Baudelaire, Poems
Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Flaubert, A Sentimental Education
Rimbaud, Poems




Baudelaire, Poems

“Baudelaire is the greatest poet of the capitalist epoch.” True or not, this statement, with its Marxist implications, is appropriate, because he is specially the poet of the society analyzed in Capital or described in The Condition of the English Working Class. His subject was the world of primitive accumulation, of the ruthless destruction of all values but the cash nexus by the new industrial and financial system — of bankers and their mistresses in sultry boudoirs; of the craze for diabolism, drugs, flagellation, barbarism; of gin-soaked poor dying in gutters, prostitutes dying under bridges, tubercular and syphilitic intellectuals; of the immense, incurable loneliness of the metropolis; of the birth of human self-alienation, as Marx called it — Baudelaire called it vaporization of the Ego — of the Communist Manifesto; and of revolution and revolution betrayed.

Baudelaire’s Catholic apologists deny that he had an Oedipus complex. He is the archetype, a far more extreme example than Rousseau or Stendhal. Yet neither Marx nor Freud is an adequate guide to Baudelaire. They diagnose the illness of the nineteenth century in its own materialistic terms. Far more afflicted than they, Baudelaire transcends his century. His ultimate meanings are emerging only in the decline of the twentieth. He is the founder of the modern sensibility — not just of that of its first century, but of a special character that will, as far as we can see ahead, endure throughout the age of the breakdown of our civilization. Some learn to cope with this sensibility. He was at its mercy, because he embodied it totally. He lived in a permanent crisis of the moral nervous system. His conviction that social relationships were one immense lie was physiological.

The Romantics had a rhetoric of secession; Baudelaire had a life commitment, an organic divorce. Further, he was literally outcast — expelled from his caste. Few men have ever had a stronger conviction of their clerisy, of their belonging to the clerkly caste of the responsibles. Yet because of the terms of his wardship, he was continually dispossessed, forced to recognize his loss and shame every time he had to beg from his mother or his guardian. His writing, which he looked on as prophetic utterance, he was forced to sell as a cheap commodity. At the end of his life he told a friend he had received a total of about three thousand dollars from all the writing he had ever done.

He spent his life in a state of demoralization, and his work is a relentless attack on that demoralization. Much of his life and most of his poetry are tortured by a consciousness of sin. He thought of sin as the corruption of the will to vision. Only very rarely does he ever seem to realize that it is the corruption of the organ of reciprocity. His human relationships are all charades.

It has been said that Baudelaire chose the life he lived, that nobody has to live like that. True, but what did he choose? He did not choose his degrading trust fund, his Hamletic relation with his mother, his obsessive ritualized oral sex and masochism, or his syphilis, all of which worked together to multiply his guilt, to close to him person-to-person relations with women, and to turn women into melodramatic actresses in his own internal theater of frustration. Nor did he choose a debilitating oral opium addiction; in youth he chose the ecstasies of drugs before he realized the consequences — not just painful addiction, but destruction of the will, and a vaporisation de Moi worse than that caused by the dehumanizations of a commercial society.

He chose to place himself at the disposal of experience, and he chose to place his experience at the mercy of a conscience conceived as an instrument of mystery and a key to the enigma of being. Transports, ecstasies, orgies — what is the secret? The poet, says Baudelaire, is a decipherer, a Kabbalist of reality, a decoder. Ordinary life, if it is not a message in code, a system of symbols for something else, is unacceptable. It must be a cryptogram; it can’t be what it seems. The poet’s task is to decode the incomprehensible obvious. His life becomes a deliberately constructed paranoia, as Rimbaud, Breton, Artaud were to say generations later.

As we read him we discover that Baudelaire believes in the charm, the incantation, the cryptogram, but he ceases to believe in the secret. The spirits have not risen. The code says nothing. This is the mystery concealed by the disorder of the world. The visionary experience ends in itself; the light of the illuminated comes only from and falls only on himself. This is not unlike Buddhism in its starkest form, the end result of a rigorous religious empiricism — which is why similar minds find him so congenial today.

