A Season in Hell

A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud, translation and introduction by Paul Schmidt, with photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe

Text in French and English

Published by Little, Brown and Company in 1986

 

Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) is an extended poem in prose written and published in 1873 by French writer Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891). It is the only work that was published by Rimbaud himself. The book had a considerable influence on later artists and poets, including the Surrealists.

Rimbaud began writing the poem in April 1873 during a visit to his family’s farm in Roche, near Charleville on the French-Belgian border. According to Bertrand Mathieu, Rimbaud wrote the work in a dilapidated barn. In the following weeks, Rimbaud travelled with poet Paul Verlaine through Belgium and to London again. They had begun a complicated homosexual relationship in spring 1872, and they quarreled frequently. Verlaine had bouts of suicidial behavior and drunkenness. When Rimbaud announced he planned to leave while they stayed in Brussels in July 1873, Verlaine fired three shots from his revolver, wounding Rimbaud once, and after subsequent threats of violence Verlaine was arrested and incarcerated to two years hard labour. After their parting, he returned home to complete the work and published A Season in Hell. However, when his reputation was marred because of his actions with Verlaine, he received negative reviews and was snubbed by Parisian art and literary circles. In anger, Rimbaud burned his manuscripts and likely never wrote poetry again.

According to some sources, Rimbaud’s first stay in London in September 1872 converted him from an imbiber of absinthe to a smoker of opium, and drinker of gin and beer. According to biographer, Graham Robb, this began “as an attempt to explain why some of his [Rimbaud’s] poems are so hard to understand, especially when sober”.

 

Portfolio for A Season in Hell, Robert Mapplethorpe, 1986

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From Sappho Onwards

Couple saphique allongé, Auguste Rodin, c. 1897

Rodin’s fascination for Sapphic couples, which he shared with Toulouse-Lautrec, Charles Baudelaire, Pierre Louÿs, Paul Verlaine and his predecessor Gustave Courbet, was evident in several of his drawings.

 

“I am sorry to have to ask you to allow me to mention what everybody declares unmentionable. My justification shall be that we may presently be saddled with the moral responsibility for monstrously severe punishments inflicted not only on persons who have corrupted children, but on others whose conduct, however nasty and ridiculous, has been perfectly within their admitted rights as individuals. To a fully occupied person in normal health, with due opportunities for a healthy social enjoyment, the mere idea of the subject of the threatened prosecutions is so expressively disagreeable as to appear unnatural. But everybody does not find it so. There are among us highly respected citizens who have been expelled from public schools for giving effect to the contrary opinion; and there are hundreds of others who might have been expelled on the same ground had they been found out. Greek philosophers, otherwise of unquestioned virtue, have differed with us on the point. So have soldiers, sailors, convicts, and in fact members of all communities deprived of intercourse with women. A whole series of Balzac’s novels turns upon attachments formed by galley slaves for one another – attachments which are represented as redeeming them from utter savagery. Women, from Sappho onwards, have shown that this appetite is not confined to one sex. Now, I do not believe myself to be the only man in England acquainted with these facts. I strongly protest against any journalist writing, as nine out of ten are at this moment dipping their pens to write, as if he had never heard of such things except as vague and sinister rumors concerning the most corrupt phases in the decadence of Babylon, Greece & Rome. I appeal now to the champions of individual rights to join me in a protest against a law by which two adult men can be sentenced to twenty years penal servitude for a private act, freely consented to & desired by both, which concerns themselves alone. There is absolutely no justification for the law except the old theological one of making the secular arm the instrument of God’s vengeance. It is a survival from that discarded system with its stonings and burnings; and it survives because it is so unpleasant that men are loath to meddle with it even with the object of getting rid of it, lest they should be suspected of acting in their personal interest. We are now free to face with the evil of our relic of Inquisition law, and of the moral cowardice, which prevents our getting rid of it. For my own part, I protest against the principle of the law under which the warrants have been issued; and I hope that no attempt will be made to enforce its outrageous penalties in the case of adult men.”

 

George Bernard Shaw

Letter sent  to an editor of a Newspaper

1889

 

Over the Short Grass

SENSATION

“Par les soirs bleus d’été, j’irai dans les sentiers,
Picoté par les blés, fouler l’herbe menue :
Rêveur, j’en sentirai la fraîcheur à mes pieds.
Je laisserai le vent baigner ma tête nue.

Je ne parlerai pas, je ne penserai rien :
Mais l’amour infini me montera dans l’âme,
Et j’irai loin, bien loin, comme un bohémien,
Par la nature, heureux comme avec une femme.”

Arthur Rimbaud

Mars 1870

 

_______________________

 

“On the blue summer evenings, I will go along the paths,
And walk over the short grass, as I am pricked by the wheat:
Daydreaming I will feel the coolness on my feet.
I will let the wind bathe my bare head. I will not speak,
I will have no thoughts: But infinite love will mount in my soul;
And I will go far, far off, like a gypsy,
through the countryside – as happy as if I were a woman.”

 

Holland, David Thewlis and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of Total Eclipse (Agnieszka Holland, 1995)

An Imagined Encounter

 

Верлен и Сезан

(Fragments)

“Я стукаюсь
о стол,
о шкафа острия –
четыре метра ежедневно мерь.
Мне тесно здесь
в отеле Istria –
на коротышке
rue Campagne – Premiere…

…Мне жмет.
Парижская жизнь не про нас –
в бульвары
тоску рассыпай.
Направо от нас –
Boulevard Montparnasse,
налево –
Boulevard Raspail….”

