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Jean-Arthur Rimbaud

Thomas Bernhard (1931–1989) wrote this lecture—published in English for the first time here—for Jean-Arthur Rimbaud’s (1854–1891) one-hundredth birthday. Bernhard was twenty-three when he delivered it at the Hotel Pitter in Salzburg before a small audience that called itself the “Bergen Circle.” It was first published in the May 14, 2009, issue of the German newspaper Die Zeit, and recently included in an anthology of Bernhard’s writings, Der Wahrheit auf der Spur. Bernhard’s account of Rimbaud’s life and work is riddled with brazen exaggerations and inaccuracies (Verlaine did love more than the “poetic strength” of his “brother”; Rimbaud was in Yemen for three years before moving to Harare, etc.) of the sort that would become the Austrian writer’s literary trademark. “Without exaggerating,” Bernhard once told a journalist, “you can’t say anything.”

Venerable Assembly,

The saying goes that we honor poets only when they are dead, when the lid of the burial vault or the wet mound of earth has definitively separated him from us, when the creator of lyrical poems, having suffered in hardship and misery—as it is so beautifully and disconcertingly put in the obituaries of inferior spirits—has given up his spirit. And as God would have it, there will appear a national office that will begin leafing through its address book, and so the work of posterity gets underway. Then come the laurels and “laurel-ettes,” and an amusing intercourse develops between wine tavern and ministry until the record of the poet either disappears or someone has resolved to publish his works. There are celebrations and pomp, the pensum of the dead is discovered, dragged into the light—the poet is “staged”—mainly just to stave off boredom, which is what one is actually being paid for. And so (in our country!) it is not the poet who is honored, but rather the gentleman from the cultural office who delivers the greeting, the Honorable Sir, Executor of Poetry; the actor, the performer. Many a Hölderlin or Georg Trakl would turn over in his grave from so much contrived, grafted culture, from so much art-market talk from which nothing but indecency emerges!

This is about remembering Jean-Arthur Rimbaud. Thank God he was a Frenchman! Let us then believe in the power and the glory of the poetic word, let us believe in the everlasting life of the spirit, in the resilience of images (of the dead and visions), as they emerge from between the pages of a few great men, exceptions of the sort that appear just once or twice in a century. Let’s not deceive ourselves: the mighty, thrilling, stirring, and calming, the enduring; these do not grow like common sorrel in a summer field! Such great verse, to which humanity owes its glimpse into the depths, does not emerge every day, nor every year. Several thousand books must be pounded out before the machine makes an elemental lunge and presents us with one, if only one, significant piece of world literature. Those that forever hang on the big bell and can be heard clear to the pubs, the journal-poets and the export-articles of literature—they are mostly well-coiffed manufacturers of drivel and trend. In literature the only thing that matters is the original, indeed, the elemental. Like Jean-Arthur Rimbaud.

The poet of France was truly elemental, his verses were of flesh and blood. A hundred years is nothing for this master of words, the untranslatable Rimbaud. He grabbed hold of life, unconventionally, by the roots, packed it full of awe and an obsession with death. His poetry is finished; at the age of twenty-three he snapped shut his book, his “Drunken Boat,” his “Illuminations,” his “Season in Hell.” Never again did he take up the quill to write poetry; the disgust of literature had seized him. He was done, it was enough. “Absurde! Ridicule! Dégoûtant!”—thus did Rimbaud reply when someone spoke with admiration of his poetry, and tried to win him back to French literature.

Rimbaud was born on October 20, 1854, in Charleville. His father was an army officer, his mother a woman like any other, concerned with the boy’s well-being but suspicious and reserved at the moment the fermentation begins within him, when at age nine he brings his first verses home from school, his first “Essays,” his visions, that belong to the best in France. In July 1870 he wins first prize for some masterly Latin verses in which he has reworked “Sancho Panza’s Speech to his Donkey.” While still a student at the university he writes for an Ardennes newspaper, attacking Napoleon and Bismarck with equal vehemence. In order to see and to suffer the people’s poverty, he walks to Paris, immerses himself in the human wasteland and human fear, and throws himself into the arms of the tortured and the dispossessed among the pristine boulevards. At the time his hair was supposedly as long as the mane of a horse; a passerby offers him four sous to get a haircut, which he—the “Poet from Charleville”—spends on tobacco. Then he is witness to a revolution in the Babylon barracks, that dense mixture of races and classes, and fervently cries out: “I want to be a worker! A fighter!” After an eight-day struggle, government troops storm the capital; the captured revolutionaries—his friends and comrades—bleed to death. He, with the greatest shock of his life behind him, manages by some miracle to escape their fate. But in Charleville he was no longer at home.

