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Arthur Rimbaud: A Biography

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Rimbaud—a mythic name—his life as extraordinary as his work was influential in redirecting the course, first of French, and then of world poetry. He is, indeed, the very symbol of what we now call “modern” literature; nearly a hundred years before the arrival of the “mind-expanding” drugs, Rimbaud understood that the borders of the writer’s consciousness must be extended a Rimbaud—a mythic name—his life as extraordinary as his work was influential in redirecting the course, first of French, and then of world poetry. He is, indeed, the very symbol of what we now call “modern” literature; nearly a hundred years before the arrival of the “mind-expanding” drugs, Rimbaud understood that the borders of the writer’s consciousness must be extended and made the deliberate attempt to use hallucination as a creative method. Dr. Starkie, a lecturer in French literature at Oxford, has devoted many years of research to Rimbaud, revising her biography three times as new manuscript material and information about him has come to light.


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Rimbaud—a mythic name—his life as extraordinary as his work was influential in redirecting the course, first of French, and then of world poetry. He is, indeed, the very symbol of what we now call “modern” literature; nearly a hundred years before the arrival of the “mind-expanding” drugs, Rimbaud understood that the borders of the writer’s consciousness must be extended a Rimbaud—a mythic name—his life as extraordinary as his work was influential in redirecting the course, first of French, and then of world poetry. He is, indeed, the very symbol of what we now call “modern” literature; nearly a hundred years before the arrival of the “mind-expanding” drugs, Rimbaud understood that the borders of the writer’s consciousness must be extended and made the deliberate attempt to use hallucination as a creative method. Dr. Starkie, a lecturer in French literature at Oxford, has devoted many years of research to Rimbaud, revising her biography three times as new manuscript material and information about him has come to light.

30 review for Arthur Rimbaud: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

