It could be argued that the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) was the first punk. Instead of using music, he used language, to break open the possibility of derangement of the senses through words. His influence is seen in the work of Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Richard Hell and Jim Morrison, among many others who float through the PKM universe. Ingrid Jensen examines Rimbaud’s life and work to seek answers to the unanswerable: Why?
It would be impossible to quantify the far-reaching influence of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) on the musical scenes of the 1960s and ‘70s and even, to a lesser extent, beyond that. His literary works and (mis)adventures shaped the work of musician/poets from Bob Dylan and Patti Smith to Jim Morrison and Richard Hell, among many others. (As Morrison noted, in a Rimbaud-ian twist, in American Prayer, “Words got me the wound and will get me well.”)
To this day, Rimbaud’s legacy remains evident in every corner of the music and film industry, and in the work of artists of all genres.
The 19th-century literary enfant terrible was on a mission from an early age to create a new poetic language, a new structure for self-expression through the printed page. He was a prodigy and a rebel, who inspired, in equal measure, great awe and disgust in his contemporaries. Rimbaud left no middle ground in this regard.
To Patti Smith, he was an irresistibly tragic and romantic figure. At age 16, she unearthed a copy of Rimbaud’s writings in a pile of battered paperbacks and was struck by a bolt of lightning from the past: “The language in it just totally seduced me, and I fell in love,” Smith explained in 2004 NPR interview. Her infatuation with Rimbaud was still burning strong in 2017, when she purchased a reconstruction of the Rimbaud family house in Charleville, France, the place of origin of his most famous work, A Season in Hell.
The promise of Rimbaud—the idea, the romance, the fairy-story of his wanderings and passionate scribbles—holds every bit as much depth and dimension as his ideas in the form of poems or prose. And yet, when his poetry is put under critical analysis, the general consensus is that he never arrived at the highest level of expression of which he was capable and that his greatest work, like much of Dylan Thomas’s, was done when he was still a teenager. Le silence de Rimbaud, the period from the age of 20 to his death at 37, when he wrote nothing but letters, is one of the great tragedies to befall 19th-century literature.
He was a prodigy and a rebel, who inspired, in equal measure, great awe and disgust in his contemporaries. Rimbaud left no middle ground in this regard.
As the rock critic Lester Bangs aptly observed, “The first mistake of art is to assume it’s serious.” It is a mistake to over-analyze Rimbaud’s poetry. No emotion lasts forever, and Rimbaud’s writing deals heavily in portraying emotion. It is ultimately an act of selflessness, to bleed onto a page and present it up to the reading public, knowing not whether they will love it or pull it to pieces. The only point of art in any genre is to create. What happens after the creation is complete and irrelevant to both the artist and the art itself.
A 1924 article from the New York Times Book Review by Herbert S. Gorman deemed Rimbaud “…one of the peaks of French poetical expression since Baudelaire…” Gorman compares his youthful prolificacy to that of Thomas Chatterton, before deciding, “…of the two youths, Rimbaud is the more startling, the more inexplicable.”
There was a mild revival of interest in Rimbaud’s works in the 1920s. Zelda Fitzgerald, in fact, taught herself French in order to complete a translation of his famed prose poem A Season in Hell. Nonetheless, his work remained largely unknown to American audiences for the next three decades, despite periodic efforts by kindred spirits like Edmund Wilson (Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930, 1931) and Henry Miller (The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud, 1946) and name-checks by the Beats. Miller noted, “The authors of Really the Blues, or a man like Lord Buckley, are closer to Rimbaud, though they may not be aware of it, than the poets who have worshipped and imitated him.”
But, in 1965, when, at his first press conference after “going electric,” Bob Dylan was asked what poets he liked best. He responded by rattling off a list of names, topped by Rimbaud’s.
His name also forms the main chorus in the title track of Patti Smith’s now classic 1975 album, Horses: “Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud!” Encouragement, that, he would perhaps have been grateful to receive in his earthly life, had it been available.
He was an unusually bright child. His domineering mother determined early on that he should forge a lucrative career for himself as a businessman. Arthur did not like this plan. He objected to receiving an education for the sole purpose of being considered material for hire. (At age 9, he wrote a 700-word essay explaining why he opposed being forced to learn Latin.) The only schoolwork that seemed to open up his interests in earnest were literature and languages, subjects he pursued with a relentless energy and insatiable curiosity that he soon directed towards his own writing.
In the midst of the Franco-Prussian War (from 1870 to 1871) the inward rebellion he had felt all his life surfaced. He ran away from home three times, and each time was brought back through the efforts of his mother. He grew his hair long, began drinking, and scrawled the crude phrase, “Shit on God,” on any blank wall he happened across. At 16, he penned a manifesto, of sorts: “I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet…The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering.”
Jim Morrison’s interpretation of this statement of intent was to turn derangement of the senses into a kind of performance art, wallowing in the effects of LSD in front of crowds several thousand strong. Morrison paraphrased Rimbaud, saying, “I believe in a long, prolonged derangement of the senses in order to obtain the unknown.” His views on presenting the Doors as “erotic politicians,” certainly stemmed from the influence of Rimbaud’s Symbolist poetry and dark philosophies, too.
In the fall of 1871, Rimbaud wrote a letter to the French poet Paul Verlaine (the man from whom Tom Verlaine, of the band Television, adopted his surname a hundred years later), tucking into the envelope several samples of his work. Verlaine was impressed with the young man’s prodigious talent. He sent him a gushing reply, inviting him to Paris: “Come, great and dear soul, we are calling out to you, we are awaiting you.”
Elated by his apparent acceptance into the literati of Paris, Rimbaud rushed to the city and promptly moved in with Verlaine and his wife, Matilde. Life in their cramped apartment proved a fertile breeding ground for romance, and Rimbaud began a stormy affair with Verlaine, who ultimately abandoned Matilde.
