(Arthur Rimbaud, F.C. St. Aubyn)
… The six quatrains of five-syllable lines reveal a varying rhyme scheme with the sixth quatrain repeating the first. The claim is that eternity has been rediscovered at the moment the sea disappears in the fading light of day. Eternity is, after all, made up of an infinite number of such evanescent moments. With our soul as witness we must avow that the night into which the sea and sun disappeared is nothing, first, because we sleep through it, unaware that time has passed, and second, because we know nothing of the final night into which we all disappear which is for us a nothingness. The day is on fire with the light of the sun from which no one escapes. The soul wrenches itself free from the emptiness of human praise and the futility of the pitiful bursts of enthusiasm we all share and soars according to its whim anywhere out of this world, in eternity for example. Only in the satiny glowing embers of the sun does Duty find an expression without end, because where the sun is concerned there is no “at last,” only a “forever.” At that moment there is no hope in life or in religion … In our human condition and with our knowledge and patience we know that suffering is inevitable and eternal, our life but the moment the sea disappears with the sun in the day of eternity. The poem is another of Rimbaud’s minor miracles. …
(The Design of Rimbaud’s Poetry, John Porter Houston)
The poet passes beyond the barrier of temporality and the recollection of the world of mankind…
1st Stanza – Air and sea, eternity and endless space fuse together in this vision of summer light. The curious use of the past participle of aller is particularly remarkable in the way it suggests the movement of the seascape out toward infinity. The imagery of light is further developed in subsequent stanzas.
2nd Stanza – The soul in its tower has come to an end of its lonely vigil: the brief summer night has vanished as well as time, and the poet has realized the one ultimate truth which is the sun. Lightness is associated with sunshine, and in this purification by fire the poet soars over mankind.
3rd-6th Stanzas – Fire is also, however, symbolic of rigor, and the poet’s experience of illumination is not a banal ecstasy but a timeless, sustained trial–free from hope in the future as from regret for the past.
The Drunken Boat
(Rimbaud’s Poetic Practice: Image and Theme in the Major Poems, W.M. Frohock)
… The poem is a narrative. Something or someone, who speaks in the first person, glides down “impassive” rivers to tide water, and then for ten nights (and presumably days) is tossed about by the tumultuous waters of the open sea. The experience is a joyful one, and at the end the speaker has a feeling of freedom and purification. Now begins a new experience, which lasts for months, during which, either in the sea or upon it, the speaker actually sees what other men have thought they glimpsed from time to time — and there follows a catalogue of the wonders of the sea. But there comes a moment when the “I” who is speaking is tired of, or unequal to the vision, and wishes to return to ordinary life again. Straightway he is at home, looking back upon his experience, and being sorry that he cannot renew it. The only water in Europe which attracts him is the shallow pool where a child (perhaps himself) is sailing a paper boat on a spring evening. But he no longer has the strength, or the courage, to resume his visionary voyage. …
The “Seer” Letters
(Rimbaud, Graham Robb)
Rimbaud’s sermon of 15 May 1871 is commonly referred to as the Lettre du voyant (‘Letter of the Seer’). On a first reading, it hardly seems to deserve such a grand title. ‘Letter of the Excited Schoolboy’ would give a more accurate impression of the torrential arguments and half-digested readings – alchemists, socialists, psychologists and mechanistic philosophers.
The main points appear to be these:
1. The true poet is a ‘seer’, but a seer who creates new realities and becomes the pioneer of a new race. For this, a special training programme is required.
The first study of the man who wishes to be a poet is complete knowledge of himself. He searches his mind, inspects it, tries it out and learns to use it. As soon as he knows his mind, he must cultivate it.
‘Cultivation’ was to consist of tinkering with the mind as God created it, ‘to make the soul monstrous’: ‘Imagine a man planting and cultivating warts on his face.’ To the notion of a ‘derangement of all the senses’, he now added the crucial adjective: ‘raisonne’ (‘reasoned’ or ‘rational’). This was not to be a simple hallucinogenic stupor. It was a scientific experiment. Drugs would certainly play a role in the process of sensory derailment, but not yet. Charleville had no opium dens, and hashish, though legal, was a rare commodity.
2. The poet-seer will create a new ‘universal language’.
This language will be soul for soul’s sake, summing up everything, perumes, sounds and colours, thought latching on to thought and pulling.
Though it sounds like aesthetics-fiction, this is actually a workable desciption of the idiom Rimbaud was already developing – the merging of the different senses, images spiralling off other images instead of referring back to the controlling ‘I’: a poetic equivalent of the Copernican revolution.
3. The new age will be an age of unbridled intelligence, reminiscent of a socialist utopia.
These poets will be! When the endless servitude of woman is broken, when she lives for and by herself, man — who until now has been abominable — will release her from her duties and she too will be a poet! She will find the unknown! Will her worlds of thought differ from our own? She will discover strange, unfathomable, repulsive and delicious things. We will take them and understand them.
4. To emphasize the novelty of his scheme, Rimbaud ended with a high-speed, 600-word history of poetry from antiquaty to the present. It was a tale of stupidity, sloth and accidental insight. Since the end of the Golden Age, poetry had been nothing but ‘rhymed prose, a game, the corpulence and glory of countless idiotic generations’. A complete waste of effort.
The first Romantics were swine to their own pearls: ‘seers without really noticing’. The Parnassians had tried to galvanize the ancient corpse of Greek poetry, while Victor Hugo, despite being ‘pig-headed’, had glimpsed ‘the unknown’ in his visionary poems and in Les Misérables….
But since inspecting the invisible and listening to the unheard-of is something other than reviving the spirit of dead things, Baudelaire is the first seer, the king of poets, a real God. Even then, the milieu in which he lived was too arty; and the form that is supposed to be his finest is stingy. Inventing the unknown calls for new forms.
The history ended with a scrapyard of second-rate poets. Rimbaud divided all the Parnassians into mock categories: ‘innocents’, ‘school-boys’, ‘dead men and imbeciles’, ‘journalists’, ‘Bohemians’, etc. Only two were classified as ‘seers’ – a forgotten Parnassian called Albert Mérat and Paul Verlaine, ‘a true poet’.
For all its insults, the Lettre du voyant is a gripping piece of literary criticism, a curiously plausible attempt to reconcile the two antagonistic trends of nineteenth-century poetry: the ‘bourgeois’ belief in endless technological progress and the spiritual aspirations of the Romantics. For Baudelaire, poetry had been a source of consoling illusions. For Rimbaud, these shimmering illusions would one day solidify into social fact. Poetry would no longer simply keep step with reality: ‘it will precede it’….
Rimbaud’s willingness to take his own mind seriously should not be underestimated. He was still trying to resolve the dilemma he had raised in the Ophelia poem: to enter the ‘unknown’, the poet had to divest himself of personal identity; but without that identity, how could the visions be comprehended? How could ‘derangement’ be reconciled with ‘reason’?
If there was any insincerity in the letter, it lay in the humdrum details. He signed off with a hint that he was about to go and join his brother anarchists in Paris. But since the perimeter defences had been breached by a vindictive government army and since the Commune was obviously doomed, this may simply have been a ruse to extract a swift response from Demeny.