A unique book which translates Rimbaud’s work into a theatrical progression, explaining why the poet stopped writing to explore the dark side of his personality. Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000. This work contains only one chapter on Rimbaud but is highly useful in placing him within his historical context. Discusses his influence on modernist poets such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams, as a transitional force between Symbolism and modernism. Robb, Graham. Rimbaud: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. Presents a “reconstruction of Rimbaud’s life”; discusses the revolutionary impact his poetry had on twentieth century writers and artists, especially since Rimbaud’s admirers primarily arose after his early death. Examines the influence of Rimbaud’s early family life, in particular his stormy relationship with his mother, and presents thoroughly his checkered career after his abandonment of poetry at the age of twenty-one. Steinmetz, Jean-Luc. Arthur Rimbaud: Presence of an Enigma. Translated by Jon Graham. New York: Welcome Rain, 2001. A comprehensive biography, this work focuses on Rimbaud’s numerous self-contradictions and extremes of behavior, particularly in his stormy relationship with the older poet Paul Verlaine. The author analyzes Rimbaud’s poetry primarily in its relation to the poet’s life.

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