A volatile and peripatetic poet, the prodigy Arthur Rimbaud wrote all of his poetry in a space of less than five years. His poem "Voyelles" invoked synesthesia, marking him as a founder of French symbolism, and his Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) is considered one of the first works of free verse. His poetry was subconsciously inspired and highly suggestive; his persona was caustic and unstable. Though brilliant, during his life his peers regarded him as perverse, unsophisticated, and youthfully arrogant, and he died virtually indifferent to his own work.
Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud was born October 20, 1854, in the small French town Charleville. His father, an army captain, abandoned the family when he was six. His mother, née Vitalie Cuif, was an overbearing and protective woman who focused her energies on raising her children to be conformist, pious, and well-mannered. By the age of thirteen, he had already won several prizes for his writing and was adept at composing verse in Latin. His teacher and mentor Georges Izambard nurtured his talents and passion for literature, although Madame Rimbaud strongly disapproved when her son brought home a copy of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
His school shut down in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, and the young Rimbaud took the opportunity to seek adventure, running away from home twice. He left again after Napoleon III’s surrender a few months later, and wandered the countryside until he ended up in Paris. Then sixteen, he lived as a vagabond on the streets until the poet Paul Verlaine noticed him. Verlaine was thoroughly astonished by this boy’s talent after having read Le Bateau ivre (The Drunken Boat), and took him home to live with him and his new wife. Though Rimbaud’s social ineptitude and harsh manners forced him to move out, he and Verlaine became lovers. Shortly after the birth of his son, Verlaine left his family to live with Rimbaud. Their infamous affair was erratic and often hostile. After eighteen months living together in three countries, their relationship ended abruptly, following an incident where a drunk and hysterical Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the hand.
Rimbaud returned to Charleville and wrote a large portion of Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell). The book was published in 1873 in Brussels, but the majority of the copies sat in the printer’s basement until 1901 because Rimbaud could not pay the bill. He continued his writing and his travels, frequently returning home for short stays. At nineteen he stopped writing poetry completely. He needed to ensure his and his family’s financial security, and so he took jobs in African towns as a colonial tradesman. His mother invested in land with the money he sent home.
His only writing after 1875 survives in documents and letters. In his correspondence with family and friends, Rimbaud indicates that he spent his adulthood in a constant struggle for financial success. His travels left him sick; he grew weary with the climate and culture in the towns where he worked. He was intolerant and racist, but his growing fear of a conflict with the French military draft authorities prevented him from returning home. In 1891, he noticed a pain in his knee. After delaying, he endured a painful trip to Marseilles in May, whereupon doctors were forced to amputate his leg. The cancer, however, continued to spread. He died on November 10, 1891 at the age of thirty-seven, after suffering a night of hallucinations.
In 1895, Verlaine published Rimbaud’s complete works, and thus secured his ex-lover’s immortal fame. Both Rimbaud’s life and poetry has inspired a great number of poets and artists, including the French symbolists, Surrealism, the counter-culture Beat Movement, and the musicians Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Patti Smith.
A Selected Bibliography
Le Bateau ivre (1871)
Une Saison en Enfer (1873)
Les Illuminations (1886)
Poésiès complete d’Arthur Rimbaud (1895)
La Vie de Rimbaud et de son oeuvre (1929)
Flagrant délit (1949)
Le Mythe de Rimbaud (1954)
The Time of the Assassin (1954)
Season in Hell (1979)
Rimbaud: a Critical Introduction (1981)
Arthur Rimbaud (1998)
Somebody Else: Rimbaud in Africa 1880-1891 (1999)
Rimbaud: A Biography (2000)
Arthur Rimbaud (2001)
Poetry in Translation
A Season in Hell, The Illuminations (1973)
A Season in Hell & Illuminations (1991)
Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works (2000)