The Drunken Boat

views updated

The Drunken Boat




Arthur Rimbaud's “The Drunken Boat” was written in 1871 but was not published until 1884, when it appeared in an anthology of poetry called Les Poètes maudits. What makes this poem difficult is its lack of a narrated plot. It is instead a narrative of a state of being. As such, it requires symbols to express internal psychic events and experiences. Rimbaud writes as if he were dreaming.

Symbolic poetry representing a symbolic voyage, the kind of poetry represented by “The Drunken Boat,” was not invented by Rimbaud. His older contemporary, Charles Baudelaire, in many ways served as a precursor for Rimbaud. Particularly noteworthy are Baudelaire's two later voyage poems, “A Voyage to Cythera” and “The Voyage,” published in 1857, in Les Fleurs du Mal (translated as The Flowers of Evil). Baudelaire's influence is also felt in the very Symbolist technique that informs the type of imagery in “The Drunken Boat.” Given these strong influences, Rimbaud's poem is also considered one of the finest examples of symbolist poetry.

One of the best English translations of the poem, Wallace Fowlie's version of “The Drunken Boat” appears in Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, A Bilingual Edition, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2005.


Arthur Rimbaud was born Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud in the French village of Charleville on October 20, 1854. He was one of the four surviving children born to Frédéric Rimbaud, soldier, adventurer, and man of letters, who deserted his family when Rimbaud was six, and to a strict, religious, unaffectionate mother, Marie-Cathérine-Vitalie Cuif. In October of 1861, Rimbaud and his elder brother were sent to school at the Institut Rossat. Rimbaud excelled, winning prizes in subjects ranging from Latin and French to History, Geography, and Arithmetic. Because the Institut Rossat was too liberal for her strict beliefs, Madame Rimbaud transferred the boys to the municipal school, the Collège de Charleville in April of 1865. Rimbaud distinguished himself there, too, especially for his essays. At fifteen years of age, Rimbaud was writing accomplished verse in Latin as well as French and was allowed to read whatever books he wished. Many of his school assignments in Latin verse were published in a journal devoted to the work of school children. His first published poem in French appeared in La Revue pour Tous, a journal for mature poets, in 1870, while he was still in school.

That year, too, Rimbaud met Georges Izambard, a teacher at the College who devoted himself to mentoring the fifteen-year-old poet. Although he was writing in the elevated Parnassian style of the time, Rimbaud had begun to subvert that style, creating the poetry of sensory derangement that became his hallmark. Rimbaud was vocal in his opposition to Napoleon III's invasion of Germany in 1870. He sold some of his books, and without the knowledge of his mother, ran away to Paris at the end of August. There he was arrested as a vagabond when he disembarked at the Gare du Nord and held in the Paris municipal jail, where he was probably raped, and was then transferred to prison. A letter to Izambard asking for his help secured money for Rimbaud's release and a trip to Izambard's home in Douai. While staying with Izambard, Rimbaud read and wrote until, as his mother demanded, Izambard returned Rimbaud to Charleville and his mother's strict discipline.

Early in 1871, after the Prussian defeat of the French toppled Napoleon III's government, and the Third Republic was formed, Rimbaud returned to Paris. He introduced himself to a

host of literary men who remained cold to him, wandered around Paris, composed poetry, and after two weeks, returned to Charleville. He returned to Paris later that year during the days of the Paris Commune and, bearing an invitation from Paul Verlaine—a well-known poet more than twenty tears his senior, to whom he had sent some of his work—introduced himself and began living with Verlaine and his wife. Verlaine and Rimbaud became lovers, and Verlaine left his wife and young son in pursuit of the affair. Rimbaud and Verlaine traveled, drank absinthe and smoked hashish, while living in England in the fall of 1872. In the summer of 1873, the two quarreled with such fury that Verlaine, in a jealous rage, shot Rimbaud, who, in fright, turned Verlaine in to the police. Even though Rimbaud dropped the charges, Verlaine was incarcerated for two years.

Rimbaud stopped writing poetry in 1873; from then on, he traveled in Europe, joined the Dutch army, deserted in Java, lived in his mother's house in Charleville, worked on her farm, read, and studied languages. In 1879, after recovering at his mother's from the typhoid fever he caught in Cypress, he returned to Cypress and then, from 1880 until his death, he lived and traveled through Africa, working for several French colonial enterprises and seeking his fortune as a gun runner and slave trader in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Rimbaud had no contact with anyone in Europe, but he did write letters to his mother, which are extant; he also wrote an account of some of his travels in Africa, which was published by a geographical society. Rimbaud died of syphilis in a hospital in Marseilles, on November 10, 1891. “The Drunken Boat” was first published, along with other poems, in an 1884 collection, Les Poètes maudits, edited by Paul Verlaine. Its appearance solidified Rimbaud's reputation as a poet.

Rimbaud's reputation as a decadent and revolutionary artist has survived through to the present, influencing poets like Allen Ginsberg and musicians like Bob Dylan and Patti Smith. In Total Eclipse, the 1995 film about Rimbaud's life, Leonardo Di Caprio played Rimbaud. The same sort of sensory distortion and imagistic intensity displayed in “The Drunken Boat” can be found in Rimbaud's two other major works, Une Saison en Enfer (1873; translated as A Season in Hell) and Illuminations (1874).


  • The Allen Browne Quintet, an Australian Jazz Band, issued a recording of poetry and jazz featuring Rimbaud's poem in 2007. They have divided “The Drunken Boat” into five suites, each comprising five of the poem's twenty-five stanzas. The album is available through Jazzhead Records.


This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.


Stanza 1

“The Drunken Boat” begins in the middle of an action on a note of savage and liberating violence. The forces that guide his boat have vanished, as the mariner/poet is rushing “down impassive Rivers.” These rivers are metaphorical rivers. The poet's boat is a metaphorical boat, a symbol used to represent the poet himself. The poet has relocated the wild rivers of the world within himself. They are used to express symbolically his sensation of being alive and to represent the conflicts that are generated within him by his experience of the surging of that force of life. As he is rushing down impassive rivers, rivers which assert themselves no matter what resistance is attempted against them, the narrator feels the boat is being drawn by the river. It is unguided by haulers, the navigators who guide its course. “Yelping redskins had taken them as targets / And had nailed them to colored stakes.” Savage and gaudy force has overcome strictness, direction, decorum, and control. The poet has been freed from the constraints imposed by social order. In terms that had yet to be introduced, the superego, symbolized by the haulers, has been conquered by the id, symbolized by the “redskins.”

Stanza 2

Like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge's poem, the narrator is telling of a strange water journey, and like that other mariner's, it is a symbolic one. He imagines himself as a merchant of wheat from Flanders or of cotton from England, a businessman who abandons the discipline of business. As the rivers are impassive, the narrator is indifferent to the loss of the haulers. In fact, once they are defeated by the upsurge of savagery, of lawlessness, once resistance yields and stops struggling against the primal forces which are frightening in their tempestuousness, the “uproar stopped / The rivers let me go where I wanted.” The deliberate guidance overcome, there is a guidance of spontaneity that takes its place. The tempest is allayed because individual and wish are in accord.

Stanza 3

With passion unleashed and restraint abandoned the narrator, the person represented by the boat, runs with an intoxicated joy “Into the furious lashings of the tide.” To show the magnitude of the sensation this liberty gives him, the poet conceives himself as a geographical entity whose feelings are commensurate with the feelings of “loosened Peninsulas”

Stanza 4

The narrator continues to celebrate the triumph of his liberation from constraint. “The storm blessed my sea vigils,” he says. He was euphoric: “Lighter than a cork, I danced on the waves.” Later in 1933, William Butler Yeats will give this phenomenon definition with his question “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” in his poem “Among School Children.” In Rimbaud's poem, dancer and dance have become identical. The poet/sailor, the boat, and the ocean have become one substance. Alive inside the tempest because of his submission to it, the sailor/poet dances on the dancing waves whose rolling and raging tidal dance has been a deluging death to other mariners. He has moved with the waves for “ten nights,” and has never wanted a lighthouse.

Stanza 5

“Sweeter than the flesh of hard apples is to children” shifts readers visually away from the savage freedom of the tossing sea to a scene of children in an orchard relishing the sweet skins of sour apples. It is a momentary flash of an image from childhood, when all the world is a mixture of the self within experiencing the world without. That is happening again in the river. The poet's growth is accomplished by a kind of reversion. The world and inner experience have grown more complex than they had been when they involved only chewing an apple. But the liberating principle of yielding to experience is the same.

The image of the child chewing the sweet skin of a sour apple does not exist only by itself. It does double work. It suggests a scene from the sailor/poet's past and it serves as the first term of an epic simile. He is comparing the present experience to that past one: “Sweeter than the flesh of hard apples is to children,” was “The green water” that “penetrated my hull of fir / And washed me of spots of blue wine / And vomit, scattering rudder and grappling-hook.” Rather than drowning the sailor/poet, the water that destroyed his boat cleansed him. It “washed me of spots of blue wine / And vomit.”

Stanza 6

That water initiated him, too. “From then on I bathed in the Poem / Of the Sea,” he says. The turbulence, which destroys the moorings that social convention constructs around us, is itself the actual Poem that the poet must enter in order to make poetry. The Sea is “infused with stars and lactescent.” The waves are lactescent. They are milk in its condition of becoming milk. Thus, they are incipient nourishment for the Poet. But the image is firmly grounded in the nature of the sea. The foam that crests breaking waves is milky in color. It is the sea's milk. In the sea, too, he finds the food for his verses, which he describes as blue. As such, they are “Silences crossed by Angels and Worlds.” The line is Rimbaud's description of blue in his poem, “Vowels.” Rimbaud attributed visual characteristics to each vowel and gave blue to “O.” He then begins to experience a symbolistic scenario: a corpse pale and ravished by drowning, pensive and sinking into the depths. What follows is the descent under the sea with the drowned body.

