Often credited with the invention of Modernism, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) led a truly remarkable life. When he wasn’t running away from home, denouncing God, or having an illicit love affair with Paul Verlaine, he wrote some truly remarkable poetry. Until, that is, he reached his twenties, when he decided to give up his life as an artist to go and be a weapons trader in Africa, where his lifestyle would eventually shatter his health, and lead to his death at just thirty-seven. By all accounts he was an extremely volatile character; the tale of how Verlaine shot him in the wrist during a drunken brawl is well known. Still, there has always been something about him that has seemed terribly vulnerable to me. He obviously had an incredible genius, and it appears that he was never really able to find what it was that he was looking for in the world; he lived as though the wind was constantly at his heels.
His great masterpiece was, of course Seasons in Hell, but that is far too long for me to post here. This is one other of my favourite poems by Rimbaud. Bear in mind that he wrote this before the age of fifteen:
When the stars sleep in the calm black stream,
Like some great lily, pale Ophelia floats,
Slowly floats, wound in her veils like a dream.
-Half heard in the woods, halloos from distant throats.
A thousand years has sad Ophelia gone
Glimmering on the water, a phantom fair;
A thousand years her soft distracted song
Has waked the answering evening air.
The wind kisses her breasts and shakes
Her long veils lying softly on the stream;
The shivering willow weeps upon her cheeks;
Across her dreaming brows the rushes lean.
The wrinkled water lilies round her sigh;
And once she wakes a nest of sleeping things
And hears the tiny sound of frightened wings;
Mysterious music falls from the starry sky.
O pale Ophelia, beautiful as snow!
Yes, die, child, die, and drift away to sea!
For from the peaks of Norway cold winds blow
And whisper low of bitter liberty;
For a breath that moved your long heavy hair
Brought strange sounds to your wandering thoughts;
Your heart heard Nature singing everywhere,
In the sighs of trees and the whispering of night.
For the voice of the seas, endless and immense,
Breaks your young breast, too human and too sweet;
For on an April morning a pale young prince,
Poor lunatic, sat wordless at your feet!
Sky! Love! Liberty! What a dream, poor young
Thing! you sank before him, snow before fire,
Your own great vision strangling your tongue,
Infinity flaring in your blue eye!
And the poet says that by starlight you came
To pick the flowers you loved so much, at night,
And he saw, wound in her veils like a dream,
Like some great lily, pale Ophelia float.
(trans. Paul Schmidt)