Charles Baudelaire by Rosemary Lloyd
(Reaktion Books, London, 2008)
The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Keith Waldrop
(Wesleyan University Press, Middleton, CT., 2006)
Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works, translated by Paul Schmidt
(Harper Perennial Modern Classics, New York, 2008)
The Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by Donald Revell
(Omnidawn Press, Richmond, CA, 2009)
In the past few years, interest has returned, if it ever waned, to two of the most important Symbolist poets – Baudelaire and Rimbaud – as testified to by the four books (which do not of themselves comprise all written in recent years) under consideration. But before launching into a consideration of their merits, or lack thereof, it would behoove this reviewer to consider the nature of Symbolist poetry itself.
Wikipedia provides as good an introduction to the nature of Symbolist poetry as any:
Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century art movement of French and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts. In literature, the movement had its roots in Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857) by Charles Baudelaire. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, which Baudelaire greatly admired and translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock tropes and images. The aesthetic was developed by Stephane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and '70s. In the 1880s, the aesthetic was articulated through a series of manifestoes and attracted a generation of writers. The label "symbolist" itself comes from the critic Jean Moréas, who coined it in order to distinguish the symbolists from the related decadent movement in literature and art.
What we still require is to understand the poetics behind this movement. For this, we turn to textetc.com:
Symbolism in literature was a complex movement that deliberately extended the evocative power of words to express the feelings, sensations and states of mind that lie beyond everyday awareness. The open-ended symbols created by Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) brought the invisible into being through the visible, and linked the invisible through other sensory perceptions, notably smell and sound
Here is our starting point for the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud.
Given the importance of Baudelaire to this poetry and his and its influence on subsequent poets and poetic movements not just in Europe but, in fact, in the entire poetic world, we will begin with an examination of Baudelaire’s life as given to us by Rosemary Lloyd in Reaktion Books’ Critical Lives series. This text, with its judicious use of earlier texts such as Baudelaire’s Oeuvres completes edited by Claude Pichois and Jean Ziegler, takes a microscope to the events in Baudelaire’s life. For example, Lloyd relates a story of Baudelaire and his mother attending the residence of a Mme. Pancoucke where toys are splayed out on the floor. She then quotes Baudelaire “first imitation into art, or rather, it is in the toy that the child first perceives the realization of art” to support her statement that “this apparently simple tale offers, therefore, a powerful insight into the ways in which the young Baudelaire became aware of the possibilities of art and their close relationship with the senses.”(17) Details provided are minute and seemingly unimportant although they add just that much more roundness to the portrait painted. For example, it is not enough just to advise that Baudelaire caught his first bout of venereal disease in “the autumn of 1839”(29) from a prostitute. We are also advised that it was apparently caught from “a cross-eyed prostitute known as Sara.” Important as well is the statement following that “the cure, which he obtained with the help of his step-brother, involved the use of opiates, and brought with it not only stomach cramps and headaches but also an increased sense of tedium.”(29) Surprisingly, Lloyd doesn’t seem to make the connection between this incident and Baudelaire’s use of ‘spleen’ and ‘ennui’ as descriptors of contemporary existence.
Lloyd begins her second chapter, ‘Revolt’, with the following image: “The ill-fated poet, rejected by his family, despised by the multitude and starving to death in his garret, was a standard element of Romantic mythology well before Paul Verlaine published his Poètes maudits in 1884. That Baudelaire was already beginning to work his way into a personal variant of the myth in his early twenties is already obvious...”(39) Even though bequeathed with a reasonable pension on which to live, Baudelaire discovered credit before credit became fashionable. About this Romantic mythology, Lloyd states “Baudelaire would not have been Baudelaire without Romanticism, but Modernism would not be Modernism without the poet, whose thinking was profoundly shaped by the difficult years leading up to 1848.”(50) She then gives us, through a passage contained in “a never completed letter”, an insight into what would come to be Baudelaire’s tour de force, Les Fleurs du Mal: “Why, he truculently demands, must the poet be a maker of sweets? Why should he not instead be a ‘grinder of poisons’, ‘a breeder of serpents for miracles and shows, a snake-charmer in love with his reptiles and enjoying simultaneously the icy caresses of their coils and the terrors of the crowd?”(51) In discussing Baudelaire’s friendship with the poet de Banville who had published a collection of poems at eighteen which Baudelaire referred to as ‘the happy hours’, Lloyd contrasts Baudelaire’s patience with de Banville’s precociousness, she states “[p]oetry, for Baudelaire, would not be exclusively about the happy hours, but would show the fugitive nature of joy and indicate how even the gifts we receive, the momentary pleasures we enjoy, are steeped in poison, like the cloak that the centaur’s wife gave him and that destroyed him,” hearkening back to Baudelaire’s uncompleted letter.
