Born October 20,
Died November 10, 1891
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. 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 (his poem "Le cœur supplicié" ["The
Tortured Heart"] suggests so). 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 Démeny 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"]). He returned to Paris in late
September 1871 at the invitation of the eminent Symbolist poet Paul
Verlaine (after Rimbaud had sent him a letter containing several samples
of his work) and resided briefly in Verlaine's home. Verlaine, who was
married, promptly fell in love with the sullen, blue-eyed, overgrown
(5 ft 10 in), light-brown-haired adolescent. They became lovers and
led a wild, vagabond-like life spiced by absinthe and hashish. 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 love affair took them to London in 1872, Verlaine abandoning
his wife and infant son (both of whom he had abused in his alcoholic
In July 1873, Rimbaud
committed himself to journey to Paris with or without Verlaine. In a
drunken rage, Verlaine shot at him, one of the two shots striking the
18-year-old in the left wrist. 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", so he turned
and ran away. In his words, "it was then I (Rimbaud) asked a police
officer to arrest him (Verlaine)." Verlaine was arrested and subjected
to a humiliating medico-legal examination, including his intimate correspondence
with his lover and the accusations of Verlaine's wife about the nature
of their relationship.
withdrew the complaint, but the judge sentenced Verlaine to two years
in prison. 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" (odd partnership) life
with Verlaine, his "pitoyable frère" ("pitiful
brother") and "vierge folle" ("mad virgin")
to whom he was "l'époux infernal" ("infernal spouse").
In 1874 he returned to London with the poet Germain Nouveau and put
together his pathbreaking Illuminations, including the first-ever two
French poems in free verse.
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. 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 the summer of 1876
he enlisted as a soldier in the Dutch Army to travel free of charge
to Java (Indonesia) where he promptly deserted, returning to France
by ship. 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.
He traveled to Cyprus and in 1880 finally settled in Aden as a main
employee in the Bardey agency. He had several native women as lovers
and for a while he lived with an Ethiopian mistress. Whether he had
other types of love-interests has not, apparently, come down to us.
In 1884 he quit the job at Bardey's and became a merchant on his own
in Harar, Ethiopia. He made a small fortune as a gun-runner, but Rimbaud
developed right knee synovitis which degenerated into a carcinoma and
the state of his health forced him to return to France on May 9, 1891,
where his leg was amputated on May 27. He was going to stay at his sister
Isabelle's house to recuperate but never left the hospital. Rimbaud
died in Marseille on November 10, 1891, at age 37.
His influence in modern literature, music and art has been pervasive.
His life in Paris was dramatized in a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio
called Total Eclipse (1995).
the following artists, among others: French poets in general, the Surrealists,
T. S. Eliot, the Beat Poets, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, William S. Burroughs,
Bob Kaufman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Hugo Pratt, Mário Cesariny
de Vasconcelos, Sérgio Godinho, Klaus Kinski, Dwid Hellion of
Integrity, Jack Kerouac, Philippe Sollers, Patti Smith, Bruce Chatwin,
Penny Rimbaud, Jim Morrison, Van Morrison, John Hall, Bob Dylan, Richard
Hell, Pete Doherty, Joe Strummer, John Lennon, Stephen Kasner, Rozz
Williams, David Wojnarowicz, Alternative TV and many more. Horror writer
Thomas Ligotti has shown a fondness for Rimbaud's work.
The Italian gothic
band Theatres des Vampires sing (in the original language, French) a
sentence of "Jadis, si je me souviens bien...", in their song
"Cursed". They also sing a sentence taken from the poem "Nuit
de l'Enfer" ("Night of Hell") in their song "Lunatic
Asylum", but in English this time.
and drummer Penny Rimbaud named himself as a tribute to Arthur Rimbaud,
the 'Penny' being a pun on the phrase "arfer (half a) penny",
referring to the long discontinued British Ha'penny coin.
Bob Dylan confesses
his love for Rimbaud's poetry in his autobiography "Chronicles:
Volume One". He refers to Rimbaud in his song "You're Gonna
Make Me Lonesome When You Go" from Blood on the Tracks: "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 them
scenes to this affair, / You're gonna make me lonesome when you go."
