Soundings October 2008

Arthur Rimbaud: Insulting Beauty

"As Rimbaud sought to reinvent love, he reinvented writing—and violently." A look at how an iconoclastic young writer revolutionized the poetic form. With readings by Rosanna Warren

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," John Keats had his Grecian Urn proclaim in 1819. Two generations later, across the English Channel, the young Arthur Rimbaud was readjusting truth to beauty within (and beyond) the conventions of French poetry. In doing so, he radically reinvented the idea of love, even as he pioneered two major experimental forms of poetry, the prose poem and free verse (vers libre).  

Arthur Rimbaud

By the time he was nineteen, this astonishing adolescent had mastered and then assaulted the classical beauty of the Alexandrine line—the central building block of French verse—and he had broken through into realms of erotic and psychic experience for which his culture scarcely had a language. So he invented one. 

We should start with the line itself. Dominant in serious French poetry since the seventeenth century, the Alexandrine had the force of an institution, and had outlived governments and political revolutions. With its twelve syllables symmetrically balanced at the central pause, the line embodied a metaphysical unity and a centralizing power. It had resonated from Racine through Victor Hugo and Baudelaire and on into the boyhood verse of Rimbaud. 

In the hands of this ill-mannered prodigy from Charleville, a small town in northeastern France, the Alexandrine concentrated an infinity of desire into its abacus of twelve syllables. “He who knows no limits, never learned to write,” had propounded Boileau, the acknowledged legislator of French poetry, in his 1674 didactic poem, "Art Poétique." Rimbaud made of limitation not only a prosodic art, but also a theme and a form of precocious wisdom. The delirious vowels and enjambments of his 100-line poem “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”), which he composed in 1871 when he was just seventeen, create an oceanic dream of erotic and spiritual expansion transport, but the poem comes to rest in a dirty puddle, in which a crouching child launches his paper boat. Expansion, in Rimbaud's early poems, is always tested against contraction: ocean against puddle. 

"Le Bateau ivre" must be the most famous adolescent wet dream in Western literature. The poem’s Alexandrines launch into ecstasy with the intercourse of vowels and dipthongs, yet his quatrains use measured symmetry as a form of narcotic seduction. As the poem’s final stanza attests, that seductive lull depends on the presence of clearly marked and regular sonic boundaries: 

Si je désire une eau d'Europe, c'est la flache
Noire et froide où vers le crépuscule embaumé
Un enfant accroupi plein de tristesse, lâche
Un bateau frêle comme un papillon de mai. 

(If I desire a European water, it's/ the Black, cold puddle where, in scented twilight,/ A crouching child full of sadness lets loose/ A boat as fragile as butterfly in May). 

This stanza tells about limitation, but the single four-line sentence swells beyond the boundary of each line or half-line, belying that theme. We hear the twelve precise syllables in each line; but we also hear how the verb "lâche" (“lets loose”) launches itself across the line end, as the child releases the boat. This is a perfectly incarnate poetics; and it embodies the beauty Rimbaud would proceed to insult in his next two landmark works, Une Saison en enfer (A Season in Hell) and Illuminations

How, exactly, does he “insult” beauty? “One evening,” Rimbaud wrote in his preface to A Season in Hell, “I sat beauty on my knees. And I found her bitter. And I insulted her.” As foreshadowed by this metaphoric scene, A Season in Hell ends with a rejection of old forms of beauty and of the old, deceptive forms of love. Indeed, it seeks to exchange truth for beauty as its goal: "And I will have the right to possess the truth in a soul and body” (italics are Rimbaud's). In rejecting the love of women, the work follows an arc from the insult to Beauty to the embrace of Truth.  

Radical new perceptions demand radical new forms. A Season in Hell was composed in lyrical prose chapters with inset verses. Illuminations is quite another matter. In this protean work, we can see two newly amphibious creatures crawling up the beach of modernity: the prose poem and vers libre.  Prose poems were not new in 1872 when Rimbaud began Illuminations. The form was invented in 1842 by Aloysius Bertrand with the flashing vignettes of Gaspard de la nuit. Baudelaire had explored prose poems as expansions of his verse lyrics in the early 1860s, and Mallarmé took up the experiment as early as 1864. But in Illuminations, Rimbaud leaves exposition, allegory, and description behind, and invents new kinds of prose poems, consisting of compressed, dreamlike sequences of images and explosive declarations. They have little in common with the works of Baudelaire or Mallarmé. 

Look at the pages of Illuminations: not one resembles another. From page to page, Rimbaud shifts shapes: some of the poems are built in paragraphs so short they almost constitute versets; some in traditional indented paragraphs; some in one-line paragraphs that almost assume the status of verse lines; some, like "Antique," in a chunk of prose as solid as a block of masonry. In yet another modulation, in two pieces from Illuminations the lines shake themselves loose of prose and parade as an entirely new kind of non-metrical verse: vers libre.

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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