Friday, November 6, 2015

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~

The Seekers
Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891)

When the boy’s head, full of raw torment,
Longs for hazy dreams to swarm in white,
Two charming older sisters come to his bed
With slender fingers and silvery nails. 

They sit him at a casement window, thrown
Open on a mass of flowers basking in blue air,
And run the fine, intimidating witchcraft
Of their  fingers through his dew-dank hair. 

He listens to their diffident, sing-song breath,
Smelling of elongated honey off the rose,
Broken now and then by a hiss: saliva sucked
Back from the lip, or a longing to be kissed. 

He hears their dark eyelashes start in the sweet-
Smelling silence and, through his grey listlessness,
The crackle of small lice dying, beneath
The imperious nails of their soft, electric fingers. 

The wine of Torpor wells up in him then
— Near on trance, a harmonica-sigh —
And in their slow caress he feels
The endless ebb and flow of a desire to cry.

Translation: Jeremy Harding

Who hasn't heard of Rimbaud – the wild-living French prodigy who in his teens produced amazing poems which have had a huge influence on other poets, artists and musicians ever since, stopped writing them at 20, travelled to exotic countries, became a merchant trading in arms, ivory and coffee, and died from cancer at 37?

I have certainly known of him since my own teens, but had never actually read his poetry until recently, though I have read many poets who acknowledge his influence. Having finally caught up with his work, I am struck by its intensity and 'over-the-top' quality.

In the Wikipedia article (link on his name, above) he is quoted as saying:

I'm now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I'm working at turning myself into a seer. … The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. It's really not my fault.

His poetic philosophy is set out metaphorically in his poem The Drunken Boat.  

I love The Seekers for its wonderful evocation of the thoughts and feelings of the child. The subject matter is unusual for poetry, to say the least (probably even more so in his day) and the boy's viewpoint is far from mundane – yet it has the ring of authenticity. And the language is wonderful. 

This is the best translation I found (a subjective opinion, of course) and probably the most recent. It is from a Penguin collection of his poems and letters, published in 2004.  The Rimbaud pages at Amazon are comprehensive. There have been a number of translations and much written about him.

The Wikipedia article outlines his scandalous life as well as his poetic career.

An article at The Poetry Foundation gives a detailed analysis of his writing, beginning with this introduction:

It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry on subsequent practitioners of the genre. His impact on the Surrealist movement has been widely acknowledged and a host of poets, from Andre Breton to André Freynaud, have recognized their indebtedness to Rimbaud’s vision and technique. He was the enfant terrible of French poetry in the second half of the nineteenth century and a major figure in symbolism.

and further stating:

Rimbaud’s early poems, the Poésies, were written between 1869 and 1872 and published by Verlaine in 1895. They are, superficially, his most orthodox works in technical terms. Closer inspection, however, reveals in them many indicators of a precocious poet setting out “trouver une langue” (to find a language), as he said in the letter of 15 May 1871, and, ultimately, to revolutionize the genre. ... [They] display Rimbaud’s urge to extend the poetic idiom, to transcend the strictures and constraints of orthodox verse and to take poetry on an audacious journey into previously unsuspected technical and visionary realms.

All of which he realised in his later verse. Academy of American Poets says:

His poem “Voyelles” invoked synesthesia, marking him as a founder of French symbolism, and his Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) is considered one of the first works of free verse. His poetry was subconsciously inspired and highly suggestive....

It was a lot to accomplish during a few years in his youth, whilst also living a colourful, adventurous life!

Poems and photos posted to 'The Living Dead' for purposes of study and review remain the property of the copyright holders.


  1. Wonderful poetry and a delight to read indeed. Greetings.

  2. A new discovery for me...thank you.

  3. I had heard of him, but had not read his work - this selection is amazing. He sounds one of those amazingly brilliant prodigies who comes along now and then. His life, while brief, sounds intense and amazing. Thanks for this, Rosemary. I really like the rhythm of this poem, and how it captures some of the depth of feeling children have, that rarely gets expressed this well.

  4. Thanks for this! I have been curious about him of late, and here is a wonderful starting place!

  5. Thank you for introducing us to a new poet. Our heritage as writers!

  6. Really, what a wonderful poem share, Rosemary. I have heard of Rimbaud, but really don't think I have read his works. This is a beautiful work, and I enjoyed learning a bit about his life. Oh, I wonder what he could have produced if he had continued to write poetry beyond the age of 20. And so sad that he died at age he might have turned back to writing more poetry later in life. As always, Rosemary, you awe me wth your articles!

  7. What a great choice, Rosemary! In France his poems are well-known and learned in schooll. His wilder side was glossed over in text books. Now it is mentioned as is his affair with fellow poet Verlaine.

    1. It seemed to me so well-known and so often remarked on, that there wasn't much need to go into detail here. But I'm glad to know the text-books give a fuller account these days.

  8. I'm not a fan of Rimbaud. I have tried. Seeing him through your eyes helps a little, and this poem touches me. With a lot of his work I feel left out of the party, and it's odd because I enjoy surrealist art so much you'd think I could get behind his images. Thanks for keeping your column so daring and full of life.

    1. I am not a big fan either, Susan, of the pieces I have finally read ... but this one has an unusual charm, I think.

  9. i have heard of Rimbaud, but did not read his poems. i followed the link to the Drunken Boat and quite liked the poem. wondered how his poetry would have evolved or mellowed if he had lived longer. colourful life (trading in arms!).
    thank you, Rosemary, for another excellent article. :)

  10. I like The Seekers, but found the Drunken Boat hard to relate to. Still, I'm amazed at the talent he displayed at such a young age. He lived a life condensed.
    Thank you Rosemary for bringing us such interesting subjects. Soryy, I'm so late to comment.


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