Rimbaud Traded Poetry for Life

Arthur Rimbaud, 1854 - 1891
The legendary French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud stopped writing before the age of twenty-one. He didn't quit because of frustration; his work was well-received by the literati. But, as Wikipedia says, he was a "libertine and a restless soul." It seems that he wanted to experience life rather than to write about it. And, no, being a libertine isn't a pejorative here. In 1876, at the age of twenty-one, he joined the Dutch Colonial Army and went to Java in present day Indonesia. The Army was too much of a stretch so he deserted. He went on to work construction in Cypress and then joined a trading company in Yemen. Ultimately he went to Ethiopia where he became a coffee merchant, apparently at the forefront of that industry. An interesting footnote is that while in Ethiopia he became friends with the father of Haile Selassie, who became a deity to the Rastafarians. He died of cancer in 1891, ending his brief but legendary life.

But didn't he squander his literary gift? No he gave literature what he wanted to give it, or maybe what he could give it. There's no point worrying about what never was. Literary works that were never written are no kind of loss. Further, there is no such thing as a higher calling, be it literature, art, education, the ministry, or entrepreneurship, for which one should sacrifice oneself. Life is for the experiencing of it, and only each individual can define how that is meaningful to them. That can include some choices that are pretty bad, like crime, for which one hopefully pays the consequences. (How those choices fit in the scheme of things is another essay.)

But Rimbaud's prose-poems, not great in number, planted many literary seeds, including for the Surrealists. Here's a section from his poem "Childhood," in his book Illuminations.

I am the saint at prayer on the terrace like the peaceful beasts that graze down to the sea of Palestine.

I am the scholar of the dark armchair. Branches and rain hurl themselves at the windows of my library.

I am the pedestrian of the highroad by way of the dwarf woods; the roar of the sluices drowns my steps. I can see for a long time the melancholy wash of the setting sun.

I might well be the child abandoned on the jetty on its way to the high seas, the little farm boy following the lane, its forehead touching the sky.

The paths are rough. The hillocks are covered with broom. The air is motionless. How far away are the birds and the springs! It can only be the end of the world ahead.


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