BACK IN 1953, noted scholar Wallace Fowlie observed of Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) that “Editions of his work multiply each year. More than 500 books about him have been written in all languages.” In the intervening years, books on the visionary teenage poet have continued to arrive. There was also a film version of Rimbaud’s affair with Verlaine, Total Eclipse, based on Christopher Hampton’s play and starring a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio. In a smartly concise new biography, Edmund White takes on the legendary French poet, traveling the familiar byways of earlier investigations but with a queer perspective. He also offers his own astute translations of Rimbaud’s iconic poems.
White’s compact biography manages to deal handily with his famously elusive subject by sticking closely to the documented facts while adding “some of my odd hunches about Rimbaud.” Unlike White’s previous bios of the indisputably queer Jean Genet and Marcel Proust, Rimbaud’s sexual proclivities present a more complex state of affairs. Observes White: “For those modern readers who like to think that sexual orientation is straight or gay and always neatly categorized, Rimbaud is worrisomely hard to classify.” All the available evidence indicates that Rimbaud was as experimental in sex as he was in his art. His famous statement, “Je est un autre” (“I is another”), attests to his disgust with received bourgeois values. Raised as a Catholic, he longed to revert to paganism and “re-invent love.” On the cusp of puberty, he wrote in “At the Cabaret-Vert” about a servant girl “with large tits and lively eyes … not one to be afraid of a kiss!” In a later prose poem called “Antique,” he’s intrigued by the androgynous “Graceful son of Pan! …Your fangs glisten. Your chest is like a lyre and tinklings move up and down your white arms. Your heart beats in that abdomen where slumbers your double sex.”
Inevitably, a major focal point of any biography of Rimbaud is his scandalous relationship with Paul Verlaine, the married and respected member of the Parnassian poets. After the sixteen-year-old Rimbaud arrived in Paris at Verlaine’s invitation, the two entered into an artistic and sexual relationship based on the younger poet’s radical theory of the reinvention of language through the systematic “disordering of all the senses.” A decade older than Rimbaud, Verlaine was immediately smitten with the handsome and precocious—if boorish and lice-ridden—escapee from provincial Charleville, a situation that the younger poet milked with impunity.
One of White’s main projects is to explode a key thesis of Enid Starkie’s 1968 biography, Arthur Rimbaud, namely that the androgynous Rimbaud was gang-raped by drunken soldiers from the Paris Commune of 1871, a conclusion she based partly on his poem, “The Stolen Heart.” Starkie argued that this was the “turning point in his development [and]… the source of much of his later maladjustment and distress.” White dismisses this claim as Freudian claptrap and points out the implausibility of soldiers in a city full of prostitutes and willing sex partners bothering to rape a fellow Communard, much less do so in front of one another.
In time, the intentionally boorish and arrogant Rimbaud was ostracized by the reigning artistic community, the Parnassians, and prevailed upon Verlaine, who felt that Rimbaud held the key to the ineffable, to leave the sterile security of his bourgeois married home life and join him on the open road as two absinthe-guzzling fellow vagabonds. Verlaine was the classic mean drunk, who could write elegant, impressionistic verse when sober but turn homicidal under the influence. As things turned out, the two poets—Rimbaud, the Dionysian pagan-provocateur, and Verlaine, the passive-aggressive, guilt-ridden lapsed Catholic—became as notorious as did Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell in a later day.
The climax to their toxic relationship occurred in Brussels when Verlaine, in a jealous rage, shot and wounded his lover. Arrested for attempted murder, investigators uncovered a piece of “incriminating” doggerel by Verlaine addressed to Rimbaud:
What hard angel stuffs me full
Between the shoulders, while
I fly off to Paradise…
O you, the Jealous one, who waves to me,
Here I am, here is all of me!
Still unworthy I crawl toward you—-
Mount my loins and trample me!
Next, Verlaine was subjected to a dehumanizing medical examination, and the doctors reported on his “small penis and its particularly small, tapering head.” After a bogus rectal exam, they concluded that “P. Verlaine bears on his person traces of habitual pederasty, both active and passive.” He was convicted of sodomy and served a two-year prison sentence. Despite the “disgusting prurience” of the day’s pseudoscience, White notes that “as a result of it, curiously enough, we know more about the intimate condition of (Verlaine’s) penis and anus than we do about the intimate anatomy of any other major poet of the past.”
Edmund White recently shared his thoughts, speculations, and convictions about Rimbaud with me from his home in New York City’s Chelsea district.