Baudelaire liked to call his verse Classical, and gullible modern critics echo him. It is not, although it is so Latinate as to begin the corruption of logical syntax that reaches its culmination in Mallarmé and Reverdy. It is ritualistic; the tonic patterns of French verse are flattened out, and a reverberating sonority of vowel music as in English or Medieval Latin takes their place. A poem like “La Cloche Fêlée” is written Gregorian chant — “media vitae, in the midst of life we are in death.”

Nor is Baudelaire the poet of the modern megalopolis in any realistic sense. Corpses spilling worms in the ditch, ancient courtesans cackling over gaming tables in the dawn, boulevards lit with prostitutes, Negresses lost in the winter fog, sweaty lesbians in beds dizzy with perfume, a wounded soldier dying under a heap of dead — is this everyday life in the modern city? It is the city as the mother of hallucinations of the alienated. He presents it with the utmost tension of abstract and concrete, “in a noble, distant, superior manner,” said Laforgue — a hieratic manner, the manner of a priest. He claimed the power of transubstantiation — “Paris, you gave me mud, and I turned it to gold and gave it back to you.”

It has been said that Baudelaire, like Blake, had no philosophy, or had to make one up out of himself. Like Blake, he states his philosophy clearly enough. It is the orthodoxy of the heterodox, older far than Aquinas or even Plato. Correspondences, the doubled world, the doctrine of signatures, the ambivalence of microcosm and macrocosm — he found all these notions in Swedenborg; some in Coleridge; some in Poe; all in Blake, whom he may have read; and all worked out in vulgarized detail by his friend Eliphas Lévi, the founder of modern occultism.

More sophisticated, more desperate than his masters, Baudelaire uses his gnosticism in an anti-gnostic sense, to contradict itself. Man is not saved by knowledge; gnosis does not produce ecstasis, but vice versa. Vision produces the knowledge of the irrelevance of knowledge, a state of being beyond the vaporized ego, beyond the temporal order, an end in itself. This is the secret of clerisy, of the sanior pars, the saving remnant of doom. It is the substance of a new ordination.

In youth he called the disengaged man of conscience the Dandy. As he grew older, the Dandy merged with a new kind of priest or shaman. His clerkly role explains his distinctive dress, his strange caste standards, far more strict than those prevailing amongst les autres, peculiar to the clergy — “benefit of clergy” — a people set apart.

He chose the life that enabled him to do what he did. Above all other writers, poetry was to him a vocation, a calling to a new kind of holy orders. So to the degree to which he could manage it, his life was monastic — like the celibacy of the brothel: an almost complete sacrifice of domesticity and the amenities of secular man to the liberation and refinement of a sensibility and a conscience that he considered synonymous. He insists on the poet and artist as vates; as the visionary eye of the body politic, as he says explicitly; as the priest who sacrifices himself and atones vicariously for The Others.

* * *

There are no satisfactory verse translations of Baudelaire. The best way to read him if you have no French is with a prose pony, as in the Penguin edition by Francis Scarfe. There are excellent translations of the prose, which should all be read — there’s not so much.

Another Rexroth essay on Baudelaire]
[Diverse translations of a Baudelaire poem]



Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Our civilization is the only one in history whose major artists have rejected all its values. Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoievsky, Melville, Mark Twain — all are self-alienated outcasts. One nineteenth-century writer of world importance successfully refused alienation, yet still speaks significantly to us: Walt Whitman, the polar opposite of Baudelaire.

Most intellectuals of our generation think of America as the apotheosis of commercial, competitive middle-class society. Because Whitman found within it an abundance of just those qualities which it seems today most to lack, the sophisticated read him little and are inclined to dismiss him as fraudulent or foolish. The realization of the American Dream as an apocalypse, an eschatological event which would give the life of man its ultimate significance, was an invention of Whitman’s.

In our own day, when the term is a badly soiled shibboleth, it is difficult to take it seriously. Other religions have been founded on the promise of the Community of Love, the Abode of Peace, the Kingdom of God. Whitman identified it with his own Nation-State. We excuse such ideas only when they began three thousand years ago in the Levantine desert. In our own time we suspect them of dangerous malevolence. Yet Whitman’s vision exposes and explodes all the frauds that pass for the American Way of Life. It is the last and greatest vision of the American potential.

