I summoned executioners to bite their gun-butts as I died. I summoned plagues, to stifle myself with sand and blood. Misfortune was my god. I stretched out in the mud. I dried myself in the breezes of crime. And I played some fine tricks on madness. (6)
There may be no "I" in team, but there sure are a lot of "I"s in these lines. The speaker comes off as a true loner here, someone who revels in the being an outsider, a criminal, even a madman. As somebody who's looking to critique his society, though, it seems fitting that he would describe himself as totally outside of that world.
I sit, a leper, among broken pots and nettles, at the foot of a wall ravaged by the sun. – Later, a mercenary, I'd have bivouacked under German midnights. (20)
Man, the speaker sounds pretty alone here. To be a "leper" in the less-than-sensitive days of yesteryear was to be an outcast, someone kept outside of conventional society. Even when he's fantasizing about his military past, the speaker's a "mercenary," someone for hire, with no particular ties or allegiances.
Still a child, I admired the stubborn convict on whom the prison gates always close again: I visited inns and lodgings that he might have sanctified with his presence: I saw the blue sky with his mind, and the flowering labour of the countryside: I scented his fate in the towns. He had more strength than a saint, more good sense than a traveller – and he, he alone! As witness to his glory and reason. (41)
Firefighter, doctor, astronaut—all of these are professions that kids are known to look up to. But convicts? Not so much. Our speaker, however, seems to identify with the convict's outsider, loner status. We admit: it takes a lot of strength to bear that isolated lot in life, which is why people tend to avoid things like, you know, going to jail.
But orgies and the company of women were forbidden me. Not even a friend. I could see myself before an angry crowd, facing the firing-squad, weeping with a misery they couldn't have understood, and forgiving them! – Like Joan of Arc! – 'Priests, professors, masters, you're wrong to hand me over to justice. I've never been part of this race. (44)
This is not the first, or the last, time the speaker fantasizes about being executed before an angry crowd. There's nothing more isolating that this kind of experience, which is probably why he keeps coming back to it. Of course, there's also an undeniable distinction in being such an outsider (just ask Joan of Arc).
Ah, that life of my childhood, the highway in all weathers, supernaturally sober, more disinterested than the finest of beggars, proud of having neither country nor friends, how foolish it was. – And only now do I realise! (243)
Later in the poem, the speaker seems to come to his senses—in these lines anyway. He seems to regret rejecting his society and pursuing an isolated life. Whether or not he's truly learned his lesson, though, is up for debate.
But no friendly hand! And where to find help? (280)
Bummer—the speaker ends the poem as he began it: all by himself. When once he was all for his isolation, though, he now laments his lonely state. Do you think he'll change his ways in the future, embracing the society he once so vehemently rejected?
But, dear Satan, I beg you, an eye a little less inflamed! And while awaiting my few cowardly little deeds, for you who prize in a writer the lack of descriptive or instructive skill, for you, I tear off these few hideous pages from my notebook of a damned soul. (11)
Well that didn't take very long. We've only gone ten lines and the speaker's already dedicating his poem to Satan. Clearly we should be buckling up for a some pretty anti-Christian sentiment.
I remember nothing more distant than this country and Christianity. I'd never be finished with viewing myself in this past. But always alone: without a family: what language, even, did I speak? I never see myself in the counsels of Christ: nor in the councils of the Lords – representatives of Christ. (22)
These lines are telling, because they're not aimed at Christianity per se. Instead, Christianity becomes synonymous with society here. The speaker is more alone because he's outside of the conventions of the religion and alienated from those that represent religious teaching. Christianity's just another community to him—one he doesn't belong to, that is.
'Priests, professors, masters, you're wrong to hand me over to justice. I've never been part of this race. I've never been a Christian: I'm of the race that sings under torture: I don't understand the law: I've no moral sense, I'm a brute: you're wrong...' (44)
Again, the speaker sees himself as outside of Christianity—not so much as a form of protest or critique, but as a marker of social separation (see "Themes: Isolation"). Maybe it's not Christianity he's mad at here, but western society as a whole. Or maybe he just needs a hug.
Yesterday, I was still sighing: 'Heaven! There are enough of us damned down here! I've already spent too long, myself, amongst this crew! I know them all. We'll always recognise each other; we find each other disgusting. Charity's unknown to us. But we're polite; our relations with people are perfectly correct.' Is it surprising! People! Merchants, fools! – We're not dishonoured – But the elect, how would they receive us? For there are pugnacious and joyous folk: a false elect since we need neither audacity nor humility to approach them. They are the sole elect. They never bless others! (248)
Here the speaker takes aim not at Christianity, but at bad Christians. It's a crucial difference. It seems that he counts himself among the damned, but he reserves his true scorn for the "false elect," folks who act as though they are saved and destined for heaven, but who never actually demonstrate kindness to others in the true Christian way.