Stanza 7

Its presence dyes the blue water red—Rimbaud's color for “I” and signifying “blood coughed up, laughter of lovely lips / In anger or ecstatic penitence,” as Rimbaud wrote in his poem “Vowels.” It is a fermenting, bubbling, bitter redness, the visual representation of the ghastly effects of love upon the spirit.

Stanza 8

Just as the intensity of the poet's vision violates the boundaries of the natural world, so stanzas 8 through 12, although divided into the quatrains that define the poem's structure, violate the formal structure of the poem by their intense, interwoven, and unrelenting focus on the interconnected aspects of the poet/mariner's experience. They form one integrated unit in which apparent boundaries are not boundaries. Stanza 8 introduces the “I” that introduces each of theses stanzas and weaves through them. Having been granted a poet's drink, drawing from the red fermentation of the last image, Rimbaud here becomes an “I” and asserts the “I” of the poet in a frenzy of perception and experience. “I know the skies bursting with lightening,” he writes, and continues to represent a violent upsurge of external nature that corresponds to his inner liberation. But he knows not only the rage of “waterspouts” but also the calmness of evening or the “dawn as exalted as a flock of doves.” The range and intensity of his experience allows him to say “I have seen what man thought he saw!”

Stanza 9

I have seen the low sun spotted with mystic horrors,” the explorer/poet continues, “Lighting up, with long violet clots, / Resembling actors of very ancient dramas, / The waves rolling far off their quivering shutters!” Inside the phenomena of nature, transformed now into a poetic vision, he sees the form of an ancient drama as the violet light of the sun illuminates the rolling waves in a mystic conjunction of fire and water. In his psyche, the poet unites opposites.

Stanza 10

“I have dreamed of the green night with dazzled snows,” he writes. With this image the poet/explorer is symbolizing the vibrancy and peace that can exist in nature as nature goes through its cycles. For Rimbaud, green is the color for the vowel “U” and, as he wrote in his poem “Vowels,” green signifies “divine vibrations and virescent seas, / Peace of the pastures sown with animals.” (Virescent means becoming green.) He has dreamed of “dazzled snows / A kiss slowly rising to the eyes of the sea, / The circulation of unknown saps / And the yellow and blue awakening of singing phosphorous!” He has experienced the sea eroticized as a kiss and glowing with an energy that can energize him. He has felt the colors contained in the sea and expressed by it. He has known the movement of the sea as life's energy and as a source of poetry.

Stanza 11

“I followed during pregnant months the swell, / … in its assault on the reefs.” The poet is symbolically representing the gestation of a poem. The poem as it comes into being is like an assault, a natural force in a struggle against the restraints religion places on nature as symbolized by the “luminous feet” of the biblical “Marys” that are suggested by the “reefs.”

Stanza 12

The poet continues his catalogue of conquests. “I struck against, you know, unbelievable Floridas.” He has become a poet/hero, a poet who goes through the unknown realms for his education and brings back what has not yet been known. His experience, he proclaims, has been authentic. He has known exaltation in his experience of stormy skies, of evenings and of bright mornings. He has observed the violent and gorgeous surfaces of nature and he has seen the terrors beneath the surfaces. He has undergone a process of breaking boundaries and intermingling aspects of nature that nature keeps separate, of striking “against … unbelievable Floridas / Mingling with flowers panthers' eyes and human / skin!” The image is of Bacchic, or drunken, abandon. The only constraint is imposed by the shaping power of the imagination upon nature's intensity: “Rainbows stretched like bridle reins / Under the horizon of the seas to greenish herds!” The rainbows of poetry harness the horsepower of the sea.

Stanza 13

As the narrator continues his account, the nature of what he has seen and experienced changes from the billowing and blooming force of creation to the rotting and decaying energy of decomposition and destruction. Fermenting swamps, a whale rotting in the rushes, avalanches, cataracts, and “the abyss” now are revealed to him. The surge has become the fall.

Stanza 14

The fourteenth stanza details the fall, shifting away from a collage of silver suns, mother of pearl waves, and embers glowing in the skies. Against this blanched ground, “Hideous strands at the end of brown gulfs” appear “Where giant serpents devoured by bedbugs / Fall down from gnarled trees with black scent!” The symbolism has moved from the pregnant to the putrid.

Stanza 15

The “I” that has been speaking of itself and its experience becomes reflective now. The past tense is replaced by a past conditional: “I should have liked to show children those sunfish / Of the blue wave, the fish of gold, the singing fish.” Although upheaval has been his own interior experience, he wishes he could have shown to children, whose contact with experience is still immediate, the world it revealed. The hero/poet ventures through forbidden, unknown regions and in his verse returns with verbal maps of his explorations—his poetry. And he offers two lines of such poetry: “—Foam of flowers rocked my drifting / And ineffable winds winged me at times.”

Stanza 16

In the next stanza the poet moves away from reverie back to the experience of his oceanic turmoil. He is “a martyr weary of poles and zones,” of traveling, of being uprooted. As if in consolation or because he has earned it by those wearying travels, he is preserved by the poetry he can draw from his voyage. “The sea … / Brought up to me her dark flowers,” and he was grateful: “And I remained, like a woman on her knees.”

Stanza 17

The poet/boat “sailed on,” “resembling an island” and going through the squawking of birds and their droppings, and the image intensifies to “Drowned men” who “sank backward to sleep” because he could not prevent them from slipping through his “fragile ropes.”

Stanza 18

The drowned are lost and so is he. The “I” of the poet and the boat are deliberately merged now, as they had implicitly been all along. But before, at the outbreak of his liberation, the poet was still being conveyed in a vessel. Now the boat, which has been identified as a symbolic representation of the poet himself is “lost in the foliage of caves, / Thrown by the storm into the birdless air.” The carcass of the poet/boat is “water-drunk” and the boat is beyond rescue.

Stanza 19

There follows, in three interconnected stanzas, a brief lament, a memorial testimony of its conquests that the lost boat delivers for itself. It “pierced the reddening sky like a wall,” breaking through the violence of the real world and penetrating into the visionary realm of poetry, and he brought back “delicious jam for good poets,” the nurturing sweetness of real poetry.

Stanza 20

He continues recounting his accomplishments and the madness of his poetic experience, figured as a symbolic journey. He “ran, spotted with small electric moons, / A wild plank, escorted by black seahorses, / When Julys beat down with blows of cudgels / The ultramarine skies with burning funnels.” The symbolic imagery has become delirious, as if the product of sick intoxication resulting from a beating by the cudgels of hot July.

Stanza 21

The poet/boat concludes the memorial lament with a confession: “I, who trembled, hearing at fifty leagues off / the moaning of Behemoths [sea monsters] in heat and the thick Maelstroms, / Eternal spinner of the blue immobility [the silence of death] / I miss Europe with its ancient parapets!” The poet who has seen what others have only imagined, and crossed into the turbulence of nature and psyche when guiding limits have been demolished, after everything, confesses he misses the order that antiquity has given to Europe.

Stanza 22

There is one last boasting lament. The poet proclaims his power as a seer. He has “seen sidereal archipelagos,” islands of stars in the sea of the sky, in an image that symbolically merges the terrestrial and the celestial as one dazzling world. And then comes a question, not about himself or the value of his experience to himself but about its power beyond him: “—Is it in these bottomless nights that you sleep and exile yourself, / Million golden birds, o future Vigor?—” Does the strength of the future, symbolized by the “million golden birds” derive from the kind of psychic experience, the “bottomless nights” in which sleep is a form of visionary exile from the present world?

Stanza 23

But he does not really consider the question and refocuses on the anguish that has launched his defiant voyage: “But, in truth I have wept too much! Dawns are heartbreaking / Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter.” Waking consciousness brings cruelty and bitterness to him. The reason? “Acrid love has swollen me with intoxicating torpor.” A disturbance in loving has become a disease in him and poisoned him into his visions. His torment is such that entering all the way into it seems to be the only way out of it. “O let my keel burst! O let me go into the sea!” It seems he is courting oblivion, death by drowning, but it is just as likely that he is wishing not death but metamorphosis into a poet and his poem. As such, he is dependent upon the internal power of his poet's imagination and he is free of the world, whether constrained or turbulent.

Stanza 24

“O let me go into the sea!” the culminating desire of the last stanza, gives way to “If I want a water of Europe, it is the black / Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight / A squatting child full of sadness releases / A boat as fragile as a May butterfly” The awful voyage of the drunken boat takes him round to its starting point, the sad child daydreaming inside his sadness as he pushes his toy boat, delicate in itself, and in its journey through the puddle made more delicate by the fragility of the child's psyche. The Poet's journey has dispelled a hunger for liberating grandeur and returned him to the child's world of all encompassing and calmly satisfying imagination.

Stanza 25

This tender reprise precedes the poet's return to his present and his sense of wanting to be away from everything he has been writing about. Bathing in the waves, he has still been following in the wake of the cotton boats, and he does not want to. He is still in the realm of controlled commerce, where he does not wish to be. He refuses to participate in the business of the civilized world, to “cross through the pride of flags and flames,” to navigate his way through nationalism and war. And, he concludes with a refusal to “swim under the terrible eyes of prison ships.” He makes a concluding declaration of defiance, seeing the Europe that he missed, nevertheless, as a center of constraints and, symbolically, even a drunken boat is monitored by prison ships. Any act of liberty is endangered because of the constraint inherent in the European culture.