Today, when intellectuals and politicians hold each other in supreme contempt, few remember that America was founded by, and for three generations ruled by, intellectuals. As they were driven from power in the years before the Civil War, their vision of a practicable utopia diffused out into society; went underground; surfaced again in co-operative colonies, free-love societies, labor banks, vegetarianism, feminism, Owenites, Fourierists, Saint-Simonians, Anarchists, dozens of religious communal sects.

Whitman was formed in this environment. Whenever he found it convenient, he spoke of himself as a Quaker and used Quaker language. Much of his strange lingo is not the stilted rhetoric of the self-taught but simply Quaker talk. Most of his ideas were commonplaces in the radical and pietistic circles and the Abolition Movement. This was the first American Left, for whom the Civil War was a revolutionary war and who after it was over refused to believe that it was not a won revolution.

Unfortunately for us, as is usually the case in won revolutions, their language turned into a kind of Newspeak. The vocabulary of Whitman’s moral epic has been debauched by a hundred years of editorials and political speeches. Still, there are two faces to the coin of Newspeak: the counterfeit symbol of power and the golden face of liberty. The American Dream that is the subject of Leaves of Grass is again becoming believable as the predatory society that has intervened between us and Whitman passes away.

Walt Whitman’s democracy is utterly different from the society of free rational contractual relationships inaugurated by the French Revolution. It is a community of men related by organic satisfactions, in work, love, play, the family, comradeship — a social order whose essence is the liberation and universalization of selfhood. Leaves of Grass is not a great work of art just because it has a great program, but it does offer point-by-point alternatives to the predatory society, as well as to the systematic doctrine of alienation from it that has developed from Baudelaire and Kierkegaard to the present.

In all of Whitman’s many celebrations of labor, abstract relations are never mentioned. Money appears only to be scorned. Sailors, carpenters, longshoremen, bookkeepers, seamstresses, engineers, artists — all seem to be working for “nothing,” participants in a universal creative effort in which each discovers his ultimate individuation. The day’s work over, they loaf and admire the world singly on summer hillsides, blowing on leaves of grass; or strolling the quiet First Day streets of Manhattan, arms about each other’s broad shoulders; or making love in religious ecstasy. Unlike almost all other ideal societies, Whitman’s utopia, which he calls “these states,” is not a projection of the virtues of an idealized past into the future, but an attempt to extrapolate the future into the American present. His is a realized eschatology.

The Middle Ages called hope a theological virtue. They meant that, with faith and love, it was essential to the characteristic being of mankind. Now hope is joy in the presence of the future in the present. On this joy creative effort depends, because creation relates past, present, and future in concrete acts which result in enduring objects and experiences. Beyond the consideration of time, Whitman asserts the same principle of being, the focusing of the macrocosm in the microcosm — or its reverse, which is the same thing — as the source of individuation. Again and again he identifies himself with a transfigured America, the community of work in love and love in work; this community with the meaning of the universe, the vesture of God; a great chain of being which begins, or ends, in Walt Whitman, or his reader — Adam-Kadmon, who contains all things — ruled in order by love.

Whitman’s philosophy may resemble that of the Upanishads as rewritten by Thomas Jefferson. What differentiates it is the immediacy of substantial vision, the intensity of the wedding of image and moral meaning. Although Whitman is a philosophical poet, almost always concerned with his message, he is at the same time a master of Blake’s “minute particulars,” one of the clearest and most dramatic imagists in literature. Blake himself, in the philosophical-mythological epics in which he confronts the same problems and seeks the same solutions as Whitman, is graphic enough, but the details of his invented cosmogony are not sufficiently believable and so soon become boring. Whitman found his cosmogony under his heel, all about him in the most believable details of mundane existence. So his endless lists of the facts of life, which we expect to be tedious, are instead exhilarating, especially if read aloud.

Not least of the factors of Whitman’s greatness is his extraordinary verse. He was influenced, it is true, by Isaiah, Ossian, and all the other sources discovered by scholarship. His has influenced all the cadenced verse that has come after it. Yet in fact there has never been anything like Whitman’s verse before or since. It was original and remains inimitable. It is the perfect medium for poetic homilies on the divinization of man.

