Rimbaud’s Wise Music
By LYDIA DAVIS
Published: June 9, 2011
Some associations with the name Rimbaud are very familiar: the highly romantic photograph taken a few months after he first settled in Paris, already at 17 the dedicatedly bohemian artist, with his pale blue eyes, distant gaze, thatch of hair, carelessly rumpled clothes; the startling, much interpreted declaration Je est un autre (“I is someone else”); the fact that he produced a masterly, innovative and influential body of poetry while still in his teens; that he stopped writing around age 21 and never went back to it, engaging thereafter in various sometimes mysterious commercial and mystical enterprises in exotic locations, including a period of gun- running in Africa (and, oddly, an attempt to enlist in the United States Navy).
He died of cancer in a Marseilles hospital in 1891, still young — having in effect compressed what for others would have been a long lifetime of artistic revolution and exotic adventure into just 37 years. A deepened and more detailed acquaintance with the legend does not disappoint: he is one of those exceptional meteoric individuals whose very eruption and subsequent accomplishments remain dazzling and difficult to explain away.
Arthur Rimbaud was born in 1854 in Charleville, in the northeast of France close to the Belgian border, to a sour-tempered, repressively pious mother and a mostly absent soldier father who disappeared for good when Rimbaud was 6. He excelled in school, reading voraciously and retentively and regularly carrying off most of his grade’s year-end academic prizes. Early poems were written not just in French but sometimes in Latin and Greek and included a 60-line ode, dedicated (and sent) to Napoleon III’s young son, and a fanciful rendering of a math assignment.
He had announced in a letter written when he was only 16 that he intended to create an entirely new kind of poetry, written in an entirely new language, through a “rational derangement of all the senses,” and when, not yet 17, he made his first successful escape to Paris, financed by the older poet Paul Verlaine, he came prepared to change the world, or at least literature. He was immediately a colorful figure: the filthy, lice-infested, intermittently bewitching young rebel with large hands and feet, whose mission required scandalizing the conventional-minded and defying moral codes not only through his verse but through his rude, self-destructive and anarchical behavior; the brilliantly skillful and versatile poet not only of the occasional sentimental subject (orphans receiving gifts on New Year’s Day) but also of lovely scatological verse; the child-faced young innovator whose literary development evolved from poem to poem at lightning speed.
In Paris, he became close friends and soon lovers — openly gay behavior being very much a part of his project of self- exploration and defiance of society — with Verlaine, whose own poetry Rimbaud had already admired from a distance, with its transgression of traditional formal constraints including, shockingly, bridging the caesura in the alexandrine line. (Although this line occurred in Verlaine’s third book, Rimbaud may well also have been familiar with the first, “Poèmes saturniens,” or “Poems Under Saturn,” which was published in 1866 and has recently appeared in a deftly rhymed and metered new translation by Karl Kirchwey that offers it for the first time in English as an integral volume.) Their stormy relationship, which extended into Belgium and England and lasted a surprising length of time, was richly productive literarily on both sides.
Rimbaud has therefore been the perfect subject, for 120 years now, of sanctification, vilification, multiple rival exegeses, obfuscation, memoirs that rely on often faulty recollection — all of which has generated, of course, many times the few hundred pages left by the poet himself in the form of letters, juvenilia, some 80 poems, including the 100-line “Drunken Boat,” written when he was still 16, and the nine-section confessional and self-condemnatory prose sequence “A Season in Hell,” besides what was close to his last work, the sequence of mostly prose poems called “Illuminations.”
If the dating of all the poems in this last work cannot be verified precisely, neither can their proper order or the circumstances leading up to their publication. The rather unreliable Verlaine tells us that after he was released from prison in 1875 — he had shot Rimbaud in the arm in a Brussels hotel room — the younger poet handed him a pile of loose pages and asked him to find a publisher. After passing through several hands, the poems appeared in the magazine La Vogue 10 years later, in 1886, having been prepared for publication by Félix Fénéon (journalist, publisher and author of the bizarre collection of police-blotter-generated newspaper fillers published as “Novels in Three Lines” by New York Review Books in 2007).
Asked many years later, Fénéon could not remember whether the order was his own or whether he had preserved the order in which he received them — although, since he did not receive them directly from Rimbaud, that order was not necessarily the author’s. The work was greeted at the time with some laudatory reviews, though not many copies were bought.
Formally, “Illuminations” — the title may refer to engraved illustrations, to epiphanies or flashes of insight, or to the productions of the poet-seer who has transformed himself into pure light — consists of 43 poems ranging from a few lines to works of several sections covering multiple pages; some are in large blocks of type, some in paragraphs so brief they are virtually two-line stanzas. (At least once, a single comma at the end of the paragraph magically turns it into a strophe.) Only three poems have broken lines.
