Study Guide

A Season in Hell Section 2: Bad Blood

By Arthur Rimbaud

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Section 2: Bad Blood

Lines 12-14

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!

  • This section seems to be a bit more concrete than the first. The speaker gives us a bit of background. He's Gallic (meaning descended from the Gauls—head on over to "Shout Outs" for more) and has their typical facial features and inferior fighting skills.
  • Maybe he's not such a great super villain after all.
  • In fact, he's downright "barbarous." That's not as bad as it sounds, though. You see, anyone who wasn't Roman during the time he's referring to would have been considered "barbaric." For the Romans, a "barbarian" was just a foreigner.
  • So, the speaker dresses barbarically, although he doesn't roll like the Gauls and butter his hair (ew). Fun fact: the Gauls really did this—it was a sort of like a medieval hair product.
  • His ancestors also were apparently not very good at skinning ("flay"ing) cattle for leather, though, or burning grass for warmth, or agriculture…or much of anything by the sounds of it.
  • They were also pretty heavily bogged down with their own sins (first mentioned back in line 1): anger, lust, and sloth in particular.
  • That's cool, though. The speaker seems to be down with lust. His attitude here ("magnificent, the lust") is all, "Bring it on."

Lines 15-16

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. Criminals disgust me like eunuchs: me, I'm whole, and it's all one to me!
But! Who made my tongue so deceitful that it's guided and safeguarded my laziness till now? 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!

  • For some reason, our speaker doesn't like the "trades," or industries and professions of his time. Those folks shouldn't feel bad, though. He doesn't like peasants, beggars, or criminals either.
  • He doesn't even seem to really like writing, since—to him—the hands do basically the same thing.
  • We get a strong impression the speaker doesn't work for a living. (What does this guy like, anyway?) Instead, he travels around and has lived "idler than a toad" with families all across Europe. The takeaway here is that he's a member of the 19th-century version of the jet set.
  • He hobnobs with those of the middle and upper classes.
  • In this case, that means the French bourgeoisie, who got their start with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and that whole French Revolution thing.
  • This guy sounds like a real plugged-in dude.

Lines 17-19

If only I'd forerunners at some time or other in the history of France!
But no, nothing.
It's obvious to me I've always belonged to an inferior race. I don't understand rebellion. My race never rose up except to pillage: like wolves round a beast they haven't killed.

  • The speaker wishes his family got its start during some other period of French history than the Revolution period. For him, that time is boring.
  • And he ups the ante by describing French people as "an inferior race." They've never really done anything—except destroy things ("pillage").
  • The image of the wolves around a beast that they haven't even killed makes the French out to be like metaphorical scavengers.

Line 20

I recall the history of France, eldest daughter of the Church. As a peasant I'd have made the journey to the Holy Land: I have all the roads of the Swabian plains in my head, all the views of Byzantium, the ramparts of Suleiman: the cult of the Virgin; tenderness for the crucified, wake in me among a thousand profane enchantments. – 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. 

  • The speaker now goes back over his French history, noting that the country is the "eldest daughter of the Church."
  • This is because, way back in the 6th century—when King Clovis of Gaul (before France was France it was called "Gaul") converted to Catholicism—the entire country also converted. So, France was the first new-fangled country to wholesale become Catholic. And now you know.
  • He's imagining himself seeing moments in French history: the Swabian lands (parts of modern Germany that used to belong to France), parts of Turkey and its impressive buildings under King Suleiman (referring to Christian-Islamic battles), and the cults of the Virgin Mary.
  • Then he jumps forward in time and imagines himself as a mercenary soldier camping out and getting ready to attack the Germans.
  • This guy sure gets around.

Lines 21-23

Ah! Again: I dance the Sabbath in a red glade, with old women and children.
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.
What was I in the last century? I only discover myself in the present day. No more vagabonds, no more vague wars. The inferior race has spread everywhere – the people, as one says, reason; the nation and science.

  • This imaginative racial memory of the speaker only extends so far back. He can't remember anything prior to Christianity.
  • He fancies himself a lone wanderer. He has no family—he doesn't even know what language he speaks in these early times.
  • The fact that he doesn't see himself in "the counsels of Christ" might emphasize his separation from other people. It might also emphasize that he's a sort of non-Christian (he does seem a little too close to Satan back in the Prologue).
  • Our Rimbaud-speaker contrasts the past with the present. His vivid descriptions of what he imagines he might have done in the past juxtapose with his descriptions of his current life (15-16), or even his sadness and lack of interest that he details in the Prologue.
  • Flashing forward to the present day, the speaker laments his "inferior race" that has spread everywhere because of science, reason, and the rise of the modern concept of the nation.

Lines 24-26

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.

