Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

I Promise to Be Good: The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

I Promise to Be Good: The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud

Article excerpt

"Rimbaud" est un autre

I Promise to Be Good: The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud. Ed. Wyatt Mason. Modern Library, November 2003. $24.95

There is a wonderful passage in Keats's letters in which the young poet takes a moment to describe his own posture as he sits writing to his brother and sister-in-law:

-the fire is at its last click-I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet-I am writing this on the Maid's tragedy which I have read since tea with Great pleasure-Besides this volume of Beaumont & Fletcher-there are on the table two volumes of Chaucer . . . but I require nothing so much of you as that you will give me a like description of yourselves, however it may be when you are writing to me-Could I see the same thing done of any great Man long since dead it would be a great delight: as to know in what position Shakespeare sat when he began 'To be or not be'-such thing(s) become interesting from distance of time or place. (12 March 1819)

Keats's remark articulates a common longing for those of us who turn to the letters of our favorite poets with the hope of a similar "great delight." There is of course the search for clues in the life and sensibility of the writer that might enable us to understand better how and why the poet wrote as he or she did-and for writers who read the letters of other writers, there is always a vicarious study of how another individual in "distance of time or place" models the life and conduct of being a writer. But there is also a hunger much more human and direct-the simple desire to know the poet, to see or hear him or her in a moment of intimacy or cogitation.

This being said, many readers will celebrate Wyatt Mason's new translation of the letters of Arthur Rimbaud, I Promise to be Good, the second volume in the Modern Library Edition's Complete Rimbaud and now the largest and most complete selection of Rimbaud's letters available in English. That such a collection has not appeared until now may seem like a curious oversight on the part of the literary industry, for Rimbaud in some regards is a figure more mythologized and romanticized as the tragic young poet than even Keats in our tradition. And unlike Keats, Rimbaud's deliberate delving into the world of drugs and debauchery as a means to achieve his infamous "derangement of all the senses" has no doubt contributed to his popularity in mainstream culture and rendered him a veritable poster child for the figure of the "poete maudit," as Paul Verlaine famously named him. Fans of Jim Morrison and Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, are well acquainted with Rimbaud's life and works-and even literary rocker Patti Smith has contributed to the critical literature on Rimbaud with her recent Village Voice review of Graham Robb's recent biography of the poet. The myth of Rimbaud looms so large that a critic such as Geoffrey Brereton, who admits that "Everything has conspired to make Rimbaud, as person and poet, an almost incredible figure," nonetheless argues that although the poet's life and work remain remarkable even after "adulation and legend have been cleared away" that "there is no pressing reason why they should be. A writer's legend, if properly focused, is at least as revealing as any 'document.'"

Mason, in his absorbing introduction to I Promise to Be Good, argues that a more complete edition of Rimbaud's letters has remained hitherto unpublished exactly because the letters problematize the mythical character we've come to believe in as Rimbaud from creative or unreliable biographers, beginning with Paterne Berrichon, Rimbaud's own (posthumous) brother-in-law. Mason warns the reader:

If one approaches [the letters] with the expectation of salaciousness, with a thirst for literary gossip, with the hope of discovering hidden troves of unpublished verses, with a deep interest in Rimbaud's sexuality, with a hunger for the confessional-yes, one would be guaranteed disappointment. …

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