Van Gogh’s Ear I: A Season in Hell
By Darran Anderson.
Sometimes it takes only the lightest even imperceptible action to set irreversible wheels in motion. “If only you knew how much of a fuckwit you look carrying that fish,” the young poet Arthur Rimbaud shouted down from the window of 8 Great College St, Camden to his older lover Paul Verlaine, as he returned with their groceries. Already pushed to the edge by the ravages of semi-destitution and drink, his own guilt at abandoning his long-suffering family and the depraved actions of his partner, Verlaine finally snapped. Bounding up the stairs, he burst into the room, slapped Rimbaud about the face with the fish and stormed out. Later, there would be time to shoot his companion and ineptly attempt suicide. To the respectable passers-by of Victorian London, they were merely two wretched sodomites concluding a sordid affair in predictably degenerate fashion. And yet today, over a century later, they are the subjects of theses and exam papers (analysed for “verse spatiality” and “Sapphic aesthetics”), admired by academics and French statesmen (chieurs d’encre et cravattés – ink-shitters and tie-wearers respectively) with all the sordid aspects carefully removed and elevated above the rabble to which they belonged.
The aim of this column is not to analyse or theorise but to revisit the other poetry, beyond the laureates, professorships and wine and cheese receptions; the glorious scumbags, the disgrace-fuelled vandals and deviants, the unloved step-children under the stairs and the mad aunts locked in the literary attic. Step forward then Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, the Adam and Steve of alt-poetry.
Somehow, against his best wishes, Rimbaud has picked up a good name. More name-dropped than read, he’s to poetic rebellion what Che Guevara is to t-shirts and rich kids. Always a touchstone of hipness, he’s been lauded by Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Television and Klaus Kinski, inspired Strokes side-projects, Panic at the Disco tracks and Henry Miller books. Leonardo DiCaprio played him in Total Eclipse and that other eminently-slappable man-cherub Pete Doherty’s been coasting along on his cast-offs for years. You fear a Q Award is imminent. Too often the pose comes before the person, the myth negates everything the poet actually did. There are a thousand Rimbauds with spiky-hair and skin-tight slacks from Shoreditch to Brighton filling the air with the scent of Shockwaves mousse. The real Rimbaud was something else entirely. He’d have dry-retched to see his supposed descendants.
Given their temperaments, Rimbaud and Verlaine were doomed from the beginning. A venerated symbolist poet, Verlaine had flirted with respectability in the well-heeled salons of Paris before he received a precocious letter from a teenage provincial from an Ardennes backwater that would change everything. Beckoning the new arrival to the capital brought Verlaine’s long-veiled dark side to the surface. A whoremonger, absinthe drinker and a tormented former communard, Verlaine was, for all his talents, an impressionable coward with seemingly no will power, forever converting to God and getting back with his wife, forever in the process of getting a sensible career before lapsing into debauchery again. His soon-to-be partner-in-crime Arthur Rimbaud was a highly well-read feral child, the abandoned son of an imperial captain and a caustic hyper-Catholic mother, misanthropic to the point of hilarity (his very first poem was about two street children who discover what they think is a Christmas gift from the angels but is in fact their mother’s funeral wreath). Reading of Rimbaud’s exploits you find yourself reaching for the medical dictionary to diagnose mental or at least personality disorders. Bearing all the signs of a child genius, he nevertheless displayed an inexhaustible attraction to peril, like one of those Asberger’s-tinted delinquents who revel in burning things to the ground. Here was a boy who carried hastily-scrawled masterpieces around in a flea-ridden jacket and swapped them for drinks and smokes. He’d been to Paris several times before, each excursion ending in ignominy. He’d been arrested for hollering republican slogans at gendarmes and narrowly escaped buggery at the hands of a street pimp. During the Commune, he’d bummed around the Latin Quarter with revolutionaries before the French Army ended the social experiment in slaughter (he escaped through a mixture of blind luck, boredom and naivety).
