Monday, April 12, 2010

Afloat with Rimbaud and Stevenson

A couple of weeks ago I was struggling with the poems of Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé, with what result I know not, and at the same time reading Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses (1885).  I wondered, from time to time, if I was making a mistake. 

Into the furious lashing of the tides,
More heedless than children's brains, the other winter
I ran!  And loosened peninsulas
Have not undergone a more triumphant hubbub.

Rimbaud's poetry is by turns obscene, blasphemous, poisonous, and head-splittingly obscure.  He's testing the boundaries of what poetry can do.  He's not incomprehensible - the speaker of this poem is, at this point, a boat, adrift on the ocean, pilotless, touring the world.

Dark brown is the river,
  Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
  With trees on either hand.

Stevenson's poems are anything but obscure.  They are simple in exactly the places where Rimbaud is complicated, transparent where he is obscure. 

Sweeter than the flesh of hard apples is to children,
The green water penetrated my hull of fir
And washed me of spots of blue wine
And vomit, scattering rudder and grappling-hook.

Rimbaud's imagery is intense, violent, and bizarre.  If I remember that this is a drifting boat, the meaning of the passage is clear enough.  It's the combination of images that is complicated - the blue wine, the green water, which is somehow sweet like an apple, but not sweet in the way I know, but like children taste.

Green leaves a-floating,
  Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating -
  Where will all come home?

Sometimes, when I turned from Rimbaud to Stevenson, the children's poems were crushed flat.  The plainest, sweetest song became insipid.  Sometimes, though, Stevenson's keen nostalgia was a necessary corrective to Rimbaud's adolescent nonsense.

I should have liked to show children those sunfish
Of the blue wave, the fish of gold, the singing fish.
- Foam of flowers rocked my drifting
And ineffable winds winged me at times.

Sometimes, though, the poems began to interlace.  What is "The Drunken Boat" actually about?  My understanding is that Rimbaud had never actually seen the ocean when he composed this poem.  The adventures of the boat, which visits the poles and the "unbelievable Floridas," and hears "The moaning of Behemoths in heat and the thick Maelstroms," are products of Rimbaud's reading and imagination.

On goes the river
  And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
  Away down the hill.

The Stevenson poem, presented here complete, is "Where Go the Boats?"  It is one of several poems on the theme of a boy playing with a paper boat, setting them adrift, wondering where they go.  The boy in Stevenson's poems wants, like Rimbaud's boat, "to rise and go \ Where the golden apples grow" ("Travel").

If I want a water of Europe, it is the black
Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight
A squatting child full of sadness releases
A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.

So perhaps Rimbaud's boat is made of paper.  Perhaps the speaker is not the boat but the child.  Perhaps the two children will meet someday and share stories of their adventures.

"The Drunken Boat" was written in 1871.  Its author was seventeen years old.  It is among the greatest Modern poems.  The stanzas selected here are from Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, 1966, University of Chicago Press, translated by Wallace Fowlie.


  1. Perhaps Rimbaud was writing about his own future, travelling around the world, chiefly by boat and chiefly drunk. I wouldn't be surprised if he could see it all. Absinthe will do that to a person.

  2. I haven't read Rimbaud yet. But I love Stevenson and was just reading my toddler some of the Child's Garden of Verses the other night!

  3. Jenny, my understanding is that "The Drunken Boat" comes before the whole absinthe-fueled "derangement of the senses" period. I could be wrong, though - Rimbaud moved fast.

    I'll warn you Rebecca - Rimbaud is kind of - what word do I want - hmm hmm hmm - horrible. Kind of horrible. Stevenson helped balance the horror. Keep Rimbaud away from toddlers.

  4. For whatever reason, I had the idea I would not care for Rimbaud and had never so much as peeked at his poems until just now. But I quite like this Drunken Boat, especially your second quote from it. Time to look at the original I suppose.

  5. Of course you'd like this - "The Drunken Boat" is a seafaring classic! It actually does contain touches of earlier sea journey books - Poe and so on.