in full Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud
born Oct. 20, 1854, Charleville, France
died Nov. 10, 1891, Marseille
French poet and adventurer who won renown among the Symbolist movement
and markedly influenced modern poetry.
Rimbaud grew up at Charleville in the Ardennes region of northeastern
France. He was the second son of an army captain and a local farmer’s
daughter. The father spent little time with the family and eventually
abandoned the children to the sole care of their mother, a
strong-willed, bigoted woman who pinned all her ambitions on her younger
son, Arthur. Outwardly pious and obedient, he was a child prodigy and a
model pupil who astonished the teachers at the Collège de Charleville by
his brilliance in all subjects, especially literature. Rimbaud was a
voracious reader who soon familiarized himself with the major French
writers of both the past and present. He had a particular talent for
Latin verse, and in August 1870 he won the first prize for a Latin poem
at the Concours Académique. (His first published poem had appeared in
January 1870 in La Revue pour Tous.) Rimbaud seemed obsessed with
poetry, spending hours juggling with rhyme. This firm grounding in the
craft of versification gave him a complete, even arrogant confidence and
an ambition to be acknowledged by the currently fashionable Parnassian
poets, of whom he was soon producing virtuoso pastiches.
In his 16th year Rimbaud found his own distinctive voice in poems
whose sentiments swing between two extremes: revolt against a repressive
hometown environment, and a passionate desire for freedom and adventure.
All of the unhappy adolescent’s loathing and longing are in these poems,
which are already remarkable works. They express his disgust with the
constraints of small-town life, its hypocrisies, its self-satisfaction
and apathy. The cliches of sentimentality, and, increasingly, religion
itself become the targets of fierce cynicism. Equally ringing is the
lyrical language that voices Rimbaud’s yearning for freedom and
transcendence. Based on exquisitely perceived sense impressions, the
imagery in these poems expresses a longing for sensual union with the
natural world. These early poems are characteristically Rimbaldian in
their directness and power.
Rimbaud had begun taking a keen interest in politics by the time the
Franco-German War began in July 1870. Upon the war’s outbreak the school
in Charleville closed, an event that marked the end of his formal
education. The war served to intensify Rimbaud’s rebelliousness; the
elements of blasphemy and scatology in his poetry grew more intense, the
tone more strident, and the images more grotesque and even
hallucinatory. Reading widely in the town library, Rimbaud soon became
involved with revolutionary socialist theory. In an impulsive attempt to
put his hopes for revolution into practice, he ran away to Paris that
August but was arrested at the station for traveling without a ticket.
After a brief spell in prison, he wandered through northern France and
Belgium for several months. His mother had him brought back to
Charleville by the police, but in February 1871 he again ran off to
Paris as a volunteer in the forces of the Paris Commune, which was then
under siege by regular French troops. After a frustrating three weeks
there, he returned home just before the Paris Commune was mercilessly
The collapse of his passionately felt political ideals seems to have
been a turning point for Rimbaud. From now on, he declares in two
important letters (May 13 and 15, 1871), he has given up the idea of
“work” (i.e., action) and, having acknowledged his true vocation, will
devote himself with all his energy to his role as a poet.
Rimbaud wanted to serve as a prophet, a visionary, or, as he put it, a
voyant (“seer”). He had come to believe in a universal life force that
informs or underlies all matter. This spiritual force, which Rimbaud
referred to simply as “l’inconnu” (“the unknown”), can be sensed only by
a chosen few. Rimbaud set himself the task of striving to “see” this
spiritual unknown and allowing his individual consciousness to be taken
over and used by it as a mere instrument. He should then be able to
transmit (by means of poetry) this music of the universe to his fellow
men, awakening them spiritually and leading them forward to social
progress. Rimbaud had not given up his social ideals, but now intended
to realize them through poetry. First, though, he had to qualify himself
for the task, and he coined a now-famous phrase to describe his method:
“le dérèglement de tous les sens” (“the derangement of all the senses”).
Rimbaud intended to systematically undermine the normal functioning of
his senses so that he could attain visions of the “unknown.” In a
voluntary martyrdom he would subject himself to fasting and pain, imbibe
alcohol and drugs, and even cultivate hallucination and madness in order
to expand his consciousness.
In his attempts to communicate his visions to the reader, Rimbaud
became one of the first modern poets to shatter the constraints of
traditional metric forms and those rules of versification that he had
already mastered so brilliantly. He decided to let his visions determine
the form of his poems, and if the visions were formless, then the poems
would be too. He began allowing images and their associations to
determine the structure of his new poems, such as the mysterious sonnet
At the end of August 1871, on the advice of a literary friend in
Charleville, Rimbaud sent to the poet Paul Verlaine samples of his new
poetry. Verlaine, impressed by their brilliance, summoned Rimbaud to
Paris and sent the money for his fare. In a burst of self-confidence,
Rimbaud composed “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”). This is perhaps
his finest poem, and one that clearly demonstrates what his method could
achieve. Ostensibly, “Le Bateau ivre” describes the journey of the
voyant in a tipsy boat that has been freed from all constraints and
launched headlong into a world of sea and sky that is heaving with the
erotic rhythms of a universal dynamic force. The voyant himself is on an
ecstatic search for some unnamed ideal that he seems to glimpse through
the aquatic tumult. But monsters threaten, the dream breaks up in
universal cataclysm, weariness and self pity take over, and both boat
and voyant capitulate. Here Rimbaud succeeded in his aim of matching
form to vision. A pounding rhythm drives the poem forward through
enjambment across the verses, with internal rhymes and excited
repetitions mounting on alliteration as with the swell of the envisioned
sea. Images of startling vividness flash by and melt unexpectedly into
each other with the fleeting clarity of hallucinations, and the poetic
evocation of colours, movement, and the feel of the waters pull directly
at the reader’s senses.