Baudelaire’s response to Romanticism is interesting as he saw himself enmeshed within its strictures. For him, Romanticism was “modern art – that is, intimacy, spirituality, colour, an aspiration to the infinite, expressed through all the means that the arts contain.”(68) Lloyd comprehends this by filtering it through the following: “we need to remember that what he saw as Romanticism was above all an intensely felt and powerfully expressed response to the modern world, seized in all its transience, colour and complexity.”(50) We also see, through another of Baudelaire’s art critiques (excerpts from which Lloyd liberally provides) for which he was becoming justly famous, his concept of aesthetics: “all beauty contains, like all possible phenomena, something eternal and something transient, something absolute and something particular.”(73) It is unfortunate that Lloyd does not extend this into a comparison with the concept of ‘the sublime’ to which such Romantic poets as Coleridge and Wordsworth subscribed. Wikipedia provides a reasonable statement of this aesthetic describing it as “the quality of greatness or vast magnitude, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic. The term especially refers to a greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.” Baudelaire’s concept appears to be a development of this concept as it seems to imply a mixture of secular and spiritual, both being necessary and essential to the beautiful. It would be useful as well at some point to compare Baudelaire’s statement with that of Lorca’s ‘duende’.
Lloyd’s examination of Baudelaire’s art criticism proves insightful once again when she examines his essay on what he termed ‘honest’ plays and novels. She states:
the critique of the ‘honest’ plays and novels is, to a considerable extent, a literary manifesto, and it points forward to the masterly critical essays of Baudelaire’s maturity...this is a fiery argument for freeing literature from any demands of morality, and one that remains as compelling as it is timely. The school of good sense is contemptuously dismissed for its lowbrow promotion of petit-bourgeois values, but Baudelaire’s prime purpose in this review is to explore what can legitimately be demanded of art. He concludes, in a judgement (sic) that projects a particularly clear light on his later writings: ‘Vice is seductive and must be painted as seductive; but it brings in its wake exceptional moral illness and suffering, and these must be described’. This, indeed, is one of the central unspoken tenets in Les Fleurs du Mal.(86)
Lloyd’s backgrounds to the creation of Les Fleurs du Mal are a must-read for anyone interested in this seminal work – which should be anyone interested in the art of poetry. Such reading shall be left to the reader. We will move on to the unfortunate aftermath of publication - the prosecution (and persecution, as he saw it) of Baudelaire. As Lloyd relates, it wasn’t so much what Baudelaire did (although the above quote alludes to the nature of the beast), but the climate in which publication occurred:
The timing was not good. In late January and early February Gustave Flaubert had been taken to court, accused of immorality in his novel Madame Bovary, which had been serialized in the Revue de Paris the year before. Probably the real reason for this trial was political: the Second Empire, with a prudent eye to its conservative supporters, professed an intransigent morality which led to the trials of many writers and publishers whose depictions of a more realistic morality put them at odds with the government. Flaubert was exonerated and no doubt this failure to convict him sharpened government resolve to impose its views at the next possible opportunity. It certainly embittered the prosecuting attorney, Ernest Pinard, and made him all the more determined not to be vanquished when that opportunity came.(11)
Again, it is the seeming inclusion of unnecessary details, such as the prosecuting attorney’s name, that breathes life into this biography. Lloyd implies an unexpected benefit from Baudelaire’s conviction and consequent fine of 300 francs as well as the suppression of several poems:
Enraged by the court decision, and forced as a result to reconsider and rework his volume, he was to transform it into something far richer and far more complex, building into it a stronger structure and bringing the total number of poems to 126 [from the originally planned 100]. The court had in fact done Baudelaire’ a curious and significant service, whipping him into a creative fervour that would produce some of his finest writing, both critical and creative.(114)
Perhaps the best and most succinct statement of Baudelaire’s aesthetics and poetics (are these terms identical?) is that found on p. 128:
Throughout his art criticism he has insisted that what raises art from mere technical competence to greatness is the way in which the artist’s temperament and imagination interpret and transform what is seen. Imagination, Baudelaire insists, is capable both of the close-up, analytical view, and the synthetic vision that pulls together elements that may have seemed disparate. It is what spurs all other faculties into action, not just the sine quo non of all great works of art, but essential also to warriors, diplomats and scholars.
In February, 1860, Lloyd relates, Baudelaire attended a concert of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. It must have been quite the memorable experience giving rise as it did to Baudelaire’s only piece of music criticism. This particular piece sheds light on Baudelaire’s views on the responsibility of the audience “In music, as in painting and in the written word, there is always a gap to be filled in by the listener’s imagination.”(138) This may be the earliest writing to elicit this important theme which would eventually assume the guise of reader-response theory.