But is there not true torture in the fact that, ever since that declaration of knowledge Christianity, man has cheated himself, proved the obvious, swollen with pleasure at repeating the proof, and lived only like that! Subtle torture, foolish; the source of my spiritual divagations. Nature could be bored, perhaps! Monsieur Prudhomme was born with Christ. (252)
Well, just when you thought the speaker might have been OK with Christianity as an abstract idea, he stomps all over it here. He says that Christian teaching has become the end-all, be-all of human knowledge, which in his view is predictable, conventional, boring. He equates the birth of Christ with the birth of Monsieur Prudhomme, a prim, proper, middle-class, French character who represented the dullest fuddy-duddy of his (and Rimbaud's) day.
From the same desert, in the same night, always my weary eyes wake to the star of silver, always, without troubling the Kings of life, the three mages, heart, soul, and mind. When shall we go beyond the shores and mountains, to hail the birth of fresh toil; fresh wisdom, the rout of tyrants and demons, the end of superstition, to adore – as newcomers – Christmas on earth! (271)
Now this quote has us scratching our chin in a deeply thoughtful pose. (We like to do that every now and again.) If the speaker is so dead-set against Christianity and Christian teaching, why does he frame the new wisdom he hopes for as a kind of "Christmas," that most Christian time of newness and beginning? Either he's more under the sway of Christianity than he himself would like to believe, or he's not as upset by it as he'd like us to believe. Hmm…
I've a horror of all trades. Masters and workers: all peasants, ignoble. The hand on the pen's the same as the hand at the plough. – What an age of hands! – I'll never get my hand in. Anyway service goes too far. The honesty of beggary upsets me. (15)
In these lines, the speaker sees both masters and workers as equally distasteful, despite their differences in social class. They're both begging in his view—a view that doesn't make him feel any better, by the way.
Without even using my body to live, and idler than a toad, I've lived everywhere. Not a family in Europe I don't know. – I mean families like mine, who owe it all to the declaration of the Rights of Man. – I've known every son of good family! (16)
Hrm—so is our speaker really a downtrodden outcast? Or is he some spoiled rich kid who just wants to be seen as a social rebel? These lines both point to a kind of privileged background for the speaker, and also provide a contrast with his desires to leave all that behind.
Repose with riches is impossible. Wealth has always been so public. Divine love alone offers the keys of knowledge. (52)
Here the speaker rejects the notion that an upper class life can bring rest and relaxation. Everyone will be looking at you for starters—that hardly sounds peaceful. Instead, he's in favor of "Divine love," which may seem odd, given his position on Christianity (see "Themes: Religion"). Still, the main takeaway here is that the speaker to avoid the old game of climbing the social ladder. He's after a more spiritual reward.
Have faith then in me, faith soothes, guides, heals. Come, all you – even the little children – let me console you, may a heart go out to you – the marvellous heart! – Poor men, workers! I don't ask for prayer; with your trust alone, I'll be happy. (81)
Here the speaker seems to be cozying up to the poor and working class. He's rejecting religion in favor of the trust of those who dwell in society's economic basement. Is he genuinely attached to these folks, though? Or is he just pretending to be down with them so that he can seem like more of an outsider?
Never show me gems, I'd crawl on the carpet and writhe. My treasure, I'd like to be stained all over with blood. I'll never work. (99)
OK, then, speaker. Instead of a big, fat paycheck, we've got you this bucket of blood to pour all over yourself. Go to town, pal. Here the speaker is rejecting the trappings of wealth in favor of bodily sacrifice. Work is just a distraction for him. He wants his efforts to really count for, and cost him, something. We wonder how all his poor and working buddies might have felt about this idea.
Once upon a time did I not have a pleasant childhood, heroic, fabulous, to be written on leaves of gold – too fortunate! (269)
A-ha. Here we get another glimpse into the speaker's past privilege. It seems that he's rejecting that middle-to upper-class upbringing to become a social drop-out. He's turning his back on convention, wealth, and status—so there.
Oh! Science! They've altered everything. For the body and the soul – the Eucharist – we've medicine and philosophy – old wives' remedies and arrangements of popular songs. And the diversions of princes and the games they prohibited! Geography, cosmography, physics, chemistry! ...
Science! The new nobility! Progress. The world progresses! Why shouldn't it turn as well?
It's the vision of numbers. We advance towards the Spirit. It's quite certain: it's oracular, what I say. I know, and unaware how to express myself without pagan words, I'd rather be mute. (24-26)
Science may claim to have everything figured out, but, well, the speaker's not impressed. He likens rational thought to an old wives' tale, and he'd rather keep his trap shut than play this "pagan" game. We know he's no fan of Christianity either, though (see "Themes: Religion"). It seems like he's after a more individualized way of knowing, rather than a full-on system of belief or reason.
– No hope, never,
No entreaty here.
Science and patience,
Torture is real. (110-113)
If you've ever done any true science, you know that it takes a while. There's the observing and the testing and the confirming—it goes on and on. And have you ever tried to iron a lab coat? Talk about time-consuming. Our speaker doesn't seem to have time for all that. He's after a more immediate kind of knowing than science can provide, which moves at a torturous pace in his view.