Rimbaud was already a marvelous poet, but his behaviour in Paris was
atrocious. He arrived there in September 1871, stayed for three months
with Verlaine and his wife, and met most of the well-known poets of the
day, but he antagonized them all—except Verlaine himself—by his
rudeness, arrogance, and obscenity. Embarking upon a life of drink and
debauchery, he became involved in a homosexual relationship with
Verlaine that gave rise to scandal. The two men were soon being seen in
public as lovers, and Rimbaud was blamed for breaking up Verlaine’s
marriage. In March 1872, while tormented by violent passion, jealousy,
and guilt and in a state of physical dissolution, Rimbaud returned to
Charleville so that Verlaine could attempt a reconciliation with his
Rimbaud would later suggest that he was near death at this time, and
the group of delicate, tenuous poems he then wrote—now known as Derniers
Vers (“Last Verses”)—express his yearning for purification through all
this suffering. Still trying to match form to vision, he expresses his
longing for spiritual regeneration in pared-down verse forms that are
almost abstract patterns of musical and symbolic allusiveness. These
poems clearly show the influence of Verlaine. About this time Rimbaud
also composed the work that Verlaine called his masterpiece, “La Chasse
spirituelle” (“The Spiritual Hunt”), the manuscript of which disappeared
when the two poets went to England. Rimbaud now virtually abandoned
verse composition; henceforth most of his literary production would
consist of prose poems.
In May 1872 Rimbaud was recalled to Paris by Verlaine, who said that
he could not live without him. That July Verlaine abandoned his wife and
child and fled with Rimbaud to London, where they spent the following
winter. During this winter Rimbaud composed a series of 40 prose poems
to which he gave the title Illuminations. These are his most ambitious
attempt to develop new poetic forms from the content of his visions. The
Illuminations consist of a series of theatrical tableaux in which
Rimbaud creates a primitive fantasy world, an imaginary universe
complete with its own mythology, its own quasi-divine beings, its own
cities, all depicted in kaleidoscopic images that have the vividness of
hallucinations. Within this framework the drama of the different stages
of Rimbaud’s own life is played out. He sees himself formulating his
dreams; his discovery of hashish as a method of inducing visions is
hailed; his ensuing nightmare anguish is relived in swirling images and
convoluted syntax; and his love affair with Verlaine is recalled in
cryptic images and symbols.
In the Illuminations Rimbaud reached the height of his originality
and found the form best suited to his elliptical and esoteric style. He
stripped the prose poem of its anecdotal, narrative, and descriptive
content and used words for their evocative and associative power,
divesting them of their logical or dictionary meaning. The hypnotic
rhythms, the dense musical patterns, and the visual pyrotechnics of the
poems work in counterpoint with Rimbaud’s playful mastery of juggled
syntax, ambiguity, etymological and literary references, and bilingual
puns. A unique achievement, the Illuminations’ innovative use of
language greatly influenced the subsequent development of French poetry.
In real life the two poets’ relationship was growing so tense and
violent that Verlaine became physically ill and mentally disturbed. In
April 1873 Rimbaud left him to return to his family, and it was at their
farm at Roche, near Charleville, that he began to apply himself to
another major work, Une Saison en enfer (1873; A Season in Hell). A
month later Verlaine persuaded Rimbaud to accompany him to London.
Rimbaud treated Verlaine with sadistic cruelty, and after more
wanderings and quarrels, he rejoined Verlaine in Brussels only to make a
last farewell. As he was leaving Verlaine shot him, wounding him in the
wrist. Rimbaud was hospitalized, and Verlaine was arrested and sentenced
to two years’ imprisonment. Rimbaud soon returned to Roche, where he
finished Une Saison en enfer.
Une Saison en enfer, which consists of nine fragments of prose and
verse, is a remarkable work of self-confession and psychological
examination. It is quite different from the Illuminations and in fact
repudiates the aesthetic they represent. Rimbaud was going through a
spiritual and moral crisis, and in Une Saison en enfer he
retrospectively examines the hells he had entered in search of
experience, his guilt-ridden and unhappy passion for Verlaine, and the
failure of his own overambitious aesthetic. The poem consists of a
series of scenes in which the narrator acts out various roles, seemingly
a necessary therapy for a young man still searching for some authentic,
unified identity. Within these scenes a switching of moods follows a
dialectical pattern, pushing forward through opposite tendencies toward
a third term that marks another step toward liberation. Each step is
presented in highly dramatic form and is treated with detachment and a
characteristic, cutting irony. The irony culminates in Rimbaud’s account
of his excessively idealistic literary efforts. Once these follies have
been relived, the remaining sections explore different possible routes
toward moral salvation. The cultivation of the mind, religious
conversion, and other routes are each tried but then dismissed. In the
book’s final section, “Adieu” (“Goodbye”), Rimbaud takes a nostalgic
backward look at his past life and then moves on, declaring that his
spiritual battle has been won. He contemplates a future in which he can
“possess the truth in a soul and a body.” The enigmatic ambiguity of
this concluding statement is characteristic of Rimbaud. Perhaps it
implies both a saner, more realistic stance towards life and a healing
of the split between body and soul that had so plagued him.
“Adieu” has sometimes been read as Rimbaud’s farewell to creative
writing. It was certainly a farewell to the visionary, apocalyptic
writing of the voyant. In February 1874 Rimbaud returned to London in
the company of Germain Nouveau, a fellow poet. There they copied out
some of the Illuminations. Rimbaud returned home for Christmas and spent
his time there studying mathematics and languages. His last encounter
with Verlaine, early in 1875, ended in a violent quarrel, but it was at
this time that he gave Verlaine the manuscript of the Illuminations.
