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Arthur Rimbaud
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A Century of French Verse: Rimbaud
by William John Robertson (1895).

The indiscriminating eulogy of a few indiscreet admirers need not blind anyone to the real merits of this remarkable poet. Arthur Rimbaud was of respectable parentage and received a good middle-class education. He developed a precocious faculty for making verse, along with a certain bizarre fashion of looking at men and morals. Thrown too early into the whirlpool of Parisian excitement he led a dissipated life in the company of Paul Verlaine, and in his visits to Belgium, England and Germany gave the rein to his wandering disposition. When he was in Brussels with Paul Verlaine in 1873 a drunken quarrel between the two vagabond poets had a well-nigh tragical climax. There was a pistol-shot and a wild pursuit through the streets, followed by the arrest of Paul Verlaine, who was sent to prison for two years. There is a characteristic and incoherent record of this episode in the elder poet's personal reminiscences.

Rimbaud's Saison en Enfer appeared at Brussels in 1873 and attracted scant attention. Les Illuminations, another volume of obscure prose interlarded with capricious verse (with a brief preface by Paul Verlaine) was published in 1886. These pieces were composed between 1873 and 1875. They may be read as a psychical autobiography burdened with the regret of a wasted youth. Other poems by Rimbaud, giving glimpses of real genius and singularly original in their eccentricity, have been published here and there, e.g. in the Poètes maudits of Paul Verlaine. They shew a fine sense of melody, which is sometimes squandered on fantastic and grotesque themes. Now and then the verse is moulded by a master-hand.

Arthur Rimbaud seems to have continued his aimless career, but the history of his peregrinations is somewhat obscure. After visiting Russia, he travelled towards Asia Minor to assist in some official excavations or explorations. It was rumoured that he had taken refuge in one of the monasteries of Lebanon and his death was prematurely announced from time to time. On his return to France he died in the public hospital of Marseilles, where he had submitted to a surgical operation for tumour on the knee.

It is doubtful if Arthur Rimbaud could have conquered an important place in French literature, although with severe labour and discipline he might have produced some durable work. He had a vast command of uncommon imagery and a strange power of associating alien ideas. His phrases are often extremely felicitous, but he loves to spoil the harmony of his picture by the deliberate violence of a monstrous climax. He blends flashes of spiritual imagination with the crudest strokes of realism. Sometimes he reminds the reader of Robert Browning or Walt Whitman; again he paints with the fidelity of a Flemish master. His genius bordered on madness, and so far as can be judged from his fugitive fragments he represents a sort of anarchism in the poetic art.

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