Return to the poem

Translator's Note: Vagabonds

by Reynolds Price

I began to read Rimbaud as a graduate student at Oxford in the mid-fifties soon after I met Enid Starkie, his first substantial biographer in English, and heard her expatiate on the boy's tragic genius. At the time, she was a likably farouche don in her late fifties, which meant that Rimbaud himself might almost have attended her christening, had he not abandoned poetry, fled to Africa in 1880, and died of cancer in Marseille—unknown to his former French colleagues, above all his old companion, Paul Verlaine—in 1891. Her flaming enthusiasm ignited in me a similar taste.

An early result of reading her life of the poet—and my attempt to read all the boy's poems in French—was the effort to translate a few of them into compelling and at least partially brilliant English. I failed, of course, but then so have all the English language translators known to me, however valiant and useful their tries. But I've never stopped trying.

When I was asked to contribute to this issue, I turned to Rimbaud's astonishing prose poems called Les Illuminations (not his own title, apparently). What I offer here are two of those poems that, though he left no commentary, seem to me intimately related. "Antique" may well be Rimbaud's response to an antique sculpture or vase painting of a faun—a perfected frozen creature whom the poet attempts to bring to life. "Vagabonds" is, inescapably, a recreation of the terrible last days of his long affair with Verlaine—after their escape from Paris to London or even in their brief reunion in Brussels, where Verlaine wounded Rimbaud with a pistol shot and at last ended their cursed but mutually prolific union.

In the French, "Antique" feels as near perfect as a few sentences can manage to be; the often obscure language of "Vagabonds" is grasping for a meaning in so much inflicted pain and—uniquely in Rimbaud's surviving work—in the hope of some degree of pity for his crazed lover. Neither translation is entirely literal, though all my liberties are efforts at understanding Rimbaud's prose without over-explaining its mysteries.


This poem originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2007

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.