  • Write a ballad describing some strange and unnerving experience that you have had.
  • In an essay, compare and contrast “The Drunken Boat” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's “The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798). The latter is a confessional poem charting a life-changing sea voyage.
  • Choose one of the scenes described in “The Drunken Boat” and select five images depicting that scene. In an accompanying paper, discuss the artists who created the images you've selected, and note why these particular works apply to the poem.
  • Rimbaud, especially in his relationship with Verlaine, lived a life of debauchery, not only because of their promiscuous and volatile sexual relationship, but because of their intoxication, especially through the use of absinthe. In his poetics, Rimbaud asserted the need to break through the ordered and the rational to a deranged realm that fostered creativity. Choose a particular painter, composer, poet, or performer known to have regularly used drugs or alcohol. How does the artist's use of drugs and alcohol enhance or weaken your understanding of the artist's work overall? Present your findings to the class.
  • Rimbaud in his poetry and in his life sought to subvert established patterns of behavior and modes of thought. In your opinion, what contemporary patterns of culture, morality, or thought ought to be reconsidered and replaced? Write an essay defending your position.



“The Drunken Boat” begins with the triumph of savagery over the technology of civilization. “Redskins” slaughter the navigators guiding the boat, and the boat enters the state of savagery, drunk on its own liberation from constraint. The poet and boat then, throughout the poem, traverse the savage realms of unrestraint, of explosive and destructive nature, experiencing the force of savagery that the rules of European middle-class order exist to subdue.

The Tension Created by the Struggle between Constraint and Liberation

Implicit throughout “The Drunken Boat” is a tension between the constraints of authority, of the forces guiding behavior, thought, and perception and the experience of freedom, which is represented by the poet's escapes from those constraints. Freedom is felt as a kind of intoxication as the poem begins and the poet experiences his first moments of liberation. He compares himself to a cork dancing on the waves. He senses himself inundated and cleansed by the sea water he feels rushing over him. He experiences delirium and an immediate contact with the source of poetry and inspiration. Phenomena burst upon him, like lightening in its flashes and waterspouts in their jetting. But shortly after enjoying the headiness of liberation and the consciousness of psychic expansion, he begins to experience contraction. The boat becomes “lost in the foliage of caves.” He perceives himself as a “water-drunk carcass.” He confesses, after the elation of his riot has subsided, that he “miss[es] Europe,” which symbolizes the restraint and the order civilization imposes on the individual. The once drunken poet is now like a man with a hangover who feels the dawn as “heartbreaking.” Yet the poem ends not with his recantation of freedom but a rededication to escape from constraint: “No longer can I … swim under the terrible eyes of prison ships.”

Disintegration of the Self

Constructed of symbols used to represent internal psychic experience, “The Drunken Boat” takes the imagery of a sailor besieged by a tempest, who enters into the tempestuous experience rather than resisting the disintegration of ego. The poet/sailor abandons his socially constructed self and willingly allows himself to be drawn into the dark mysteries of a world full of wild, unbridled energetic experience that decomposes him, that sets him into a psychic freefall. The self is replaced by the fantastic visions the poet reports he has undergone on his voyage after he emerges from his orgy of intoxicated disintegration.

The Poet as a Visionary Hero/Adventurer

Poets are sometimes called seers. More than simply a writer, a poet is potentially an artist with visionary power. He may see into the depths that are hidden to most people. He is even sometimes believed to be endowed with the power to perceive and to shape the future. The persona Rimbaud assumes in “The Drunken Boat” is such hero poet/seer. Through his power as a poet, he is able to discover and to reveal in his poetry what until then had been unseen. “I have seen what man thought he saw,” Rimbaud writes. The poet can enter unknown worlds, or worlds that were perceived, perhaps, only by madmen. But madmen are not poets. They can enter into the realms of chaos, but lack the resources and the power to return and to bring something back from the terrible realms beyond the boundaries of the civilized world and the well-ordered mind. The poet, because of his initiation into the art of poetry, can encounter and travel through the hidden realms and return, bringing back with him, in his poetry, what he has known there. That ability to return with a coherent vision of what he saw distinguishes him from a madman and confers on him the name of hero. A hero, in myth after myth, is the person who can go down to Hell and return with news from the forbidden realms. Dante, the poet of The Divine Comedy is such a poet hero. He travels through the realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise and returns to tell the tale of what he has seen.

The narrator of “The Drunken Boat” is hurled into an abyss, propelled into an adventure in strange forbidden realms comparable to Paradise and Hell, on a symbolic sea of overwhelming experiences. His grip on ordered reality is loosened. His past attachments to the formal order and the regulating conventions of bourgeois European culture are lost. His vision takes him through the realm of Paradise before Hell. Paradise is the experience of his power as a poet. He “bathe[s] in the Poem / Of the Sea,” and is nourished by the Sea, which is a zone of energy and a repository of images and symbols which the poet mines for his poetry. But the elation of his unfettered power is like drunkenness. Paradise transforms into Hell midway through the poem, reversing Dante's path from Hell to Paradise. Dante's vision is organized by the guidance of the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Rimbaud's is not. It is completely unhinged from anything but the poet's power of poetry, the power to return with the fragments of his experience and reveal them in symbolic, metric, rhyming language. Rimbaud returns with a vision of the true turmoil that underlies human life and with a vision of the insufferability of the systems which attempt to control chaos, the “prison ships.” He also brings back a wish that there are “in these bottomless nights … / [a] Million golden birds … future Vigor.”



Symbolism is a poetic technique that allows a poet to write about intangible experience in concrete terms, replacing psychic events with symbols representing them. The first stanza of “The Drunken Boat” offers a good example. The poet was not really traveling in a boat. He symbolically describes his experience of being as “going down impassive rivers.” The experience of the social control a person exercises to regulate his behavior is symbolized by “haulers” and the liberation from that constraint when repressed material breaks out in the psyche and affects the nature of one's ideas is symbolized by the slaughter of the haulers by “yelping redskins.”


In a poem of one hundred lines, Rimbaud uses the word je, I, twenty-four times in the original French. In Wallace Fowlie's English translation, it occurs twenty-six times. The repetition establishes not just the subjectivity of the poet's vision, but his own presence as the navigator that he said had been overwhelmed. Perhaps in the experience of the action of the poem he has been overwhelmed, but as a craftsman he has not. He is asserting his presence as the master poet/creator of the poem as well as the hero of the experience recounted by the poem.

Formal Control over Chaotic Material

Less apparent in the English translation, and, consequently, robbing the poem of its full strength, is the great control Rimbaud exercised over his material. While the content of the poem concerns the chaotic eruption of repression into an abandoned liberty, the construction of the poem shows the carefully crafting hand of a very skillful, metrically expert, practitioner of poetry. An example is the tight rhyming pattern Rimbaud creates. Although the English translation keeps the four-line stanza of the original, it sacrifices the discipline of the abab alternating rhyme scheme that runs through the poem. The contrast between the chaotic material and the formally shaped structure is one of the major factors turning what might be near-mad ranting into visionary and subversive poetry.


Synesthesia is a poetic device of sensory derangement that Rimbaud practiced. The senses no longer have their proper object. Colors can have taste; texture can have smell; what is seen can be felt. Sight becomes texture. “Evening / And dawn” are described as being “as exalted as a flock of doves.” A visual phenomenon is described in terms of the phenomenon of motion. The color red is compared to fermenting alcohol. Rainbows stretch under water and become the “bridle reins” for the “greenish herds” of the sea. This kind of derangement, while it makes for difficult poetry, is a kind of discipline, like meditation, designed to undo the boundaries of the self and liberate the poet's and the reader's experiential capability.


The Second Republic, the Second Empire, the Third Republic, and the Paris Commune

Nephew of Napoleon, Louis Napoleon, after years of exile and imprisonment under the restored French monarchy, was elected president of the Second French Republic, which was established in 1848 with the overthrow of the monarchy. In 1852, having consolidated power, Louis Napoleon dissolved the Republic and restored the Empire, designating himself Napoleon III. He began a course of imperial conquests and restored France to the military power it had lost in 1815 with the French defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. By the late 1860s, French military domination in Europe was threatened by Prussia and its leader, Otto von Bismarck. When Bismarck invaded Austria, Napoleon failed to enter the battle on the side of Austria. The defeat of Austria gave Prussia added might and Napoleon began The Franco-Prussian War with a preemptive invasion of Prussia in 1870. The French attack was a disaster. Napoleon was captured. A few days later, in July 1870, the Third French Republic was formed. Social and economic conditions were such in Paris, however, that discontent among workers was both strong and unifying. There was a workers' uprising in July 1870 after the French defeat, and conditions of impoverishment and inequality continued, especially because of the Prussian siege of Paris. In 1871, the government of the new Third Republic attempted to negotiate an armistice with Prussia. One of Prussia's terms was for the French to permit a German ceremonial entrance into, but not an occupation of, Paris. The French workers had already formed an armed militia, the National Guard, and they were prepared to fight the Germans if their triumphal march through Paris turned violent. The government of France, in order to be more secure against a possible Prussian attack by German soldiers marching through Paris, retreated to Versaillles. The Prussians entered Paris and left the city without a violent confrontation. But the retreat of the Republican government to Versailles left a power vacuum in Paris that was filled by the steadily increasing strength and authority of the armed workers. Alarmed that the workers had even commandeered cannons, the government in Versailles dispatched troops to Paris to seize the weaponry. Instead, the soldiers made common cause with the workers. In March 1871, after the workers' National Guard defeated those soldiers who did attack, the Paris Commune was declared by the Central Committee of the National Guard and remained in existence for two months until the end of May, when French army troops, which had been sent from Versailles and had been fighting the communards since the establishment of the Paris Commune, triumphed and the Third Republic was returned to power in Paris. Government reprisals against all who supported the Commune were numerous and severe.


