On a winter day in 1883, aboard a steamer that was returning him from Marseilles to the Arabian port city of Aden, a French coffee trader named Alfred Bardey struck up a conversation with a countryman he’d met on board, a young journalist named Paul Bourde. As Bardey chatted about his trading operation, which was based in Aden, he happened to mention the name of one of his employees—a “tall, pleasant young man who speaks little,” as he later described him. To his surprise, Bourde reacted to the name with amazement. This wasn’t so much because, by a bizarre coincidence, he had gone to school with the employee; it was, rather, that, like many Frenchmen who kept up with contemporary literature, he had assumed that the young man was dead. To an astonished Bardey, Bourde explained that, twelve years earlier, his taciturn employee had made a “stupefying and precocious” literary début in Paris, only to disappear soon after. Until that moment, for all Bardey or anyone else in his circle knew, this man was simply a clever trader who kept neat books. Today, many think of him as a founder of modern European poetry. His name was Arthur Rimbaud. What Bardey learned about Rimbaud that day is still what most people know about Rimbaud. There was, on the one hand, the dazzling, remarkably short-lived career: all of Rimbaud’s significant works were most likely composed between 1870, when he was not quite sixteen, and 1874, when he turned twenty. On the other hand, there was the abrupt abandonment of literature in favor of a vagabond life that eventually took him to Aden and then to East Africa, where he remained until just before his death, trading coffee, feathers, and, finally, guns, and making a tidy bundle in the process. The great mystery that continues to haunt and dismay Rimbaud fans is this “act of renunciation,” as Henry Miller put it in his rather loopy 1946 study of Rimbaud, “The Time of the Assassins,” which “one is tempted to compare . . . with the release of the atomic bomb.”
more from Daniel Mendelsohn at The New Yorker here.