Arthur Rimbaud

A Season in Hell

“I dread winter because it is the season of comfort.”

A Season in Hell is a selection of poems and essays from French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891). They are highly confessional and self-exploratory, resonate of modern poetry and—most amazingly—written when Rimbaud was eighteen.

But who gave me so perfidious a tongue that it has guided and guarded my indolence til now? With out even using my body for a living, and lazier than the toad, I have lived everywhere. Not a family of Europe that I do not know. – I mean families like my own that owe everything to the Declaration of the Rights of Man – I have known all the sons of good families.

Euphorbia horrida, a particularly gnarly succulent that refuses to shed its dead stems. “Thus my sorrow always renewed,” wrote Rimbaud. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Perhaps even more astounding is that Rimbaud (most likely) never wrote poetry after age nineteen. He had spent his youth running from his horrid, totalitarian mother, the growing Prussian threat in France, and the turned backs of the established poetic society.

Oh may it come, the time of love,
The time we’d be enamoured of.

From “Song of the Highest Tower”

This edition of A Season in Hell is introduced by American poet Patti Smith (who has addressed her own limited consciousness), who wrote Rimbaud was “Ignited by the fireworks of his despair, he exhausts us with beauty, but is also the flayed youth.”

I have a horror of all trades. Masters and workers—base peasants all. The hand that guides the pen is worth the hand that guides the plough. What an age of hands. I shall never have my hand. Afterward domesticity leads too far. The honesty of beggars sickens me. Criminals disgust like castrates: as for me, I am intact, and I don’t care.

Whether these lines are real or it is Rimbaud merely mimicking his mother’s bigoted voice is unclear. What was clear is that Rimbaud lived his too short life on the periphery.

I’ve been patient too long.
My memory is dead,
All fears and all wrongs
To the heavens have fled.
Why all my veins burst
With a sickly thirst.

There is a passion in his words and a longing for the impossible.

This selection of prose and poems flows with alienation, beauty’s bitterness, loss, confounded emotions, and yet… hope. Hope exists in salvation, a forgiving and all-surrounding love and the highest tower of existence.1

I’ve been patient too long.
My memory is dead,
All fears and all wrongs
To the heavens have fled.
Why all my veins burst
With a sickly thirst.

O may it come, the time of love,
The time we’d be enamoured of.

Many poets have written from society’s edge, hollering against and bemoaning debilitating conformity. Rimbaud used poetry to establish himself as a visionary, a “seer” of the world in abstraction, a metaphor of the known.

Bare plane trees featured in Arthur Rimbaud's "A Season in Hell" in the Examined Life Library.
“I dread winter because it is the season of comfort,” wrote Rimbaud. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Self-confession poetry acts as an aperture to pain at the most intimate level. What began with Rimbaud continued with the Beat Generation poets in the heart-wrenching poems of American poet Robert Lowell and even in the contemporary poetry of Rupi Kaur.

Rimbaud’s life maps almost year to year to that of Vincent van Gogh, although Rimbaud died of cancer, not suicide. But the innervated youth, the expression of emotion uncontained by ordinary conduits, the confessional nature of their art—there are many similarities. Read van Gogh’s exceptional Letters and see the artist anew.