The Poetry of Rimbaud
Arthur Rimbaud. By Enid Starkk. (Hamish Hamilton. 15s.)
" JE vis de Rimbaud," a young Frenchman once said to me. Rimbaud belonged to a period when the poet's conception of his function was undergoing a change. His aim was no longer to glorify the existing order, but to change it. This gives his work an extra-literary import- ance. It is only fully intelligible when his three collections of poetry-- Poisies, the Illuminations and Une Saison en Enfer—are seen to be three parts of a single poem which records the journey of a soul through the modern world ; and M. Pierre Jean Jouve has recently described the author, in a memorable phrase, as l'oeil de la catas- trophe. The new conception of poetry explains the immenie fascina- tion that Rimbaud's life and work—the two are inextricably inter- woven—have for the contemporary reader, but it has unfortunately spread confusion among literary critics. For Rimbaud's critics have been too anxious to claim his patronage for a particular sect or a particular party. We have long been familiar with the Catholic Rimbaud, the Marxist Rimbaud, the free-thinking Rimbaud and the Surrealist Rimbaud. It was evident that an Existentialist Rimbaud could only be a matter of time, and six months ago M. Paillou pub- lished a book in which he claimed that the poet was not simply an Existentialist, but "the father of Existentialism."
English critics of Rimbaud enjoy one advantage over French. They are outside the feuds which divide the French literary world, and have a better chance of seeing their subject in the correct perspective. It is one of the merits of Dr. Starkie's study that, though she natur- ally offers an interpretation of Rimbaud, she is very careful not to take sides. Her book was originally published in 1938, but it has been so extensively revised and rewritten to make room for fresh information which has come to light about Rimbaud's life and work that it is virtually a new book. It is an attractive, well-documented life. Dr. Starkie is careful to show where facts end and conjectures
begins. Her interpretation of the experience behind the poem called Le Coeur Vole and its importance for the poet is entirely con- vincing. Her handling of the thorny question of the relations between Rimbaud and Verlaine is fair and well-balanced and her conclusions are inescapable. She displays the same moderation and impartiality in discussing the controversial questions of Rimbaud's abandonment of poetry and his religious conversion.
One of the distinctive features of her book when it first appeared was the importance that she attached to the influence of the " occult " writings of the time on Rimbaud's poetic theory. This part of the book has been expanded and a fresh chapter added on alchemy. While she is careful not to overstate her case, it still seems to me that the importance of these influences was indirect rather than direct. The French poets of the second half of the nineteenth century were anxious to escape from the materialist impasse. Their discovery of the Cabala coincided with an inward movement and a greater aware- ness of what is now called the unconscious life. The real value of the Cabala seems to have lain in encouraging a fresh orientation rather than in providing the actual material of that poetry.
A lucid exposition of Rimbaud's aesthetic doctrine is followed by a detailed study of his poetry. Dr. Starkie writes sensitively of Le Bateau lyre. It is one of the pivots of Rimbaud's poetry because it leads away from the realistic manner of most of the early work to the rarefied experiences of the Illuminations ; but though it is a splendid achievement, it is perhaps too much to describe it as "the highest pinnacle of his poetry." The Illuminations contain some of the most difficult modern poetry which has been written, and the difficulties are increased by the fact that we cannot be certain of the order in which they were composed or in which the poet intended them to appear. Dr. Starkie prefers the order adopted by Paterne Berrichon in his 1912 edition to the one used by MM. Reneville and Mouquet in their admirable edition in the Bibliotheque de la Pleiade which follows the order in which they were originally pub- lished in La Vogue. There is a good deal to be said for this view, and she might have strengthened her case if she had discussed more fully the interpretation given by M. Rene Silvain in Rimbaud le Precurseur. She appears to have modified the " mystical " inter- pretation which she put forward in 1938, but her suggestion that Rimbaud's use of the word château resembles St. Teresa's and that there is a parallel between his experience and that of the Christian mystics seems to raise more difficulties than it solves. The question is an exceptionally difficult one which calls for an expert training in theology as well as in literary criticism. Whether a solution would increase our appreciation of Rimbaud's poetry is another matter. For the value of the Illuminations does not seem to me to lie in any mystic revelation, but in their power of modifying our sensibility and of providing a liberation from stereotyped ways of seeing and feeling.
Although Une Saisan en Enfer is widely regarded as the summit of Rimbaud's achievement, it is a less difficult poem than the Illu-
minations. No one will feel disposed to quarrel with Dr. Starkie's view that he had come to feel that his " illuminations " were really " hallucinations " which were leading not to a superior reality, but to madness. She challenges the opinion that the closing sections are a farewell to poetry, and thinks that they are simply a farewell to "magic." There was probably no intrinsic reason why he should not have written more poetry, but had he done so it would surely have been very different from any of his previous work.
It remains to add that the claims made for Dr. Starkie's book are abundantly justified. It is the most complete life of the poet in any language and is indispensable to anyone who is interested in