3p Home Page The Threepenny Review
Summer 2001

Rimbaud and Verlaine in London

Image Map - Text Links at Page Bottom
James Campbell
by Graham Robb.
Norton, 2000,
$35.00 cloth.

101 Poems
by Paul Verlaine, translated by
Norman Shapiro (bilingual edition).
University of Chicago Press, 1999.
$15.00 paper.

Arthur Rimbaud spent more of his life in London than in Paris. He lived in London for about fourteen months in all, out of a year and a half in Great Britain, compared with less than twelve months in Paris. In so far as his likes and dislikes are discernible, we can say that Rimbaud preferred the English capital—he was “delighted and astonished” by it, according to his companion Paul Verlaine. He found the people “intelligent,” and felt that London left Paris looking like “a pretty provincial town”—an unfashionable view even today, when there are stronger grounds for holding it than in the era of Hugo, Flaubert, Mallarmé, and the budding Impressionists. Rimbaud liked the coal-fueled industries, the “interminable docks” along the Thames, and indeed the “energy” of Empire. He even liked the fog. To a greater extent than Verlaine, who was by his side during two of his three extended stays in London, he remains shrouded in it. Graham Robb’s new book makes the point that, while the extraordinary adventure of Rimbaud in Africa is quite well documented, in letters to his family and the recollections of business colleagues, his London life is relatively obscure. The dark-continent Rimbaud was a successful trader in guns, elephant tusks, and probably people, while Rimbaud the Londoner was a floundering soul among millions, a scarcely published poet who was about to give it all up anyway.

Still, there is something to go on. An entire book exists on the subject, Rimbaud et L’Angleterre by V. P. Underwood (Paris, 1976; as yet untranslated), and we may peer through the windows of some of his addresses (particularly at Great College Street, Camden, which continues in fine dilapidation) and try to glimpse the ghost at a few of his favorite haunts. We know that he wrote parts of his two late serial works in London: Illuminations (Verlaine recommended the English pronunciation) and Une Saison en Enfer. It is generally assumed that the “Foolish Virgin” section of Season in Hell represents Rimbaud and Verlaine’s domestic life in and around 8 Great College Street (now Royal College Street), where a little plaque commemorates their stay between May and July 1873. Verlaine is the dramatic speaker:

On several nights, his demon seized me, we rolled around together, I wrestled with him!—At nights, often, drunk, he lies in wait in the streets or in the houses, to frighten me half to death.—“They will cut my throat, truly; it will be disgusting.” Oh! these days when he walks around with an air of crime…

In the hovels where we used to get drunk, he would weep at the sight of those around us, miserable beasts…He would go about with the innocence of a little girl on her way to catechism - He pretended to be an expert on everything, business, art, medicine—I followed him, I had no choice!

The series of snapshots of London life ends “Drole de menage”; or, as it is sometimes translated, “A queer couple.”

Rimbaud and Verlaine first sailed to England in early September, 1872. They had met one year before: Rimbaud, not yet seventeen, from a provincial town, and Verlaine twenty-eight, a poet with a rarified musical gift trying to make his song heard above the monotony of clerical work. Rimbaud had written a fan letter from Charleville, and was invited to Paris to stay with Verlaine and his pretty bourgeois wife, Mathilde, who was about to give birth to their son. Almost immediately, Rimbaud set about unscrewing all the locks from the doors, chez Verlaine, and the doors themselves from their jambs. To make matters worse, the Verlaines lived with Mathilde’s parents, who were not charmed by a boy for whom, as Robb says, the ritual of dinner “interfered with eating,” and whose infrequent stabs at conversation went along the lines of “Dogs are liberals.” Rimbaud told his friend Paul Demeny,“I owe my superiority to the fact that I have no heart.” It seems he did have a heart, though it wasn’t in the usual place. During his spell in Paris, Rimbaud met all the leading poets, and perfected the arts of insult, outrage, and obscenity for use against them. The queer couple then ran away to Belgium, and, after a two-month holiday on Verlaine’s money, crossed to Dover.

In 1872, London, and Soho in particular, was home to packs of fugitive Communards, in hiding from the vengeance of the returning French government army, following the Siege of Paris. There are myths surrounding the involvement of both poets in the Commune, but undoubtedly they supported it in principle. Verlaine was closer to the action than Rimbaud, though his biographer Joanna Richardson calls his behavior “cowardly” whenever he was called upon to act. Nevertheless, he saw himself as a wanted man.