In August, 1960, Baudelaire, while preparing the new edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, wrote a letter to his mother in which he said:
Les Fluers du Mal is finished. We are in the process of completing the cover and the portrait. There are 35 new poems and each of the old poems has been profoundly revised. For the first time in my life, I am almost content. The book is almost good, and it will remain as a witness of my disgust, and my hatred of everything.(156)
Lloyd indicates that there was very little evidence of any substantial reworking of the poems although “What did change from the 1857 version, however, was the order of the poems. In this new edition we find a far stronger and more complex architecture underpinning the work as a whole.”(158)
Although the bulk of Charles Baudelaire is given to the writing, publication and problems associated with Les Fleurs du Mal, which is only as it should as this is what dominated the majority of Baudelaire’s life, Lloyd does not neglect Paris Spleen. She quotes from his 1863 letter to the art critic Arsène Houssaye:
Who among us has not, in our days of ambition, dreamt of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and rhyme, supple and spasmodic enough to adapt itself to the soul’s lyrical movements, to reverie’s undulations, to the leaps of conscience?(162)
Lloyd continues with her own commentary: “Without rhythm and rhyme: what he means, of course, is not that he would completely abandon these two powerful elements of poetry but rather that rhythm and rhyme would break away from prosodic rules and therefore be free to express the ideas and suggestions a specific prose poem explored.” She then states that
This is what Barbara Johnson has justly termed Baudelaire’s second revolution, after that of Les Fleurs du Mal: a poetry whose modernism stems from a deliberate turn away from the lyrical to the suggestively prosaic, away from the beneficial constraints of form towards a freedom that facilitates a reflection of the chaotic rhythms that characterize the modern city. Not, as some have believed, a minor form or a sign of declining poetical powers, the prose poems are now widely regarded as offering exactly what Baudelaire had claimed for them, a pendant or counterpart to Les Fleurs du Mal, writing that is both thematically and stylistically as experimental and powerful as the verse poems, and central to the birth of Modernism.(162)
Suffering as he had been for years from syphilis, deeply in debt and impoverished, Baudelaire died on August 31,1867 leaving a legacy of two books that would profoundly change poetry ever after.
The most recent translation of the former of those two books, Les Fleurs du Mal (although you wouldn`t know it given that that title does not appear anywhere in the translation other than buried in the introduction), is that by the noted translator Keith Waldrop. The only title for the book is The Flowers of Evil. Perhaps this translation was executed during the American fries period. Whatever and whenever the case, it is inexcusable for a university press, this being released by Wesleyan University Press, not to publish a bilingual translation. There is so much information made unavailable to even the average reader, the reader who does not speak, read nor understand the other language, such as the form and rhyme structure of the original which often suffers in translation in order to preserve the sense of the original. As sensitive as this translation may be, it will always carry that stigma of not being as fully revealing as it otherwise might have been.
Having said that, Waldrop may almost be forgiven for his transgression given the quality of his introduction. In the succinct space of sixteen pages, he provides a brief sketch of Baudelaire`s life and, something which Lloyd neglected to do, discusses the terms that would become associated with Baudelaire. Relying on Baudelaire`s ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, Waldrop presents Baudelaire’s concept of the effect and influence of original sin:
Go through, analyse, everything natural – all actions and desires of the pure natural man. All you find will be atrocious. Anything beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation. Crime, a taste for which the human animal has drawn from his mother’s womb, is natural in origin. Virtue, on the contrary, is artificial, supernatural, since it has been necessary, in all times and in all nations, for gods and prophets to teach animalistic humanity what man, alone, would never have managed to discover. Evil comes about without effort, naturally, by fatality; the good is always the product of an art.
The great deficiency of Lloyd’s book is that she appears to fail to understand the importance of these terms to Baudelaire’s oeuvre. Spleen is mentioned but once and that in connection with the title of that second book Paris Spleen. It is surprising that it had to be left up to Waldrop to provide the French title, Spleen de Paris, as Lloyd was almost anal in using just the French title for the first. But it is thanks to Wardrop that these terms receive the attention they not only deserve but demand. As to ennui, of which Lloyd provides not a mention, Waldrop states:
A basic translation would be ‘boredom’...It enters very early, in the introductory verses ‘To the Reader,’ where it denotes a force threatening to destroy the world, by engulfing it ‘in a yawn.’ It is the world as tedious and tasteless. The first, and longest, section of the book suggests two possible antidotes to ennue...