Rimbaud was a martyr and “socially conscious,” but never a politician. With politics, the alienation of art, he had nothing to do and nothing in common. He was nothing less than a human being and as such was scandalized by the rape of the mind. In Charleville he sat down and wrote the fiery poems “The Drunken Boat”—although he did not yet know anything of the sea—and “Paris is populating itself again”: the orgy, the denunciation of the tumor that is hatred, the poem of Parisian human vice, everything in him was outrage, and when he walked along the river, “it took him hours to calm down inside.” He was seventeen when he penned the wonderful poetic edifice “The Poor in the Church,” with “pounding heart, totally among the dirty children who always gaze at the wooden angel and imagine God to be behind it somehow . . .” Rimbaud was a communist, yes, but rather than being the kind of communist who wanted to torch the palaces of the Champs-Élysées, he was a communist of the spirit, a communist in his lyrics and his graphic prose.

Upon sending his verses to Verlaine, the only living poet of France he revered, he receives the now famous reply: “Venez, chère grande âme!” And how astonished is the “poet of Paris,” who paraded in and out of the salons, pregnant as they were with smoke, like a god, when he finds, instead of a “dignified” man, the ragged seventeen-year-old Jean at his door. And this Rimbaud had the “Sensation,” the great burning poem, behind him. Yes. Those were the days!


With Verlaine there began for Rimbaud a new era, one of deep friendship and deepest humanity, and they traveled together to England to acquaint themselves with London, the stinking air of the largest seaport in the world, to the Midlands with its black factories, and to Brussels to (temporarily!) part ways. Verlaine had to go “home” to his family, which he had, without “consideration,” as they say, abandoned one morning. How different were the two vagabonds who were allowed to tramp through Europe without a passport, without anything; the ephemeral Rimbaud, who was forever breaking out, driven forward by the monumental new reality “there was to digest” in prose. And then the soft Verlaine, who bent toward Catholicism, salvation, and who was completely taken with Rimbaud, to whom he owed the profound poetry and sanctified songs of a stationary person, written down by the defeated Verlaine in jail after he had shot and severely wounded the young brother from Charleville during an argument. To Rimbaud, Verlaine was the great poet, but soft and obsessive; meanwhile Rimbaud had fashioned himself through Verlaine into a “sole life treasure apart from Jesus Christ.” Lest we misunderstand: Verlaine loved the poetic strength of his “brother” and Arthur’s wonderfully clear face, nothing more.

The life of the poet should not be paraded in the street, yet Rimbaud’s life is so violent, so great, so abysmal and yet so religious, like the life of a saint. He stands before us like his poetry: outrageous, truthful, beautiful, and of God!

In Germany he served as a child tutor for a Doctor Wagner in Stuttgart, then raced through Belgium and on to Holland. He signed up for the colonial forces and after a seven-week crossing reached Java. But he was just as insincere in his devotion to military service as he had earlier been with the thought “to be a missionary, to see the world.” When he landed in the Dutch East Indies it seemed as though he had reached his goal: to be out of range of detestable civilization! He moved on, went to Batavia, lived off advances, battled through the new terrain, lived among animals and halfwits, boarded an English ship in 1876 to return home. He had grown tired for a time. As the ship sailed near Helena he called for a halt. When his wish was refused, he jumped into the sea and began swimming to the island, and he, who at all costs had wanted to see Napoleon’s camp, was barely brought back on board alive. On exactly the 31st of December he was back in Charleville.

For his entire life he was an adventurer, and for half of his existence he was on the road. He had long since turned his back on literature and wrote no more:

For a week my boots had been torn apart
by pebbles on the road. I’d made it to Charleroi.
—At the Cabaret-Vert: I ordered slices of bread
and butter, along with lightly chilled ham.

