Paul Verlaine: Arthur Rimbaud, Page 21|
by Harold Nicolson (1921).
From 1881 Rimbaud was established at Harrar, dealing in coffee, gums, incense, ostrich feathers and ivory: exploring a little: gun-running a little also: in touch with Melenik: in touch also with the French Geographical Society: disliked by the few Europeans with whom he came into contact: feared and respected by the natives. From time to time we find him back in Aden, at one moment living in complete domesticity with an Abyssinian woman—a nebulous figure, of whom we know only that she smoked cigarettes, dressed as a European and was very gentle. Already by 1884 he had made money: his first savings he had sent home and his mother had foolishly invested these in land: his later savings he kept with him. We find him in 1887 in Cairo, resting after a disastrous expedition to Choa, with dysentery and 40,000 francs in his waist-belt. But it is Harrar always that remains his headquarters, that red-walled city among the South Abyssinian uplands, where he lived in a one-storied European house beside the mosque. He was not happy. He despised the Abyssinian human almost as much as he had despised the human of Western Europe. He read scientific text-books: he studied the native languages—Amharic, Galla, Somali, Arabic, and all the dialects. He had schemes for getting other and more lucrative employment. At one moment we find him planning to go ivory-hunting to the Lakes; at another he is thinking of South America, of Panama. But in spite of all this he will not return to Europe. He was afraid he would get into trouble for having avoided his military service. He could not face the cold: he could not grapple with any sedentary or subservient function. "The only thing for me," he writes, "and the most pressing, is to be independent, no matter how or where so long as I am independent": and again, "You must not expect that my temperament will ever become less vagrant."
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Through all these years there is not a sign of interest, not even of curiosity, as regards his own past or his former intimates. For him literature was dead for ever: and he was unwilling to plant flowers upon its grave. When in Cairo in 1887, he had written to the Temps asking to be sent as their correspondent with the Italian forces in Abyssinia. The editor of the Temps was not able to accept the offer, but in his reply he added a postscript informing Rimbaud that he had become a literary hero in Paris, that a new form of literature was being based upon his vowel sonnet. But Rimbaud remained unmoved. Even when the incompetence of his own family forced him to write to Ernest Delahaye for some scientific apparatus, he was careful to discourage any renewal of their former intimacy. He began his letter, "Mon cher Delahaye," and he deliberately called him "Albert" instead of "Ernest" Delahaye upon the envelope. No insult was too petty for Rimbaud so long as it was of a nature to prove effective. Even his letters to his family are of the most frigid nature: the personal note is carefully excluded: they begin icily with "Mes chers amis," and they consist almost wholly of requests for text-books on metallurgy, hydraulics, mineralogy, artesian wells, topography ("not photography," he says despairingly in one letter), or of instructions as to how his savings are to be invested. As regards his own life, he gives them little beyond a thin stream of casual discontent. It is perhaps unfair to judge a man by his letters to his family, but Rimbaud's published correspondence is amazingly anodyne. Even his first arrival at the pink city of Harrar is chronicled as follows: "The country is situated at a high altitude, but is not infertile. The climate is cool and not unhealthy. European goods reach here on camel back. There is much to be done in this district.
In 1891, while still at Harrar, he began to suffer from a swollen knee-cap. The infection, which was probably tubercular and not syphilitic, spread rapidly. He became incapable of all movement, and was borne in a litter to the coast. At Aden the English doctor diagnosed acute synovitis and advised an immediate return to Europe. Rimbaud was carried in agony to the steamer: on arrival at Marseilles his leg was at once amputated. For months he remained in the hospital at Marseilles, trying pitiably to adapt himself to crutches, and eventually to an artificial limb. The crutches only caused him acute pain under the arms; the artificial leg inflamed the amputated stump. In despair he went back to his mother's farm near Charleville, hoping there to recover his moral, if not his physical, health. But gradually the pain spread to all his limbs. He could not sleep. He was in constant agony. By June his right arm began to stiffen: by August he decided to return to Marseilles. The horror of this, his last, journey has been pathetically described by his sister in the biography produced by Monsieur Paterne Berrichon. For a moment, when changing trains in Paris, he seems to have wished to die in the city which had seen his first bitter adventures. But the evening was gloomy with summer rain, and the South was calling him. On arrival at Marseilles he entered the Hospital of the Conception, and from the first the doctors realised that his case was hopeless. After three months' useless agony he died on November 10, 1891, at the age of thirty-seven. He was buried in Charleville.
The night before he died he had dictated a letter to the Agent of the Messageries Maritimes, asking to be carried on board the next boat leaving for Egypt.
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