  • 1870s: The French suffer defeat after the invasion of Prussia by Napoleon III's army, the government abandons Paris, and Parisian workers establish a Commune and introduce revolutionary democratic reforms.

    Today: France has elected the rightist Nicolas Sarkozy as president on a platform of rolling back social reforms like the thirty-five hour work week. Paris is governed by a socialist mayor who institutes ecologically friendly programs like velib, which discourages the use of automobiles by making tens of thousands of bicycles available throughout the city. In the suburbs, which are populated largely by Islamic immigrants, there is little of the prosperity that is apparent in Paris.

  • 1870s: Paris is a center of radical movements in the arts, particularly in painting and poetry, and is a gathering spot for artists and poets.

    Today: Paris has lost its avant-garde status regarding painting and poetry to cities like Berlin and New York. Nonetheless, it thrives on its cultural past, often being regarded as a great museum rather than as a center of new creativity.

  • 1870s: Poets like Rimbaud and Verlaine induce intoxicated states of mind using absinthe and hashish. Their works reflect this in that they attempt to present the world in new and different ways.

    Today: The tradition of using mind-altering substances to enhance performance and creativity continues. Many popular musicians are known to regularly use drugs and alcohol.

The importance of the Paris Commune far outlasted its short existence because of its revolutionary nature. Among the social policies the communards inaugurated were the equality of women, including the right to vote, the separation of church and state, the right of the workers

to control factories and businesses that had been abandoned, the introduction of humane working conditions, the restoration to the workers of the tools of their trade that need had forced them to pawn, and the abolition of interest on debts.

Rimbaud was in Paris during the days of the Commune experiencing a society where men and women were being liberated, in a radically revised world, from repressive social, economic, and political conditions. It was a world he experienced that formed the context for his radically disruptive theory and practice of poetry.

Parnassians and Decadents

Nineteenth-century French poetry is divided into several classifications. During the early part of the century, the dominant poetry was called romantic. Romantics like Victor Hugo and Alphonse de Lamartine wrote poetry concerned with individual emotional expression and social rectification. Parnassianism developed around mid-century and its practitioners sought to focus poetry on the art of poetry itself for the sake of the art, wishing to free poetry from social or even psychological concerns. They sought formal perfection and the reconstitution of traditional poetic forms. Parnassianism spawned a reaction that was at once a rebellion against it and a development of it. Charles Baudelaire practiced formal perfection in his poetry but nevertheless introduced an element of what he called spleen, meaning malice toward his fellow man, and distemper in general. He was branded as a decadent. Rimbaud's poetry reflects the influence of both of these trends. His formal poetic skill was prodigious, and his dedication to art was strong, but he brought to his poetry a subversive decadent sensibility.


The playwright, poet, and novelist, Samuel Beckett observes (according to Damian Love writing in the Modern Language Quarterly), that Rimbaud “stands on the threshold of modern literature” and “points the way into the promised land of modernism.” Eric Ormsby asserts in the New Criterion that Rimbaud changed the course of French poetry by virtue of the fact that with “only a few savage but well-aimed swings of his rhetorical wrecking ball he seemed to fracture and upend all the flimsy subterfuges of the Parnassians.” Rimbaud, Love argues, “embraced the divide” that he experienced between his observing “I” and the evolving and experiencing self that I observed. “He flung his life,” Love suggests, “more passionately than most into the trajectory of his art—passionately enough, in the end, to turn his back on poetry when it failed him—and this inevitably led to extremes.” It also made Rimbaud “a seer discovering new spiritual realms for mankind” Rimbaud was, according to Harold Bloom in Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, “the genius of adolescence [who] achieved an astonishing originality.” Bloom calls Rimbaud “a great innovator within French poetry.”

One of the sources for Rimbaud's innovation, Daryl Lee argues in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, is his experience of the Paris Commune and particularly the ruins of buildings destroyed by the communards, which punctuated Paris and are known as “open ruins.” “The open ruin,” Lee argues, “links up with the azure sky, the desert, the abyss—so many anti-sites—because it tends toward the indistinct, undifferentiated.” Lee argues that Rimbaud's verse stands, like the open ruin, admitting the “anti-sites” of his seemingly mad illuminations into his verse. In this vein, Enid Starkie, writing in Arthur Rimbaud, calls “The Drunken Boat” “one of the greatest poems in the French language.”


Neil Heims

Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In the following essay, he discusses the psychic division that is expressed and charted in “The Drunken Boat.”

“As I was going down impassive Rivers,” the first line of “The Drunken Boat,” establishes the cooperation of opposites that Pablo Picasso brought into his 1960 sketch of Rimbaud, a sober portrait surrounded by chaotic black scribbles. The “I” of the poet is set against the “impassive Rivers.” But those rivers are another, symbolic aspect of the poet—the repressed energy of the poet, chaotic and turbulent. The second line also tells a story of opposition: “I no longer felt myself guided by haulers.” In fact, a third element is introduced, the term “myself.” The river, which was the counterforce to the “I” in the first line, has been replaced by the haulers who guide the boat. But they are no longer available to control and protect the “I.” Lodged between the “I” and the haulers is “myself” The poet is split into three parts now, the two recognized as “I” and “myself” on one side, and the haulers, the repressing and guiding forces, on the other. As I and myself, he is equally subject and object, the narrator and the thing narrated. In the third line, the haulers have been killed by “Yelping redskins.” Now the opposition is between the haulers and the redskins; once again, both are opposing terms and both are opposing aspects of the poet. Control and savage liberation compete with one another. The primordial bursts through the “I,” that aspect of the narrator/poet/sailor formed by the repression that society demands. The onrushing psychic and bodily energy that follows the breakdown of repression, the internal flood, is symbolized by the flood upon which the boat tosses. Both floods, the psychic and the symbolic, represent a void—Picasso's blackened scribble—the void of himself that Rimbaud penetrated in order to illuminate that blackness, in order to find what is within it and, in consequence, what is in him and what he is. That exploration and what is found become the double matter of his art. Once he penetrates that blackness in his drunken boat, he begins to see the phantoms of energy that have been pent-up and are now exploding.

Rimbaud is a divided person. There are two of him, just as Picasso's drawing suggests. There is the straight-laced, constrained man, the man, strict in his bearing, and there is the chaos within him, which he also is; when he delves into it he becomes, in consequence, like a madman. The poet's consciousness is a mystery for him to explore, and there he finds another man, a man without boundaries, awash on the oceanic tide of sensation that merges with everything it senses. He sets out to explore his consciousness and to free it from its formative bonds. The independent yet interdependent parts, his several selves, contradict each other; they also require each other.

In a letter dated May 13, 1871, which Rimbaud sent to Georges Izambard, his old teacher from the College de Charleville, Rimbaud wrote a sentence that has come to be understood as an essential statement of his poetic stance and perhaps, beyond that, the secret motto of the century that came after him, Je est un autre, literally translated, “I is another.” By this statement, Rimbaud likely meant that if the self is alien, then what we call “I” is not the person. It is a thing, something that has been made, constructed by a set of external forces. “I” signifies the concept of I. Thus, “I” means something other than what I identify myself as being. Such swirling thought indeed has the dizzying, unhinged wildness of a drunken boat.


  • “Howl” (1956), by Allen Ginsberg, presents a journey through the nightmare experiences of poets and hipsters in revolt against conventional society. Its pile-up of violent imagery and its assault on the senses are partially rooted in Rimbaud's work and sensibility.
  • “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” a long song of tribute to an inscrutable woman with often inscrutable lyrics and images that are reminiscent of the kind Rimbaud employed, appeared on Bob Dylan's album Blonde on Blonde, released in 1966 by Columbia Records, now a division of Sony.
  • The Divided Self, R. D. Laing's 1960 study of schizophrenia, argues that schizophrenic speech is not necessarily mad speech but appears that way because the schizophrenic speaker and his non-schizophrenic interlocutor do not share the same set of references. As a visionary poet, Rimbaud used language that was not placed against a shared social background but against the private background of his own inner meanings, divorced from common understanding. It can therefore appear mad and deranged until a reader finds or creates its proper context, entering into Rimbaud's linguistic reality as Laing argues the psychiatrist must enter into the schizophrenic's.
  • In The Ego and the Id, published in 1923, Dr. Sigmund Freud discusses the fundamental structure of the psyche as involving a dynamic interrelation of conscious and unconscious elements. Rimbaud is a great poet of the unconscious, bringing it into consciousness through symbolism, much as dreams in their bizarre imagery do, and he is also a poet of the struggle between the conscious and the unconscious for control of the person. His poetic journey anticipates Freud's analytic quest.
  • Spanish poet Federico García Lorca's collection A Poet in New York, written in 1930 and published in 1940, has a rebellious awareness similar to what can be found in Rimbaud, as well as energetic imagery that is reminiscent of Rimbaud's imagery.

