Modern Poetry: Arthur Rimbaud the French Vagabond Poet

Updated on July 1, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Cover of biography of Rimbaud, 1926 La Vie de Rimbaud by  Jean-Marie Carre
Cover of biography of Rimbaud, 1926 La Vie de Rimbaud by Jean-Marie Carre | Source

Rimbaud and Modern Poetry

Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud is still an enigma but his poetic legacy and eccentric lifestyle paved the way for a truly modern poetry to emerge.

A gifted schoolboy who won prizes for his verse he became notorious in his own lifetime for drunkenness, debauchery and a passion for the open road. He also managed to publish influential poetry - The Illuminations and A Season in Hell - which were written before he'd reached 21 years of age.

In 1880, when he was 25, he suddenly turned his back on the literary world, made his way to Africa and established himself as a trader in coffee, feathers and some say guns.

Eleven years later he was dead, succumbing to cancer of the leg in Marseilles, aged 37.

Throughout his creative life he struggled with his demons - drink, drugs and wanderlust to name but a few - yet managed to produce poems full of love, harmony and cutting edge content.

Seldom has a poet burned so brightly for such a short time. Although his output was small compared to many of his contemporaries the content was new and visionary. Odd to think that someone with such talent would suddenly up and walk away from the Muse. Perhaps he knew he had nothing left to say?

I wonder if he ever entertained the idea that one day his work would be held up as a supreme expression of the modern imagination? And that some of his poems, together with his philosophy of life, would influence artists such as Andre Breton (the father of Surrealism), Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith?

His life was captured in a movie, Total Eclipse (1995) starring a young Leonardo di Caprio. You can see a clip from that film later together with analysis of Rimbaud's poetry and aspects of his restless life.

'I tell you, the poet has to be a seer, to make himself a seer by a long, immense and systematic derangement of all the senses.'

— Arthur Rimbaud

Rimbaud and The Modern Imagination

Rimbaud's work, much of it in free verse and prose poems, was visionary in the sense that it laid the foundations for what followed as surrealism, existentialism and modernism. These are only terms we give to certain genres of work created by particular artists - Rimbaud gave the green light for such free expressions of individual and collective imaginations.

Paul Valery said,' Before Rimbaud all literature was written in the language of common sense.'

It took a rare and sensitive soul in the guise of a disastrously feckless dreamer to make that quantum leap into the unknown. With Rimbaud anything seemed possible, he became the medium through which a greater force emerged - bold, new experimental poetry.

So, is Rimbaud still relevant in these super hyped up internet times? You have to say yes - his adventurous themes, fresh insights and renegade poetic consciousness make him a poet for all ages. His obvious appeal is to the young groundbreakers, the pioneering punks, the restless questers.

He brought heaven and hell into the modern world, kicking, screaming and dreaming.

As a role model he fits well into the modern and post modern psyche. The innocent flame haired rebel walking the dusty tracks; the drunken angelic yob; the confused victim in need of rescue from himself; the poet who lost the impulse; the brilliant student who learnt nothing; the bisexual raver; the mad individual who had fear and loathing of his own culture.

'It began in all loutishness, now it's ending among angels of flame and ice.'

from Morning of Drunkenness (Matinee d'ivresse)

Rimbaud's Poetry - My Bohemian Life

Over the decades many translations have been made of Rimbaud's poems, each reflecting the age in which they were written and the nuances of the translating art.

My Bohemian Life (a Fantasy) in the original French is a 14 line rhyming sonnet, written in the early 1870s.

The following examples are fascinating to compare and contrast. The first translation was made in 2012, the second in 2010 and the third is from the 1970s.

By far the best complete collection is the paperback Rimbaud, featured below, a bilingual publication that has all of his published poems, together with important letters he wrote.

My Bohemian Life

I jammed my fists into my torn pockets and took off,
my coat was beginning to look just right,
a big hole near my ass in my one pair of pants shone like a coin.
Muse, I was your slave, I wore the sky like a crown.
A dazed midget, I slept in the Big Dipper,
blew endless rhymes on the wind as I went.
What amazing torch-like loves scorched my dreams!
My own stars spoke to me like softly clashing reeds—
I listened to them sitting on the grassy
roadside stones those cool September nights
when dew graced my forehead like a strong Burgundy,
I wrote among unreal shadows, an unreal shadow
myself, and plucked the black elastics of my
wounded shoes like a lyre, one foot pulled up against my heart!

translated by Stephen Berg

So, off I went, hands in my tattered pockets,
ill-fitting trench coat perfect for my needs:
big sky above, my Muse safe in my locket,
and Oh, là là! What loves ahead! What deeds!

