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

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

SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

August in southern Italy is known darkly as 'boating season' - the peak period for migrants arriving in Sicily at the end of an often epic journey through Africa. Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition