I Promise to Be Good: The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud.
Ed. Wyatt Mason. Modern Library, November 2003. $24.95
There is a wonderful passage in Keats’s letters in which the young poet takes a moment to describe his own posture as he sits writing to his brother and sister-in-law:
—the fire is at its last click—I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet—I am writing this on the Maid’s tragedy which I have read since tea with Great pleasure—Besides this volume of Beaumont & Fletcher—there are on the table two volumes of Chaucer … but I require nothing so much of you as that you will give me a like description of yourselves, however it may be when you are writing to me—Could I see the same thing done of any great Man long since dead it would be a great delight: as to know in what position Shakespeare sat when he began ‘To be or not be’—such thing(s) become interesting from distance of time or place. (12 March 1819)
Keats’s remark articulates a common longing for those of us who turn to the letters of our favorite poets with the hope of a similar “great delight.” There is of course the search for clues in the life and sensibility of the writer that might enable us to understand better how and why the poet wrote as he or she did—and for writers who read the letters of other writers, there is always a vicarious study of how another individual in “distance of time or place” models the life and conduct of being a writer. But there is also a hunger much more human and direct—the simple desire to know the poet, to see or hear him or her in a moment of intimacy or cogitation.
This being said, many readers will celebrate Wyatt Mason’s new translation of the letters of Arthur Rimbaud, I Promise to Be Good, the second volume in the Modern Library Edition’s Complete Rimbaud and now the largest and most complete selection of Rimbaud’s letters available in English. That such a collection has not appeared until now may seem like a curious oversight on the part of the literary industry, for Rimbaud in some regards is a figure more mythologized and romanticized as the tragic young poet than even Keats in our tradition. And unlike Keats, Rimbaud’s deliberate delving into the world of drugs and debauchery as a means to achieve his infamous “derangement of all the senses” has no doubt contributed to his popularity in mainstream culture and rendered him a veritable poster child for the figure of the “poete maudit,” as Paul Verlaine famously named him. Fans of Jim Morrison and Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, are well acquainted with Rimbaud’s life and works—and even literary rocker Patti Smith has contributed to the critical literature on Rimbaud with her recent Village Voice review of Graham Robb’s recent biography of the poet. The myth of Rimbaud looms so large that a critic such as Geoffrey Brereton, who admits that “Everything has conspired to make Rimbaud, as person and poet, an almost incredible figure,” nonetheless argues that although the poet’s life and work remain remarkable even after “adulation and legend have been cleared away,” that “there is no pressing reason why they should be. A writer’s legend, if properly focused, is at least as revealing as any ‘document.’”
Mason, in his absorbing introduction to I Promise to Be Good, argues that a more complete edition of Rimbaud’s letters has remained hitherto unpublished exactly because the letters problematize the mythical character we’ve come to believe in as Rimbaud from creative or unreliable biographers, beginning with Paterne Berrichon, Rimbaud’s own (posthumous) brother-in-law. Mason warns the reader:
If one approaches [the letters] with the expectation of salaciousness, with a thirst for literary gossip, with the hope of discovering hidden troves of unpublished verses, with a deep interest in Rimbaud’s sexuality, with a hunger for the confessional—yes, one would be guaranteed disappointment. There is little of that register in Rimbaud’s correspondence. Rather, a sober impatience running from first letter to last. (xxxi)
Mason is of course correct in the sense that popular culture’s appropriation and distortion of Rimbaud’s life privileges the view of him as a young absinthe-drinking bohemian homosexual devil, and he is also correct that in recent biographies in particular, this myth continues to hold sway over the very biographers setting out to be the first to tell “the whole truth” about Rimbaud. Nevertheless, Mason’s injunction that we should find the later letters of Rimbaud’s travels through Arabia and Africa equally compelling as his early literary and love letters seems almost prudish—and worse, somewhat off the mark on what the reader seeks in Rimbaud’s correspondence.
For any serious reader of Rimbaud’s poetry, there are two persistent and overriding questions. The first is the problem of trying to understand and appreciate the poetry of a young man who may have been the most precocious genius in Western literature. (The reader recalls here that the entirety of Rimbaud’s literary production takes place over the course of about four years, from the ages of fifteen to nineteen!) And the second problem is trying to understand why and how such a poet abandoned literature—and Europe—in exchange for the life of a wanderer and capitalist-bent trader of goods. In the case of Rimbaud, what is infinitely more remarkable and impenetrable than myth is mystery.
