Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel by Edmund White

Athur Rimbaud made a splash on the Paris literary scene, became a scandal, destroyed Paul Verlaine’s marriage, revolutionized French poetry and left it all for an obscure post in Northern Africa before the age of 21.

At age 16 he sent a few poems to Paul Verliane, already the leading figure in French poetry.  Verlaine was so taken with them he sent word to Rimbaud, “Come, dear great soul. We await you; we desire you,” along with a one-way train ticket.  Rimbaud was an instant sensation, more for his character, or lack there-of, than for his poetry.  He was the talk of the town and then the one the town refused to talk to.  Paul Verlaine fell head-over-heals in love with him.  The two lived openly as lovers, in spite of Verlaine’s marriage and in spite of the anti-homosexual laws of 19th century France.  In disfavor with most of Paris, the two travelled to London where they tried to survive as language tutors and where Rimbaud wrote some of his major works including A Season in Hell and Illuminations.  Their London stay ended badly, an argument got out of hand and Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist.  Rimbaud survived, but he left Verlaine and abandoned poetry altogether.

Rimbaud never saw the profound effect his poetry had on French literature, nor did he ever see any fame from his work.  At one point he tried to have all of his writing destroyed.  Verlaine, who remained devoted to Rimbaud all his life, published his poetry long after their separation, once Paris had had time enough to forget how hated Rimbaud had become.  Rimbaud’s poetry was a success; his reputation and influence have only grown since his death at age 36.  Today, he enjoys a secure place in the cannon of French literature and a strong cult following.

Edmund White is his biggest fan.

Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel is an informative biography but it’s also a love letter.  Mr. White discovered Rimbaud in school, when he was a lonely student, looking to find a place in the world.  It’s easy to see why Arthur Rimbaud would inspire Mr. White.  Many teenagers see themselves as outsiders, gay teenagers especially so.  In Rimbaud, young Edmund White found a kindred spirit.  In his poetry he found inspiration.

In spite of his love for Rimbaud, Mr. White’s biography is clear-eyed and honest.  He doesn’t sugar-coat any of the details, nor treat his subject with kid gloves.  Rimbaud was a horrible person. He may have been guided by a vision of literary greatness, but he was not a nice guy to be around.  Paul Verlaine paid a very heavy price for his affair with the young poet.

Mr. White’s biography is in part a reading memoir, by which I mean an account of what it was like to read Rimbaud.  It’s here that Mr. White is free to justifiably gush over his subject.  It’s also here that Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel is most fun to read.  I doubt anyone will end up loving Rimbaud the man as a result of Mr. White’s book, but I do suspect I’m not the only one who’ll give Rimbaud’s poetry a try because of this biography.
I knew of Rimbaud and Verlaine before reading Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel but I’d never read any of his poetry beyond the poem about the vowels and their colors that often finds its way into school textbooks.  I consider it a testament to Mr. White’s book that it made me want to read Rimbaud’s poetry.  I did and it’s amazing.  I can see why the young Edmund White fell in love with the author of The Drunken Boat.

Enough tears! Dawns break hearts.
Every moon is wrong, every sun bitter:
Love’s bitter bite has let me swollen, drunk with heat.
Let my hull burst!  Let me sink into the sea!

If I still long for Europe’s waters, it’s only for
One cold black puddle where a child crouches
Sadly at its brink and releases a boat,
Fragile as a May butterfly, into the fragrant dusk,

Bathed in your weary waves, I can no longer ride
In the wake of cargo ships of cotton,
Nor cross the pride of flags and flames,
Nor swim beneath the killing stares of prison ships.

I’ve only a vague idea what Rimbaud is talking about, but I’m with him.  I’ll drink the absinthe.  Sign me up Mr. White, I’m buying his complete poems. 

For more on Paul Verlaine see the wonderful posts at Wuthering Expectations here.


Since first publishing this review in 2010 I remain a big fan of Arthur Rimbaud.  I’ve read Season in Hell several times.  It’s wonderful, but I still would not spend time with the poet.  What a jerk.

6 thoughts on “Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel by Edmund White

  1. A bit like the Amadeus film and play. And that’s another argument in favour of ‘read the work without knowing the person’. I know many absolutely lovely writers whose work (it pains me to say it) is not going to stand the test of time, and then there are some writers that you really would rather not know in person but who write divinely. It’s a mystery where all that sensitivity and beauty comes from, but it certainly doesn’t manifest itself in their behaviour.

    1. I don’t really understand, well I guess I do, the desire to make artists we admire into people we admire. Their sensitivity and beauty goes into their art. This can make them jerks in real life, but we’re not reading them because they are nice people, are we?

  2. It’s true. Rimbaud (and Verlaine) are names I know, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about them beyond “French” and “poet.” The poem you included is intriguing. Hooray for the internet, which at least lets us dip into the unfamiliar, and choose or not to explore further.

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