One is by embracing the Ideal, by a cult of beauty or by rejecting the physical world for the immaterial. The latter is sometimes regarded as Christian, but I see it more as Schopenhauerian.(xx)
Waldrop goes on to associate the word ‘dandy’ with this referring to Baudelaire’s notebook where it is written “The dandy... must aspire to sublimity without interruption; he must live and sleep before a mirror.” Lloyd used this quotation as well without drawing the connection to ennui. And as to spleen:
Spleen, this ennui of all things, is the natural state. A life of ennui...may be accepted, consciously or unconsciously, controlled by religion or philosophy. It may be overcome by the Ideal. Or it may be allowed to follow its (natural) inclination for evil. An evil act, or thought (or poem) interrupts the natural tedium, signalling itself with a flash of horror that intensifies our awareness of existence.(xx)
We, today, associate Baudelaire with the prose poem. But Waldrop makes abundantly clear by stating it baldly and boldly in no uncertain terms that “Les Fleurs du Mal is a book of metrical rhymed verse, formally varied both in line and in stanza, but in its versification not at all innovative. Writing in prose would not have been innovative even if Les Fleurs du Mal had been written that way as the innovation of the prose poem is generally credited some years before to Louis-Jacques-Napoléon “Aloysius” Bertrand.
At the end of his introduction, Waldrop very briefly mentions the history of Les Fleurs du Mal’s translation into English beginning with Arthur Symons, whom Waldrop mentions in a very deprecating tone, before making the statement: “Since then, there have been versions in rhyme and meter, in blank verse, in free verse, in prose...I see no reason to reject any of these formal choices. The choice that is not available is ‘in the original meters,’ French and English meters being incommensurable.”(xxiv) He does mention his use of versets as his means of translating but makes no comment or apology for the failure to provide the original along with the translation.
It is time now to turn from the rhetoric to the work, time to examine the poems themselves that comprise Les Fleurs du Mal.
Baudelaire announces his work with the prefatory poem ‘To the Reader’ which opens “Stupidity, error, sin, cupidity – they squat in our minds and torment our bodies, while we nourish our comforting remorse, the way beggars feed their lice.” and ends:
But among jackals, panthers, bitch hounds, apes, scorpions, vultures, serpents – monsters yapping, howling, grumbling, crawling, in the foul menagerie of our vices.
there is one still uglier, meaner, filthier! Who without grand gestures, without a yawp, would gladly shiver the earth, swallow up the world, in a yawn.
Who? Ennui! Eye brimming with involuntary tears, dreaming of gallows while puffing on his hookah. You know him, reader, this dainty monster – hypocrite reader, - my fellow, - my brother! (5-6)
There it ends with perhaps some of the most famous words in poetic history “— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!” set out, in the original French, in the pedestrian rhyme scheme of abba cddc etc.
Perhaps the poem that created all the excitement, the one that would launch the Symbolist movement (note that Baudelaire himself is generally not considered a Symbolist) is the poem ‘Correspondences’, written in the same rhyme scheme as ‘To the Reader!’:
Nature is a temple whose columns are alive and sometimes issue disjointed messages. We thread our way through a forest of symbols that peer out, as if recognizing us.
Like long echoes from far away, merging into a deep dark unity, vast as night, vast as the light, smells and colors and sounds concur.
There are perfumes cool as children’s flesh, sweet as oboes, green like the prairie. And others corrupt, rich, overbearing,
with the expansiveness of infinite things – like ambergris, musk, spikenard, frankincense, singing ecstasy to the mind and to the senses.(14)
This was the siren call of Symbolism with its collation “smells and colors and sounds concur” that became the holy trinity of Symbolist rhetoric and even beyond. You can find their essence in John Ashbery who eventually broke their allure by extending the roll call to four rather than three. Present as well is the guiding hand that compresses one essence onto another “sweet as oboes”.
‘Carrion’ is as good a poem as any to display the new direction Baudelaire would take in terms of subject matter. The first two and the last stanza will be quoted:
Recall, my soul, the thing we saw that fine mild summer morning, there at a bend in the path, loathsome carrion on a bed sown with cobbles,
legs in the air, like a lewd woman, scorching and sweating poisons, reeking belly split open nonchalantly, cynically
Then, O my beauty! tell the worms that feed on you with kisses that I have kept both the form and the divine essence of my loves-in-decay!(40-41)
Baudelaire has been accused of being misogynistic. This poem, and others like it, may be the reason - this one ripe (pun intended) with it. Of course, this may just be his means of getting back at his mother for not providing him with the finances he constantly demanded and begged for.