This time, he had come prepared to take the city’s artistic circles by storm. Verlaine eagerly hawked his young disciple’s verse (chiefly the still stunning The Drunken Boat) around the bigwigs of the day and soon, through word of mouth, the intelligentsia was ablaze with talk of the noble savage, this country bumpkin channelling his remarkable skills from on high. The only thing that stood between Rimbaud and greatness, to be exalted in high society as say Rabbie Burns was a century earlier, was his own stinking attitude. Rimbaud had little time for the gatekeepers of Parisian culture. Metaphorically, he would wipe his arse with their verse and mock their lofty pronouncements. In time, he would physically do these very things. Initially at least, Verlaine was no doubt horrified when his companion began boasting of losing his virginity to a passing dog in such dignified company. Or when he stabbed the esteemed photographer Etienne Carjat following a bout of foul-tempered heckling. That he wrote verse that far eclipsed any of the works of his betters (who remembers a single one of their names today) didn’t matter. They held the reins. Soon, he was outcast and a smitten Verlaine went with him to the gutter. He’d gone from overnight sensation to washed-up wreck at 17 years of age.
In the following years, there were adventures of a physical and creative kind. Incredibly prolific, Rimbaud set about reinventing poetry in works that he cast about with little thought for posterity. As Henry Miller pointed out in The Time Of Assassins, Rimbaud went from literature to life, the opposite to the vast majority of writers for whom writing is a sort of retirement, the cousin of knitting and crossword puzzles. And the crux of Rimbaud’s genius and downfall is therein. Writing was a starting point or, at most, a catalyst for experience (his famous “rational derangement of all the senses”). Poetry not as idle contemplation but a call to arms and an announcement of intent, poetry as a stimulant rather than a tranquiliser. For a time, there seemed no halcyon glory or debauched disgrace that the poet shied away from experiencing; a prolonged penniless recreation of the last days of Rome. There were spells lice-ridden on the streets and holed up in a series of bohemian garrets, high on opium and out of their minds on absinthe in the charmingly named Dead Rat Cafe. All the while, Rimbaud managed to exude a magnetic charisma despite being, to all intents and purposes, a total unredeemable bastard. He sold every item of furniture in a friend’s flat while he was at work. Slipped poison into another’s drink for a laugh. Came into a third’s. Yet amongst the denizens of the Parisian underworld, he was well-liked as many impulsive car crash personalities are, provided they are kept at a reasonably safe distance. Only Verlaine embraced it fully, sharing with him the secret interior speech and behaviours that lovers have and which make no sense to outsiders, to the point of playfully slashing each other with knives and exchanging blows. Yet even Verlaine had his limits and scurried simpering to his wife Mathilde at semi-regular intervals to beg her forgiveness or merely try to burn the house down in a fit of pederastic guilt and misplaced rage. Even when they tried escape, in the form of exile in first Belgium and then London (a fog-bound Camden and a Soho more gloriously scuzzy than today’s), something (a weakness in Verlaine’s mind perhaps) kept pulling them back until that fateful summers day in 1873.
Were it just for the mis-deeds of the pair, they’d be remembered simply as a dusty gossip column footnote from the age of decadence, alongside ads for penny farthings and quietening syrup. The astute would cite the casual innovations of their writing as their real legacy. Whilst Verlaine’s admittedly powerful elegiac work is more conventional, Rimbaud’s truly dazzles precisely because it subverts the all-too prevalent clichés of poetry then and today. Imaginative to the point of evading conventional analysis, he used completely disparate imagery to describe the world (take the hallucinatory Sesame Street of Vowels alone – “A – black leather corset of spectacular flies,” “E- steams, tents, insolent glaciers, white kings,” “I – spat blood, laughs welling from mouths in rage or drunken penitence ” “U – centuries, vibrating seas” ). In doing so, he created a new surreal way of seeing things, long before it became an ism. It’s an extension of his desire for a rational derangement of the senses; to see and feel the world with such maddening clarity as the first man. Without any single definitive meaning, his poems are open to endless interpretation which is one reason they’ve lasted and retained their energy when much younger verse has sagged. To decipher them and expect concrete answers is to piss in the wind. You may as well analyse language itself. Any attempt to explain says more about the interpreter than Rimbaud. It is this elusiveness and the terrible beauty of his imagery that burns through the synaesthesiac Vowels, the “coloured engravings” of the Illuminations series, the miasma of The Drunken Boat even his letters to friends and mentors such as Izambard and Delahaye containing the crux of his thinkings (from the famous seer letter to “I is somebody else”). Then there are the minor works like the haunting Ophelia, the vicious ingenious rewrites of precious school-taught classics and his obscene Zutist works which still have the power to stir, filled with incestuous Virgin Marys and bathing muses covered with ulcers, lecherous men of the cloth and God dozing through holocausts. His gift for bewildering otherworldly descriptions (which would influence poets as diverse as Lorca and Trakl) is revealed in his early Poesies collection (with it’s “lacrymal tincture,” “drooling trees” and “torrential light,”); hallucinatory as in a bad trip rather than hippy splendour. Similarly, his Bohemian sonnets (My Gypsy Days for one) took to the road decades before the invention of the automobile let alone the birth of Kerouac and co. Even his lost works resonate; either those mouldering in attics and libraries that are unearthed from time to time or those that fell through the cracks altogether, swept up and binned or burned by Verlaine’s wife and remembered only tantalisingly as masterpieces in anecdotes, footnotes and memories of those who read them, now long gone.