My only trousers sported a great hole.
Like Johnny Appleseed, I sowed my poems:
the Great Bear was my bedroom ceiling, whole
galaxies of stars filling the dome.

Those fine September evenings on the road
rang with the wild exuberance of youth!
I woke with dewy forehead which, in truth,
inspired me more than any wine I know.
I plucked my boot elastic for a guitar,
and spouted rhymes to no-one, but the stars.

translated by Michael Coy

I went off, my fists in my torn pockets;
My coat too was becoming ideal;
I walked under the sky, Muse! and I was your vassal;
Oh! oh! what brilliant loves I dreamed of!

My only pair of trousers had a big hole.
Tom Thumb in a daze, I sowed rhymes
As I went along. My inn was at the Big Dipper.
My stars in the sky made a soft rustling sound.

And I listened to them, seated on the side of the road,
In those good September evening when I felt drops
Of dew on my brow, like a strong wine;

Where, rhyming in the midst of fantastic shadows,
Like lyres I plucked the elastics
Of my wounded shoes, one foot near my heart!

translated by Walter Fowlie

The Original French version



Je m’en allais, les poings dans mes poches crevées;
Mon paletot aussi devenait idéal ;
J’allais sous le ciel, Muse ! et j’étais ton féal ;
Oh ! là là ! que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvées !

Mon unique culotte avait un large trou.
— Petit Poucet rêveur, j’égrenais dans ma course
Des rimes. Mon auberge était à la Grande-Ourse ;
— Mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou.

Et je les écoutais, assis au bord des routes,
Ces bons soirs de septembre où je sentais des gouttes
De rosée à mon front, comme un vin de vigueur ;

Où, rimant au milieu des ombres fantastiques,
Comme des lyres, je tirais les élastiques
De mes souliers blessés, un pied près de mon cœur !

Octobre 1870.

Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, a Bilingual Edition
Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, a Bilingual Edition
Easily the best complete collection of Rimbaud's poetry on the market. If you want one book in your life that represents the onset of modern thinking in poetry, and in western culture, then this is it. I find it extremely helpful to find the original versions alongside decent English translations. Ideal for research and for personal pleasure. And for extra spice, there are letters of Rimbaud that cover his last days. An excellent paperback, 496 pages in total.

Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine and Leaving Home

My Bohemian Life, written when he was a howling teenager, reflects Rimbaud's passion for escapism and a life on the open road. As a restless spirited teen it wasn't only the countryside that drew him away from home and his domineering mother. He ran away a total of three times, once to Belgium, twice to Paris.

Each time he returned to his hometown of Charleville, the more bizarre his behaviour became. He grew his hair long, wore flat hats and drank heavily in the local bars. His reputation as a bohemian bad boy with maverick tastes began to take hold. You could say he was the original hippy, born long before his time.

At this time of his life he was extremely creative, composing poems and sending them off to magazines, publishers and poets in Paris. He'd changed his style, from old fashioned conventional poetic form, to a new experimental form.

One such letter, together with some of his best poems, found its way to the poet Paul Verlaine, an up and coming name on the capital's literary circuit.

Verlaine's reply was to change both their lives in unexpected ways.

Verlaine and Rimbaud Meet

Rimbaud was delighted with the message he received from Verlaine.

'Come, dear great soul, we call upon you, we are waiting for you.'

He didn't have to wait long. The 'provincial schoolboy' arrived with barely a penny to his name and shacked up with the poet and his wife and children. Things would never be the same again.

Transcendental poetics didn't mean much to Verlaine's family and friends however. They thought Rimbaud uncouth and dangerous.

Verlaine's brother-in-law said Rimbaud was 'a vile, vicious, disgusting, smutty little schoolboy', in complete contrast to Verlaine himself who described the young poet as an 'exquisite creature'.

Madness ensued. Verlaine and Rimbaud became infatuated with each other. They both continued their passion for cheap wine and absinthe, walked the city streets and talked poetry into the small hours. Over the next few weeks Verlaine became convinced that he had discovered the future of modern poetry. Rimbaud took over his life.

Verlaine's failing marriage now collapsed. He left his wife and family home and began an affair with the youthful Rimbaud. They took off, first to Belgium, then London, continuing their debauchery and drunkenness as the controversy raged on in Paris.

Despite the restlessness and poverty they always managed to write. Verlaine wrote letters and poems whilst Rimbaud collected his poetry together to prepare them for publication.