Several poems bear the title ‘Spleen’, the first of which begins:
The month of drizzle, the whole town annoying, a dark cold pours from its urn in torrents on the pale inhabitants of the adjoining cemetery and over the mortals in foggy suburbs.(97)
Baudelaire brought the city into poetry with poems such as this.
Baudelaire is also capable of writing such lyrical masterpieces as ‘The Sun’:
Along the old outskirts of town, where Venetian blinds in hovels hide secret lecheries, when the cruel sun strikes with redoubled ray town and country, rooftop and wheatfield, I go to practice by myself my whimsical swordsmanship, sniffing at any corner for chance rhymes, tripping over words like curbs, bumping sometimes into lines long sought in dreams.(112)
It is poems such as this that would appeal to the Surrealists. The original appeared as two octaves and a quatrain.
Waldrop concludes ‘The Flowers of Evil’ with the inclusion of the banned poems. From ‘Lesbos’:
Mother of Latin games and Greek delights, Lesbos, where kisses, listless or joyous, warm like suns, cool as watermelon, embellish days and glorious nights; mother of Latin games and Greek delights.
Lesbos, where kisses are like cascades falling fearlessly into bottomless abysses and flow, sobbing and chuckling in turn, stormy and secret, teeming and deep; Lesbos, where kisses are like cascades!
Lesbos, where Phrynes entice one another, where no sigh goes unechoed, the stars admire you even as they do Paphos, and Venus has reason to be jealous of Sappho! Lesbos, where Phrynes entice one another.(185)
One can see why this might have scandalized a puritanical Paris with its prurient refrains. Three stanzas were included so that this nature could be revealed to the reader of this review. The original consists of quatrains rhymed ababa with the last line identical to the first.
We will turn now from Baudelaire to one of his disciples, Arthur Rimbaud, who looked upon Baudelaire as a god.
In the introduction to his translation, Paul Schmidt talks about trying to find the true Rimbaud, the youthful poet who produced for five years and then disappeared into North Africa. He arrives, finally, at this:
The events he lived seemed suddenly no more that the fictions of some ‘artistic’ imagination. Had a romantic poet set out to imagine Rimbaud’s life, he could never have produced such a profusion, such a dazzling luxuriance of events – but in Rimbaud’s own imagination, in his poetry, there is only vision, lucidity, clarity and courage. It is poetry, yes, but it is also a process: a poetic, an attempt at a method...”(xiv)
Schmidt’s assessment of Rimbaud as a poet is contained on p. xvii:
He was, more, rigorously preoccupied with himself as a poet – in the strictest technical sense of the word, a craftsman. His innovations in versification and the theory of poetry, though stated clearly only in his poetry, were radical, and remain influential. His poems are a study in the styles of nineteenth-century French poetry: the often breathtakingly swift development from one form to another, and into new forms, is one of his greatest accomplishments as a poet.
Rather than providing titles of poetic volumes, such as A Season in Hell or Illuminations, which some have applied as delineating factors in Rimbaud`s work (more about that later), Schmidt, due to the difficulty of obtaining accurate dates, merely divides the work into what he terms `Seasons` - referring to one of Rimbaud`s favourite poetic words saison. The first season is subtitled `Childhood`. In a brief introduction to this, Schmidt states that “what seems clearest in all Rimbaud’s work is his overwhelming consciousness of himself as a poet. His first poems are strongly influenced by the popular poets of his day: Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, Charles Leconte de Lisle, François Coppée, Théodore de Banville. Their tropes, their allusions, their subjects, are his; later we shall see him turn against them in parody.”(4)
Rimbaud initially saw himself as a Parnassian poet, Parnassianism defined in Wikipedia as:
a literary style characteristic of certain French poetry during the positivist period of the 19th century, occurring between romanticism and symbolism. The name is derived from the original Parnassian poets' journal, Le Parnasse contemporain, itself named after Mount Parnassus, home of the Muses in Greek mythology. The anthology was issued between 1866 to 1876, including poems by Charles Leconte de Lisle, Théodore de Banville, Sully Prudhomme, Stephane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, François Coppée and José María de Heredia.
The Parnassians were influenced by Théophile Gautier and his doctrine of art for art's sake. In reaction to the looser forms of romantic poetry, and what they saw as excessive sentimentality and undue social and political activism in Romantic works, the Parnassians strove for exact and faultless workmanship, selecting exotic and classical subjects which they treated with rigidity of form and emotional detachment. Elements of this detachment were derived from the philosophical work of Arthur Schopenhauer.