Mason’s pooh-poohing of our culture’s attraction to Rimbaud as a literary bad boy is perfectly warranted. It is not because the tales of Rimbaud’s early life—his repeated running away from home, his wandering the streets of Paris in utter destitution, or his intense debauchery with the Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine—are not true; rather, Rimbaud’s behavior during his period of literary activity was not so much nihilistic rebellion as heart-wrenching suffering. Nevertheless, only thirty letters remain to document this crucial period. The weaving, therefore, of historical background and accounts from Rimbaud’s friends and family—still available primarily through biographies—remains essential to understanding Rimbaud’s human and literary formation and to these newly translated letters.
For what is not fully apparent in Rimbaud’s own correspondence is that when fifteen-year-old Rimbaud began running away from home during the summer of 1870, he had little choice. Months after winning prestigious academic prizes and becoming the model student in school, Rimbaud’s prospects were ruined by the Franco-Prussian War. Shortly after his teacher and mentor Georges Izambard left Charleville, Rimbaud’s hometown, to return home to Douai during the unstable wartime, major civic institutions, including the schools, closed indefinitely and young Rimbaud was left to his own devices. Though he tried to enlist to be a soldier like his brother, he was too young to fight. Through Rimbaud’s letters, we can learn about his subsequent arrest when in desperation he ran away to Paris to become a journalist. He writes, for example, to Izambard from Paris on September 5:
What you told me I shouldn’t do, I did: I went to Paris, abandoning my maternal home! I left August 29. Stopping when getting off the train because I was penniless and owed the railroad thirteen francs, I was taken to the prefecture, and today I am awaiting my verdict in Mazas! Oh!—I depend on you as though on my mother; you have never been less than a brother to me: so I ask for the immediate help you’ve offered before. I wrote my mother, the imperial prosecutor, the Charleville chief of police; if you don’t hear from me on Wednesday, before the train for Paris leaves from Douai, take that train, come here and claim me by letter or go to the prosecutor yourself, beg, vouch for me, pay my debt! Do everything you can, and, when you get this letter, write, you too, I order you, yes, write to my poor mother … to console her, write me too, do it all! I love you like a brother, I will love you like a father.
Taking your hand, your poor Arthur Rimbaud
And if you are able to set me free, take me to Douai with [you].(19)
And yet, the letter Madame Rimbaud wrote to Izambard regarding this incident, printed in Enid Starkie’s (still definitive) biography Arthur Rimbaud, elucidates further the pressures from home young Rimbaud experienced that contributed to his compulsion to run away:
Sir [she wrote], I am very anxious and do not at all understand the prolonged absence of Arthur. He must have understood, from my letter of the 17th, that he was not to remain another day at Douai. The police are now taking steps to discover his whereabouts and I fear that before you receive this he may have been arrested once more. In that case he need not attempt to come home for I swear that I shall not receive him. It is impossible to understand the madness of this child, he who is usually so good and quiet… . (Starkie, 64)
Only partly reflected in his letters, as well, is the misery Rimbaud repeatedly endured in his flights to Paris, his only chance for escape and possible success. Homeless and impoverished, Rimbaud repeatedly ended up in jail or sleeping under bridges or in army barracks, where it is almost certain he was sexually assaulted by soldiers.
Rimbaud’s perception of having been spurned by his family, his mentor, the military, and even the educational system, as well as the disadvantage of youth and a lack of resources to forage a survival in war-torn Paris, all lend invaluable background to both his poems and letters during his literary period. All of this to say that Rimbaud’s was not a usual teenage angst. As Mason rightly points out, “However much we may be like Rimbaud, his life was most remarkable for the ways in which it was altogether unlike our own” (xxvi).
All of this understood, one appreciates anew what does exist in Rimbaud’s early letters, in particular Rimbaud’s decision to commit himself to poetry, as evinced in the two famous “seer” letters written immediately upon his return from Paris in May 1871. Here is part of the first one, written to Izambard:
I will be a worker: it’s this idea that keeps me alive, when my mad fury would have me leap into the midst of Paris’s battles—where how many other workers die as I write these words? To work now? Never, never. I’m on strike. Right now, I’m encrapulating myself as much as possible. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working to turn myself into a seer: you won’t understand at all, and it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to explain it to you. It has to do with making your way toward the unknown by a derangement of all the senses. The suffering is tremendous, but one must bear up against it, to be born a poet, and I know that’s what I am. It’s not at all my fault. It’s wrong to say I think: one should say I am thought. Forgive the pun.