Here was a teenager who when other writers were writing teen angst and cringe-worthy juvenilia, mastered, exhausted and then rejected all the traditional poetic metres and structures held dear by the establishment. Rather than tear up the rulebook, he studied and subverted it, pioneering free verse but a complex free verse that had its own structures rather than the rambling boneless prosetry version we’ve grown used to. It was not a simple escape but a challenge to outdo convention, build his own rules, have the balls to be grandiose and ridicule the mainstream by constructing something brilliant in direct opposition to it. Along with his idol and fellow street-poet Baudelaire, he thus broke literature out of the academy, writing about subjects too taboo and worldly to be addressed by the preening dullard literati, taking poetry for a waltz in the gutter and bringing new life to it by making it real again.
We will always come back to his life though. Contrary to the prevailing view that we must judge an artist by their work and ignore the soap opera of their life, life matters. Those husks of academia who guard high-brow culture would have us equate virtue with artistic merit, literary skill with bourgeois respectability, talent with some protestant work ethic to give credence to the lie that art belongs to them. Given the fact that a large amount of our cultural heroes were disreputable even disgraceful in life (from Caravaggio’s thuggery to Eliot’s anti-Semitism), the idea that the greatest art could come from squalor or simply a lowly background is strangely still something to be ignored or airbrushed over. After his death, it was recognised in official quarters that Rimbaud’s skill and influence was too considerable to disregard. So they would remake him, canonise him in their image, absorb the danger and the blows he threw in their direction and render him toothless and dignified. Shun the actions of the man and sanitise his writings. Take The Entranced for example, a diverting ode to the joys of arse-banditry that metamorphisised in some anthologies into a simple poem about a bakers oven and nothing more. Or The Orgy of Paris which became Paris Repopulated. Sometimes there’s outright exclusion -“nonsensical verse of the original omitted” goes a line in one translation. He’s been cleaned up enough for even the former Prime Minister of France to hold him in the highest regard. And you can only wonder what the poet, who once illustrated his opinion of art by shitting on a café table, would make of his official canonisation as the boy wonder of French letters?
In the end, none of their masterpieces or their shared outlook of “two of us versus the world” could save Rimbaud and Verlaine from the hubris of their end. “If only you knew how much of a fuckwit you look carrying that fish” pushed the already unstable elder over the edge. After the brief ensuing scuffle, Verlaine fled the Camden flat. He left for Belgium by ferry that night with Rimbaud begging at the docks and sending pleading letters for his imminent return. In a state of delusion, Verlaine considered returning to his wife, signing up with a foreign army and shipping off or committing suicide, anything but face reality. When Rimbaud finally caught up with him, Verlaine had been drinking for days and, in his inebriated state, had purchased a 7mm pistol which he muttered was “to kill everybody.” During an argument over their future in a hotel room, Verlaine drew the weapon and fired twice, one bullet blowing a hole in Rimbaud’s wrist, the other burying itself in the wall. After a trip to the hospital, Rimbaud made plans to leave his assailant and depart for Paris but Verlaine followed him still brandishing the firearm until a policeman intervened and arrested him on the way to the station. Following a trial in which copies of their verse and the defendant’s anus were inspected for signs of immorality (and found wanting), Verlaine was found guilty despite his victim dropping the charges. The court sensing it had snared a queer and a bohemian in one fell swoop gave him the maximum two year stretch. Though they would still briefly have fleeting contact, Verlaine’s sentencing effectively marked the end of their relationship.