In addition to poems, Schmidt has accumulated various other writings – letter, prose – written by Rimbaud. This is invaluable for getting a sense of him. For example, in a letter written to Théodore de Banville dated May 24, 1870, Rimbaud writes “I love all poets, all the Parnassians - since the poet is a Parnassian, in love with ideal beauty,,,In two years, perhaps in a year, I will be in Paris. Anch’io, gentlemen of the press, I will be a Parnassian!”(38) The letter was written when Rimbaud was seventeen. Already, he has declared his future as a poet. This declaration he had made even earlier in the final stanza of the poem, ‘Ver Erat’ (‘It was Springtime’), in which he also reveals his Parnassian leanings:
Meanwhile the doves returned, in their beaks they bore
A crown, a laurel garland; crowned thus, Apollo
Delights to strike with his finger the sounding strings.
And when they had bound my brows with the laurel crown,
Lo, the heavens opened before me and suddenly
To my astonished eyes, hovering on a golden cloud,
Phoebus! His divine hand offered me the sounding lyre,
And with fire from heaven he traced these words on my brow:
YOU WILL BE A POET...(13)
We are indeed fortunate as the original, which is in Latin, unrhymed and contains quite long lines, bears, at the end, the following: “First Prize in Latin Composition, November 6,1868, Rimbaud, Arthur, Age 14, Born Charleville, October 20,1854.” Even though there is certainly room for improvement and tightening, this is an astonishing accomplishment – the poem, not that fact that he placed first – for one so young. It would rival and surpass the majority of poetry written today by those considerably older and with considerably more experience.
‘Second Season’, subtitled ‘The Open Road’ begins with Rimbaud’s first escape from home when, in 1870 at the age of fifteen, he escaped to Paris to be with his rhetoric professor, Georges Izambard. Rimbaud was arrested and imprisoned for a short time before being returned home to his parents. The poetry of this period is definitely Parnassian juvenilia as the poem ‘Faun’s Head’ amply demonstrates:
Then, like a squirrel, he turns and disappears,
But his laughter lingers still along the leaves,
And, shaken as a startled chaffinch soars,
The Golden Kiss of the Woods is left in peace(44)
Beginning during the ‘Third Season: War’, the period of the war between France and Prussia beginning in July 1870, we begin to sense a maturity in Rimbaud’s writing. This can be seen in the first quartrain of the sonnet ‘Asleep in the Valley’:
A small green valley, where a slow stream runs
And leaves long strong strands of silver on the bright
Grass; from the mountaintop stream the sun’s
Rays; they fill the hollow full of light.(62)
The Parnassian still holds sway as this stanza from ‘Crows’ reveals:
Armada dark with harsh cries,
Your nests are tossed by icy winds!
Along the banks of yellowed ponds,
On roads where crumbling crosses rise,
In cold and gray and mournful weather
Scatter, hover, dive together.(71)
Even this demonstrates a definite tightening of Rimbaud’s verse. Although today we would frown upon the line “In cold and gray and mournful weather” with its unnecessary conjunctions used artificially as padding to obtain the proper rhythm, we must remember that this was a perfectly valid and acceptable poetic practice at the time.
This progress continues in the ‘Fourth Season: The Tormented Heart’. Schmidt characterizes the poetry as follows: “Still, few adolescent rebellions have yielded such a harvest of vitriolic verse. Nothing escapes him: God, the Church, the Family, the Nation, the town of Charleville, its citizenry and institutions and, above all, its women. For the main burden of these poems is scatological – the furious body scrawling ‘shit on God’ on the sidewalk in front of the church is clearly their author.”(75) Schmidt goes on later: “Yet out of all this fury comes a conviction – of what it means to be a poet, and what a poet must do to create poetry.” In a letter dated May 13, 1871 to Izambard, he states: “Right now, I’m depraving myself as much as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working at making myself a visionary; you won’t understand at all, and I’m not even sure I can explain it to you.” Yet, two days later, he writes a letter to Paul Demeny, a childhood friend, which does just that:
A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessence. Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great invalid, the great criminal, the great accursed – and the Supreme Scientist! For he attains the unknown! Because he has cultivated his soul, and if, demented, he finally loses the understanding of his visions, he will at least have seen them! So what if he is destroyed in his ecstatic flight through things unheard of, unnameable; other horrible workers will come; they will begin at the horizons where the first one has fallen!(116)
There is a sense here that Rimbaud has discovered Baudelaire. This sense is heightened when we encounter the imagery of ‘Evening Prayer’:
I spend my life sitting, like an angel in a barber’s chair,
Holding a beer mug with deep-cut designs,
My neck and gut both bent, while in the air
A weightless veil of pipe smoke hangs.(77)
This certainly seems the furthest thing from Parnassianism. There is also this stanza from ‘My Little Lovelies’: “One night you made me a poet, / Ugly blond whore. / Get between my legs, / I’ll whip you.”(83) or this from ‘The Savior Bumped upon his Heavy Butt’:
The Savior bumped upon his heavy butt,
A ray of light across his shoulders; I sweat,
Begin to shout: “You want to see the sky turn red?