Happily, I stretched out my legs under
The green table: I gazed at the very naive subjects
On the wallpaper.—And it was charming,
When the girl with big boobs and lively eyes,

—She’s not afraid of a kiss, that one!—
Cheerful, brought me slices of bread and butter
And warm ham on a colorful plate,

am rosy and white, fragrant with a clove
Of garlic,—and filled my tankard, its foam
Turned gold by a ray of lingering sunlight.[*]

Thereafter was pure enjoyment. He’s back in Marseille and selling key-rings, then goes to Egypt, returns to France, and finally ships out to Arabia as a buyer of coffee and perfume. In November he leaves Arabia and reaches Zeila. In the first half of December, after a twenty-day ride through the Somali desert, he arrives in Harare, an English colony. There he becomes the agent of an English company with a “salary of 330 francs, food, travel expenses, and a 2 percent commission.” But before leaving Aden, he had written to his mother to send him scientific books.[**]

Art was thrown overboard. He strove toward other spiritual pursuits, equally important, and went on to studies in metallurgy, maritime navigation, hydraulics, mineralogy, masonry, carpentry, agricultural machines, sawmills, the trades of miners-glaziers-potters-metal-founders, artesian wells—he wants to make everything his own, he is hungry like never before, even as an agent! The Harare branch of the trade house blossoms under the direction of the poet Rimbaud. To him business is always going badly. In his letters he writes of money and gold to be sought. He becomes impatient again and wants to go to Tonkin, to India, to the Panama Canal. And all he does anymore is business, perhaps just to numb himself: he trades in coffee and weapons, which he sends to the Red Sea, with cotton and fruits—he who had once vouchsafed to France the most beautiful poems of youth. And full of misery he writes: “I am very bored, I’ve never known anyone to be so bored as I am.”

In 1890, as he had the desire to marry, he suddenly felt a kind of gout coming on, a bodily pain that this storm-beaten man had never known before. Far away from France, among slaves and negroes, in the stinking desert. The end approaches in giant leaps. He himself wrote of his illness: “The climate of Harare is cold, yet out of habit I wore almost nothing, simple linen pants and a wool shirt, and thus I made senseless daily rides of 15–40 kilometers through the country’s rugged mountains. I think a poisonous ailment must have developed in my knee, brought on by fatigue, heat, and cold. It all began with the blow of a hammer under the kneecap: a light blow that I felt every few minutes . . . I went around and continued to work hard, more than ever, for I thought it was a common cold . . . ” An English doctor in the hospital in Aden diagnosed him with a very advanced and dangerous joint infection. Rimbaud decided to have himself put aboard a steamer headed for the Mediterranean.

In Marseille one of his legs is amputated. The elderly Madame Rimbaud is with him. “I am a cripple,” he writes despairingly, “what use is a cripple to the world? Better to die, after all that I have already endured . . . ” So he wrote after months of tortures had lashed him to the bed. He suffers from cancer. On July 23, he had himself taken, as his sister describes it, to the family. There he hoped at last to find peace and rest. It was 1891. The grain was frozen as he came home, and at the sight of the room prepared for him he cried out: “This is Versailles!” There followed the most horrible months of his life. In October the first signs of death made their appearance. Once more he wants to take off, with one leg, for India, or at least to Harare to the negroes. He is already being brought to the train station, is put on the train, but has to get off at the next station. It was the deepest despair known to a human being. In the “Hôpital de la Conception” he registered under the name Jean Rimbaud. Then everything came down to a fight between life—which he wanted—and death. He has spectacular visions, his “Illuminations” return. In agony the poet returns, suddenly he is there again where he had left off at twenty-three when he fled, where the “Barbarism of literature” and the “softening of the intellect” had spat at him from every corner and destination. He is a poet again—even though he writes no more. He is back again—he was in fact never gone but only in Harare, in Egypt, in England, in Java. It was but a detour; now he saw the poetry from Charleville clearly before him and he knew: it is done! His poetry descended on him like a miraculous comfort. “On November 10, at two o’clock in the afternoon, he was dead,” noted his sister Isabelle. The priest, shaken by so much reverence for God, administered the last rites. “I have never seen such strong faith,” he said. Thanks to Isabelle, Rimbaud was brought to Charleville and buried in its cemetery with great pomp. There he lies still, next to his sister Vitalie, beneath a simple marble monument.

