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. I fled. O sorceresses, O misery, O hatred, it was to you my treasure was entrusted! I managed to erase all human hope from my mind. I made the wild beast's silent leap to strangle every joy. 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. And spring brought me the dreadful laugh of the idiot.
Once upon a time, our speaker, whoever "I" is, was happy. That makes sense. How can you not be happy when your life is like a fancy feast?
After this good times feast metaphor, though, something changes for this person. It looks like he had personified Beauty right in his lap, but for some reason the speaker now finds Beauty not to his (or her) liking. He (or she) "reviled" it, in fact.
So, in a move that would rival that of the most angst-ridden 21st-century emo teen, the speaker now pretty much hates everything.
In a classic super villain move, he (we're going to just assume that the speaker is some version of Rimbaud himself—check out "Speaker" for more) fights against Justice (depicted here as another personified attribute or ideal). He also runs away—probably to some evil lair.
Next we get some typical 19th-century apostrophe action. The speaker's addressing abstract concepts that aren't present, with a showy "O"—how overwrought.
All hope seems to be gone from the speaker. He's like a metaphorical animal now, not a human being.
He seems to revel in this, though (so totally emo). He kind of goes with the flow and doesn't fight against his sadness. Instead, he calls it to him.
This sad speaker describes his sadness in terms of dirty things: plagues, sand, and blood (6).
So, we have a sick, dirty guy who is languishing in the mud and feeling pretty low (literally). Thanks to some figurative language, he dries off with "the breezes of crime." This might mean that he's so low that even committing crimes lifts his spirits a bit. This super villain thing is staring to make more sense.
Line 7 is a bit surprising. Springtime brings him "the dreadful laugh of the idiot." This is something unexpected, since in most poetry spring is associated with cute little frolicking animals, rebirth, and renewal.
But for this guy, it brings the sound of an idiot laughing. Bad times.
Now, just lately, finding myself on the point of uttering the last croak, I thought of seeking the key to the old feast, where I might perhaps find my appetite again! Charity is the key – This inspiration proves I have been dreaming! 'You're a hyena still…' the demon cries who crowned me with such delightful poppies. 'Win death with all your appetites; your egoism, all the deadly sins.' Ah, I've practised too many! – 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.
Croak, croak. No frogs in sight—that's just Rimbaud dropping some good, old-fashioned onomatopoeia on us.
Don't worry, though. There are no real frogs around. This guy's just so sad, he's about to croak (a.k.a. die).
But wait—just before he shuffles off this mortal coil, he remembers that happiness from line 1, and he returns to the happy feast.
He realizes that charity (kindness and generosity to fellow human beings) is what will allow him to get his hunger back to participate in this metaphorical feast once again.
Not so fast, though, speaker. A demon (we're not sure at this point who or what that might be) calls him a "hyena." How rude. This animal is a scavenger, so once again the speaker is taken down a few notches.
This demon is a creature who "crowned me with such delightful poppies."
Historical interlude: Opium dens were pretty popular during this period (late 1800s-early 1900s), so the poppies here are probably meant to suggest opium (which is made from poppies).
This demon urges the speaker to indulge in his appetites—and basically to give in and sin.
The speaker then addresses Satan, the demon-in-chief himself. He tells the devil that, while he's waiting for the speaker to get down to his hot lair, he (the speaker) is going to pound out some poetry for him.
So why does the speaker consider himself a "damned soul"? We're not sure yet. Let's keep digging.
But before we bust out the shovels, a form note:
By now you're probably thinking: "um...how is this a poem?" There seems to be lots of prose up in here. And you would be, of course, correct. Take a look at the "Form and Meter" section for the scoop on all this.