More than a century after his death, the poet Arthur Rimbaud continues to fascinate, dazzle and intimidate readers and critics alike. Rimbaud was born in 1854 in the French provincial town of Charleville, where he soon made a mark as a brilliant literature student. For about four years, starting from the age of 16, Rimbaud wrote poems so powerful that they expanded ideas of what language can do in verse. He made his way to Paris, where he was recognized mostly as a hell-raiser and uncouth provincial, rather than as the great writer he was. About the only person to fully understand his value was another poet, Paul Verlaine, with whom he formed a notorious sadomasochistic sexual relationship. Ultimately dismayed by the world's lack of attention, even after he had written such mighty masterpieces as "The Drunken Boat," "A Season in Hell" and "Illuminations," Rimbaud at 20 abandoned poetry and went off to Africa to work in the import-export field, which made him even more miserable than he was as a starving poet at home. He died in appalling pain at 37 of a neglected case of gangrene.
If this were all, Rimbaud would not have inspired generations of acolytes, including rock star Jim Morrison, nor would he have been memoralized in the 1995 film "Total Eclipse" starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud. More than just his youth and beauty in portraits and photographs, Rimbaud's brilliance, energy and immense will are admired by legions of fans. His adversities impress fans as much as the words he wrote, always prey to the dilution of translation and enigmatic in the original. To some admirers with only a vague idea of the poems, Rimbaud transcends literature and dwells in the domain of myth. Overturning idols and breaking all the rules, experimenting with alcohol and drugs, refusing to abide by the conventions of middle-class life, Rimbaud is a powerful precedent.
For Rimbaud, literature was consciously an intense interlude, not a permanent self-definition. This made it possible to take all the risks and achieve all he did during the short time in which he wrote. He wasn't worried about burning out. Rimbaud "had" to burn out, as the Romanian French writer E.M. Cioran justly pointed out: "In Rimbaud everything is unimaginable and abnormal, except for his 'silence.' . . . Rimbaud's effervescent period should be imagined as an unusually long ecstasy but which once exhausted could by no means begin again. His 'silence' is only an entry into a different order of existence, in a state that one grasps better using categories of asceticism than those of literature."
Natural and sometimes morbid curiosity has moved many writers to examine what happened to Rimbaud after he stopped writing. After all, such a rare genius in literature must have led a life of some interest even though he was no longer creating poems. There have been dissenters to this view, like the poet Yves Bonnefoy, who wrote a book about Rimbaud that omitted the painful final years as of no public interest. But most biographers have dwelt on them, sometimes as a springboard for their own fantasies. The French writer Alain Borer's "Rimbaud in Abyssinia" starts with an airline flight to Africa in order to follow in Rimbaud's footsteps, but the author gets sidetracked by ogling a stewardess who, according to Borer, resembles Nastassja Kinski. Rimbaud's homosexuality, emphasized by a number of well-informed recent writers, is conveniently ignored by those who find that it conflicts with their own fantasy lives. One of the most cogent writers on Rimbaud, Steve Murphy, points out that these writers force Rimbaud into "a heterosexual vision of the world which was certainly not his."
Ambiguous both in literature and life, Rimbaud has had few truly sensitive and understanding biographers. Two new efforts, by Jean-Luc Steinmetz and Graham Robb, could not be more different in approach, proving once again that Rimbaud seems to permit, or even require, dramatically different approaches to understanding him. Steinmetz is a poet and professor at the University of Nantes who has produced patient and thorough editions of Rimbaud's poems and a monumental life of the poet Stephane Mallarme. Steinmetz's "Arthur Rimbaud: Presence of an Engima," is a careful weighing of the evidence on the subject that treads softly on many difficult matters. Steinmetz is careful to note when we cannot be sure of the truth of either the meaning of a certain poem or a particular fact in Rimbaud's life. He is well aware of all the foolish statements that have been made about Rimbaud over the years--one wry French writer, Rene Etiemble, compiled several volumes of these writings, which still make amusing and instructive reading.