  • Things are starting to get a bit jumbled here. The speaker is heading toward a more stream-of-consciousness kind of expression.
  • Check out how he interrupts himself with "the Eucharist" when he talks about "the body and the soul" (the Eucharist is a moment in the Catholic mass where the spirit of Christ manifests itself through transubstantiation into the communion wafer).
  • Yeah—heavy stuff here.
  • In Rimbaud's age, things are changing fast, and there are new sciences that seem to replace a spiritual sense of the body and the soul.
  • Even thought he says "We advance towards the Spirit," he means a new spirit here, a scientific replacement for the religious spirituality of yesteryear (25). All this progress is great and all, but our speaker equates these advances with things of the past, like "old wives' remedies."
  • Still, he seems to know that something momentous will happen and describes himself as a sort of oracle—someone who speaks the truth literally out loud.
  • Now his connection with the non-Christian makes sense. He has to express himself in "pagan words" (since science is the new religion), so he'd rather be quiet.
  • That's quite a conflict the speaker has set up here.

Lines 27-31

The pagan blood returns! The Spirit is near, why doesn't Christ help me by granting my soul nobility and freedom? Alas! The Gospel has passed! The Gospel! The Gospel.
I wait for God with greed. I've been of inferior race from all eternity.
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. Women care for those fierce invalids returning from hot countries. I'll be involved in politics. Saved.
Now I'm damned, I have a horror of country. The best is a good drunken sleep on the beach.

  • Now we're back to the pagan thing, and yet the speaker pleads for something very un-pagan: to have Christ help him. (Remember that things are twisted in his view. Science is the new religion, but our speaker wants to stick with God and religion and all that traditionally spiritual stuff.) He gets no help, though, because the Gospel of religion is gone in the modern world, as he sees things.
  • He imagines himself on the shore of Brittany (an area in the northwest of France), getting ready to leave Europe for a sea voyage—to, well, somewhere.
  • We get the idea it's somewhere tropical (sounds nice). He'll be tanned and will engage in lots of rough and manly man activities.
  • He'll also indulge in drinking—like his Gallic ancestors did, around big fires (sounds dangerous).
  • So, he's basically fantasizing about a foray into un-civilization to return to a more primitive state of pleasure.
  • When he returns, he'll no longer be of the inferior Gallic race. Instead, he'll have a more brutal look about him, and will be powerful. The gold and the iron limbs are strong symbols of power here.
  • This will also get him some more of the ladies. For whatever reason, they care for men who return after such adventurous exploits.
  • Then, he'll be able to get involved in politics and will have some power.
  • It's just a fantasy, though, because a good "drunken sleep" is better than "country" (which probably means his own civilization, his own country—not the place with a bunch of barns and chickens). It sounds like this guy really needs a vacation.

Lines 32-40

One doesn't go. – Let's take to the roads again, full of my vice, the vice that has thrust its roots of suffering into my side, since the age of reason – that rises to the sky, strikes me, knocks me down, drags me along.
The last innocence, and the last timidity. I've said it. Not to carry my disgust and betrayals through the world.
Let's go! Marching, burdens, deserts, boredom, anger.
Whom shall I hire myself to? What beast must be adored? What saintly image attacked? What hearts shall I break? What lie must I uphold? – Wade through what blood?
Rather, protect oneself from justice – a hard life, pure brutalisation – to open the coffin lid with a withered hand; sit down, stop your breath. So no old age, no dangers: to be terrified is un-French.
– Ah! I am so forsaken I could offer any divine image no matter what my urges towards perfection.
O my self-denial, O my marvellous pity! Even down

De profundis Domine, what a creature I am!

  • What is this "vice" that the speaker talks about at line 32? It could be the opium he mentions back in line 10. It could be his secret Oreo addiction. Or maybe it's both. Whatever it is, it sounds painful.
  • And the speaker's really down on the age of reason; it's something that drags him down and keeps him from the more unfettered and uncivilized life he admired in the previous stanza.
  • He's again ready to go out into this other world (away from civilized Europe).
  • But, he wonders, when he gets there, whom will he work for (and do they have a good benefits package)? What kind of belief system will he need to join? Which other religions will he need to attack? Which people will he need to kill?
  • This more primitive life—a life of "pure brutalisation"—will protect him from the life in France that he seems to disdain.
  • He shouldn't be afraid of danger or dying, though, because that would be completely un-French. Then again here we go with the flamboyant apostrophes—this guy's got it bad. He's so set apart from his fellow humans that he pities himself. The self-denial points to internal conflict, though. How can he be self-pitying, but also self-denying? Hmm.
  • De profundis Domine is Latin for "from the depths, oh Lord!" (better check out "Shout Outs"). So, he's calling out to God from the depths. That sounds like a long-distance call.

Line 41

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.

