Rimbaud: Sex, Verse, and Modernity

[This paper was given at the North East Modern Language Association convention in Pittsburgh in April 1994, in a session on "Sexual Politics and Experimental Poetics" sponsored by the French Literature Division.]

It would be perverse, in a panel on sexual politics and experimental poetics, to give a paper on Rimbaud that would discuss "early" poems, in verse, such as "Voyelles" and "Le Bateau ivre," instead of the much more obviously revolutionary works, the prose-poems in Une Saison en enfer and Illuminations. After all, isn't the Saison Rimbaud's pure act of rebellion, the work that puts into practice all that bold if charmingly adolescent vangardism expressed in his manifesto, the letter to Demeny, the "lettre du voyant"? Isn't that the Rimbaud we mean when we think revolutionary? — the one whom Terry Eagleton has called "every leftist's favorite hippie" (Ross 1988, xiv)? And aren't those two works of prose — the Saison and the "lettre du voyant" — the sources of everyone's favorite quotations from Rimbaud? Who on earth quotes "Voyelles"? The critic who wilfully confines himself to such immature work must surely suffer from an arrested state of development and an abnormal choice of object! But if only to give The Wall Street Journal more material to be scandalized about, indulge my perversity. I should like to propose that the poems in metrical verse, and particularly these two very striking poems, may have a great deal to offer us in the way of sexual politics and revolutionary poetics. Or to put it in more concrete terms, the poems offer a remarkable insight into the relation among poetic rhythm, the erotic body, and poetic imagery, such that, using uniquely poetic strategies, they may offer a more profoundly liberatory sexual politics than do the apparently more formally rebellious prose works. The uniquely poetic liberation of the body enacted in "Voyelles" and "Le Bateau ivre" is possible because of the effacement of the personal and autobiographically-identified subject that otherwise seems so well-supported (naturally, I might add) in Saison and the other prose works.

This will all make better sense if, starting with "Voyelles," we read it side by side with a sonnet of Baudelaire upon which Paul de Man (1984) has some astute comments, "Correspondances." The correspondances between the two poems, so to speak, are so noteworthy — is it their obviousness or their arcanity, that has kept critics from dwelling on them and instead has sent them chasing after biographical trivia to gloss Rimbaud's "verbe poétique accessible . . . à tous les sens," as he just as astutely calls "Voyelles" in the second Delirium of Une Saison en enfer? Following a Romantic version, associated with the teachings of Swedenborg, of the doctrine of signatures popular in the middle ages (what Foucault calls "similitude") but originally much older, both poems purport to reveal — whether by a mystical discovery, as in Baudelaire, or by an invention or intervention, as in Rimbaud — a system of corresponding equivalences in the natural world that includes human beings as part of its divine order. Since the correspondences must cross the biggest metaphysical gulf of all, that between "l'esprit et les sens" (14), between nature and consciousness — between the innocently necessary and the morally troubled, they must perforce demonstrate that the orders of the senses correspond so closely with each other as to give rise to a magically charmed synaesthesia:

Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent. (7-8)

And these "longs échos qui de loin se confondent" (5) make the connection to the spiritual realm — since, having the expansive quality of infinite things (12), they sing "les transports de l'esprit et des sense" (14). All these correspondences seem possible because of the parallelism, the drive to similitude, which arises out of the principle of equivalence that Roman Jakobson made the basis of his analysis of poetry in general. But as we can see and as de Man notes, the gap can only be bridged by means of the analogies made possible by figuration: the scents (and the senses) sing the transports of spirit and sense because, although sensual, they are like spiritual things insofar as they share an expansiveness. Transports — what a perfect word for this connection across the gap between figura and res! — reminiscent not only of the Christian transport of the saintly soul to heaven, but of the merkavah, the divine chariot that brings such as Elijah the prophet from one world to the next, connecting the God of Israel to the world from which He is normally withdrawn and hidden.

What such transportation does for Baudelaire, alchemy does for Rimbaud:

U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,
Paix des pâtis semés d'animaux, paix des rides
Que l'alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux. (9-11)

But to concentrate on this one metaphor doesn't do justice to Rimbaud's strategy. For, although the synaesthesia of sorts between letters and colors, and between those and other senses, and the spiritual implications of the whole resonant thing, all match Baudelaire's project, Rimbaud's sonnet is distinct from Baudelaire's precisely because the system undoes itself. Image conflicts with image. The totality is not a harmonious whole but a sublime rupture — a rupture that allows to sing, not the transports of (or between) the spirit and the sense, but rather a rhythm that is at once a clarion call and a silence:

O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,
Silences traversés des Mondes et des Anges:
— O l'Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux! (12-14)

The O then figures as the final note in a song that echos, but does not reproduce, Christian mythology — the myth that runs from alpha to omega. Here, that omega is the hugeness of empty space — the same as the openness of the singing mouth, imagined like that of the head of Orpheus after his decapitation in standard iconography. Both empty, the silences crossed by both mortal and divine worlds, and full of strange blaring (the very Latinity of strideur is strange), the O defies either fulness or emptiness as its definition.