The work of Rimbaud was always attacked by those who do not honor truth, and yet it all begins with the sublime, revolutionary, utterly poetic school assignment of the nine-year-old, “The sun was still warm . . . ” which his teacher and friend Izambard kept. It is among the most powerful and the most raw and original piece that was ever written in French, including those of all the greats: Racine, Verlaine, Valéry, Gide, and, more recently, Claudel. Rimbaud’s poetry is not only French, but European, it is world poetry. There are spells and divinations, perceptions and deliriums of incredible magical power.

One mustn’t overanalyze Rimbaud; one must read him, let him materialize fully like an earthly vision. One must enter his world as he entered it, with dirty shoes and a hungry stomach, once on the road to Mézières, then in Paris, in a hopeless situation. One must, as Rimbaud himself did, look into his churches; one mustn’t observe his work, but rather live and suffer along with him, simply look at it as a young girl looks at something that flits across her path.

Four in the morning, summer,
The sleep of love lasts still.
Under the copses dawn evaporates
The scent of the celebrated night . . .[***]

Such things are seldom said and never put in verse. It is full, unsettling, lonely, the Rimbaud of worldly character. Or “Ophelia,” the two poems that encompass the whole world and God along with it. Therein one finds everything that is missing in our time: beauty and awe in the truest sense, and there is desolation and in it the eternal and only God, the great father, try as they might to drive him out of Rimbaud’s verses. In order to believe, one need not swallow communion wafers, need not go twice a year to confession. It is enough if one looks the world in the face, deep into its core, like Rimbaud. One should never scoff at the Church, but it is all right to call the bad priests bad and the vile nuns vile. Yet one must also offer praise to the glory and goodness of God, as Rimbaud did from the beginning to the end, with elemental force. For what makes his work so great is its closed shapelessness. Rimbaud was quite simply the first to write like Rimbaud. Neither he nor anyone else at the time knew “that it is nothing, but that HE is, and that HE ever shall be.”

He is a “Shakespeare enfant,” and not just because Victor Hugo said so. His “Drunken Boat,” the fantastical dream, is eternal. Where had he thrown the aesthetic? Onto the great, mutually devouring trash heap of literature that is forever spreading its disgusting stink of perfume. He was far from the unreality and glassiness of the late Rilke. He was chaste and animalistic at the same time, and the most beautiful, most sensitive reflections come from him. He did not write on bond paper, but on stinking cheese packages—but precisely that was poetry. “Season in Hell” was the only work which he himself published during his lifetime. Verlaine assembled a complete edition of his work after Rimbaud’s death.

Poetry was no longer to him like an “attempt to break free,” a “vent for the pressure of excess vitality,” as Stefan Zweig later said. Into such currents one cannot discharge mere vitality; not Rimbaud. Poetry was no refuge for him but rather an intrinsic home. “Religion never brought him to his knees,” wrote the same Stefan Zweig (who deeply revered Rimbaud!). And yet his literature was an only, indeed world-wide, historically free, unbound, unrefined religion, triumphant in dirt and tattered shoes. And this religion of his brought him down, it brought him to his knees! His entire life hung in the balance of his “Infernal Season,” his heartbeat hung on his “Illuminations.” The wealth in Harare was useless, all the money was useless, everything, everything was useless; down he sinks, and seems to diminish ultimately, and down he kneels in deliriums and begs for the final illumination: for the eternal father!

Only those who invoke the eternal father have a chance to last forever, can say, as Rimbaud did: I am always!

Translated from the German by Holly Case. John Palattella translated Rimbaud’s poetry from the French.


[*] “Au Cabaret-Vert” (1870)

[**] Bernhard neglects to mention that Rimbaud was in Aden, Yemen, from 1880 to 1883, from whence he moved to Harare, a place he had visited for six months on a coffee excursion in 1881.

[***] This is the first stanza from Rimbaud’s “Bonne pensée du matin” (1872)