Also in London at the time was Karl Marx, who naturally took a strong interest in the Paris situation. He published his “Address on the Civil War in France” just as Rimbaud and Verlaine were arriving, and Robb suggests that the poets “witnessed many political discussions and would have seen Karl Marx many times,” possibly at the meeting-place above the Hibernia tavern in Old Compton Street, Soho. Like Marx, they spent days at the Reading Room at the British Museum (a recently installed exhibit of famous readers’ names includes Marx and Rimbaud, but not Verlaine). To judge simply by their writings, Verlaine and Rimbaud had not an active political idea to juggle between them—“I don’t read the French papers any more,” Verlaine wrote to a friend in June 1873. “But what harm in that?” If they were anarchists, it was the anarchism of insobriety, bad company, irregular meals. But it might be argued that Rimbaud was the first great poet to inscribe his writing with the notion that the personal is political. Besides everything else, his early poetry records numerous transgressions against the rights of the infant citizen (himself) by elder authoritarians, while his letters suggest that whatever changes are being wrought in him will have far-reaching consequences abroad. Not for nothing did he “pretend to be an expert on everything.” It is easy to hear one of his last lines, “It is necessary to be absolutely modern,” perhaps as close as there was to a personal motto, spoken by a different sort of French revolutionary.

When not taking advantage of the free heating in the British Museum, Rimbaud and Verlaine went for long walks in “the countryside to the north-west”—Hampstead Heath—which, according to Verlaine, they found “admirable.” They took rides on the developing London Underground (still largely overground), from Edgware Road in the west, let’s say, through Baker Street, out to the Wapping docks in the East End. Among the mementos of Rimbaud’s time in London are his English word lists, which here and there glow like sparks of conversation between the two eager English learners, or with some of “des Angliches” with whom, Verlaine wrote, they used to exchange language lessons:

I fidgetted to get him gone
I will work it in somehow
to feel after (to seek to find)
to distrain (to seize for debt)

How does the account stand between us?
No man’s face is actionable
The mind cannot advert to two things at once

forcible entry
too late for this issue
a romping girl

He also wrote (plundering The Merchant of Venice for phrases usable in the modern world and beyond): “I have him on the hip—Hipshot.”

It must have been a desperate household at times (“to stagger, to reel, to totter— / to hector, to bully”), safe only when gorging on a dangerous love. It was Verlaine who was burdened with all the guilt. Rimbaud was Verlaine’s “radiant sin.” Verlaine was merely Rimbaud’s “cher petit.” Rimbaud was only escaping from his mother and her demands that he find a job, or else. Despite his failure to obey, he dutifully returned home for Christmas in the middle of the first London jaunt, and frequently thereafter. It is one of the many virtues of Robb’s book that he shows us Rimbaud the kid, a hungry boy heading back time and again to his mother’s kitchen. Verlaine, on the other hand, was on the run from wife, son, parents-in-law, and the law tout court. He might have exaggerated his usefulness to the Commune, but London spies were tracking him all the same. Robb writes that the Paris Préfecture was “receiving high-grade intelligence from its London agents”: “8 April 1873: Verlaine…a member of the Club des Etudes Sociales, has returned to Paris after going in a conspicuous fashion to Victoria Station and pretending to leave, for several days.” In London there was “closet-sin” as Rimbaud’s “romping girl,” but in Paris there was the threat of divorce, which Verlaine seemed to dread every bit as much as he desired to be free of his wife. In any case, he did not stay away from Rimbaud for long.

The twelve-tone clang of London, then in the throes of a grand building project, struck both poets. To Verlaine, the docklands provided inspiration for his “increasingly modernistic poetics.” English life was most certainly different from Parisian, yet it had “a poetry which I cannot yet see. I’m waiting, and, while waiting…I’m ‘collecting impressions.’” He never did get the hang of it, though he used English titles for “Streets,” an evocation of the Regent Canal, and “Birds in the Night,” a lament for his abandoned wife, lyrical and self-justifying:

The little wife, the grown young lady
Appeared, dressed as she used to be.
It was our destiny already
That gazed from beneath the veil at me.

And then, revealing all his character faults in a single flourish, he adds: “Soyez pardonnée!”—“But I forgive you!”

Verlaine foresaw a career in London. “In a few days’ time, I expect to go into a big establishment here, where you can earn quite a lot,” he wrote to his friend and future biographer, Edmond Lepelletier. “Meanwhile, I am working for some American papers, which pay pretty well.” There is no evidence of either a “big establishment” or of journalistic work. The two hacks were reduced to placing adverts in a variety of English newspapers: “Leçons de Français, en français—perfection, finesses—par deux Gentlemen parisiens.—Verlaine, 8, Great College-street, Camden Town.” Or this one, dating from slightly later, which displays Rimbaud’s powers of invention:

A French Gentleman (25), most respectably connected, of superior education, possessing a French diploma, thorough English, and extensive general knowledge, wishes EMPLOYMENT as PRIVATE SECRETARY, Travelling Companion or Tutor. Excellent references. Address A. R., 25 Langham-street, W.

