Translator's Notes: To a Reason
by John Ashbery
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 The self is obsolete: In Rimbaud’s famous formulation, “I is someone else” (“Je est un autre”).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
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.”