Glossary entry for
Jean-Nicholas-Arthur Rimbaud (born: October 20, 1854 - Charleville, France;
died: November 10, 1891 - Marseilles, France) was a French poet who died
tragically young after having lived an intense life that scandalized many. The
following is from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, by Judy Stone:
The Bad Boy Poet Of the 19th Century
Arthur Rimbaud was a young genius who unwittingly changed the
language of modern poetry and he sang a siren song across the years
to the troubadours of the '60s. Jim Morrison thought he was the
reincarnation of the French poet. The author of A Season in
Hell, Rimbaud influenced Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac. Van Morrison
wrote "Tore Down a la Rimbaud." Patti Smith sang "Rimbaud Dead."
Tom Verlaine, guitarist for Television, adopted the name of
Rimbaud's lover and fellow poet, Paul Verlaine.
In the 19th century, Rimbaud and Verlaine shocked the French
bourgeoisie by their violently outrageous behavior. Today they are
shocking audiences through the unvarnished portrayals of them by
Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis in Agnieszka Holland's $8
million Total Eclipse. The film is based on Christopher
Hampton's successful play about the precocious country boy
(DiCaprio) who mesmerized and seduced Verlaine (Thewlis), a married
man with a pregnant wife (Romane Bohringer).
Polish-born director, Agnieszka Holland says about her characters:
"I know these guys are very controversial and they
wanted to be controversial, especially Rimbaud. He did everything to
provoke the bourgeoisie and to fight them. He did it because he
believed he could find some kind of truth by going over the border
of the normal and traditional. He did it with Verlaine, hoping that
Verlaine would be as strong as he was, but Verlaine wasn't. . . .
"Rimbaud thought you have to pay the price for everything you do.
When he decided that the things he was doing were not important, he
changed his life." He stopped writing at 19 or 20, becoming a
trader, explorer and arms dealer in Africa. He died in 1891 at age
Like Rimbaud and Verlaine, many people in the beat generation of the
late 1950s also wanted to explore everything, Holland notes.
"Dangerous relationships, social provocation, drinking and drugs,
to try everything and find out the real truth about life. They
didn't, of course. Nobody has the truth, but they opened some doors
for us. It's like the paradox of the anti- Christ. Rimbaud
considered himself an anti-Christ. You don't have to do the same
things they did, but watching them, you can ask questions about the
borders of human experience and reality."
Playwright Christopher Hampton adds:
"There's a direct line that goes from Rimbaud to Jules Lafourge (the
Symbolist poet) to T.S. Eliot. The whole of the modern movement was
initiated by Rimbaud and he didn't know what he was doing. He was an
amateur, a genius. Something just spoke through him and he did it."
Rimbaud published one book -- A Season in Hell -- in his
lifetime and it sold six copies. Much later, the rest of the edition
was found in a warehouse in Amsterdam. The only person who kept the
flame alive was Verlaine. "The vivid irony was that the more he
made Rimbaud famous, the more Verlaine became superannuated,"
Hampton says. "In the latter half of Verlaine's life he was
proselytizing for this boy who was dead and who only made his own
work look old-fashioned and clumsy."
Van mailing list member Art Siegel notes that he was "re-reading
Van's interview from 1985
that was in New Age magazine, and he commented as follows:
Q: "Tore Down A La Rimbaud" is a song that resonates for me
because it's about artistic block and lack of inspiration.
A: I'd been reading Arthur Rimbaud when I got the original idea,
particularly "Illuminations". Is that what it's called? Actually, the idea
for the song is ten or 12 years old. I sort of rewrote it last year and
Q: Is it fair to say the song is about writer's block?
A: That's what it *is* about, because at the time I got the idea, I wasn't
writing anything at all. And I didn't really understand why. It was very
Q: Rimbaud believed that true art could only be produced through what he
called "constant and systematic derangement of the senses". To this
aesthetic end, he smoked a lot of hashish.
A: I prefer coffee, personally.
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