Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ah! The endless egoism of adolescence - dithering around Rimbaud

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!


  1. What an interesting post. I'd never heard of Rimbaud (I hate to admit). I love the "studious optimism" phrase.

  2. I've been interested to read the fragments of Rimbaud you've posted over the past few days, because when I read him AS an adolescent I didn't particularly like him, and I'd assumed he was one of those writers one likes best as a teenager if one likes him at all. But I'm actually appreciating his work much more as an adult. Maybe I'll have to seek him out, keeping in mind his youthful...quirks.

  3. Can't wait to hear what you thought of Mallarmé. He takes a deal of unknotting. Are you going to do Apollinaire? I think he's my favorite.

  4. I've decided to take a long time with Ribaud. One or two poems a year would be good, I think.

    I agree that knowing something of his biography helps one appreciate him more. He writes the "egoism of adolescence" while still an adolescent.

  5. Jenny, you read my mind, such as it is. Or I live to serve. See today's post, although I would not exactly call it "thought".

    To follow my current path, Apollinaire and Valéry are next. But I think I might have exhausted myself. Time to rest. Retrench. Make a lateral move.

    Emily - I think you've hit on something. Adolescent readers (White is good on this) can be strongly attracted to the romance and rebellion of Rimbaud's life in a way that might be unavailable to an adult (a teen might also be indifferent, repulsed, etc.) But Rimbaud really was a great poet. His best poems exist independently of his biography. Imagery, language, music - all the usual stuff.

    So, Grad, yes - his poems are packed with goodies like the "studious optimism" of adolescence. He was fearsome smart.

    On the other hand, as CB suggests, knowing the life is a big help with Rimbaud. It explains a lot. It really helps explain the bad Rimbaud poems!

  6. Who else is like Rimbaud?

    Knowing nothing, I am tempted to say Mozart. And I could swear I just read a comparison of Mozart to some other writer on these same grounds, but I'm d—ed if I can remember where or whom.

  7. Mozart - good one. Prodigies, sowers of chaos, with a shared love of scatology. Although if Mozart had abandoned composition at the age of 19, he'd be a minor figure.