Arthur Rimbaud, the Alchemist of words

Arthur Rimbaud by Zoa Studio

On the day that commemorates the death of Arthur Rimbaud, who passed away on November 10, 1891, a great challenge arises for the one writing this piece. First, doing justice to one of my (and not just mine!) favorite poets in an article is not that easy.

Second, trying to summarize such an intense, incredible life that has inspired generations and generations of artists, and maybe trying to be non-trivial, is really hard work, but it will be done with pleasure!

We therefore tell you about the biography of Arthur Rimbaud, his wonderful works and the impact that these and his experience have on modern poets: among all, we cannot fail to mention  Patti Smith.

Life of Arthur Rimbaud

Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud was born on October 20, 1854, in the small French town of Charleville. His father, an army captain, left the family when Rimbaud was only six.

By the age of thirteen, he had already won several awards for his writing and skill in composing Latin verse. His mother disapproved of young Arthur’s interest in literature.

But the love of literature is a fire that cannot be extinguished, and Rimbaud began writing prolifically as early as 1870. In the same year, with the school closed during the Franco-Prussian War, he twice tried to escape from Charleville , failing.

Rimbaud then wrote to the poet Paul Verlaine for support, and the latter invited him to live in Paris with him and his wife. Rimbaud and Verlaine soon became lovers. Shortly after the birth of his son, Verlaine left the family to live with Rimbaud.

During their relationship, which lasted almost two years, the two poets associated with Parisian writers and traveled. While they were in Brussels in 1873, a fight broke out between the two and drunk Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the hand. Verlaine was imprisoned and Rimbaud returned to Charleville, where he wrote much of Une Saison en Enfer.

Rimbaud wrote all of his poems over a period of about five years, which ended around 1875. Subsequent works are another type of writing, where a constant struggle for financial success emerges.

Arthur Rimbaud spent the last twenty years of his life working abroad, specifically in African cities as a colonial trader.

In 1891 Rimbaud went to Marseille to see a doctor for knee pain. Doctors were forced to amputate his leg, but unfortunately the cancer continued to spread. Rimbaud died on November 10, 1891, at the age of thirty-seven.

Paul Verlaine published Rimbaud’s complete works in 1895.

Works and style

The crucial aspect of Rimbaud’s career is the search for a new poetic language. Having initially tried to imitate the Romantic poets, only the work of Louis Racine and Charles Baudelaire earned his respect.

In his works, among which we cite the most famous A season in hell and Illuminations, some essential themes are evident. The voyage for discovery, the world of the child, the phenomenon of revolt, develop together with the desire to redefine the poetic word, to free it from the shackles of the conventions of form to arrive at a much more ductile and flexible means of expression.

In this desire, Jack Kerouac  with his “rules” for bringing writing to life, he looks a lot like Arthur Rimbaud.

Rimbaud was one of the first to systematically use distortions and dissociations. For example, he made use of verbs instead of adjectives to give strength to his words or used adjectives mainly to evoke precise colors. Let’s think for example of Voyelles (Vowels)

I, bloody spittle, laughter dribbling from a face
In wild denial or in anger, vermilions;
U,…divine movement of viridian seas,
Peace of pastures animal-strewn, peace of calm lines
Drawn on foreheads worn with heavy alchemies;

Rimbaud experimented with different metrics, but he also had the ability to write with free verse. Even the tone varies from poem to poetry, once we find direct vulgar speech, other technical and scientific language.
Only an “alchemist of the word” can do all this. “Its form was musical,” remarked the poet Paul Claudel. And we are not surprised that Rimbaud’s poems have inspired so many musicians … but we will see this soon!


Rimbaud’s extraordinary life, with its early triumphs, scandals and mercenary adventures in exotic African locations, has come to excite the popular imagination to this day.

Critics have variously endowed his character with equally varied qualities. From the martyr to the roughneck, from the rebel to the victim, what is instead indisputable is the extent of Rimbaud’s contribution to modern French literature.

Many 20th century poets were influenced not only by the power of his verses but also by Rimbaud’s visionary ideals. And not only the poets were influenced. References to the French poet are found, as already mentioned before, in films, theatrical performances, documentaries, architecture and music.

Here are some particularly significant examples:

  • 1964. La guerra di Piero, the famous song by Fabrizio de André is inspired by one of Rimbaud’s most famous sonnets, Le dormeur du val.
  • 1976. In the Elisir album by Roberto Vecchioni appears A.R. (Arthur Rimbaud), a piece of which the Lombard singer-songwriter wrote the lyrics and the music.
  • 1989: the city of Marseille dedicates a monument to Rimbaud, representing one of his most famous poems,  Le Bateau Ivre.

  • In 1995 the relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine is the subject of the film Total Eclipse, where Rimbaud is played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Verlaine by David Thewlis.
  • 2007. Writer and director Todd Haynes is inspired by the great poet for the figure of Arthur, one of the six characters inspired by the music and life of Bob Dylan in the film I’m not here, played by the English Ben Whishaw.

And speaking of significant examples, Arthur Rimbaud’s influence pervaded Patti Smith so much that … read on!

The influence of Arthur Rimbaud on Patti Smith

For both Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, whose relationship is narrated in Just Kids, the figure of Rimabud is almost mythological. Robert illustrated Une Saison en Enfer in his own way in 1986 through a set of eight etchings, the most famous of which is a self-portrait with devil horns.

In 2017 Patti Smith even bought the house where the French poet lived for some time and where he wrote in 1873, at the age of 19, Une Saison en Enfer: the absolute masterpiece of Decadence.

The building, located in Roche, a small French village where about ninety inhabitants live, located a stone’s throw from the Belgian border, has undergone various vicissitudes over the years. Razed to the ground by the Germans when they left the country during the First World War, it was rebuilt in the same form and on the same place, becoming a pilgrimage destination for the fans of the cursed writer, idol of teenagers of countless generations; in recent years, however, it had fallen into disrepair.

According to L’ Ardennais, it was Alain Tourneux, president of the International Association ‘Friends of Arthur Rimbaud’, who informed the American singer-songwriter (herself a poet) of the decadent state of the house. And she immediately intervened to rescue the real heirloom, in homage to her first teenage idol: “I dedicated many of my childhood dreams to Rimbaud. It was as if he were my boyfriend “, she declared in a 1996 interview.

Dream of Rimbaud

To understand the influence, Patti Smith’s “carnal” attachment to Rimbaud, read the beautiful Dream of Rimbaud: 

Oh arthur arthur. we are in Abyssinia Aden, making love
smoking cigarettes, we kiss, but its much more, azure,
blue pool, oil slick lake, sensations telescope, animate,
crystalline gulf, balls of colored glass exploding,
seam of berber tent splitting, openings, open as a cave,
open wider, total surrender.

Is it necessary to add more? From these last words of Patti Smith it is evident that Arthur Rimbaud is not only a dominant figure of Symbolism or a sort of rebel with a very intense life.

He is one of the highest representations of the feelings that characterize us, as human beings, which become words.



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