The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud

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A Study of Rimbaud
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Part I: Analogies, Affinities, Correspondences and Repercussions

Part II: When Do Angels Cease to Resemble Themselves?


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t was just a hundred years ago last October that Rimbaud was born. In France the centenary was celebrated in spectacular fashion. Celebrated writers the world over were invited to make the pilgrimage to Charleville, his birthplace. The festivities were in the nature of a national event. As for Rimbaud, he probably turned over in his grave.

Since his death portions of Rimbaud’s voluminous work have been translated into many languages, among them Turkish and Bengali. Wherever there is still feeling for poetry and high adventure his name is a byword. In recent years the cult of Rimbaldiens has grown to amazing proportions and the literature devoted to his life and work increases by leaps and bounds. No other poet of modern times can be said to receive the same attention or consideration.

Aside from
A Season in Hell
and the
, only a small number of his poems have found their way into our language. Even these few translations reveal a wide and inevitable variety of interpretation. Yet however difficult and unseizable his style and thought may be, Rimbaud is not untranslatable. To do his work justice is another matter. In English we have yet to produce a poet who is able to do for Rimbaud what Baudelaire did for Poe’s verse, or Nerval for Faust, or Morel and Larbaud for

I should like to make it clear that this little study, written ten years ago, is the outcome of a failure to translate, in the fashion intended,
A Season in Hell
. I still nourish the hope of rendering this text in a language more proximate to Rimbaud’s own “nigger” tongue. The authors of
Really the Blues
, or a man like Lord Buckley,
are closer to Rimbaud, though they may not be aware of it, than the poets who have worshipped and imitated him.

What Rimbaud did for language, and not merely for poetry, is only beginning to be understood. And this more by readers than by writers, I feel. At least, in our country. Nearly all the modern French poets have been influenced by him. Indeed, one might say that contemporary French poetry owes everything to Rimbaud. Thus far, however, none have gone beyond him—in daring or invention. The only living poet who is able to give me anything approaching the pleasure and excitement of Rimbaud is St. John Perse. (His
, curiously enough, was translated by Hugh Chisholm here at Big Sur.)

The text herein reprinted originally appeared in two parts in the New Directions annual volumes, Nos. 9 and 11. Since then it has come out in French and in German, both editions published in Switzerland,
a country one is least apt to associate with Rimbaud’s genius. In this publication the order of the two sections has been reversed. I ought perhaps to add that I had originally intended to write two more parts; I have since abandoned that idea.

It is my sincere belief that America needs to become acquainted with this legendary figure now more than ever. (The same is true of another extraordinary French poet who committed suicide a hundred years ago last January; Gérard de Nerval.) Never was there a time when the existence of the poet was more menaced than today. The American species, indeed, is in danger of being extinguished altogether.

When Kenneth Rexroth heard of the untimely death of Dylan Thomas he dashed off a “Memorial” called
Thou Shalt Not Kill
Written at white heat, and not intended for publication, it was nevertheless promptly circulated and translated into a number of languages. If one has any doubts about the fate which our society reserves for the poet, let him read this “Memorial” to the Welsh poet who wrote
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog

The status and condition of the poet—I use the word in the large as well as the strict sense—unquestionably reveal the true state of a people’s vitality. China, Japan, India, Africa,
Africa, here poetry is still ineradicable. What we obviously lack in this country, what we are not even aware that we lack, is the dreamer, the inspired madman. With what ghoulish glee, when it comes time to shovel him under, do we focus attention upon the “maladaptation” of the lone individual, the only true rebel in a rotten society! Yet it is these very figures who give significance to that abused term “maladaptation.”

In an article on “Baudelaire politique” in
, January 25, 1955, Maurice Nadeau writes thus: “Dans
Mon Cœur mis à nu
il veut ‘faire sentir sans cesse (qu’il se sent) étranger au monde et à ses cultes.’ C’est le monde de la bourgeoisie dont ‘la morale de comptoir’ lui ‘fait horreur,’ ‘un monde goulu, affamé de matérialités,’ infatué de lui-même et qui ne s’aperçoit pas qu’il est entré en décadence, un monde que dans une singulière prophétie il voit de plus en plus ‘américanisé,’ ‘voué a l’animalité,’ ‘où tout ce qui ne sera pas l’ardeur vers Plutus sera reputé un immense ridicule.’”

The impressive thing about the leading poets of the nineteenth century, and the twentieth as well, is their prophetic strain. Unlike Blake and Whitman, whose work is saturated with the ecstasy of a cosmic vision, our latter day poets dwell in the depths of a black forest. The spell of the millennium which obsessed such visionaries as Joachim of Floris, Hieronymus Bosch, Pico della Mirandola, and which today is tantalizingly more imminent than ever before, has been replaced by the thrall of utter annihilation. In the whirlpool of coming darkness and chaos—a veritable tohu-bohu—the poets of today are withdrawing, embalming themselves in a cryptic language which grows ever more and more unintelligible. And as they black out one by one, the countries which gave them birth plunge resolutely toward their doom.