My mind, be on your guard. No violent decisions on salvation. Stir yourself! – Ah, science is not swift enough for us!
– But I see my mind is asleep. (255-256)
Again, the speaker is too impatient for the work of science. Luckily, he's got his mind instead. Oh wait, it's in snooze mode. No wonder this guy is tortured. None of the conventional systems of knowing work for him, and yet none of his own faculties are up to the task.
– What can I do? I know work: and Science is too slow. How prayer gallops and light groans... I see that clearly. It's too simple, and the weather's too warm: they'll do without me. I've my duty: I'll be proud the way others are, in setting it aside. (264)
We're not sure why the speaker's in such a giant hurry all the time, but here again he's railing against science for being too slow. Prayer is a lot faster in his view, but that's also too simplistic for his tastes. So what's an angst-riddled ex-boyfriend to do? He decides to chuck them both, though he's not as clear on what his back-up plan is.
I've the whitish blue eye of my Gallic ancestors, the narrow skull, and the awkwardness in combat. I find my clothing as barbarous as theirs. But I don't butter my hair. The Gauls were the most inept flayers of cattle and burners of grass of their age. From them I get: idolatry and love of sacrilege: – oh, all the vices, anger, lust – magnificent, the lust – above all lying and sloth! (12-14)
The first "others" the speaker focuses on are his ancestors: the ancient Gauls. Even though he starts off closer to home, he still holds some pretty essentialist views about them and their vices. How does he know that they were all lazy liars, anyway?
Here I am on the Breton shore. How the towns glow in the evening. My day is done: I'm quitting Europe. Sea air will scorch my lungs: lost climates will tan me. To swim, trample the grass, hunt, above all smoke: drink hard liquors like boiling metals – as those dear ancestors did round the fire. I'll return with iron limbs; dark skin, a furious look: from my mask I'll be judged as of mighty race. I'll have gold: I'll be idle and brutal. (29-30)
So the speaker's got a little vacay planned here. He's going to quit Europe transform himself into some unspecified other. Though he's not naming any people or countries here, the fact that he's imagining "dark skin" and "idle and brutal" behavior is just a tad problematic. Why does he have to leave Europe to find brutality and laziness?
Yes, I've shut my eyes to your light. I'm a beast, a black. But I can be saved. You are really blacks, you maniacs; wild beasts, misers. Merchant, you're a black: magistrate, you're a black: general, you're a black: emperor, you old sore, you're a black: you've drunk an untaxed liquor, Satan's make. – This race is inspired by fever and cancer. Old folks and invalids are so respectable they ask to be boiled. – The cleverest thing is to quit this continent, where madness prowls to find hostages for these wretches. I'm off to the true kingdom of the sons of Ham. (46)
These lines are pretty straightforward, and pretty unfortunate. Biblically speaking, the "sons of Ham" are understood as black people, and the speaker has some pretty racist and offensive views of them. He claims that the whole race is inspired by "fever and cancer." Come again? Even though he says he'd like to join them, he's painting them with an awful brush here.
I possess every talent! – There is no one here, yet there is someone: I don't wish to spill my treasure – Shall it be n**** chants, the dance of houris? Shall I vanish, dive deep in search of the ring? Shall I? I will make gold, cures. (80)
The speaker is waxing fantastical here, imagining mystical dances by angels called "houris" and discussing his power to magic up gold and cures. Oh, and he's equating all this with "n**** chants," as if they too were magical beings of the spiritual realm. While this isn't dismissive or critical, it is complete nonsense and it refuses to see black people as just that: people.
"I'm of a distant race: my forefathers were Scandinavian: they slashed their sides, drank their own blood. – I'll make cuts all over; I'll tattoo myself, I long to be hideous as a Mongol: you'll see, I'll scream in the streets. I want to be mad with rage. Never show me gems, I'd crawl on the carpet and writhe. My treasure, I'd like to be stained all over with blood. I'll never work..." (98)
In these lines the speaker's former "companion" is putting words in his mouth, only he's not. Remember that Rimbaud's speaker himself is the one telling us all this, so he's got the ultimate editorial authority here. In any case, the words themselves aren't really that awesome. The speaker, in trying to reject Western society, decides he wants to be just as savage as his Scandinavian ancestors—or someone from Mongolia. He sees them as tattooed rage-aholics, unburdened by things like money. Hmm. We wonder how real Mongolians or ancient Scandinavians might have felt about these descriptions.
...My two sous of sense are spent! – Mind has authority: it wants me to be in the West. It would have to be silenced for me to end as I wish. (249)
Though the speaker himself wants to book it out of the West and "go native" in some imagined, pre-civilized place, his mind just can't bring himself to do that—bummer. More of a bummer, though, is that the speaker seems to equate rationality with the West here, suggesting that Europe is where all the thinkers are. The disturbing implication here is that the "other" places are either magical or otherwise irrational.