The wrenching disunity of correspondences in "Voyelles" that imparts upon the reader that sense of arbitrariness and even youthful self-indulgence (see Chadwick 1985) is only one contrast with Baudelaire's model. Another is the shift from Baudelaire's naturalizing to Rimbaud's textualizing focus, a shift that allows Rimbaud to continue to appear virtually postmodern beside Baudelaire's modernity (Lyotard). Whereas nature is a temple whose trees are the columns (which in a classical temple imitate a grove of trees to begin with), which are in turn teeth allowing the passage of mystical utterances expressing the communion of harmonized humanity with nature, words with scents, spirit with sense, in Rimbaud, the initial theme is the sense of the letters. But what are letters but signifiers with no definite signifieds? The paradox that works to disrupt Baudelaire's illusory harmony is in fact connected to Rimbaud's odd Latinity and to our suspicion of alchemy as spurious. Thus, in the first tercet, by a series of free-associative transformations whose lack of motivation parallels the illusion of alchemy, cycles and vibrations made by the utterance of the vowel itself become waves in a sea that is Latinly green (virides instead of verts) — that is, filled with the fetidness of ancient literary tradition — which then becomes the pastoral setting of, say, Virgil's Eclogues, which then become (in, I think, a missing link in the chain) fields plowed in lines (as in the Greek metaphor of boustrophedon for writing back and forth across the page as if plowing with an ox), whose lines then become the wrinkles on the brow of the alchemist, knit undecidably in concentration or in worry over the eternal deferral of the desired transformation, lead into gold. Or in this case, green into gold — sense into spirit.

"Voyelles" thus provides a deconstructive view of the Romantic vision of a perfectly harmonious world that reflects and bespeaks its divine origin, so elegantly represented by Baudelaire. In Rimbaud's poem, the "signs" of the divine world are reduced to letters, the elementary constituents of texts, showing a striking self-reflexivity about the textuality of the poem. And letters make clearer than any other signifiers their excess in relation to their possible signifieds. Their overdetermination is what brings about the clash of their figures as contrasted with the harmony of Baudelaire's synaesthesia, as does the clash between the textual world of letters and the physical world of the senses.

The deconstruction we are witnessing in this poem is not nihilistic, as it has become so fashionable to assume. The poem is still very full — but not of meaning or "spirit" in the doctrinaire sense, but rather of senses and especially sound. In the metaphoric code, there is a striking sound in each of the four divisions: the bombinating flies; the laugh of lovely lips that are undecidably expressing either anger or the paradox of penitent drunkenness (the ecstasy of absolution? or the drunkenness of the guilty?); the cycles or vibrations of U; and the bugle that is also a silence. This last paradox brings us back to an initial one that I skipped: either the buzzing flies buzz around, or they are, gulfs of shadow, depending on whether golfes d'ombre is in apposition to them or to the puanteurs cruelles (which is easier). It doesn't matter much. In either case, the space is full of buzzing and rot but empty as gulfs of shadow.

What is empty, in short, is visual space — empty of certainty — figured in images such as the shadow and then the candeurs des vapeurs et de tentes, perhaps suggesting the cloud that stood over the Tent of the Presence by day during the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness. What is full is the sound — not of the images, but of what they translate into figures — that is, the actual sounds of the poem, its rhythms, which are made possible because of its vowels. Thus the images in the poem represent the vibrations of the sounds that communicate them, while at the same time their very excess allows them to clash and to reveal their own illusoriness before the bodily experience of sound and rhythm that they attempt to translate into figures. This is why the clarion call is also a silence: a burst of sublime sound from the vowels themselves as they are uttered in the rhythm of the sonnet, and a silent space for the play of images, none of which, not even the violet of the Savior's eyes, is adequate to the task of representing that bodily experience. Translations that claim to be transportations are really alchemy; the real sublimity is to be found in the body as it responds rhythmically to the orphic O of vowels and their divine vibrations.

