Book: Rimbaud

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Rimbaud: A Biography

Author: Graham Robb
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

The poet’s life was stranger than any fiction: explorer, mercenary, gun runner, and companion to slave traders. Unknown beyond the avant-garde at the time of his death, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) has been one of the most destructive and liberating influences on twentieth-century culture. During his lifetime he was a bourgeois-baiting visionary, a reinventor of language and perception, a breaker of taboos. The list of his known crimes is longer than the list of his published poems.

But his posthumous career is even more astonishing: saint to symbolists and surrealists; poster child for anarchy and drug use; gay pioneer; and a major influence on such artists as Picasso, Bob Dylan, and Jim Morrison. At the age of twenty-one, Rimbaud turned his back on his artistic achievement. For his remaining sixteen years he lived in exile, ending up as a major explorer and arms trader in Abyssinia.

The genius of Graham Robb’s account is to join the two halves of this life, to show Rimbaud’s wild and unsettling poetry as a blueprint for the exotic adventures to come. This is the story of Rimbaud the explorer, in mind and in matter.


When he was not yet 17, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91) electrified Paris’s literary society with the incendiary poems that later made him the guiding saint of 20th-century rebels, from Pablo Picasso to Jim Morrison. “A Season in Hell,

The Drunken Boat,” and the prose poems of Illuminations were epochal works that changed the nature of an art form—and yet their author abandoned poetry at age 21 and spent the rest of his short life as a colonial adventurer in Arabia and Africa. “He was writing in a void,” explains British scholar Graham Robb. “In 1876, most of Rimbaud’s admirers either were still in the nursery or had yet to be conceived.” Hardly surprising, since the poet was a difficult and frequently unpleasant person to actually know. The Parisian poets who took him under their wing soon discovered that Rimbaud was ungrateful, crude, and as scornful of their precious verse as he was of the Catholic Church, bourgeois proprieties, and everything else his disapproving mother held dear. Rimbaud’s stormy affair with Paul Verlaine estranged the older poet from his wife and, eventually, from most of his artistic friends as well. In Robb’s depiction, the poet possessed from his earliest youth a restless, searching intellect that permitted no compromise with convention nor tenderness for others’ weaknesses. The author doesn’t soften Rimbaud’s “savage cynicism” or gloss over his frequently obnoxious behavior, yet Robb arouses our admiration for “one of the great Romantic imaginations, festering in damp, provincial rooms like an intelligent disease.” Like Robb’s excellent biographies of Hugo and Balzac, this sharp, subtle, unsentimental portrait is both erudite and beautifully written. —Wendy Smith

Arthur Rimbaud was a extraordinary figure, a man who in his teenage year s wrote poetry that is arguably amongst the greatest in French Literature, but who gave it all up by his early 20s and went to Africa to run guns. It’s hard to think of a more fascinating figure from the 19th century, or one more relevant to the youth-icon-fixated present. Robb’s biography inhabits the superlative mode: Rimbaud has been “one of the most destructive and liberating influences on twentieth-century literature”, a spiritual soulmate to Patti Smith and Kurt Cobain. “For many readers (including this one)”, he confesses, “the revelation of Rimbaud’s poetry is one of the decisive events of adolescence”. The poet’s letter to his old teacher in 1871 (in which he famously asserted that “je est une autre”—”I is somebody else”) is “one of the most important aesthetic texts” of the age. In 1873 Rimbaud was shot in the arm by his lover Verlaine; the bullet was extracted by the police surgeon. “If it ever emerges from a police archive”, Robb asserts, “it will probably become one of the holiest relics in modern literature”. It’s possible to imagine that some readers may find this energetic a little outré, but at the least all this authorial excitement has the zing of authenticity; Robb convinces you that Rimbaud’s work does really matter. If you don’t already possess a copy of his poetry, reading this fizzingly brilliant biography will compel you to go out and purchase one at once. And Robb’s work has all the scholarly virtues of solid research and a detailed sense of time and place. But the real genius of this book is that it encourages the reader to enter imaginatively into the hectic intensity of Rimbaud’s short life so completely that even the subject’s out-and-out obnoxiousness—stabbing his friends with knives, breaking marriages, sponging off all and sundry, being utterly unreliable and drinking himself into the grave—seem like radical acts of anti-bourgeois revolution. Rimbaud’s philosophy of “scummification” (“je m’encrapule!” he declared), which meant that he washed neither himself nor his clothes, and deliberately sought out a life at the very bottom of society, was more than an adolescent cussedness. This book is a triumph. —Adam Roberts

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