I is someone else. Tough luck to the wood that becomes a violin, and to hell with the unaware who quibble over what they’re completely missing anyway! (27)
Although Mason’s translations overall are lucid and generally quite splendid, his rendering of Rimbaud’s most famous epiphany—familiar to most English readers even in its French original: JE est un autre—feels particularly clumsy. Of course, the exclamatory and somewhat ambiguous “seer” letters are difficult to render in English in part because Rimbaud is still in the process of conceiving the poetic ideas he’s articulating. It is perhaps for this reason—as well as the relative paucity of Rimbaud’s letters on his own poetic revelations—that critics and readers have meditated upon virtually every phrase in these letters like beads on a rosary. It is almost as if Mason in his translation strives to deflate the language in the “seer” letters, ones that he argues “can only be viewed as a very small fraction of Rimbaud’s thoughts on poetry… . It is clear,” he adds, “that in the absence of information, what little we have has swelled in significance for being the only thing in sight” (xxxii).
Other significant early letters include ones to Paul Demeny and Theodore de Banville, to whom Rimbaud sent versions of some of his poetry, as well as to Ernest Delahaye, a friend from childhood to whom Rimbaud sent personal anecdotes as well as engaging and playful drawings. And then there are the unforgettable handful of letters to Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud’s literary partner-in-crime and lover, letters which remind the reader of Rimbaud’s extreme vulnerability and youth:
Come back, come back, dear friend, only friend, come back. I promise to be good. If I was short with you, I was either kidding or just being stubborn. I regret all this more than I can express. Come back and all is forgotten. It is unbearable to think you took my joke seriously. I have been crying for two days straight. Come back. Be brave, dear friend. All is not lost. You only need to come back. We will live here once again, bravely, patiently. I’m begging you. You know it is for your own good. Come back, all of your things are here. I hope you now know that our last conversation wasn’t real. That awful moment. But you, when I waved to you to get off the boat, why didn’t you come? To have lived together for two years and to have come to that! What will you do? If you don’t want to come back, would you want me to come to you?
(London, Friday afternoon [July 4, 1873], 61)
All of these early letters regularly trawled by critics and biographers make up only the first of the twelve sections of Mason’s new volume, and for the most part, these letters already exist in English in numerous incarnations thanks to biographies and various compilations of Rimbaud’s literary works. Mason’s true labor of love is to translate and collect almost all of the letters written in the remaining fifteen years of Rimbaud’s life after his abandonment of poetry. These eleven final sections of Mason’s volume cover a dizzying array of vocations and locales Rimbaud inhabited abroad. Taken as a whole, Rimbaud’s letters chronicle a young man’s astonishing talent that is inexorably wounded into a low-grade fever of despair. Although Mason admirably argues that Rimbaud deserves to be understood primarily through his own words, the remaining hundreds of pages of letters can in some ways be summed up by Baudelaire’s admonition: “Tout homme qui n’accepte pas les conditions de la vie vend son ame” [“Any man who cannot accept life’s conditions sells his soul”].
In the Penguin Classics edition of the Collected Rimbaud, Oliver Bernard dismisses Rimbaud’s later letters—the ones in which, as he quips, Rimbaud exchanges his search for “philosopher’s gold” for gold in the form of money—as “hardly interesting.” “Even his geographical descriptions are of a strictly commercial nature,” he writes (xxxi). Rather than uncover the psychology or logic behind Rimbaud’s rejection of poetry after his composition of A Season in Hell and Illuminations, the remaining letters only attest more strongly to why we long for such an explanation. Any attempt to understand this conundrum requires a theory, as for example in Starkie’s biography, where she argues that Rimbaud’s primary quest was spiritual and that Rimbaud only rejected poetry when he realized it was an inadequate means to achieve enlightenment. Mason, on the other hand, theorizes in his introduction to the letters and elsewhere that the unifying characteristic of Rimbaud’s life was a “constant striving” and ambition that Rimbaud transferred over time from poetry to the desire to earn money. While Starkie’s theory more aptly describes and supports Rimbaud’s poetic production, it fails to explain the remainder of his life after he gave up writing. Mason’s reading of Rimbaud, however, privileges Rimbaud’s life after poetry—which, admittedly, lasts much longer than the brief period of Rimbaud as a writer—more than it explains the inspired early output of a poetic genius.