Is this the difference that Rimbaud intimated when he commented that Baudelaire, having lived in a "milieu trop artiste," did not go far enough — since his form was "mesquine," whereas "les inventions d'inconnu réclament des formes nouvelles"? The formal novelty that Rimbaud announces here has generally been taken to promote the prose-poetry of Une Saison en enfer and what eventually became the Illuminations, even though the poems embedded in the letters to Izambard and Demeny advocating the dérèglement de tous les sens are in fact in meter. Rather than assume, as some critics have done (e.g., Chadwick 1979), that in the poems in those letters Rimbaud was just an immature failure, unable to live up to his own principles, why not rethink how we take both Rimbaud's terms, the inventions of the unknown and new forms? Perhaps the newness of the form, Rimbaud's experimental poetics in this case, is precisely in exposing and not suppressing the life of the body as instantiated (not represented) in rhythmic sound, in a way that defeats the regulation of the body made possible, precisely, by images and figures? In that case, the infantile sound-play of vowels, perhaps accurately caricatured in the famous image of Rimbaud as enfant terrible piling toy alphabet-blocks, comes across as an overture to a more liberatory sexual politics in which the conventional images (and they are always images) of sexual relations and sex-roles are inadequate to the ecstasies of the rhythmic body. That rhythmic body, unsocialized and "asocial" but not "unsocial," (Bertold Brecht's terms quoted in Ross 1988, 20-21), not repressed but on the contrary instantiated by meter. By contrast, Une Saison en enfer could be thought of as precisely what it presents itself as: a prose-poetic accompaniment to the poems, a poetically- phrased prose manifesto.

If "Voyelles" makes sense as a deconstructive view of the Swedenborgian- Romantic notion of correspondences, "Le Bateau ivre" makes sense in relation to the Romantic quest imagined as a sea-voyage, as in, say, Victor Hugo's Les Travailleurs de la mer or Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The image, like the idea of correspondences, goes back much further: it can be traced through the erotic commonplace of the lover as a lone navigator in a tempest-tossed sea guided by the single star of his desire ("Love . . . is the star to ev'ry wand'ring bark" — Shakespeare), back through Aeneas's sea-voyage and Homer's Odyssey, on the one hand, and a neoteric rewriting of this epic voyage as an erotic metaphor, as in, say, Horace's Ode to Pyrrha. In Rimbaud, we have a quest with no apparent object, but perhaps that is prefigured by, say, Shelley's Alastor — or at least that aspect of Odysseus's adventures that are simply for adventure's sake. But immediately distinctive is the fact that Rimbaud's boat is the hero of his quest. Catullus has a poem celebrating the adventures of his little boat, the Phasellus, but even that is told in the third person (although as reported speech). In Rimbaud, although the narration is first-person, and there are rudder, sails, and a cockpit, there is no apparent human being on board. The human presence is dispensed with at the start — interestingly, not as a captain, but as haulers who (presumably) drag the boat along as a barge. It's interesting to contemplate the politics thematized here: the boat was to carry loads of colonial trade such as flemish wheat and English cotton — wouldn't that be American cotton spun and woven on English looms, brought back to be sold to the colonials as higher-priced finished goods? — and the haleurs are made playful targets by the real targets of colonial domination, the Peaux-Rouges. Thus on an overt political level, the poem opens with the announced return of the repressed, the upset of colonial order, which is the order regulating the sexual body as well.

The equivalence of liberations is supported by an equivalence among the sea, rhythm, poetry, and (sexual) love, as is clear a few stanzas on:

Et dès lors, je me suis baigné dans le Poème
De la Mer, infusé d'astres, et lactescent,
Dévorant les azurs verts; où, flottaison blême
Et ravie, un noyé pensif parfois descend;
Où, teignant tout à coup les bleuités, délires
Et rhythmes lents sous les rutilements du jour,
Plus fortes que l'alcool, plus vastes que nos lyres,
Fermentent les rousseurs amères de l'amour! (21-28)

The phonological level brings out this latter equivalence: la mer / amères / l'amour. The bitter rednesses of love ferment (a liquor) more potent than either alcohol or the lyre — than either Dionysus or Apollo? — which stains the blueness of the sea, which is the slow rhythms of the waves upon which the boat rides under the sun's gleaming. Or does "délires" look forward to les rousseurs . . . de l'amour? That would make rhythmes equivalent to love's intoxicant. But either way, love's rednesses and the slow rhythms are both aspects of the same thing, the sea, which is already called "le Poème / De la Mer" — mirroring in its turbulence the poem we are reading. And that poem, however turbulent, is metrical and rhythmic.