You hanging there waiting for the roar of floods,
For milk-white stars, and swarms of asteroids?(94)
Poems such as this will make Rimbaud the darling of the Surrealists.
At the ‘Fifth Season: The Visionary’, Rimbaud enters his own. It was during this ‘season’ that Rimbaud began his affair with Verlaine which scandalized Paris, began to drink absinthe, or ‘absumphe’ as they referred to it, began to smoke hashish, was shot by Verlaine in a hotel room in Brussels for wanting to end the affair which resulted in Rimbaud being hospitalized where he had “the scratch on his hand bandaged”(135) and Verlaine imprisoned for two years, and led to the completion of Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell), published in 1873.
Finally, Rimbaud reveals himself for the great poet he was. He has surpassed the Parnassians. He has surpassed Baudelaire. He has surpassed Verlaine. The only one at this time who may have been his equal was Mallarmé. These were the gods of Symbolism. A Season in Hell is a reason to believe in heaven or, at least, in the divine muse. Take ‘The Drunken Boat’ with its opening stanza:
I drifted on a river I could not control,
No longer guided by the bargeman’s ropes.
They were captured by howling Indians
Who nailed them naked to colored stakes.(137)
From ‘The Vowels’ with its bursting synesthesia:
Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O – vowels.
Some day I will open your silent pregnancies:
A, black belt, hairy with bursting flies,
Bumbling and buzzing over stinking cruelties,(139)
‘”Does She Dance?”’ takes off in the middle with a supersonic jet sound - a shwooshing of s’s:
Does she dance? In the first blue hours
Will she wither like the dying flowers...
Before this sweep of splendour perfumed
By the flowering breath of the bustling town!(171)
The last line catches the ‘b’ sound initially presented in the first line and echoed in the third which is nicely accompanied by the internal and end rhyme of the last each based on the ‘flow’ with the internal cleverly reversing the order of the ‘b’ and the ‘ow’ sounds. To think that all this is taking place just in the translation. The reader is left to wonder what the original looks and sounds like?
In a letter dated ‘Junphe, ‘72’ from Rimbaud to Ernest Delahaye, we get a rare glimpse of Rimbaud’s writing practice:
I work at night now. From midnight to five in the morning...At five o’clock I’d go down to buy bread. Workmen were on the move, everywhere. That was the time I used to go get drunk in the bars. I would go back to my room to eat, and go to bed at seven in the morning, just as the sun was beginning to make the termites crawl out from under the tiles. Early morning in summer, and evenings in December; those are the times that have always enchanted me here.(195)
Schmidt has included in this section what appears to be the entirety of the sordid shooting incident that led to Verlaine’s imprisonment. This includes correspondence between Rimbaud and Verlaine, police statements, court transcripts including testimony and the order of the court sentencing Verlaine to “two hundred francs fine and two years at hard labour on a charge of assault and battery.”(213)
Schmidt’s introduction to ‘Season Seven: The Damned Soul’ begins:
Here is A Season in Hell, the book that Rimbaud wrote that summer of 1873 in the country. He had it published in the fall, but no one read it. He couldn’t afford to pay the printer, and it stayed in the cellar of the print shop for twenty-eight years. A few author’s copies Rimbaud sent to Verlaine, to other friends.(218)
He describes the book as:
a set of philosophical meditations, a confessional handbook, a mystical vision of the Soul. But it wakes new vibrations in its style: a nervous, compacted, often vernacular use of poetic language in prose. It is, as Rimbaud said, “absolutely modern”.
In the profoundest sense, we are witnessing the notes of an addict’s withdrawal and his attempted cure. An addiction to Verlaine, to alcohol, to the life of an ‘artist’ and to ‘artistic’ poetry, to mystical flights, to occultism – to all consideration of ‘the mind’s disorder as a sacred thing.’ And underlying all, a rejection of the pose of revolt, of the pretensions of the rebel. “I am sent back to the soil, to seek some obligation...” The rest of his life was to be a search for that obligation.(218-19)
A Season in Hell opens with ‘Once, if my Memory Serves me Well’:
Once, if my memory serves me well, my life was a banquet where every heart revealed itself, where every wine flowed.
One evening, I took Beauty in my arms – and I thought her bitter – and I insulted her.
I steeled myself against justice.
