An absinthe-drinking vandal of literary legend

From a lecture given by Graham Robb, the biographer at the Cheltenham Literary Festival on the French Poet Arthur Rimbaud

Share

It's hard to avoid a feeling of incongruity when speaking about Arthur Rimbaud at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. Rimbaud's own experience of literary events was brief and disastrous. He arrived in Paris from northern France in 1871, a street-wise 16-year-old with thatched hair, a twisted shred of tie, and no luggage -- just a few dazzling poems like "The Drunken Boat." Rimbaud had decided to become a new kind of poet: "The idea", he told his schoolteacher, "is to reach the unknown by the rational derangement of all the senses."

It's hard to avoid a feeling of incongruity when speaking about Arthur Rimbaud at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. Rimbaud's own experience of literary events was brief and disastrous. He arrived in Paris from northern France in 1871, a street-wise 16-year-old with thatched hair, a twisted shred of tie, and no luggage -- just a few dazzling poems like "The Drunken Boat." Rimbaud had decided to become a new kind of poet: "The idea", he told his schoolteacher, "is to reach the unknown by the rational derangement of all the senses."

The boy genius was given a garret in the Latin Quarter and invited to read his work at a literary dinner. To Rimbaud's disgust, his Bohemian heroes turned out to be civil servants who wrote poems in their spare time. Instead of trying to demolish bourgeois society, they reviewed each other's books and attended poetry readings. Rimbaud expressed his disappointment by wrecking his room: "On his first evening there, he amused himself by smashing all the porcelain. Soon after that, being short of money, he sold the furniture."

This is probably the first recorded example of artistic room-trashing. The difference between Rimbaud and later room-trashers is that Rimbaud was deadly serious about everything he did. It was the sort of seriousness that doesn't preclude a savage sense of humour. He thought that private property should be abolished, which meant of course that the notion of hospitality was just a bourgeois conceit.

This was the absinthe-swilling, hashish-smoking vandal of literary legend. But was it the real Rimbaud? Was the notorious Arsehole Sonnet, which commemorates his love affair with Paul Verlaine, the true face of Rimbaud, and not those lovely songs of intelligent innocence, Sensation and The Lice-Seekers, or that vast identity-parade of alternative Rimbauds, A Season in Hell?

Rimbaud's later admirers, from Cézanne and Picasso to Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, saw him as the genius of a new age, constructing his magical poems from the rubble of the past. The boy who revolutionised Romantic poetry never lived in a costume-drama world of drawing-rooms and tea-cups. By the time he gave up writing at the age of 21, he had seen more of life than any other writer of the time. He had survived prison, disease, revolution, war, a gunshot wound, his own family, and even a gruelling stint in a hat-box factory in Holborn.

Any great poet is, by definition, a great manipulator, and Rimbaud didn't stop being a great manipulator just because he gave up writing poetry. The ex-poet was an extraordinarily wily traveller. He became the most successful foreign trader in Abyssinia, and one of the great East African explorers. He spoke several native languages, discovered vast, unknown regions, and was thought by some Abyssinians to be a Muslim prophet.

This isn't exactly what the Rimbaud legend suggests. In the same way that Mozart is said to have died a pauper's death, Rimbaud is said to have failed miserably in the so-called real world - perhaps because poets are supposed to be helpless off the page. The idea is that Rimbaud's excruciating death from bone cancer in 1891 was not a sudden, absurd precipice, but the tail of a neat parabola - a divine punishment or purification. Rimbaud had committed the sin of giving up literature - betraying the profession to which his critics and biographers also belong.

The Arthur Rimbaud who survived and prospered for eleven years on the African frontier is the same Rimbaud who so brilliantly exploited the conventions of French poetry that "The Drunken Boat" is one of those very rare poems which French schoolchildren not only have to study but which they also memorise of their own free will.

Perhaps after all Rimbaud is at least partly responsible for his presence at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature 109 years after his death.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

SThree: Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Do you want to get in...

Ashdown Group: Project Manager - Birmingham - up to £40,000 - 12 month FTC

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Manager - Birmingham - ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband addresses an audience in the Brooks Building of Manchester Metropolitan University on April 21, 2015  

If socialism means building homes and getting the rich to pay their taxes, then bring on Red Ed

Kiran Moodley
 

Prevention is better than cure if we want to save the NHS

Tanni Grey Thompson
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before