“I alone have the key to this savage parade” Arthur Rimbaud



Today is the day of Illumination and my mind goes to Arthur Rimbaud.

Rimbaud was born in Charleville, a provincial town of northeastern France in 1854.

When he was 21 he stopped writting and became an itinerant salesman, adventurer, opportunist.

Rimbaud's tombe in Charleville
Rimbaud’s tombe in Charleville

He lived a short life, but in a sense he also lived a full life.

He died of bone cancer  in 1891 in Marseille, at  the Hôpital de la Conception. He was only 37 years old.

He was burried in Charleville. His tombe stone reads “Pray for him”.

Henri Fantin Latour. Rimbaud is second from the left, Verlaine is first from the left.
Henri Fantin Latour

“I am the saint, at prayer on the terrace . . . / /

I am the learned scholar in the dark armchair . . . / /

I am the walker on the great highway . . .

I gaze for a long time at the melancholy gold laundry of the setting sun.”

Illuminations, translated by John Ashbery (3)

The house where Rimbaud was born
Plaque at the house where Rimbaud was born

I rest my elbows on the table, the lamp illuminates these newspapers that I’m a fool for rereading, these books of no interest.
At a vast distance above my underground salon, houses take root, mists assemble. The mud is red or black. Monstrous city, endless night!
Further down, the sewers. At their sides, nothing more than the thickness of the globe. Maybe gulfs of azure, wells of fire. Perhaps at those levels moons and comets, seas and fables meet.

Illuminations, translated by John Ashbery (4)

Benjamin Britten’s Illuminations (5)

Britten was deeply affected by the emotional intensity of these prose poems and decided to set them to music as soon as he had read them.  As the soprano Sophie Wyss, the dedicatee of the cycle, recalled:  “He was so full of this poetry he just could not stop talking about it, I suspect he must have seen a copy of Rimbaud’s works while he was recently staying with [W.H.] Auden in Birmingham.”

Britten chose a sentence from one of the poems as the motto for his cycle:  “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” (“I alone have the key to this savage parade”).  This sentence also provides the “key” to Britten’s view of Rimbaud’s poetry:  only the artist, observing the world from the outside, can hope to make sense of the “savage parade” that is life.

Rimbaud's Litter Replica
Rimbaud’s Litter Replica

Patti Smith and Rimbaud

Draped in a mosquito net-like sheath, the “litter,” a sort of palanquin, is a recreation of that used to transport Rimbaud from Abyssinia to France for medical care, where he died just months later at the age 37. On the surface of the litter, Mr. Rimbaud’s last words are inscribed. In this way, the piece is a sick bed as well as a grave, complete with epigraph. (1)

This installation was part of Patty Smith’s “Camera Solo” exhibition back in 2011 at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

“Oh arthur arthur. we are in Abyssinia Aden. making love smoking cigarettes. we kiss. but it’s much more. azure. blue pool. oil slick lake. sensations telescope, animate. crystalline gulf. balls of colored glass exploding. seam of berber tent splitting. openings, open as a cave, open wider, total surrender.”

Patti Smith, from “dream of rimbaud”.

Rimbaud's fork and knife
Rimbaud’s fork and knife

Being Beauteous

Against a snowfall a Being Beauteous, tall of stature.  Whistlings of death and circles of muffled music make this adored body rise, swell and tremble like a spectre; wounds, scarlet and black, break out in the magnificent flesh.  The true colors of life deepen, dance and break off around the Vision, on the site.  And shivers rise and groan, and the frenzied flavor of these effects, being heightened by the deathly whistlings and the raucous music which the world, far behind us, casts on our mother of beauty, — she retreats, she rears up.  Oh! our bones are reclothed by a new, loving body.


O the ashen face, the shield of hair, the crystal arms!  The cannon on which I must hurl myself through the jumble of trees and buoyant air!

Illuminations, translated by George Hall (5)


Rimbaud in Africa
Rimbaud in Africa

Bob Dylan and Arthur Rimbaud

Suze Rotolo introduced Dylan to the works of Rimbaud:

“I came across one of his letters called “Je est un autre,” which translates into “I is someone else.” When I read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier.”

Bob Dylan: “Chronicles, vol 1”

The literary characters, themes, and lines that have populated the world of Dylan’s musical landscape have been as deep and varied over the years as his references to history and the folk tradition. In his early years, Dylan was significantly touched by the American Beats—by Kerouac’s On the Road, and also by the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti—and by French symbolists like Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Both Verlaine and Rimbaud are mentioned specifically in the Blood on the Tracks song “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” (6)

Ellen Willis writes that “[Dylan] had less in common with the left than with literary rebels—Blake, Whitman, Rimbaud, Crane, Ginsberg”—mostly poets—and later describes Dylan as a man whose admirers look at him as “a poet using rock-and-roll to spread his art.”(6)

Rimbaud in Aden (first man on the right)
Rimbaud in Aden (first man on the right)

The Escape
“My day is done: I am leaving Europe. The marine air will burn my lungs; unknown climates will tan my skin.” (A Season in Hell)

The year 1878… After stopping by several cities in Africa, Cyprus welcomes Rimbaud with its tranquillity. Here in Cyprus, he works as a supervisor at a stone quarry. He turns out to be a “man of action” totally leaving aside his personality of a “ man of thought”. He takes fancy in doing hard work. Poetry is dead for him. He never mentions his ‘previous’ life and his glorious days in Paris. No one, not even his employer, knows where he is from or who he is. Upon the inquiries concerning his past he replies, “absurd” and goes on “ridiculous, disgusting”. Rimbaud, has become somebody else. He is leading a tranquil and silent life in Cyprus, where he escaped from his past or maybe from himself. (7)


1. Patti Smith: Camera Solo, by Rena Silverman

2. Arthur Rimbaud, Wikipedia

3. Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud – review. Charles Bainbridge, The Guardian, 2011.

4. Visionary Materialism, by Adam Thirlwell

5. The Chamber Orchestra of Boston. May 2007. Program Notes by Jeremy Black.

6. The Weird and Wonderful Literary World of Bob Dylan. By Benjamin Wright.

7. A French Poet in Cyprus: Arthur Rimbaud. Il Paradiso di Beatrice.