One more term could have been added to the series la mer / amères / l'amour: la mort, making its appearance in the drowned man who occasionally goes down. The boat is bathed in a sea of poem, which is a sea of life, but also a sea of death. Or rather, death itself becomes less separable from life: the drowned man is "pensif," as if contemplating the boat's ecstasy, in a suspended attitude between life and death. And it is hard to keep this image separate from the rednesses of love — blood staining the water. This is no cliché of love and death bound up together. Rather, it is the condition of the rhythmic body to exceed any knowable categories, even including life and death. The notion is repeated in the allusion to Juan Ponce de León's search for the Fountain of Youth in Florida (45). As can be seen in the mythology of Dionysus, who presides over ecstasy, rhythm is simultaneously erotic and beyond the erotic because beyond assignable sexualities and identities. The ecstatic loss of self in rhythm is figured variously as the rapture of love — bitter because it involves a self- annihilation; as the suspension before death as the pensive drowned; and as the suspension of life as eternal youth. The drunken boat is drunk with the rhythm of poetry.

But this is not the end. The greatest puzzle is the final gesture, wherein the boat announces what looks like its nostalgia: "Je regrette l'Europe aux anciens parapets" (84). Yet when the boat exclaims, "que ma quille éclate! que j'aille à la mer!" (96), does it wish to abandon or to begin its voyage (see Chadwick 1979, 18-19)? The latter wouldn't make sense — it has already been in the sea — but the phrase, which then must mean a wish to sink into the sea (Schmidt 1975, 122), ironically sounds like its opposite. Is the second-to-last quatrain a wish to be a little child's toy boat, returned from the open sea to the protective enclosure of poverty and a city puddle? (And note Barthes's very apt contrast between the boat as enclosure in the Romantic tradition followed by Jules Verne and the boat as narrator of an escape from enclosure in Rimbaud — 1957, 82.) Or is the wish ironic: if I were to return to Europe, it would only be thus? The last quatrain certainly sounds like a withdrawal: "Je ne puis plus . . . ."

Indeed, the boat seems to give itself a choice between either the end of being altogether — sinking in the water — which is almost indistinguishable from the continuance of the voyage — and the containment of the voyage into its metaphoric repetition as a toy — the poem of the sea then becoming the conventional image of poetry as mimesis on the mirror-surface of still water. Either annihilation or image. And the boat makes a choice: it ceases speech — it goes to the sea. But another choice has also been made: it speaks to us in a poem, which is framed in unreality, like the toy on the pond. The choice must be forced because the boat, in its self-narration, already brings out the irresolvable tension between itself as image and as rhythmic ecstasy. Thus the continued voyage seems to be foreclosed at the end because the sea is already taken up by other, bigger boats that are the very picture of colonialism: cotton barges, military vessels with their bright banners, and prison-ships with their horrible eyes. The voyage can only be continued if any vestige of subjectivity is discontinued — so its narration must cease.

All of the foregoing comments must be placed in the contexts, not only of the rise of French colonialism, centered by Paris as the new industrial city, but of the Paris Commune around whose moment the poem must have been composed and right after which it was circulated, and of the evolution of French sexual mores as forms of regulation of the body (Copley 1989). There is not enough time to pursue these connections. Suffice it to say that poetry in Rimbaud's case — the combination of ecstatic rhythm and of self-reflexive image — provides a kind of resistance to the domination of the body of the colonial, the French urban worker, the woman, and the homosexual, a domination that was merely dramatized by the massacre that put down the Commune. The anarchism of both of these poems is akin to the non-mediated democracy of the Commune and to its principle of equality (Ross 1988). But that anarchism of the body is made possible by means of a specific relation of imagery to the rhythm that metrical poetry realizes. Imagery is not only the realm of utopian thinking; it is also the means by which bodies are made to conform to social expectations and norms within political and economic systems. In Rimbaud's poems, as in poetry generally, imagery reflects upon the power of rhythm like the reflective noyé pensif, but, like him, it is already afloat in rhythm and must give way to its powerful unimaginary currents. It is in this way that Rimbaud's poems offer a truly radical sexual politics by means of its revolutionary poetics.

Amittai F. Aviram
University of South Carolina


Works Cited

This page last updated Sunday, August 7, 2022 by the author — amittai dot aviram at gmail dot com. © 1994 by Amittai F. Aviram.