Only recently it was fashionable to dismiss Whitman as foolish and dated, a believer in the myth of progress and the preacher of an absurd patriotism. Today we know that it is Whitman’s vision or nothing. “Mankind, the spirit of the Earth, the paradoxical conciliation of the element with the whole and of unity with multitude — all these are called utopian, and yet they are biologically necessary. For them to be incarnated in the world, all we may need is to imagine our power of loving developing until it embraces the total of man and of the earth.” So said Teilhard de Chardin; or as Whitman says in the great mystical poems that are the climax of his book, contemplation is the highest form and the ultimate source of all moral activity, because it views all things in their timeless aspect, through the eyes of love.



Gustave Flaubert, A Sentimental Education

As we turn over the pages of nineteenth-century literature, we are constantly confronted with the question of alienation. Baudelaire, Marx, Kierkegaard, Chateaubriand, Cardinal Newman — it does not matter whether the voice comes from the Left or the Right; all are agreed in their rejection of the values of the prevailing ethic. Yet we never get a clear definition of alienation: what is man alienated from, and why? Perhaps it is precisely the democratic society, the growing affluence and education, that have revealed the natural state of man — much as the development of medicine has enabled greater accuracy of diagnosis, with the resultant tremendous increase in the record of certain diseases. Perhaps the discovery of human self-alienation was simply a statistical refinement made possible by the spread of the privileges of culture to the middle classes.

Flaubert, of all the century’s major novelists, most emphatically did not believe this. Madame Bovary, A Sentimental Education, Bouvard and Pécuchet were conceived as head-on attacks on middle-class life in all its aspects, its ideals as well as its realities. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Salammbô are sensation-drugged reveries for an anti-bourgeois elite. Yet what happens? Flaubert was a tireless craftsman, and as he reworked his sentences, seeking always the ultimate precision of a surgical instrument, the simplicity of his approach yielded before an irony of which he never became fully conscious. There are as many definitions of great prose as there are examples — from Apuleius or De Quincey to Swift or Defoe. Flaubert had a vision, a model, of how words should function, and he ground down each phrase until it fitted that model, a kind of abstract template that did not merely shape rhythm and image, but revealed a fundamental quality of the sensibility. The grindstone revealed the iron.

A Sentimental Education is a step forward in time from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, and a step downward in the decline of human nobility. Julien Sorel, Stendhal’s hero, is the hero of a tragic farce, a village Bonaparte who never got a chance; but even though his life, and its end, are acted out with mock heroics, the vestiges of nobility still cling to him and to his two foolish women. He dies for glory as he conceives it. There is nothing heroic about Frédéric, the hero of A Sentimental Education. He is a man of the Forties, of the reign of Louis Philippe — the bourgeois parody of a king who fell before a bourgeois parody of an emperor. Julien Sorel was motivated by an unfulfillable lust for power; Frédéric is motivated by greed. Julien forces his life to its tragic dénouement, a Romantic reenactment of a Classic end. A generation later, Frédéric lives in a world in which Romantic solutions are no longer available. He simply runs down.

The plot of The Red and the Black still preserves something of the self-sufficiency of Racine or Sophocles. The people live in a world determined by their own interrelationships. A Sentimental Education is a social and historical panorama; Frédéric is the narrative focus of a people and a time. He is mass man, nearer the top of the mass than the bottom. Julien is, or at least wishes to be, man against the mass. Today they would be called other-directed and inner-directed.

If in any sense The Red and the Black is a roman à clef, its deciphering adds nothing to the fiction. A Sentimental Education is full of deadly caricatures of actual people. It was written under the Second Empire, when the forces it analyzes had realized their potential, and many of the characters are in fact Flaubert’s contemporaries at the period of writing, moved back ten or twelve years. So the book is a mirror image of the first volumes of the Goncourt Journal.

“Enrich yourselves!” was the slogan of Louis Philippe’s rule, and in A Sentimental Education we can watch an elite, a clerkly class, abdicate finally all claim to being the “responsibles” and get down and scramble at the trough of the nouveaux riches. Julien, in a time of transition, strove to hammer content into his poor life. Frédéric’s life, says Flaubert, has no content, and when content offers itself he avoids it or, if necessary, destroys it.

