A Few Hours in Hell

Arthur Rimbaud

I’ve been like a coatless bear with a toothache that does not pain all week. Circumstance tumbled me into a close encounter with Rimbaud and Eliot over the weekend, and they provide a useful conduit through which to release some spleen. There was a remarkable production of A Season in Hell on BBC Radio 3 the other night, a ‘Between the Ears’ treatment involving voice, ‘soundscape’, reading, music and song, the latter created and performed by Robert Wyatt.

Reading again A Season in Hell, and Illuminations, and somewhat fermenting from recent assaults by literary moral evangelists I had checked the first line of Anita Brookner’s A New Start: “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.” I put that together with Mallarmé’s observation that Rimbaud had “amputated himself, alive, from poetry”, fermented some more and fell at random upon the Four Quartets to distract myself from distraction by distracting myself therein. Some musings below on my continuing love-hate relationship with ‘literature’. 

 

Whether or not one or the other marked the last of Rimbaud’s poems, or whether they overlapped, there is little doubt that after their completion he showed no interest in poetry. It is amazing enough to learn something of his life story (I recommend Graham Robb’s biography) and little wonder that he is termed by Breton a ‘god of adolescence’. Surely, though for anyone with an attachment to poetry most remarkable is his total severance from it? Rimbaud is interpreted wildly and widely but a search for love, and a shattering of sensuous and cultural shackles seem central.

There are those that argue that literature, the fine arts and goodness knows what lead to all sorts of profound results, from finely attuned moral and aesthetic sensibility to, in these grey days of teleological ideology, measurable, cost-efficient positive benefits to ‘health and wellbeing’.  Yet the genius of this poet, this starburst genius, seems to bear no relationship whatsoever to the complex and contradictory psychology of the youth, a young man unlikely to receive many invites to a modern provincial literary gathering. His purported marxist sympathies alone would be enough to set some hearts atremble, and goodness only knows what apolexies his filthy liaisons with Verlaine, prostitutes, drink and drugs would lead to. Plus, of course, he was at times a tramp. A vagrant.

I believe he was an honest Christian and a great Christian. But maybe I read poetry through skewed and satanic eyes.

In Tale, a dissatisfied Prince, vexed by lukewarm, twilight living, “excelling in the most humdrum acts of generosity” wanted “to see the truth, the moment of essential desire and gratification.” (Mark Treharne translation).

 

One evening he was galloping along proudly. A Genie appeared, of indescribable beauty, impossible even to admit. His features and bearing offered the promise of a multiple and complex love! of unspeakable, even unbearable happiness! In all likelihood, the Prince and the Genie annihilated each other and emerged into essential health. How could they have not died from it? Together, then, they died.

Yet this Prince died, in his palace, at a normal age. The Prince was the Genie. The Genie was the Prince.

No skill of music can equal our desire.

I read it as (one of many ironical, twisting, paradoxical) lines about lines, lineswithin lines. The word and the deed; the happy fable, the fabled happiness, fiction, poetry: by contrast, the merely human.

Yet, because I was driven to the point of distraction, I picked up The Four Quartets to cool down. Was Eliot a nice man, a kind man, a good man, a courteous man? I do not know anything about him except that he had a life not totalised by poetry.. Certainly being a poet does not make you a decent person any more than being a plumber does. Dwellers all in the time and space of any system, metaphysically Marxist, Christian or Zoroastrian may be downright nasty human beings. Or not. There are many decent poets and plumbers, lovers of poetry, teachers, schizophrenics, and fantastically well-paid fashion models. And not.

I will keep returning to Eliot and Rimbaud but neither they nor anything else will totalise me. Only human beings will ever do that, and if I were to dress this statement up I would turn to Martin Buber and Wittgenstein, not poetry. I’ll end on a reverberation of my inadequacy:

 

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still. Shrieking voices

Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,

Always assail them. The Word in the desert

Is most attacked by voices of temptation,

The crying shadow in the funeral dance,

The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

Burnt Norton

 

 

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