[photo of Arthur Rimbaud]

arthur rimbaud

Oh arthur arthur. we are in Abyssinia Aden. making love smoking cigarettes. we kiss. but it's much more. azure. blue pool. oil slick lake. sensations telescope, animate. crystalline gulf. balls of colored glass exploding. seam of berber tent splitting. openings, open as a cave, open wider, total surrender.
—Patti Smith, from "dream of rimbaud"

[contributed by Fiona Webster, with Encyclopedia Britannica as main source for biographical material and other commentary]

Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud (b. Oct. 20, 1854, Charleville, France--d. Nov. 10, 1891, Marseille), was a French poet and adventurer who won renown among the Symbolist movement and markedly influenced modern poetry.

Biographical notes:

Rimbaud wanted passionately to be a prophet, a visionary--or, as he put it, a voyant ("seer"). He believed in a universal life force that underlies all matter, which he referred to simply as "l'inconnu" ("the unknown"), and thought it could be sensed only by a chosen few. Rimbaud set himself the task of striving to "see" this spiritual unknown, so that his individual consciousness might be taken over and used by it as a mere instrument. He felt he would then be able to transmit (by means of poetry) this music of the universe to his fellow men, awakening them spiritually and leading them forward to social progress. (He never gave up his social ideals, and intended to realize them through poetry instead of politics.) First, though, he had to qualify himself for the task, and he coined a now-famous phrase to describe his method: "le dérèglement de tous les sens" ("the derangement of all the senses"). Rimbaud intended to systematically undermine the normal functioning of his senses so that he could attain visions of the "unknown." He planned to subject himself, as if in a voluntary martyrdom, to fasting, pain, alcohol, and drugs, even cultivating hallucination and madness in order to expand his consciousness.

In his attempts to communicate his visions to the reader, Rimbaud became one of the first modern poets to shatter the constraints of traditional metric forms and those rules of versification that he had already mastered so brilliantly. He decided to let his visions determine the form of his poems: if the visions were formless, then so would be the poems.

The Illuminations (admired by Patti Smith) consist of a series of theatrical tableaux in which Rimbaud creates a primitive fantasy world--an imaginary universe complete with its own mythology, its own quasi-divine beings, its own cities--all depicted in kaleidoscopic images that have the vividness of hallucinations. His style is elliptical and esoteric, stripping the prose poem of its narrative and descriptive content, and using words for their evocative power rather than their their dictionary meaning. As one critic has written, "The hypnotic rhythms, the dense musical patterns, and the visual pyrotechnics of the poems work in counterpoint with Rimbaud's playful mastery of juggled syntax, ambiguity, etymological and literary references, and bilingual puns. A unique achievement, the Illuminations' innovative use of language greatly influenced the subsequent development of French poetry."

Rimbaud's extraordinary life, with its precocious triumphs, its reckless scandals, its unexplained break with literature, and its mercenary adventures in exotic African locales, continues to excite the popular imagination. Critics have variously endowed his character with the qualities of a martyr-saint, an archetypal rebel, and a disreputable hooligan. What is incontrovertible is the extent of Rimbaud's contribution to modern French literature. Many 20th-century poets were influenced by the Dionysian power of his verse and his liberation of language from the constraints of form. Rimbaud's visionary ideals also proved attractive; his "unknown," somewhat domesticated in the form of the individual unconscious, became the hunting ground of the Surrealists, and his techniques of free association and language play, which they exploited so freely, are now universally used. Rimbaud, the child prodigy who was so prodigal of his genius, turned out to be one of the founding fathers of modernism.

Patti Smith has been greatly inspired by both the work and the life of Arthur Rimbaud, in ways too numerous to summarize briefly. For a critical analysis of Rimbaud's influence on Patti's work, see "Rimbaud and Patti Smith: Style as Social Deviance" by Carrie Jaurès Noland, Critical Inquiry, Spring 1995, Volume 21, Number 3. An excerpt from this essay is at this website.

Some links:

writeup on Rimbaud at Literary Kicks website

some commentary (in French) on Rimbaud and his influence on Patti

amusing and informative Rimbaud home page

page with Patti's art -- includes some of Patti's portraits of Rimbaud

[NOTE: more links to Rimbaud's poetry needed! can anyone help out? if you can, mail the info to fiona]

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