There is perhaps another theory not explored fully by Mason in which the historical pressures and vulnerabilities Rimbaud was subjected to finally prevented or dissuaded him from returning to poetry. Whatever the case, it is as if Rimbaud had read and taken to heart the advice his own mother gave to Verlaine during a period in which the older poet was threatening to commit suicide after his tumultuous breakup with Rimbaud. Madame Rimbaud writes:
I too have been desperately unhappy. I have suffered and wept but I have been able to turn my misfortunes to profit. God has granted me a strong heart, full of courage and energy. I’ve struggled against adversity and I’ve thought very deeply. I’ve looked around me and I’ve become convinced, yes utterly convinced, that each of us has a wound in his heart, more or less deep. My own wound seemed to me deeper than the wounds of others and that was quite natural. I could feel my own wound but not those of others. And then I said to myself—and I see every day that I am right—that true happiness consists solely in fulfilling of one’s duty, however painful it may be. Do as I do, be strong and courageous against affliction. Banish from your heart all evil thoughts. Fight! fight with all your might against what is called the injustice of Fate, and you’ll see that misfortune will grow weary of pursuing you, and you’ll become happy once more. You must also work a good deal and find an aim to your life. (Starkie, 282)
Earlier, in the first volume of the Modern Library’s Complete Rimbaud, Mason employs the editorial tactic of “more is better” to determine his selections among Rimbaud’s poetry. His defense of the need for a more complete edition of Rimbaud’s letters clearly continues this editorial penchant. In his introduction to the first volume of his translations of Rimbaud’s poems, Mason explains:
[W]hen reading Rimbaud, we encounter the occasional poem that may well be dishonest, bad-mannered, or boring, written in language that is lifeless, prolix, or painful to the ear. Rather than seeing this as a condition that can be solved editorially—by omitting bad poems, or by offering translations that seek to “improve” uneven passages—it is wiser, I believe, to view Rimbaud’s occasional lack of good grooming as a unique opportunity to experience the uneven, vivid, and rapid progression of his verse. (xxxiii)
Mason defends Rimbaud’s later letters as remarkable for their memorable descriptions of scenery and locale, but what strikes this reader is the extent to which the letters betray a person who has chosen duty over inspiration, who has chosen a self-imposed exile. Most of the later letters are addressed to his family and follow a predictable pattern of topics and concerns, from updates on books or supplies he has requested from his family to financial details and transactions to descriptions of weather or living conditions. What is finally so poignant about Rimbaud’s later letters is the effect they have of estranging Rimbaud from the readers of his poetry. How, for example, is it possible that the exuberant writer of the “seer” letters later writes a certain Monsieur Devisme for advice on hunting elephants?
I am traveling through the Galla lands (East Africa), and, as I am currently putting together a troop of elephant hunters, I would be altogether grateful were you, as soon as possible, to send me information concerning the following subject:
Is there a special gun for hunting elephants?
If so, please describe it?
Where may it be obtained? At what price?
The nature of its ammunition, poison, explosives? (142)
And while it may be difficult to understand why young Rimbaud abandoned poetry in order to begin a different kind of life, it is even more difficult to read the letters at the end of his life, when it becomes apparent that the choices Rimbaud made never led to fulfillment or happiness. After suffering a painful and traumatic leg amputation at the end of his life, Rimbaud writes to his sister Isabelle:
All I do is cry, day and night; I am a dead man; I am crippled for life. In two weeks’ time, I will be better, I think; but I will only be able to walk with crutches. As for an artificial leg, the doctor says that I have to wait a very long time, at least six months! …
I have no idea what to do. All these concerns are driving me mad: I don’t sleep at all.
So our lives are misery, endless misery! Why do we exist? (338)
Thankfully, we don’t have to choose between the biographies and the letters to supplement our reading of Rimbaud’s poetry. That we desire to understand Rimbaud the man does not require defending, either; it is inevitably part of the tension of the reader’s relationship to any literary author. If this were not so, Keats would not have taken “great delight” in imagining Shakespeare the man, nor for that matter would our culture’s ongoing debate on Shakespeare as the author of the plays still rage onward. Despite the tendency to mythology on the one hand, despite the “death of the author” in the afterlife of texts on the other, the real people who wrote the works we value still matter to us.
While Mason is correct that this new volume of Rimbaud’s letters will question the myths our culture has built around Rimbaud, these letters do not clarify the mystery that invited those myths. And yet these letters will empower the English reader to interpret Rimbaud’s life and work outside of the myths and theories of critics and biographers. “And that is not nothing,” Mason quips at the end of his introduction, alluding to Rimbaud’s letter to Izambard that includes his early poem “Coeur Supplicie.” This is not nothing, Rimbaud warns his mentor—although Izambard nonetheless mistakes as parody the poet’s painful articulation of his mistreatment and abuse by soldiers in Paris. Mason, like Rimbaud, invites us now to consider what we might otherwise dismiss as unnecessary or impertinent to understanding Rimbaud the individual. He asks us to consider seriously and anew an important and singular life—and to reconfigure a legendary myth back into a human life again—one full of contradiction, desire, and frailty.