Study Guide

A Season in Hell Speaker

By Arthur Rimbaud

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Our speaker's had a tough go of things. Once upon a time, life was all sweetness and light. Now, um, not so much. In the second line of the poem, in fact, he lets us know, "One evening I sat Beauty on my knees – And I found her bitter – And I reviled her." Things kind of go downhill from there for this guy—for the next, oh, few hundred lines or so.

Of course, thanks to our history, we know that the speaker has plenty in common with our author, Arthur Rimbaud. They're both French, they both live in a pretty conservative society dominated by religious doctrine, and, probably most importantly, they've both gone through a break-up recently. In Rimbaud's case, we know that he wrote "A Season in Hell" after breaking up with another poet, Paul Verlaine, who initially left his wife and kids to be with Arthur. A lot of drinking, some opium, and a little shooting in the arm put an end to all that, however. (Check out "In a Nutshell" for more.)

Our speaker refers to this ex- as "my companion in hell," before going on to give the stage to this person. In turn, that companion refers back to the speaker as "the infernal Spouse" (96), which indicates some pretty serious self-loathing on the speaker's part. It's evident that the speaker is no fan of his society, especially when he says things like, "My day is done: I'm quitting Europe" (29). At the same time, he's also not too big on himself: "I'm a beast" (46). All this leaves us to wonder: will our speaker ever be happy? Just what does this like, anyway?

He does admit to having one thing in life that makes him happy: "Human labour! It's the explosion that lightens my abyss from time to time" (262). Just three lines later, though, we get: "My life's used up. Let's go! Cheat, do nothing, O the pity!" (265). So, maybe an honest day's work is not the answer to his happiness after all.

In sum, we have a speaker who hates pretty much everything (himself included), can't seem to find a way out, and frequently contradicts himself. Sound familiar? Well, it should—if you've ever tried to talk to someone who's dealing with a bad break-up. For a good many people going through that experience, romantic heartache is a kind of next-level, irrational sadness. It can make you feel trapped in a world that's completely, totally awful, with no hope of escape. Even the solutions to your problems sound miserable when it gets this bad.

So that's what's happening for our speaker, who, by the way, is telling us straight up that he's in hell. We feel bad for him; we really do. If we could, we give him a big ol' hug and lots of Chubby Hubby ice cream. It won't solve his problems, but ice cream never hurt—especially when you're in hell.

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