Translator's Notes

Fertile Destabilization

On translating Rimbaud’s Illuminations.

by John Ashbery
Fertile Destabilization

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.”

This valedictory tone, as well as the difficulty of dating the individual Illuminations, led earlier critics to suppose that A Season in Hell was Rimbaud’s farewell to poetry. More recently it has emerged that they both preceded and followed that poem. Some were written in London during his stay there with Verlaine; others date from a laterLondon visit with Nouveau, who copied out some of them; still others date from a later period in France, after the horrible adventure in Brussels. Though their final arrangement is undoubtedly not Rimbaud’s, the first Illumination (“After the Flood”) contradicts A Season in Hell’s “Adieu” with a vision of postdiluvian freshness, after “the notion of the Flood” has subsided. Here, a hare says its prayer to the rainbow through a spider’s web, market stalls are busy, beavers build, blood and milk flow, coffee steams in cafes, and the Splendide Hotel is built amid the chaos of ice floes and the polar night. In other words, business as usual.

The polar ice returns in the final Illumination, one of the greatest poems ever written. Here a “genie,” a Christlike figure whose universal love transcends the strictures of traditional religion, arrives to save the world from “all resonant and surging suffering in more intense music.” Yet despite this, “the clear song of new misfortunes” will also reign. How can that be? According to André Guyaux, co-editor of the Garnier edition of Rimbaud that I have used for this translation:

This amazing expression implies that the future will be neither idyllic nor purely happy, as “the abolition of all . . . suffering” might seem to indicate, but that these “new misfortunes” will ring clearer and be preferable to the misery caused by superstition and present-day Christian “charity.”

The genie will usher in an age of sadder but wiser happiness, of a higher awareness than A Season in Hell foresaw, perhaps due precisely to that work’s injunction to be “absolutely modern.”

We tend to forget that “modern poetry” is a venerable institution. Prose poetry (Rimbaud’s own term for what he was writing in Illuminations) had already been produced by Lautréamont and Baudelaire; Rimbaud mentioned to a friend the influence of the latter’s work in the genre. Free verse, today ubiquitous, was used by Rimbaud in two of the Illuminations. Yet, more essentially, absolute modernity was for him the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all of life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second. The self is obsolete: In Rimbaud’s famous formulation, “I is someone else” (“Je est un autre”). In the twentieth century, the coexisting, conflictingviews of objects that the Cubist painters cultivated, the equalizing deployment of all notes of the scale in serial music, and the unhierarchical progressions of bodies in motion in the ballets of Merce Cunningham are three examples among many of this fertile destabilization. Somewhere at the root of this, the crystalline jumble of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, like a disordered collection of magic lantern slides, each an “intense and rapid dream,” in his words, is still emitting pulses. If we are absolutely modern—and we are—it’s because Rimbaud commanded us to be.—ja

Originally Published: April 1, 2011


On April 1, 2011 at 12:37pm William Gabriel wrote:
I enjoyed reading this piece very much. Thank you.

On April 1, 2011 at 3:59pm Kent Johnson wrote:
John Ashbery said:

>"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)."

Though it should be pointed out that Rimbaud's letters from Africa reveal a decidedly racist streak... And one letter, at least, enthusiastically proposes the idea of a slave-trading venture.

Poetry has a surfeit of racist figures, of course, but along with Robert Burns, Rimbaud seems to have been one of the most nonchalant aficionados, among major poets, of the slave trade.

On April 7, 2011 at 11:09am Julio wrote:
Who cares about the canon? Poetry always
attempts to be absolutely modern, meaning
new, in flames, being part of the present
and changing it. That's Rimbaud's
command, and Ashbery gets it. The
canon's never for us who write, but for our

On April 7, 2011 at 11:10am Alexis wrote:
This article as well as the comments that follow suggest I believe something profound about the concept of destabilization, the fact that it hardly destabilizes anything and does through the course of becoming the canon, and being worshiped needlessly, become nothing but the thing that it is supposedly reacting against. If anything, it only proves what so many of the public already thinks about poetry, that its having a conversation with itself totally irrelevant to the world. There was a comment above in which someone mentioned that we are all archaic to Rimbaud's modernity. Isn't that an idea that stems from a history written from a privileged perspective? The idea that some things are modern, some things archaic privilege the false conception that there is a linear history of the world and literature? Doesn't it totally smudge out the existence of other groups and other peoples or rather reduce them within some fake concept of progress? By the way, the statement "one of the greatest poems ever written" proves on the onset a bias, ethnocentric point of view that assumes that there could even be such a thing.

On April 7, 2011 at 11:13am Mike wrote:
I think Georges Rivard may have been joking in his reference to "child's play," but the meaning is muddy. Anyway, an older poet may have an advantage over a younger one when it comes to translation, because translation requires wide reading. As for Ashbery being touched by "Rimbaud's Dionysian Muse," the two seem dissimilar in spirit.

On April 7, 2011 at 11:22am Les Herasymchuk wrote:
Poetry may be not only a translation of ideas into melodies of letters but into other activities as well? as Emerson suggested in his time. Later transgressions of Rimbaud may well relate to that new kind of translation of ideas into mercantile activities.

On April 7, 2011 at 11:23am Prof. Sattar wrote:
Shades of ageist reservation in the comment above.
JA can translate even if has grown older by a quarter of a century because he has been 'touched" by Rimbaud's Dionysian Muse. You can touch others only if you yourself have been touched, regardless of how muffled and soft the chant of the evensong has grown.

On April 7, 2011 at 11:24am Georges Rivard wrote:
John Ashbery is hardly qualified to be
translating Rimbaud. His age proves so.
At 84? he's too old to be playing a childs

On April 7, 2011 at 11:25am James Toupin wrote:
Mr. Ashbery's last paragraph, as he may
not intend, is a good reminder of how hide-
bound the artistic schools can be that
privilege art or poetry as destabilization.
As does his article, they often tell Whig
histories to establish canons that support
current fashionable modes as vanguards of
progress. The tricks and tropes of
destabilization, when they define what
counts as "modern," can become as routine
and bland as the heroic couplet of the
eighteenth century.

On April 7, 2011 at 11:29am Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:
This is a fascinating article. I am looking forward to reading the translation.

Now, if we could just get Mr. Ashbery to translate his own poetry.

On October 23, 2013 at 7:51am Rebecca Aker wrote:
I would not know about "illumination" except for coming to this article!
Talking about

POST A COMMENT welcomes comments that foster dialogue and cultivate an open community on the site. Comments on articles must be approved by the site moderators before they appear on the site. By submitting a comment, you give the Poetry Foundation the right to publish it. Please note: We require comments to include a name and e-mail address. Read more about our privacy policy.


 John  Ashbery


John Ashbery is recognized as one of the greatest twentieth-century American poets. He has won nearly every major American award for poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Griffin International Award, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Ashbery's poetry challenges its readers to discard all presumptions about the aims, themes, . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.