Je est un autre is the creed of the Rimbaud that Picasso presents in his sketch. It expresses the fundamentally divided nature of integrity, the fragmented process of consciousness. There is the conscious being and the being he is conscious of. But it is the same person who bears both perspectives. It is the fact that unity is composed of duality, and even of multiplicity, that is essential for a radical understanding of “The Drunken Boat,” and this concept is at the heart of its composition. In addition, if there is a conscious “I” and if there is an “I” that the “I” is conscious of, that second “I” is potentially an unconscious “I.” Thus, there is a third term, the unconscious being, the being the “I” is not conscious of when it is conscious of itself. The third term becomes manifest by the shifting manifestation of the “autre,” the other. It is another part of the self that the constructed “I” obscures. The poem is a confrontation with this other that is “I” and consequently not “I.” It is the turbulent sea the sailor/poet bathes in. In order to realize it, according to Rimbaud, the poet must break through the order and discipline of consciousness, must go beyond the frame of consciousness, into blackness. Rimbaud devised a technique to accomplish this. In that letter of May 13 to Izambard, and in a letter he wrote two days later, on the fifteenth of May, 1871, to his friend Paul Demeny, Rimbaud outlined that technique.

On the thirteenth, Rimbaud wrote to Izambard:

I'm working at turning myself into a Seer. You won't understand any of this, and I'm almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and a born poet. And I've realized that I am a poet.

In his letter on the fifteenth, Rimbaud wrote: “The first study of the man who wishes to be a poet is complete knowledge of himself.” Unlike the Socratic injunction “Know thyself,” Rimbaud's commission is not to know who he is but to know who he is not, to know the parts of him that are the “other.” The need for a “derangement of all the senses” suggests that before such an attempt, the senses form a sort of boundary that not only receives and perceives sensation and information but also prevents the transmission of sensation and information. The senses are like sentinels guarding a position. In order to breach their line and discover what they are guarding, it is necessary to disrupt the order of their formation, to throw them off guard, to make them neglect their duty, to get them drunk.

Drunkeness, then, is not a metaphor or a simile for the poet's condition. Rimbaud is not saying “I am like a drunken boat.” He is saying “I am a drunken boat.” His message is that part of me that I am discovering is a hidden part of me that I can only reveal through the language of symbols. The language of metaphor is used for clarification. Something is compared to something else in order to amplify our understanding of it. The language of symbols is revelatory. Something is represented symbolically because it is so obscure in its existence that symbols are the only way it can be detected. The poet's hidden consciousness is not “like” a drunken boat. It is the same thing.

The “I” that is known, the socially constructed “I,” the “I” that obscures and limits the experience of the psyche is provisional and deceptive. It is not the eternal psyche or the true “I” (which is unknowable). The true “I,” the eternal “I” can only be discovered when the “I” that is known and the “I” that is not known is discovered as distinct. Rimbaud expresses this simply, even if symbolically, in a poem he sent to Verlaine, probably around 1873: “It's been found again. / What?—Eternity. / It's the sea gone off / With the sun.”

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on “The Drunken Boat,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.

Gerald Martin Macklin

In the following essay, Macklin gives a critical analysis of Rimbaud's work.

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 André Breton to André Freynaud, have recognized their indebtedness to Rimbaud's vision and technique. He was the enfant terrible of French poetry in the second half of the nineteenth century and a major figure in symbolism.

Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud was born in Charleville in northeastern France on 20 October 1854, the second son of an army captain, Frédéric Rimbaud, and Marie-Cathérine-Vitalie Rimbaud, née Cuif. He had an older brother, Frédéric, born in 1853, and two younger sisters: Vitalie, born in 1858, and Isabelle, born in 1860. The father was absent during most of Rimbaud's childhood. Rimbaud's difficult relationship with his authoritarian mother is reflected in many of his early poems, such as “Les Poètes de sept ans” (The Seven-Year-Old Poets, 1871). Rimbaud's mother was a devout Christian, and Rimbaud associated her with many of the values that he rejected: conventional religious belief and practice, the principles of hard work and scholarly endeavor, patriotism, and social snobbery.

In 1870-1871 Rimbaud ran away from home three times. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870 led to the closing of his school, the Collège de Charleville, 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 his mother had him brought home by the police. In February 1871 he ran away again to join the insurgents in the Paris Commune; he returned home three weeks later, just before the Commune was brutally suppressed by the army. During this time he was developing his own poetic style and elaborating his theory of voyance, a visionary program in which the poetic process becomes the vehicle for exploration of other realities. This theory is expressed in his much-quoted letters of 13 May 1871 to his friend and tutor, Georges Izambard, and of 15 May 1871 to Paul Demeny. Rimbaud still felt drawn to Paris, where he might encounter the leading poets of the day—Théodore de Banville, Charles Cros, and Paul Verlaine. His letter to Verlaine in September 1871, which included samples of his poetry, elicited the reply, “Venez, chère grande âme, on vous appelle, on vous attend” (Come, great and dear soul, we are calling out to you, we are awaiting you). Rimbaud arrived in Paris in September and moved in with Verlaine and Verlaine's wife, Mathilde Mauté. A homosexual relationship developed between Rimbaud and Verlaine, causing Verlaine's marriage to become increasingly unstable.

Rimbaud's early poems, the Poésies, were written between 1869 and 1872 and published by Verlaine in 1895. They are, superficially, his most orthodox works in technical terms. Closer inspection, however, reveals in them many indicators of a precocious poet setting out “trouver une langue” (to find a language), as he said in the letter of 15 May 1871, and, ultimately, to revolutionize the genre. In thematic terms, the Poésies exhibit virtually all of the subjects and preoccupations usually associated with Rimbaud. “Le Mal” (Evil) and “Le Dormeur de val” (The Sleeper in the Valley) illustrate the absurdity of war; “Le Châtiment de Tartufe” (The Punishment of Tartuffe) represents Molière's eponymous impostor in sonnet form as the epitome of hypocrisy; “Au Cabaret-vert” (At the Green Tavern), “La Maline” (The Cunning One), and “Ma Bohème” (My Bohemian Existence) celebrate the physical joys of the bohemian lifestyle as an alternative to the moral rectitude of bourgeois existence. In “A la musique” (To Music) Rimbaud revels in his cherished role of observer as he satirizes the bourgeoisie through the technique of grotesque caricature. “Les Effarés” (The Frightened Ones) reveals both his humorous, cartoonlike presentation of figures on the margins of conventional society—in this case, five Christlike children peering into a bakery—and his social conscience as a commentator on exclusion, poverty, and hunger. “Oraison du soir” (Evening Prayer) shows his anti-Christian venom and his desire to shock and outrage accepted ideas of good taste by depicting himself as a rebellious angel who urinates skyward in a blasphemous gesture of defiance against his Creator.

The Poésies, however, also display Rimbaud's urge to extend the poetic idiom, to transcend the strictures and constraints of orthodox verse and to take poetry on an audacious journey into previously unsuspected technical and visionary realms. In this respect the Poésies anticipate Rimbaud's more fascinating later work and his profound impact both on the poetry of his own time and on that of the twentieth century. In the 15 May 1871 letter he says that “Viendront d'autres horribles travailleurs” (Other horrible workers will come along)—a prophetic assertion of his role as initiator of a process that would continue long after he himself had ceased writing.

The lengthy “Les Poètes de sept ans” combines many of Rimbaud's thematic preoccupations but also intimates the technical, linguistic, and visionary release that became a concomitant of his celebrated revolt. In the opening lines he establishes an opposition between the repressive mother and the disaffected seven-year-old boy who outwardly complies with her dictates but is inwardly seething with disdain: […]. The child leads a double life that involves a superficial deference to material strictures and a secret other existence in which he gravitates to locations, confederates, and activities that would be anathema to the society embodied in the mother:[…].

Rimbaud is quite self-conscious in his choice of “distasteful” vocabulary, such as “latrines”; integral to his poetic credo was the principle that the sacred cows of traditional verse, such as the concept of “poetic” and “nonpoetic” terminology, needed to be challenged. The child-poet seeks out the mud as both a symbol of his rejection of the bourgeois totem of cleanliness and an indicator of his preference for the basic stuff of the natural environment. He consorts with the filthy ragamuffins of the district in an instinctive rejection of his mother's social stuffiness and a desire to find companionship among the outcasts of society; thus, the use of the plural Les Poètes in the poem's title is vindicated. The child most dreads the Christian Sabbath and Bible-reading; this negative reaction is balanced by his positive response to the working men of the district.

The most important elements of “Les Poètes de sept ans” are in the middle and later sections, where Rimbaud explores the visionary activities of the child-poet—activities conducted far from the watchful gaze of the parent that constitute a different, other life. One is reminded of the emphasis in the two May 1871 letters on the self as other—“Je est un autre” (I is an other)—and how these letters map out the function of the poet as medium between everyday reality and a hitherto unexplored “ailleurs” (elsewhere). The seven-year-old poet uses exotic journals to assist him in conjuring up new worlds: […].

In the finale of the poem the child has retreated to the privacy of his room, blinds drawn to create an intense and intimate atmosphere. Here the scene is set for an imaginative flight triggered by “son roman sans cesse médité” (his endlessly considered novel), and the concluding six lines evoke a surreal landscape. The life of the neighborhood goes on below, acting as a counterpoint to the novelty of the inner world being explored by the child, a world with “lourd ciels ocreux” (heavy ochre skies) and “forêts noyées” (drowned forests). In the last words of the poem, “pressentant violemment la voile” (having a violent premonition of the sail), the image of anticipated sea voyages is related to the visionary and linguistic adventure that emerges in “Le Bateau ivre” (translated as “The Drunken Boat,” 1931) and that represents the quintessential Rimbaud of the later prose poetry.

