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Reviewed by:
  • Arthur Rimbaud by Seth Whidden
  • Timothy Unwin
Arthur Rimbaud. By Seth Whidden. (Critical Lives.) London: Reaktion Books, 2018. 192 pp., ill.

Seth Whidden’s captivating account of Rimbaud is certain to establish itself swiftly as an essential item on reading lists. For all the constraints of the ‘Critical Lives’ format, the book provides both an excellent introduction for the student, and some probing and challenging analyses for the more advanced scholar. While the main focus is understandably on the key period from the early 1870s, we are also treated to an authoritative account of what is known (and not known) about the earlier and later stages of Rimbaud’s life. Whidden charts the main phases in six chapters framed by an Introduction and a concluding section entitled ‘Afterlives’. Discussion of the poetry is nuanced throughout, and we are treated to some delightfully perceptive close readings. Whidden makes it clear that, despite Rimbaud’s deserved reputation as an iconoclast — typical of his many outrageous insults to the poetic establishment was his comment that Banville was a ‘vieux con’ (cited p. 78) — he only ever tackled poetry itself from a position of deep understanding and serious engagement. A brilliant scholar and (gratifyingly) an outstanding student of foreign languages, Rimbaud put his own precocious learning to noteworthy effect as he dismantled the traditions of French verse. In the early chapters, Whidden traces the gradual emergence of that transformative vision of poetry that Rimbaud will articulate so powerfully in 1871. Thought-provoking readings of, among others, ‘Ma Bohême (fantaisie)’ (pp. 40–42) or of ‘Le Dormeur du val’ (pp. 51–53) demonstrate how the young poet subjects the sonnet form to terminal pressure and, making an early bid to break the shackles of tradition, sows the seed of the free verse forms that will emerge in his subsequent work. There is a clear sense in Whidden’s account that, however wild and disjointed Rimbaud’s development seems, it also reveals firm lines of progression; and we are invited to view Rimbaud’s life after poetry in similar terms. In his account of Rimbaud’s years of wandering and eventual devastating illness in Africa, Whidden reminds us that this was, for Rimbaud himself, a natural progression out of poetry; and that after all he continued to write a great deal, if not always the sorts of texts that literary scholars might [End Page 470] have wished for. But Whidden also challenges us not to over-read things, for the open questions are a quintessential part of Rimbaud’s enduring fascination. The book is enlivened by a copious and attractive set of illustrations: not only that iconic and incontournable portrait by Étienne Carjat (p. 85), but also photographs taken by Rimbaud himself in his later years, including a self-portrait in 1883 (p. 157), and by numerous photographs of family, friends, contemporary figures, places, and manuscripts. Translations are excellent throughout. If there is one small regret for those who read Rimbaud in French, it is that whereas we are given the original French for all poems quoted, the letters are given only in English. That detail aside, this is an exemplary study, and one that inspires us to revisit, reread, and rethink Rimbaud.

Timothy Unwin
University of Bristol


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pp. 470-471
Launched on MUSE
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