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From the Village Voice

THE LEGEND OF ARTHUR

BY PATTI SMITH

My introduction to Rimbaud, at the age of 16, was a brief mention in a monograph on the painter Amedeo Modigliani. I was so taken with the painter that I wanted to read the poets he admired. This sent me in search of Dante, Baudelaire, and Arthur Rimbaud. I found Arthur in a paperback stall across from a bus terminal in Philadelphia. I was drawn to his face, intelligent and contemptuous.

Illuminations became my constant companion. The places we traveled physically and metaphysically may be addressed elsewhere. Suffice to say, I recognized a brother, one of my imagined kind. His work was indecipherable yet familiar. It presented another language that part of me grasped immediately. The part that didn't sneered patiently.

My next stop on the trail of Rimbaud was Enid Starkie's Arthur Rimbaud, published in 1947. Parting the leaves to reveal a farmhouse in the distance, I was drawn into the landscape of his life. I entered wholeheartedly, accepting the astute Starkie as my trusted guide. I stayed the course, then abandoned it. The better to consider my own point of view. So it was with trepidation that I opened Graham Robb's Rimbaud. A new study suggests the possible unearthing of illuminating material, but I was hesitant to plunge into a world that had consumed much of my late-blooming adolescence.

Tracing Rimbaud with Robb was, in turn, invigorating and agitating. Robb insinuates himself in all walks of Arthur's life, scrutinizing and sensationalizing his every move. Robb is best when he cinematically describes the geographic settings of the poet's well-traveled life, from the Ardennes to Abyssinia, and the shifting political and social structures of the 19th century. He is adept at scraping some of the dreary lacquer from thrice-told tales, as we see the poet, his family, and acquaintances moving about in fresh light. It would be more gratifying, however, without the continuous presence of Robb bathing in it himself.

Nonetheless, we can be grateful for new research and the liberal use of obscure material. I was moved by the description of a school notebook, "a few inkspotted sheets held together by a pin," containing notes penned by the 11-year-old boy destined to become the greatest poet in French literature. I could see the small bundle of papers and was delighted that it was quoted in such detail. "Why learn Latin? No one speaks that language. Sometimes I see some Latin in the newspapers but I'm not going to be a journalist, thank God."

One unexpected pleasure is a more realized portrait of Captain Rimbaud. Very little has been known of the father who deserted his family when Arthur was six. We're offered a sense of the source of Arthur's gifts. Captain Rimbaud distinguished himself as a chasseur—a French infantryman trained for rapid movement. He was a fine chess man, an avid compiler and annotator, an orientalist, and a philologist—immersing himself in the study of historical and comparative linguistics. He is credited with executing the first parallel-text translation of the Koran. Envisioning his father at his writing desk, laboring over the sacred text, with young Arthur at his feet, gave me my first inkling of their connection.

Images emerging from even the smallest details gave me reason to stay attentive to Rimbaud according to Robb. We see Rimbaud with his back to the Rembrandts, gazing through the window frames of the Louvre, longing for the time when "painters will no longer replicate objects. Emotions will be created with line, colours and patterns"—for the coming of cubism, Picasso, Pollock, and modern art.

 

Arthur and his companion, the poet Paul Verlaine, exiting Charing Cross Station arm in arm into the polluted light of industrial Britain. Impressions of 19th-century London as described by Robb—"subways, viaducts, raised canals, steam engines passing over streets, mastheads suddenly appearing behind chimney pots"—permeated both poets' work.

 

We picture him through the diary of his sister Vitalie in a boarding house at 12 Argyle Square. "When the trunk arrived, Arthur helped to bring it up. After placing it in our room, he sat on top of it, laughing."

 

Rimbaud weeping. At 21 with his shaved head bowed, standing over the grave of that same sister, who was said to resemble and adore him.

 

Rimbaud walking. How swiftly he moved from the primitive to the promise of science and back again. With long strides, head erect, swinging his long arms punctuated with great hands, red with sores. What a cruel step he seems to have had, devouring territory thousands of miles on legs that would fail him by the age of 36. The speed with which he moved was like the tigers around the Musa tree and he buttered his hair with their turning.

 

Rimbaud still. In Harar at his worktable drinking tea beneath the great banana trees; stitching together his humble garments of white American cotton, "doing away with the tedious use of buttons."

 

Images such as these touched and inspired me and helped balance my impatience with Robb's presumptive commentary. He has chosen to retell Rimbaud's journey from visionary schoolboy to embittered exile. He has chosen to interpret the expansion and discarding of his rapidly changing universes as charted in poetry, letters, and insults. He has done so with consistent energy. And one is never bored, save by him. For he is ever commenting, as Bob Dylan would say, "from the corners of his mouth." He has a journalistic penchant for nailing his subject with one hand and crowning him with another. He would have us believe he has the unique facility of mind to decipher and apply symbolism to every aspect of the poet's behavior, whether at six, 16, or 36. Rimbaud cannot be reasoned or ciphered, for his end was poetry—his own alchemical formula. Those who are not poets, who are not filthy, who have not happily camped on horsehair mattresses, who are not innocently heartless, can never understand the nomadic truth of a poet.

Why did I accept this assignment? Perhaps I could not resist an uncorrected proof entitled Rimbaud. Biography cannot be looked upon as the Rosetta stone of a subject. Only Rimbaud could encode the atmosphere of his being. Arthur Rimbaud has written himself in A Season in Hell and Illuminations. There you will find him, with all contradictions intact. Only Rimbaud could wrestle, refine, and reinvent the civil war of his personality. And only fools would attach themselves to any singular notion of the poet; for all things are irrevocably entwined within the infernal stump of his existence.

 

Patti Smith has recorded eight albums, including Horses, Easter, and, most recently, Gung Ho. Her books include Babel, The Coral Sea, and Complete. From the Village Voice