The rest of Rimbaud’s life, from the literary point of view, was
silence. In 1875 he set out to see the world, and by 1879 he had crossed
the Alps on foot, joined and deserted the Dutch colonial army in the
East Indies, visited Egypt, and worked as a labourer in Cyprus, in every
instance suffering illness or other hardships. In 1880 he found
employment in the service of a coffee trader at Aden (now in Yemen), who
sent him to Hārer (now in Ethiopia). He became the first white man to
journey into the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, and his report of this
expedition was published by France’s National Society of Geography in
In time Rimbaud set up as an explorer and trader in Ethiopia,
traveling in the interior and at one point selling arms to Menilek II,
king of Shewa (Shoa), who became that country’s emperor in 1889.
Rimbaud’s gift for languages and his humane treatment of the Ethiopians
made him popular with them. He kept in touch with his family by frequent
letters in which he constantly complained about the hard conditions of
his daily life. All trace of his amazing literary gift had disappeared;
his ambition now was simply to amass as much money as possible and then
return home to live at leisure.
During this period of expatriation, Rimbaud had become known as a
poet in France. Verlaine had written about him in Les Poètes maudits
(1884) and had published a selection of his poems. These had been
enthusiastically received, and in 1886, unable to discover where Rimbaud
was or to get an answer from him, Verlaine published the prose poems,
under the title Illuminations, and further verse poems, in the Symbolist
periodical La Vogue, as the work of “the late Arthur Rimbaud.” It is not
known whether Rimbaud ever saw these publications. But he certainly knew
of his rising fame after the appearance of Les Poètes maudits, for in
1885 he received a letter from an old schoolmate, Paul Bourde, who told
him of the vogue of his poems among avant-garde poets.
Rimbaud did make a considerable fortune in Ethiopia, but in February
1891 he developed a tumour on his knee. He was sent back to France, and
shortly after he arrived at Marseille his right leg had to be amputated.
In July he returned to the family farm at Roche, where his health grew
steadily worse. In August 1891 he set out on a nightmarish journey to
Marseille, where his disease was diagnosed as cancer. He endured
agonizing treatment at the hospital there and died, according to his
sister Isabelle, after having made his confession to a priest.
Rimbaud’s extraordinary life, with its precocious triumphs, its reckless
scandals, its unexplained break with literature, and its mercenary
adventures in exotic African locales, continues to excite the popular
imagination. Critics have variously endowed his character with the
qualities of a martyr-saint, an archetypal rebel, and a disreputable
hooligan. What is incontrovertible is the extent of Rimbaud’s
contribution to modern French literature. Many 20th-century poets were
influenced by the Dionysian power of his verse and his liberation of
language from the constraints of form. Rimbaud’s visionary ideals also
proved attractive; his “unknown,” somewhat domesticated in the form of
the individual unconscious, became the hunting ground of the
Surrealists, and his techniques of free association and language play,
which they exploited so freely, became widely used. Rimbaud, the child
prodigy who was so prodigal of his genius, turned out to be one of the
founding fathers of modernism.
Margaret C. Davies-Mitchell
Translated by Oliver Bernard
On the calm black water where the
stars are sleeping
White Ophelia floats like a great lily;
Floats very slowly, lying in her long veils...
- In the far-off woods you can hear them sound the mort.
For more than a thousand years sad
Has passed, a white phantom, down the long black river.
For more than a thousand years her sweet madness
Has murmured its ballad to the evening breeze.
The wind kisses her breasts and
unfolds in a wreath
Her great veils rising and falling with the waters;
The shivering willows weep on her shoulder,
The rushes lean over her wide, dreaming brow.
The ruffled water-lilies are sighing
At times she rouses, in a slumbering alder,
Some nest from which escapes a small rustle of wings;
- A mysterious anthem falls from the golden stars.
O pale Ophelia! beautiful as snow!
Yes child, you died, carried off by a river!
- It was the winds descending from the great mountains of Norway
That spoke to you in low voices of better freedom.
It was a breath of wind, that,
twisting your great hair,
Brought strange rumors to your dreaming mind;
It was your heart listening to the song of Nature
In the groans of the tree and the sighs of the nights;
It was the voice of mad seas, the
That shattered your child's heart, too human and too soft;
It was a handsome pale knight, a poor madman
Who one April morning sate mute at your knees!
Heaven! Love! Freedom! What a dream,
oh poor crazed Girl!
You melted to him as snow does to a fire;
Your great visions strangled your words
- And fearful Infinity terrified your blue eye!
- And the poet says that by
You come seeking, in the night, the flowers that you picked
And that he has seen on the water, lying in her long veils
White Ophelia floating, like a great lily.
Dance of the Hanged Men
On the black gallows, one-armed
The paladins are dancing, dancing
The lean, the devil's paladins
The skeletons of Saladins.
Sir Beelzebub pulls by the scruff
His little black puppets who grin at the sky,
And with a backhander in the head like a kick,
Makes them dance, dance, to an old Carol-tune!
And the puppets, shaken about,
entwine their thin arms:
Their breasts pierced with light, like black organ-pipes
Which once gentle ladies pressed to their own,
Jostle together protractedly in hideous love-making.
Hurray! the gay dancers, you whose
bellies are gone!
You can cut capers on such a long stage!
Hop! never mind whether it's fighting or dancing!
- Beelzebub, maddened, saws on his fiddles!
Oh the hard heels, no one's pumps
are wearing out!
And nearly all have taken of their shirts of skin;
The rest is not embarrassing and can be seen without shame.
On each skull the snow places a white hat:
The crow acts as a plume for these
A scrap of flesh clings to each lean chin:
You would say, to see them turning in their dark combats,
They were stiff knights clashing pasteboard armours.
Hurrah! the wind whistles at the
skeletons' grand ball!
The black gallows moans like an organ of iron !
