Study Guide

A Season in Hell Form and Meter

By Arthur Rimbaud

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Form and Meter

(Mainly) Free Verse

Arthur Rimbaud is known for many things: his precocious career, his tumultuous affair with Paul Verlaine, his love of opium and absinthe, and his use of free verse in his poetry. So it stands to reason that you would expect to see verses flowing freely in "A Season in Hell." You know what? You do. The free verse flows all over the place, in fact. Let's just start at the beginning:

Once, if I remember rightly, my life was a feast where all hearts opened, and all wines flowed.
One evening I sat Beauty on my knees – And I found her bitter – And I reviled her.
I armed myself against Justice.

Read that out loud and try to find a pattern in the lines' rhythm or rhyme. We dare you. We double dog dare you. Give up? Don't feel bad—we didn't either. That's because these lines, and a good many like them in the poem, follow a natural, conversational tone. They don't fall into any set pattern or meter.

Free verse is how the vast majority of modern poetry is written these days, but Rimbaud was way ahead of the curve in 19th-century France. So why didn't he use the forms that were popular in his day? Well, he does at points (more on that soon), but the freedom of doing away with those forms allows him to engage his readers in a more direct, more honest way. Reading Rimbaud is like peeking at someone's diary, or engaging in an intimate dialogue. It's immediate, it's personal, and that's just how Rimbaud wants it to be. He's pouring his heart our here, after all, with exclamations like, "O my self-denial, O my marvellous pity!" (38).

Lest you think, though, that Rimbaud goes with free verse because he lacks the chops to write in more structured forms, he busts those out for us as well. Check it out:

From that young Oise, what could I be drinking,
– Mute elms, flowerless turf, dull sky –
From yellow gourds, far from my dear hut slinking?
A gold liquor that yields sweat by and by.

These lines represent the second of three quatrains that Rimbaud throws our way, right smack dab in the middle of the poem. This poem-within-a-poem falls into the pastoral tradition, wherein the speaker contemplates life out in a serene, natural scene.

Rather than free verse, Rimbaud uses a regular ABAB rhyme scheme to tie the lines together. Of course, since he wrote in French, and we're dealing with a translation, you'll have to take our word that these lines rhyme in the original version, too. (Really, they do.) Not only do they emphasize this scene, but they also follow naturally from what the speaker says just before he breaks into this form: "I regulated the form and motion of every consonant, and, with instinctive rhythms, I flattered myself I'd created a poetic language, accessible some day to all the senses. I reserved the translation rights" (113).

Not only was Rimbaud's speaker calling his shot about being translated (which is pretty awesome in and of itself), he confidently references his poetic skills before busting out the more formal pastoral aside. In essence, he's telling us, "Don't be fooled by all this free verse. I've got formal technique for days, y'all."

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