Rimbaud – The Infant Shakespeare

Jean Rimbaud – born on Oct. 20, 1891 – was the original enfant terrible. A precocious child genius (Victor Hugo called him, “An infant Shakespeare”) he had done all of his best writing and given it up by the age of 20. He was – throughout his life – a restless wanderer and a story is told (probably acrophycal) that soon after he was born, a nurse put him on a cushion but he rolled onto the floor and immediately began to crawl towards the door.

A child prodigy in school, Rimbaud won numerous prizes and was the head of his class in almost all of his subjects. Two separate tutors sparked a love of Greek, Latin and French classical literature, as well as an interest in writing original verse. At the tender age of 15 Rimbaud was already showing promise as a poet. The first poem he showed one of his tutors would later be regarded as one of his best.

Following the outbreak of the France-Prussian war, Rimbaud’s tutor who had encouraged him to write poetry left his post. Rimbaud was distraught. He ran away to Paris but had no money and was arrested and imprisoned for a week. This would be the beginning of many tumultuous such occasions. It was after this that his behaviour became increasingly erratic. He began to drink heavily, steal from shops, and began to let his hair grow long and abandon his previous neat appearance.

In 1871, at the age of 17, Rimbaud wrote a letter to fellow poet, Paul Verlaine, containing some of his poems and Verlaine responded by sending him a one-way ticket to Paris. It wasn’t long before the married Verlaine and Rimbaud began an affair. Their relationship became the stuff of legend. Verlaine had recently given up his job and taken up drinking. Now the two engaged together in drinking absinthe and smoking hashish. All of Paris was scandalised by their relationship. They eventually decamped to London in 1872, Verlaine abandoning his wife and their new-born son. This is somewhat surprising as – only a few years before – Verlaine had expressed his love for his wife in his poetry and they were only married in 1870.

The following year, Verlaine – seemingly frustrated with their relationship – returned to Paris alone. However, he soon began to miss Rimbaud. He sent Rimbaud a telegraph asking him to come meet him in Brussels. As soon as they were reunited, however, they began arguing again and Verlaine began drinking heavily. At one stage, in a drunken rage, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist. Initially, Rimbaud did not press charges but sometime afterward, as Verlaine’s behaviour became more bizarre (Rimbaud said he behaved as if he were insane), Rimbaud began to fear where it might lead and decided to have Verlaine arrested for attempted murder. Despite the fact that Rimbaud subsequently withdrew the complaint, Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison.

At this point, Rimbaud returned home to Charleville where he completed his most famous work Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell). Verlaine was released from prison in March 1875, and converted to Catholicism. At this point, Rimbaud had given up his short but mercurial writing career. Numerous reasons are given for this. Some say he was tired of the wild life; others say he wanted to become rich and independent. At this point, he was travelling around Europe – mostly on foot.

In 1876, Rimbaud enlisted as a soldier in the Dutch Colonial Army but within 4 months he had deserted and returned to France. Over the next ten years – up until his death – Rimbaud travelled all over the world to numerous destinations where he worked on construction sites as a foreman and as a merchant selling – amongst other things – guns.

In February, 1891, he fell ill and had to return to France where he was diagnosed with cancer. He died in November 1891, at the age of 37. Verlaine ended his life a popular figure in France. In 1894, he was elected France’s Prince of Poets. However, in his last years he was dogged by drug addiction, alcoholism and poverty. He died in 1896, at the age of 51.

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