Photographs show Rimbaud to be a baby-faced youth, with mussed hair and an expression of smug, cat-like insolence. In one image, he appears to be rolling his eyes at the camera. It’s probably due to the lengthy periods of absolute stillness required to capture an image in the early days of photography—an accidental blink, or a technical glitch. Nonetheless, the viewer gets an excellent sense of his defiant, rebellious personality. The biographer Frances Winwar described Rimbaud at this time as, “a boy of 18 with wonderful eyes and a disdainful mouth…with small regard for manners or composition.”
Rimbaud’s libertine persona and unbridled enthusiasm for “finding a language” and a new way of poetic expression, enchanted his contemporaries. His favored topics—Hell, mental torment and anguish, anti-religion sentiments, and advocation of the Bohemian lifestyle as a superior, more humanistic choice to traditional values—provided a much-needed contrast to the popular material of the time.
Two years into Rimbaud and Verlaine’s tempestuous relationship, an incident occurred which directly led to the production of Rimbaud’s most famous piece, a poem darkly titled, “A Season in Hell.” The pair had been traveling Europe together for some time, imbibing heroic quantities of absinthe, opium and hashish, when Verlaine announced he wanted to return to his wife, Matilde. He left London and went to Brussels in a further attempt to break things off, but Rimbaud followed him. They spent hours drinking and arguing in Verlaine’s hotel room, Rimbaud refusing to leave, until Verlaine fired a revolver he had recently purchased at his teenage lover. One shot struck Rimbaud on the wrist. He went to a hospital to have it bandaged, but still refused to cede that his relationship with Verlaine was at an end. In an encounter on the street outside the hotel, Verlaine attempted to shoot him again. As a result, Verlaine was sent to prison for two years. (In 2016, the revolver was put up for auction at Christie’s and sold for 368,000 pounds.)
Things soured further when, in prison, Verlaine re-converted to Roman Catholicism, the faith of his childhood. Rimbaud’s anti-religion sensibilities were outraged, and he finally gave up trying to salvage the relationship from the ashes.
(The song “You’re Gonna Make me Lonesome When you Go” from Bob Dylan’s 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, contains this stanza, a direct reference to the influence of both poets on Dylan:
“Situations have ended sad,
Relationships have all been bad.
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud.
But there’s no way I can compare,
All those scenes to this affair,
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go…”)
Rimbaud tended to return to his mother after every major encounter with the more unpleasant sides of life, and thus A Season in Hell was written in a barn at the family farmhouse, during the summer of 1873. (Punk progenitor Richard Hell adopted his artistic surname as a nod to A Season in Hell.) Shaken by his recent experiences and saddened by the death of his relationship with Verlaine, Rimbaud found the writing process particularly taxing. His younger sister wrote later that as he worked, he could be heard crying and yelling, as though undergoing an emotional exorcism.
The poem describes itself early on as, “pages from the diary of a Damned soul,” and anguish is palpable in every line: “In the morning, I had a look so lost, a face so dead, that perhaps those I met did not see me.”
Rimbaud’s shattered romance figures highly in the poem, with both himself and Verlaine appearing as characters, in only lightly-veiled guises.
In an interesting twist of fate, it was his mother who arranged and paid for the publication of A Season in Hell. It took great coaxing on Rimbaud’s part, but evidently, she had softened over time from the formidable figure of his youth. (There is a long history of mothers providing the impetus or the backing to kickstart writerly careers; it was, after all, Anthony Bourdain’s mother who arranged for his first publications, and John Kennedy Toole’s mother who presented the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces to a publisher after her son’s suicide.)
The literati of Paris were disgusted with Rimbaud for the part he had played in Verlaine’s arrest, and, lacking the support of writers and critics alike, A Season in Hell was dismissed and ignored. Rimbaud was devastated. In what is called, with great sadness, “le silence de Rimbaud,” aged a mere 20 years, he turned his back on poetry. The intensity with which he had poured himself onto the printed page had been exhausted, and he turned instead to the practical world of business his family had hoped he would build his life around, so many years earlier.
He busied himself starting and stopping a number of pursuits: he joined the Dutch army (but deserted in Sumatra); worked as a foreman at a quarry in Cyprus, and then traveled to Ethiopia as an agent of French coffee trader. He remained in Ethiopia in apparent contentment, continuing to work for the coffee trader, as well as dealing in guns, and exploring the country in his free time. (The title track of Patti Smith’s second album, Radio Ethiopia refers to Rimbaud’s dying wishes.
The song is both a tribute and an epitaph intertwined.)
He fell ill in Africa and, as his health continued to deteriorate, returned to France. He died at age 37, of bone cancer, after having his leg amputated in Marseilles. The inscription on his tombstone, in what was either an actual favor requested by his family or a strange fancy he took to on his deathbed, reads, ‘Pray for him.’
The contemporary Spanish poet Jude Havoc has fond memories of reading Rimbaud: “Present in my life from my earliest childhood, Arthur accompanied my years as a quiet observant; his eternal portrait broke through me…and when I was ready, then he spoke.”
The statement aptly describes the effect Rimbaud’s writing frequently has on readers: it uncoils, slowly, and stretches, in a time-lapse awakening of appreciation for the style and content. There is a consistently lyrical quality to his writing. The rhythms of his words haunt. Surely, he succeeded in his quest to find a new poetical language, for both before and after him, there has been nothing quite like it.
Your head turns: the new love! Your head turns back to
its place; the new love!
Riddle with disaster, to begin with the time, sing to you
those children. Raise never mind where the sub-
stance of our fortunes, and of our vows, I beg you.
Having arrived from always, you will go everywhere.
(Excerpt from To One Reason by Arthur Rimbaud)