A poet against poetry

<i>Rimbaud</i> by Graham Robb (Picador, &pound;20, 530pp)
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The Independent Culture

Rousseau cane up with the theory of the wild child, but it took Arthur Rimbaud to put it extravagantly into practice. Rimbaud was the ultimate drop-out: school, Paris, poetry, life, none could detain him for very long. And it is his scandalous example as much as his bewitching poetry that has been such an abiding bad influence on a century of ageing adolescents. He has been canonised by the academy, beatified by Bob Dylan and embodied by Leonardo di Caprio (in Christopher Hampton's Total Eclipse). He gave excellent poetic reasons for having nothing to do with poetry. To the biographer of Balzac and Hugo, Graham Robb, who fell in love with his work as a teenager, Rimbaud must have seemed an irresistible subject.

Rousseau cane up with the theory of the wild child, but it took Arthur Rimbaud to put it extravagantly into practice. Rimbaud was the ultimate drop-out: school, Paris, poetry, life, none could detain him for very long. And it is his scandalous example as much as his bewitching poetry that has been such an abiding bad influence on a century of ageing adolescents. He has been canonised by the academy, beatified by Bob Dylan and embodied by Leonardo di Caprio (in Christopher Hampton's Total Eclipse). He gave excellent poetic reasons for having nothing to do with poetry. To the biographer of Balzac and Hugo, Graham Robb, who fell in love with his work as a teenager, Rimbaud must have seemed an irresistible subject.

But any biographer of Rimbaud must encounter two equal and opposite problems. In his first phase, Rimbaud does very little but says and writes a great deal; in the second, he does an awful lot, but provides vanishingly little commentary.

On the one hand is an excess of discourse over substance, issuing in dense, quasi-mystical slabs of verse ( Illuminations, A Season in Hell); on the other, an overload of Tintin-in-Africa heroics which left him too busy for anything other than the most prosaic and misleading notes home ("modern astronauts sound poetic by comparison," Robb acknowledges).

In each case, the biographer has to run against the grain of his subject's inclinations. Robb's Rimbaud is encyclopaedic and subtle. But like someone having to explain a joke, Robb is obliged to labour over the meaning of such resonant lines as "Je est un autre". Then, when Rimbaud gives up Parnassus for Harrar, he must colour in the tantalising blanks.

All the usual suspects appear on the scene of Rimbaud's teenage angst: the absent father, the overly-present mother, the grinding dullness of the provinces, revolutionary turmoil in the capital. The young Arthur was the most brilliant student at the College de Charleville and worked up a nice little earner as a Latininist-for-hire to fellow pupils. One plausible hypothesis from Robb's account is that Rimbaud was essentially a shrewd entrepreneur who worked out what the market wanted, gave it them, then moved on to the next deal. But this was no top-hatted capitalist. You can almost smell Robb's picture of the lice-ridden ragamuffin scrounger in Paris: "Rimbaud was a semi-stagnant eco-system with its own atmosphere and verminous population".

There is no account of the notorious Rimbaud-Verlaine spree across France, Belgium and England that does not favour Rimbaud. Robb, although judicious, still leans towards Rimbaud's egocentric vagabondage. Personally, I don't blame Verlaine for pausing to wonder if he had really done the right thing in ditching wife and child in favour of a barely house-trained but charming maniac. When Verlaine, entertaining suicide, shoots Rimbaud (wounding him in the arm), I can't help feeling that Rimbaud - who has been blackmailing him with the threat of exposure as a homosexual - was asking for it.

Robb gives the poetry a plausible biographical spin: since "The Drunken Boat" appears to mean everything and nothing in particular it might just as well be a lament for the long-gone father, Captain Rimbaud. But Robb leaves intact the more metaphysical idea that in order to be a decent writer you have to get filthy, take drugs, and have a sado-masochistic gay fling. Maybe William Hague would agree that "with Rimbaud, drunkenness was an intellectual journey". Robb rightly points out, however, that for an enfant terrible, intent on shocking the bourgeosie, Rimbaud spent an awful lot of time at home with his Mum.

But Rimbaud found even the vie de Bohÿme too stodgy and took off for the East, leaving literature behind. More truly Vernian than Jules Verne - a mere armchair traveller - Rimbaud's own voyages extraordinaires take him to Java, where he deserts from the Dutch colonial army, and finally Abyssinia, where he turns his hand to gun-running, possibly slave-trading, and even becoming a semi-married man.

Where Charles Nicholl, in Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, was lyrically mournful, Robb is more upbeat. He see Rimbaud as a successful trader who is simply unlucky to die, aged 37, of a dodgy knee (and amputation). At the very least he attained a working knowledge of many languages: not just English, but Arabic, Amharic, Adarinya, Oromo and Somali. Had he ever returned to writing, that multi-lingual oeuvre would surely have made Finnegans Wake seem easy.

The real mystery of Rimbaud is not that he gave up poetry at 21 but rather that he stuck with it as long as he did when he hated it so much. Which is why it is possible to idolise Rimbaud and still loathe French literature at large.

In 1876, sailing back to Europe, Rimbaud tried to swim to Saint Helena, where Napoleon died in exile, but was dragged back to the ship. Rimbaud was another of those 19th-century writers - like Balzac and Hugo - who dreamed of being a Napoleon of letters. Rimbaud alone had a real shot at carving out his own small empire in the heart of darkness.

Andy Martin teaches French at Cambridge University

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