Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (/ræmˈboʊ/ or /ˈræmboʊ/; French pronunciation: [aʁtyʁ ʁɛ̃bo] ( listen) ; 20 October 1854 – 10 November 1891) was a French poet born in Charleville-Mézières. He influenced modern literature and arts, and prefigured surrealism. He started writing poems at a very young age, while still in primary school, and stopped completely before he turned 21. He was mostly creative in his teens (17–20). The critic Cecil Arthur Hackett wrote that his "genius, its flowering, explosion and sudden extinction, still astonishes". Rimbaud was known to have been a libertine and for being a restless soul. He traveled extensively on three continents before his death from cancer just after his thirty-seventh birthday.
Arthur Rimbaud was born in the provincial town of Charleville (now part of Charleville-Mézières) in the Ardennes département in northeastern France. He was the second child of Frédéric Rimbaud (7 October 1814 – 16 November 1878) and Marie Catherine Vitalie Cuif (10 March 1825 – 16 November 1907). Rimbaud's father, a Burgundian of Provençal extraction, was an infantry captain risen from the ranks; he had spent much of his army career abroad. From 1844 to 1850, he participated in the conquest of Algeria, and in 1854 was awarded the Légion d'honneur "by Imperial decree". Captain Rimbaud was described as "good-tempered, easy-going and generous". In October 1852, Captain Rimbaud, then aged 38, was transferred to Mézières where he met Vitalie Cuif, 11 years his junior, while on a Sunday stroll. She came from a "solidly established Ardennais family", but one with its share of bohemians; two of her brothers were alcoholics. Her personality was the "exact opposite" of Captain Rimbaud's; she was narrow minded, "stingy and completely lacking in a sense of humour". When Charles Houin, an early biographer, interviewed her, he found her "withdrawn, stubborn and taciturn". Arthur Rimbaud's private name for her was "Mouth of Darkness" (bouche d'ombre). Nevertheless, on 8 February 1853, Captain Rimbaud and Vitalie Cuif married; their first-born, Jean Nicolas Frédéric ("Frédéric"), arrived nine months later on 2 November. The next year, on 20 October 1854, Jean Nicolas Arthur ("Arthur") was born. Three more children followed: Victorine-Pauline-Vitalie on 4 June 1857 (who died a few weeks later), Jeanne-Rosalie-Vitalie ("Vitalie") on 15 June 1858 and, finally, Frédérique Marie Isabelle ("Isabelle") on 1 June 1860. Though the marriage lasted seven years, Captain Rimbaud lived continuously in the matrimonial home for less than three months, from February to May 1853. The rest of the time his military postings—including active service in the Crimean War and the Sardinian Campaign (with medals earned in both)—meant he returned home to Charleville only when on leave. He was not at home for his children's births, nor their baptisms. Isabelle's birth in 1860 must have been the last straw, as after this Captain Rimbaud stopped returning home on leave entirely. Though they never divorced, the separation was complete; thereafter Mme Rimbaud let herself be known as "Widow Rimbaud" and Captain Rimbaud would describe himself as a widower. Neither the captain nor his children showed the slightest interest in re-establishing contact. Fearing her children were being over-influenced by the neighbouring children of the poor, Mme. Rimbaud moved her family to the Cours d'Orléans in 1862. This was a better neighbourhood, and the boys, now aged nine and eight, who had been taught at home by their mother, were now sent to the Pension Rossat. Throughout the five years that they attended the school, however, their formidable mother still imposed her will upon them, pushing them for scholastic success. She would punish her sons by making them learn a hundred lines of Latin verse by heart, and further punish any mistakes by depriving them of meals. When Rimbaud was nine, he wrote a 700-word essay objecting to his having to learn Latin in school. Vigorously condemning a classical education as a mere gateway to a salaried position, Rimbaud wrote repeatedly, "I will be a rentier". Rimbaud disliked schoolwork and resented his mother's constant supervision; the children were not allowed out of their mother's sight, and until they were fifteen and sixteen respectively, she would walk them home from school. As a boy, Rimbaud was small and pale with brown hair, and eyes that a childhood friend described as "pale blue irradiated with dark blue—the loveliest eyes I've seen". An ardent Catholic like his mother, Rimbaud had his First Communion when he was eleven. His piety earned him the schoolyard nickname "sale petit Cagot". That same year, he and his brother were sent to the Collège de Charleville. Up to then, his reading had been largely confined to the Bible, though he had also enjoyed fairy tales and adventure stories, such as the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Gustave Aimard. At the Collège he became a highly successful student, heading his class in all subjects except mathematics and the sciences; his schoolmasters remarked upon his ability to absorb great quantities of material. In 1869 he won eight school first prizes, including the prize for Religious Education, and in 1870 he won seven first prizes. Hoping