Today in Literary History – October 20, 1854 – The birth of Arthur Rimbaud

The poet Arthur Rimbaud was born on October 20, 1854, in the French countryside but moved to Paris at the age of seventeen.

He became dedicated to decadence and degradation in the service of his art, buying into a belief common at the time that to be a true poet one must suffer.

He wrote in a letter home, “‘I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. It’s really not my fault.’

Rimbaud drawn by Verlaine

He went to Paris after a corespondence with the poet Paul Verlaine, who bought him a one-way train ticket. Verlaine was recently unemployed and drinking heavily. His 17-year-old wife was pregnant, but he and Rimbaud began an intense love affair, running away to England.

Bob Dylan has a set of lines in one of songs, “Situations have ended sad/Relationships have all been bad/Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud.”

Verlaine and Rimbaud’s relationship, fuelled by alcohol (mostly absinthe) and hashish, ended when Verlaine shot his pistol at Rimbaud during a drunken argument, wounding him in the arm. Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison.


Rimbaud wrote all of his poetry before the age of twenty-one. He spent the rest of his life, until his death from cancer at the age of 37, outside of France, mostly as a coffee merchant in Yemen and Ethiopia.

Rimbaud’s most famous work, the prose poem Un Saison En Enfer (A Season in Hell) basically an argument between the two sides of Rimbaud’s psyche, was very much in fashion when I was young. I first read it at about the age Rimbaud was when he wrote it.

Rimbaud’s poetry influenced many later poets, from Dylan Thomas to Bob Dylan.

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