The wolves howl back from the violet forests:
And on the horizon the sky is hell-red...
Ho there, shake up those funereal
Craftily telling with their great broken fingers
The beads of their loves on their pale vertebrae:
Hey the departed, this is no monastery here!
Oh! but see how from the middle of
this Dance of Death
Springs into the red sky a great skeleton, mad,
Carried away by his own impetus, like a rearing horse:
And, feeling the rope tight again round his neck,
Clenches his knuckles on his
thighbone with a crack
Uttering cries like mocking laughter,
And then like a mountebank into his booth,
Skips back into the dance to the music of the bones!
On the black gallows, one-armed
The paladins are dancing, dancing
The lean, the devil's paladins
The skeletons of Saladins.
The Drunken Boat
As I was floating down unconcerned
I no longer felt myself steered by the haulers:
Gaudy Redskins had taken them for targets
Nailing them naked to coloured stakes.
I cared nothing for all my crews,
Carrying Flemish wheat or English cottons.
When, along with my haulers those uproars were done with
The Rivers let me sail downstream where I pleased.
Into the ferocious tide-rips
Last winter, more absorbed than the minds of children,
I ran! And the unmoored Peninsulas
Never endured more triumphant clamourings
The storm made bliss of my sea-borne
Lighter than a cork, I danced on the waves
Which men call eternal rollers of victims,
For ten nights, without once missing the foolish eye of the
Sweeter than the flesh of sour
apples to children,
The green water penetrated my pinewood hull
And washed me clean of the bluish wine-stains and the splashes
Carring away both rudder and anchor.
And from that time on I bathed in
Of the Sea, star-infused and churned into milk,
Devouring the green azures; where, entranced in pallid flotsam,
A dreaming drowned man sometimes goes down;
Where, suddenly dyeing the
And slow rhythms under the gleams of the daylight,
Stronger than alcohol, vaster than music
Ferment the bitter rednesses of love!
I have come to know the skies
splitting with lightnings, and the waterspouts
And the breakers and currents; I know the evening,
And Dawn rising up like a flock of doves,
And sometimes I have seen what men have imagined they saw!
I have seen the low-hanging sun
speckled with mystic horrors.
Lighting up long violet coagulations,
Like the performers in very-antique dramas
Waves rolling back into the distances their shiverings of
I have dreamed of the green night of
the dazzled snows
The kiss rising slowly to the eyes of the seas,
The circulation of undreamed-of saps,
And the yellow-blue awakenings of singing phosphorus!
I have followed, for whole months on
end, the swells
Battering the reefs like hysterical herds of cows,
Never dreaming that the luminous feet of the Marys
Could force back the muzzles of snorting Oceans!
I have struck, do you realize,
Where mingle with flowers the eyes of panthers
In human skins! Rainbows stretched like bridles
Under the seas' horizon, to glaucous herds!
I have seen the enormous swamps
Where a whole leviathan rots in the reeds!
Downfalls of waters in the midst of the calm
And distances cataracting down into abysses!
Glaciers, suns of silver, waves of
pearl, skies of red-hot coals!
Hideous wrecks at the bottom of brown gulfs
Where the giant snakes devoured by vermin
Fall from the twisted trees with black odours!
I should have liked to show to
children those dolphins
Of the blue wave, those golden, those singing fishes.
- Foam of flowers rocked my driftings
And at times ineffable winds would lend me wings.
Sometimes, a martyr weary of poles
The sea whose sobs sweetened my rollings
Lifted its shadow-flowers with their yellow sucking disks toward
And I hung there like a kneeling woman...
Almost an island, tossing on my
beaches the brawls
And droppings of pale-eyed, clamouring birds,
And I was scudding along when across my frayed cordage
Drowned men sank backwards into sleep!
But now I, a boat lost under the
hair of coves,
Hurled by the hurricane into the birdless ether,
I, whose wreck, dead-drunk and sodden with water,
neither Monitor nor Hanse ships would have fished up;
Free, smoking, risen from violet
I who bored through the wall of the reddening sky
Which bears a sweetmeat good poets find delicious,
Lichens of sunlight [mixed] with azure snot,
Who ran, speckled with lunula of
A crazy plank, with black sea-horses for escort,
When Julys were crushing with cudgel blows
Skies of ultramarine into burning funnels;
I who trembled, to feel at fifty
The groans of Behemoth's rutting, and of the dense Maelstroms
Eternal spinner of blue immobilities
I long for Europe with it's aged old parapets!
I have seen archipelagos of stars!
Whose delirious skies are open to sailor:
- Do you sleep, are you exiled in those bottomless nights,
Million golden birds, O Life Force of the future? -
But, truly, I have wept too much!
The Dawns are heartbreaking.
Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter:
Sharp love has swollen me up with heady langours.
O let my keel split! O let me sink to the bottom!
If there is one water in Europe I
want, it is the
Black cold pool where into the scented twilight
A child squatting full of sadness, launches
A boat as fragile as a butterfly in May.
I can no more, bathed in your
langours, O waves,
Sail in the wake of the carriers of cottons,
Nor undergo the pride of the flags and pennants,
Nor pull past the horrible eyes of the hulks.
My Little Mistresses
A tincture of tears washes
The cabbage-green skies:
Beneath the dripping tree with tender shoots,
Whitened by peculiar moons
With round staring eyes,
Knock your kneecaps together,
My ugly ones!
We loved each other in those days,
Blue ugly one!
We used to eat boiled eggs
One evening you anointed me poet,
Blond ugly one:
Come down here, let me smack you
Across my knees;
I have puked up your brillantine,
Black ugly one;
You would stop the sound of my mandolin
Before it was out of my head.
Ugh! My dried spittle,
Red-headed ugly one,
Still infects the wrinckles
Of your round breast!
O my little Mistresses,
How I hate you!