    What is it about certain books that we buy and then leave untouched on the shelf? Or books we open now and then, sample a few paragraphs, then close and reshelve, temporizing: "Not in the mood"; "Too serious for summer"; "I need to read more about the period before trying this one"; "I need to learn French first." But you never learn French. And yet finally—many years after buying the book—a strategem comes to mind, and a few days later you've read it, enjoyed it, been somehow awakened by it. "W What is it about certain books that we buy and then leave untouched on the shelf? Or books we open now and then, sample a few paragraphs, then close and reshelve, temporizing: "Not in the mood"; "Too serious for summer"; "I need to read more about the period before trying this one"; "I need to learn French first." But you never learn French. And yet finally—many years after buying the book—a strategem comes to mind, and a few days later you've read it, enjoyed it, been somehow awakened by it. "What took me so long?" The most recent instance of this strange phenomenon in my life has been my finally reading Enid Starkie's Arthur Rimbaud , the "new edition" issued by New Directions in 1961. For years, every time I'd looked into it, the fact that Starkie quotes Rimbaud's poems only in the original French made me put it off. Then the bright idea—my strategem—to read it with my various translations of Rimbaud close at hand: Fowlie's serviceable Complete Works and Selected Letters ; Bertrand Mathieu's masterful, if idiosyncratic, A Season in Hell & Illuminations ; and Paul Schmidt's uneven Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works . My solution worked, and I could scarcely put the book down. This isn't to say that Starkie's biography is all that powerful. Rimbaud is powerful, and when Starkie allows the poet to speak for himself and delivers the facts of his life with a minimum of interpretation, the book is compelling. But like many scholars who write about poets and their poetry, she devotes a lot of speculation to the sources of the poems, much of it offered in the spirit of explaining the poems away. "It is unthinkable that Rimbaud had not read..."; "He must have read and adopted the attitudes of..."; etc. Starkie again and again portrays Rimbaud as "childish," his ideas derived from various books known to have been in his hometown library (and many known not to have been there—and yet he "must have read" them); other poems simply reflect incidents from his daily life as filtered through a deranged and deranging sensibility. Starkie mysteriously defends Rimbaud's mother, who withheld affection from her children in the most nakedly manipulative ways, while condemning Rimbaud for his weakness in dealing with the emotional blackmail of Verlaine—a pattern of rebellion and capitulation that was clearly cultivated at his mother's knee. What's more, and this will sound arrogant coming from a reader with no French, Starkie seems not to understand Rimbaud's work. I don't mean the verbal surfaces, of course, or the patterns of image and symbol that pulsate throughout his poetry; I mean the intellectual and emotional compulsions that express themselves through his writing. She repeatedly compares Rimbaud's "childish," "uncontrollable" genius with Baudelaire's "perfection" of form, but fails to see that Baudelaire's genius was backward-looking, a long goodbye in the failing twilight of a classical ideal, while Rimbaud's embraced both the collapsing now of his historical moment and the nascent future to whose radical potential for spiritual renewal he gave such tortured voice. Because Starkie doesn't grasp Rimbaud's intentions, she views his abandonment of poetry as a tragedy—a failure resulting from inordinate pride and obstinate immaturity. But it was no tragedy for Rimbaud; it was not even an abandonment of poetry per se, but of the kind of poetry he had taught himself to write. There is good evidence, after all, that he meant to return to some kind of literary life. But death intervened, and Starkie seems to hold that against Rimbaud. In fact, underlying much of Starkie's narration is the idea that Rimbaud's abandonment of poetry—in her mind a childish, prideful act—actually produced his death, so that his turning away from poetry becomes a kind of suicide. But nothing could be further from the spirit of Rimbaud's work and life, for both of which he continued to have high hopes until his end was manifestly upon him. All that said, Starkie does provide many moments of insight, not through interpretation but through description. Here, for example, she gives us an affecting scene from Rimbaud's last days. He has returned from his decade-long sojourn in Abyssinia as a trader (ivory, musk, guns and more) to his mother's farm in Roche, where he expects to recover from what will turn out to be terminal cancer. His doctor, Beaudier, and his sister Isabelle have concluded that he will almost surely die, but that he should be encouraged to believe otherwise. For a time Rimbaud allowed himself to trust them: The pain was [...:] on the increase and allowed him no respite. Then the doctor ordered for him a soporific, to be taken at night, so that he could snatch some sleep. But Arthur preferred to the doctor's prescription a tea made from the poppy seeds which Isabelle used to gather in the garden. When he had drunk a cup of this beverage he used to reach a state of half dreaming in which his faculties seemed to loosen and all his reserves seemed to break down. Then he felt, what he never experience otherwise, a desire for confidence,s a longing to open his heart. When he was in this condition, he used to close the shutters and doors of his room, even in broad daylight, light lamps and candles, and in that close, mysterious atmosphere, while he gently turned a little barrel-organ or plucked an Abyssinian harp, he used to relate the story of his life, tell of his dreams of the past and of his secret hopes for the future. His slow, sad voice then seemed to take on beautiful modulations and the language in which he spoke was very different from his everyday speech, full of Oriental turns of phrase and Oriental images. At such moments he was living in a wakeful dream and returning to the visions of his childhood, to all that he had buried deep in himself for twenty years and which now burst through the heard crust in a burning stream. Yet once, when Beaudier [the doctor:] spoke to him of his poetry and literature, he made a gesture of disgust and answered coldly, "Il s'agit bien de tout cela. Merde pour la poésie." Yet at this very time, in 1891, Rimbaud's fame was at its height in the literary circles in Paris, but none of those who acclaimed him as the greatest poet of the nineteenth century knew that, scarcely three hours' distance away, the poet they revered was ending his life in a kind of dream. [pp. 408-409:] In the end, Starkie's biography is irreplaceable, although more recent research (I'm told) has revealed more details of Rimbaud's life, especially of his life in Africa. But readers who want to understand the deeper sources and intentions of Rimbaud's work would do well to turn not to scholars but to poets and other writers whose understanding is based on their own experience of the creative process. I'm thinking in particular of Henry Miller's The Time of the Assassins and Yves Bonnefoy's revelatory meditation entitled simply Rimbaud . The former is finally more about Miller than about Rimbaud, but Rimbaud constitutes the essential negative space in Miller's composition that makes the positive space stand out with such vibrancy. Bonnefoy's book, on the other hand, wrestles with the angel Rimbaud on a passage-by-passage, sometimes word-by-word, level; and because Bonnefoy is himself a French poet of great genius, his engagement is illuminating in ways that are simply inaccessible to Starkie, who cannot forgive Rimbaud for turning his back on the poetry she so earnestly labors to explicate.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kristin

