Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) was a remarkable French poet for reasons as serious as his great influence on the Surrealist movement, to as trivial as he and I almost sharing a birthday (I share a birthday with Coleridge, which is satisfying enough). Rimbaud was, to put it bluntly, sort of nuts–a self-proclaimed and self-cultivated madman. To make himself into a true “seer,” a true poet, he believed in deranging all of his senses, and that through immense suffering he would arrive to unknowns unreachable from within the conventional.
To introduce the poem I am about to share, it is worth mentioning that he had a tumultuous romantic relationship with Paul Verlaine, a symbolist poet who left this pregnant wife to go live with Rimbaud, in poverty and alcoholism (in London’s Camdentown, where I have had a handful of memorable experiences). These two loved too intensely perhaps: one of their fights resulted in Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the wrist with a revolver. This ended the relationship, but not the connection they had so intricately established.
Rimbaud wrote most of his poetry in his teens, and died young as well, at 37. Critics claim that the poem “A Season in Hell,” very well-known and written shortly before his death, is about his relationship with Verlaine. This is an obvious inference to make, but inessential to appreciating the poem–a poem so honest in its misery, the pleasure of miseries past, and the fear of what misery is to come (namely, death). It is the final, fearful gasp of a short life lived fast.
A Season in Hell
|by Arthur Rimbaud
translated by Bertrand Mathieu
|A while back, if I remember right, my life was one long party where all hearts were open wide, where all wines kept flowing.One night, I sat Beauty down on my lap.—And I found her galling.—And I roughed her up.I armed myself against justice.I ran away. O witches, O misery, O hatred, my treasure’s been turned over to you!
I managed to make every trace of human hope vanish from my mind. I pounced on every joy like a ferocious animal eager to strangle it.
I called for executioners so that, while dying, I could bite the butts of their rifles. I called for plagues to choke me with sand, with blood. Bad luck was my god. I stretched out in the muck. I dried myself in the air of crime. And I played tricks on insanity.
And Spring brought me the frightening laugh of the idiot.
So, just recently, when I found myself on the brink of the final squawk! it dawned on me to look again for the key to that ancient party where I might find my appetite once more.
Charity is that key.—This inspiration proves I was dreaming!
“You’ll always be a hyena etc. . . ,” yells the devil, who’d crowned me with such pretty poppies. “Deserve death with all your appetites, your selfishness, and all the capital sins!”
Ah! I’ve been through too much:-But, sweet Satan, I beg of you, a less blazing eye! and while waiting for the new little cowardly gestures yet to come, since you like an absence of descriptive or didactic skills in a writer, let me rip out these few ghastly pages from my notebook of the damned.