Plaster with painful blisters
Your ugly bosoms!
Trample upon my little pots
Now then jump! Be ballerinas for me
Just for a moment!
Your shoulder-blades are out of
O my loves!
With a star on your hobbling backs
Turn in your turns!
And yet after all, it's for these
shoulders of mutton
That I've made rhymes!
I'd like to break your hips
For having loved!
Insipid heap of fallen stars,
Pile up in the corners!
- You'll be extinguished in God, saddled
With ignoble cares!
Whitened by peculiar moons,
With round staring eyes,
Knock your kneecaps together,
My ugly ones!
The Parisian Orgy or Paris is
O cowards, there she is! Pile out
into the stations!
The sun with its fiery lungs blew clear
The boulevards that one evening the Barbarians filled.
Here is the holy City, seated in the West!
Come! we'll stave off the return of
Here are the quays, here are the boulevards, here
Are the houses against the pale,
Radiant blue-starred, one evening, by the red flashes of bombs!
Hide the dead palaces with forests
Affrighted, the dying daylight freshens your looks.
Look at the red-headed troop of the wrigglers of hips:
Be mad, you'll be comical, being haggard!
Pack of bitches on heat, eating
The cry from the houses of gold calls you. Plunder!
Eat! See the night of joy and deep twitchings
Coming down on the street. O desolate drinkers,
Drink! When the light comes, intense
To ransack round you the rustling luxuries,
You're not going to dribble into your glasses,
Without motion or sound, with your eyes lost in white distances?
Knock it back, to the Queen whose
buttocks cascade in folds!
Listen to the working of stupid tearing hiccups!
Listen to them leaping in the fiery night
The panting idiots, the aged, the nonentities, the lackeys!
O hearts of filth, appalling mouths,
Work harder, mouths of foul stenches!
Wine for these ignoble torpors, at these tables...
Your bellies are melting with shame, O Conquerors!
Open your nostrils to these superb
Steep the tendons of your necks in strong poisons!
Laying his crossed hands on the napes of your childish necks
The Poet says to you: "O cowards! be mad!
Because you are ransacking the guts
You fear another convulsion from her,
Crying out, and stifling your infamous perching
On her breast with a horrible pressure.
Syphilitics, madmen, kings, puppets,
What can you matter to Paris the whore,
Your souls or your bodies, your poisons or your rags?
She'll shake you off, you pox-rotten snarlers!
And when you are down, whimpering on
Your sides wrung, clamouring for your money back, distracted,
The red harlot with her breasts swelling with battles
Will clench her hard fists, far removed from your stupor!
When your feet, Paris, danced so
hard in anger!
When you had so many knife wounds;
When you lay helpless, still retaining in your clear eyes
A little of the goodness of the tawny spring,
O city in pain, O city almost dead,
With your face and your two breasts pointing towards the Future
Which opens to your pallor its thousand million gates,
City whom the dark Past could bless:
Body galvanized back to life to
suffer tremendous pains,
You are drinking in dreadful life once more! You feel
The ghastly pale worms flooding back in your veins,
And the icy fingers prowling on your unclouded love!
And it does you no harm. The worms,
the pale worms,
Will obstruct your breath of Progress no more
Than the Stryx could extinguish the eyes of the Caryatides
From whose blue sills fell tears of sidereal gold."
Although it is frightful to see you
again covered in this fashion;
although no city was ever made into a more foul-smelling
Ulcer on the face of green Nature,
The Poet says to you:"Your Beauty is Marvellous!"
The tempest sealed you in supreme
The huge stirring of strength comes to your aid;
Your work comes to the boil, death groans, O chosen City!
Hoard in your heart the stridors of the ominous trumpet.
The Poet will take the sobs of the
The hate of the Galley slaves, the clamour of the Damned;
And the beams of his love will scourge Womankind.
His verses will leap out: There's for you! There! Villains!
- Society, and everything, is
restored: - the orgies
Are weeping with dry sobs in the old brothels:
And on the reddened walls, the gaslights in frenzy,
Flare balefully upwards to the wan blue skies!
The First Evening
- She was very much half-dressed
And big indiscreet trees
Threw out their leaves against the pane
Cunningly, and close, quite close.
Sitting half naked in my big chair,
She clasped her hands.
Her small and so delicate feet
Trembled with pleasure on the floor.
- The colour of wax, I watched
A little wild ray of light
Flutter on her smiling lips
And on her breast, - an insect on the rose-bush.
- I kissed her delicate ankles.
She laughed softly and suddenly
A string of clear trills,
A lovely laugh of crystal.
The small feet fled beneath
Her petticoat: "Stop it, do!"
- The first act of daring permitted,
Her laugh pretended to punish me!
- Softly I kissed her eyes,
Trembling beneath my lips, poor things:
- She threw back her fragile head
"Oh! come now that's going too far!...
Listen, Sir, I have something to say
- I transferred the rest to her breast
In a kiss which made her laugh
With a kind laugh that was willing...
- She was very much half-dressed
And big indiscreet trees threw
Out their leaves against the pane
Cunningly, and close, quite close.
On the square which is chopped into
mean little plots of grass,
The square where all is just so, both the trees and the flowers,
All the wheezy townsfolk whom the heat chokes bring
Each Thursday evening, their envious silliness.
- The military band, in the middle
of the gardens,
Swing their shakos in the Waltz of the Fifes:
Round about, near the front rows, the town dandy struts;
- The notary hangs like a charm from his own watch chain.
