Apparently it is virtually impossible to talk about Arthur
Rimbaud's writings without talking about his life. Most critics,
before the post-structuralist period, interpret Rimbaud's earlier
poetry, the Illuminations and Une Saison en enfer (as well as the
"voyant" letters Rimbaud wrote to Georges Izambard and Paul
Demeny in May 1871), by explaining, in various ways, Rimbaud's
psychological state at the time the work was written. Wallace
Fowlie, for example, begins his early study Rimbaud (1946) by
saying "the poetry of Rimbaud is childhood itself," equating the
poetry with the person, and Henry Miller says flatly, "With
Rimbaud, creation and experience were virtually simultaneous"
(The Time of the Assassins, 99).1 [For notes, see link at bottom of page]
One critic feels compelled to point out that Enid Starkie's critical
biography Arthur Rimbaud is more biography than criticism, but
her book gives the clear impression that the smallest details of
Rimbaud's life are essential for interpreting his writings accurately,
in other than post-structuralist contexts.
That critics would proceed on a biographical-psychological basis is
understandable. For one thing Rimbaud's life is fascinating because
of the incredible intensities of emotion, intellect and bad luck which
seemed to go everywhere with him. Or again, his sister Isabelle and
her husband set out deliberately after Rimbaud's death in 1891 to
concoct a legend around his life, much as Nietzsche's sister tried to
do. One story which stuck, and which is still repeated and
explained, was that Une Saison en enfer was Rimbaud's "farewe1l"
to literature, Isabelle and her husband claiming that Rimbaud
destroyed all printed copies and never wrote another line of poetry.
The story captured the impressionable imaginations of many young
poets at the turn of the century, but in 1914 a Belgian critic found
the entire edition of the book in the print shop basement,
languishing there because Rimbaud simply didn't have the money to
pay the printer's bill in 1873.
The story nonetheless framed textual questions of intense interest
for the next sixty years: what, if anything (apart from letters and a
few travel pieces for the British Geographical Society), did
Rimbaud write after August of 1873, and is there textual evidence to
show that some of the Illuminations were written in 1873 or 18747
The debates are clever, numerous and interesting, although their
specifics are not important to the focus of this paper. Some say all
the Illuminations were written by 1872; others date them after
1873; others say they were written before during and after 1873.2
One point of agreement is that during 1874 Rimbaud expressed to
Paul Verlaine and Germain Nouveau an interest in publishing the
This fact is significant to this discussion because it means Rimbaud
did not completely dismiss literature after the personal struggle he
endured in completing Une Saison en enfer. In his sister's legend,
Rimbaud's farewell to literature upon completing Une Saison can be
understood as an extravagant gesture by a disillusioned young man
of letters. Part of the force of Une Saison, however, inheres in the
powerful sense that the spiritual sufferings recorded there were real,
not only imaginatively, but literally. These sufferings, furthermore,
resemble the personal sufferings of many western mystics, and at
this point, Rimbaud's actual experience becomes of great interest.
We are no longer asking only what Rimbaud means by all this
confusing imagery, but also if, more than engaging in a literary
endeavor, he is describing the human soul in a quest for divinity.
As a mere gesture, a farewell to literature would strongly suggest
an essentially literary or aesthetic endeavor in which the struggle
was to write great poetry. But if the struggle was to find God, the
poems themselves being the struggle's expressive by-product, then
in mystical terms it makes sense that Rimbaud would renounce. in a
fit of despair, a method of spiritual awakening which involved
creative activity (the writing of poetry) as an essential element. It
would also make sense for him to regain an interest in his poetry
after surfacing from the despair again. He did regain his interest in
publishing the Illuminations, but as this essay will show, there were
specific spiritual reasons for ceasing to write poetry.
To understand these cryptic remarks and explain why Rimbaud's
poetry is not simply radical poetic experimentation, but the record
Arthur Rimbaud and the Mystic Way
By Dana Wilde
of a mystic or contemplative life, Evelyn Underhill's description of
the five stages of mystic experience, and some specific terminology
of contemplative poetry developed by Arthur Clements in Poetry of
Contemplation, provide a framework. While Starkie, Gwendolyn
Bays and others speak specifically of Rimbaud's use of alchemical
and occult ideas in his poetry (details useful in sorting out specific
imagery), the aim of this essay is to make the mystical, or
contemplative elements of Rimbaud's life and poetry clear.
Rimbaud's biography really is important in this context because not
only is his poetry childhood itself, but it conveys in the purest
possible terms Rimbaud's spiritual life between 1871 and 1873. His
poetry and his life seem inextricable from each other.
Underhill's overview of the mystic way provides a key to
understanding the transcendental process which most mystics, and
Rimbaud, follow in their lives and describe in their writings. In her
classic study Mysticism, Underhill explains the five stages in the
mystic's progress toward God: l) Awakening or Conversion; 2)
Purgation; 3) Illumination; 4) Purification or the Dark Night of the
Soul; and 5) Union.3 Rimbaud proceeded through the first four of
these stages and broke off before attaining actual contemplative
"union." The whole process is tied in complicated ways to his
writing: when he ceases writing, he ceases his intense drive toward
God, as shown at the end of Une Saison en enfer, to be discussed in
more detail later.
Underhill describes the first stage, Conversion, as "a sharp and
sudden break with the old and obvious way of seeing things"
(Mysticism, 192). Conversion is a reaction of the natural self, as
opposed to the social or normal self, to an "uprush of new truth"
(194). In Rimbaud's case, conversion coincides with adolescence,
when, having been the prize student, he at the age of fifteen drops
out of school and focuses attention on two things: poetry, and
escaping from his domineering mother. It is not clear that
Rimbaud's conversion involved a vision or a transcendent
experience; probably it did not. But it did involve a personal
awakening to the strictures of both personal and social life,
strictures which he found intolerable and set out to change.
His personal and social life was dominated by his mother and the
church, and as his poetry progressed rapidly out of an imitative
stage, he began to write more original poems critical of the church
and religion generally - critical, and eventually worse, as in his
famous piece of graffiti "Dieu merde," and in "Les Premiers
Communions," where he begins:
Vraiment, c'est bête, ces églises des villages
Oú quinze laids marmots encrassant les piliers
Ecoutent, grasseyant les divins babillages,
Un noir grotesque dont fermentent les souliers
and ends speaking of "Christ! ô Christ, éternel voleur des énergies"
(126). This is no conventional awakening, and there is no reason to
think at this point that it has anything to do with mystical or
contemplative problems at all. Rimbaud exhibits typical adolescent
rebellion. but unlike most boys his age, acts it out in poetry. With
Rimbaud the rebellion is complicated because at this early age he is
already aware of his own opposition to the oppressive moral and
social climate of his culture, a climate other writers, such as
Baudelaire. Flaubert. Villiers and Nietzsche, would also react to
With Rimbaud the reaction is more violent and intense. Viewing
the church - the traditional moral and spiritual center of society-as
ugly (and probably inimical to spiritual matters) and as the
upholder of conventional morality, his impulse is to reject and even
to foul it. Significantly, his inner rejection of the church and Christ
is also a poetic act. Even this early, poetry is part of the process of
his life and not an ornament or career. His natural adolescent
awakening is instantly elevated to an intense personal struggle
against everything he knows, which is his "break with the old
obvious way of seeing things."
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This article first appeared in Cauda Pavonis:
Studies in Hermeticism, Fall 1995.