The work of assassination, for such it is, will soon reach its end. As the voice of the poet becomes stifled, history loses its meaning and the eschatological promise bursts like a new and frightening dawn upon the consciousness of man. Only now, at the edge of the precipice, is it possible to realize that “everything we are taught is false.” The proof of this devastating utterance is demonstrable every day in every realm: on the battlefield, in the laboratory, in the factory, in the press, in the school, in the church. We live entirely in the past, nourished by dead thoughts, dead creeds, dead sciences. And it is the past which is engulfing us, not the future. The future always has and always will belong to—the poet.

Perhaps in fleeing from the world, Rimbaud preserved his soul from a fate worse than that which was allotted to him in Abyssinia. Perhaps
La Chasse Spirituelle
, if it is ever unearthed, will provide a clue now missing. Perhaps—who knows?—it will give us the link betwen
A Season in Hell
and that “Christmas on earth” which was once a reality to the adolescent dreamer.

In the symbolic language of the soul Rimbaud described all that is now happening. In my opinion, there is no discrepancy between his vision of the world, and of life eternal, and that of the great religious innovators. Over and over again we have been exhorted to create a new vision of heaven and earth, to begin afresh, to let the dead bury the dead, to live as brothers in the flesh, to make Christmas on earth a reality. And repeatedly we have been warned that unless the desire for a new life becomes a living conviction for each and every one of us, earthly existence can never be more than a Purgatory or a Hell. The one and only question which faces us is—how long can we postpone the inevitable?

When we reflect that it was a mere boy who shook the world by the ears, what are we to say? Is there not something just as
about Rimbaud’s appearance on this earth as there was in the awakening of Gautama, or in Christ’s acceptance of the Cross, or in Joan of Arc’s incredible mission of deliverance? Interpret his work as you like, explain his life as you will, still there is no living him down. The future is all his, even though there be no future.


Big Sur, California


P A R T   I
Analogies, Affinities, Correspondences and Repercussions

t was in 1927, in the sunken basement of a dingy house in Brooklyn, that I first heard Rimbaud’s name mentioned. I was then 36 years old and in the depths of my own protracted Season in Hell. An absorbing book about Rimbaud was lying about the house but I never once glanced at it. The reason was that I loathed the woman who owned it and who was then living with us. In looks, temperament and behavior she was, as I later discovered, as near to resembling Rimbaud as it is possible to imagine.

As I say, though Rimbaud was the all engrossing topic of conversation between Thelma and my wife, I made no effort to know him. In fact, I fought like the very devil to put him out of my mind; it seemed to me then that he was the evil genius who had unwittingly inspired all my trouble and misery. I saw that Thelma, whom I despised, had identified herself with him, was imitating him as best she could, not only in her behavior but in the kind of verse she wrote. Everything conspired to make me repudiate his name, his influence, his very existence. I was then at the very lowest point of my whole career, my morale was completely shattered. I remember sitting in the cold dank basement trying to write by the light of a flickering candle with a pencil. I was trying to write a play depicting my own tragedy. I never succeeded in getting beyond the first act.

In that state of despair and sterility I was naturally highly sceptical of the genius of a seventeen-year-old poet. All that I heard about him sounded like an invention of crazy Thelma’s. I was then capable of believing that she could conjure up subtle torments with which to plague me, since she hated me as much as I did her. The life which the three of us were leading, and which I tell about at length in
The Rosy Crucifixion
, was like an episode in one of Dostoievsky’s tales. It seems unreal and incredible to me now.

The point is, however, that Rimbaud’s name stuck. Though I was not even to glance at his work until six or seven years later, at the home of Anais Nin in Louveciennes, his presence was always with me. It was a disturbing presence, too. “Some day you will have to come to grips with me.” That’s what his voice kept repeating in my ears. The day I read the first line of Rimbaud I suddenly remembered that it was of
Le Bateau Ivre
that Thelma had raved so much.
The Drunken Boat!
How expressive that title now seems in the light of all I subsequently experienced! Thelma meanwhile died in an insane asylum. And if I had not gone to Paris, begun to work there in earnest, I think my fate would have been the same. In that basement on Brooklyn Heights my own ship had foundered. When finally the keel burst asunder and I drifted out to the open sea, I realized that I was free, that the death I had gone through had liberated me.

If that period in Brooklyn represented my Season in Hell, then the Paris period, especially from 1932 to 1934, was the period of my Illuminations.

Coming upon Rimbaud’s work at this time, when I had never been so fecund, so jubiliant, so exalted, I had to push him aside, my own creations were more important to me. A mere glance at his writings and I knew what lay in store for me. He was pure dynamite, but I had first to fling my own stick. At this time I did not know anything about his life, except from the snatches Thelma had let drop years ago. I had yet to read a line of biography. It was in 1943, while living at Beverly Glen with John Dudley, the painter, that I first read about Rimbaud. I read Jean-Marie Carré’s
A Season in Hell
and then Enid Starkie’s work. I was overwhelmed, tongue-tied. It seemed to me that I had never read of a more accursed existence than Rimbaud’s. I forgot completely about my own sufferings, which far outweighed his. I forgot about the frustrations and humiliations I had endured, the depths of despair and impotence to which I had sunk time and again. Like Thelma in the old days, I too could talk of nothing but Rimbaud. Everybody who came to the house had to listen to the song of Rimbaud.

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