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Arthur Rimbaud is considered one of the most influential poets in the history of French letters. Although his writing career was brief and his output small, Rimbaud’s development of the prose poem and innovative use of the unconscious mind as a source of literary inspiration influenced the symbolist movement and anticipated the freedom of form characteristic of much contemporary poetry.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood with an Absent Father and Authoritarian Mother
Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud was born in Charleville in northeastern France on October 20, 1854, the second son of an army captain, Frederic Rimbaud, and Marie-Catherine-Vitalie Rimbaud. Rimbaud’s father was absent during most of his childhood. Rimbaud’s difficult relationship with his authoritarian mother is reflected in many of his early poems. His parents separated when he was six years old, and Rimbaud was thereafter raised by his mother in a strict religious environment. An overprotective woman, she accompanied her child to and from school, supervised his homework, and would not allow him to associate with other boys. While enrolled at the College de Charleville, Rimbaud excelled in all his subjects and was considered a brilliant student. His rhetoric professor, Georges Izambard, befriended the boy, and under his tutelage Rimbaud avidly read the Romantic and Parnassian poets and strove to emulate their work.
Run Away Attempts, Arrest, and Suspected Abuse
Between 1870 and 1871, Rimbaud ran away from home three times. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870, which ultimately ended the Second French Empire, led to the closing of his school, ending Rimbaud’s formal education. In August he went to Paris, but was arrested at the train station for traveling without a ticket and was briefly imprisoned. He spent several months wandering in France and Belgium before Izambard eventually rescued the youth and brought him home. Rimbaud’s growing disgust with provincial life drove him away again a few months later. Scholars believe that his experiences as a runaway may have included at least one brutal incident that strongly altered both his personality and the tone of his work. Some biographers suggest that Rimbaud may have been sexually abused by soldiers. After the incident, Rimbaud renounced his sentimental early verse and wrote poems in which he expressed disgust with life and a desire to escape from reality. In February 1871 he ran away again to join the insurgents in the Paris Commune, a sort of anarchist, proto-communist society that controlled Paris in the wake of France’s defeat. He returned home three weeks later, just before the commune was brutally suppressed by the army.
Fidelity to an Aesthetic Ideal and Unconscious Inspiration
In 1871 Rimbaud created an aesthetic doctrine, which he articulated in several letters—two to Izambard and another to a friend, Paul Demeny. The letter, now known as the ”lettre du voyant,” or ”letter of the seer,” lays out Rimbaud’s concept of poetry and of his own role as a poet. After tracing the history of the genre, Rimbaud concluded that only the ancient Greeks and the French poets Louis Racine and Charles Baudelaire had created verse of any value. Castigating such authors as Alfred de Musset and Victor Hugo for their rigid and archaic writing, Rimbaud declared that the poet must ”derange” his senses and delve into his unconscious in order to create a language accessible to all the senses. Rimbaud acknowledged that while this painful process involved much suffering and introspection, it was necessary to the development of vital and progressive poetry. Soon after writing the ”lettre du voyant,” Rimbaud returned again to Charleville. Feeling stifled and depressed, he sent several poems to the renowned poet Paul Verlaine, whose works Rimbaud admired. Verlaine responded with praise and an invitation to visit him in Paris. Before he left, Rimbaud composed The Drunken Boat (published posthumously in 1920), a visual and verbal evocation of a savage universe in which a drifting boat serves to symbolize Rimbaud’s fate as a poet. Although the versification in The Drunken Boat is traditional, Rimbaud’s daring images and complex metaphors anticipated the philosophical concerns of his later works and his fascination with alchemy.
Paul Verlaine, Drug Use, and Travel
In Paris, Rimbaud was warmly received by Verlaine’s family, but the young poet found them representative of the bourgeois values he disdained and quickly alienated them with his flagrantly antisocial behavior. However, Verlaine himself was strongly drawn to Rimbaud, and the two writers began a notorious and stormy homosexual relationship. They drank absinthe (a strong liquor reputed to cause hallucinations) heavily, claiming that the liquor was ”an enlightened nectar from God.” At first, Rimbaud was admired by the Parisian writers who gathered in the city’s cafes—Victor Hugo called him ”a young Shakespeare”— but the youthful poet left Paris when his consistently drunken and rude behavior made him increasingly unpopular. Verlaine, after unsuccessfully attempting reconciliation with his wife, pleaded for Rimbaud to return, declaring that he could not live without him. Rimbaud complied, and the two poets traveled through England and Belgium from 1872 to 1873.
Rimbaud believed that his dissipated lifestyle was a form of artistic stimulation, and his creativity flourished during this period. He studied Eastern religion and alchemy, denied himself sleep, and took hallucinogenic drugs. During this time he also wrote La chasse spirituelle, a work speculated to have later been destroyed by Verlaine’s wife. According to Verlaine, this work was Rimbaud’s intended masterpiece.
Violent Relationship Termination and Farewell to Poetry
As his literary output increased, Rimbaud began to find his relationship with Verlaine tiresome. After a series of quarrels and separations, Rimbaud, overwhelmed by Verlaine’s suffocating affection, demanded an end to the relationship. In desperation, Verlaine shot Rimbaud, wounding him in the wrist. Verlaine was imprisoned in Brussels for two years, and Rimbaud went to his family’s new home in Roche, a small village near Charleville. There he finished A Season in Hell, a volume composed of nine prose poems of various lengths. Although some commentators have characterized A Season in Hell as a chronicle of Rimbaud’s tumultuous relationship with Verlaine, others contend that the work conveys Rimbaud’s admission that his early theory of poetry was false and unattainable. Despite controversy concerning whether the book was written before or after Illuminations, A Season in Hell is often considered Rimbaud’s ”farewell to poetry.”