Many of the later poems of the Poésies prefigure Rimbaud's subsequent experimentation with language. The 15 May 1871 letter to Demeny combines Rimbaud's visionary program with a linguistic agenda and indicts a whole tradition of French verse, from Jean Racine to the Romantics, with only Charles-Pierre Baudelaire and, to a lesser extent, Victor Hugo escaping criticism. Rimbaud's search for a universal language is a defining feature of his work and is particularly manifest in “Voyelles” (1884; translated as “Vowel Sonnet,” 1931), “Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs” (What the poet is told about flowers), and “Le Bateau ivre” (1871-1872). The very idea of coloring the vowels, of composing a poem from their subjective associations, speaks volumes for Rimbaud's involvement with the minutiae of language and for his desire to challenge and reconstruct accepted idioms. The title “Ce qu'on dit au poète à propos de fleurs” is an audacious challenge to established poets; the piece mocks the inanities of Romantic commonplaces, deriding current practitioners as faroeur (jokesters) and outlining a new agenda for them as jongleurs (tricksters) conjuring up unsuspected visions. And “Le Bateau ivre,” which is well known for its concatenation of dazzling imagery, is just as memorable for its linguistic inventiveness.

In March 1872 Rimbaud returned to Charleville to allow the Verlaines a chance to reconcile. During this period he wrote the Derniers Vers (Last Verses), which were published in La Vogue in 1886, highly experimental verse poems that are heavily influenced by Verlaine's style. Verlaine's poetry is characterized by a wistful tenderness, the muted evocation of landscape and character, the half-light of in-between states, a refusal of all that is aggressively stated or depicted, and above all by musicality. In the Derniers Vers Rimbaud adopts many of these technical features but allies them to unusual images and a dense conceptual content. The outcome is a strange blend of ostensible levity and musical airiness with weighty thematic elements, elements that are all the more intriguing for being conveyed in such apparently incongruous forms. All of this represents a major stride away from the poetry of the Poésies, where one finds many conventional features, and a retrospective view from the vantage point of the later prose poetry enables one to identify the Derniers Vers as a key phase in Rimbaud's rejection of orthodox verse, his abandonment of rhyme, and his evolution toward a more supple, less constricted form. That such is the case is confirmed in “Délires II” (Delirium II), a section of Une Saison en enfer (1873; translated as “A Season in Hell,” 1931) where Rimbaud looks back on the Derniers Vers, ironically and affectionately repeats some of the poems, and ambivalently sees them as “L'histoire d'une de mes folies” (the account of one of my follies) and as a stage in the process of the “alchimie du verbe” (alchemy of the word), the creation of a new poetic language.

One is immediately struck by the almost surreal quality of “Larme” (Tear), the opening piece in Derniers Vers. The first words, “Loin des …” (Far from …), suggest a pressing need for the poet to separate himself from the trite and the commonplace. This escape is facilitated by an obscure potion, a golden liqueur that opens up a fantastic landscape presided over by an “orage” (storm), where the elements are liberated to generate a chaos that will slake the poet's metaphysical thirst. The poem “Comédie de la soif” (Comedy of Thirst) suggests in its five-part structure the influence of the five acts of classical tragedy, as well as having a distinctly operatic flavor. In parts one through three the “Moi” (Me) curtly rejects the overtures and solicitous attentions of family, friends, and “L'Esprit” (The Spirit), preferring to indulge in a death wish and the kind of landscape seen in “Larme” rather than accept their offer of a conventional life in familiar surroundings with banal occupations. Parts four and five afford the Moi some moments of recuperative calm in which to plot an alternative future course and anticipate dissolution in nature. “Comédie de la soif” is particularly musical; the slenderness of its lines in parts one through four gives an impression of levity that is belied by its thematic content, and there is a marked sense of under-statedness throughout. But the superficial lightness and musical simplicity of the poem are wedded to a linguistic concentration and intensity that repays endless revisiting.

Just as this poem advertises itself as a “comédie,” so “Chanson de la plus haute tour” (Song of the Highest Tower) draws attention to itself as musically inspired. The narrowness of the lines on the page calls to mind the architecture of the tower where the poet has imaginatively secluded himself. The six lines of the opening stanza are repeated verbatim in the closing stanza, creating the effect of a chorus with the poem closing on itself. The poet presents himself as having gone to seed, laments the loss of his youth, and tries to transcend his own anguish in a call for a universal love: […].

The immediately following poems, “L'Eternité” (Eternity) and “Age d'or” (Golden Age), have a structure and line length similar to those of “Chanson de la plus haute tour.” “L'Eternité” encapsulates the essence of the Derniers Vers in its engaging musicality, its deceptively slim appearance, and its dense and obscure intellectual foundation. One is especially struck by the original manner in which Rimbaud has brought a musical form usually associated with a simple celebration or a joyous expression of love together with an abstract content replete with terms such as “suffrages” (approbation), “élans” (urges), “Devoir” (Duty), “espérance” (hope), and “supplice” (torture). The effect of this combination is to disorient the reader, for the musicality leads one to expect a text that will be readily intelligible; one is, however, left with a work that compels one to return again and again in search of an elucidation of its central meaning. The simplicity of the opening and closing quatrain— […] —is at odds with the imprecise and abstract nature of the ensuing vocabulary.

While other poems, such as “Fêtes de la faim” (Feasts of Hunger) and “O Saisons, ô châteaux” (Oh Seasons, Oh Castles), share these features, the collection also includes the substantial poem “Qu'est-ce pour nous, mon coeur …” (What is it to us, my heart …?) which deals with both sociopolitical upheaval and a private apocalypse; the celebrated complexity of “Mémoire” (Memory), with its rich allusiveness and intricate tapestry of evocations of the past, the self, and the family; and the charming and humorous idiosyncrasies of “Bruxelles” (Brussels), where Rimbaud admires an unusual cityscape and uses it as a bridge to something beyond itself.

In May 1872 Verlaine called Rimbaud back to Paris; in July he deserted his wife and child and went to London with Rimbaud. In April 1873 Rimbaud returned to his family's farm at Roche, near Charleville, where he began writing Une Saison en enfer. In May 1873 he again accompanied Verlaine to London. After many quarrels and another separation the two men met in July 1873 in Brussels, where Rimbaud tried to break off their relationship. Distraught, Verlaine shot the younger poet in the wrist; at the hospital where Rimbaud was treated, the two claimed that the wound had been inflicted accidentally. The next day the two men were walking down the street when Verlaine reached into his pocket; Rimbaud thought he was about to be shot again and ran to a nearby policeman. The truth about the shooting came out, and Verlaine was sentenced to two years at hard labor in a Belgian prison. While there, he wrote “Crimen amoris” (Crime of Love, 1884), in which Rimbaud is depicted as a radiant but evil angel outlining a new spiritual credo. Meanwhile, Rimbaud returned to the farm in Roche, where he completed Une Saison en enfer.

Even more dramatically than the Derniers Vers, Une Saison en enfer illustrates Rimbaud's proclivity for reinventing himself and redefining the direction and form of his poetry. No poet is more apt than Rimbaud to slough off one skin and put on another, more easily disillusioned with his most recent artistic endeavors, or readier to experiment with untried forms. The year 1873 thus marks his engagement with prose poetry, although there is still some disagreement concerning the dates of composition of many of the individual prose poems in Les Illuminations (1886; translated as “Illuminations,” 1953). Much of this controversy was generated by the fact that the last of the nine sections of Une Saison en enfer seems to be a definitive farewell to literature, and this, allied to the fact that Rimbaud did abandon his poetic career at an early age, led many commentators to seek a simple and convenient solution by postulating that Une Saison en enfer is his swan song. There is now a consensus, however, that at least some of the poems in Les Illuminations postdate those of Une Saison en enfer and were written in 1874 and possibly 1875. The critical endeavor that has been wasted in the pursuit of a final adjudication on this chronological dispute would have been more constructively spent in examining the texts themselves. Since the mid 1970s, however, this situation has been rectified with excellent studies by critics such as Steve Murphy, Paule Lapeyre, André Guyaux, Nathaniel Wing, Nick Osmond, James Lawler, and Roger Little.

Rimbaud persuaded his mother to pay to have Une Saison en enfer published in Brussels in 1873. It is a diary of the damned that affords insights into his preoccupations and casts light on the artistic inspiration for the Derniers Vers. At the same time, the nine parts of the diary display an utterly new technical direction, and “Délires II” is all the more remarkable for the way it interweaves this new prose style with extracts from the Derniers Vers so that both modes are thrown into dramatically stark relief. Une Saison en enfer is an intensely personal account of private torture and the search for a spiritual and an artistic resolution; a prose style studded with laconic formulae that are also seen in the one-liners of Les Illuminations; a sustained investigation of self, Christianity, and alternative spiritual and poetic options that is frequently lit up by the flare of Rimbaud's memorable imagery; and a conscious pushing of language to the point of disintegration, so that verbal crisis and personal trauma are perfectly matched.