Despite the uncertainty of its dates of composition, “Illuminations” is quite clearly written after Rimbaud’s most defiant and scurrilous phase had passed. It does not contain the explicit playful or lyrical obscenity of earlier times, but rather a subtler incandescent or ecstatic range of congruous and incongruous, urban and pastoral imagery, and historical and mythological reference often grounded in near-recognizable autobiographical narrative. A wealth of images — mineral, industrial, theatrical, royal, natural and nostalgic — often develop by leaps of immediate personal association rather than by sequential or narrative logic, employing the techniques of Surrealism decades before it existed as a movement. The poems shift in tone and register from the matter of fact to the highly rhetorical (“O world!”), the statements from the simple (“the hand of the countryside on my shoulder”) to the more abstruse (“He is affection and the present since he opened the house to foaming winter and the hum of summer”), while always departing from and returning to a concrete, sensory world. The more narrative poems — faux-reminiscences, exhortations, modern fairy tales — are punctuated by verse consisting almost solely of exclamatory lists of sentence fragments, what sound like celebrations of repeated amazement, contributing to create what John Ashbery, in his brief but enlightening preface to his new translation, calls “the crystalline jumble of Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations,’ like a disordered collection of magic lantern slides, each an ‘intense and rapid dream,’ in his words.”
Ashbery has said he first read Rimbaud when he was 16, and he clearly took to heart the young poet’s declaration that “you must be absolutely modern” — absolute modernity being, as Ashbery says in his preface, “the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all of life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second.” When Rimbaud’s mother asked of “A Season in Hell,” “What does it mean?” — a question still asked of Rimbaud’s poetry, and of Ashbery’s, too — Rimbaud would say only, “It means what it says, literally and in every sense.”
If Rimbaud anticipated the Surrealists by decades, Ashbery is said to have gone beyond them and defied even their rules and logic. Yet though nearly 150 years have intervened since Rimbaud’s first declaration of independence, many readers in our own age, too, still prefer a coherence of imagery, a sameness of tone, a readable sequential message, even, ultimately, what amounts to a prose narrative broken into lines. Enough others, however, find the “crystalline jumble” intellectually and emotionally revitalizing and say, Yes, please do interrupt the reverie you have created for us to allow an intrusion of Popeye!
Besides his early absorption of Rimbaud’s work, Ashbery brings to this translation a long and deep familiarity with French life, language and culture, particularly artistic and literary culture, and the experience of having translated many other French works over the years — by Pierre Reverdy, Raymond Roussel, Max Jacob, Pierre Martory (as well as at least one detective novel, as the amusingly renamed Jonas Berry). These translations are part of a larger body of Ashbery’s work that has served to offer us — his largely monolingual Anglophone readership — access to poets of another culture, either foreign or earlier in time. (Notable, for instance, is his keenly investigatory, instructive and engrossing “Other Traditions,” the six Norton Lectures that open our eyes to the work of such luminaries as John Clare and Laura Riding.) In tandem, then, with his own 20-plus books of poetry (not to mention his teaching and his critical writings on the visual arts), Ashbery has extended his generous explicating intelligence to the work of many others, most recently in “Illuminations.”
In a meticulously faithful yet nimbly inventive translation, Ashbery’s approach has been to stay close to the original, following the line of the sentence, retaining the order of ideas and images, reproducing even eccentric or inconsistent punctuation. He shifts away from the closest translation only where necessary, and there is plenty of room within this close adherence for vibrant and less obvious English word choices. One of the pleasures of the translation, for instance, is the concise, mildly archaic Anglo-Saxon vocabulary he occasionally deploys — “hued” for teinte and “clad” for revêtus, “chattels” for possessions— or a more particular or flavorful English for a more general or blander French: “lush” for riches, “hum of summer” for rumeur de l’été, “trembling” for mouvantes.
Even a simple problem reveals his skill. In one section of the poem “Childhood,” there occurs the following portrayal of would-be tranquillity: “I rest my elbows on the table, the lamp illuminates these newspapers that I’m a fool for rereading, these books of no interest.” The two words sans intérêt (“without interest”) allow for surprisingly many solutions, as one can see from a quick sampling of previous translations. Yet these other choices are either less rhythmical than the French — “uninteresting,” “empty of interest” — or they do not retain the subtlety of the French: “mediocre,” “boring,” “idiotic.” Ashbery’s “books of no interest” is quietly matter-of-fact and dismissive, like the French, rhythmically satisfying and placed, like the original, at the end of the sentence.
It takes one sort of linguistic sensitivity to stay close to the original in a pleasing way; another to bring a certain inventiveness to one’s choices without being unfaithful. Ashbery’s ingenuity is evident at many moments in the book, and an especially lovely example occurs in the same poem: he has translated Qu’on me loue enfin ce tombeau, blanchi à la chaux as “Let someone finally rent me this tomb, whited with quicklime.” Here, his “whited with quicklime” (rather than “whitewashed,” the choice of all the other translations I found) at once exploits the possibilities of assonance and introduces the echo of the King James “whited sepulcher” without betraying the meaning of the original.
Some of the translations in this book have appeared previously in literary journals one by one over the past two years or so — evidently done slowly over time, as translations ought to be, especially of poems, and especially of these poems, given their extreme compression, their tonal and stylistic shifts, their liberating importance in the history of poetry. We are fortunate that John Ashbery has turned his attention to a text he knows so well, and brought to it such care and imaginative resourcefulness