Private incomes in pince-nez point
out all false notes:
Great counting-house desks, bloated, drag their stout spouses
Close by whom, like bustling elephant keepers,
Walk females whose flounces remind you of sales;
On the green benches, retired
Poking the sand with their knobbed walking canes,
Gravely discuss trade agreements,
And then take snuff from silver boxes, and resume: "In
Spreading over his bench all the fat
of his rump,
A pale-buttoned burgher, a Flemish corporation,
Savours his Onnaing, whence shreds of tobacco hang loose
You realize, it's smuggled, of course; -
Along the grass borders yobs laugh
And, melting to love at the sound of trombones,
Very simple, and sucking at roses, the little foot-soldiers
Fondle the babies to get round their nurses...
- As for me, I follow, dishevelled
like a student,
Under the green chestnuts, the lively young girls:
Which they know very well, and they turn to me,
Laughing, eyes which are full of indiscreet things.
I don't say a word: I just keep on
The skin of their white necks embroidered with stray locks:
I go hunting, beneath bodices and thin attire,
The divine back below the curve of the shoulders.
Soon I've discovered the boot and
- I re-create their bodies, burning with fine fevers.
They find me absurd, and talk together in low voices...
- And my savage desires fasten on to their lips...
To the Poet on the Subject of
Thus continually towards the dark
Where the sea of topazes shimmers,
Will function in your evening
The Lilies, those pessaries of ectasy!
In our own age sago,
When Plants work for their living,
The Lily will dring blue loathings
From you religious Proses!
- Monsieur de Kerdrel's
The Sonnet of eighteen-thirty,
The Lily they bestow on the Bard
Together with the pink and the amaranth!
Lilies! lilies! None to be seen!
Yet in your Verse, like the sleeves
Of the soft-footed Women of Sin,
Always these white flowers shiver!
Always, Dear Man, when you bathe,
Your shirt with yellow oxters
Swells in the morning breezes
Above the muddy forget-menots!
Love get through your customs
Only Lilacs, - o eye-wash!
And the Wild Violets,
Sugary spittle of the dark Nymphs!...
O Poets, if you had
Roses, blown Roses,
Red upon laurel stems,
And swollen with a thousand octaves!
If Banville would make them snow
Blacking the wild eye of the stranger
With his ill-disposed interpretations!
In your forests and in your meadows,
O very peaceful photographers!
The Flora is more or less diverse
Like the stoppers on decanters!
Always those French vegetables,
Cross-gained, phthisical, absurd,
Navigated by the peaceful bellies
Of basset-hounds in twilight;
Always, after frightful drawings
Of blue Lotuses or Sunflowers,
Pink prints, holy pictures
For young girls making their communion!
The Asoka Ode agrees with the
Loretto window stanza form;
And heavy vivid butterflies
Are dunging on the Daisy.
Old greenery, and old galloons!
O vegetable fancy biscuits!
fancy-flowers of old Drawing-rooms!
- For cockchafers, not rattlesnakes,
The pulling vegetable baby dolls
Which Grandville would have put round the margins,
And which sucked in their colours
From ill-natured stars with eyeshades!
Yes, the drooling from your
Make some priceless glucoses!
- Pile of fried eggs in hold hats,
Lilies, Asokas, Lilacs and Roses!...
O white Hunter, running sockingless
Across the panic Pastures,
Can you not, ought you not
To know your botany a little?
I'm afraid you'd make succeed,
To russet Crickets, Cantharides,
And Rio golds to blues of Rhine, -
In short, to Norways, Floridas:
But, My dear Chap, Art does not
- it's the truth, - in allowing
To the astonishing Eucalyptus
boa-constrictors a hexameter long;
There now!... As if Mahogany
Served only, even in our Guianas,
As helter-skelters for monkeys,
Among the heavy vertigo of the lianas!
- In short, is a Flower, Rosemary
Or Lily, dead or alive, worth
The excrement of one sea-bird?
Is it worth a solitary candle-drip?
- And I mean what I say!
You, even sitting over there, in a
Bamboo hut, - with the shutters
Closed, and brown Persian rugs for hangings, -
You would scrawl blossoms
Worthy of extravagant Oise!...
- Poet ! these are reasonnings
No less absurd than arrogant!...
Speak, not of pampas in the spring
Black with terrible revolts,
But of tobacco and cotton trees!
Speak of exotic harvests!
Say, white face which Phoebus has
How many dollars
Pedro Velasquez of Habana ;
Cover with excrement the sea of Sorrento
Where the Swans go in thousands;
Let your lines campaign
For the clearing of the mangrove swamps
Riddled with pools and water-snakes!
Your quatrain plunges into the
And come back to offer to Humanity
Various subjects: white sugar,
Bronchial lozenges, and rubbers!
Let us know though You wheter the
Of snow Peaks, near the Tropics,
Are insects which lay many eggs
Or microscopic lichens!
Find, o Hunter, we desire it,
One or two scented madder plants
Which Nature in trousers
May cause to bloom! - fr our Armies!
Find, on the outskirts of the
Flowers, whick look like snouts,
Out of which drip golden pomades
On to the dark hair of buffaloes!
Find, in wild meadows, where on the
Shivers the silver of downy gowths,
Calyxex full of fiery Eggs
Cooking among the essential oils!
Find downy Thistles
Whose wool ten asses with glaring eyes
Labour to spin!
Find Flowers which are chairs!
Yes, find in the heart of coal-black
Flowers that are almost stones, - marvellous ones! -
Which, close to their hard pale ovaries
Bear gemlike tonsils!
Serve us, o Stuffer, this you can
On a splendid vermilion plate
Stews of syrupy Lilies
To corrode our German-silver spoons!
Someone will speak about great Love,
The thief of black Indulgences:
But neither Renan, nor Murr the cat
Have seen the immense Blue Thyrsuses!
You, quicken in our sluggishness,
By means of scents, hysteria;
Exalt us towards purities
Whiter than the Marys...
Tradesman! colonial! Medium!
Your Rhyme will well up, pink or white,
Like a blaze of sodium,
Like a bleeding rubber-tree!
