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Illuminations, and Other Prose Poems

by Arthur Rimbaud

Other authors: Ray Johnson (Cover designer), Louise Varese (Translator)

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625237,744 (4.19)None
The prose poems of the great French Symbolist, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), have acquired enormous prestige among readers everywhere and have been a revolutionary influence on poetry in the twentieth century. They are offered here both in their original texts and in superb English translations by Louise Varèse. Mrs. Varèse first published her versions of Rimbaud's Illuminations in 1946. Since then she has revised her work and has included two poems which in the interim have been reclassified as part of Illuminations. This edition also contains two other series of prose poems, which include two poems only recently discovered in France, together with an introduction in which Miss Varèse discusses the complicated ins and outs of Rimbaldien scholarship and the special qualities of Rimbaud's writing. Rimbaud was indeed the most astonishing of French geniuses. Fired in childhood with an ambition to write, he gave up poetry before he was twenty-one. Yet he had already produced some of the finest examples of French verse. He is best known for A Season in Hell, but his other prose poems are no less remarkable. While he was working on them he spoke of his interest in hallucinations--"des vertiges, des silences, des nuits." These perceptions were caught by the poet in a beam of pellucid, and strangely active language which still lights up--now here, now there--unexplored aspects of experience and thought.… (more)
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Arthur Rimbaud combined precocious mastery of many forms of French poetry with disdain for its other practitioners. After scandalous times in Paris, London, and Brussels, he retreated home to the Ardennes and in solitude became the godfather of surrealism with the prose poems contained in this volume.
All of this before he turned twenty-one.
These poems count as difficult, yet what struck me is how concrete the language is. There are few abstract terms. The difficulty of the poems lies in the surprising juxtaposition of the words (“magie bourgeois,” for instance, is a term that never would have occurred to me). When you read this collection, you enter a world in which snow burns and lava chills. Is this arbitrary? Or perhaps it is part of his self-study course in rational derangement of all the senses.
A key term pops up repeatedly: “féerique” (fairy-like). This seems to be another hint to Rimbaud's project, one to which he alone had the key, as he writes at the end of “Parade”: "J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage." This line seems for some readers to apply to all the poems in this collection, and they question whether one should even bother to enter such a hermetically sealed body of work, where meaning tantalizingly eludes understanding. Perhaps the passage of time and the influence these poems have exercised from André Breton to Bob Dylan and Patti Smith have made it easier for us to sit back and allow ourselves to be enchanted.
When the poet writes: “J’ai tendu des cordes de clocher à clocher; des guirlandes de fenêtre à fenêtre; des chaînes d’or d’étoile à étoile, et je danse,” this expresses for me the power of imagination to create worlds similar to the one in which we live, but in which our quotidian constraints no longer bind us. There are few explicit references to the cities he visited. Instead, some poems feature generalized, anonymous urban landscapes, while others offer a rich catalog of place names, modern and ancient, supplemented by astral bodies and sea floors.
All the poems are written in the first person, but the “je” who speaks is not necessarily autobiographical, but a constructed persona. On the other hand, scattered references to “Elle,” an insatiable vampire who reinforced his self-accusations of indolence, suggests Rimbaud’s mother.
To further enrich the vocabulary, Rimbaud includes a smattering of English and German words (“bottom,” “wasserfall”). At times, some of the unusual combinations of French words seem as if they may have been suggested by homonyms in other languages. Even the title, Illuminations, should be pronounced as in English, according to Verlaine.
One can quibble with the translations. Once or twice, Mme. Varèse simply leaves out a phrase, and at times, she seems to miss a nuance in the original. For instance, when Rimbaud writes in "Vies," "j'ai eu une scène où jouer les chefs-d'œuvre dramatiques de toutes les littératures," Mme. Varèse translates "I once had a stage on which to play all the masterpieces of literature," this is adequate, but to me misses the sense of the plural "littératures," which suggests bodies of work from different languages: not only Racine, but also Shakespeare and Goethe. I have not compared her renditions to other translations but found them serviceable as cribs so that I didn’t have to run repeatedly to the dictionary.
( )
  HenrySt123 | Jul 19, 2021 |
The clouds gathered over the open sea which was formed of an eternity of warm tears.

There was obviously a time when Rimbaud was an aspiration, an impoverished goal, one brocaded with the lice with which one can toss upon the clergy. Allah, of course, had other plans. I did read a number of fawning books and I maintained the posture for a while. That is a but a memory. Steeped--perhaps--in patchouli and cigar smoke.

It was thus strange to return to the poet after a few decades. I was encouraged earlier in the week by Edmund Wilson’s dichotomy of the character of Axel and the peripatetic life of Rimbaud. It does give me pause that a teenager wrote these incandescent prose poems. Some border on shrill. Most are transportive and wrought in excess. There appears to be an affinity with Paris Spleen and I am curious to return to Starkie's biography to see Arthur's position on Baudelaire. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Arthur Rimbaudprimary authorall editionscalculated
Johnson, RayCover designersecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Varese, LouiseTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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The prose poems of the great French Symbolist, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), have acquired enormous prestige among readers everywhere and have been a revolutionary influence on poetry in the twentieth century. They are offered here both in their original texts and in superb English translations by Louise Varèse. Mrs. Varèse first published her versions of Rimbaud's Illuminations in 1946. Since then she has revised her work and has included two poems which in the interim have been reclassified as part of Illuminations. This edition also contains two other series of prose poems, which include two poems only recently discovered in France, together with an introduction in which Miss Varèse discusses the complicated ins and outs of Rimbaldien scholarship and the special qualities of Rimbaud's writing. Rimbaud was indeed the most astonishing of French geniuses. Fired in childhood with an ambition to write, he gave up poetry before he was twenty-one. Yet he had already produced some of the finest examples of French verse. He is best known for A Season in Hell, but his other prose poems are no less remarkable. While he was working on them he spoke of his interest in hallucinations--"des vertiges, des silences, des nuits." These perceptions were caught by the poet in a beam of pellucid, and strangely active language which still lights up--now here, now there--unexplored aspects of experience and thought.

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