“One is born a poet and one dies a businessman.” Romanian Proverb
I’ve just finished reading Graham Robb‘s magnificent biography of Rimbaud (1854-1891), the enfant terrible of French literature. There have been other biographies of him before, but many have distorted or misinterpreted the true facts of Rimbaud‘s amazing life. In his revisionist biography Robb sets the record straight about Rimbaud in all his delinquent, drunken, drugged, dishevelled glory. We all know little clichéd titbits about his life — the homosexual relationship with Verlaine, which culminated in Verlaine firing two pistol shots at Rimbaud, one shot wounding him in the wrist; the absinthe drinking; the drug taking; the debauchery — but Robb‘s biography is the first to reach a fair approximation of the truth.
Rimbaud wrote his extraordinary poems between his mid-teens and early twenties. After that he rejected poetry and applied himself to relentless journeying, taking short-term colonial posts in north-east Africa: hazardous occupations such as gun-running and other dubious trades. He could be cruel, egocentric, self-serving and duplicitous — but that’s artists for you. He also happened to be a genius — or, at least, he was for a short while in his youth.
In his lifetime Rimbaud saw hardly a collection of his verse published. Though charismatic, he often provoked suspicion, confusion and envy among his artist friends and contemporaries — he was misunderstood because his uniquely imaginative way of thinking and writing was way ahead of what everyone else was doing. Now, of course, he’s become a legend, a poetic god venerated like some Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain rock-idol who died “before he got old”.
After turning his back on poetry, he did a lot of walking…
“By now his body was tuned to long distances, though not always capable of covering them. Like verse or music, walking was a rhythmical skill, a combination of trance and productive activity. Delahaye’s description of the athletic pedestrian suggests a special state of existence, a happy delegation of responsibility to blood and muscle: ‘His long legs calmly took formidable strides; his long, swinging arms marked the very regular movements; his back was straight, his head erect, his eyes stared into the distance. His face wore an expression of resigned defiance, anticipating everything, without anger or trepidation.'” Graham Robb Rimbaud
… and always had the urge to travel on…
“If I had the means to travel without being forced to stay and work for a living, I’d never be seen in the same place for more than two months. The world is very big and full of magnificent lands that would take more than a thousand lives to visit.” Arthur Rimbaud
150 years ago it seemed easier to travel with little money, easier to make do with less. There were fewer formalities — border controls and bureaucracy was more lax — and you could “get away with things” more than you can today, eg adopt aliases, and find work without lengthy interviews and carefully-crafted CVs. Some people always seemed willing to take pity on you, take you in, look after you for a while — or they did with the young, charismatic Rimbaud, at any rate.