Who is Arthur Rimbaud?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Arthur Rimbaud was a French Symbolist poet whose work has had extensive influence on poetry, art, music, and even film. He is considered one of the most important French poets in history, despite the fact that he was not considerably prolific and his literary career ended at the age of 21. His poetry, including the first free verse poems in French, paved the way for the Surrealist movement and the Beat poets, and references to him are rife throughout all kinds of literature and popular music.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Rimbaud was born on 20 October 1854 in Charleville, France to a middle class family. His father, a soldier, left the family when Arthur was six years old. He was a brilliant student who began composing original works in Latin by the age of 15. His poetry quickly improved after his professor, Georges Izambard, became his mentor in 1870, though his personal life was chaotic. He frequently ran away from home and began drinking heavily and leading the life of an anarchist.

Rimbaud met poet Paul Verlaine, who was to become his lover and a significant influence throughout his poetic career, in 1871. For a while, he lived in Verlaine's house along with the latter's pregnant wife and in-laws. In less than a year, Verlaine had abandoned his family and the two moved together to London. They spent their time between London and France over the next year or so. During his relationship with Verlaine, Rimbaud began to supplement his drinking with absinthe, hashish, and probably opium.

Around 1873, the relationship became stormy, the older man subjecting Rimbaud to the drunken rages he had formerly visited on his wife and child. When Rimbaud announced his plans to return to Paris, Verlaine shot at him twice, hitting him in the wrist. Verlaine made a scene at the Brussels train station when Rimbaud was leaving and was arrested at Rimbaud's request. Although he later withdrew the complaint, Verlaine was fined and spent two years in prison. The two met once again for the last time, in Stuttgart, Germany in 1875, after he had abandoned the literary life.

After his return to France in 1873, Rimbaud completed the lengthy prose poem Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell), arguably his most valuable work. He returned to London the following year with fellow poet Germain Nouveau and finished Illuminations, a volume of poetry, shortly thereafter. It was to be his last work of literature.

He began to travel throughout Europe at the age of 20, often on foot. He enlisted in the Dutch Army in 1876 in order to gain free passage to Java, but deserted upon his arrival. He also lived for a time on the Greek island of Cyprus, in Yemen, and in Ethiopia. Throughout this time he had numerous affairs with native women and eventually became a gun merchant.

In 1891, Rimbaud returned to France after developing cancer in his right knee. His leg was amputated in May, just days after his arrival in a Marseille hospital. His sister tried to nurse him back to health in her home, but in August, he returned to the hospital and discovered that the cancer had spread throughout his system. He died on 10 November at the age of 37. Though his time as a poet was brief, he will no doubt continue to serve as an inspiration to artists of all kinds for decades to come.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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