Chaotic Poetic Visions
In 1873, Rimbaud returned to Paris, where he completed Illuminations, a work thought to have been written over the course of two years. In this collection of prose poems, Rimbaud abandoned the rules of syntax, language, and rhythm, and sought to express the chaos of his poetic vision. While several critics have interpreted the childlike awe and wonder exhibited in these poems as an expression of Rimbaud’s Catholic faith, most contend that Rimbaud was attempting to recapture the innocent exuberance of youth.
Retirement, Cancer, and Death
Upon completing these poems, Rimbaud gave the manuscript to Verlaine and ceased to write. After ending his literary career, Rimbaud decided to become ”a real adventurer instead of a mystic vagabond” and traveled throughout Europe and Africa. He finally settled in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) where he was believed to have worked as a gunrunner and slave trader. In 1886, Verlaine, assuming his friend to be dead, published the manuscript Rimbaud had given him as ”Les illuminations by the late Arthur Rimbaud.” Though Rimbaud later learned of its popular reception and of the Rimbaud ”cult” that was developing in Paris, he expressed no interest in returning to his former life. Instead, in an abrupt change from his earlier beliefs and practice, Rimbaud spoke enthusiastically of marrying and having a son. These dreams went unrealized, however, for he developed cancer in his right knee and was forced to return to France for medical treatment. Rimbaud’s leg was amputated, but the cancer continued to spread and he died soon afterward in 1891.
Works in Literary Context
Rimbaud’s pursuit of a new poetic language is the defining and enduring aspect of his artistic career. After initially seeking to imitate the Romantic and Parnassian poets he read during his early education, only the work of Louis Racine and Charles Baudelaire earned his respect. His essential thematic preoccupations—the journey of discovery, the world of the child, the phenomenon of revolt—are developed in conjunction with his ambition to redefine the poetic word, to liberate it from the shackles of debilitating forms and rules, and to arrive at a much more supple and flexible medium of expression, free from convention and characterized by a vitality and an exciting ”otherness” that permit endless innovation and surprise.
Revolution of Form
The ”alchemist of the word,” as he liked to style himself in youth, was committed to experiments of all sorts. One can scarcely explain what a full bag of tricks he seemed to have and with what eagerness he played them. He was one of the first to employ distortions and dissociations systematically. He used verbs, instead of adjectives, to lend violence to his page; he used adjectives chiefly to summon up precise colors. He sought a great variety of meters, ranging from that of the quick, nervous lyric to that of pompous oration; he also broke from regular meter to experiment with free verse. He would use the tones of direct vulgar speech or technical and scientific language, depending upon his purpose. And significantly he would use repetition or ”recapitulation,” of phrases or images, in the way of a sonata or a symphony, scorning the sequence of common-sense, informative literature, as no one had dared before him. ”His form was musical,” poet Paul Claudel observes.
Fairy Tales and Riddles
A prominent source of inspiration in all of Rimbaud’s poetry is the fairy tale, which is clearly linked with his preoccupation with the child and the child’s imagination. In Illuminations ”Tale,” ”Dawn,” and ”Royalty” are obviously based on the structure of the fairy tale. Each poem has a distinctly narrative development, and “Tale” and “Royalty” include regal characters (prince, king, and queen) involved in the pursuit of happiness on a personal or public level. Rimbaud, however, tends to subvert the traditional fairy-tale happy ending by setting up an apparently happy outcome and then destabilizing it.
Other poems that might be loosely grouped under a common heading are those that seem to constitute riddles, puzzles, and enigmas. In these poems Rimbaud poses problems for his readers and often uses the finale of the text to tantalize, disconcert, or confuse them. A master of beginnings and endings, he frequently deploys an isolated final line to set a problem or issue a challenge; these final lines are a most original feature of Illuminations. Other sequences in the collection enhance a sense of mystery and the unknown. For example, in ”Childhood III,” ”Childhood IV,” ”Vigils I,” ”Sale,” and ”Fairy,” a grouping of linguistic units bound together by the same linguistic formula perplexes the reader as to just what is being described.
Rimbaud continues to be one of the most widely studied poets in world literature. Although he himself abandoned poetry after a literary career of less than five years, Rimbaud s influence on Verlaine and the subsequent symbolist movement is considered to be lasting and profound.
Works in Critical Context
It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of Arthur Rimbaud s poetry on subsequent practitioners of the genre. His impact on the surrealist movement has been widely acknowledged, and a host of poets, from Andre Breton to Andre Freynaud, have recognized their indebtedness to Rimbaud s vision and technique.
For many critics, Illuminations is Rimbaud s most important and technically sophisticated work. Literary critic Enid Starkie asserts:
[We] find in Illuminations all the things which had filled [Rimbaud’s] imaginative life as a child—all the characters and stage properties of the fairy-tales and novels of adventure which had been his chief reading. These now mingled with his recent study of alchemy and magic, the subject matter of which . . . was of the same legendary and mythical nature.
These and many other ingredients have created a sense of bewilderment in some readers of the poems; the critic Atle Kittang has even referred to the ”illisibilite” (unreadability) of the collection. Critic C. A. Hackett, however, writes of Rimbaud’s work, ”We experience an intense exhilaration as we move through Rimbaud s imaginary world where objects and people are seen as poetic essences, and the elements themselves—earth, air, fire, water—appear to be transformed and made new.”
”Rimbaud, (Jean) (Nicolas) Arthur (1854-1891).” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
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