  • The speaker admires convicts, and weirdly regards them as a "sanctify[ing]" presence. That's tres ironic.
  • This goes along nicely with how he praises things and people who are more primitive. The convict is outside of civilized society, and so in the speaker's eyes he is stronger and glorious.

Lines 42-43

On the roads, on winter nights, without shelter, without clothing, without bread, a voice would clutch my frozen heart: 'Weakness or strength: with you it's strength. You don't know where you're going or why you're going: go everywhere, react to everything. They won't kill you any more than if you were a corpse.' In the morning I had such a lost look, such a dead face, that those who met me perhaps they did not see me.
Suddenly, in the towns, the mud would seem red or black to me, like the mirror when the lamp is carried about in the next room, like a treasure in the forest! Good luck, I'd cry, and I'd see a sea of flames and smoke in the sky: and to right and left all the riches flaming like a trillion lightning flashes.

  • While our intrepid speaker is traveling around (it's still not clear on where he's going—so maybe this is some kind of metaphorical journey, continuing with his imaginary traveling from earlier stanzas), he hears a voice praising his strength.
  • This voice encourages him to be active and experience many things out in the world—like an otherworldly pep talk.
  • Wherever he is, our guy feels apart from the rest of society. He feels invisible (and check out how that part at the end of line 42 is in italics, which is a formatting way to say, "Listen up!").
  • Things start to look weird to the narrator—"red or black," which is completely not the usual color of mud. It's darker and perhaps tinged with blood.
  • Simile time: things look like reflections in a mirror, or a "treasure in the forest."
  • We're not really expecting to hear something like that, so maybe he's trying to make us see how unfamiliar or strange the world seems to him (check out our "Calling Card" section and our surrealism guide for more on this).
  • And what's up with all that smoke and flames? It sounds pretty hellish, doesn't it? Maybe this poem's title is becoming more important. Check out "What's Up With the Title?" for more on that.

Line 44-47

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. 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…'
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.
Do I know nature yet? Do I know myself? –
No more words. I bury the dead in my gut. Shouts, drums, dance, dance, dance, dance! I don't even see the moment when the whites land and I'll fall to nothingness.
Hunger, thirst, shouts, dance, dance, dance, dance!

  • The speaker's now imaginatively putting himself in the place of this criminal or convict that he was talking about back at line 41.
  • He's such an outsider that he can't even engage in some serious hanky-panky (the orgies and company of women).
  • Instead, he's violently outcast—in front of a firing-squad and likening himself to Joan of Arc (hit up "Shout-Outs," if you please).
  • In an imaginary conversation with the crowds surrounding his execution, he emphasizes his outsider status (as if being executed wasn't enough). He doesn't follow their laws, their religion, or their morality.
  • He's a total brute.
  • Just in case we don't get the picture, he describes himself in terms of being an animal and black. Yes—in case you're wondering, we're probably supposed to read that as ethnic African-ness.
  • But in a strange reversal, he describes all of those he imagines around him as black, de-familiarizing himself even more.
  • Rimbaud-speaker wants to leave Europe and find the "true kingdom of the sons of Ham" ("Shout-Outs" is your friend once again).
  • Check out how even his ability to express himself breaks down: "No more words" (46). It all dissolves into the more primitive sound of drums and the physical movement of dancing.
  • It's all physical appetites—hunger and dancing.

Lines 48-54

The whites are landing. Cannon! We have to submit to baptism, clothes, work.
I've received the
coup de grâce to my heart. Ah! I hadn't foreseen it!
I've done nothing wrong. The days will pass easily for me, repentance will be spared me. I'll not have known the torments of the soul that's almost dead to virtue, where the light rises severely like that from funeral tapers. The fate of a son of good family, an early coffin scattered with crystal tears. Doubtless, debauchery is foolish; vice is foolish, rottenness must be thrown out. But the clock has not yet taken to striking only hours of pure sadness! Shall I be carried off like a child to play in paradise forgetting all unhappiness?
Quick! Are there other lives? – Repose with riches is impossible. Wealth has always been so public. Divine love alone offers the keys of knowledge. I see that nature is nothing but a show of kindness. Farewell chimeras, ideals, errors.
The rational song of the Angels rises from the lifeboat: it is divine love. – Two Loves! I can die of earthly love, or die of devotion. I've left souls for whom the pain of my departure increases! You have chosen me from the shipwrecked: those who are left aren't they my friends?
Save them!
Reason is born in me. The world is good. I'll bless life. I'll love my brothers. These are no longer childish promises. Nor the hope of escaping old age and death. God give me strength and I praise God.

