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.

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).