Rimbaud Was a Lousy Poet

by Harry <Har7912@hotmail.com>


"'The 'little boy' accepts the well-deserved spanking" [figurative], "the 'toad's friend' retracts everything, and having never abandoned your martyrdom" [ie. plans to run off together], "is thinking of it, if possible, with even more 'fervor' and joy, be assured, Rembe." Paul Verlaine, in a letter to Arthur Rimbaud, 2 April 1871


Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) led a life as colorful as his poetry. Many fascinating details are set out in Graham Robb's new biography, "Rimbaud," W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2000; cloth, 552 pp. Robb also maintains a Rimbaud website at URL: http://www. rimbaud. co. uk/

Rimbaud showed a genius for poetry even in high school, and ran away to the big city (Paris France) at age 17. He adopted the gay poet Paul-Marie Verlaine (1844-1896) as an intermittent sugar-daddy, seducing him from his marriage and helping him to squander a substantial family inheritance.

(Their affair was the subject of Agnieszka Holland's film "Total Eclipse" [1995], starring Leonardo DiCaprio [Rimbaud] and David Thewlis [Verlaine]. The film got mixed reviews.)

During Rimbaud's 5 years as an active poet (1871-1875), various roommates would find him "intolerable ... His conversation was sporadic and obscene, his manners non-existent." (Robb, p. 123) Jacques Rivière called him "a 'spirit' of the highest rank in the body of a vicious and terrible child." (Robb, p. xv)

Soap was beneath his concern, and his head of unruly hair was infested with lice. (The title of this piece refers to his personal hygiene, not to his artistic ability.)

His appearance was ungainly, at least until he had finished growing, reminding some of a puppy. His feet were outsized, as were his hands, reminding one friend of a strangler.

Despite his dirt-ball habits, he was loved by many, even tolerated by some as a roommate:

"However dangerous or infuriating, Rimbaud's company brought huge rewards, none of which could easily be expressed in the form of anecdotes and which, therefore, were later assumed never to have existed.

"Verlaine was not alone in finding him 'an exquisite creature.' Several people commented on his engaging mannerisms. He rubbed his eyes with his fists like a drowsy child and blushed whenever he met someone new. He warmed quickly to anyone -- like the journalist, Jules Claretie ('a good bloke', said Rimbaud) -- who treated him with bonhomie instead of inspecting him like a freak. His conversation was hilariously devoid of received ideas and, despite his shyness, there was an air of unshakeable conviction about him. In Rimbaud's intellectual atmosphere, everything became more interesting. The painter Forain described this rare effect with a splendid image drawn from close, daily knowledge of Rimbaud: 'He stank of genius.'" (Robb, pp. 125-126)

His last known poetry was written in 1875. He then became an itinerant worker and adventurer, with occasional support from his conservative family, whom he never lost touch with. In 1881, he found his way to Aden, beginning a new career as a successful and respected trader and explorer, notably in Harar, Ethiopia. Back home in Paris, his earlier poetry was starting to attract an enthusiastic following, but he firmly discouraged all inquiries, adopting a solidly bourgeois disdain for his wild youth. He died in 1891 of bone cancer.

There is no evidence of gay behavior in his later years. Apparently _s_e_x_uality, like poetry, was something he could take up or put aside at will.

How might such a character fit into the theme of this newsgroup?


[The character B___ is entirely fictitious.]

B___ said to Paul, "No, I'm sorry, having Rembé under my roof again is out of the question. The last time it took us a week to fumigate the place, wash all the linen, kill the last louse, and find the last knickknack that he had vandalized... OK, he's a genius, but someone ought to give him a good spanking -- maybe then he would become fit to live with."

Paul had to move Rembé out again, because his wife M___ was complaining about damage to their home. Her family, long familiar with Rembé's destructive habits, made clear that their continued support for Paul and his wife was contingent on removing an incorrigible nuisance and distraction. Paul had been doing a circuit of friends this morning, hoping to find someone willing to hazard their living space. Given Rembé's notoriety, Paul was not surprised to find general reluctance. But B___'s unusual last sentence brought him up short, diverting his line of thought into new channels...

