Rimbaud resonates in a new translation
By Arthur Rimbaud Translated with a preface by John Ashbery W.W. Norton, 176pp, $35 (HB)
JOHN Ashbery is one of the most original poets of the 20th century. His work, regarded as obscure in the 1950s when he first began publishing, won fame in the mid70s and has by now (he is 85) claimed a vast audience. It is fitting that this great American poet should face up to Rimbaud’s achievement and bring his poems into English.
Arthur Rimbaud was the most original poet of the 19th century — though regarded as obscure in his own time — and a seminal influence on modern verse. He was born in 1854 and died of cancer in 1891. As a youth, he was a poetic prodigy who courted scandal.
The writing he created between the ages of 18 and 21 was brilliant, but when he became an adult he abandoned poetry and took up making and saving money with the same dogged passion that he had once squandered on his art.
His adolescent adventures and hallucinations and the poems that grew out of them have been influential for the past 100 years, but he wouldn’t have cared. He despised poets and poetry for all that remained of his adult life.
Ashbery, always a restrained critic, views Rimbaud’s abandonment of poetry rather lightly. ‘‘ He stopped when he had to, or more likely when he wanted to,’’ he said in a recent interview. ‘‘ It seems to have been a question of his just sort of closing the book on poetry one day and going on to something that interested him more, which was his trading and life in Africa.’’
That’s what many people think, but I beg to differ. There was a five-year gap between Rimbaud’s abandoning poetry (1875) and his fleeing to Africa (1880). In between he did dozens of different things, and by 1877 he had visited 13 countries and travelled more than 50,000km.
And we now know that his life in Africa was not a choice, but an unwilling escape from legal retribution, a flight decade-long resentful exile.
His quick temper was present from the start. His biographers recount episodes of rage and violence in his childhood. Later, when his book A Season in Hell was printed in Belgium, he sent six copies to various men of letters in Paris, hoping to astonish them. When he called on them, he was met with contempt: after all, he was the sponging catamite who had ruined their friend, the much-loved poet Verlaine, and had him jailed in Belgium (two years, with hard labour) a few months before. He was the arrogant teenage writer who had mocked these very men’s attempts at verse a year or two before that.
Grinding his teeth with shame and fury, Rimbaud walked home to Charleville in the north of France, a two-week trek in freezing November weather, and burned every manuscript he could lay his hands on: his life’s work.
Six years later he is to be found employed as an overseer of a gang of workers on a mountain in Cyprus, building a new summer residence for the governor. One day, for no apparent reason, he fled and boarded a ship in the bay