for a brilliant academic career for her second son, Mme Rimbaud hired a private tutor for Rimbaud when he reached the third grade. Father Ariste Lhéritier succeeded in sparking in the young scholar a love of Greek, Latin and French classical literature, and was the first to encourage the boy to write original verse, in both French and Latin. Rimbaud's first poem to appear in print was "Les Étrennes des orphelins" ("The Orphans' New Year's Gifts"), which was published in the 2 January 1870 issue of La Revue pour tous. Two weeks later, a new teacher of rhetoric, the 22-year-old Georges Izambard, started at the Collège de Charleville. Izambard became Rimbaud's literary mentor, and soon a close accord formed between teacher and student, with Rimbaud for a while seeing Izambard as a kind of older brother. At the age of 15, Rimbaud was showing maturity as a poet; the first poem he showed Izambard, "Ophélie", would later be included in anthologies, and is regarded as one of Rimbaud's three or four best poems. On 4 May 1870, Rimbaud's mother wrote to Izambard to complain that he had given Rimbaud Victor Hugo's Les Misérables to read. On 19 July 1870, the Franco-Prussian War broke out, between Napoleon III's Second French Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. A week later, on 24 July, Izambard left Charleville for the summer to stay with his three aunts – the Misses Gindre – in Douai. In the meantime, preparations for war continued and the Collège de Charleville became a military hospital. By the end of August, with the countryside in turmoil, Rimbaud was bored and restless. In search of adventure he ran away by train to Paris without funds for his ticket. On arrival at the Gare du Nord, he was arrested and locked up in Mazas Prison to await trial for fare evasion and vagrancy. On about 6 September, Rimbaud wrote a desperate letter to Izambard, who arranged with the prison governor that Rimbaud be released into his care. As hostilities were continuing, he stayed with the Misses Gindre in Douai until he could be returned to Charleville. Izambard finally handed Rimbaud over to Mme Rimbaud on 27 September 1870, but he was at home for only ten days before running away again. From late October 1870, Rimbaud's behaviour became openly provocative; he drank alcohol, spoke rudely, composed scatological poems, stole books from local shops, and abandoned his characteristically neat appearance by allowing his hair to grow long. on 13 and 15 May 1871, he wrote letters (the lettres du voyant), to Izambard and to Demeny respectively, about his method for attaining poetical transcendence or visionary power through a "long, intimidating, immense and rational derangement of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but one must be strong, be born a poet, and I have recognized myself as a poet." Rimbaud wrote to several poets but received no replies, so his friend, office employee Charles Auguste Bretagne, advised him to write to Paul Verlaine, an eminent Symbolist poet. Rimbaud sent Verlaine two letters with several of his poems, including the hypnotic, finally shocking "Le Dormeur du Val" (The Sleeper in the Valley), in which Nature is called upon to comfort an apparently sleeping soldier. Verlaine was intrigued by Rimbaud, and replied, "Come, dear great soul. We await you; we desire you," sending him a one-way ticket to Paris. Rimbaud arrived in late September 1871 and resided briefly in Verlaine's home. Verlaine's wife, Mathilde Mauté, was seventeen years old and pregnant, and Verlaine had recently left his job and started drinking. In later published recollections of his first sight of Rimbaud at the age of seventeen, Verlaine described him as having "the real head of a child, chubby and fresh, on a big, bony, rather clumsy body of a still-growing adolescent", with a "very strong Ardennes accent that was almost a dialect". His voice had "highs and lows as if it were breaking." Rimbaud and Verlaine began a short and torrid affair. They led a wild, vagabond-like life spiced by absinthe and hashish. The Parisian literary coterie was scandalized by Rimbaud, whose behaviour was that of the archetypal enfant terrible, yet throughout this period he continued to write poems. Their stormy relationship eventually brought them to London in September 1872, a period over which Rimbaud would later express regret. During this time, Verlaine abandoned his wife and infant son (both of whom he had abused in his alcoholic rages). In England they lived in considerable poverty in Bloomsbury and in Camden Town, scraping a living mostly from teaching, as well as an allowance from Verlaine's mother. Rimbaud spent his days in the Reading Room of the British Museum where "heating, lighting, pens and ink were free". The relationship between the two poets grew increasingly bitter. In late June 1873, Verlaine returned to Paris alone, but quickly began to mourn Rimbaud's absence. On 8 July he telegraphed Rimbaud, asking him to come to the Hotel Liège in Brussels. The reunion went badly, they argued continuously, and Verlaine took refuge in heavy drinking. On the morning of 10 July, Verlaine bought a revolver and ammunition. About 16:00, "in a drunken rage", he fired two shots at Rimbaud, one of them wounding the 18-year-old in the left wrist. Rimbaud