"Marine," by Arthur Rimbaud

A close reading, with audio
Les chars d'argent et de cuivre –
Les proues d'acier et d'argent –
Battent l'écume,--
Soulèvent les souches des ronces.
Les courants de la lande,
Et les ornières immenses du reflux,
Filent circulairement vers l'est,
Vers les piliers de la forêt,
Vers les fûts de la jetée,
Dont l'angle est heurté par des tourbillons de lumière.


Chariots of copper and silver
Prows of silver and steel –
Thresh the foam, –
Plough up the roots of the thornback. 

Currents of the heath
And boundless ruts of ebb tide,
Swirl in circles toward the east,
Toward the pillars of the forest, –
Toward the trunks of the pier,
Its edge struck by whirlwinds of light. 
(Translated by Holly Tannen)

Also see: Return to:

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

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

"Marine" mingles land and sea in a series of parallelisms and puns: the chariots are placed symmetrically with the prows, likening the ships' prows to plow blades cutting through soil. "Thresh" is an appropriately agricultural translation for "battent" (beat, linking maritime and earthly action). "Ronces," which means both bramble or blackberry and the flat fish known as the "ray" (preserved brilliantly in Tannen’s equivalent pun in English, “thornback,” a species of Atlantic ray), mixes fish and plant. Each succeeding line marries sea and land: the heath flows in currents, the tide has ruts like a muddy field, the jetty is seen as a forest with tree trunks. But what would turn a merely clever perception of analogy into the symbolic action we know as a poem? What are the spiritual and emotional consequences of the perception? 

Rimbaud is a poet unreconciled to life on earth. Years before he had seen the sea in real life, he had seen it in imagination as the space of freedom. "Marine's" expansive versification in the last line echoes its transcendent claim of vision and action: an obstacle overcome (the angle of the jetty struck) gives rise to an explosion of light. Duality (of sea and land) is reconciled, limitation is erased. The trouble is, this transcendence occurs only as a statement, not as realized poetic movement. Because the poem presents itself with no structural limitations –  no internal jetty, so to speak –  and because its clauses and noun phrases sit so inertly upon their lines like canned goods upon a kitchen shelf, it has no rhythmical or syntactic obstacle to overcome, and exists only at the level of a proposition. Its assertion of victory sounds all the more hollow against the weakness of its means. 

Presented by

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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