Rim­baud res­onates in a new trans­la­tion

Il­lu­mi­na­tions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Tran­ter

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

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