Paul Verlaine: Arthur Rimbaud, Page 5|
by Harold Nicolson (1921).
The Bateau ivre is indeed an astounding production. That it should be the work of a boy of sixteen is wellnigh incredible. In the glare of its inspiration the glib architecture of the Parnassiens, the cadences of Verlaine's own poetry, assume but a paltry complexion. No wonder that the generation of to-day looks for stimulus to Rimbaud rather than to Verlaine or even Mallarmé—to Rimbaud who at nineteen was for ever to fling literature behind him. The Bateau ivre must be read as a whole: its value resides in its cumulative effect: it can only lose by partial quotation. It is in essence a hymn to force, a panegyric of independence. It is a picture of character triumphing over convention and the acquired moralities of human civilisation; it is a wild and bitter vision of superhuman existencies:
PAGE 5 OF 21.
"Et j'ai vu quelquefois ce que l'homme a cru voir."
The Parnassiens were from the first disinclined to accept Rimbaud at the estimate which Verlaine had placed upon him. The Bateau ivre appeared to them to be a truculent and sensational poem, entirely devoid of that scholarly impassivity which was their ideal. The versification of Rimbaud's poems, his syntax and his vocabulary filled them with dismay: the scarlet patches, which mottled his inspirations, irritated their complacency. Even his since famous sonnet on the colours of the different vowels (A, black; E, white; I, red; U, green; O, blue) struck them, as indeed it is, as being immensely ridiculous. Rimbaud's personality was, moreover, extremely distasteful even to the least exacting among Verlaine's intimates. The genial and forgiving Lepelletier sums him up as "an insufferable hooligan": for the others he quickly became anathema. Verlaine, persisted, however, in imposing his friend upon literary Paris. M. Mauté returned from the provinces and for a day or two Rimbaud was boarded out with Théodore de Banville. Verlaine, foreseeing that his sojourn was not likely to be more than temporary, found him a room in the rue Campagne Première, near the Observatoire, and forced his friends to subscribe to a fund which was to give Rimbaud three francs a day as pocket money. This meagre pittance he eked out by selling key rings on the boulevards, and a large proportion of his earnings was inevitably spent on drinking—generally at the Café Cluny in Verlaine's company. The indefatigable Verlaine dragged Rimbaud round Paris to see the literary celebrities, and they penetrated even into the august presence of Victor Hugo, who, with his unfailing enthusiasm, hailed Rimbaud as the "Child Shakespeare."
As has already been indicated, however, Rimbaud was anything but a success in Paris. Verlaine appears, indeed, to have been blind to the intense dislike engendered by his protégé. He allowed himself to be painted by Fantin Latour sitting next to Rimbaud in the famous picture "Coin de Table," which was exhibited in the Salon of 1872, and which, after a period of private ownership at Manchester, has recently been given a place of honour in the Louvre. Verlaine went further. The young Parnassiens had formed a dining club called "Les Vilains Bonhommes," which used to meet weekly above a wine-shop at the corner of the rue Bonaparte and the place Saint Sulpice. Verlaine insisted upon taking Rimbaud to these gatherings, and the tension created by this tactless procedure culminated in a scene which went far to estrange Verlaine from his more reputable contemporaries. One evening when Jean Aicard was reciting a recently composed poem, Rimbaud, to show his contempt for the modern movement, continued to talk throughout the recitation. He was told to keep quiet; he was told that if he did not stop at once he would have his ears pulled. He thereupon seized Verlaine's sword-stick and rushed at his chief interlocutor, who was slightly wounded in the hand. From that day Rimbaud was excluded from the club, and Verlaine, taking this exclusion as a personal insult, also ceased to put in an appearance.
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