Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 419-421
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Rimbaud studies had this book coming. On the heels of a recent landmark critical edition (Steve Murphy's Poésies, Vol. 1 of Œuvres complètes [Paris: Champion, 1999 ]; reviewed in NCFS 29.1-2 [Fall-Winter 2000-01]: 173-76) and an even more recent, and similarly groundbreaking biography (Jean-Jacques Lefrère's Arthur Rimbaud [Paris: Fayard, 2001 ], we must now add Michel Murat's study to the short list of books that completely change the way we study Rimbaud. Following in the tradition set forth by Benoît de Cornulier, whose Théorie du vers: Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé (Paris: Seuil, 1982) provides one of the most useful and relied-upon approaches to versification, Murat devotes this entire lengthy volume to the art of Rimbaud's poetics. [End Page 419]
As he states at the outset, Murat limits the scope of this study to Rimbaud's œuvre poétique, in the strictest sense: only the poems in verse and in prose are considered here, leaving aside Une Saison en enfer and Rimbaud's other prose writings. In the first part, devoted to the verse poems, Murat dissects Rimbaud's work and explains its myriad poetic manifestations (alexandrines, decasyllables, octosyllables, etc.). In keeping with the approach of recent studies from "la critique génétique," Murat does away with the arbitrary divisions that have marked almost all of Rimbaud's published editions; in this first part, he refuses the traditional distinction between familiar groupings of "Poésies" and either "Derniers vers" or "Vers nouveaux," any such categorization being editorial in origin and necessarily privileging one of the two groups. His choice of including most of the poems from the Album zutique signals another step in the right direction, these poems ignored by critics - with some notable exceptions - far too often. In addition to Murat's insightful discussions, one aspect of this part that impresses is the emphasis on historical context; for example, rather than participating in a trajectory that would include Mallarmé's "Crise de vers," Murat's Rimbaud is, in 1870-71, not avant-garde but "contemporain de lui-même et des milieux littéraires qu'il fréquentait" (14). Comparisons to Hugo, Baudelaire, Banville, Verlaine, and Mallarmé provide a complete picture of the universe of poetry into which Rimbaud's work fits. Similarly, the brief "Le contexte littéraire" (111-15) at the beginning of "La rime," the second half of the book's first part, is a welcomed addition to this study. Despite the highly technical nature of a few passages (including the calculated "densité phonique" and "densité graphique" for all of Rimbaud's verse poems [124-27)], "La rime" shows clearly the rhymes that are unique to Rimbaud (as well as those that are reminiscent of Vigny, Hugo, Desbordes-Valmore, and others). Perhaps the most important contribution in this first part is "Un maître du sonnet" (197-225), an excellent discussion of Rimbaud's use of the "sonnet libertin" (sonnets with quatrains of four different rhymes) and the "sonnet régulier" in 1870 and 1871.
In the second part, Murat argues that Illuminations is not a jumbled series of fragments - the theory developed by André Guyaux in Poétique du fragment (Neuchâtel: La Baconnière, 1985) - but "un recueil de poèmes en prose - recueil en tant que tel inachevé, mais pas nécessairement incomplet" (232). Supporting this claim is the manuscript in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale (n. a. fr. 14123): thirty-nine poems, two-thirds of which were put in order by Rimbaud (243). Murat's thorough presentation of the poème en prose again insists on the historical context in which we need to consider Rimbaud; the tradition of what he calls "poésie non versifiée" goes back not just to Gaspard de la Nuit but to Fénelon and Houdar de la Motte in the eighteenth century (233), whereas Baudelaire...