This Day In Literary History
On October 20th, 1854, the legendary French poet Arthur Rimbaud was born. He was born Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud in Charleville, France. When he was six years old, his father abandoned the family.
Captain Frederic Rimbaud, a Legion D'Honneur award winning soldier, left to rejoin his regiment and never returned, having tired of domestic life. Arthur and his siblings were raised alone by their mother, a domineering, controlling, fanatically devout Catholic.
In 1862, believing that her children were spending too much time with the local poor kids and being influenced by them, Madame Rimbaud moved the family to the Cours D'Orleans, where the living conditions were better.
Instead of being taught at home by their mother, Arthur Rimbaud and his brother attended school for the first time at the Pension Rossatr. To push them to get good grades, Madame Rimbaud would force them to learn a hundred lines of Latin verse, then withhold their meals if they recited the verse incorrectly.
As a boy, Arthur Rimbaud hated school and his mother's constant control and supervision - he and his brother were not allowed to leave her sight until their late teens. At the age of nine, Arthur wrote a 700-word essay voicing his objections to having to learn Latin in school.
When he was eleven years old, he had his first communion. Despite his intellect and his fiercely individualistic nature, he became as fanatically devout a Catholic as his mother, which led his schoolmates to call him un sale petit cagot - a dirty little hypocrite.
Though most of his reading as a child was confined to the Bible, the young Arthur Rimbaud also enjoyed fairy tales and adventure stories. Though he disliked school, he became an outstanding student and was at the head of the class in all of his subjects except science and mathematics.
His schoolmasters noted with awe Arthur's ability to absorb large quantities of material. In 1869, at the age of fifteen, he won eight prizes in school. The following year, he won seven.
Around the same time, while studying at the College de Charleville, Arthur's mother hired a private tutor for him, Father Ariste Lheritier, who was the first person to encourage Arthur to write.
The teenage Rimbaud's first published poem, Les Etrennes des Orphelines, (The Orphans' New Year's Gift) appeared in the January 2nd, 1870 issue of the Revue pour Tous magazine. Two weeks later, a new teacher, Georges Izambard, arrived at Rimbaud's school and became his literary mentor.
When the Franco-Prussian War broke out, Izambard left to enlist, and Rimbaud was devastated. He ran away to Paris and was arrested and imprisoned for a week. After returning home, he ran away again to escape his mother. He became a different person; he drank, wrote vulgar poems, and stole books from bookshops.
He abandoned his penchant for neatness and wore his hair long. Later, he wrote to his old teacher Izambard about his method of achieving poetic enlightenment through "a long, intimidating, immense, and rational derangement of the senses."
Rimbaud claimed that "the sufferings are enormous, but one must be strong, be born a poet, and I have recognized myself as a poet." A friend encouraged him to write to Paul Verlaine, a prominent Symbolist poet, after Rimbaud's letters to other poets went unanswered.
So, he sent Verlaine two letters, which contained several of his poems, including the dazzling, hypnotic, and shocking Le Dormeur du Val - The Sleeper of the Vale. Impressed, Verlaine wrote back.
He sent Rimbaud a one-way ticket to Paris and told him to "Come, dear great soul. We await you; we desire you." Rimbaud arrived in September of 1871 and stayed briefly at Verlaine's home.
Although Paul Verlaine had a pregnant wife, he and Arthur Rimbaud engaged in a brief but torrid gay affair. While Verlaine had previously engaged in homosexual relationships, there is no evidence that Rimbaud had gay affairs before he met Verlaine. He would later become involved with women.
While he and Verlaine were together, they led a wild, vagabond life that was enhanced by their frequent use of absinthe and hashish. Rimbaud's outrageous behavior brought scandal to the Parisian literati. He became the archetypal enfant terrible, yet at the same time, he wrote striking, visionary works of verse.
In September of 1872, Rimbaud and Verlaine arrived in London. They lived in poverty in Bloomsbury and Camden Town, scraping together a meager living, mostly through teaching. Their relationship grew increasingly bitter.
By June of 1873, a frustrated Verlaine returned to Paris. The following month, he wrote to Rimbaud, telling him to meet him at the Hotel Liege in Brussels. The reunion was a disaster.
They argued incessantly and Verlaine drank heavily. He bought a revolver and ammunition, and shot at Rimbaud twice in a drunken rage. The first shot missed him, but the second grazed his wrist.
Rimbaud dismissed his injury as superficial and declined to press charges. But after the shooting, when Verlaine accompanied Rimbaud to the train station in Brussels, his bizarre behavior made Rimbaud fear that he was going insane.
Rimbaud begged a policeman to arrest Verlaine for his own good - and for Rimbaud's safety. Verlaine was charged with attempted murder. In the resulting investigation, his intimate correspondences with Rimbaud were uncovered and used against him.
Rimbaud withdrew his criminal complaint, but the judge sentenced Verlaine to two years imprisonment anyway, because of his wife's accusations of homosexuality. After the trial, Rimbaud returned home to Charleville and completed his famous epic work Une Saison en Enfer (A Season In Hell), a masterpiece of Symbolist prose poetry.
In 1874, he returned to London with his friend, poet Germain Noveau. There, Rimbaud wrote and assembled his groundbreaking prose poetry collection, Les Illuminations (Illuminations). The following year, after Paul Verlaine was released from prison, Rimbaud met him for the last time.
Arthur Rimbaud later gave up writing and settled into a quiet, steady working life. Some say that he had become fed up with the wild life; others speculate that he intended to save up enough money so he could afford to live independently as a carefree poet.
He continued to travel extensively throughout Europe, mostly on foot. In May of 1876, he became a soldier for the Dutch Colonial Army in order to travel to Indonesia for free, after which, he promptly deserted and sailed back to France.
In December of 1878, Rimbaud went to Cyprus, where he worked for a construction company as the foreman of a stone quarry. Five months later, he had to leave after contracting typhoid fever.
In 1880, Rimbaud settled in Aden, Yemen as an employee for the Bardey agency. Four years later, he left Bardey's and became an independent merchant in Harar, Ethiopia, dealing mostly in coffee and weapons.
He took native women as lovers and lived with an Ethiopian mistress for a time. He became close friends with Ras Makkonen, the governor of Harar and father of future Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.
The following year, in February 1881, Rimbaud developed a pain in his right knee that he thought was arthritis. A British doctor in Aden mistakenly diagnosed Rimbaud's knee pain as tubercular synovitis.
When the pain grew agonizing, he returned to France for treatment. He was admitted to a hospital in Marseilles, where he was diagnosed with cancer. His right leg was amputated.
After a brief stay at the family home in Charleville, Rimbaud tried to return to Africa, but on the way, his health deteriorated and he found himself back at the same hospital in Marseilles in great pain.
Arthur Rimbaud was cared for by his younger sister, Isabelle, until he died in Marseilles on November 10th, 1891, at the age of 37.
Quote Of The Day
"Genius is the recovery of childhood at will." - Arthur Rimbaud
Today's video features a reading of Arthur Rimbaud's poem Le Chercheuses de Poux (The Seekers of Lice) in English. Enjoy!