Illuminating Rimbaud

Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud at the age of seventeen, by Étienne Carjat, c. 1872.

 
 

Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud, Pablo Picasso, 1960. Picasso sketched this for Professor Wallace Fowlie, author of Rimbaud: Complete Works with Selected Letters

 
 

Illuminations is an uncompleted suite of prose poems by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, first published partially in La Vogue, a Paris literary review, in May–June 1886. The texts were reprinted in book form in October 1886 by Les publications de La Vogue under the title Les Illuminations proposed by the poet Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud’s former lover. Verlaine explained that the title was based on the English word illuminations, in the sense of coloured plates, and a sub-title that Rimbaud had already given the work. Verlaine dated its composition between 1873 and 1875.

No one knows exactly when Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations was written. It can be ascertained, from examination of the poems, that they were not all written at the same time. It is known that the poems were written in many different locations, such as Paris, London, and Belgium. Rimbaud was also involved in various relationships while he was composing these writings. He lived with Paul Verlaine and his small family in Paris from September 1871 to July 1872, with a short stint in Charleville in March, April, and May. The two travelled from Belgium to London in August 1872. It was this trip to London that provided Rimbaud with the backdrop of a British city for many of his poems. The two spent the following year together in London, with Rimbaud visiting Charleville twice. During these months with Verlaine, Rimbaud grew and matured. The majority of the poems included in Les Illuminations were written in 1873, the happiest year of Rimbaud’s and Verlaine’s friendship.

When his relationship with Verlaine ended, Rimbaud went to live with Germain Nouveau in London in 1874, revising old poems and writing new ones later included in Les Illuminations. Rimbaud’s relationship with Nouveau remains mysterious because of the lack of information about their life together. Although little is known about this year in his life, it is certain that in February 1875 Rimbaud had given the manuscript sub-titled Les Illuminations to Verlaine.

Rimbaud was the subject of an entire chapter in Paul Verlaine’s Les Poètes maudits, showing the older poet’s devotion to and belief in his young lover. He also wrote an introduction to the Illuminations in the 1891 publication, arguing that despite the years past in which no one heard from Rimbaud his works were still relevant and valuable.

Albert Camus, famed philosopher and author, hailed Rimbaud as “the poet of revolt, and the greatest”.

Rimbaud’s life and works have inspired many musicians. The British composer Benjamin Britten set a selection of Illuminations to music.Les Illuminations for tenor or soprano and strings, Op. 18 uses nine prose poems: Fanfare, Villes, Phrase, Antique, Royauté, Marine, Interlude, Being Beauteous, Parade, and Départ. The Decca Record Co. (London) released a historic recording featuring Britten conducting the work, with Britten’s lifelong companion Peter Pears singing the tenor part (Britten had dedicated his setting of the song Being Beauteous to Pears).

Rock musicians Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and Patti Smith have expressed their appreciation for Rimbaud (the latter calling Dylan the reincarnation of the French poet). The essay Rimbaud and Patti Smith: Style as Social Deviance by Carrie Jaurès Noland features a critical analysis of Rimbaud’s influence on Patti Smith’s work.

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To Love and To Part

“It isn’t possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.”

E.M. Forster

 
 

Tenor Peter Pears (Britten’s most frequent muse, personal and professional partner), E.M. Forster, Robin Long, Benjamin Britten and Billy Burrell on a boat, 1949

The Beauty of the Crest of a Wave

English novelist E.M. Forster takes a seat on the beach, oct 1949

 
 

“I wished you were with me at Montazah this morning. It is the country Palace of the ex-Khedive and has been turned into a Convalescent Hospital. Amongst its tamarisk groves and avenues of flowering oleander, on its reefs and fantastic promontories of rocks and sand, hundreds of young men are at play, fishing, riding donkeys, lying in hammocks, boating, dozing, swimming, listening to bands. They go about bare chested and bare legged, the blue of their linen shorts and the pale mauve of their shirts accenting the brown splendour of their bodies; and down by the sea many of them spend half their days naked and unrebuked. It is so beautiful that I cannot believe it has not been planned, but can’t think by whom nor for whom except me. It makes me very happy and very sad—they came from the unspeakable, all these young gods, and in a fortnight at the latest will return to it: the beauty of the crest of a wave.”

 
 

E.M. Forster
Letter to his friend and mentor G. L. Dickinson (28 July 1916)in which Forster described a scene near one of the hospitals he worked at, located to the east of Alexandria along the coast.
(Selected Letters 156)