The Savage Experiment: Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine

Jeffrey Meyers

I

In a notorious and influential letter of May 15, 1871, to his publisher-friend Paul Demeny, the sixteen-year-old provincial high-school dropout, Arthur Rimbaud, boldly defined his vision of poetic creativity:

The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences. Unspeakable torture where he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great patient, the great criminal, the one accursed—and the supreme Scholar!—Because he reaches the unknown! Since he cultivated his soul, rich already, more than any man! He reaches the unknown, and when, bewildered, he ends by losing the intelligence of his visions, he has seen them. Let him die as he leaps through unheard of and unnamable things.1

Like his prophetic soul mate William Blake, Rimbaud believed, “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s.”2 The same letter contained his most cryptic pronouncement: “I is someone else” (“Je est un autre”).3 Rimbaud not only advocated deliberate suffering and self-destruction, but also supposed the existence of two selves: a wild, creative self and an everyday self, cowardly, brutish, and hemmed in by social restrictions.

Rimbaud’s sophistication, poetic talent, and extraordinary ideas exemplify the mystery of genius. A brilliant young scholar in an excellent lycée, one of the best in France, he was intellectually confident. But his childhood left him emotionally damaged and mentally troubled. He came from a severely deprived background in the bleak town of Charleville, in northeast France, near the Belgian border. His parents—a dashing army captain who’d fought in the Crimean War and a pious peasant who laboriously tilled the fields—were dramatically mismatched. The husband soon abandoned his family, but briefly returned every few years to impregnate his wife and burden her with another child. Rimbaud inherited wanderlust and courage from his father, bitterness and rage from his mother, who called herself a widow while her husband was still alive. Impoverished, yet fiercely proud, she refused to allow him to play with other children, bullied him mercilessly, and never showed him the least affection.

Rimbaud survived by cultivating a spirit of revolt, and poured his anger and disgust into poetry. He not only instinctively hated the falsity and rottenness of family, school, politics, and religion—all ruled, in his view, by fat-bellied dignitaries and stupefied by the constraints of bourgeois behavior—but also set out to undermine his own health, reason, and reputation. He believed morality was a weakness of the brain, despised his birthplace, and was revolted by its dullness. He thought “my hometown is the most idiotic of all provincial towns.”4 He was stifled by his family and refused to finish high school, where he felt he had nothing more to learn. He made several attempts to run away from home, culminating in his third trip to Paris, where he began his torturous three-year relationship with Verlaine, poetic mentor, parent-substitute, and lover. Rimbaud’s adolescent precocity and rebellion coincided with the social revolution of the Paris Commune in 1870 and the avant-garde discoveries of the Impressionist artists. He has had more exegetes than the Talmud, more scholia than the works of Aristotle, and his ideas have had an enduring effect on twentieth-century literature.

Rimbaud’s decision to derange the senses, including the most basic human emotions, seems willful and pathological, but was also rational and deliberate. He had a program: he would take drink, drugs, even poison; he would endure unspeakable tortures, commit acts of violence, become a criminal, risk losing his poetic insights, even risk death. During his years with Verlaine (1871-73), Rimbaud put his program into practice, experiencing exhaustion and starvation, filth and debauchery, degradation and disease, violence and destruction, while heightening his chaotic state with hashish and absinthe. After mastering the classics of literature and history, Rimbaud reversed centuries of cultural tradition. Instead of assuming that the artist’s task is to create order out of experience, Rimbaud believed the disorder of the poet’s mind was sacred. The visionary yet analytic poet, determined to grasp the unknown, tragically yet joyfully destroyed himself in order to escape from ordinary life, enter a higher reality, and gain superhuman poetical power. This idea of the sacrifice of sanity to attain creative genius, familiar from the Faust legend, was not new. It originated in the Phaedrus, where Plato observed, “If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman. . . . Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings.”5 But while Plato’s poet passively waits to be touched and transformed by the furor divinus, “a gift of heaven,” Rimbaud’s seer actively induces his own state of madness, which is more closely related to hell.

Similarly, Rimbaud’s division of the self—which W. H. Frohock called “the ‘Je’ who is ‘autre’ and the ‘je’ who is not”6—contradicted a long literary tradition, in which writers create an artistic identity and take pride in their integrity and absolute self-mastery. The Hebrew Bible set the pattern. In Exodus 3:14, God rather solipsisticly told Moses, “I am that I am.” In the early sixteenth century Sir Thomas Wyatt asserted his unchanging identity: “I am as I am and so will I be.”7 In Cinna (1640), Pierre Corneille’s Augustus followed Wyatt by forcefully confirming his own sense of himself: “I’m master of myself as of the world; / I am that, I choose to be that” (“Je le suis, je veux l’être”).8

Rimbaud’s alienated and divided self, which allowed him to observe and describe his own disintegration, was inspired by all the doubled fictional characters in E. T. A. Hoffman and Edgar Poe, and foreshadowed all the divided souls from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, through Robert Louis Stevenson, to Antonin Artaud. In his bold but enigmatic pronouncement Rimbaud imagined himself both the pathetic invalid and the clinician diagnosing his own pathology. He twisted and extinguished the flamboyant, egotistical selfhood—dominant from Lord Byron to Oscar Wilde—that began in the Romantic era and ran through the nineteenth century. But Rimbaud’s self-alienation, like Plato’s furor divinus, also had a positive aspect. He now freed his other self to create or destroy. The “Je,” inspired and transformed by the imagination, brought his poetry into being.

Notes

1Arthur Rimbaud, Complete Works, Selected Letters, trans., intro. and notes Wallace Fowlie (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966) 307.

2William Blake, “Jerusalem,” Poetry and Prose, ed. David Erdman (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965) 151.

3Rimbaud 305.

4Alain Borer, Rimbaud in Abyssinia, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop (New York: Morrow, 1991) 81.

5Plato, Phaedrus, trans. and intro. Walter Hamilton (London: Penguin, 1973) 48, 46.

6W. H. Frohock, Rimbaud’s Poetic Practice (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1963) 210.

7Sir Thomas Wyatt, “I am as I am,” Collected Poems, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949) 154. Spelling modernized.

8Pierre Corneille, The Cid, Cinna and the Theatrical Allusion, trans. John Cairncross (London: Penguin, 1975) 189.

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