Master of Poetry in Crude Emotion

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), November 26, 2000 | Go to article overview

Master of Poetry in Crude Emotion


Byline: D.J. TAYLOR

by Graham Robb Picador [pounds sterling]20 %[pounds sterling]17 (0870 165 0870)

At first sight, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) looks like a prototype for the ramshackle gang of drug-addled poets and romantic adventurers that clogged up the century after his death. His latest biographer mentions Bruce Chatwin and Kurt Cobain as reference points.

Much as one usually dislikes this kind of historical fast-forwarding, there is something in the chain of influence that Graham Robb outlines.

Only the other day I read a magazine profile in which rock group REM's Michael Stipe claimed the author of Arsehole Sonnet as one of his cultural icons.

One can acknowledge Rimbaud's enormous effect on 20th Century artistic bad-laddery while accepting that most of his descendants are just pale shadows of the original. No one wrote poems like Rimbaud: charged, fantastical, salacious - and quite unlike anything that had come before.

Equally, no one could be as personally offensive as Rimbaud (he once used another poet's oeuvre for lavatory paper) or inspire such dramatic obsessions in his fellow authors.

The French policeman who described him to his superiors as 'incomprehensible and repulsive' was referring to the man rather than the work, but from the point of view of the late 19th Century French literary world, the two were inseparable.

It was an extraordinary life, to which Robb - author of acclaimed biographies of Balzac and Victor Hugo - does full justice. Born in the Ardennes region of northern France to an absentee military father who eventually disappeared altogether, chivvied along by the ghastly-sounding Mme Rimbaud, the young Arthur was a prodigy, capable - at a price - of forging half-a-dozen of the rich boys' homework in different styles.

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