There has never been an enfant more terrible than Arthur Rimbaud. An accomplished poet while still in primary school, he began a torrid love affair at seventeen with poet Paul Verlaine, ten years his senior. He moved in with Verlaine and his wife and was a houseguest from hell: his room was a squalid sty, he indulged heavily in absinthe and hashish, he sunbathed stark naked in the front garden, he picked lice from his overgrown hair and flicked them onto visitors, he smashed china, he desecrated an heirloom crucifix, he sold some of his hosts’ furniture, and he used a magazine containing poems by a friend of Verlaine’s for toilet paper. Verlaine, enamored of the boy, was delighted with his antics.
Throughout these rambunctious teen years Rimbaud created a body of poems, including Le Bateau ivre, Une Saison en Enfer, and Illuminations, that became hallmarks of French surrealism. But he stopped writing before he was twenty-one, and never turned out another line of verse.
Rimbaud was born October 20, 1854, in Charleville in the Ardennes region of northern France. His father was an infantry officer frequently away from home, and Arthur’s parents separated when he was six, leaving him to be raised by his rigid, narrow-minded, humorless, miserly mother, whom he called the “mouth of darkness.” A priest at the Pension Rossat, where Arthur was enrolled, inspired him to love Greek, Latin, and French literature, and encouraged him to write poetry. Arthur’s first verse was published when he was fifteen.
By the time he was seventeen, Rimbaud had become a dyed-in-the-wood rebel: he consumed alcohol, wrote obscene poems, stole books, and allowed his appearance to grow unkempt and disheveled. Rimbaud made his connection with Verlaine by sending him letters and samples of his own poetry. Verlaine replied with a one-way train ticket to Paris and a letter that read, “Come, dear great soul. We await you. We desire you.”
Desire him, Verlaine did. They had a stormy and scandalous affair—the twenty-seven-year-old, newly married established literary figure, with the seventeen-year-old country lad. They indulged in absinthe and hashish, and reveled in their sexual excesses, even collaborating on a “Sonnet du trou du cul”—which can most politely be translated as “Sonnet in Praise of the Butthole,” and whose contents are decidedly pornographic. Rimbaud entered into a prolific period of creativity during the next three years, turning out virtually his entire body of work in that time.
In 1872 Verlaine abandoned his wife and child and took Rimbaud with him to England, where they lived in Bloomsbury and Camden Town, and scraped a living by teaching and an allowance from Verlaine’s mother. Rimbaud stuck to his writing in the Reading Room of the British Museum to take advantage of the free heating, lighting, pens, and ink. After several months in London, Verlaine went to Brussels, where he asked his mother and Rimbaud to join him at the Hotel Liège. Now drinking even more heavily, Verlaine bought a pistol, with which he intended to commit suicide, but instead he used it to shoot Rimbaud in the wrist during a violent lovers’ quarrel. Rimbaud declined to press charges but wisely decided to hightail it out of Brussels. On the way to the train station, Verlaine threatened him again, and Rimbaud summoned a police officer and had him arrested. Verlaine served two years in prison for the assault.
Rimbaud returned home to Charleville and wrote his last verses, after which he abandoned poetry forever. In 1875 he and Verlaine met for the last time. Verlaine had become an exceedingly pious Catholic, and Rimbaud described him as “clutching a rosary in his claws.” They parted on chilly terms.
In 1876 Rimbaud went to Vienna, where he was robbed of all his money and stripped of his clothes by a cab driver. The French consul general arranged for his passage back to France. Then he joined the Dutch Colonial Army and served in the East Indies, but deserted into the Indonesian jungle and eventually found his way back to France once more. He went to Cyprus as a stone quarry foreman, from there to Yemen, and then to Harar, Ethiopia, as a coffee merchant, gun runner, and slave trader.
Back in Paris, the name of Rimbaud was becoming well-known from the works that had been published earlier. In Africa, his personality could hardly have been more different from the wild days of his youth. People who knew him said he was taciturn, withdrawn, gruff, and unsociable, but honest and methodical as a trader, with a dry sense of humor. He led a simple, almost ascetic, life, and he delighted in helping the poor.
In February of 1891, when he was thirty-six, he noticed a pain in his right knee, which made it difficult to walk, and he assumed it was arthritis. When it became more troublesome, he had a canvas stretcher made and was carried on it more than 150 miles across the desert to the port of Zeila in Somaliland. From there, he sailed to Aden, Yemen, where he saw a European doctor, who misdiagnosed his ailment as tubercular synovitis, an inflammation of the membrane around the kneejoints, frequently seen in rheumatoid arthritis. He recommended immediate amputation of the leg.
Rimbaud remained in Aden until May 7, when he took the steamer L’Amazone on a thirteen-day voyage to Marseille, where he was admitted to Conception Hospital, and on May 27 underwent amputation of his leg. It was discovered that he was actually suffering from osteosarcoma, advanced bone cancer, and had only a few months to live. He wrote to his sister Isabelle: “What a nuisance, what a bore, what misery when I think of my former travels, and how active I was just 5 months ago! Where is my skipping across mountains, the walks, the treks through deserts, across rivers, and over seas? And now, the life of a one-legged cripple…. And to think I had decided to come back to France this summer to get married! Goodbye to wedding, goodbye to family, goodbye to future! My life is gone, I'm no more than an immobile trunk.”
Isabelle joined him in Marseille and remained with him during his last days, engineering his deathbed conversion to the Catholic Church. She wrote to their mother in Charleville on October 28: “He is no longer a poor, unrepentant sinner. He is now a saint, a martyr, one of the just, one of the chosen! Sunday morning, after mass, one of the priests came to see him and offered to hear his confession—and he accepted! As he left, the priest told me, ‘Your brother has the true faith. I have never seen faith of this quality.’ I kissed the ground with joy. There is joy, even in his death, now that his soul is saved!”
Despite his repentance, the priest did not offer Rimbaud communion since he felt he was too weak to receive it and might vomit on the host.
Isabelle described her brother’s condition: “His stump is extremely swollen. There is an enormous cancerous growth between his hip and his belly, just on top of the bone. All the doctors—ten of them have visited him—seem terrified by this strange cancer. They say his case is unique, and there is something about it they don’t understand. Arthur’s head and left arm are in great pain, but he usually remains in a a deep lethargy, apparently sleeping. At night he has a morphine injection. When he wakes, he says odd things, thinking we are in Ethiopia or Yemen and must find camels and organize a caravan…He has the thinness of a skeleton and the color of a corpse. And his poor limbs are all paralyzed, mutilated, and dead around him. O God, how pitiful!”
Rimbaud died on November 10, 1891, at the age of thirty-seven. He was buried at his place of birth in Charleville.