Seth Whidden, who has recently produced excellent modern editions of Marie Krysinska's Rythmes pittoresques (Exeter up, 2003) and Wallace Fowlie's translation of Rimbaud's complete works (u of Chicago p, 2005), makes a valuable contribution to modern nineteenth-century poetry studies with his new book on the crisis of the lyric subject in Verlaine and Rimbaud. The Parnassian movement, taken as the historical point of departure for the study and as the core point of æsthetic reference for Verlaine and Rimbaud's respective poetic projects, provides a fresh critical framework for an illuminating analysis of each poet's subversion of a unified creative voice. This study, which eschews biographically inflected interpretation to focus on discursive practice, charts pivotal departures from Parnassian poetry in Verlaine and Rimbaud as crystallizing, æsthetic turns in their modern conceptions of poetic subjectivity.
Introductory comments sketch out salient features of semiotic approaches to poetic language à la Kristeva et Meschonnic that, together with recent "genetic criticism" focused on textual stages of a creative work, inform the emphasis in this study on the organic construction of poetic subjectivity as an æsthetic, rather than a biographical, stance. "For both Verlaine and Rimbaud," Whidden argues, "the destabilized situation of the lyric subject is a direct response to and reaction against the traditional modes of subject/object relations that characterized Parnassian poetry" (14). Chapter 1, "The Dominance of Parnassian Poetry," cogently presents not only the origins and tenets of le Parnasse, but also offers historical and textual evidence that extends this "neo-classical movement" beyond the advent of French Symbolism into the latter decades of the century (19, 23-43). This incisive broadening of the traditional chronology of the dominant poetic movements in the nineteenth century squarely places aspiring poets Verlaine and Rimbaud in the Parnassian shadow and offers an intriguing vantage point from which to view, at the level of poetic discourse, their respective sujets-en-procès.
In Chapter 2, "Verlaine's Identities," Whidden reconsiders Verlaine's Parnassian phase, as encapsulated by several poems from "Melancholia" (from the 1866 collection Poèmes saturniens), to reveal "there lies a poet searching for his voice underneath the Parnassian exterior, unsure of his recently adopted poetic identity" (46-47). With discerning textual readings of subversive prosodic practice in Verlaine's Parnassianera poems that blurs the crisp distinction between the Parnassian subject and object, Whidden shows that "Verlaine's poetry involves the poetic subject's search for identity through interaction with its object" (68). For Whidden, "this project extends throughout Verlaine's entire poetic work and is but one phase within the larger context of a constantly evolving search for poetic subjectivity" (68), from La Bonne Chanson to Romance sans paroles to Femmes/Hombres. In his sustained analysis of "an æsthetics composed of an unstable subject who defines his self [. . .] in terms of his object" (69), from the sublime to the profane, Whidden exposes multiple paths of poetic expression departing from le Parnasse while leading to the "degeneracy of the lyric subject in Verlaine's poetry" (117).
The third and final chapter, "Rimbaud, Beyond Time and Space," demonstrates [End Page 341] against the Parnassian grain a novel way of thinking through the construction of the lyric subject in Rimbaud, from his early verse to the Illuminations. Whidden frames the displacement of traditional categories of time and space in Rimbaud with an astute reading of the voyant's celebrated dictum, "Je est un autre" and, through ensuing close textual analysis of Rimbaud's æsthetic stance, productively illustrates that "Rimbaud situates the lyric subject not only as an other, but also in another place, in a place that is other, particularly in terms of time and space" (125). Drawing on painstaking research in dictionaries and his thorough knowledge of Rimbaud criticism, Whidden aptly opens up along temporal and spatial lines Rimbaud's "dérèglement de tous les sens" (125-31). Initial ruptures with standard categories of time and space and, by extension, from the strictures of Parnassian æsthetics, are teased from Rimbaud's early verse...