Study Guide

A Season in Hell

By Arthur Rimbaud

A Season in Hell Introduction

Drunken smack-addict, teen home-wrecker, colonialist gun-runner, poetic prodigy—really all of these terms can be applied to our man Arthur Rimbaud. He was a French poet who lived from the middle to the end of the 19th century and who is closely associated with the Decadent Movement. Think of these dudes as the emo rockers of their day, promoting personalized, sensual, and often surrealist content in their work.

Even among these artistic groundbreakers, though, Rimbaud was unique. He is credited as a major figure of the French symbolists, as well as one of the first poets to employ free verse—and he accomplished all that in just five years. You heard (er, read) us. The dude wrote every single one of his poems between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. After that, he turned his back on his poems and pursued a life in overseas trade.

Sound extreme? Well, welcome to Rimbaud-ville, where extreme is the rule of the day. For more examples, look no further than Paul Verlaine. Verlaine was another French poet who discovered Rimbaud when Rimbaud was living on the streets in Paris at the age of sixteen. Impressed by the young man, he took Rimbaud in, but things quickly went south and Rimbaud had to leave.

Clearly, Rimbaud must have made an impression, though. Soon after, Verlaine dumped his wife and family and moved in young Arthur to pursue a romantic relationship. It didn't turn out too well, sadly. They broke up after just 18 months, after a drunken Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the arm. Yeah, that would put a damper on a relationship we think.

It was during this break-up that Rimbaud wrote "A Season in Hell." He moved back in with his parents, who owned a farm, and wrote the poem in a run-down barn loft. He self-published it in 1873, but he never had the money to distribute the copies. They sat in a printer's basement until 1901, a full decade after his death.

Still, the poem remains a wildly imaginative, dense, and surreal testament to Rimbaud's experimental style and turbulent life. It's also an unfiltered, emotional take on the pain of romantic turmoil. Rimbaud may have disowned it, but the rest of the world is still taking notice.

What is A Season in Hell About and Why Should I Care?

You've been dumped—or, if you haven't been yet, you will be. We hate to break it to you like this. We know you're here for deets on the poem, not grim predictions about your love life. But it's true: romantic heartbreak is coming for you, if it hasn't visited you already.

So, once you've eaten all the Häagen-Dazs and watched Say Anything for the umpteenth time, what are you going to do about it? You can lock yourself in your room and swear off romance forever. Or you can rush right out and jump right back into the dating pool. But have you learned anything? And if so, how do you know?

Our man Arthur Rimbaud knows, and we have his poem "A Season in Hell" as proof. He took the occasion of a bad break-up to reflect on his philosophy about art, civilization, science, social class, and history. Along the way, he put his own stamp on things with a ground-breaking brand of free verse style and surrealist content.

While it's not exactly making lemonades out of lemons, Rimbaud's work is a major accomplishment, inspired by a pretty grim point in his life. So the next time romance goes sour for you, read this poem over and get inspired. It's a lot better than sitting around in the dumps, and a lot better for you than mainlining ice cream and John Cusack movies.

A Season in Hell Resources

Websites

Rimbaud, in Brief
This site has a short bio, but also links to his major works—it's a great starting place for future Rimbaud-maniacs.

Much More Rimbaud
The Poetry Foundation serves up a meatier overview of Rimbaud's life and work.

Encyclopedia Rimbaudica
Get more deets on the poet's life here.

Video

Arthur Rimbaud Documentary
This is a serviceable documentary about Rimbaud's life and work (no narration, though).

Tooky History
Here's a cartoon-based overview of Rimbaud's life. We can dig it.

Total Eclipse
Leonardo Di Caprio starred as Rimbaud in this film. We approve of the casting choice.

Phil Reads
It's true, Phil really does. In this case, it's an excerpt from "A Season in Hell."

Audio

"A Season" Sung
Rimbaud's poem gets the full audio treatment here.

Images

The Young Rimbaud
Straightening your tie was for squares, apparently.

The Even Younger Rimbaud
He was already plotting his poems—you can tell by the look on his face.

Articles and Interviews

"Where Rimbaud Found Peace in Ethiopia"
Apparently, Rimbaud had to travel quite a distance to finally chillax.

"Arse Poetica"
This discussion of Rimbaud's bawdier side sports one of the best. Titles. Ever.

Books

A Season in Hell
Get this paperback, pop it in your pocket, and you'll be perfectly primed for some poetic posing.

Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, a Bilingual Edition
Okay, so maybe this one won't fit in your pocket.

Movies & TV

Total Eclipse
Starring Leo Di as Arthur, this tackles the subject of Rimbaud's stormy relationship with Paul Verlaine.