Study Guide

A Season in Hell Isolation

By Arthur Rimbaud

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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?

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