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The anti-clerical poet who inspired conversions to Catholicism

How should one evaluate the relationship of a poet with the Church, when his verse is either obscure or plainly hostile to organised religion? Especially if the poet’s surviving family vehemently, and even turgidly, promotes him as a model of piety, a saint and martyr – and one of the leading lights of modern Catholic poetry and drama venerates the same poet as a saintly prophet.

This real-life puzzle was confronted in 1917 by the Vatican’s redoubtable Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books), when it considered whether to ban the French writer Arthur Rimbaud, who still baffles readers in search of poetic meaning today.

French people care about Rimbaud because he wrote with visionary force, with something of the effect upon modern Gallic writing that the King James Bible has had for writers in England.

Rimbaud is one of those poets, like Leopardi, Pushkin or Mickiewicz, whose meaning is so linked to handling words in their own idiom that they may be fairly called untranslatable.

The most serviceable translators of Rimbaud, such as Wallace Fowlie (University of Chicago Press) or Oliver Bernard (Anvil Press), produced cribs to facilitate word-by-word reading for readers with faint recollections of sixth-form French. An ever-increasing number of non-poets have also published their own, sometimes regrettable, versions of Rimbaud.

Of genuine poets who have translated Rimbaud, Robert Lowell and Samuel Beckett created versions well worth reading, but which are not primarily about literal fidelity to the original.

Even for native French-speakers, it is impossible to know what Rimbaud meant in stretches of his writings, among the most cryptic of which is Illuminations, a suite of prose poems.

One honest and skilled translator from the French, the American Catholic poet Marie Ponsot, demurred when offered a publisher’s commission to translate Illuminations, admitting that she hadn’t a clue about the meaning of much of it. This has not deterred bolder spirits, including John Ashbery, whose own verse was inscrutable in its way.

If meaning remains uncertain, where is the allure of Rimbaud that led rock stars – such as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Patti Smith – to pledge allegiance to his work, albeit usually read in less than faithful translations?

Having arrived in Paris from his home in northern France, Rimbaud was photographed aged 17 by Étienne Carjat in October 1872. His blank expression has allowed hordes of subsequent international fans to impose their own interpretations upon this anonymous face.

Some have worshipped Rimbaud vicariously as an adolescent rebel, someone who flaunted convention by drinking and taking drugs to obtain visionary experience. Biographical sources point to other anti-social behaviour by the poet, who deliberately exhaled embers from his pipe into the nostrils of harnessed horses in the street, just to see them rear up in pain; he would ask friends in a café to extend a hand, and then pierce it with a penknife.

So Rimbaud was worse than a difficult houseguest, as some admirers have euphemistically described him. Even the usually reliable biographer Graham Robb got it wrong when likening the intense, violent relationship of Rimbaud and Verlaine to that of Laurel and Hardy.

To paraphrase Falstaff’s self-description in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, Rimbaud was not a believer himself, but a cause of belief in other men.

The ordeal of intimate relations with him incited both Verlaine and Germain Nouveau, another confused and sexually ambiguous poet, to flee to the Church as a safe harbour, whereupon they wrote verse of exalted Catholic inspiration. Clearly proximity to this whirlwind had left them in a state of spiritual upheaval.

Remotely aware of some of this, the Index committee met in 1917 and after, when the rest of Europe was plunged into the carnage of the Great War; but clearly censors knew no rest.

As Jean-Baptiste Amadieu wrote in Francofonia, an Italian scholarly journal, the Index had already condemned works by Balzac, Dumas, Stendhal, Flaubert and Zola, so why not Rimbaud – and his erstwhile friend Verlaine, for that matter?

The committee finally concluded that Rimbaud had few readers and was unlikely to mislead many Catholic youth, as popular novelists might.

They noted hyperbolic claims in books by Rimbaud’s brother-in-law, citing his sister, that Rimbaud had died aged 37 as a sanctified martyr to bone cancer.

As a small boy the poet had been studious and pious, but somewhere around puberty intense dislike for his mother, as representative of an intolerant and small-minded religiosity, had made Rimbaud into a frothing quasi-caricature of what in Catholic France is called a priest-basher (bouffeur du curés).

As a teenager, Rimbaud’s literary genius began to be appreciated, but he had stopped writing poetry by his early twenties. His

First Communions (Premières communions) slated small town piety: “Really, it’s stupid, these village churches / Where fifteen ugly brats fouling the pillars …”

For Rimbaud, the result of “divine babbling” during services was deadly inertia, leading the poet to call: “Christ! O Christ, eternal thief of energies.”

In another example, Poor People in Church (Les Pauvres à l’église), simple-minded believers are described as “happy, humiliated like beaten dogs … And all, drooling the beggarly and stupid faith, / Recite the infinite lament to Jesus.”

In yet another poem, Sun and Flesh (Soleil et chair), he exclaims to the Roman goddess Venus: “Oh! The road is bitter / since that other God harnessed us to his cross.”

Small wonder that one of the Vatican censors commented that “the author’s sacrilegious obscenity is his only intelligible statement, so obscure and nearly opaque is he.”

Yet the eminent author and diplomat Paul Claudel identified Rimbaud as a prophet, whose forceful writing inspired Claudel to rediscover his own faith. Claudel even likened some particularly obscure Rimbaud lines to writings by Jane Frances de Chantal, the saint who founded the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary.

Setting aside this advocacy with a perplexed shrug, the committee decided that although “most of these poems … have the double character of blasphemy and obscenity”, it was hardly worth officially banning a poet who remained largely unknown.

A generation later, in a 1938 review of the still-readable biography by Enid Starkie, AJ (Con) Leventhal, a lecturer in French at Trinity College Dublin who is remembered as a friend of Samuel Beckett, wrote of the by-then celebrated poet:

Rimbaud believed in God. His whole preoccupation is with the Deity, even if it is only to deny or blaspheme. Brought up in a strict Catholic household, his rebellious spirit turns bitingly against dogma and convention. He sneers and rails against Church, God, state, and humanity with an irony which equals the mature disgust of Swift, but which a tendency to a new and evocative alchemy of the word, and the coloured and powerful imaginativeness of a poem like [The Drunken Boat], mark as the product of the explosive genius of adolescence.

More recently, the Dominican Oliver-Thomas Venard, in A Poetic Christ: Thomist Reflections on Scripture, Language and Reality (Bloomsbury, 2019), essentially agreed that Rimbaud, while abandoning Christianity, was still powerfully drawn to, and inspired by, Jesus and the Bible. Rejecting the Church, Rimbaud retained it as a standard for poetry and life.

Benjamin Ivry is the author of biographies of Ravel, Poulenc and Rimbaud, and is a translator from the French of authors including Gide, Verne and Balthus