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(From FB)

A photo of Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891), taken in 1883. In May that year Rimbaud wrote to his family from Harar on the Ethiopian plateau, “One of these photographs shows me… standing in a café garden; another, with my arms crossed in a banana garden”.

Rimbaud, France’s most revolutionary poet from the latter part of the 19th century, spent the last ten years of his life moving between Aden and Harar (with a brief spell in Cairo), working for much of that time for a French commercial firm run by a Marseilles coffee merchant, Alfred Bardey. Bardey’s business went bust in 1884, leaving Rimbaud stranded but determined to carry on trading. In one letter from Aden, Rimbaud claims that in 1883 he bought more than 3 million francs’ worth of coffee for his employer, “and my profit from that is nothing more than my wretched salary”. The letters from Aden and Harar suggest that Rimbaud was desperate to save enough money from his commercial ventures to be able to have a family and settle down. Yet it is equally clear that he saw himself living outside Europe (“I can’t go to Europe, for many reasons”) and remained as deeply infected by his “vagabond disposition”, as he calls it, as he had ever been as a youth wandering the Ardennes countryside. In 1883 he described himself as “losing interest” , day by day, in the way of life and even the languages of Europe, and felt he was “condemned to wander about” for the rest of his life. As it happens, he died less than ten years later, in November 1891, aged 37, having spent the last years of his life in almost complete isolation in Harar, six thousand feet above sea-level.

It is these last ten to twelve years (1879–91) that are called “Rimbaud’s silence”. Why would the most brilliantly iconoclastic poet France had produced till then (Baudelaire excepted) give up poetry so decisively? In a classic study from 1961 the Irish critic Enid Starkie suggested it was Rimbaud’s period in London in 1872–73 that formed the watershed here. In Season in Hell, which he started writing in April 1873 after coming back from London, Rimbaud was effectively repudiating his past to move to a more active kind of life. So what did London contribute that Paris couldn’t to jolting Rimbaud in this way?

Rimbaud of course is famous for his two masterpieces, the magnificent prose poems that make up Illuminations (1872–74) and the anguished self-indictment of Season in Hell. Many of the prose poems were written in London and about London. London was an imperial, cosmopolitan, thoroughly “modern” metropolis with no counterpart in Europe and impressed Rimbaud no end. In “Cities” (Illuminations) he refers to the “imperial glitter” of its buildings and writes, “The official acropolis surpasses the most colossal conceptions of modern barbarism”. This “acropolis” was the imperial heart of the Victorian city, and beyond it Rimbaud would see for the first time ever a “modern industrial capital, with its dreary streets, straggling on in sordid never-ending lines” (Starkie, Arthur Rimbaud, pp.257–8). Starkie notes his fascination for the London docks where he and Verlaine “saw all types of humanity, swarming from all the four quarters of the world” and heard “strange languages spoken”. (Later, in the winter of 1875, he would start learning “Arabic, Hindustani, and Russian” in the library at Charleville.) Rimbaud “spent in the docks more and more time, examining the various types of goods” and talking to the sailors whom he met (p.256). “The docks are impossible to describe, they are unbelievable!” he wrote to Verlaine. What resonates here is the sheer exhilaration of being “up close and personal” with the very hub of the world economy. “It was in London that Rimbaud formed a connection amongst sailors who came from all quarters of the globe, that he discovered from them what were the commercial possibilities in those distant lands…”. And it was in the “east-end by the docks”, in the Chinese dens, that he and Verlaine “learned to smoke opium”.

Illuminations is full of those “countless hallucinations” that Rimbaud later ascribed to the “monstrous mouthfuls of poison” he swallowed during his spells in London. There are images of unmatched beauty in its prose poems, childhood memories triggered and transformed by the “Chinese ink” and “black powder”. Season in Hell looks back at this poetry, recapping some of it as if he were writing a biography: “I dreamed of crusades, of unrecorded voyages of discovery, of republics with no history, of hushed-up religious wars, revolutions in customs, displacements of races and continents”; “I wrote out silences and the nights. I recorded the inexpressible”; “I became a fabulous opera”; and so on.

Rimbaud finished Season in Hell in August 1873, abandoned writing altogether by the middle of 1875, and left Europe permanently towards the end of 1878, but not before enlisting in the Dutch colonial army to go to Java (in 1876) and then deserting three weeks after arrival. In the spring of 1873 he had announced, “Here I am on the shore of Brittany. Let the cities light up in the evening. My day is done. I am leaving Europe. The sea air will burn my lungs. Lost climates will tan me. I will swim, trample the grass, hunt, and smoke especially”; “I will come back with limbs of iron and dark skin and a furious look”.

“[P]erhaps implicated in the slave traffic” was how Starkie restated her earlier argument that Rimbaud had been a slave trader when trading in Abyssinia. But the slave trade between Abyssinia and the coast was an Arab monopoly dominated by Sudanese merchants. In his book Rimbaud in Abyssina Alain Borer demolishes the misconception that Rimbaud’s commercial transactions in Harar included slave-trading. Rimbaud died in Marseille on 10 November, 1891. The cause of death has now been established as bone cancer. With a massively swollen knee-cap at the start of that year and the disease spreading to his thigh and finally to his calf, he literally had to be carried 300 kilometres to Zayla before he could leave for Europe via Aden.
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