Arthur Rimbaud - Les Illuminations

2024-03-24 @Literature

The collection of poems in prose (1873-74) makes for the most challenging I’ve yet read across anything of Rimbaud, the symbolists or French poetry, including the relatively little of Apollinaire and Paul Valéry.

Similar to my earlier assessment of Une Saison en Enfer, despite numerous attempts at many of the poems, I can’t say I necessarily felt the intended impact. Though that verdict also varies widely throughout the poems numbering something over forty. And whatever obscurity encountered in the form of expression, the very reading process produced nothing short of hypnotic.

Les Illuminations anticipates the surrealist and, per my take, imagism schools before they even existed. Rimbaud even practiced free verse that I’m unsure if extensively done prior.

What is to be found across Illuminations? Opaque metaphor probably makes for the most unifying trait. Rimbaud doesn’t strictly employ metaphors. Rimbaud’s poems are metaphors.

Streams of consciousness. Tableaux of imaginary or idealized landscapes, regimes, societies, countries. Topologies. Bridges between the antique and the contemporary, between the epic and the mundane. Dreams. Hashish inspired visions. Cathartic travel satires. Bizarre coalescence of the visual, the auditory and the olfactory. Radical word juxtapositions. Meditative essays. Metamorphosis. Metaphysical dialogues. Social commentaries. Hymns. Protest. Revolt.

The tradition still continues decades later with Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Alan Ginsberg. (Across the English language, anyway.) Might also conflate the 60’s Brazilian protest poets … No. Different lyric entirely.

Who might enjoy Les Illuminations? No one who can’t read French for certain. Otherwise, whoever already enjoys Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer. Or Apollinaire’s surrealist verse. Anyone with a taste for general surrealism literature. Anyone who loves James Joyce’s Ulysses, though better yet, Finnegans Wake. Anyone ambitious enough to work with complex, oblique language, should derive great value in Rimbaud’s verse.

In many ways, Rimbaud edified his own school, his own sanctuary. I haven’t read any such poetry (in any language) before Rimbaud’s time, with only select cases into the 20th century.

In Ezra Pound’s best imagism, particularly the Cantos, I remember feeling something kindred to Rimbaud’s visionary poems. Pound’s verse similarly tested me more than most of the English language.

Rimbaud produced all his poetry between sixteen and twenty years of age, Les Illuminations towards the end of that short period. Still can’t get over that thought. And the rapid evolution to take place over those four years! The traditional forms of the period of Le Bateau ivre to be quickly circumvented if not entirely abandoned soon after.

Candidate for the best French poet? Absolutely. One, for the context and thematic. Two, for the evocative impact. The metaphoric approach I’d spoken of, not sure if anyone employed it to this extent. Three, for the anticipatory influence. Can’t say the same of Verlaine, however lyrical. Baudelaire? Certainly a candidate, having stressed the traditional form to its limits, all the while addressing taboo subjects of contemporary decadence.

But none of this is too relevant. If you have some French language at your arsenal, simply take a stab at this wonderful oeuvre, phrase by phrase.

Questions, comments? Connect.