But from your dark Poems, - Juggler!
dioptric white and green and red,
Let strange flowers burst out
And electric butterflies!
See! it's the Century of hell!
And the telegraph poles
Are going to adorn, - the iron-voiced lyre,
Your magnificent shoulder blades!
Above all, give us a rhymed account
Of the potato blight!
- And, in order to compose
Poems full of mystery
Intended to be read from Tréguier
To Paramaribo, go and buy
A few volumes by Monsieur Figuier,
- Illustrated! - at Hachette's !
When you are seventeen you aren't
- One fine evening, you've had enough of beer and lemonade,
And the rowdy cafes with their dazzling lights!
- You go walking beneath the green lime trees of the promenade.
The lime trees smell good on fine
evenings in June!
The air is so soft sometimes, you close your eyelids;
The wind, full of sounds, - the town's not far away -
Carries odours of vines, and odours of beer...
- Then you see a very tiny rag
Of dark blue, framed by a small branch,
Pierced by an unlucky star which is melting away
With soft little shivers, small, perfectly white...
June night! Seventeen! - You let
yourself get drunk.
The sap is champagne and goes straight to your head...
You are wandering; you feel a kiss on your lips
Which quivers there like something small and alive...
Your mad heart goes Crusoeing
through all the romances,
- When, under the light of a pale street lamp,
Passes a young girl with charming little airs,
In the shadow of her father's terrifying stiff collar...
And because you strike her as
As she trots along in her little ankle boots,
She turns, wide awake, with a brisk movement...
And then cavatinas die on your lips...
You're in love. Taken until the
month of August.
You're in love - Your sonnets make Her laugh.
All your friends disappear, you are not quite the thing.
- Then your adored one, one evening, condescends to write to
That evening,... - you go back again
to the dazzling cafes,
You ask for beer or for lemonade...
- You are not really serious when you are seventeen
And there are green lime trees on the promenade...
My Bohemian Life
I went off with my hands in my torn
My overcoat too was becoming ideal;
I travelled beneath the sky, Muse! and I was your vassal;
Oh dear me! what marvellous loves I dreamed of!
My only pair of breeches had a big
whole in them.
– Stargazing Tom Thumb, I sowed rhymes along my way.
My tavern was at the Sign of the Great Bear.
– My stars in the sky rustled softly.
And I listened to them, sitting on
On those pleasant September evenings while I felt drops
Of dew on my forehead like vigorous wine;
And while, rhyming among the
I plucked like the strings of a lyre the elastics
Of my tattered boots, one foot close to my heart!
Very late, when he feels his stomach churn,
Brother Milotus, one eye on the skylight
Whence the sun, bright as a scoured stewpan,
Darts a megrim at him and dizzies his sight,
Moves his priest's belly under the sheets.
He struggles beneath the grey
And gets out, his knees to his trebling belly,
Flustered like an old man who has swallowed a pinch of snuff,
Because he has to tuck up his nightshirt in armfuls round his
With one hand grasping the handle of a white chamberpot!
Now he is squatting, chilly, his
toes curled up,
His teeth chattering in the bright sunshine
Which daubs the yellow of cake upon the paper panes;
And the old fellow's nose, its crimson catching fire,
Snuffles in the rays like a polypary of flesh.
The old fellow simmers at the fire,
his arms twisted, his blubber lips
On his belly: he feels his thighs slipping into the fire,
And his breeches scorching, and his pipe going out;
Something resembling a bird stirs a little
In his serene belly which is like a mountain of tripe!
Round about him sleeps a jumble of
Among tatters of filth, lying on soiled bellies;
Stools cower like weird toads in dark corners:
Cupboards have maws like choirmasters,
Yawning with a sleepiness which is full of revolting appetites.
The sickening heat stuffs the narrow
The old fellow's head is crammed with rags:
He listens to the hairs growing in his moist skin,
And sometimes, with deep and clownish hiccoughs,
Moves away, shaking his rickety stool.
And in the evening, in rays of
moonlight which leaves
Dribbles of light on the contours of his buttocks,
A shadow with details squats against a background
Of snow-coloured pink like a hollyhock...
Fantastic, a nose follows Venus in the deep sky.
Sun and Flesh (Credo in Unam)
The Sun, the hearth of affection and
Pours burning love on the delighted earth,
And when you lie down in the valley, you can smell
How the earth is nubile and very full-blooded;
How its huge breast, heaved up by a soul,
Is, like God, made of love, and, like woman, of flesh,
And that it contains, big with sap and with sunlight,
The vast pullulation of all embryos!
And everything grows, and everything
- O Venus, O Goddess!
I long for the days of antique youth,
Of lascivious satyrs, and animal fauns,
Gods who bit, mad with love, the bark of the boughs,
And among water-lilies kissed the Nymph with fair hair!
I long for the time when the sap of the world,
River water, the rose-coloured blood of green trees
Put into the veins of Pan a whole universe!
When the earth trembled, green,beneath his goat-feet;
When, softly kissing the fair Syrinx, his lips formed
Under heaven the great hymn of love;
When, standing on the plain, he heard round about him
Living Nature answer his call;
When the silent trees cradling the singing bird,
Earth cradling mankind, and the whole blue Ocean,
And all living creatures loved, loved in God!
I long for the time of great Cybele,
Who was said to travel, gigantically lovely,
In a great bronze chariot, through splendid cities;
Her twin breasts poured, through the vast deeps,
The pure streams of infinite life.
Mankind sucked joyfully at her blessed nipple,
Like a small child playing on her knees.
- Because he was strong, Man was gentle and chaste.
Misfortune! Now he says: I
And goes about with eyes shut and ears closed.
- And again, no more gods! no more gods! Man is King,
Man is God! But the great faith is Love!