He suddenly realized that B___ had been staring at him. As he looked back somewhat embarrassed, he saw the hint of a grin on B___'s face. He struggled not to grin in return.

"I notice the idea does not seem all that strange to you," B___ continued. "Maybe it might be worth trying. But you would have to back me up. Indeed you might want to participate; it could be fun..."

They bargained for the next fifteen minutes. The final agreement was that B___ would offer Rembé a room, on condition that he maintain it (and himself) in reasonably presentable condition. Paul undertook to explain these conditions to Rembé, including the unusual hazards that might accompany failure to abide by them. B___ had doubts whether Paul would in fact have the nerve to explain such conditions fully, for fear of getting stabbed, or publicly denounced with fiendishly devastating wit. But under their agreement, that was not B___'s responsibility. Things promised to be interesting...

Rembé's first night at B___'s apartment went without serious problems. He was unwashed as usual, but that was only to be expected. He didn't vandalize anything -- was it possible he had turned a new leaf?

The next day, however, when B___ came in at noon, he found muck tracked all over his kitchen and Rembé's room. It looked like a cat had deposited something on the pillow of B___'s bed. Rembé had disappeared for the day, as was his habit. B___ finished his lunch and went back out quietly. Paul was expected by that evening.

That evening in B___'s apartment, as Paul and their friend JL were talking to him, Rembé entered without comment. But B___ immediately challenged him.

"Why is that muck tracked all over the floor?"

"It looks like it must have fallen off someone's boots."

"Didn't we agree two days ago that you wouldn't treat this place like a pigsty?"

"You may have been jabbering something or other to Paul, but that is no concern of mine..."

"Grab him!"

A scuffle ensued, but even his pocket knife was not enough to free Rembé from three sets of hands. He was dragged, with squirms and sometimes-rather-innovative curses, to a corner where a large metal tub, some buckets of water (mostly warm) and soap awaited him. His smelly and verminous rags were torn off and thrown into the fire. He was thoroughly lathered up and sponged down; some of the water wound up in the tub where it belonged, but the floor itself was awash. A quick inspection determined that his hair was a loss -- too louse-ridden to be salvageable. It was clipped and shaved away, and the roots thoroughly cleaned. (Later it would be explained that he had sheared it himself as a token of mourning for the death of a relative.)

Finally, he was certifiably vermin-free; it only remained to clothe him in something clean. Or was something else forgotten?

"Now, Rembé, what did we say would happen to you if you broke our agreement?"

"Paul didn't say anything, and in any case we've had enough of this farce..."

"Didn't Paul mention that if you behaved like a dirty little boy here, you would be spanked like a little boy?"

"No. He probably knew what would happen if he tried."

"Well, well... Whether he warned you or not, you should have been able to figure things out for yourself... " And B___ nodded to his two companions.

They collared Rembé and pushed him into a dry part of the room. B___ seated himself on a wooden chair, and the others helped him drag and position a cursing Rembé over his lap.

B___ began to smack Rembé's immaculate, still slightly wet, bottom with a sustained, though moderate stroke. He wasn't in any hurry; this was, after all, an event to be enjoyed, rather than one that was likely to accomplish anything. He rather doubted that Rembé's behavior could be modified for more than ten seconds, unless Rembé so chose.

As he gave Rembé's backside a pinkish, and gradually reddish hue, B___ noticed that Paul, who was holding Rembé's wrists and looking into his face, showed signs of amusement. He and Rembé seemed to be grumbling insults at each other; B___ could feel, against his thigh, evidence that Rembé was getting pleasurably excited as well.

Finally, Rembé showed signs of distress. He was clenching his bottom, which showed some rather painful-looking welts, and moaning after each smack. B___ eased up, and, seconded by the others, asked Rembé if he would promise to clean up the muck on the floor and stay housebroken for the future. Their first request got a rude reply, followed by a few more smacks. Finally, however, B___ got the agreement he wanted and released Rembé to stand up and dress in the clean clothes they had for him.

