A GIFTED GOOD-FOR-NOTHING, a dazzling poet who wallowed in filth, a queer rock star before such a thing existed—Arthur Rimbaud was nothing if not an original. Although he established himself as a founding member of the French Symbolist movement thanks to the innovative and irreverent quality of his work, Rimbaud can neither be defined nor judged on one scale alone. Indeed, this literary trailblazer—described by critic David Steel as a ticketless passenger on an end-of-the-century poetic journey, sometimes a scoundrel, sometimes a seer—was a loose cannon who did whatever he pleased, offering little deference to the stifling rules of contemporary Parnassian society. His literary career, a supernova of light and darkness, of genius and filth, only lasted a few frenetic years before he decided to go traveling the world. But during this all-too-short period he reached a zenith of creativity, leaving behind a cache of literary jewels for an audience mesmerized by their sparkling, salacious beauty.
But what does Rimbaud mean in the context of LGBT history and how we view it today? We have our icons, our activists, our trailblazers who have fought tirelessly for society at large to accept us as “normal.” Then we have a character such as Rimbaud, who had nothing but contempt for social convention, alienated even his friends, and stuck out like a sore thumb. A close reading of the life and work of Rimbaud reveals a liberated worldview and unexpected homoeroticism that may surprise and shock even a contemporary audience—and highlight the need for our community to embrace the unique nature of our queer experience in the 21st century.
Rimbaud was born in 1854 in Charleville, a town located in the north of France. One would never have expected this social dissident, who thumbed his nose repeatedly and energetically at his straitlaced contemporaries in his late adolescence, to have had such a dull and domestic childhood. Nevertheless, the young Arthur, back then a pale and inoffensive child who was bullied by his classmates, lived under the heel of his mother, whom he called “la bouche d’ombre”—“the mouth of shadow”—a domineering woman who insisted on a classical and religious education such that the poor boy did little more than study. However, the fact that his mother kept him on such a short leash might well have been the main reason for his developing the rebellious streak and wanderlust that would lead him to the heart of Africa and beyond.
The young Arthur was taken under the wing of his teacher, Georges Izambard, and the two developed a very close relationship. Joseph Rose is a translator and graduate student at the George Washington University.