Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell has been translated, read, adored, cursed, worshiped. Made into a movie… With Leonardo DiCaprio no less… And it would be indecent to talk much about Halloween, or witchy seasons, without discussing Arthur Rimbaud. Boy genius, enfant terrible, rebel, visionary and mystic. Evocations of visions and witches. Stellar student, 15 years old, ran away from his strict country family (mother, basically). He was returned home, twice at least, much drama. The third time, he attained escape velocity, so to speak. Age 16, he got to Paris in order to be a POET.
And boy did he ever become a poet. He also quit writing at the age of 19, pronouncing his own work to be “mere dishwater.” His lover Paul Verlaine, another famous poet, had shot Arthur in a fit of jealousy. Rimbaud survived, but with a sense of bitter determination. He traveled abroad, eventually to the Middle East where he became a gun runner. Caravans, danger, sand and sex, the whole thing. He was shot again, this time in the leg in Harar where he had become smitten with the famous “Harari girl.” He was taken back to France where he died of gangrene in 1891, aged 37.
2 letters — massive impact
The key to understanding Rimbaud are three letters he wrote in May 1871, aged 16, to his literary teachers. Called “the letters of the seer” (lettres du voyant), they are truly extraordinary. Still astonishing today. In them, Arthur announced to his teacher Georges Izambard and then to a friend and older poet Paul Demeny, that he, Arthur, was going to be a visionary. Rimbaud claimed that classical literature was actually decadent — all the old forms needed to be rejected. He would subject himself to privation, to torments, a disordering of the mind, and a chaos of the senses, in order to wake up and distill the visionary essence within.
The I is another. And, when copper wakes up to find it’s a bugle
The famous passage in the letters has to do with a discovery about our ordinary notion of the self, of ourselves. Je est an autre, wrote Rimbaud. It means, “I am an other” or “The I is someone else.” The grammar is awkward. He had discovered his ego, or self, the person he had believed himself to be, to be in fact an other. I.e., not the perceiver, thinker or actor, but something else. Or someone else. He had realized he was a visionary. “The copper may wake up to discover it is a bugle,” he wrote to Demeny. “It is not it’s fault.”
“The Poet ,” he wrote, “turns himself into a seer by a long, involved, and logical derangement of all the senses. Every kind of love, suffering, madness; he searches himself; he exhausts every possible poison, until only essence remains.”
These missives changed the history of poetry. Of literary theory. They are not irrelevant to studies of intelligence, and of consciousness. French symbolist poetry was born; but American 1950s and 1960s “beatniks” and hipsters also discovered Rimbaud almost a century later. 20th C. writers and musicians read, appreciated, and to the extent possible, appropriated these works. Their style still has power, and these books wield a kind of mystic spell. Alan Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, several others admired them. Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs…
A Season in Hell — most articulate and pleasing, dear Satan
All of Rimbaud’s work is worth reading. But Une Saison en Enfer most typifies and defines his vision. The work pioneered the prose poem genre. The title translates to A Season in Hell. If you want visionary poetry, a revolution in its time (1850s) and still today, this is it.
There are lots of translations of the book. But there is only one really good one. It’s a humble opinion but I do speak as someone who has actually translated literature, including French. I don’t say this proudly — I am humbled by the task. Translations are difficult because languages do not have one-to-one equivalences. So all translations are in effect parallel works — audacious in themselves.
The best and most faithful to the French original of A Season in Hell, among translations to English, is in my opinion Louise Varèse’s. It’s so good I’m actually amazed and grateful to her for the work. Thank you also to New Directions (original publisher).