From the outset Rimbaud engages with abstractions, often personified in a Baudelairean manner: “[…] I sat Beauty on […],” he begins the opening section, showing the irreverence that is a hallmark of his entire output. The death wish already seen in the Derniers Vers and to be repeated in many of the finales of Les Illuminations is also present here. The terse statements “Le malheur a été mon dieu. […]” (Misfortune was my god. […]) anticipates the enigmatic, clipped comments and sibylline quality of many of the prose poems in Les Illuminations. One of the most important sections of Une Saison en enfer follows this brief introductory sequence: “Maivais sang” (Bad Blood) is a sustained investigation into the narrator's genealogical origins […]. One is reminded of the importance of revolt in the early Poésies as the narrative voice seems bent on contravening all received ideas about morality and decency; this unorthodoxy escalates into a full-scale assault on Christian values. “Mauvais sang” registers the wrestling of a tormented soul that initially rebels against Christian teaching and then apparently finds grace and redemption, only to withdraw into a pursuit of fulfillment in the religions of the East or a personal spiritual agenda that is part of the poetic experience. Known above all for his delight in revolting against norms and conventions, Rimbaud impresses on the reader from the start of “Mauvais sang” that he is conscious of his “otherness,” his inability to follow the accepted orthodoxies of Western Christian civilization. He extols “vices” such as idolatry, sloth, and anger; he refuses to comply with the received wisdom that one must work to live[…]; and he mocks traditional family and civic values. He traces these characteristics to his earliest ancestry, associating his “bad blood” or “bad stock” with previous lives as a leper or pariah, and he insists on his essential loneliness. He derides the scientific “progress” of the late nineteenth century, rejecting rationalism in favor of an internal spiritual debate. […] he establishes his own form of mysticism and faith as an alternative to the Christian orthodoxies he had rejected in the Poésies.

The remainder of “Mauvais sang” and the subsequent section, “Nuit de l'enfer” (Night in Hell), pursue the diarist's spiritual crisis in all its intensity and complexity. Oscillating between salvation and damnation, the poet struggles with his dilemma in an increasingly fractured and tormented style that dramatically reflects his inner trauma. Guyaux has written of Rimbaud's La Poetique du fragment (fragmentary poetics), a formula that is admirably suited to the tortured style of these pages of unanswered questions, emotionally charged outpourings, lucidly trenchant affirmations of intent that seem unshakable but are almost immediately undermined by another change in direction, and a prose that seems informed by delirium. Seeing himself as a martyr in the line of Joan of Arc, Rimbaud [denies being a Christian] but soon afterward enters a sequence of contemplative calm in which salvation is enjoyed in dreamlike serenity. At the end of “Mauvais sang” the poet evokes his own extinction as language disintegrates in a proliferation of punctuation marks and linguistic fragments.

The next two sections of Une Saison en enfer share a title—“Délires I” and “Délires II,” the latter of which carries the secondary heading “Alchimie du verbe.” It is generally agreed that “Délires I” is a commentary on Rimbaud's relationship with Verlaine; it takes the form of a religious confession in which the speaker is the “Vierge folle” (Foolish Virgin), a thinly disguised image of Verlaine, who reflects on “her” stormy affair with the “Epoux infernal” (Infernal Bridegroom), Rimbaud. As well as being another irreverent parody of a religious source, this confession is a highly original form of self-presentation on Rimbaud's part as he sees himself through the refracted and selective memory of a confederate. The Vierge folle registers her failure to understand the complexities of her Infernal Companion, a blend of compassion and cruelty, innocence and malice, and ideological power and near insanity. This is a love affair in which the older partner is in thrall to the paradoxes and enigmas of the younger one; the relationship is characterized as a messiah leading a disciple, offering new ideas and experiences and then abandoning the weaker partner just when the Vierge is least emotionally prepared for the separation. All of these elements can be linked to the stages in the unfolding relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine in 1872-1873, but the text is more significant for what it reveals about Rimbaud's defiance of the norm […]; his compassion for underdogs such as drunks, children, and outcasts; his ideological fervor […]; and his need to escape from reality.

“Délires II” has a quite different complexion. It reflects on the genesis of the Derniers Vers, affectionately and ironically recalling the poet's ambitions and artistic preferences during the earlier period. No fewer than fifteen sources of inspiration are listed at the outset, including obsolete literature, church Latin, fairy tales, and old operas, all of which assist in a quest—now seen as “one of my follies”—to create a new poetic idiom. Linking his predilection for hallucinatory experiences to “l'hallucination des mots” (the hallucination of words), Rimbaud weaves reprises from the Derniers Vers into his new prose style. The reader soon notices his preference for lapidary formulae, which stud not only Une Saison en enfer but Les Illuminations, as well: […].

While sections six and seven of Une Saison en enfer, “L'Impossible” (The Impossible) and “L'Eclair” (Flash), continue the spiritual and philosophical probing of earlier parts of the work, it is the penultimate and final chapters, “Matin” (Morning) and “Adieu” (Farewell), that have attracted the most detailed comment. At the end of “Matin” comes a sense of uplift as the poet anticipates a glorious day of renewal and transformation, a time when an outmoded religious belief will be superseded by a fresh spiritual awakening and the first authentic Noel: […].

“Adieu” comes at the end of Une Saison en enfer, leading many to see this section as the conclusion not only of the collection but also of Rimbaud's poetic career. An initial reading of the text lends support to this interpretation, as the poet describes himself as a fallen angel and a writer who must give up the pen and embrace a more prosaic existence […]. It is also noticeable that the concluding paragraphs of “Adieu” are couched in the future tense, which appears to prefigure yet another redefinition of the poet and his mission.

For many critics, Les Illuminations is Rimbaud's most important and technically sophisticated work. While the collection maintains a clear thematic continuity in many ways with the earlier verse—the idea of revolt, the preeminence accorded to the world of the child, the fascination exerted by the elements, the motif of travel in pursuit of the ideal, and so on—here one is manifestly in the presence of a poet intent on experimentation with new poetic structures, the deployment of unusual and often bizarre terminology, and even an exploration of the creative power of punctuation dynamically reinvented and released from its conventionally subservient role as a prop for language. 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 “illisibilité” (unreadability) of the collection. One often associates the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé with such hermeticism, but it is a significant feature of the critical reception of Les Illuminations that readers have produced such widely divergent interpretations of the poems and that some have declared themselves incapable of arriving at any sustainable reading of given texts. “Parade,” “Matinée d'ivress” (Morning of Drunkenness), “Barbare” (Barbaric), “Fairy,” “H,” and “Dévotion” (Devotion) are some of the poems that have provoked perplexity and a polarization of critical opinion.

Critics such as Osmond and Albert Py have attempted to classify the poems in Les Illuminations; while no definitive labeling is possible—or, perhaps, even desirable—some distinctive groupings can be observed among the forty-two texts. 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 Les Illuminations “Conte” (Tale), “Aube” (Dawn), and “Royauté” (Royalty) are obviously based on the structure of the fairy tale. Each poem has a distinctly narrative development, and “Conte” and “Royauté” 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 Les Illuminations: […]. Other sequences in the collection enhance a sense of mystery and the unknown. For example, in “Enfance III” (Childhood III), “Enfance IV,” “Veillées I” (Vigils I), “Solde” (Sale), and “Fairy” a concatenation of linguistic units bound together by the same linguistic formula perplexes the reader as to just what is being described.

Equally prominent as a motif in Les Illuminations is Rimbaud's quest for the ideal cityscape in poems such as “Ville” (City), “Villes” (Cities), “Villes II,” and “Métropolitain” (Metropolitan). Whereas “Ville” is a mournful evocation of the soulless existence endured by many in contemporary urban conglomerations, the other texts are characterized by a vitality and exuberance that reflect the poet's desire to transcend the everyday banality of late-nineteenth-century life and reveal an alternative world of daring new architecture populated by unexpected characters. Thus, the grayness, repetitiveness, and tastelessness of “Ville” is superseded by the enormous proportions of “Villes,” in which a “Nabuchodonsor norwégien” (Norwegian Nebuchadnezzar) is one of the architects of a complex metropolis that goes far beyond anything that London or Paris might offer. Even more dazzling is the vertiginous drama acted out in “Villes II,” where a miscellany of extraordinary figures is set before the mind's eye to the accompaniment of a stereophonic operatic “score.” This poem gravitates toward the apprehension of some hitherto unattained understanding designated by the expressions “les idées des peuples” (the ideas of the peoples) and “la musique inconnue” (the unknown music). Finally, the opening paragraph of “Métropolitain” evokes a richly colored realm where another complex architectural system—crisscrossing “boulevards de cristal” (crystal boulevards)—is the venue for the emergence of “jeunes familles pauvres” (young poor families), a mysterious constituency of inhabitants whose lifestyle is enthusiastically endorsed by the poet in the words “la ville!”

The pursuit of a new religion is a constant in Rimbaud's work, but Les Illuminations takes this quest to a new plane. The collection is heavily populated by gods and goddesses of the poet's invention, including the mysterious Reine (Queen) or Sorcière (Witch) in “Après le déluge” (After the Flood), an enigmatic figure who withholds privileged knowledge from mere mortals; the object of worship in “Being Beauteous,” a poem with many Baudelairean connections; the Génie in the poem of that title, who also appears in “Conte” as a key player in the Prince's creative rampage; the “idole” (idol) in “ Enfance I”; the goddess pursued by the poet in “Aube”; the spirit referred to in “A une raison” (To a Reason); and Elle (She), who appears in both “Angoisse” (Anguish) and “Métropolitain.” “Après le déluge,” the first poem in the collection, harks back to the deluge in the Old Testament to evoke new floods that might cleanse the earth again; […] in the first part of “Vies” (Lives) he refers to a “brahmane” (Brahman) who explained the Book of Proverbs to him; and “Matinée d'ivresse” is predicated on the imperative to supersede the tired Christian opposition of good and evil and to develop a new religious faith.