It was in Great College Street that they had their fateful quarrel, the one that led to a near-fatal quarrel in Brussels a week later. The story goes that Rimbaud, leaning from the window, spotted Verlaine walking down the road carrying a fish and a bottle of oil. He threw off a captious insult which Verlaine recorded:

I was approaching the house when I saw Rimbaud observing me through the open window. For no good reason, he started to snigger. I climbed the stairs anyway and went in. “Have you any idea how ridiculous you look with your bottle of oil in one hand and your fish in the other?” said Rimbaud. I retaliated, because, I can assure you, I definitely did not look ridiculous.

Retaliation came in the form of a smack in the face with the fish for Rimbaud, following which Verlaine stormed off and caught the boat to Belgium. A single room in Great College Street looks to be a lonely place even now; for Rimbaud, penniless, friendless (their expatriate comrades had begun to decode their intimacy), and without his partner in sin, it was desolate. After he had pawned Verlaine’s clothes for a few coins, he wrote a letter which is in turn affecting and sinister:

Do you think that your life will be happier with other people than it was with me? Think about it! Oh! certainly not!…I swear to be very nice to you in the future…I love you very much, and if you don’t want to come back, or for me to join you, you are committing a crime, and you will repent through LONG YEARS by losing all freedom, and by sufferings more dreadful perhaps than any you have undergone.

Robb thinks this amounts to a threat of blackmail, though it could be just another mystic prediction (which came true). There was to be no happy ending, but a couple of shots from the hip—hipshots—in a Brussels boarding house (Verlaine’s mother was also present), which, though they caused only minor injuries to Rimbaud’s hand, shocked him greatly. Fearing a subsequent assault a few hours later, he called the police and had Verlaine arrested, leading to a two-year prison sentence, a religious conversion, and eventually fame coupled with extreme destitution, and only the “green fairy,” absinthe, for company.

Shortly afterwards, Mme. Rimbaud paid for the publication of Season in Hell, as if to console her upset son. When she asked him what it all meant, Rimbaud answered: “It means what it says, literally.” A century on, Samuel Beckett (one of Rimbaud’s best translators) was apt to respond to inquiries in the same way. It seems to me mistaken to search for (and thus to find) “profundity” in Rimbaud. He wanted a way out of profundity. His language is designed deliberately to avoid the pitfalls of philosophizing.

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu; voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes:
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles…

(A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue; vowels,
I will speak some day of your mysterious origins:
A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies
which buzz round cruel smells…)

By the summer of 1872, aged seventeen, Rimbaud was confidently mocking the rhetorical excesses of the prominent poets of Paris, the “Parnassians.” To Theodore de Banville, he sent a set of verses, “What One Says to the Poet on the Subject of Flowers”—a suspicious-looking title which cloaked a catalogue of surrealism and obscenity. In one of the first reviews of his work to be published—in Le Symboliste in 1886—Felix Fenéon wrote that Rimbaud’s images had a symbolic quality, without appearing to symbolize anything in particular. He also wrote that the Illuminations constituted a work which “stands outside all literature and is probably superior to it all.” Rimbaud, who was in Africa when the essay appeared (the author of the Illuminations was given as “the late Arthur Rimbaud”), would have been more gratified by the first part of Fenéon’s remark than the second. Rimbaud stands outside “all literature” as his contemporaries, the Impression-ists, stood outside all painting. For a poet who rushed headlong into abstraction whenever possible, it is amazing how seldom Rimbaud strikes a false note, or borrows from the archive of platitude.

What does appear in the Illuminations, looming through “the thick, eternal coal-smoke,” is the rising city where Rimbaud wrote many of the forty-two shimmering, infinitely self-referential prose poems:

I am an ephemeral and a not too discontented citizen of a metropolis considered modern because all known taste has been avoided in the furnishings and the exterior of the houses as well as in the plan of the city. Here you would fail to detect the least trace of any monument to superstition.

The prose poem “Métropolitain” is taken to be a star-gazer’s account of a ride on London Underground’s Metropolitan line, still the train to catch from central London to St. Katharine’s Dock in the East End:

From the Indigo straits to the seas of Ossian, on pink and orange sands washed by the vinous sky, crystal boulevards have just risen and crossed, immediately occupied by poor young families who get their food at the greengrocers. Nothing rich—the city!

It was to the docks that Rimbaud dashed after Verlaine had walked out on him, to try to pull his “old sow” back from the departing hulk—“The morning when with Her you struggled among the glitterings of snow, those green lips, the ice, the black flags and the blue beams of light, and the purple odours of the Polar sun—your strength.”

