Arthur Rimbaud

A Season in Hell

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

In a preface as poignant as the work itself, poet and artist Patti Smith writes “No one could exact a more brutal analysis of this sublime scrap of illuminated consciousness than the poet himself.” Smith is of course talking about the singular Arthur Rimbaud (20 October 1854 – 10 November 1891), a man of astounding inner turmoil and a poet of unmatched ingenuity.

A Season in Hell is Rimbaud’s highly confessional and self-exploratory work, 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”

In the introduction Patti Smith (who has addressed her own limited consciousness), wrote Rimbaud was “Ignited by the fireworks of his despair, he exhausts us with beauty, but is also the flayed youth.”

Rimbaud writes:

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.

Antony Gormley slab work sculpture. Photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in "An Increasing Atomization of Things" on The Examined Life.
One of Antony Gormley’s fourteen Slabworks sculptures in which industrially-cut steel formed pieces of a human figure. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

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.

father. you always call to say nothing in particular. you ask what i’m doing or where I am when the silence stretches like a lifetime between us i scramble to find questions to keep the conversation going. what i long to say most is. i understand this world broke you. it has been so hard on your feet. i don’t blame you for not knowing how to remain soft with me. sometimes i stay up thinking of all the places you are hurting which you’ll never care to mention. i come from the same aching blood, from the same bone so desperate for attention i collapse in on myself. i am your daughter i know the small talk is the only way you know how to tell me you love me. cause it is the only way i know how to tell you.

From Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey

When Rimbaud’s mother asked of A Season in Hell, “What does it mean?” – perhaps voicing a universe inquiry, Rimbaud answered “It means what it says, literally and in every sense.”

Rimbaud’s life maps almost year to year to that of Vincent van Gogh, although Rimbaud died of cancer, not complications from an act of self-harm. 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.