John Tranter: Rimbaud the Murderer
John Tranter reviews Arthur Rimbaud: Les Illuminations, Translated with a Preface by John Ashbery. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011. First published in The Australian newspaper, in Sydney, in 2012.
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John Ashbery is one of the most original poets of the twentieth century; his work, though regarded as obscure in the 1950s when he first began publishing, won fame in the mid 1970s and has by now (he is in his eighties) claimed a vast audience. It is fitting that Ashbery should face up to Rimbaud’s achievement, and bring Rimbaud’s poems into English.
Arthur Rimbaud was the most original poet of nineteenth century poetry, regarded as obscure in his own time, and a seminal influence on modern verse. He was born in 1854 and died of cancer in 1891. As a youth, he was a poetic prodigy who courted scandal. The writing he created between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one was brilliant, but when he became an adult he abandoned poetry and took up making and saving money with the same dogged passion that he had once squandered on his art.
His adolescent adventures and hallucinations and the poems that grew out of them have been influential for the last hundred years, but he wouldn’t have cared. He despised poets and poetry for all that remained of his adult life.
Ashbery, always a restrained critic, views Rimbaud’s abandonment of poetry rather lightly. He says (in a 2011 interview with Claude Peck): “He stopped when he had to, or more likely when he wanted to. It seems to have been a question of his just sort of closing the book on poetry one day and going on to something that interested him more, which was his trading and life in Africa.” That’s what many people think, but I beg to differ.
There was a five-year gap between Rimbaud’s abandoning poetry (1875) and his fleeing to Africa (1880). In between he did dozens of different things, and by 1877 he had visited thirteen different countries and travelled over thirty-two thousand miles. And we now know that his life in Africa was not a choice, but an unwilling escape from legal retribution, a flight that became a decade-long resentful exile.
His quick temper was present from the start. His biographers recount episodes of rage and violence in his childhood.
Later, when his book A Season in Hell was printed in Belgium, he sent six copies to various men of letters in Paris, hoping to astonish them. When he called on them, he was met with contempt; after all, he was the sponging catamite who had ruined their friend the much-loved poet Verlaine and had him jailed in Belgium (two years, with hard labour) a few months before, and he was the arrogant teenage writer who had mocked these very men’s attempts at verse, a year or two before that.
Grinding his teeth with shame and fury, Rimbaud walked home to Charleville in the north of France, a two-week trek in freezing November weather, and burnt every manuscript he could lay his hands on: his life’s work.
Six years later he is to be found employed as an overseer of a gang of workers on a mountain in Cyprus, building a new summer residence for the governor. One day, for no apparent reason, he fled and boarded a ship in the bay below the mountain, heading for Egypt.
Why? His biographer Graham Robb has brought Rimbaud research up to date. He explains that the Italian trader Ottorino Rosa (who had known Rimbaud in Africa) wrote that Rimbaud had told him that “There [on Cyprus], he had the misfortune, when throwing a stone, to strike a native worker on the temple, killing him instantly. In fear, he took refuge on a ship that was about to sail.”
That temper, again; but this time he had murdered someone. He had never expressed any wish to go to Africa, but that was where the ship was headed, and it was away from Europe, with its police and its law courts, so he fled.
Even there, Robb says, his years in Africa “are punctuated by sudden eruptions of rage and peculiar violence.”
That’s the life; let’s turn to the writing. As a teenager I was excited to discover Rimbaud’s poetry. The detailed Enid Starkie biography (her life’s work) was a good introduction, though (an Oxford don) she insisted on giving the French in French.
Fortunately Penguin issued Oliver Bernard’s luminous bilingual versions in 1962, and I have been absorbed in those translations ever since. Bernard’s words glow and glitter, and seem to me the only way for Rimbaud to speak in English; but of course that’s a personal opinion.
Because of territorial copyright issues, Oliver Bernard’s translations were only available to denizens of the old British Empire, including Australia; no one in North America was able to buy them. Ashbery doesn’t even mention Bernard in this book.
Rimbaud’s poetry has been translated into English by many different writers, notably (for Americans) by Pittsburg-born Louise Varèse in 1946. Ashbery lived in France for a decade, and has fluent French. Only a fool would criticise his new versions of Rimbaud; they are intense and colourful, and occasionally unusual. Here are some examples that resonated with me, and struck my eye:
Arthur Rimbaud: les fleurs de rêve tintent éclatent, éclairent… / Oliver Bernard: dream flowers tinkle, flash, flare… / Louise Varèse: dream flowers tinkle, flash and flare… / John Ashbery: dream flowers chime, burst, lighten…
AR: La musique savante manque à notre désir / OB: Great music falls short of our desire / LV: There is no sovereign music for our desire / JA: Wise music is missing from our desire
AR: le long des cultures et des boisements / OB: past the fields and woodlands / LV: along the tilled fields and woodlands / JA: bordering cultivated fields and tree farms
AR: En effet les nerfs vont vite chasser. / OB: Indeed the nerves will soon go hunting. / LV: Quickly, indeed, the nerves take up the chase. / JA: It’s true our nerves will have soon capsized.
“Tree farms” strikes the modern ear oddly, but Ashbery grew up on one, a commercial orchard in upper New York State, so he should know a tree farm when he sees one. “Capsized (nerves)” brings an interesting echo of Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau ivre”, his famous “Drunken Boat” poem.
But whatever might be one’s bemusement at some of these choices, they are as lively, sharp and fresh as the originals. The younger Rimbaud would have been pleased; the older Rimbaud would have laughed, and gone on making money.
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