It was in these years that Proudhon said, “Property is theft,” and reading this novel we can see why he did. It is the story of a den of thieves, busy stealing counterfeit coin from one another. This is the salient characteristic of Flaubert’s portrayal of covetousness and distinguishes it sharply from the simple greed that motivates so many of Balzac’s characters. There are greedy men like those of Balzac in Greek and Latin comedy and all through Medieval literature. The covetousness of Flaubert’s people is the special nineteenth-century, capitalist, hypertrophy of covetousness specifically — that sin so heinous as to be forbidden by two of the Commandments.

Flaubert’s change of focus is accompanied by a change in style, a change in the very meaning of style. Balzac and, in a more profound way, Stendhal adopted for literary purposes the language of the documents and dispatches of Napoleon. They made a subtle literary instrument out of an anti-literary direct communication which was new to spoken as well as written French. Flaubert worked in a completely opposite way. He is artistic. He persuades himself that style is an end in itself and that communication is to be shaped by a rhetoric that may be the antithesis of the rhetoric of either Cicero or Chateaubriand, but that is rhetoric nonetheless.

All this is a kind of occupational delusion. If there is a hero of the Goncourt Journal, it is Flaubert. He enters a young Viking in a berserker rage of literary creation. He leaves an old man mad about writing. Café conversations and little dinners of gossip, petty politics and grave discussions of the merits of sundry tarts he turns into pursuits of “the just word,” conversational fox hunts that end in assays of the sound of sensibility — a mixed metaphor that may convey something of the excitement.

Amongst the painters Courbet, Manet, Degas, and then all the Impressionists, nature was being illuminated with a new kind of light, never seen before. For sheer brilliance of direct vision, Flaubert’s prose surpasses any of them, and has yet to be equaled by any of his disciples. All the manifold details of life, of nature, of still life, glow with an internal fire, the fire of burning prose that has been distilled to a perfect transparency. This is quite unlike Stendhal’s mirror loitering down a pathway — he hoped we would forget we are reading. Flaubert wants us to be always excruciatingly conscious of the craftiness of his art. “It is with a strange malice that I distort the world,” said Wallace Stevens. So Flaubert is distorted, by irony, by artifice.

If this were all, he would be only another Huysmans, only the founder of Art for Art’s Sake. But behind the irony is a terrible pity. Frédéric with his sentimental covetousness, the crooked revolutionaries, the literary impostors and whores, the women exhausted with bad dreams, the treacherous friends — all the cast of A Sentimental Education, as immense as that of a Russian novel, are finally brought to judgment and let go. The novel is not, as Flaubert thought it was, a pure work of art devoid of any moral. Pity and terror, said Aristotle, were the essence of tragic response. At the end we look back over the generation that enriched itself and share with Flaubert a sad, calm terror at the pity of the human condition. This is all it ever comes to; the Last Judgment is not the melodrama of the flames of Hell mounting toward Heaven, but only two emotionally ruined old men, all lust and covetousness used up, like prisoners paroled in old age after serving thirty years of a life sentence.



Rimbaud, Poems

“Les Phares” they have been called, the lighthouses that guide the course of modern poetry and, following poetry, all the other arts. They are Blake, Hölderlin, Poe, Baudelaire, Whitman, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Reverdy, Breton, Artaud. Most of them are slightly mad. Some — notably Poe, Breton, and Artaud — are not even very good poets. Most of them were incapable of competing with the world on its own terms. They were not competent in any accepted definition of the word. Whitman was sane and healthy enough, even normal — if one is not a prig — although he was a little foolish at times. Only Rimbaud and Apollinaire were supremely competent, able to make their own way against all comers whatever the circumstances, and Apollinaire was much the lesser man. He was a successful hack, as Poe was an unsuccessful one, a kind of petty-bourgeois adventurer in letters — alongside a career as a great poet.

