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

As Rimbaud sought to reinvent love, he reinvented writing—and violently. In "Conte" (“Story”), a prince massacres all his concubines: "What a pillage in the garden of beauty!" And that in a sense is what the young poet has done, massacred the norms and forms of poetic beauty that he had already conquered. "Antique," too, both reconsiders love and reimagines poetic form: 

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)

See a close reading of "Antique"
by Rosanna Warren.

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

This prose poem is not free verse. "Antique" needed its block of prose as resistance to the embedded lines of verse. By contrast, his two poems "Marine" and "Mouvement," both studies in movement, are composed in lines, though not in lines following any definite syllable count. They were published in May and June 1886 —as the first free verse published in France—in La Vogue, the same journal and the same year in which Whitman found his way into French in the translations by Jules Laforgue. All on his own, and before anyone else, Rimbaud derived these two groundbreaking free-verse poems, "Marine" and  “Mouvement," out of his experiments with line, sentence, and paragraph in the prose poems of Illuminations, between 1872 and 1874. And did he gain very much by them?

Both poems depict movement in water and landscape. Both define the line as a subjective unit shaped by a noun phrase or clause. Both make heroic claims for vision: "tourbillons de lumière" (“whirlwinds of light”) in "Marine," and "l'héroisme de la découverte" (“the heroism of discovery”) in "Mouvement." Both have given up two sources of power: the pressure chamber of the Alexandrine line, and the containment of the prose poem with its abrupt contrasts of sentence and paragraph length. "Marine," the shorter of the two poems, which we will look at here, illustrates both the resources and the squandering of power that the young poet found in his new form:

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)

See a close reading of "Marine"
by Rosanna Warren.

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

Rimbaud's brilliance was to redefine ratios of boundary and expansion. As long as he retained some structure of limit, in verse or in the prose poem, he generated the internal resistance necessary for the build-up and release of poetic energy. "Marine" and "Mouvement," lacking an objective logic of containment, are at the mercy of their own vagaries, and are to my mind the weakest pieces in Illuminations, however promising they turned out to be for free-verse poets in the century to come. In a terrible way, they confirm the bitter justice of Rimbaud's statement in "Conte": "La musique savante manque à notre désir" (“Sophisticated music falls short of our desire”). The sophisticated music, the truly knowing music of Illuminations, the music carved out of silence, is all in the prose poems and their struggles with boundaries. Even for the avant-garde, it turns out that crusty old Boileau was right: He who knows no limits, never learned to write. 

(Holly Tannen's translations can be found at Translation reproduced with her permission).

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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