It is the sea mingled with the sun.”
Island means escape. It means freedom. It means isolation. It calls one to chase one’s own utopia in the far distance of every civilisation. Cyprus meant all these to the French poet Arthur Rimbaud; a newfound eternity.
Imagine a stone quarry in Cyprus... Then, place a supervisor in this scene... Let this be a French fellow who mostly enjoyed hard work... Let this be Arthur Rimbaud, the poet who charmed the literary scene of Paris with his poems he wrote in his teens only; one who wrote the most innovative and influencing poem of the age when he was only 17. He burnt out all the poems he had written at once, left Europe, and came here, to Cyprus...
Renowned French poet Paul Verlaine mentioned him, “He was neither Devil nor the holy God; he was Rimbaud, a great poet, (...) a distinctive boy!”
Rimbaud was doubtless a genius who shaped the world of poetry with his four-year work, from the age of 16 to the age of 20. He took poetry out of drawing rooms and placed it in the middle of modern life by crying “from your dark poems, let strange flowers burst out, and electric butterflies! See – it’s the century of Hell!” The life of the poet, who claimed, “I is another”, passed quite congruent to this aphorism of him, extending from the world of letters into a world of hard work incorporating two different others.
Rimbaud is known to have a quick start in life in every aspect. He is said to be born with his eyes open in the morning of October 20, 1854. Then, we see him as an obstreperous teenager. He is young, rebellious, and restless, pushing the borders all the time. Given this image of Rimbaud, a photograph of the poet, retouched to show him wearing jeans, was used as a symbol of the student revolt in Paris in May 1968. The restless soul of Rimbaud, which pushed him leave home several times, finally took him thousands of miles, even continents far from his homeland...
The renowned French poet Verlaine receives a letter in a morning of the year 1871. This was a set of poems, one like which he receives a thousand maybe every day. But this time, it was different. The letter was signed ‘Arthur Rimbaud’, and Verlaine was impressed by the imagery of these poems. He sends a reply to Rimbaud, “We await you; we desire you” with a train ticket to Paris attached.
A forerunner of the Decadence movement in France, standing for “art for art’s sake” which will give way to later Symbolism and Aestheticism, Verlaine is shocked upon meeting Rimbaud, for what he was expecting was a 30-year old man; but what he found instead was a 17-year old countryboy. He patrons him in Paris and introduces him to the literary circles in the city. In the meantime, Rimbaud and Verlaine, whose wife is pregnant, get into a homosexual relationship. In his masterpiece ‘A Season in Hell’, Rimbaud traces this relationship. He mentions Verlaine as “a demon” whose “mysterious ways” seduced him.
When Rimbaud attempted to break apart with Verlaine, the poet shoots him in the arm and he was sent into a Belgian gaol for two years. Upon this, Rimbaud shuts him in his room for some time and writes poetry. At the point that he has many poems to fill a book, he takes them and heads for publishing houses. Nevertheless, the society of letters accuses Rimbaud for spoiling Verlaine’s life by first destroying his marriage and then putting him in the jail. Therefore, he is refused by every little publishing house he takes his poems. The young genius is deeply depressed. And this moment is the exact moment in which everything comes to an end. He throws all his poems into fire at once, the ones that compose his masterpiece ‘A Season in Hell’ mostly, and leaves the country. To become an ‘other’... It is the year 1875...
“My day is done: I am leaving Europe. The marine air will burn my lungs; unknown climates will tan my skin.” (A Season in Hell)
The year 1878... After stopping by several cities in Africa, Cyprus welcomes Rimbaud with its tranquillity. Here in Cyprus, he works as a supervisor at a stone quarry. He turns out to be a “man of action” totally leaving aside his personality of a “ man of thought”. He takes fancy in doing hard work. Poetry is dead for him. He never mentions his ‘previous’ life and his glorious days in Paris. No one, not even his employer, knows where he is from or who he is. Upon the inquiries concerning his past he replies, “absurd” and goes on “ridiculous, disgusting”. Rimbaud, has become somebody else. He is leading a tranquil and silent life in Cyprus, where he escaped from his past or maybe from himself.