Van Morrison was
reading about Rimbaud during a period of time (mid-1970's) when, "I
wasn't writing anything at all, and I really couldn't understand why."
He said that after reading how Rimbaud had stopped writing at twenty-six,
"ironically that sorta got me writing again". He started the
song, "Tore Down A La Rimbaud", from A Sense of Wonder and
didn't finish it for eight years. That's the longest I've ever carried
a song around. He also mentions Rimbaud in the song, "Foreign Window"
from No Guru, No Method, No Teacher: "You were carryin' your burden/You
were singing about Rimbaud." He later said that without knowing
it, he may have been writing about Bob Dylan, here.
Poet and "Godmother
of Punk" Patti Smith has a line in her song "Horses"
where she urges the listener to "Do the watusi/ And go Rimbaud!
Canadian rock group
Red Rider's 1980 song "White Hot" was written about Rimbaud.
The early UK punk
band Alternative TV reference Rimbaud in their song "Viva La Rock
and Roll"; Arthur Rimbaud spoke to me/Through New York's New Wave.
and Roll band, The Medicine Show not only make reference to the poet
in their name, but chief songwriter, John Hall, openly states Rimbaud
as an inspiration in his own lyrics.
Hector Zazou's 1992 album Sahara Blue uses Rimbaud's poems as lyrics
for 11 of the 12 tracks on the album, and features contributions from
David Sylvian, Anneli Drecker, John Cale, Gérard Depardieu, Ryuichi
Sakamoto, Tim Simenon, and Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can
duo Frou Frou take their name from a Rimbaud poem.
In the song Ghetto
Defendant on the album Combat Rock by The Clash, poet Allen Ginsberg
refers to Rimbaud and the Paris Commune.
2005 single Happy As Annie takes its image of a corpse being mistaken
for a sleeping person from Rimbaud's poem Asleep In The Valley.
Welsh poet Dylan
Thomas described himself as 'the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive'
Jim Morrison is
said to have described himself as "I am a Rimbaud with a leather
Rimbaud is heavily
referenced in the film Eddie and the Cruisers, and the albums are named
after Rimbaud's works (ie. A Season in Hell)
Éric Cantona, when interviewed by the British press about influences
on his life during the early 1990s, named Rimbaud as one of his heroes.
However, the press misunderstood the name due to Cantona's thick accent,
and thought he was talking about the Sylvester Stallone movie character
In Pier Paolo Pasolini's
movie Teorema, the mysterious visitor, played by Terence Stamp, is often
seen reading a small book by Rimbaud.
begun his settings of Les Illuminations in Suffolk in March 1939 and
completed them a few months later in the USA. They were originally written
for the soprano Sophie Wyss, although the work can be, and often is,
performed by a tenor. The work has also been choreographed by Sir Frederick
Ashton and Richard Alston.
Michael Nyman set
his poem "L'Orgie parisienne, ou Paris se repeuple" as part
of La Traversée de Paris and The Michael Nyman Songbook.
Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)
French poet and adventurer, who stopped writing verse at the age of
21, and became after his early death an inextricable myth in French
gay life. Rimbaud's poetry, partially written in free verse, is characterized
by dramatic and imaginative vision. "I say that one must be a visionary
- that one must make oneself a VISIONARY." His works are among
the most original in the Symbolist movement, which included in France
such poets as Stéphane Mallarme and Paul Paul Verlaine, and playwrights
as Maurice Maeterlinck. Rimbaud's best-known work, LE BÂTEAU IVRE
(The Drunken Boat), appeared in 1871. In the poem he sent a toy boat
on a journey, an allegory for a spiritual quest.
It is found again.
It is the sea
Gone with the sun.
(from 'L'Éternite', 1872)
Arthur Rimbaud was
born in Charleville, in the northern Ardennes region of France, as the
son of Fréderic Rimbaud, a career soldier, who had served in
Algria, and Marie-Catherine-Vitale Cuif, an unsentimental matriarch.
