Study Guide

A Season in Hell Section 5: Ravings II—The Alchemy of the Word

By Arthur Rimbaud

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Section 5: Ravings II—The Alchemy of the Word

Lines 108-113

My turn. The history of one of my follies.
For ages I boasted of possessing all possible landscapes, and found the celebrities of modern painting and poetry absurd.
I loved idiotic pictures, fanlights, stage scenes, mountebanks' backcloths, inn-signs, popular prints; unfashionable literature, church Latin, erotic books with poor spelling, novels of grandmother's day, fairy tales, little books for children, old operas, empty refrains, naïve rhythms.
I dreamt of crusades, unrecorded voyages of discovery, republics without histories, wars of suppressed religion, moral revolutions, movements of races and continents: I believed in every enchantment.
I invented the colour of vowels! A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green. – I regulated the form and motion of every consonant, and, with instinctive rhythms, I flattered myself I'd created a poetic language, accessible some day to all the senses. I reserved the translation rights.
It was academic at first. I wrote of silences, nights, I expressed the inexpressible. I defined vertigos. 

  • Now, the narrator steps up into the spotlight a bit more than he has up until this point, and seems ready to talk about his poetry, which he describes as "one of [his] follies."
  • The title of this section, "The Alchemy of the Word" is totes appropriate. Alchemy is a sort of magical pseudoscience where it was believed that base metals could be turned into gold… with Harry Potter's Philosopher's Stone. But that's quite another story entirely.
  • In line 109, he certainly describes the power of poetry to figuratively turn one thing into another.
  • But, alas! He admits that he was into some things that just weren't hip—kind of like a hipster admitting to liking mainstream music and film.
  • But nevermind that. He was so good at what he did (or at least that was his opinion of himself) that he gave new meaning to the very letters of the alphabet. Check out the synesthesia here, which means the ability to experience things with more than one sense. So, he sees the color of a vowel.
  • Seems pretty full of himself, doesn't he?

Lines 114-126

Far from the village girls, birds and cattle,
On my knees, what was I drinking, all
Surrounded by tender hazel copses,
In an afternoon mist, green and warm?
From that young Oise, what could I be drinking,
– Mute elms, flowerless turf, dull sky –
From yellow gourds, far from my dear hut slinking?
A gold liquor that yields sweat by and by.
I made a dubious inn-sign – Weather
Came coursing the heavens. At evening
Lost in a virgin sand the wood's water,
The wind, of God, the ponds re-icing:
– I could not drink: I saw gold, weeping!

  • Now this is starting to look a lot more like poetry, right? Rimbaud is definitely getting his verse on here.
  • And this is all a very quaint, and very conventional pastoral scene that seems just a bit out of kilter with Rimbaud's more 19th-century hipster aesthetic.
  • The speaker is drunk near a stream (the river Oise, which is an offshoot of the Seine), checking out the scenery, when all of a sudden the warmth turns to frosty weather, and the narrator sees gold crying.
  • Um...OK, Rimbaud.
  • Similar to the first "Ravings" section, we find ourselves in a sort of vague dreamland where we're not sure what's going on. The speaker appears to be giving us a sample of his poetry, or perhaps one stop on his poetic journey—the development of his craft.
  • The enjambment in lines 115, 122, and 123 contribute to this sense of confusion, as do the dashes used in these three stanzas.

Lines 127-146

At four on a summer morning,
The slumber of love still lasts.
Under the hedge fade fast
Scents of the night's feasting.
Down there and already astir
In the Hesperidean sun,
In their vast workshop, as one,
In shirtsleeves – the Carpenters.

In their deserts of foam, tranquilly,
They prepare costly panelling
On which the city
Will daub its deceitful painting.
O, for those workmen, charming
Subjects of a king of Babylon,
Venus! Leave the lovers sleeping,
Whose souls a crown have on.
O Queen of the Shepherds
Take strong drink to the workers too,
So their efforts may be deferred
As they wait to bathe in the sea at noon.

  • Compared to the previous section of verse, this one flows a bit more sonically. Well, at least something of the sort is established in the first two stanzas in the slant rhyme of "lasts" and "fast" and "sun" and "one."
  • Not sure what "Hesperidean" means? Do not pass go, and do not collect $200, but instead slide on over to the "Shout-Outs."
  • The speaker has just awoken from a night with his love. It's dawn, and he imagines idealized workers preparing fancy wooden paneling that will later be painted upon as decor for the uptown crowd.
  • Form alert! Although Rimbaud is definitely a bit of an avant-garde with his free-flowing form, here he's dabbling in an aubade.
  • Check out "Form and Meter" for more.
  • But, he's giving us a nice twist: instead of just lamenting the parting of lovers at the dawn, he welcomes this idealized image of workers of this king of Babylon, awaiting their turn to take a dip in the morning sea.

Lines 147-151

Poetical archaisms played a key role in my alchemy of the word.
I accustomed myself to pure hallucination: I saw quite clearly a mosque instead of a factory, a college of drummers consisting of angels, a salon in the depths of a lake; monsters, mysteries; a vaudeville title conjured up terrors before me.
Then I explained my magical sophisms with hallucinatory words!
I ended by treating my mental disorder as sacred. I was idle, prey to a heavy fever: I envied the happiness of beasts – caterpillars: that represent Limbo's innocence, moles: the sleep of virginity!
My character was embittered. I took my leave of the world in various ballads:

  • Rimbaud-speaker gives us some further examples of his power of poetry.
  • His style was once archaic. What good's poetry if it doesn't give us a good, old throwback once in awhile, arewerite?
  • The speaker's poetical eye could magically turn a factory into a beautiful mosque, or some drummers into angels.
  • It's all very hallucinatory, he admits—almost like a mental illness. All that poetry writing seems to have made him depressed and bitter, and his poetry was a sort of escapism that let him get away from the real world for awhile, such as in the example that he next gives.

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