Edmund White has written a probing and admiring elegy to Rimbaud in his book, Rimbaud, the Double Life of a Rebel (published in 2008). Based on my reading of this book, Rimbaud had a multiple layering of lives, not just a double life but a twisting and rolling of layers of himself, the genius and the seeker, into a myriad of lives. All the lives came together in the end, to a solitary point of misery. For Rimbaud was miserable for much of his life, miserable or bored, and that is the wonder of his work; his poems are neither miserable nor boring nor languid nor pessimistic. At the core, his work was what he was: seeking and pursuing and capturing in a wholly new manner, change. Change of emotion, of life, of love, of a future in exchange for a past.
My favorite work of Rimbaud is “The Drunken Boat”, the way it literally navigates the reader through a journey of unknown destination. It is not the point of arrival that matters, it is the journey.
Rimbaud’s first life was that of exceptional and brilliant and obedient student; this was followed by life as rebel poet who sought to destroy all learned reactions through drink and excess, forbidden love and imposed poverty, traveling far and wide but then always returning home to his strict and domineering mother. His passionate and manipulative affair with Verlaine, his scouring of self to achieve a new poetry, his use of new forms and new meters and really the first free form of western poetry was fantastic and to be admired and applauded and shared. But Rimbaud alienated everyone around him; anyone who could help, was turned off; anyone who tried to help, could not do enough, while Rimbaud was alive.
White moves beyond the biographical milestones and lurid details to search the poetry of Rimbaud, and of his lover Verlaine, for what Rimbaud was after. Rimbaud worked so hard, sought for so long amidst doubts within himself and without, withstood the feverish toll of love with another man (frowned upon inside and outside society) and he achieved so much. His poems show influential and revolting genius; the poems of Verlaine are lyrical and lovely, and yet are witness to Rimbaud’s new way of writing poetry. It is unbelievable that Rimbaud wrote seriously for only four fevered and crazed years; the discipline, the rewrites, the beauty. To have achieved all that all within such a short span of time could only have happened because he did (he was able to) live many lives at once: the dissolute, the obsessive, the rogue, the manipulator. But always he cycled back to the poet, to his production of poems and prose. Until he stopped the writing altogether.
And then began the next life of Rimbaud, at age twenty-one. He took himself outside of literature, he no longer even read prose or poetry. He went to Africa and became a (frustrated) man of trade. He sent for books still but the books gave him facts only, the practical facts of how to get things done, build things and trade things. The work he had done to move poetry to a new plane, a new place, a new sensation of reading and feeling, he left behind. He left abruptly and absolutely. Why? White cannot answer that question. Had all those lives Rimbaud lived taken their toll? Somehow he was let down, he was left cold. In Africa, importing and exporting goods, running guns and counting coffee beans, he was as miserable and complaining as ever, but now he complained of harsh weather and cheating Africans and annoying disease.
The last years of his life in Africa he remained largely solitary and cranky, without a remnant of the extreme living he’d pursued for his art. All the drinking, the physical loving (I’m not sure he was capable of emotional loving and attachment) the reading and the writing and the late hours and little food and the walking for miles and miles just to get somewhere away from where he was, none of that persisted in Africa.
What I found so sad is that Rimbaud was never happy, not in any of the lives he created. Suffering for the sake of his art? His driving genius never let him rest? Maybe it was too much to ask for happiness in the anxious times he lived in, what with the end of French power with Napoleon’s demise at the hands of the Prussians, and then the Paris Commune and its brutal suppression. Yet these years were also the start of La Belle Epoque, he should have been giddy at least once in awhile.
Happiness is a fleeting state, perhaps, and he chased it away for the sake of the scourge, and the scourging was for the sake of the art. But do artists have to scourge themselves to create a new canon? Now, in our more permissive and flamboyant (egotistical parading) times, the artist may want to take the opposite course, the quietest route away from burning flame, to find something new all over again.
White’s translations of Rimbaud’s poems are very good. I’ll end with a lovely and wrenching piece from “The Drunken Boat”:
“But it’s true I’ve wept too long! Dawns are
Every moon is ghastly and every sun bitter;
Acrid love has pumped me full of intoxicating
O may my keel explode! O let me sink at sea!”