translating rimbaud


What are the Illuminations? Originally an untitled, unpaginated bunch of manuscript pages that Arthur Rimbaud handed to his former lover Paul Verlaine on the occasion of their last meeting, in Stuttgart in 1875. Verlaine had recently been released from a term in a Belgian prison for wounding the younger poet with a pistol in Brussels two years earlier. Rimbaud wanted his assassin manqué to deliver the pages to a friend, Germain Nouveau, who (he thought) would arrange for their publication. This casual attitude toward what would turn out to be one of the masterpieces of world literature is puzzling, even in someone as unpredictable as its author. Was it just a question of not wanting to splurge on stamps? (Verlaine would later complain in a letter that the package cost him “2 francs 75 in postage!!!”) More likely it was because Rimbaud had decided already to abandon poetry for what would turn out to be a mercantile career in Africa, trafficking in a dizzying variety of commodities (though not, apparently, slaves, as some have thought). He had, after all, seen his previous book, A Season in Hell, through publication, though he had left the bulk of the edition with its printer, whom he wasn’t able to pay. Like Emily Dickinson, he had seen “the horses’ heads were toward eternity.” In the penultimate strophe of “Adieu,” the last poem of A Season in Hell, he had written: “Meanwhile, this is now the eve. Let’s welcome the influx of strength and real tenderness. And at dawn, armed with burning patience, we will enter splendid cities.”

more from John Ashbery at Poetry here.