I fled. O witches, O misery, O hate, my treasure was left in your care.(219)
Rimbaud takes poetry to unexplored places in these prosaic musings. For example, in ‘Night in Hell’:
I have just swallowed a terrific mouthful of poison, - Blessed, blessed, blessed the advice I was given
- My guts are on fire. The power of the poison twists my arms and legs, cripples me, drives me to the ground. I die of thirst, I suffocate, I cannot cry. This is Hell, eternal torment! See how the flames rise! I burn as I ought to. Go on, Devil!(225)
This is writing as exorcism, as a depilation of pain by pain pulled out by the roots. In ‘Second Delirium: The Alchemy of the Word’, he attempts to expurgate the past:
I invented colors for the vowels! A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green. I made rules for the form and movement of consonants, and I boasted of inventing, with rhythms from within me, a kind of poetry that all the senses, sooner or later, would recognize. And I alone would be its translator.
I began it as an investigation. I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still.(232)
Rimbaud mixes forms, merging the prose poem with poetry proper, becoming a predecessor for the language explorations of Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman, to name but two.
Rimbaud had reached the apex of his poetic career. In the ‘Seventh Season: A Few Belated Cowardices’, Schmidt sums it up: “His concerns are now with other things, grownup things: making money. He was no longer a child. How then could he still be a poet? Together then they died, the child and the poet, abandoned, passed over, swallowed up in practicalities. And Rimbaud went off, a man half-grown, to wander through the world.”(248) Schmidt has collected into this saison additional poems, but with the proviso “What poems were written now, what poems were merely recopied, we can only conjecture,” and further correspondence.
In the final season, ‘Season Eight: The Man with the Wind at his Heels’, “we are concerned no longer with poetry, but with biography alone. The writings of Rimbaud from 1875 on, as far as we know, consist of only letters and business documents.”(285) Due to a cancerous tumour in his leg, Rimbaud’s health deteriorated leading, on November 10, 1891, to his death at the age of 37.
But before we leave Rimbaud and this review, there remains one other book to discuss, a book which Schmidt, in his introduction, denied existed: ‘Clearly, then, the title, the actual contents, and the order of any collection of poems called Illuminations are all hypothetical, and cannot be traced to Rimbaud himself.”(xvi) Schmidt sets out a detailed chronology of the item that should have been issued under that title, but clearly believes same never did. It is unfortunate that Donald Revell never addresses this controversy in his Afterword even though he has selected epigraphs from Schmidt’s book and, therefore, must have known of its existence. This must be considered a huge cop-out by Revell. But still, it is nice to have a fresh translation of several of Rimbaud’s poems, poems which Schmidt had spread throughout various seasons.
The first poem to be included by Revell was the first one that Schmidt had included in ‘Seventh Season’ as being of unproven date. This is ‘After the Flood’. In Revell’s translation, it begins:
As soon as the mind of the Flood grew calm, a hare paused in the shivering bellflowers in holy clover, and he said his prayer to the rainbow through a spider’s web.(17)
It is insightful to compare this with the Schmidt translation:
As soon as the thought of the Flood had subsided,
A rabbit stopped in the clover and trembling bell flowers,
And said his prayers to the rainbow, through a spider’s web.(249)
Apart from the difference in style – Revell’s in prose, Schmidt’s in verse, the impact is vastly distinct - Revell anthropomorphizing the flood. One huge benefit of the Revell book is that it contains the original French which reveals that the original was a prose poem. This anthropomorphism in the Revell translation persists as can be seen in the second ‘stanza’. Here is Schmidt’s:
Oh! what precious stones lay hidden,
What flowers were already looking down.
Oh! The gemstones gone into hiding, - the flowers already up and alert.
Although we must condemn Revell for not addressing the issue of the existence of The Illuminations, we must in turn thank him for providing a bilingual edition. It is understandable why Schmidt didn’t do so as his volume was already 347 pages. The importance of having both is readily seen as it demonstrates the importance of having the original for comparison even if your comprehension of the original is minimal at best as this reviewer’s is of French. Did Rimbaud intend the anthropomorphism? This reviewer couldn’t tell you – but it is nice to see the different ways translators approach their work. Revell’s ‘After the Flood’ is a different work from Schmidt’s as a result of this difference. The original Rimbaud, if read in the original without the baggage of translation, is different again. Viva la différence!
John Herbert Cunningham is the host of Speaking of Poets – a half-hour radio show on Sundays on CKUW 95.9 FM. He resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where he writes poetry, reviews and interviews. He publishes regularly in half a dozen literary magazines in Canada and the same number in the U.S. He is also a multi-instrumentalist with the free jazz group ECMW – Experimental Creative Music Workshop. He is currently studying the alto sax, the Chinese flute and the darbouka.