Drawing of Rimbaud by Verlaine.
Drawing of Rimbaud by Verlaine. | Source

Verlaine and Rimbaud in London

Verlaine and Rimbaud spent a total of 14 months in London. Their openly gay relationship outraged and offended many people but more disturbing were their often violent outbursts. They may have been poets and lovers but they were also loutish and manic.

Both returned to their native France in 1874, their futures far from certain. Verlaine especially seemed to suffer from stress and alcohol related problems. During one particular fierce argument he shot Rimbaud through the hand with a pistol and was sent to prison for two years. They remained in touch for a short time but the romantic bonds had been severed forever.

Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud in London 1872. Drawing by Felix Regamey
Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud in London 1872. Drawing by Felix Regamey | Source
Rimbaud's name appears on these Library reading Room Rules in London 1872-73
Rimbaud's name appears on these Library reading Room Rules in London 1872-73 | Source

Illuminations - Rimbaud's Best Known Work

Once out of prison Verlaine set about getting Rimbaud's work published, despite the younger poet's indifference to the idea.

Les Illuminations has been called 'one of the masterpieces of world literature' but its author was far away in Africa when it was finally published in Paris in 1886. The 42 poems have been a source of wonder and admiration for many - the rhythmic experiments, the sensual combinations, the imagery, the vision, the unusual content - all seem to inspire the artistic imagination.

Forty of the poems are prose poems, two amongst the first free verse in French.

Paul Verlaine himself wrote the foreword to the book 'that changed the language of poetry.'

A Season In Hell - Rimbaud's First Published Book

'On the roads, through winter nights, without a home, without habits, without bread, a voice strangled my frozen heart: Weakness or Strength. These are your options, so strength it is. We know neither where you're going, nor why you're going, entering anywhere, answering anyone. You're no more likely to be killed than a corpse. By moving I had developed such a lost, dread expression that those I met may not have even seen me.'

From A Season in Hell (Une Saison En Enfer) 1873

Departure (Depart)

Enough seen. The vision has been encountered in all skies.

Enough had. Sounds of cities, in the evening, and in sunlight, and always.

Enough known. The stations of life. - O Sounds and Visions!

Departure amid new noise and affections!

Depart - Original French version

Assez vu. La vision s’est rencontrée à tous les airs.

Assez eu. Rumeurs des villes, le soir, et au soleil, et toujours.

Assez connu. Les arrêts de la vie. — Ô Rumeurs et Visions !

Départ dans l’affection et le bruit neufs !

Leonardo di Caprio in Total Eclipse - dir. Agnieszka Holland (1995)

Rimbaud's Best Known Poems

My Bohemian Life

The Drunken Boat


Morning of Drunkenness




The hospital in Marseilles where Rimbaud died.
The hospital in Marseilles where Rimbaud died. | Source


Illuminations......... Carcanet Press UK foreword by John Ashbery

A Season in Hell........... Arthur Rimbaud

© 2014 Andrew Spacey


Submit a Comment
  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    16 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Merci beaucoup! Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire...French poets who pushed the boundaries of taste and content and dared to be new (and controversial). I would love to gather these three pioneers and lock them in a party room for 48 hours with Walt Whitman as head waiter and overseer. Oh yes, an interpreter or two might be needed, and a medic...avec Plaisir.

  • snakeslane profile image

    Verlie Burroughs 

    16 months ago from Canada

    Andrew, I have never heard the Rimbaud, Verlaine story before, and I didn't know Rimbaud's poetry laid the foundation for modern poetry I think the only reference I ever heard was in lyrics of a Bob Dylan song, (which left an impression on me).

    I really enjoyed your story, overflowing with enthusiasm, and awe of the life and times, and work of Arthur Rimbaud. Like so many poets who have died young, he managed to create a following and a legacy in his youth. Your article is inspiring for all young poets to have courage, and follow their heart.

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thank you for the visit and comment Ann. Illuminations is certainly worth looking into - full of fresh ideas, forms and youthful inspiration. A rebel who opened one of the doors to modernism.

  • annart profile image

    Ann Carr 

    5 years ago from SW England

    Superbly written. This is a fascinating account of Rimbauld. I studied French whilst I was studying to be a teacher but sadly did not study Rimbauld's poems. I'd like to look into them further.

    I agree with you that he'd fit into our modern age of poetry and writing. Such an extrovert and rebel would be regarded with interest.

    I'm glad you've brought him to our attention. Superb research and illustrations.


  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thank you for the visit and comment. Yes, this young man was a comet blazing a trail early on. Some poet.

  • manatita44 profile image


    5 years ago from london

    A great poet. Never heard of him, though. Perhaps a troubled and restless, as well as a sad life. Too bad.

    I like Michael Coy's translation. It is full of beauty.


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