    If you've in any way read or listened to music about some kind of nihilism you wind up reading the collected works of Arthur Rimbaud. I think I got on these after reading about works that influenced Jim Morrison. Rimbaud's symbolist work is really brilliant, though a little disjointed. The Drunken Boat is a great work. Give it a spin. He quit writing at like 19 after a crazy affair with his mentor Paul Verlaine and moved to Africa to become a trader. He died of some illness in his 30s.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Richard Epstein

    I was gravely disappointed, having expected this to be about Sylvester Stallone wearing a bandolier and holding a bowie knife between his teeth. Turns out this is a different guy, one who wrote surrealistic poems in some foreign language until booking passage on a drunken boat and disappearing into Africa, like Joseph Conrad or Marlon Brando or Karen von Blixen-Finecke. Good story. But I miss the bowie knife.

  4. 4 out of 5

    José Calderón

    It delves too much into Rimbaud's alchemic interests (I suppose to provide his poetry with a solid metaphysical backbone), but good book nonetheless.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Rafael Bernardo

    Me gusta bastante este libro. Es una cuenta de la vida de Rimbaud que no se inclina ni por los hechos secos y objetivos ni por la total mitificación del personaje. Lo que me disgusta un poco es la interpretación que la autora hace de la etapa final de la vida del poeta. Pero es bastante comprensible por lo que es difícil dar una interpretación certera de dicha etapa. Estoy de acuerdo con Joseph, la siguiente cita me parece muy precisa: "Because Starkie doesn't grasp Rimbaud's intentions, she vie Me gusta bastante este libro. Es una cuenta de la vida de Rimbaud que no se inclina ni por los hechos secos y objetivos ni por la total mitificación del personaje. Lo que me disgusta un poco es la interpretación que la autora hace de la etapa final de la vida del poeta. Pero es bastante comprensible por lo que es difícil dar una interpretación certera de dicha etapa. Estoy de acuerdo con Joseph, la siguiente cita me parece muy precisa: "Because Starkie doesn't grasp Rimbaud's intentions, she views his abandonment of poetry as a tragedy—a failure resulting from inordinate pride and obstinate immaturity. But it was no tragedy for Rimbaud; it was not even an abandonment of poetry per se, but of the kind of poetry he had taught himself to write. There is good evidence, after all, that he meant to return to some kind of literary life. But death intervened, and Starkie seems to hold that against Rimbaud. In fact, underlying much of Starkie's narration is the idea that Rimbaud's abandonment of poetry—in her mind a childish, prideful act—actually produced his death, so that his turning away from poetry becomes a kind of suicide. But nothing could be further from the spirit of Rimbaud's work and life, for both of which he continued to have high hopes until his end was manifestly upon him." El libro en realidad tiene unas 650 páginas. Aquí sale con 160 páginas, pero seguramente es porque se considera el libro en su primera edición, sin las múltiples revisiones de la autora.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tony Gualtieri

    A justly famous biography that captures the essence of Rimbaud. Starkie is especially good at analyzing the poetry, which she quotes liberally. It helps to have a good translation handy, such as Wallace Fowlie's, if one is not fluent in French. I've read reviews where it is said that Starkie "mothers" her subject, a judgment I find erroneous and offensive. Despite some minor inaccuracies that later scholarship has cleared up (for example, she implies that Rimbaud may have acted as a slave trader A justly famous biography that captures the essence of Rimbaud. Starkie is especially good at analyzing the poetry, which she quotes liberally. It helps to have a good translation handy, such as Wallace Fowlie's, if one is not fluent in French. I've read reviews where it is said that Starkie "mothers" her subject, a judgment I find erroneous and offensive. Despite some minor inaccuracies that later scholarship has cleared up (for example, she implies that Rimbaud may have acted as a slave trader in Abyssinia, a claim that has been definitively refuted), this is second only to Rimbaud's own writings for understanding the poet.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    i read this along with the french/english collected works of Rimbaud i took from susie's uncle. (i promise to return it to him if he gives me his word that he'll name the first box-set of the new 90210 "A Season in Hell") i really need to learn how to read french.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ray