Oh! if only man still drew sustenance from your nipple,
Great mother of gods and of men, Cybele;
If only he had not forsaken immortal Astarte
Who long ago, rising in the tremendous brightness
Of blue waters, flower-flesh perfumed by the wave,
Showed her rosy navel, towards which the foam came snowing
And , being a goddess with the great conquering black eyes,
Made the nightingale sing in the woods and love in men's hearts!
I believe! I believe in you! divine
Sea-born Aphrodite! - Oh! the path is bitter
Since the other God harnessed us to his cross;
Flesh, Marble, Flower, Venus, in you I believe!
- yes, Man is sad and ugly, sad under the vast sky.
He possesses clothes, because he is no longer chaste,
Because he has defiled his proud, godlike head
And because he has bent, like an idol in the furnace,
His Olympian form towards base slaveries!
Yes, even after death, in the form of pale skeletons
He wishes to live and insult the original beauty!
- And the Idol in whom you placed such maidenhood,
Woman, in whom you rendered our clay divine,
So that Man might bring light into his poor soul
And slowly ascend, in unbounded love,
From the earthly prison to the beauty of day,
Woman no longer knows even how to be a Courtesan!
- It's a fine farce! and the world snickers
At the sweet and sacred name of great Venus!
If only the times which have come
and gone might come again!
- For Man is finished! Man has played all the parts!
In the broad daylight, wearied with breaking idols
He will revive, free of all his gods,
And, since he is of heaven, he will scan the heavens!
The Ideal, that eternal, invincible thought, which is
All; The living god within his fleshly clay,
Will rise, mount, burn beneath his brow!
An when you see him plumbing the whole horizon,
Despising old yokes, and free from all fear,
You will come and give him holy Redemption!
- Resplendent, radiant, from the bosom of the huge seas
You will rise up and give to the vast Universe
Infinite Love with its eternal smile!
The World will vibrate like an immense lyre
In the trembling of an infinite kiss!
- The World thirsts for love: you
will come and slake its thirst.
O! Man has raised his free, proud
And the sudden blaze of primordial beauty
Makes the god quiver in the altar of the flesh!
Happy in the present good, pale from the ill suffered,
Man wishes to plumb all depths, - and know all things! Thought,
So long a jade, and for so long oppressed,
Springs from his forehead! She will know Why!...
Let her but gallop free, and Man will find Faith!
- Why the blue silence, unfathomable space?
Why the golden stars, teeming like sands?
If one ascended forever, what would one see up there?
Does a sheperd drive this enormous flock
Of worlds on a journey through this horror of space?
And do all these worlds contained in the vast ether,
tremble at the tones of an eternal voice?
- And Man, can he see? can he say: I believe?
Is the langage of thought anymore than a dream?
If man is born so quickly, if life is so short
Whence does he come? Does he sink into the deep Ocean
Of Germs, of Foetuses, of Embryos, to the bottom
of the huge Crucible where Nature the Mother
Will resuscitate him, a living creature,
To love in the rose and to grow in the corn?...
We cannot know! - We are weighed
With a cloak of ignorance, hemmed in by chimaeras!
Men like apes, dropped from our mothers' wombs,
Our feeble reason hides the infinite from us!
We wish to perceive: - and Doubt punishes us!
Doubt, dismal bird, beat us down with its wing...
- And the horizon rushes away in endless flight!...
The vast heaven is open! the
mysteries lie dead
Before erect Man, who folds his strong arms
Among the vast splendour of abundant Nature!
He sings... and the woods sing, the river murmurs
A song full of happiness which rises towards the light!...
- it is Redemption! it is love! it is love!...
O splendour of flesh! O ideal
O renewal of love, triumphal dawn
When, prostrating the Gods and the Heroes,
White Callipyge and little Eros
Covered with the snow of rose petals, will caress
Women and flowers beneath their lovely outstretched feet!
- O great Ariadne who pour out your tears
On the shore, as you see, out there on the waves,
The sail of Theseus flying white under the sun,
O sweet virgin child whom a night has broken,
Be silent! On his golden chariot studded with black grapes,
Lysios, who has been drawn through Phrygian fields
By lascivious tigers and russet panthers,
Reddens the dark mosses along the blue rivers.
- Zeus, the Bull, cradles on his neck like a child
The nude body of Europa who throws her white arm
Round the God's muscular neck which shivers in the wave.
Slowly he turns his dreamy eye towards her;
She, droops her pale flowerlike cheek
On the brow of Zeus; her eyes are closed; she is dying
In a divine kiss, and the murmuring waters
Strew the flowers of their golden foam on her hair.
- Between the oleander and the gaudy lotus tree
Slips amorously the great dreaming Swan
Enfloding Leda in the whiteness of his wing;
- And while Cypris goes by, strangely beautiful,
And, arching the marvellous curves of her back,
Proudly displays the golden vision of her big breasts
And snowy belly embroidered with black moss,
- Hercules, Tamer of beasts, in his Strength,
Robes his huge body with the lion's skin as with glory
And faces the horizons, his brow terrible and sweet!
Vaguely lit by the summer moon,
Erect, naked, dreaming in her pallor of gold
Streaked by the heavy wave of her long blue hair,
In the shadowy glade whenre stars spring in the moss,
The Dryade gazes up at the silent sky...
- White Selene, timidly, lets her veil float,
Over the feet of beautiful Endymion,
And throws him a kiss in a pale beam...
- The Spring sobs far off in a long ectasy...
Ii is the nymph who dreams with one elbow on her urn,
Of the handsome white stripling her wave has pressed against.
- A soft wind of love has passed in the night,
And in the sacred woods, amid the standing hair of the great
Erect in majesty, the shadowly Marbles,
The Gods, on whose brows the Bullfinch has his nest,
- the Gods listen to Men, and to the infinite World!