Rimbaud by Edmund White

(Atlantic £16.99)

INDEPENDENT                                          13 February 2009

As a self-hating gay adolescent in 1950s America, Edmund White was inspired by the life of Arthur Rimbaud.   He too wanted to swap his provincial home for metropolitan Bohemia, be befriended and supported by an older man, and forego the drudgery of a long apprenticeship to make his mark while still in his teens.

Like most writers, White had to wait far longer for literary success than Rimbaud, who wrote his entire oeuvre between the ages of fifteen and nineteen.  Now in his late sixties he pays tribute to his mentor in a short monograph which, as he freely admits, draws largely on secondary sources to tell the familiar story of the prodigy who changed the course of poetry, before abandoning not just the literary world but literature itself, spending the last decade of his short life as a trader and gun-runner in Africa.

Rimbaud’s relationship with Paul Verlaine is the centrepiece of any account of his life, and it is in exploring its dynamics that White predictably excels.  Verlaine saw in the precocious adolescent not just his erotic but his spiritual ideal, encouraging  him in the anti-social behaviour that he himself was both too timid and too married to pursue.  Once in Paris, Rimbaud offended not only Verlaine’s in-laws, with antics such as sunbathing nude and mutilating a crucifix, but his friends, using one’s poetry as lavatory paper and selling another’s furniture.

With all doors shut against them, Rimbaud and Verlaine were thrown ever closer in a relationship that was at once creatively fulfilling and psychically destructive.   Their one collaboration quoted here is tellingly a sonnet in praise of the anus, in which it is notable that Verlaine’s first eight lines are far more accomplished than Rimbaud’s concluding six.   The couple moved to London and then to Brussels where, after an argument in a hotel room, Verlaine shot at Rimbaud who, fearing for his life, subsequently invoked the law.   Verlaine was arrested and, in a case that has obvious although not exact parallels with that of Oscar Wilde, the older man was imprisoned as a result of the younger’s provocation.

Unlike Bosie,  Rimbaud was of course a great and influential poet and White makes a good case for both the power and originality of his writing. Although, if it is true that poetry is what is lost in translation, it is even more so in the case of prose poems, and little of the intensity of Rimbaud’s two great works, A Season in Hell and Illuminations, comes across in the truncated translations included here.  White’s literary judgements are generally sound, although this reader searched in vain for evidence that the couplet:  ‘I strummed the aces of my run-down shoes/Like harp strings, one foot against my heart’ celebrates the joys of masturbation.

Although Rimbaud and Verlaine have both been elevated to the gay pantheon, White is at pains to point out that, unlike the subjects of his two earlier biographies, Proust and Genet, Rimbaud gave no evidence of an all-embracing interest in his own sex.  It is, however, with Verlaine that his name will forever be linked, and White reaches as close to the heart of their relationship as is possible. At times, however, his sensibility is distractingly modern, as in the baffling comparison of the anal dilation test Verlaine was forced to undergo with those in the 1980s Cleveland child abuse scandal.

While this is an effective and engaging biographical sketch, anyone wishing for a comprehensive portrait should seek out Graham Robb’s magisterial Rimbaud.