Monday, October 3, 2011

In the siege of Paris by the French, in 1871, a boy wrote this

    Tout le jour il suait d'obéissance; très
    Intelligent: pourtant des tics noirs, quelques traits,
    Semblaient prouver en lui d'âcres hypocrisies.
    Dans l'ombre des couloirs aux tentures moisies,
    En passant il tirait la langue, les deux poings
    À l'aine, et dans ses yeux fermés voyait des points.
    Une porte s'ouvrait sur le soir: à la lampe
    On le voyait, là-haut, qui râlait sur la rampe,
    Sous un golfe du jour pendant du toit. L'été
    Surtout, vaincu, stupide, il était entêté
    À se renfermer dans la fraîcheur des latrines:
    Il pensait là, tranquille, et livrant ses narines.
    Quant, lavé des odeurs du jour, le jardinet
    Derrière la maison, en hiver, s'illunait,
    Gisant au pied d'un mur, enterré dans la marne
    Et pour des visions écrasant son oeil darne,
    Il écoutait grouiller les galeux espaliers.

The survival of this poem, as Graham Robb makes plain in the biography with which I've finally caught up, is close to miraculous. The newspaper to which it would have been given, was bombed out. The boy lived in a dysfunctional domestic oasis surrounded by the untidy desolations of the Prussian firestorm, only to witness from outside the City the ensuing siege of Paris by the French and their slaughter of the Communards who'd won his rebellious heart. He was 17 years of age at the time, and it is not surprising that the biographer, summing up the convulsive if lurid brilliance of this poem, should cite it as an insider's view of puberty. But elsewhere he makes a sounder point: Beaudelaire's poetry had appeared under the smug, economically buoyant Second Empire. Rimbaud's .. would have to compete with a holocaust.

For all of the extravagances that such an agenda suggests, and for all of the extremes into which we know Arthur Rimbaud later pitched himself for the sake of it, adding 'cultural competition' to adolescent morbidity goes nowhere close to penetrating the artist's genius for the agitating paradox within the lyrical suspension, which is so vivid in this poem. I would suggest that what would set Rimbaud apart, was substantially consolidated in this wartime artifact. The poem portrays, as Robb would later note almost by chance, Rimbaud had always associated genius with bad smells and sly fermentations. But this may equally have made him a competent vigneron of Pinot Noir. The Poets of Seven Years has to be placed in its time; it is absorbed in one combat after another, in which he takes part by delectation.

I selected this extract - half of the second verse of a multi-verse poem - for non-readers of French to "sound out" the extreme euphony Rimbaud extracts from unexpected emotional turns upon disagreeable perceptions, which may be discovered in the translation linked above. Without denying the fact of scandalousness in his time, what survives are Rimbaud's musicality and his will to embody it through language. The most improbable juxtapositions are sequenced, often rhymed, as a sustained pastorale, so that the supervening response to this litany of splintered ghastliness is astonishment with a resilient harmony. This poetry is not audacious. It is brave.

Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud
Selected Poems and Letters
  Les Poètes de sept ans
Jeremy Harding and
  John Sturrock, translation
op. cit.

Graham Robb
Norton, 2000©


  1. I finished Duffy's novel about two weeks ago. A compassionate study of Rimbaud's mother I thought. It was as he states in the beginning a work of fiction ultimately.

  2. Compassionate all around, I think, even in the Conradian bits.