Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (// or //; French: [aʁtyʁ ʁɛ̃bo] ( listen); 20 October 1854 – 10 November 1891) was a French poet who is known for his influence on modern literature and arts, which prefigured surrealism. Born in Charleville-Mézières, he started writing at a very young age and was a prodigious student, but abandoned his formal education in his teenage years to run away from home amidst the Franco-Prussian War. During his late adolescence and early adulthood he began the bulk of his literary output, but completely stopped writing at the age of 21, after assembling one of his major works, Illuminations.
Rimbaud was known to have been a libertine and a restless soul, having engaged in an at times violent romantic relationship with fellow poet Paul Verlaine, which lasted nearly two years. After the end of his literary career, he traveled extensively on three continents as a merchant before his death from cancer just after his thirty-seventh birthday. As a poet, Rimbaud is well known for his contributions to Symbolism and, among other works, A Season in Hell, which was a significant precursor to modernist literature.
Arthur Rimbaud was born in the provincial town of Charleville (now part of Charleville-Mézières) in the Ardennes department 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 Legion of Honor "by Imperial decree". Captain Rimbaud was described as "good-tempered, easy-going and generous". with the long moustaches and goatee of a Chasseur officer.
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 narrowminded, "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 When Charles Houin, an early biographer, interviewed her, he found her "withdrawn, stubborn and taciturn".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 light brown hair, and eyes that his lifelong best friend, Ernest Delahaye, 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 first prizes in the French academic competitions, 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 mentor, and soon a close friendship formed between teacher and student, with Rimbaud 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 his friend Paul 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 it is widely interpreted that he refer to Verlaine as his "pitiful brother" (frère pitoyable) and the "mad virgin" (vierge folle), and to himself as the "hellish husband" (l'époux infernal) and described their life together as a "domestic farce" (drôle de ménage).
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.
At the same time he also engaged in exploring and 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 1885 Rimbaud became involved in a major deal to sell old rifles to the king of Shewa. The explorer Paul Soleillet became involved early in 1886. The arms were landed at Tadjoura in February, but could not be moved inland because Léonce Lagarde, governor of the new French administration of Obock and its dependencies, issued an order on 12 April 1886 prohibiting the sale of weapons.
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 the 100th anniversary of Rimbaud's birth, Thomas Bernhard delivered a memorial lecture on Rimbaud and described his end:
"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. He still lies there, next to his sister Vitalie, beneath a simple marble monument.
In May 1871, aged 16, Rimbaud wrote two letters explaining his poetic philosophy. The first was written 13 May to Izambard, in which Rimbaud explained:
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 was inspired by the work of Charles Baudelaire. This inspiration would help him create a symbolism style of poetry. Rimbaud said much the same in his second letter, commonly called the Lettre du voyant ("Letter of the Seer"). Written 15 May—before his first trip to Paris—to his friend Paul Demeny, the letter expounded his revolutionary theories about poetry and life, while also denouncing most poets that preceded him. Wishing for new poetic forms and ideas, he wrote:
I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed—and the great learned one!—among men.—For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul—which was rich to begin with – more than any other man! He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!
Rimbaud expounded the same ideas in his poem "Le bateau ivre" ("The Drunken Boat"). This hundred-line poem tells the tale of a boat that breaks free of human society when its handlers are killed by "Redskins" (Peaux-Rouges). At first thinking that it is drifting where it pleases, the boat soon realizes that it is being guided by and to the "poem of the sea". It sees visions both magnificent ("the awakening blue and yellow of singing phosphorescence", "l'éveil jaune et bleu des phosphores chanteurs") and disgusting ("nets where in the reeds an entire Leviathan was rotting" "nasses / Où pourrit dans les joncs tout un Léviathan). It ends floating and washed clean, wishing only to sink and become one with the sea.
Archibald MacLeish has commented on this poem: "Anyone who doubts that poetry can say what prose cannot has only to read the so-called Lettres du Voyant and Bateau Ivre together. What is pretentious and adolescent in the Lettres is true in the poem—unanswerably true."
French poet Paul Valéry stated that "all known literature is written in the language of common sense—except Rimbaud's". His poetry influenced the Symbolists, Dadaists, and Surrealists, and later writers adopted not only some of his themes, but also his inventive use of form and language.
Rimbaud was a prolific correspondent and his letters provide vivid accounts of his life and relationships. "Rimbaud's letters concerning his literary life were first published by various periodicals. In 1931 they were collected and published by Jean-Marie Carré. Many errors were corrected in the  Pléiade edition. The letters written in Africa were first published by Paterne Berrichon, the poet's brother-in-law, who took the liberty of making many changes in the texts."[incomplete short citation]
Rimbaud's poetry, as well as his life, influenced many 20th-century writers, musicians and artists, including André Breton, Dylan Thomas, Mark Bolan, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jack Kerouac, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Neal Cassady, Vladimir Nabokov, Bob Dylan, Luis Alberto Spinetta, Roberto Bolaño, Patti Smith, Pete Doherty, Tom Verlaine, Léo Ferré, Henry Miller, Van Morrison, Penny Rimbaud, Jim Morrison, and Richey Edwards.
Rimbaud's life has been portrayed in several films. Italian filmmaker Nelo Risi's film Una stagione all'inferno (1971) ("A Season in Hell") starred Terence Stamp as Rimbaud and Jean-Claude Brialy as Paul Verlaine. Rimbaud is mentioned in the cult film Eddie and the Cruisers (1983), along with the storyline that the group's second album was entitled A Season in Hell. In 1995, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland directed Total Eclipse, which was based on a play by Christopher Hampton who also wrote the screenplay. The film starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud and David Thewlis as Paul Verlaine.
In the 1981 Brazilian film Eu Te Amo Sonia Braga's character is a young woman who has a degree in art history. She tells her lover, Paulo, about her degree and that Arthur Rimbaud was "a fag who threw shit on the wall and wrote poetry".
In 2012, composer John Zorn released a CD titled Rimbaud, featuring four compositions inspired by Rimbaud's work—'"Bateau Ivre" (a chamber octet), "A Season in Hell" (electronic music), "Illuminations" (piano, bass and drums), and Conneries (featuring Mathieu Amalric reading from Rimbaud's work). Rimbaud is also mentioned in the CocoRosie song "Terrible Angels", from their album La maison de mon rêve (2004). In his 1939 composition Les Illuminations British composer Benjamin Britten set selections of Rimbaud's work of the same name to music for soprano or tenor soloist and string orchestra. Hans Werner Henze set one of the poems in Illuminations, "Being Beauteous", as a cantata for coloratura soprano, harp and four cellos in 1963.