During the final sojourn in London, between March and July 1874, Rimbaud was accompanied not by Verlaine, who was in prison (reading the copy of Season in Hell which Rimbaud had sent him), but by a young French poet, Germain Nouveau. He lived in Stamford Street, Waterloo, and then, when his mother and little sister Vitalie arrived for the month of July, in a guest house at 12 Argyll Square, King’s Cross, still a guest house today. Rimbaud, in the process of putting the finishing touches to his life as a poet, was seeking his first proper job. (His last lines were probably not the “Adieu” of Season in Hell, as legend demands, but more likely “Solde,” from Illuminations—“For sale un-heard-of applications of calculations and leaps of harmony.”) It was then that he advertised his services as “travelling companion or tutor.” He was willing to go anywhere. And although he certainly did go somewhere—leaving mother and sister at Argyll Square on the morning of July 31, as Vitalie wrote in her journal—no one is sure where. It is established that in October, three months later, he was in Reading, some sixty miles to the west of London, but where he spent the intervening period is one of the enduring mysteries of Rimbaud biography. The story used to be that he went to Scotland, which is the information many French editions of Rimbaud still give out. This was the destination recorded in 1897 by two friends (and early biographers), Houin and Bourguignon, and it was later repeated by an acquaintance of Rimbaud’s other sister, Isabelle. But later biographers began to question it.

The first to deprive Scotland of Rimbaud was Enid Starkie, in her revised biography of 1961. She observed that while little Vitalie stated that her brother left the hotel at 4:30 am, the train to Glasgow did not depart until 6:25, and it left, moreover, from Euston Station, only ten minutes’ walk from Argyll Square. Starkie also made a search of the main Scottish newspapers of the day, but found no advertisements offering the services of the French tutor, “A. R.”. On this negative evidence she concluded that Rimbaud did not go to Scotland, after all.

Then came V. P. Underwood, with Rimbaud et L’Angleterre, setting out to demonstrate that Rimbaud went instead to the English seaside town of Scarborough. His proof is a line in Illuminations: “the circular facades of ‘Royals’ or ‘Grands’ of Scarbro’ or of Brooklyn.” Underwood meekly suggested that, on a French tongue, “Scarborough” sounds a little like “Scotland,” and that those contemporaries who relayed Rimbaud’s destination may have become confused. Underwood owns up to doubts, however, and returns to oddities of orthography and vocabulary in Rimbaud’s word lists—for example, “heirship moveables,” a Scottish legal term unknown in England. He speculates that if Rimbaud was not actually in Scotland, then he was being “taught by a Scotsman.” Now there is Graham Robb, who maintains that “there is no evidence that Rimbaud ever visited Scarborough.” According to him, “the known facts account for Rimbaud’s movements quite satisfactorily,” and he suggests that Rimbaud went straight from London to Reading. But it is mainly guesswork, and the late summer months of 1874 are left unaccounted for. Robb does not deign even to mention the Rimbaud family’s own explanation: “Il est allé en Ecosse.”

So let’s return Rimbaud to Scotland. (It so happens that also in London in July 1874 was Robert Louis Stevenson, just a little older than Rimbaud. He lived in Hampstead that summer, and, like the Frenchman, enjoyed walking on the Heath. On July 11, Stevenson boarded a boat at the docks, so potent with desire and memory for Rimbaud, and sailed northwards—“to the seas of Ossian,” in fact. His close friend and collaborator W. E. Henley claimed to have encountered both Rimbaud and Verlaine earlier at meetings in Soho. RLS and Rimbaud probably never did meet—though it is nice to think of them in the Flask tavern, built that year and still popular with walkers off the Heath, exchanging a “hobbledehoy” or a “whereabouts.”) There he goes, leaving Argyll Square early for reasons known only to himself, carrying a little suitcase with worked-over manuscripts, telling his mother and sister that…But better to employ a collage from the Illuminations themselves, which the eighteen-year-old Rimbaud may still have been writing at this late stage: “An overcast morning in July…turned towards the North Sea…the seas of Ossian…his domain, insolent azure and verdure…ferociously Celt.”

Robb takes the story of Rimbaud on into Africa, selecting a local “wife,” constantly irritated by the interference of the “goody-goody” British in the slave trade, more commercially successful than generally believed. He died in Marseilles in 1891, aged thirty-seven, one-legged and demented, preparing to set out for the centers of trade once again. Rimbaud is beautifully written, full of wry and intelligent comment. Norman Shapiro’s translations of Verlaine are excessively crafted and poetical, turning Verlaine’s exquisite little melodies into the “mere literature” he despised. Both poets in their own ways despised literature. One of them, while doing so, helped create its future.

James Campbell is the author of This is the Beat Generation, Talking at the Gates, and other works of nonfiction. He lives in London.


Home PageCurrent IssuePast IssuesReading RoomGallery
BooksLinksAdvertisingSubmissionsSubscribeContact Us

The Threepenny Review