Arthur Rimbaud, the absolute archetype of artist as rebel, became a
mythic figure in his own lifetime. Since his death in a Marseilles
hospital in 1891, the life of this brilliantly original poet who was
never to write a line of verse again after the age of 18, has been the
subject of some 10 books and an average of 87 articles every year. The
most recent of which is the massive — 551 pages — new biography by
distinguished author Graham Robb.
Robb devoted two earlier works to two of France’s greatest literary
figures: Victor Hugo and Balzac whose creative lives and collected
volumes extended far beyond that of Rimbaud. (Balzac, by the way, had a
first name — it just wasn’t used on his books.) What is original in
Robb’s book is how he has set straight, for the first time, the facts on
Rimbaud’s life in Africa.
Until quite recently, the consensus was that Rimbaud’s life in Africa
was strictly downhill, entangled in trade, gunrunning and such on a
small, non-remunerative scale. But, as Robb puts it, that period of his
life turns out to be “an important chapter in the Scramble for Africa.”
Furthermore, he claims “apart from Victor Hugo, no French poet of the
late nineteenth century had a greater impact on imperial politics or
earned more money.”
Now that’s a statement to rock people who are acquainted with the
traditional view of the bad boy of French letters’ life back on their
heels. But, putting together account books, notes, letters and such,
Robb establishes clearly that at the peak of Rimbaud’s stay in Ethiopia
(then known as Abyssinia), not long before the cancerous tumor developed
on his knee which would lead to his death, the boy genius had proved
himself an admirably skilled businessman worth something over $100,000
— a sum very considerable indeed for the time.
True, as a youth in a private boys’ school in his native Charleville,
Belgium, Rimbaud walked away with every prize the school had to offer,
including one for the best translation of classic Latin verse. His
father, a captain in the French Army only came home on leave to engender
yet another child on one of the most unappealing women in literary
history. After the birth of a fifth child, he never returned.
Rimbaud’s mother began calling herself the Widow Rimbaud and reared her
three sons and one daughter (another daughter died in infancy) with a
harsh hand. Love was an emotion unknown and unseen in the Rimbaud
At 17, he succeeded in running away from home to Paris at the height
of the French-Prussian War during the Commune. In a brief time, he
became the darling of the hot young poets of the day. He seduced Paul
Verlaine — a celebrated poet in his own right, some 14 years his senior
— inducing him to run away with him, deserting a wife and three small
As Robb declares, “Rimbaud has become since his death one of the most
destructive and liberating influences of twentieth century culture.
Thanks to the Internet, legends of Rimbaud continue to proliferate more
rapidly than ever, aligning him with the likes of Bruce Chatwin and Kurt
Cobain.” As a matter of fact, author Robb has his own website where you
the poet’s complete works.
Curiously enough, back in the early ’70s on assignment from the Los Angles Times, I went to Ethiopia to cover a filming of the life of Rimbaud starring a bleached blond Terry Stamp as the eponymous poet maudit. The film unfortunately had a disappointing career — maybe its timing was off. Stamp, as I recollect, made a most convincing Rimbaud.
While there, we made an excursion to Harar, where Rimbaud lived out most of his African years. Robb, who also visited the small town in retracing the poet’s steps, found it dusty and unimpressive — which it is — but he seemed indifferent to the extraordinary vividness of the small community. The local people are purple-black, dressed in Day-Glo scarlet, turquoise and emerald robes, glistening silver bracelets glinting on their upperarms. The flowers about the town are equally brilliant in hue. The market place has sellers of qat, a shiny bright green plant with properties somewhere between marijuana and cocaine, which the local people chew upon. Our guide claimed it gave people a quiet buzz.
I can’t help thinking: Rimbaud, coming from the gray, ugly, small Belgian north as he did, found in Harar every day the richness of life he sought — and no longer needed to seek it in verse. It may be noted, as iconic rebel figures go, he wrote every month to his mother and, in his last years, was asking her to find him a good wife. He wanted, he wrote, to have a son to raise.