Arthur Rimbaud in bed after Paul Verlaine shot him in the wrist, Jef Rosman, 1873
From The New Yorker:
On a winter day in 1883, aboard a steamer that was returning him from Marseilles to the Arabian port city of Aden, a French coffee trader named Alfred Bardey struck up a conversation with a countryman he’d met on board, a young journalist named Paul Bourde. As Bardey chatted about his trading operation, which was based in Aden, he happened to mention the name of one of his employees—a “tall, pleasant young man who speaks little,” as he later described him. To his surprise, Bourde reacted to the name with amazement. This wasn’t so much because, by a bizarre coincidence, he had gone to school with the employee; it was, rather, that, like many Frenchmen who kept up with contemporary literature, he had assumed that the young man was dead. To an astonished Bardey, Bourde explained that, twelve years earlier, his taciturn employee had made a “stupefying and precocious” literary début in Paris, only to disappear soon after. Until that moment, for all Bardey or anyone else in his circle knew, this man was simply a clever trader who kept neat books. Today, many think of him as a founder of modern European poetry. His name was Arthur Rimbaud.
What Bardey learned about Rimbaud that day is still what most people know about Rimbaud. There was, on the one hand, the dazzling, remarkably short-lived career: all of Rimbaud’s significant works were most likely composed between 1870, when he was not quite sixteen, and 1874, when he turned twenty. On the other hand, there was the abrupt abandonment of literature in favor of a vagabond life that eventually took him to Aden and then to East Africa, where he remained until just before his death, trading coffee, feathers, and, finally, guns, and making a tidy bundle in the process. The great mystery that continues to haunt and dismay Rimbaud fans is this “act of renunciation,” as Henry Miller put it in his rather loopy 1946 study of Rimbaud, “The Time of the Assassins,” which “one is tempted to compare . . . with the release of the atomic bomb.” The over-the-top comparison might well have pleased Rimbaud, who clearly wanted to vaporize his poetic past. When Alfred Bardey got back to Aden, bursting with his discovery, he found to his dismay that the former wunderkind refused to talk about his work, dismissing it as “absurd, ridiculous, disgusting.”
That Rimbaud’s repudiation of poetry was as furious as the outpouring of his talent had once been was typical of a man whose life and work were characterized by violent contradictions. He was a docile, prize-winning schoolboy who wrote “Shit on God” on walls in his home town; a teen-age rebel who mocked small-town conventionality, only to run back to his mother’s farm after each emotional crisis; a would-be anarchist who in one poem called for the downfall of “Emperors / Regiments, colonizers, peoples!” and yet spent his adult life as an energetic capitalist operating out of colonial Africa; a poet who liberated French lyric verse from the late nineteenth century’s starched themes and corseted forms—from, as Paul Valéry put it, “the language of common sense”—and yet who, in his most revolutionary work, admitted to a love of “maudlin pictures, . . . fairytales, children’s storybooks, old operas, inane refrains and artless rhythms.”
Read an excerpt from ‘Disaster Was My God’ by Bruce Duffy here