Magazine article The Spectator

A Burnt-Out Case

Magazine article The Spectator

A Burnt-Out Case

Article excerpt


by Graham Robb Picador, L20, pp. 530

The story Graham Robb tells is familiar: Arthur Rimbaud, born in 1854 in northern France, was the son of a raffish army officer with a taste for ethnology and linguistics who married and then deserted a rigidly joyless farmer's daughter. A prodigious autodidact, Arthur realised at 16 that he was a poet = it's really not my fault' as he put it - and escaped to Paris at the time of the Commune. There, in the course of a brief career of crazy hooliganism, he fell into a violently passionate relationship with Paul Verlaine, which culminated in Verlaine being imprisoned for an attempt to murder him.

Having written some of the greatest verse in the French language, Rimbaud then lost interest in literature and underwent what appeared to be a radical change of personality. After three years of wandering 32,000 miles over 13 countries, he settled as a successful trader, colonialist and explorer in a little-known region of Abyssinia (an episode recently explored in depth by Charles Nicholl in his travelogue Somebody Else). But his life was short: in 1891, before the reputation of his poetry had reached beyond a bohemian coterie, he returned to France, where he died of an agonising bone cancer. Despite, or perhaps because of, the absence of many crucial letters and manuscripts, a legend of Rimbaud has flourished ever since, representing him as the embodiment of romantic genius and the idea of the poet as seer. His experiments with language and imagery were profoundly influential on the poetry of the Symbolists and Surrealists, and over the last 30 years he has also become a vaguer hero to a mob of anarchists, beats, punks, and self-creating adolescent fantasists.

Enid Starkie's biography, first published in 1938, has long dominated our picture of this enigmatic figure. Her trenchant conclusion, judging him 'a tragic example of human waste', is not shared by Graham Robb, whose revisionist picture adopts a more wry, subtle and detached line. 'I have tried at least to allow Rimbaud to grow up,' he pleads against Starkie's demode insistence that he was 'a victim of arrested development' who 'never came to terms with life'.

To this end, Robb paints a particularly convincing portrait of Rimbaud's Abyssinian years, during which he amassed a small fortune and exerted a steely grip on himself. Unlike one of his most fervent posthumous disciples, Bruce Chatwin, he never flirted with the exotic for the sake of copy or local colour, and his relations with the natives were ruthlessly unsentimental. …

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