A rthur Rimbaud, one of the most revolutionary poets of 19th-century France, grew up in a small town, Charleville, in the north-east corner of the country near the Belgian border. As a child he'd been obedient to his strict mother his father was a soldier who'd vanished after rapidly siring four children and he'd been the best student in the region, excelling in the classics and French.
But Rimbaud's real interest was poetry. He haunted the local bookstore and read all the latest poetry coming out of Paris. So attracted was Rimbaud to the capital that he ran away from home, arrived in Paris on 30 August - and was instantly arrested for not paying the correct fare on his train ticket. He was put in prison, and only his favourite teacher from back home was able to get him out. Despite this ignominious beginning, Rimbaud - who was 16 going on 17 - made several other attempts to reach the capital, even though the Prussians had invaded and Paris had declared itself a commune between 26 March and 30 May The penniless and friendless Rimbaud could never survive for long away from home during these chaotic times.
But in the early autumn in he fired off a letter to Paul Verlaine, his favourite poet. Without waiting for a response, Rimbaud sent off a few more poems to Verlaine two days later. Then came the fateful response from Paris: "Come, dear great soul, we call you, we await you. Verlaine was a homicidal alcoholic. He was also an extremely gentle, sensitive poet with a distinctive tone and a remarkable musicality.
These two aspects of his character had set up a pitched battle over his anguished destiny; he would always be susceptible to one impulse or the other. Like Rimbaud, Verlaine had been a brilliant student in classical languages and written dazzling verses in Latin. But there the resemblance ended. Verlaine was a lazy, always dirty boy who barely squeaked by in most of his classes.
Whereas Rimbaud was striking if strange in his looks, Verlaine was indisputably ugly, resembling the popular idea of Socrates while possessing none of the philosopher's equanimity. His skull was too large, his face pushed in, his eyes oblique, his pug nose too small and tipped up. He'd lost most of his hair at an early age and compensated for it by growing sparse, wispy whiskers. The mother of Verlaine's best friend said after meeting him, "My God, your friend made me think of an orangutan escaped from the zoo!
Whereas Rimbaud seems to have shown no erotic interest in his own sex before meeting Verlaine, the older poet was notorious at school for groping his classmates. After high school, Verlaine enrolled as a law student in Paris but seldom attended classes. He spent most of his time reading poetry old and new and getting drunk on absinthe. Verlaine drank so much that he soon succumbed to a special form of crazy and violent alcoholism called absinthisme. Notwithstanding his habits, Verlaine remained intensely interested in the arts in general and in poetry in particular.
He became the art critic for one journal and defended Baudelaire in print, announcing - in the spirit of Art for Art's Sake - that "the goal of poetry is the Beautiful and the Beautiful alone without any reference to the Useful, the True or the Just". By the mids Verlaine was one of the 37 Parnassians in good standing and published from time to time in their poetry journal. Curiously, Verlaine, who would be known in his life as a brutal husband and an impious wretch, as a writer became celebrated as the greatest Catholic poet in the French language for his collection Wisdom , and as an ardent defender of married bliss The Good Song.
Verlaine was full of contradictions - by turns wildly exalted and deeply depressed, leading one friend to remark that he was both a clown and an undertaker. She was prettily chubby in the approved fashion of the day, and painfully innocent. She saw Verlaine two or three times at a literary salon and a musical evening before he noticed her. By the time they spoke she was used to his ugliness and greeted him with a friendly smile, and he was charmed by her freshness and kindness. She noticed how gentle and radiant he became around her.
As she later recalled, "At that moment he ceased to be ugly, and I thought of that pretty fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, where love transforms the Beast into Prince Charming. Quite sensibly, Mathilde's father did not want his daughter even to consider the suit of a much older man. He urged her to wait two years, but she was smitten. By carefully regulating his excesses, Verlaine managed to woo and win Mathilde. They lived with her parents in Montmartre and soon enough had a little boy.
But this paradise of sobriety and domesticity was interrupted when Rimbaud arrived. On 24 September , Rimbaud took the train from Charleville to Paris - less than a month before his 17th birthday. All he had with him were his manuscripts "The Drunken Boat" taking pride of place and a change of clothes. No one was there to greet him at the station in Paris.
Verlaine kept running back and forth between the Gare du Nord and the nearby Gare de L'Est, accompanied by a young comic poet named Charles Cros. At last Verlaine and Cros gave up and went back to Montmartre and Mathilde's parents' house, a minute walk away. There in the small cosseted salon they found the young, belligerent poet with his sunburned face and large hands, his piercing blue eyes, unsmiling mouth, uttering monosyllables in his heavy Ardennes accent.
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Twelve years later Verlaine would recall, "The man was tall, well built, almost athletic, with the perfectly oval face of an angel in exile, with unruly light chestnut hair and eyes of a disquieting blue. Mathilde and her mother snobbishly ascribed the brutishness to countrified naivety. Rimbaud was an impossible guest. He took to nude sunbathing just outside the house.
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He turned his room into a squalid den. He mutilated an heirloom crucifix.
He was proud of the lice infesting his long mane and even pretended he was encouraging the vermin to jump on to passers-by. Verlaine was delighted with Rimbaud's antisocial antics, which recalled to him his own younger excesses before his marriage. The result is a highly innovative, modern body of work, obscene and lyrical by turns—a rigorous journey to extremes. For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world.
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