Arthur Rimbaud – French Poet, Traveler and Rebel

A season in hell can do it to you.

The French symbolist poet, Arthur Rimbaud, wrote profound, shocking, furious poetry that outraged the sensibilities of his time in a way far greater than the likes of Ginsberg would do in America almost a century later.

Rimbaud was the original angry young man, racked by the fury within him and the hypocrisy of society he saw all around. He had homosexual lovers, drank absinthe, took hashish and opium, subjecting himself to a long, intimidating, immense and rational derangement of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but one must be strong, be born a poet, and I have recognized myself as a poet.

He achieved notoriety for his poem A Season in Hell which perhaps contained the hint that he would leave France behind:

And now I am on the beaches of Brittany. Let cities light their lamps in the evening. My daytime is done; I am leaving Europe. The air of the sea will burn my lungs; lost climates will turn my skin to leather. To swim, to pulverize grass, to hunt, above all to smoke; to drink strong drinks, as strong as molten ore, – as did those dear ancestors around their fires.

I will come back with limbs of iron, with dark skin, and angry eyes: in this mask, they will think I belong to a strong race. I will have gold: I will be brutal and indolent. Women nurse these ferocious invalids come back from the tropics. I will become involved in politics. Saved.

Now I am accursed, I detest my native land. The best thing is a drunken sleep, stretched out on some strip of shore.

At the age of 20, Rimbaud quit poetry altogether and set off on his travels, ending up in Harar, Somalia, just a couple of decades after Richard Burton had become the first European to enter the forbidden city. By now Rimbaud was intent on making his fortune as a trader, trading in coffee and gun running.

But far from a romantic life in the tropics, Rimbaud seemed bored and frustrated, complaining of the irritating natives and inefficiency. In his excellent book Eating the Flowers of Paradise, Kevin Rushby comments On Rimbaud:

He is a petty bourgeois expatriate dreaming of the pot of gold that will take him away from it all. It was though the butterfly, after its day in the sun, had turned into a caterpillar.

Rimbaud lived far from his place of birth and the company of educated Europeans, taking local mistresses and enduring his choice of self-imposed banishment until ill health forced him to return to France where his right leg was amputated. Despite this, Rimbaud still intended to return to Africa but died before he could at the age of 37 from further medical complications.

Rimbaud remains at once an inspiration for his courage and daring to opt out of the society that confined him, and also a pitiful figure who needlessly ruined his health and abandoned his vocation to make his fortune overseas. A lesson for the expatriate?

Or perhaps simply a reflection on the double-sided coin of travel – not fitting in where we are born but stagnating in exile abroad.

  • Rimbaud is the patron saint of all wild travellers