- Poetry, Politics & the Body in Rimbaud: Lyrical Material by Robert St. Clair, and: Arthur Rimbaud by Seth Whidden
Robert St. Clair’s brilliant new book Poetry, Politics & the Body in Rimbaud: Lyrical Material, takes as its point of departure a letter—not one of the “lettres du voyant” addressed to Georges Izambard and Paul Demeny, dated May 13 and 15, 1871 respectively, but another—sent to Izambard the previous August, during the Franco-Prussian war. Here, Rimbaud complains: “Ma ville natale est supérieurement idiote entre les petites villes de province” (1). This missive precedes, and to some degree explains, Rim-baud first flight to Paris, which ends almost before it begins with his arrest, brief imprisonment, and a ticket back home. St. Clair calls this Rimbaud’s initial attempt “to make his way in the capital” (1), but it soon becomes clear that the formulation also lends itself—catachrestically—to St. Clair’s book. In Poetry, Politics & the Body, the reader is invited to see how Rim-baud initially “make[s] his way in (. . .) capital.” As such, the book might be considered a highly erudite and persuasive response to Steve Murphy’s remark—made in his landmark Rimbaud et la Commune: microlectures et perspectives (2010)—that “on a généralement minoré la dimension idéologique de l’œuvre” (162). Instead of returning to the more overtly political poems written during and in the immediate aftermath of the Commune, such as “Chant de guerre parisien,” St. Clair seeks to show how Rimbaud’s poems were already ideologically charged—albeit in mostly hidden ways—as early as 1870. Specifically, and most strikingly, St. Clair makes the case that “the nineteenth-century thinker of emancipatory politics, history and indeed embodiment” to whom this early Rimbaud comes closest is Karl Marx, and that, together, the poet and the philosopher are part of “a common discursive, historical, and epistemological ‘ecosystem’ ” (20).
As a study of Rimbaud’s verse poems, Poetry, Politics & the Body examines a domain that “remains curiously under-interrogated in English-language scholarship” (13). Each chapter provides an extensive interpretation of a single verse poem, four composed during 1870 and one in the fall of 1871. Of the five poems, only one—whose eponymous smithy challenges a timid Louis XVI to don the red bonnet, offering a transparent allegory for class conflict—might be considered political. They are for the most part “joke poems and parodies, (. . .) sonnets about drinking beer and [End Page 456] eating ham tartines in a bar, (. . .) quatrains about nothing in particular” (15). They are also all texts that trouble—rather than radically contest—rules of French versification, rules that Rimbaud will shatter in the years that follow, culminating with the creation of “Marine” and “Mouvement,” the first examples of “vers libre” ever written in French. But here, St. Clair skillfully demonstrates how even poems from 1870 contain stresses and cracks, formal imperfections that discreetly make the irruption to come little more than a matter of time.
Chapter One, “Natural Bodies,” proposes to read one of three poems the fifteen-year-old Rimbaud sent to Théodore de Banville, a leading figure of Parnassian poetry, in May 1870. “Sensation” is a slight poem, consisting of just two quatrains, but in St. Clair’s hands it becomes the pretext to a series of highly intelligent and informative examinations of “the complex historical and poetic moment in which Rimbaud composed the poem” (22). St. Clair’s method consists in “following the unexpected ways in which such texts insistently link themselves to political and literary contexts and intertexts” (15). Specifically, he draws on the importance to the early Rimbaud of Parnassian poetry, arguing that Rimbaud’s brief flirtation with the movement—particularly although not exclusively through the figure of Banville—was not entirely antagonistic or parodic as is commonly presumed. Unlike the young Mallarmé or Théophile Gautier, for instance, Banville was not disconnected from political concerns. From as early as 1846, the poet espoused a “kind of...