Rimbaud was cut from a far vaster cloth — another Clive or Cecil Rhodes, a robber baron like the men who ruthlessly hurled railroads across the mountains and deserts of America. That he failed was not his fault. He chose, unwittingly, to operate in a theater of impossible conditions. The regions from the Red Sea to Addis Ababa were intrinsically incapable of being developed like South Africa or Australia or the Far West, and have remained so to this day. Rimbaud did not fail as a capitalist adventurer in Africa. He was defeated by a mistake in geography and then was brought low by cancer. Had he not died in what after all was still late youth, he might well have a rebel republic in the heart of Africa named after him today. Great mathematicians do their best work in early youth, because the intellectual lures of mathematics wear out after a few years. Entrepreneurs and imperialists usually develop late. It takes time to become as wily as a fox, as impervious as a turtle, and as supple as a snake. All who met Rimbaud in Africa agree that he had learned his lessons superlatively when death seized him by the knee.

Almost all the books on Rimbaud, and there are about six hundred in French and English alone, autobiographize, if the barbarism may be forgiven, his poetry. The books are written by writers, and Rimbaud’s life shocks writers. He grew up in a drab provincial town in the worst part of France. He was a brilliant and unruly child, no worse and no better than any other boy with brains fallen amongst the brainless. The only opportunity for escape in such a place was the public library. There he discovered not just poetry, but the extraordinary claims of the poetics of late Romanticism.

He immediately applied the recipes to himself, and since he took them literally and acted on them with superlative vigor and intelligence, the results were astonishing. Not only were they epoch-making — they are still making epochs. The reason is simple: no one before had ever really believed the claims of the poets, and no poet had ever before had either the brains or the muscle to act on such impossibilist claims if he had believed them.

After a brief correspondence with the poets he admired and believed — alas, stuffed shirts like Théodore de Banville and debauched amateur nuns like Verlaine — Rimbaud ran off three different times to make his way amongst the great in Paris. He succeeded only in embarrassing and frightening them. The first time, he was arrested and returned in ignominy to his home. His second visit coincided with the fall of France and the arrival of the German armies; his third, with the Commune. Like Whitman’s adventures in the Civil War, Rimbaud’s in the Commune seem to be largely imaginary. But he did see through the Commune. He came to it believing all its rhetorical pretensions; he left totally disillusioned.

This was April 1871. In May he had transferred all these apocalyptic, eschatological hopes and visions to poetry. This is the month in which he wrote his two “Letters of a Visionary,” to his teacher Izambard and his friend Demeny. They are the most extreme statement of the prophetic, shamanistic, vatic role of the poet in the literature of any language to that date. It would be most illuminating to see the vanished answers from these two small, provincial people — both letters anticipate the answers that must have come. They are not only aesthetic programs; they are apocalyptic visions and calls to action. Rimbaud attacks with all the fury of the visionary who sees an onrushing apocalypse that his contemporaries refuse to even notice. “Judgment, and after the Judgment, the Fire.” He seduced the will-less and witless Verlaine, and for two years tried to make him the poet he claimed to be — by the sheer exercise of erotic force.

Within three years Rimbaud was to learn that he had been the victim of a hoax. The poets he met were not Isaiahs but drunken Scribes and Pharisees. The apocalypse was delayed, and its omens died away. Poetry turned out not to be a sufficient vehicle for a total overturn of the human consciousness and a transvaluation of reality. So Rimbaud turned away from poetry as an insufficient vehicle of his ambitions. He was twenty years old.

No one else has ever had the faith, the hope, and the lack of charity to attack poetry the way Rimbaud did. No one else with so much strength and intelligence has ever had the innocence to take all of its most extravagant claims with complete seriousness. Rimbaud tried to do to and with poetry what others only pretended — when talking to adoring women and other customers — to be able to do. Poetry has never recovered. To say it has never been the same since is not slang, but simple fact.

Baudelaire may have founded modern poetry, but his work is assimilable to the past — to Coleridge, or Maurice Scève, or Catullus, or Petronius, or Webster, or Marlowe, or whom you will. With Rimbaud, the connections are snapped. The only poetry like Rimbaud’s is to be found amongst primitive peoples who believe as did the boy Rimbaud, really and truly, that the poet is an all-powerful shaman and seer, capable of altering the very nature of reality. It does no good to hunt for other Rimbauds amongst the more deranged Romantics; they are to be found amongst the Eskimos, the Kwakiutls, the Chukchis, the Kamchatals; amongst the founders of ecstatic cults in China and Japan, where some poetry of this sort has made its way into literature; and amongst a very few, far fewer than you would think, Medieval European ecstatics, like Saint Hildegarde of Bingen and Saint Mechtild of Magdeburg.

