Arthur Rimbaud

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Arthur Rimbaud

Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (October 20, 1854November 10, 1891) was a French poet, born in Charleville. His influence on modern literature, music and art has been enduring and pervasive. He produced his best known works while still in his late teens—Victor Hugo described him at the time as "an enfant Shakespeare"—and gave up creative writing altogether before he reached 21. He remained a prolific letter-writer all his life. Rimbaud was a restless soul, travelling extensively in three continents before his premature death from cancer less than a month after his 37th birthday.

Early life and work

Arthur Rimbaud was born into the provincial middle class of Charleville (now part of Charleville-Mézières) in the Ardennes département in northeastern France. He was the second child of Vitalie Rimbaud (née Cuif) and Captain Frédéric, who fought in the conquest of Algeria and was awarded the Légion d'honneur. Soon after the couple had their fifth child (Frédéric, Arthur, Victorine (who died a month after she was born), Vitalie and Isabelle), their father left the family. Apart from growing up without a father, it is evident through Rimbaud's writing that he never felt loved by his mother. As a boy he was a restless but brilliant student. By the age of fifteen he had won many prizes and composed original verses and dialogues in Latin. In 1870 his teacher Georges Izambard became Rimbaud's literary mentor and his original French verses began to improve rapidly.

He frequently ran away from home and may have briefly joined the Paris Commune of 1871, which he portrayed in his poem L'orgie parisienne (ou : Paris se repeuple), ("The Parisian Orgy" or "Paris Repopulates"). He may have been raped by drunken Communard soldiers (as his poem Le cœur supplicié ("The Tortured Heart") perhaps suggests). By this time he had become an anarchist, started drinking and amused himself by shocking the local bourgeoisie with his shabby dress and long hair. At the same time he wrote to Izambard and Paul Demeny about his method for attaining poetical transcendence or visionary power through a "long, intimidating, immense and rational derangement of all the senses" (Les lettres du Voyant ["The Letters of the Seer"]).

Arthur Rimbaud Les Assis.jpg

He returned to Paris in late September 1871[1] at the invitation of the eminent Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine[2] (after Rimbaud had sent him a letter containing several samples of his work) and resided briefly in Verlaine's home. Verlaine, who was married, allegedly fell in love with the sullen, blue-eyed, light-brown-haired adolescent. During their time together they led were purported to lead a wild, vagabond-like life spiced by absinthe and hashish.[3] They scandalized the Parisian literary coterie on account of the outrageous behaviour of Rimbaud, the archetypical enfant terrible, who throughout this period continued to write strikingly visionary verse.

Rimbaud's and Verlaine's stormy relationship took them to London in September 1872[4], Verlaine abandoning his wife and infant son (both of whom he had abused in his alcoholic rages). Rimbaud and Verlaine lived in considerable poverty, in Bloomsbury and in Camden Town, scraping a living from teaching and an allowance from Verlaine's mother.[5] Rimbaud spent his days in the Reading Room of the British Museum where "heating, lighting, pens and ink were free."[5]

By late June 1873, Verlaine had had enough and soon afterwards returned to Paris, where he found Rimbaud's absence hard to bear. On July 8, he telegrammed Rimbaud, instructing him to come to the Hotel Liège in Brussels; Rimbaud complied immediately.[6] The Brussels reunion went badly; one argument led to another and Verlaine drank almost continuously.[6] On the morning of 10 July, Verlaine bought a revolver and ammunition.[6] That afternoon, "in a drunken rage," Verlaine fired two shots at Rimbaud, one of them wounding the 18-year-old in the left wrist.[6]

Rimbaud considered the wound superficial and at first did not have Verlaine charged. After this, Verlaine and his mother accompanied Rimbaud to a Brussels train station where Verlaine "behaved as if he were insane." This made Rimbaud "fear that he might give himself over to new excesses,"[7] so he turned and ran away. In his words, "it was then I [Rimbaud] begged a police officer to arrest him [Verlaine]."[7] Verlaine was arrested for attempted murder and subjected to a humiliating medico-legal examination.[8] He was also interrogated about his intimate correspondence with his alleged lover and about his wife's accusations about the nature of his relationship with Rimbaud.[8] Rimbaud eventually withdrew the complaint, but the judge sentenced Verlaine to two years in prison.[8]

Rimbaud returned home to Charleville and completed his Une Saison en Enfer ("A Season in Hell") in prose, widely regarded as one of the pioneering instances of modern Symbolist writing and a description of that drôle de ménage ("domestic farce") life with Verlaine, his frère pitoyable ("pitiful brother") and vierge folle ("mad virgin") to whom he was l'époux infernal ("infernal groom"). In 1874 he returned to London with the poet Germain Nouveau[9] and put together his groundbreaking Illuminations.