Владимир Владимирович Маяковский

 

___________________________________

 

Verlaine and Cézanne

“I bump into
the table,
against the edge of the cupboard-
measure out four meters for myself each day.
I am short of space here in the hotel Istria-
at the fag-end of rue Campagne Première…

…I’m oppressed
Parisian life is not ours-
You just scatter your melancholy
Over the boulevards.
On the right of us
The Boulevard Montparnasse,
On the left-
The Boulevard Raspail…”

Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky

 

Verlaine and Cézanne (1925) is an imagined encounter with two great artists reduced to the proportions of a casual, but inwardly weighty, conversation over a table in the Rotonde. It reflects the boredom with Paris that we find expressed in Mayakovsky’s letters, and the imagined conversation with the great men is concerned exclusively with the current problems of poets in Moscow. In a line of this poem they both claim Vincent Van Gogh was their God during a season.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go

Bob Dylan photographed by Allen Ginsberg

 
 

I’ve seen love go by my door
It’s never been this close before
Never been so easy or so slow

I’ve been shooting in the dark too long
When something’s not right it’s wrong
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It always hit me from below

But this time around it’s more correct
Right on target, so direct
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Purple clover, queen Anne Lace
Crimson hair across your face
You could make me cry if you don’t know

Can’t remember what I was thinkin’ of
You might be spoilin’ me too much, love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy
Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme
Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy
I could stay with you forever and never realize the time

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud

But there’s no way I can compare
All them scenes to this affair
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m doin’
Stayin’ far behind without you
You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m sayin’
You’re gonna make me give myself a good talkin’ to

I’ll look for you in old Honolulu
San Francisco, Ashtabula
You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know

But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Bob Dylan

From the album Blood On The Tracks (1975)

 
 

To listen to Miley Cyrus’s version of this song, please take a gander at The Genealogy of Style‘s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Genealogy-of-Style/597542157001228

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.

What Have You Done With Your Young Life?

Caricature of Rimbaud drawn by Verlaine in 1872

 
 

LE CIEL EST, PAR-DESSUS LE TOIT

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

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.

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.

The Rimbaud Complex

Paul Verlaine (far left) and Rimbaud (second to left) in a painting by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1872

 
 

Perhaps the best model to explain the artistic ideals of both the jazz musicians and the Beat writers would be the late 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud’s attitudes towards the artist’s duty to create was quite similar to that of the jazz musician and the typical Beat poet (though it is likely that the Beat poet would purposefully imitate Rimbaud while the jazz musician would be unaware of any similarities).

Rimbaud drank heavily, wrote poetry at a young age, and “burned out” much like a number of drug-using jazz musicians. Rimbaud’s dedication to his art was so fervent that, around the age of 21, he arrived at the point where he could do no more. Beats claimed Rimbaud as another “Secret Hero,” much like Charlie Parker or Miles Davis. The “Rimbaud complex” was an attitude that both the jazz musicians and the Beats shared.

Many Beats used heroin, Benzedrine and other drugs in adulation of the jazz musicians which used them, hoping that the drugs would do for them what they supposedly did for greats like Parker. Jack Kerouac wrote his most famous book On the Road, frequently heralded as the definitive prose work of the Beat era, on a three-day stretch fueled by a Benzedrine binge. William S. Burroughs used his dependency on heroin as an inspiration for books such as Junky and Naked Lunch. This is a tale with no moral, nevertheless, we know the high price they had to paid for getting into “artificial paradises” that later became “a season in hell”.

The Only Laughter to Still Make Sense

Skull, Candlestick and Book, c. 1866

 
 

Still Life Skull and Waterjug, c. 1870

 
 

Still Life with Skull, 1898

 
 

Pyramid of skulls, c.1900

 
 

The Three Skulls, c.1900

 
 

Three Skulls on a Patterned Carpet, c.1900

 
 

Working in isolation in the last decade of his life, Paul Cézanne frequently alluded to mortality in his letters: “For me, life has begun to be deathly monotonous”; “As for me, I’m old. I won’t have time to express myself”; and “I might as well be dead.” It is possible that the death of his mother on October 25, 1897—she had been a protective and supportive influence—accelerated his meditations on mortality, a subject which had obsessed the artist since the late 1870s, but did not find pictorial form for another twenty years.

 
 

Young Man With a Skull, 1896-98

 
 

Cézanne’s interest in the subject may have had roots in thoughts other than the contemplation of death. He could have been drawn to the skulls’ volumetric forms, just as he was to those of fruits and vases, and he supposedly exclaimed “How beautiful a skull is to paint!” They also share physical similarities with his self-portrayals: “the skulls confront the viewer straight-on in a manner reminiscent of the artist’s portraits.” There would have been further reason for the subject to interest Cézanne: skulls were prominent in the homes of Catholics, and Cézanne was a devout Catholic knowledgeable in ancient Christian texts. Human skulls had also long been common accessories in artists’ studios. Indeed, the contents of Cézanne’s studio were known to include “three skulls, (and) an ivory Christ on an ebony cross” near one another on the mantelpiece.

Joachim Gasquet, a friend of the artist, later recalled “on his last mornings he clarified this idea of death into a heap of bony brain pans to which the eye holes added a bluish notion. I can still hear him reciting to me, one evening along the Arc River, the quatrain by Paul Verlaine:

“For in this lethargic world
Perpetually prey to old remorse
The only laughter to still make sense
Is that of death’s heads.”