He actually did mop up the floor, and refrained from any blatant provocations for the next couple of weeks. He and B___ got along reasonably well, most likely because neither brought up the second night. A few weeks later, Rembé moved out, but that might have happened anyways; he was always restless.

B___ continued to run across Rembé fairly often over the next few years. Indeed, once they were living separately, he occasionally amused himself by making a subtle gibe, understandable to Rembé only, referring to the night of the bath. Such sallies might be answered with a gibe in return (sometimes quite venomous), or, on one occasion, with a jab from Rembé's pocket knife.

A few years later, Rembé abandoned the artistic world of the big city. From time to time, B___ heard distant rumors of Rembé's new career, as a trader in northeast Africa. The career was apparently remunerative; supposedly he sent some money home to be invested by his mother, and perhaps hid additional profits from foreign tax-collectors.

Despite reported rebuffs from this sturdily bourgeois trader, his earlier poetry began to attract a cult following. B___ himself contributed a tongue-in-cheek "correspondent's report" (under one of his old pseudonyms) that the original Rembé had been kidnaped and sold into slavery by the dour and reclusive character who now bore his name.

B___'s own business affairs had ups and downs. Sometimes, he had plenty of money; other times he was trying to put off creditors. In one of these latter periods, he heard on the grape-vine that an unidentified party had been buying up some of his debts.

One afternoon, as B___ came back for lunch, he found an unknown gentleman in business dress waiting in his apartment. "Greetings, Mr. B___. I had a few papers here that I hoped you would be able to redeem."

The voice sounded somewhat familiar, and B___ looked at his visitor more closely. He was 10-15 years older, and fully grown, but nevertheless recognizable as...

"Rembé! I thought you were thousands of miles from here."

"Every few years I have been coming back to see my relatives. It is also a good opportunity to see how my investments are going, to collect what I am owed and to repay what I owe..." He was staring at B___ with a sardonic smile.

B___ blushed a bit in return. He couldn't pay his overdue bills until next month, and he suspected that bills were not the primary issue anyways.

"In particular for that piece about the slave-trader who kidnaped Rembé. Yes, it was funny, I suppose, but the whole 'slave-trader' to-do was an infernal nuisance for a while. Your piece put me briefly back in a literary mood myself; you will have a chance to judge the result shortly. But our accounts go back a good deal farther than that..."

B___, not to his complete surprise, was finally offered a choice: if he could not immediately redeem the notes for Rembé, and did not want to get evicted from the apartment, he would have to take a spanking, in payment for the kidnaping story, and even more for an evening many years back...

B___ ended up positioned over Rembé's lap. "Oh, yes," said Rembé. "Of course we wouldn't want to forget. Take a look at this literary effort you inspired..." And Rembé placed two handwritten sheets on the floor in front of B___.

The title alone was enough to make B___ choke: "Pensées avant de s'appliquer aux fesses de ____"

He squirmed to get up, but the sturdy hands of a now fully-grown "strangler" were able to keep him in place.

Rembé continued, "To be fully appreciated, it needs to be read aloud." B___ still hesitated. [Smack! Smack!] "What are you waiting for?" [more smacks]

So B___ began to read, punctuated with remarks like "I can't hear you!" [smack!] "Speak more clearly!" [more smacks]. The text was as bad as the title, rehearsing B___'s peculiarities and alleged misdeeds with devastating turn of phrase. If most of the incidents dated from the ancient (10-year-old) past, and at least his name was omitted, that would still be only minor compensation, if it ever found its way out to others able to recognize him... "Hey, who told you to stop reading?" [Smack! smack!] ...

B___ kept his fingers crossed when he heard of Rembé's death a few years later. Fortunately, however, "his" poem never surfaced publicly. Either Rembé had not kept an extra copy, or his family, eager to tidy up his image, had added it to a bonfire of other dubious letters and documents.

More stories by Harry