Everything Rimbaud set out to accomplish was spectacular. His own ruin, and that of his boyfriend, was no exception. In the aftermath, he would finish one last epic A Season in Hell (his pagan book as he called it), a searing book of confession and flagellation, a diary of a man reaching the bottom, a stroll along the abyssal plain, remarkable for its intensity and scope (ranging from his a treatise on his ancestry from whom he inherited “blue eyes, narrow brainpan and clumsiness in battle,” a rejection of Christianity and its morality, reflections on his infernal fellow companion and Revelations-esque visions).
After publishing the text himself, Rimbaud gave up writing poetry. He was 19 years of age, his complete works created and finished before he was out of his teens. And rather than adventures in print, he chose actual ones. He crossed the Alps and was down and out in Milan. He signed up with Carlist rebels fighting in Spain and almost immediately deserted. His beloved little sister died of the same illness that would stalk him. For a brief time, he was still in correspondence with the imprisoned Verlaine, who with all the inflated zeal of a born again Christian or recently dry alcoholic simultaneously lectured, shunned and clung to him. He was mugged and deported from Austria. He signed up for the Dutch army to fight in the Pacific mainly spending his time gin-soaked and whoring before setting out past Egypt, East Africa and Krakatoa. Reaching the destination of Java, he again promptly deserted and was hunted through the jungle. He worked for a circus in Germany and a quarry in Greece where he accidentally killed a man trying to get his attention with a rock. It was in Africa though that he made his name, exploring Abyssinia and Aden, trading in caravans across the desert, the first white man to set foot in Danakil and live to tell the tale. He made his home in the forbidden city of Harar, hunted elephants, operated gun running routes, befriended emperors, learned Arabic and flirted with Islam. Some knew him as a shrewd businessman, others as a delightful but mysterious raconteur. For dark reasons all but lost, some Africans referred to him as “the cursed one.” Along the way, he made and lost fortunes half a dozen times over, learned just as many languages, all the while staying in contact with his family through hilariously world-weary and misanthropic letters; “This is the most tiresome place on the planet with the exception of home… surrounded by drivelling idiots, I am the only sane person for hundreds of miles… slaving like a mule in a wretched land for which I have total abhorrence…I can only pray that this life will end before I have become a complete imbecile.”
Meanwhile, his fame grew with his absence and mysterious silence in Paris and beyond (photos from the time fittingly show only an eerie ghostly figure). Rumours abounded of his travels and fate. Vaguely aware of a burgeoning cult of personality amongst young decadent writers, Rimbaud cursed his fledgling followers and urged his friends to burn any of the nonsense he’d written as a youth. The anarchist had, in a strangely logical way, become the colonialist, the artist a merchant and looking back was a waste of time and expenses. Then in the midst of his desert travels, he was suddenly struck down by fever and swelling, the onset of a hereditary cancer-related illness. After a lengthy debilitating journey, he was taken back to his native Charleville where, leg amputated and deliriously making plans to set off on a voyage once more, he died at the age of 37. It was a cruel fulfillment of his unsettling prophecy in A Season in Hell, “I will return with limbs of iron, dark skin and blazing eyes…a ferocious invalid, returned from the feverlands.”
His former partner Verlaine would outlive him by five years. After a period of penance and sin and penance again, he settled into a kind of debauched semi-retirement, lauded as a kind of drunken mystic of the bars. There he is in on Litkicks, absinthe in front of him, drinking away eternity.
It’s all history of course but it makes you think, juxtaposing the work of one child literary outlaw and his mentor/lover/victim with the writing of today and you start wondering who is out there that can reignite the glowing bones of poetry, where are the Catherine wheels of verse, the poetic cacophonies, the half-demented chancers ready and willing to strike up a symphony as the ship goes down?
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 11th, 2009.