Rimbaud as Capitalist Adventurer

Most people think of Rimbaud as the very archetype of youth in revolt, as well as the founder of modernist poetry and one of the greatest secular, that is non-religious, or in his case anti-religious, mystics. A kind of Rimbaudian orthodoxy has grown up which meets with very little protest. A few European critics have spoken in demurrer, but most interested Americans have never heard of them. I think myself that the whole Rimbaudian gospel is open to question.

The very title of his prose poems raises this question. Mrs. Varèse discusses some aspects in her excellent introduction [to her translation of Illuminations, New Directions, 1957]. Does it mean “illuminations,” as in medieval manuscripts? The French verb is enluminurer. “Illuminations” is usually considered an English import into French. Does it mean mystical insights? Does it mean bits of illumination in the French sense — enlightenment? (This again in the ironic French sense; an illuminé is very close to being a sophisticate or, feminine, a bluestocking.) Nobody ever suggests that the first meaning to occur to an unruly adolescent boy might be “fireworks.” I vote for fireworks.

The neuroses the treatment of which now consumes so much of the budget of the more fashionable members of the American upper middle class are actually, by and large, palpitations of behavior due to unsatisfied bourgeois appetites and lack of life aim. In the young, especially in the young poor, the syndrome is called delinquency. Its ravages are often attributed to television. Television has a lot to do with it all right, but not the horror serials, the Westerns, and crime shockers. The real source of corruption is the commercial. It is possible to mistake a demoralized craving for Cadillacs for “revolt.” Revolutionaries hitherto have not expressed themselves by snitching the gaudier appurtenances of conspicuous expenditure. Genuine revolt goes with an all-too-definite life aim — hardly with the lack of it. Whether or not there is anything genuine about the vision, whether the visionary really sees anything, is open to dispute, but there is a wide consensus as to what the genuine experience is like, and how the genuine visionary behaves. As Baron von Hügel pointed out in one of his most penetrating observations, true illumination always results in a special sweetness of temper, a deep, lyric equanimity and magnanimity. The outstanding characteristic of the mystic’s vision is that it is satisfying. He is never frustrated, at least not in our worldly sense. It would be hard to find two less suitable words in any language to apply to Rimbaud than equanimity and magnanimity. This leaves us with Rimbaud as a sort of magician of the sensibility — of that specifically modern sensibility invented by Blake and Hoelderlin and Baudelaire — and an innovator in syntax, the first thoroughly radical revealer of the poetic metalogic which is the universal characteristic of twentieth-century verse.

I think this is enough. I don’t think anybody has ever demonstrated convincingly that behind the syntactic surface lay the profound content of a sort of combination Bakunin and St. John of the Cross. The content is the season in hell, the dark night of the soul, the struggle with God and the State, of all adolescence. This, of course, has its own common profundity. I do not doubt but what the first flares to burn in the gonads of puberty do light up the ultimate questions of the fate and meaning of man, but that is not what the Rimbaudians mean. The excitement and fury is not metaphysical, it is youthful. The cocksureness is youthful too, but it is also something else. It is bourgeois. Rimbaud did not lose himself in Africa; he found himself. The average poet turns to writing because he can’t compete with his schoolmates in track and football. High school dances frighten him. He never learns the proper passes that score with a chick in the back seat of a convertible. In fact, he never gets near one. But there are always a few girls, not very appetizing, most of them, who will be nice to a fellow who has made “The Lit.” So, he invests in a set of Dowson, Housman, and T.S. Eliot and starts in. This was not Rimbaud’s approach. He applied to literature, and to litterateurs, the minute he laid eyes on them, the devastating methods of total exploitation described so graphically in the Communist Manifesto. Some of them were not very applicable. He “ran” the vowels like he later ran guns to the Abyssinians, with dubious results. Usually, however, he was very successful — in the same way his contemporaries Jim Fiske and P.T. Barnum were successful. He did things to literature that had never been done to it before, and they were things which literature badly needed done to it . . . just like the world needed the railroads the Robber Barons did manage to provide.

Not for nothing is Bateau Ivre a schoolboy’s dream of Cowboys and Indians — that’s where Rimbaud belonged, on the frontier — with Cecil Rhodes. And that is where, back in his home town, he was immortalized. The old monument to Rimbaud in Charleville ignores his poetry and memorializes him as the local boy who made good as a merchant and hero of French imperialism in the Africa where the aesthetes who were never good at business think he went to die unknown, holding the Ultimate Mystery at bay.



This essay originally appeared in The Nation under the title “Fireworks of Adolescence” (12 October 1957). It was reprinted in Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays (New Directions, 1959) and in World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1987). Copyright 1959. Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. Rexroth wrote another essay on Rimbaud in Classics Revisited.

Other Rexroth Essays