    After years of re-reading Rimbaud's poetry, it was time to read this famous biography. I did not know that he abandoned literature at 20. He lived such an adventurous life for his brief time on the planet.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Velvetink

    bookfi.org

  10. 5 out of 5

    Two Readers in Love

    A half-remembered quote from this biography, "unbroken people are not much good in the world," led me to Rimbaud. A good break indeed.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Janis Ian

    The only reason not to give a 5 is because I don't speak enough French to judge the translation accurately!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Carlos Rodriguez

    The most complete and thoroughly engrossing biography I've read on Rimbaud. Excellent!!!

  13. 4 out of 5

    Takipsilim

    Although Starkie gets derivative at times, this is still the best and most comprehensive bio on the boy genius in English.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Nicolas W

    An extremely comprehensive and well researched Rimbaud biography - I haven't read a better one yet.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Timothy Roessler

    The details seem mythical. A preternaturally gifted boy writes lyrical poetry better than the literary stars of his age. Then he rebels, writes new work that transcends anything ever written and remakes poetry forever. As he touches the face of God and plunges into hells, Rimbaud also struggles with a tempestuous affair with the other leading poet of his time, Verlaine. All by the time he was 20. Disillusioned with poetry and his failure to transform the world, he gives up literature. He wanders The details seem mythical. A preternaturally gifted boy writes lyrical poetry better than the literary stars of his age. Then he rebels, writes new work that transcends anything ever written and remakes poetry forever. As he touches the face of God and plunges into hells, Rimbaud also struggles with a tempestuous affair with the other leading poet of his time, Verlaine. All by the time he was 20. Disillusioned with poetry and his failure to transform the world, he gives up literature. He wanders, then turns to trading guns and goods on the shores of the Red Sea. Rimbaud died at 37 a victim of cancer. Professor Starkie tells the story well. She writes clearly with a fine eye for illuminating details. More than a biography, the book includes detailed readings of Rimbaud’s work. The analysis of the poems is grounded, free of ideology and well based in the works themselves. (Although, some of her interpretations seem reductive, even if they’re well argued.) Three issues: If you don’t speak French, you’ll need a translation of the poems handy. She also quotes significant passages of Rimbaud’s prose in French without an English version. Starkie also seems naive about hashish and about homosexuality. But overall, this is a fine work of scholarship and of intellectual integrity as well as a beautiful tribute to one of greatest poets to have graced the planet.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kelly Roger Lemieux

    Probably the best writer's biography ever written and thick enough to stun an ox. I love all things Arthur Rimbaud and getting the inside scoop on his life by reading Starkie's biography really turned me on. Rimbaud, the 19th century French poet, changed poetry around the planet and invented Surrealism and Rock & Roll. Go team. Probably the best writer's biography ever written and thick enough to stun an ox. I love all things Arthur Rimbaud and getting the inside scoop on his life by reading Starkie's biography really turned me on. Rimbaud, the 19th century French poet, changed poetry around the planet and invented Surrealism and Rock & Roll. Go team.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Francis Berger

    The first and only biography I have read of Rimbaud, but I have a difficult time imagining what other biographers could add to Starkie's thorough examination of the young Symbolist poet. Great read.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jordan

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sidney Smeets

  20. 5 out of 5

    Marcel Côté

  21. 4 out of 5

    Wes

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jackie Gabriel

  23. 5 out of 5

    Cliff

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ruby Grenier

  25. 4 out of 5

    Patrick Quinn

    My only problem with this book is that I don't understand French, a good portion is in French. All of Rimbaud's poems are printed here in French and have a critique from the author. If I knew French it might make some sense. The rest if the book is very informative of his life and left me wishing there's was a translation of his poems in the book. But whatever, should've taken French instead of Japanese in high school.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jennie Huggins

  27. 5 out of 5

    amanda

  28. 5 out of 5

    Paolo Rinco

  29. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Aichler

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