Thinking About Rimbaud
from the files of the River Journal's Surrealist Research Bureau
I once again came across Rimbaud’s “seer” letter recently after a long while, and it led me down strange pathways of thought to Chatterton, and more, to Wolfe’s melancholy ode: “We buried him darkly at dead of night and left him alone with his glory,” and finally to the Lizard King himself.
Now Arthur Rimbaud, as we know, was still a rambunctious, 15-year-old runaway who yearned to be a poet when he sent a now-famous letter to his teacher, Izimbard, which reads in part, “I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself a seer... the point is to arrive at the unknown by the disordering of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but one has to be strong, to be a born a poet, and I have discovered I am a poet... The first study for a man who wants to be a poet is the knowledge of himself, complete. He looks for his soul, inspects it, puts it to the test, learns it... But the soul has to be made monstrous. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed - the great learned one! - among men. - For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul - which was rich to begin with - more than any other man! He reaches the unknown, and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!...”
Now, just a few years after writing those prescient lines, the teenage Rimbaud forsook Poetry forever, not returning to his home and country ‘til he was a dying, wasted amputee, little guessing his mostly still unpublished odes would soon set the literary world afire. Likewise, one of the most iconic and famous paintings of the Romanicist movement is Henry Wallis’s “Death of Chatterton” (1856) which depicted the death scene of the 17-year-old [oet Thomas Chatterton, ridiculed and scorned, who overdosed on arsenic in his attic garret, unaware of the accolades and psalms his works would soon garner.
There truly must be an archetype of the unknown scorned poet, his life fading along with his youth. Each generation claims as its own a laurel-bedecked sacrifice. Before Rimbaud there was Poe and in our own time I could name Jim Morrison, the fabled Lizard King, among others. I recall hearing his friend, drinking buddy (and fellow cellmate) Robert Gover (author of the classic One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding) relate how Jim was truly trying, like Rimbaud, to “break on through to the other side,” to become a seer-poet. He had no desire to be a rock star, it was as a poet he wanted to be remembered. His mysterious death in Paris and his ghostly, haunted afterlife still leads some to suspect he succeeded, I’m not so sure of it all myself as I used to be.
Ah, we come now to Comte De Lautreamont, of whom Camus said he was “Revolt without mercy!” He famously wrote “I will leave no memoirs” before dying young and unknown at the Parisian barricades (where by a cosmic joke or ghastly coincidence a young runaway named Arthur Rimbaud was even then waving a flag on the ramparts!). A century before cinema audiences were introduced to the idea of “The Matrix” surrounding our reality, Lautreamont “forces his readers to stop taking their world for granted, he shatters the complacent acceptance of the reality proposed by their cultural traditions and makes them see their reality for what it is: An unreal nightmare made all the more hair-raising because the sleeper believes he is awake.” (DeLong) For those unaware, his two hard-to-find books are “Maldoror” and “Poesies.” However, be warned, for younger readers especially he can be profoundly disturbing. To be Continued!
‘til next time, Keep spreading the word; Soylent Green is People! All Homage to Xena!