I'm dithering. I want to write about Arthur Rimbaud, and I don't. A mental signal I should presumably heed. yet now I'm writing.
Rimbaud is scary. Not his poetry so much, not its complexity - Mallarmé is the one who really stumps me. And it's not his behavior, although he was the sort of person I'm glad I don't know. No, it's the intelligence of Rimbaud, the creative intelligence. What do I mean?
Rimbaud's translators - both the Wallace Fowlie volume I quoted yesterday, for example, and the Paul Schmidt translation I prefer - compile not only Rimbaud's poems but his letters and school assignments and court testimony (not his best work). Rimbaud's biography is crucial to their understanding of the poetry. Because of references to his life,* or Paul Verlaine, or his mother? No, not really, or not mostly. It's something else.
Rimbaud began writing serious poetry at the age of fifteen. He was all done by the time he was nineteen. His career was so compact that the "phases" of his work cover a period of not years but months. He moved so fast. I kept referring back to the dates on the poems - he wrote this when he was how old? And then his combination of perfectly mature craftsmanship and imagery with adolescent scatology and smirkiness confuses me. Who else is like Rimbaud? And this is all aside from his bizarre and dangerous moral ideas, aside from his pranks and absinthe abuse and chaos.
from Youth, Part III, "Twenty Years Old" (1875?)
Exiled the voices of instruction;
Physical ingenuousness staled in bitterness. . .
. . . Adagio
Ah! The endless egoism of adolescence,
Its studious optimism:
How the world this summer was full of flowers!
Dying airs, dying shapes . . .
A chorus to appease impotence and absence!
A chorus of glasses of nocturnal melodies . . .
(Of course, our nerves are quickly shot to hell!)
Translated by Paul Schmidt, Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works, Harper & Row, 1967.
* I would like to draw the interested reader's attention to this review, by C. B. James, of Edmund White's recent little Rimbaud biography. I would not normally recommend that a reader unfamiliar with an author's work bother with a biography, but Rimbaud is a special case, and White is as interested in the poetry as the gossip. And what gossip!