Later life (1875-1891)

Rimbaud and Verlaine met for the last time in March 1875, in Stuttgart, Germany, after Verlaine's release from prison and his conversion to Catholicism[10]. By then Rimbaud had given up writing and decided on a steady, working life; some speculate he was fed up with his former wild living, while others suggest he sought to become rich and independent to afford living one day as a carefree poet and man of letters. He continued to travel extensively in Europe, mostly on foot.

In May 1876 he enlisted as a soldier in the Dutch Colonial Army[11] to travel free of charge to Java (Indonesia) where he promptly deserted, returning to France by ship[12] At the official residence of the mayor of Salatiga, a small city 46 km south of Semarang, capital of Central Java Province, there is a marble plaque stating that Rimbaud was once settled at the city.

In December 1878, Rimbaud arrived in Larnaca, Cyprus, where he worked for a construction company as a foreman at a stone quarry[13]. In May of the following year he had to leave Cyprus because of a fever, which on his return to France was diagnosed as typhoid fever. In 1880 Rimbaud finally settled in Aden as a main employee in the Bardey agency[14]. He took several native women as lovers and for a while he lived with an Ethiopian mistress. In 1884 he left his job at Bardey's to become a merchant on his own account in Harar, Ethiopia. Rimbaud's commercial dealings notably included coffee and weapons.

Rimbaud developed right knee synovitis and subsequently a carcinoma in his right knee and the state of his health forced him to leave for France on May 9, 1891[15]. Rimbaud was admitted to hospital in Marseille and his leg was amputated on May 27[16]. After a short stay at his family house he attempted to travel back to Africa, but on the way his medical condition deteriorated and he was readmitted to the same hospital in Marseille where his surgery had been carried out, and spent some time there in great pain, attended by his sister Isabelle. Rimbaud died in Marseille on November 10, 1891, at the age of 37, and his body was interred in the family vault at Charleville[17].


English translations

Further reading

  • Œuvres complètes, correspondance, d'Arthur Rimbaud de Louis Forestier - Éd. Robert Laffont, collection Bouquins - 1998, 607 pages ;
  • Un ardennais nommé Rimbaud de Yann Hureaux - Éd. La Nuée Bleu / L'Ardennais - 217 pages ;
  • Arthur Rimbaud, de Jean-Luc Steinmetz - Éd. Tallandier - 486 pages ;
  • Arthur Rimbaud, by Benjamin Ivry - Absolute Press - 1998 - 186 pages ;
  • Rimbaud Ailleurs, photographies contemporaines et entretiens de Jean-Hugues Berrou, textes et documents anciens de Jean-Jacques Lefrère et Pierre Leroy, avec la collaboration de Maurice Culot - Éd. Fayard - 303 pages.
  • Arthur Rimbaud 'Déposition de Rimbaud devant le juge d'instruction (12 July 1873)'.
  • Félicien Champsaur, Dinah Samuel (1882), a roman à clé in which Rimbaud is said to be caricatured.

External links

Part of this article consists of modified text from Wikipedia, and the article is therefore licensed under GFDL.


  1. Robb 2000, p. 109
  2. Robb 2000, p. 102
  3. Bernard, Suzanne and Guyaux, André. Oeuvres de Rimbaud, Classiques Garnier, Bordas, 1991. ISBN 2-04-017399-4
  4. Robb 2000, p. 184
  5. 5.0 5.1 Robb 2000, pp. 196-197
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Robb 2000, pp. 218-221
  7. 7.0 7.1 Harding & Sturrock 2004, p. 160
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Robb 2000, pp. 223-224
  9. Robb 2000, p. 241
  10. Robb 2000, p. 264
  11. Robb 2000, p. 278
  12. Robb 2000, p. 282-285.
  13. Robb 2000, p. 299
  14. Robb 2000, p. 313
  15. Robb 2000, p. 422-424
  16. Robb 2000, p. 426
  17. Robb 2000, p. 440-441
  18. Fowlie 1966, p. 3