Academic journal article Romance Notes

The Prose Poem as Puzzle: Letter Patterns in Rimbaud's "Mystique"

Academic journal article Romance Notes

The Prose Poem as Puzzle: Letter Patterns in Rimbaud's "Mystique"

Article excerpt

ARTHUR Rimbaud casts the Illuminations as puzzles. He ends "H" by directing the reader to decipher clues as to the identity of "Hortense." He also employs the language of cryptography in "Parade," referring to a "key" that is inaccessible to the reader. Atle Kittang notes as well that the poem "Genie" "exhibe ... des similarites frappantes avec la structure semiologique propre aux mots croises et aux enigmes" (227). The theme of the poem as puzzle provides an interpretative framework potentially applicable to all the Illuminations given their obscurity. Paul Valery describes the collection as a whole as "un cryptogramme d'un genre singulier" (qtd. in Little, Rimbaud 18-19) and Pierre Brunel suggests that "H" articulates a "poetique de l'enigme" applicable to all the Illuminations ("Poetique" 197). The question is to what extent the notion of the prose poem as puzzle informs the Illuminations.

If Rimbaud frames the prose poems as puzzles, does he inscribe "solutions"? Many critics have considered whether the prose poems can be "decoded," some debating whether they are even readable. (1) Kittang argues that the Illuminations are not intended to deliver a meaning, but simply represent "une combinaison d'elements signifiants" (192), and Tzvetan Todorov declares that one should not and in many cases cannot interpret the Illuminations (17). In opposition to Todorov's position (Duplicites 108), Andre Guyaux endorses and develops Robert Faurisson's identification of "Hortense" with "l'Habitude," masturbation, in "H" (143-64). More recently, Seth Whidden proposes a solution to the puzzle in "H," while suggesting that his interpretation is only one of many that are possible (185).

Although critics discuss the prose poem as puzzle most often in analyzing "H" and "Parade," many have observed phonetic patterns resembling verbal play throughout the Illuminations. (2) Kittang notes such phonetic repetition, including an anagram-like structure in "Mouvement" (254), but conceives of the Illuminations as "games" only metaphorically, as language freed from the need to communicate (190-92). Stamos Metzidakis has theorized the existence of meaningful letter repetition, which in some cases produces an anagram embedded in a sentence in prose poems (Repetition 85-86). He points out, for example, an anagram in the first sentence of Rimbaud's "Ouvriers": "O cette chaude matinee de fevrier." The word "ouvrier" is present in the o and u and the end of the word "fevrier" (Repetition 87). However, he does not characterize such anagrams as intentionally produced (Repetition 87). Antoine Raybaud similarly observes anagrams appearing in a scattered fashion across sentences in the Illuminations, but leaves open the question of whether they are a "marque d'auteur, ou mode de travail, ou inconscient du texte" (105). Thorsten Greiner provides a particularly persuasive example of wordplay in "Antique": he identifies the phonetic presence of the "satyre" within the word "cithare" (105). This wordplay is meaningful because it corresponds to the prose poem's themes, in keeping with Susan Wirth Fusco's observation that the Illuminations' coherence emerges through the "reciprocal interpenetration of ... semantic, syntactic, phonological and rhythmic factors" (167). Although it is impossible to prove Rimbaud's intentions, verbal play that relates to a number of other features of the prose poem points to deliberate crafting. (3)

"Mystique" contains such an example of verbal play. In "Mystique," palindromic and anagrammatic letter patterns correspond to other structures and imagery in the poem, suggesting that their presence is not merely accidental. "Mystique" thus speaks to the nature and significance of the puzzle in the Illuminations.

The palindromic and anagrammatic letter patterns occur in the first sentence of "Mystique": "Sur la pente du talus les anges tournent leurs robes de laine dans les herbages d'acier et d'emeraude. …

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