  • As the speaker's reverie continues, he sees the country where he has imaginatively placed himself being taken over by white colonizers.
  • Taken by force (the "cannon" in line 48), he—among the others—have to submit to the colonizers' religion and slavery.
  • He imagines that he dies, and will never know what it's like to live as he currently lives in the real world, which is filled with vice and debauchery, and is, well, generally boring. (Check out that simile about the light being like funeral tapers, or candles. This place is dead, yo.)
  • But, he wants to know: are there other options for life? Being rich doesn't look like it will cut it for him.
  • Instead, he's after a more spiritual existence that enjoys "Divine love."
  • Even that won't save him, though. As he hears Angels singing their "rational song" (remember that science is the new religion in his world), he suggests that he can either die of an "earthly love" (probably a connection to someone in real life), or he can die of devotion (a spiritual devotion).
  • Rationality comes back to him (um, we think), and he acknowledges that the world is good on some level. He'll be good, then. He promises.
  • And it's not just one of those empty promises to avoid "old age and death." He's super-serious here, guys.

Lines 55-61

Tedium's no longer my love. Rage, debaucheries, madness, all of whose joys and disasters I know – my whole burden's laid down. Let us appreciate without dizziness the extent of my innocence.
I'd no longer be capable of demanding the comfort of a bastinado. I don't think I'm embarking for a wedding with Jesus Christ for father-in-law.
I'm not a prisoner of my reason. I said: 'God, I want freedom in salvation: how to pursue it? Frivolous tastes have quit me. No need for self-sacrifice or divine love any more. I don't regret the age of sensitive hearts. Each has his reason, scorn, pity: I retain my place at the summit of this angelic ladder of good sense.
As for established happiness: domestic or not…no, I can't. I'm too dissipated, too feeble. Life flowers through work, an old truth: me, my life is too insubstantial, it flies off and drifts around far above the action that focus dear to the world.
What an old maid I'm becoming, lacking the courage to love death!
If God would grant me celestial, aerial, calm, prayer – like the ancient saints – the Saints! Strong ones! The anchorites, artists for whom there's no longer need!
Continual farce! My innocence should make me weep. Life is the farce all perform.

  • Our speaker tries to move away from his world-weariness. He's no longer in love with tedium (so, he's trying hard to not be so emo).
  • Now, he's innocent, since he's given up his previous vices. It sounds like he was quite The Bad Boy once upon a time.
  • He is, in fact, no longer capable of asking for "the comfort of a bastinado." What's a "bastinado," you ask? Well, it's a hefty stick that's used to smite a criminal upon the soles of his feet or his buttocks. Ouch.
  • Plus, he's not going to have Jesus Christ as his father-in-law anytime soon. Bummer. But wait: did Jesus have a daughter or son?
  • We're thinking no. So we're probably meant to read this more metaphorically. The speaker's not going to pledge himself to a life of religion anytime soon.
  • Or maybe he's not going to be Jesus-like and sacrifice himself.
  • He seems unsure of what he really wants. He used to be down for divine love, but now he's over that, as well as self-sacrifice. He says that everyone has their own reason, then claims that he's firmly at "the summit" of an angel's ladder of "good sense." So maybe he's discovered a kind of spiritual knowledge, which in the speaker's modern scientific era would be more like a logical mind.
  • He's also not cut out for domestic happiness, it seems. He's too weak, he claims. He describes himself and his life as being insubstantial enough to just drift away.
  • Tell us again, Rimbaud-speaker, how you're no longer world-weary. Because this all sounds pretty world-weary and "so over it all" to us.
  • Also, he's like an "old maid"—someone who has outlived their potential (and an awesome card game).
  • This all seems to bother him. He wants strength like that of the saints. But the world no longer needs "anchorites" (religious figures) or artists.
  • Everything's just one big farce to him right now, starring…everyone in the world.

Lines 62-68

Enough! Here is the sentence. - March!
Ah! My lungs burn, my brow throbs! Night revolves in my eyes, in this sun! Heart…limbs…
Where to? To fight? I'm weak! The others advance. Equipment, arms…the weather! …
Fire! Fire at me! Here! Or I'll surrender – Cowards! – I'll kill myself! I'll hurl myself under the horses' hooves!
Ah! ...
– I'll get used to it.
That would be the French way, the path of honour!

  • And now we seem to be back with the speaker in the midst of some battle, and he's being commanded to march.
  • He's being pushed to his limits, and blacking out in the heat and under the exertion.
  • He tries to work himself up to some heroic act—like he'll draw fire from his enemies, or he'll sacrifice himself (although he's already mentioned in the last section that he's not cut out for that, or doesn't want it).
  • Instead, he'll "get used to it." Wow—what a cop out.
  • He describes this as the honorable "French" thing to do.
  • This whole section seems to suggest that the speaker is struggling with...well, struggling. The "French," honorable way would be to accept his fate, no matter how horrible it was (like suffering in war).
  • But we can't help but feel that he's really not down with that kind of acceptance. All of these strangely conflicting images that he's been throwing out in this section emphasize this.
  • Let's see if we find out more info as we head into the next section.

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