The first letter he wrote from Cyprus to his mother carries the evidences of that dense feeling of isolated loneliness that would seal his life from then on: “The nearest village is one hour away on foot. There is nothing here but a jumble of rocks, a river, and the sea. There are no houses. No soil, no gardens, no trees”. And of course, no poetry...
How come did Rimbaud end up in Cyprus? Is it an escape from love, or from poetry? Or was he only seeking adventure? Maybe... However, a more detailed look will reveal another perspective: The years that covered Rimbaud’s life was an age in which modernism was climbing very fast. Many values underwent a rapid change with the Industrial Revolution that took place in the beginning of the century. Bourgeoisie was the enemy and everything that belonged to the bourgeois world was fought against. Poets were losing their place in the society.
However, towards the end of the 19th century, bourgeoisie started to gain power steadily. In the face of all these rapid changes, the poets and writers questioned their social idealism, had problems of concern and under this pressure preferred to escape. The literary movement that found roots in this circle of writers is the ‘Escapism’.
Under the suddenly changing values of the city, poets and writers escaped to the wilderness and pristine countries. Can we say then Rimbaud was an ‘escapist’? Considering his sudden escape and disappearing from Europe, he can be labelled as an escapist for sure. The word ‘escape’ in literature brings to mind ‘island’. Island means escape, a place far from the traces of civilisation.
Considering that transportation to islands was possible only via ships in the middle of the 19th century, the most attractive place to chase one’s personal utopia was an island.
Nevertheless, Rimbaud did not have a magnificent life in Cyprus. His letters to his mother tell us that he had hard times on this island. However, who can say this life was not what he pursued, his personal utopia? Especially thinking of the dark bohemian character we have here...
Rimbaud leaves the island in 1880 upon a quarrel he has with the workers, and heads for Aden via the Red Sea gradually getting farther and farther from Europe. After 11 years of exile, he sails to Marseille, worried for a fatal ache in his right leg. Diagnosed as cancer, his right leg is amputated and only six months later Rimbaud dies at the age of thirty-seven.
“Let us go... All the filthy memories are disappearing... At dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter into the splendid cities...” (A Season in Hell)
Teenage rebel, innovative poet, passionate lover, lonely heart...
The poet who came to Paris on a ‘Drunken Boat’ and lived ‘A Season in Hell’ and then had his ‘Illuminations’... Today Rimbaud is renowned neither as a stone quarry supervisor nor as a foreman. He has taken his place in the history of literature as the forerunner of Parnassian movement in literature which gave way to symbolism and decadence later on by seeking “art for art’s sake”. He is remembered as an influential poet who wrote the most innovative poetry of his age though only for four years in his lifetime... He is the great poet who passed by our land that we live on...
The Drunken Boat (Le Bateau Ivre) 1871
The Illuminations (Les Illuminations) 1874
A Season in Hell (Une Saison en Enfer) 1873
(copies of it discovered at a Belgian publisher in 1901)
A Poem by Rimbaud
Through blue summer nights I will pass along paths,
Pricked by wheat, trampling short grass:
Dreaming, I will feel coolness underfoot,
Will let breezes bathe my bare head.
Not a word, not a thought:
Boundless love will surge through my soul,
And I will wander far away, a vagabond
In Nature - as happily as with a woman.
Rimbaud in various disciplines of art
Though composed poetry for only four years in his lifetime, Rimbaud was influential not only in poetry and literature but also in various fields of art. His has impacts in the powerful movements of the 20th century such as Symbolism, Expressionism, and Aestheticism. The famous composer Benjamin Britten composed his poetry in ‘Les Illuminations’ (the Illuminations). Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison take him for inspiration. The film ‘Paris Blues’ (1961) narrates the poet’s life and his masterpiece ‘A Season in Hell’ was adapted for the screen. A retouched photography of Rimbaud showing him wearing jeans was the symbol of the student revolt in Paris in 1968.
*published in Caretta Magazine, Feb 2008