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

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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.

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