What did Rimbaud accomplish in poetry? He developed, refined, and pushed to its final forms the basic technique of all verse that has been written since in the idiom of international modernism — the radical disassociation, analysis, and recombination of all the material elements of poetry. This means all, not just the syntactical structure. True, the logical pattern of Western European thought and language begins to break down. The basic form — subject, verb, object, and their modifiers — dissolves. The prosody dissolves too, into doggerel, free verse, and a new kind of incantatory prose quite unlike Baudelaire’s. The whole tendency of the prosody is toward hypnotic incantation and invocation of delusion — acoustic magic.

More important by far, however, the ultimate materials, psychological, descriptive, dramatic — the things the poetry is “about” — are shattered beyond recognition and recombined into forms that establish the conviction of a new and different order of reality. The subject and the poetic situation are liquidated. It is impossible to say who the actors in the room are, or where they are, or what is happening to them — not in terms of any pattern of the real world brought to the poem from previous experience. The poem is closed within its own dramaturgy.

This is why most critics insist on interpreting Rimbaud’s poetry in terms of his own life. Superficially, this often works. Certainly “Bateau Ivre” is a poem of an adolescent boy with his head full of cowboys and Indians, pirates and cannibals. Certainly it is possible to read, with the help of a little vulgar Freudianism, most of the erotic poems as records of the visions and disappointments of masturbation.

All this is too easy and produces an easy Rimbaud. Best to take the poems at face value, to forget about the struggles with Verlaine when reading “Une Saison en Enfer” or the sodomizing cannoneers of the Commune in their rowdy barracks when reading the bitter, cryptically obscene poems and the “Illumination” called “Democratie.” Rimbaud may never have seen the Commune and may well not have had any genuine homosexual affair with Verlaine. The poems are all about something else. “Je suis un autre,” said Rimbaud.

By the time we get to the paintings of Juan Gris, or the poems of Pierre Reverdy, Rimbaud’s philosophy of composition has been brought under cool control. It has, so to speak, entered the period of Plato, Aristotle, or even Aquinas. But behind Plato lies the demonic Socrates, whom nobody could understand, but only systematize. Rimbaud is stout Cortes, not silent on a peak in Darien, but walking into the streets and plazas of Tenochtitlán, into a universe of wonder.

To achieve the dissolution and dissociation of all the elements of poetry, it was necessary for Rimbaud to undertake a forced dissociation of the personality — under the strict control of a powerful will and reason. This is the “reasoned derangement of the senses” which has become a byword of all modern art.

In Rimbaud it is commonly accompanied, and always in his best poems, by the phenomena of dissolution of the personality that are found in natural mysticism and in trance states that result from toxins — whether drugs, or the products of fasting, or manipulation of the breath and the autonomic nervous system. Cyclones, explosions, blue lights, shattering crystals, colored snow, whirling sparks, shipwrecks, whirlpools, the looming of an alternative reality behind the fiction of the real, the sense of estrangement of the self “The true life is absent.” “I am another.”

It is this vocabulary which is common to Saint Hildegard, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé, which has led so many to worship Rimbaud as a diabolic saint, just as it has led so many in our time to confuse the similar effects of hallucinogenic drugs with mystical visions of ultimate reality.

Rimbaud did not see the Absolute, or try to become an angel, or any of the other things his worshipers attribute to him. He very simply tried to take the pretensions of poetry seriously and to reform art so that it could alter the experienced meaning of reality. He decided that this was a hoax and an activity beneath the dignity of grown men, and he turned to what he considered more interesting activities. However, he almost succeeded, and poetry will never be the same again.

* * *

The translations and the books about Rimbaud in English are of doubtful guidance. They are all weakened by adherence to one or another of the Rimbaud myths. We badly need a translation of the devastating critique of Étiemble. Best read two or more face en face translations and puzzle out the French with a dictionary. Wallace Fowlie’s recent critical book is pretty much a repetition of the now very dated pseudo-Thomist criticism of Jacques Maritain. However, his translation is usually trustworthy, and it is complete.

[Another Rexroth essay on Rimbaud]


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

Other “Classics Revisited” essays