initially dismissed the wound as superficial but had it dressed at the St-Jean hospital nevertheless. He did not immediately file charges, but decided to leave Brussels. About 20:00, Verlaine and his mother accompanied Rimbaud to the Gare du Midi railway station. On the way, by Rimbaud's account, Verlaine "behaved as if he were insane". Fearing that Verlaine "might give himself over to new excesses", Rimbaud "ran off" and "begged a policeman to arrest him". Verlaine was charged with attempted murder, then subjected to a humiliating medico-legal examination. He was also interrogated about his correspondence with Rimbaud and the nature of their relationship. The bullet was eventually removed on 17 July and Rimbaud withdrew his complaint. The charges were reduced to wounding with a firearm, and on 8 August 1873 Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison. Rimbaud returned home to Charleville and completed his prose work Une Saison en Enfer ("A Season in Hell")—still widely regarded as a pioneering example of modern Symbolist writing. In the work he referred to Verlaine as his "pitiful brother" (frère pitoyable) and the "mad virgin" (vierge folle), and to himself as the "hellish husband" (l'époux infernal). He described their life together as a "domestic farce" (drôle de ménage). In 1874 he returned to London with the poet Germain Nouveau. They lived together for three months while he put together his groundbreaking Illuminations. Rimbaud and Verlaine met for the last time in March 1875, in Stuttgart, after Verlaine's release from prison and his conversion to Catholicism. By then Rimbaud had given up writing in favour of a steady, working life. Some speculate he was fed up with his former wild living, or that the recklessness itself had been the source of his creativity. He continued to travel extensively in Europe, mostly on foot. In May 1876 he enlisted as a soldier in the Dutch Colonial Army to get free passage to Java in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Four months later he deserted and fled into the jungle. He managed to return incognito to France by ship; as a deserter he would have faced a Dutch firing squad had he been caught. In December 1878, Rimbaud journeyed to Larnaca, Cyprus, where he worked for a construction company as a stone quarry foreman. In May of the following year he had to leave Cyprus because of a fever, which on his return to France was diagnosed as typhoid. In 1880 Rimbaud finally settled in Aden, Yemen, as a main employee in the Bardey agency, going on to run the firm's agency in Harar, Ethiopia. In 1884 his "Report on the Ogaden" was presented and published by the Société de Géographie in Paris. In the same year he left his job at Bardey's to become a merchant on his own account in Harar, where his commercial dealings included coffee and (generally outdated) firearms. His fulfilment of an order from the Negus of Shewa, enabled the latter to establish himself as Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia and counter the moves of the Italian army. Several years were necessary to drive the caravan. At the same time he also engaged in exploring. During this period he also struck up a close friendship with the Governor of Harar, Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael, father of future emperor Haile Selassie. He maintained friendly relationships with the official tutor of the young heir. Rimbaud worked in the coffee trade. "He was, in fact, a pioneer in the business, the first European to oversee the export of the celebrated coffee of Harar from the country where coffee was born. He was only the third European ever to set foot in the city, and the first to do business there". In February 1891, in Aden, Rimbaud developed what he initially thought was arthritis in his right knee. It failed to respond to treatment, and by March had become so painful that he prepared to return to France for treatment. Before leaving, Rimbaud consulted a British doctor who mistakenly diagnosed tubercular synovitis, and recommended immediate amputation. Rimbaud remained in Aden until 7 May to set his financial affairs in order, then caught a steamer, L'Amazone, back to France for the 13-day voyage. On arrival in Marseille, he was admitted to the Hôpital de la Conception where, a week later on 27 May, his right leg was amputated. The post-operative diagnosis was bone cancer, probably osteosarcoma. After a short stay at the family farm in Roche, from 23 July to 23 August, he attempted to travel back to Africa, but on the way his health deteriorated, and he was re-admitted to the Hôpital de la Conception in Marseille. He spent some time there in great pain, attended by his sister Isabelle. He received the Last rites from a priest before dying on 10 November 1891 at the age of 37. The remains were sent across France to his home town and he was buried in Charleville-Mézières. "On November 10, at two o’clock in the afternoon, he was dead", noted his sister Isabelle. The priest, shaken by so much reverence for God, administered the last rites. "I have never seen such strong faith", he said. Thanks to Isabelle, Rimbaud was brought to Charleville and buried in its cemetery with great pomp. There he lies still, next to his sister Vitalie, beneath a simple marble monument.