"Antique," by Arthur Rimbaud

A close reading
ANTIQUE
Gracieux fils de Pan! Autour de ton front couronné de fleurettes et de baies tes yeux, des boules précieuses, remuent. Tachées de lies brunes, tes joues se creusent. Tes crocs luisent. Ta poitrine ressemble à une cithare, des tintements circulent dans tes bras blonds. Ton coeur bat dans ce ventre òu dort le double sexe. Promène-toi la nuit, en mouvant doucement cette cuisse, cette seconde cuisse et cette jambe de gauche. 

Graceful son of Pan! Around your forehead crowned with little flowers and laurel, your eyes, those precious balls, revolve.  Stained with wine dregs, your cheeks grow hollow. Your fangs gleam. Your chest is like a lyre, tinklings course through your blonde arms. Your heart beats in the belly where the double sex sleeps. Walk around at night,  gently moving this thigh, this second thigh and this left leg. 
(My translation)

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Arthur Rimbaud: Insulting Beauty
A look at how an iconoclastic young writer revolutionized the poetic form. With readings by Rosanna Warren.

Audio: "Antique"Hear this poem read aloud both in French and English by Rosanna Warren

Modernity always defines itself in relation to a past that it attacks and transforms. Here, the self-proclaimed poet of modernity (“We must be absolutely modern,” he had written in A Season in Hell) presents us with the figure of a faun: just the sort of neoclassical kitsch we'd expect him to despise. What does he do with it? He brings it to life, awakening a myth. 

The opening invocation sets off no alarms. This little faun, not Pan himself but a minor derivative, is "gracieux" – graceful, gracious – an apparently safe quality; it would only be by pressing hard on the word "gracieux" that we might touch on any source of lively religious energy—"grace," pagan or Christian. As the faun's anatomy takes shape before our eyes, however, the creature grows less mild and gracious,  more disturbing and dangerous.  

The poet invites us to contemplate the faun from the head down, moving from the eyes to cheeks, fangs, chest, arms, belly, genitals, legs. We move to a visceral core of energy that releases movement (“Walk around”). But the movement begins in the head, with the surreal action of the eyes, which roll back and forth around  the forehead crowned with blossoms and laurel. If the classical faun and the classical paraphernalia of his crown represent an old ideal of beauty, the crazy movement of the eyes disturbs that ideal.  

The disturbance grows: the creature's wine-stained cheeks are hollow, his fangs gleam, and as he comes more and more to life, we see him as a kind of ancient Greek stringed instrument—a cithara—whose vibrations circulate in the blonde arms, uniting corporeal and musical erotic excitement. The mystery intensifies as we move down to feel the heartbeats, the life-energy pulse, in the stomach where the double sex sleeps. "Ventre," the word for stomach, is often used as a euphemism for womb, so the faun is felt as all the more intimately hermaphroditic. Heart, stomach/womb, double sex sleeping. “Sleep,” yet the poem awakens the pagan energy with the final imperative, "Promène-toi" (“Walk around”), rousing the creature and setting him into still more mysterious motion. How many legs does he have? In another affront to classical codes of beauty, the faun is commanded to move this thigh, this second thigh, and this left leg.  

To understand the scene, we should imagine Muybridge's photographs of animals in motion, or Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. Rimbaud is turning a static block of prose and a static neoclassical myth into a form of action. And this action – erotic, pagan, numinous – unites beauty and ugliness, grace and wine dregs, seduction and danger, as well as female and male. All these elements come together in the hermaphrodite faun: a new body of love, a new music, and a new hybrid form of writing. 

French poetry, unlike poetry in English, is numerical. Every syllable counts. So much so, that French poets for centuries have availed themselves of tricks to contract or elongate vowel clusters and dipthongs, like playing with soft taffy, to fit the strict requirements of a line. In the metrical technique that the French call "diérèse," a dipthong normally pronounced as one syllable can be drawn out into two. The opposite maneuver, "synérèse," allows a poet to mash two vowels into one syllable. In "Antique," Rimbaud pulls off the ultimate sleight of hand by writing in a poetically hermaphroditic form, both prose and verse. To test this hypothesis, just count syllables, and you’ll find yourself hovering indecisively over vowel clusters with "i," dipthongs, and the mute "e" normally unvoiced at the end of words. If you stretch a little, you’ll have classical French verse cadences of six, eight, and ten syllables. If you don't use the "diérèse," you’ll have odd-number units that feel like prose. The point is, the passage is both verse and prose. Its heart beats truly with a double sex. 

Rosanna Warren teaches English and comparative literature at Boston University, where she also oversees an annual literary translation seminar and reading series. Her most recent collections of poetry are Departure (2003) and Stained Glass (1993). This essay is adapted from her new book, Fables of the Self: Studies in Lyric Poetry.
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