Review: A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat by Arthur Rimbaud
Posted on February 17, 2010
by Adam Burgess
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A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat is a collection of short prose poems, the title poem of which is perhaps one of the shortest (but most well-received). “The Drunken Boat” is a longer (six pages) prose poem, added to this collection for length, I’m assuming, and perhaps to afford the reader another view of Rimbaud the writer. Though the poems are engaging and interesting – I admit, I tore through the fifty or so pages in just under 45 minutes – it is clear to tell why 1) Rimbaud wasn’t that well-respected in his day (though much of this really was personal, rather than professional, objective criticism) and 2) That Rimbaud’s writing was done at an early age, without time or chance to grow and develop.
Despite much incongruity or disconnection amongst the poems, there were still certain dominate themes present throughout the collection. Sexuality, for instance, though rarely blatantly was touched upon. The danger of engaging in homosexual relationships at the time, the agony of not wanting a sexual/familial partner of the opposite sex, so then being doomed to loneliness or unhappiness. Gender roles and the marriage question – relationships built on dowries rather than love. Christianity and religion, parenting, and – perhaps most obvious – the loss of romance to science. Rimbaud’s pain at the scientific endeavors of man, the desire – the need – to have everything explained and re-explained until you are convinced a hundred times over of what is factual and not. The loss of a type of innocence and humanity, though that innocence was resulted in Original Sin and the banishment of man from Eden. Man’s descent into Hell, not because of sin, but because of this existence in mundane mediocrity – everyone feeling they know more than they do, think higher than they’re capable of thinking, express less than what they wish they were able to express. Many times I was reminded of Dostoevsky’s own comments on mediocrity and mankind’s descent into a world of steam engines and science. Also, I couldn’t help but draw on the Romantic elements and tensions present in Shelley or Stevenson. These emotions, the fears and the disappointment, are certainly the best imagined moments of the poems, and the most enjoyable. I was also particularly impressed with Rimbaud’s honesty – the struggles mentally, the disconnect he was feeling from the world around him, the phantoms haunting his memories and his imaginings. These were the passages in which language and imagery were used most beautifully and effectively, though many of the poems were too brief or perhaps not quite focused enough to be consistent throughout.
Poetry has never been my forte, and I must admit this up front in order to do any justice to my critique of what I find to be the negative aspects of this collection. While I found much of the language engaging, as previously mentioned, and the translation quite well done, I didn’t find much that was or will be particularly memorable. “The Drunken Boat” was, for me, the more enjoyable of all the poems. The best of the A Season in Hell collection was probably “Morning,” nearer to the end of the collection. Aside from these two, though, I was not much enamored. Rimbaud came across largely arrogant and often whiny. His words and phrases were lofty, but he doesn’t seem to say much. Again, I have to qualify this with a reiteration of the fact that, I just don’t “get” poetry most of the time; in this case, though, it feels different. Great poetry – Shelley’s Mont Blanc, Keats’ Endymion or The Eve of St. Agnes, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abby, or Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner – they leave you with something. Even if I couldn’t understand half the references, I understood the mood, the tone, the emotion. The pitch, the fear, the anger. In Whitman’s Song of Myself, I sense a universal connection of man, a unity and a sense of self in the “all.” What makes poetry great for me, despite whether or not I truly like or enjoy it, or even understand much of it, is the permanent impression I’m left with at the end. The power of the words and the language and the emotion. The urgent sense I have to feel something, do something, understand something. Rimbaud, while good and while enjoyable, left much to be desired, for me. I was moved at times – but, ultimately, and in similarity to someone like, Poe, whose poetry was often interesting and even charming but never his strongest work (compared particularly to his Short Stories or Essays), Rimbaud too seems to have much to say and to express, but perhaps didn’t give himself enough time and confidence to do it right. I imagine he could have made quite impression on me, as he was obviously talented, but he gave up too soon.
The Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 5.0
At first, I was going to give this collection a 2.5/5.0 but I decided that was unfair because, really, I did enjoy more than half the collection. I respect what Rimbaud did do, and in such short time (and so young in life). The things he did express, he expressed quite well. I truly felt his frustration with the status quo and, simultaneously, his fear for the future of science and technology. He demonstrated a disconnect and disdain, even, for his fellow man (and woman), yet also a painful realization that, all being in this boat together, we’re all equally doomed to a miserable (re: boring, pointless) fate. Some of the language was quite beautiful, especially, I imagine, in the original French. Ultimately, though, I’m not sure I walk away from the collection having learned or felt much.