Rimbaud's father left the family and from the age of six young Arthur
was raised by her strictly religious mother. Rimbaud was educated in
a provincial school until the age of fifteen. He was an outstanding
student but his behavior was considered provocative. After publishing
his first poem in 1870 at the age of 16, Rimbaud wandered through northern
France and Belgium, and was returned to his home in Paris by police.
In 1871 he met poet
Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), whose collection of poems, Les Amies (1867)
had been banned by a court. Verlaine was an alcoholic who had a taste
had a taste for absinthe. He left his family - his young wife, Mathilde
Mauté, was expecting a baby - and fled with the teenaged Rimbaud
to London in 1872 to live a Bohemian life. Most of the time they lived
in poverty and abused drink and drugs. Rimbaud accepted uncleaniness,
including body lice, but Verlaine was horrified by the English cuisine,
especially "the abominable oxtail soup": "Fie on such
a horror! A man's sock with a rotten clitoris floating in it."
Their relationship ended next year in Brussels, when Rimbaud tried to
break off the relationship. Verlaine, drunk and desolate, shot Rimbaud
in the wrist with a 7mm pistol after a quarrel. Verlaine was tried for
attempted murder and sent to Brussels' Amigo Detention Center. Rimbaud
returned to the family farm in Roche, where he finished his UNE SAISON
EN ENFER (A Season in Hell).
of poetry and prose pieces, A Season in Hell, appeared in 1873. "One
evening, I sat Beauty in my lap. - And I found her bitter. - And I cursed
her." Rimbaud gave some copies of the book to his friends - one
was sent to P. Verlaine at the Petits Carmes Prison - but the spiritual
autobiography did not receive any reviews. After completing in England
ILLUMINATIONS, a collection of prose poems, Rimbaud gave up literature
and burned his manuscripts. In 1901 the first edition of A Season in
Hell was found at the printers' in its original packing. Eventually
the work became a touchstone for anguished poets, artists, and lovers.
In 1874 Rimbaud spent some time in London with Germain Nouveau, a young
poet, who had only one testicle. Nouveau member of the Zutistes circle
- a group of poets who wrote verses in a notebook, the Zutiste Album.
At the British Library Rimbaud was not allowed to read Marquis de Sade's
books because he was under twenty-one. Verlaine, whom Rimbaud saw last
time in 1875, and with whom he had a violent quarrel, published a selection
of Rimbaud's poems and wrote about him in LES POÈTES MAUDITS
In 1875-76 Rimbaud
learned several languages, English, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian,
Arabic and Greek, and started his vagabond life again. He worked a teacher
in Germany, unloaded cargo in Marseilles, enlisted in the Netherlands
army but deserted in Sumatra. In 1876 Rimbaud robbed a cabman in Vienna.
In the last dozen years of his life, Rimbaud worked in the import-export
field for series of French employers dealing everything from porcelain
to weaponry - possibly he was a slave dealer.
in 1880 in Aden after short sojourns in Java and Cyprus. Rimbaud made
business travels in modern-day Yemen, Ethiopia, and Egypt, and walked
occasionally hundreds of miles at the head of trading caravans through
dangerous lands. He was the first European to penetrate into the country
of Ogadain. His expertise and learning of the language, religion, and
culture of local peoples was acknowledged when the French Geographical
Society deemed his commercial and geographical report on East Africa
worthy of publication.
In 1886 Verlaine
published Rimbaud's book of poems, Illuminations. It revealed Rimbaud's
longing for spiritual values and reestablished his reputation as a major
poet. A rumor started to spread in September 1888 that Rimbaud was dead
and next year Le Décadent published as a joke a list of donors
to the statue of Rimbaud. In February 1891 Rimbaud felt pain in his
left knee, and went to Marseilles to see a doctor. The leg had to be
amputated because of enormous, cancerous swelling. Rimbaud died in Marseilles
on November 10, 1891, and was buried in Charleville in strict family
intimacy. Isabelle, Rimbaud's sister, had never known till after her
brother's death, that he had been a poet. Rimbaud's African servant
boy, Djami Wadaï, was one of his major heirs apart from his family.