In the history of youthful artistic prodigies, few were so young and prodigious as Arthur Rimbaud was when he made his mark in the world of French poetry. Or, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say, when he created his work; because by the time his poetry was recognized, he’d ceased to have any interest in it and responded to inquiries about the work of his youth with venom and disdain.
At the age of sixteen, however, he was obsessed with the idea of transforming himself into a visionary and changing the world with his words. The year was 1871, and the popular poetry in France was published in the Parnasse contemporain, which specialized in verses written in honor of classical beauty. But Rimbaud had steeped himself in the lore of socialism, magic and alchemy, and his poems – so revolutionary for the time – confronted readers with sentiments of revolt and images of spiritual exile. Around this time, he also wrote his famous “Lettre Du Voyant” (Letter of the Seer), to a former teacher in Charleville. In it he outlined his credo both for the new kind of poetry he was to create and the new function that poets were to fulfill in the world. The letter also contained this passage, which has serve as inspiration for romantics, surrealists, and rock’n’rollers ever since: “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses”.
Following through with his new aesthetic ideal, Arthur Rimbaud wrote, between the ages of 17 and 18, reams of poetry that broke down all the former barriers of form and meter that had been respected up until that time. The poems themselves depicted a surreal and constantly shifting universe. The imagery was fantastic: naked centauresses, luminous skulls inside pea pods, bridges of chrystal connecting suburbs of wondrous cities. These were the products not only of the poet’s fertile imagination but also his indulgence in hashish, absinthe and opium. The poems would later be released in periodical form under the title Les Illuminations. This was the work that first won Arthur Rimbaud acclaim.
While he was writing “Illuminations”, Rimbaud saw himself as the Voyant, the seer. He described his art as “alchemy of the word”, a way of working incantations through poetry, of peering into the secret nature of things. In the end, he came to see such a belief as an alcoholic and drug addict’s delusion. The fruit of this recognition – and his resulting disillusionment – formed the basis for his final work: Une Saison L’Enfer (A Season in Hell). In it he recounts both his personal and his artistic failures – and offers an eerily prophetic glimpse of his future life as a trader in the sun-baked climes of Africa.
For Rimbaud, the collapse of the ambition to become a visionary meant that poetry itself was a meaningless pursuit; and he wrote no more after Season in Hell. Though he lived to be thirty-seven, he suffered artistic death at the age of nineteen – leaving those who followed in his wake to wonder at what more could have been accomplished by one who’d shown such promise so young.