Rimbaud: The Double Life Of A Rebel, By Edmund White

Meet Rimbaud: poet, madman, modernist,gun-runner and 'vicious little monkey'
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The Independent Culture

There's nothing like a biography of Rimbaud to dispel one's romantic illusions about the poet. Arriving in Paris from the Northern town of Charleville, 17 years old and bearing a copy of his visionary masterpiece, The Drunken Boat, Rimbaud turned up at the home that Verlaine shared with his wife and parents-in-law. He grunted his way through dinner, lit up a filthy pipe, then retired to his room. In the subsequent weeks he mutilated a crucifix, showered passers-by with head lice and slept in his boots before persuading the man of the house to run away with him. When a fellow poet took him in, he sold the furniture; after yet another was persuaded to give him a berth, he wiped his arse on his host's poems.

Manipulative, rude, filthy and impossibly fervent, he struck Verlaine as "an angel in exile" and everyone else as the teenager from hell. Edmond de Goncourt, who grudgingly hailed Rimbaud as a "genius of perversity", nonetheless concluded, as did many others, that "with the imagination of a vicious monkey, [Rimbaud] spent his life thinking up merciless wickednesses".

Goncourt was wrong, however: the span of Rimbaud's wickedness, the whole of his versifying career, was a bare five years. Between the ages of 15 and 20 Rimbaud wrote his entire corpus of poems, seduced and re-seduced the hapless, drunken and violent Verlaine, and persuaded him to move to London. After several separations, during one of which Verlaine threw his infant son against a wall and threatened to strangle his wife, the two men ended up together again in Brussels, where Verlaine bought a revolver during a drinking bout and shot Rimbaud in the wrist. His friend had him arrested and Verlaine served two years in prison. They spent two days together when he got out, and never saw one another again.

By the time he was 20, Rimbaud had given up writing poetry and was travelling, alone and often on foot, through Europe and beyond. One Italian doctor who treated him said that his ribs had worn through his stomach from so much walking. He ended up a merchant and occasional gun-runner in Africa, bearded, calm and withdrawn. After being diddled on an arms deal by wily natives, he returned to France to die of a tumour at 37.

To a colleague in Africa who quizzed him about his former life as a poet, he once described his verses as "rinçures": dirty dishwater, or spoiled wine. He thought of himself as an artistic failure. Yet his poems, which run from classical formality and medieval pastiche to free-verse hallucination, surrealism and even science fiction, are some of the core texts of modernist poetry, so far ahead of their time that they seem contemporary even now. "Before Rimbaud," Valéry once wrote, "all poetry was written in the language of common sense."

Like Kerouac, Rimbaud exerts a particular magic over those who read him before the age of 20. One such was Edmund White, who begins this short account of Rimbaud's life with a slice of his own: the days he spent as an unhappy gay schoolboy outside Detroit, reading Le Bateau ivre on the lavatory at midnight and "identifying completely with Rimbaud's desires to be free, to be published, to be sexual, to go to Paris". Even so, this ends up a sensitive, succinct and largely non-partisan account, heavy on the story and especially good for non-French-speakers. White offers his own translations of all the lines he cites, though his criticism sometimes tends toward snap judgements –one poem about a baker is "a piece of soft-core kiddie-porn posing as Hugo-style social bathos". Towards the end, White pays tribute to Graham Robb's Rimbaud (2000) as the best English-language biography of the poet, and his own book does nothing to unseat it. But for Rimbaud novices, or anyone still seasick and heady from their first trip in the drunken boat, this pocket biography provides an excellent way into the life of one of literature's great enigmas.

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