What Have You Done With Your Young Life?

Caricature of Rimbaud drawn by Verlaine in 1872



Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit,
Si beau, si calme!
Un arbre, par-dessus le toit,
Berce sa palme.

La cloche, dans le ciel qu’on voit,
Doucement tinte,
Un oiseau sur l’arbre qu’on voit,
Chante sa plainte.

Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, la vie est là,
Simple et tranquille.
Cette paisible rumeur-là
Vient de la ville.

-Qu’as-tu fait, ô toi que voilà
Pleurant sans cesse,
Dis, qu’as-tu fait, toi que voilà,
De ta jeunesse?





The sky-blue smiles above the roof
Its tenderest;
A green tree rears above the roof
Its waving crest.

The church-bell in the windless sky
Peaceably rings,
A skylark soaring in the sky
Endlessly sings.

My God, my God, all life is there,
Simple and sweet;
The soothing bee-hive murmur there
Comes from the street!

What have you done, you standing there
In floods of tears?
Tell me what you have done
With your young life?

Paul Verlaine

Poem from Sagesse (Wisdom). First published in 1880, it was important in the symbolist and modernist movements. The subject matter of these poems deals with themes relating to maturing.

In Situ

“À l’aurore, armés d’une ardente patience, nous entrerons aux splendides Villes.”
(“In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities.”)

Arthur Rimbaud


Rimbaud in situ, series by Ernest Pignon


The French artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest, celebrated Rimbaud in 1978-9 by putting up cheap printed posters of the famous photo of the poet in various street locations in Paris.

He does this in lieu of creating a more lasting image of Rimbaud in paint or bronze – materials he feels would annihilate the poet.

The ephemeral newspaper-quality paper he chooses instead points to the fact that Rimbaud’s disappearance is inscribed in the very image of him.

Rimbaud in New York

“Je est un autre.”
(“I is another.”)
Arthur Rimbaud


Rimbaud in New York, David Wojnarowicz, 1977-79


Using a stolen 35mm camera, David Wojnarowicz photographed anonymous figures posing in a mask of the 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud. According to Wojnarowicz, he was “playing with ideas of compression of ‘historical time and activity’ and fusing the French poet’s identity with modern New York urban activities, mostly illegal in nature.” From Times Square to the abandoned Hudson River piers, the Rimbaud figure’s wanderings mirrored Wojnarowicz’s own transient life in the city. Published in the Soho Weekly News in June 1980, this series marks Wojnarowicz’s first serious effort in photography and his first publicly exhibited artwork.

The series Rimbaud in New York, his first serious body of work, comprises twenty-four black-and-white photographs of friends holding up a mask of the poet Arthur Rimbaud in a variety of underground settings in New York City.

The similarities between Rimbaud’s life and Wojnarowicz’s are striking: They lived exactly a century apart and both died in their late 30s; each came from a broken home with abusive parents; both fled to the big city–Rimbaud to Paris, Wojnarowicz to New York; both were gay, and each found a surrogate father in the form of an older lover–Paul Verlaine for Rimbaud, Peter Hujar for Wojnarowicz.