The persona of traveler is one of Rimbaud's preferred identities, and the motif of the journey is a central element in such works as “Le Bateau ivre.” In Les Illuminations this motif is reconstituted and reinvented in a variety of ways. The “piéton de la grand'route par les bois nains” (traveler on the highway amid dwarfish forests) in “Enfance IV” anticipates the nomadic tendency that leads the prince on his pilgrimage in “Conte,” stimulates the boy to pursue the goddess in “Aube,” and prompts the brief text “Départ” (Departure) as a celebration of the dynamic and the shifting over the static and the familiar. Other examples include the wandering poet and his bizarre confederate Henrika drifting on the fringes of an industrial city but desirous of an “autre monde” (other world) in “Ouvriers” (Workers); the circus troupe on the move in “Ornières” (Ruts); and the wretched couple in “Vagabonds,” wandering in search of “le lieu et la formule” (the place and the formula). In poems such as “Nocturne vulgaire” (Ordinary Nocturne) and “Barbare” Rimbaud depicts imaginative voyages or drug-induced “trips” that take him and the reader to the further limits of the psyche. In “Nocturne vulgaire” the reader is taken on a highly unusual journey that involves a destabilizing of the contours of the known world as a prelude to a departure in a “carrosse” (carriage) that transports the poet to an “ailleurs” that proves to be trite and unsatisfactory. Then a flood of green and blue abruptly curtails the journey in the carriage and permits a much more satisfying adventure in the elemental ferment of the storm, one of Rimbaud's most favored contexts, in which a mixture of creation and destruction occurs: […].

This pattern of creative immersion in the elements—including earth, air, and fire, as well as water—is seen in many finales in Les Illuminations, such as those of “Angoisse,” “Soir historique” (Historic Evening), and “Métropolitain.” “Barbare” includes a particularly engrossing example of the function of elemental imagery in Rimbaud's prose poetry. As its title suggests, “Barbare” sets out to challenge and transcend all that is conventional and familiar. It achieves this objective in two ways: in its mysterious and absorbing imagery, which evokes another bizarre journey of the imagination; and in its unprecedented linguistic experimentation, which takes one to the verge of verbal disintegration. From the opening line […], it is apparent that Rimbaud is determined to sever links with normal time and space as a prelude to his departure into an uncharted realm of the imagination. Much ink has been spilled in attempts to “decode” the “pavillon en viande saignante” (ensign of bleeding meat) that binds the poem together in a cyclical pattern by virtue of its triple deployment in the text; yet, just as striking is the concatenation of elemental imagery that runs through the piece—arctic seas, infernos, frosty squalls, flames, foams, blocks of ice, volcanoes. One passage is remarkable for its dense compression of ingredients derived from each of the four elements: […].

Here water (pluie), fire (feux, carbonisé), air (vent), and earth (le coeur terrestre) are fused to register an experience of the eternal. “L'Eternité” in the Derniers Vers and “Matinée d'ivresse” in Les Illuminations similarly relate a sense of the eternal to a fusion of elemental opposites; yet, in “Barbare” this amalgamation is effected by virtue of Rimbaud's audacious approach to language, punctuation, and poetic form.

Rimbaud's pursuit of a new poetic language is the defining and enduring aspect of his artistic career. 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, untrammeled by inhibitions and fusty convention and characterized by a vitality and an exciting “otherness” that permit endless innovation and surprise. The injunction to the poet in “Ce qu'on dit au poèt à propos de fleurs” to become a “Jongleur” dispensing shocks and revelations to the reader is an apposite characterization of Rimbaud's entire enterprise. Les Illuminations represents the culmination of this process: the collection is studded with all sorts of verbal discoveries—from the foreign terms such as the German wasserfall (waterfall) in “Aube” and the English title “Being Beauteous” to the highly unusual Baou in “Dévotion.” The collection is also remarkable for its proliferation of dashes, intriguing capitalizations, and baffling italicizations. The odd punctuation fragments texts in fascinating ways, creating unsuspected rhythms and internal arrangements and highlighting individual words and clauses, and, in conjunction with the foreign and unusual terms, it turns Les Illuminations into a venue for all sorts of linguistic surprises. Among these surprises are the vast number of puzzling proper nouns in the collection—Reine, Sorcière, Barbe-Bleue, Prince, Génie, Elle, Hottentots, Molochs, Proverbes, Mabs, Solymes, Damas, Heélène, and so on. The poem-puzzle “H” invites the reader to consider the properties of the capital letter H, some of which are tantalizingly offered within the poem itself with the proper name Hortense and the word hydrogène, which reminds the reader that H is the atomic symbol for hydrogen. This text sets author and reader in opposition, Rimbaud withholding his secrets and the reader being teased to attempt to discover them. This situation is seen frequently in Les Illuminations in poems such as “Parade,” “Solde,” and “Dévotion.” In “Vies” the poet sets himself up as an oracular figure with revelations to make: […].

The key term here is chaos, a traditionally pejorative word characteristically given a positive meaning by Rimbaud. Les Illuminations is a realization of that positive state of “chaos” so ardently desired by its creator: a flux in which language disintegrates and reconstitutes itself into an entity that transcends what has preceded it.

Rimbaud abandoned poetry at the age of twenty-one, having written it for only five years. In 1875-1876 he traveled to England, Germany, Italy, and Holland; he enlisted in the Dutch army but deserted from it in Sumatra. In 1876 he settled briefly in Vienna, then traveled to Egypt, Java, and Cyprus, where he worked as a foreman in a quarry. In 1880 he went to Ethiopia as the representative of a French coffee trader, Alfred Bardey, based in Aden (today part of Yemen); Rimbaud was one of the first Europeans to visit the country. He remained there as a trader and explorer. Scholars have long been intrigued by the fact that Rimbaud's extensive correspondence from Africa to France includes no references to poetry but is taken up with utilitarian and commercial considerations relating to his trading activities; the phrase “le silence de Rimbaud” is used to designate his abrupt abandonment of poetry. Nevertheless, his fame as a poet occurred during this period when Verlaine included some of his poems in Les Poétes maudits: Tristan Corbière; Arthur Rimbaud; Stéphane Mallarmé (The Accursed Poets: Tristan Corbière; Arthur Rimbaud; Stéphane Mallarmé) in 1884 and published Les Illuminations two years later. In February 1891 Rimbaud developed a tumor on his right knee; he returned to France for treatment, and his leg was amputated in a Marseille hospital. He went back to the farm in Roche to recuperate, but his health continued to deteriorate. He went back to Marseille, where he was diagnosed with cancer. He died in the hospital there on 10 November 1891; his sister Isabelle, who was with him at the time, claimed that he accepted the Catholic faith before his death. He was buried in Charleville.

Source: Gerald Martin Macklin, “Arthur Rimbaud,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 217, Nineteenth-Century French Poets, edited by Robert Beum, The Gale Group, 1999, pp. 243-57.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

Bernard Weinberg

In the following excerpt, Weinberg presents a lengthy explication of the original French text of “The Drunken Boat.” The critic also considers the symbolic and the non-symbolic elements that constitute the poem.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

Source: Bernard Weinberg, “Rimbaud: ‘Le Bateau ivre,’” in The Limits of Symbolism: Studies of Five Modern French Poets, University of Chicago Press, 1966, pp. 89-127.


Bloom, Harold, “Rimbaud,” in Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, Warner Books, 2002, p.483-85.

Lee, Daryl, “Rimbaud's Ruin of French Verse: Verse Spatiality and the Paris Commune Ruins,” in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Fall-Winter 2003, Vol. 32, No. 1-2, p. 69.

Love, Damian, “Doing Him into the Eye: Samuel Beckett's Rimbaud,” in Modern Language Quarterly, December 2005, Vol. 66, No. 4, pp. 477-504.

Ormsby, Eric, “Rimbaud: Sophist of Insanity,” in the New Criterion, June 2001, Vol. 19, No. 10, p. 16.

Peyre, Henri, “Rimbaud, or the Symbolism of Revolt,” in What Is Symbolism?, translated by Emmett Parker, University of Alabama Press, 1980, pp. 33-47.

Rimbaud, Arthur, “The Drunken Boat,” in Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, updated, revised, and with a foreword by Seth Whidden, University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 115-20.

———, “It's Been Found Again,” in Rimbaud, by Graham Robb, W. W. Norton, 2000, p. 84.

———, “Vowels,” translated by Louise Varèse, in An Anthology of French Poetry from Nerval to Valéry in English Translation, edited by Angel Flores, Doubleday/Anchor, 1958, p. 113.

Starkie, Enid, Arthur Rimbaud, W. W. Norton, 1968, p. 143.


Baudelaire, Charles, The Flowers of Evil, selected and edited by Marthiel and Jackson Mathews, New Directions, 1962.

The Flowers of Evil includes such poems as “To the Reader,” a condemnation of what Baudelaire saw as the nastiness of the human disposition; “Correspondences,” a poem about poetic symbolism; and his voyage poems, which were the precursors to “The Drunken Boat.”

Edwards, Stewart, The Paris Commune, 1871, Quadrangle Books, 1971.

Edwards provides a thorough and sympathetic account of the Paris Commune, referring to documents of the time.

Fowlie, Wallace, Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet, Duke University Press, 1994.

Fowlie was an academic scholar and a translator of Rimbaud's work. This is a serious comparative study of Rimbaud and Jim Morrison, the lead singer and lyricist of the 1960s rock group The Doors.

Robb, Graham, Rimbaud, W. W. Norton, 2000.

Intertwining an account of Rimbaud's life with a discussion of its relation to his work and his work's relation to his life, Robb's biography is thorough and never tedious.