I made a trip to the Maison de la Poesie in Paris on a recent evening to see a staging of Arthur Rimbaud’s prose poem Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell). The performance room was in the basement, down a steep flight of stairs. It was like a catacomb, with bare stone walls and a stone floor: a fitting place to stage this work. The set was simple: a large metal cross, a table laid as if for Communion, with a loaf of bread, a glass of wine, and two candles. A blood red carpet covered the floor. The director/actor, Nazim Boudjenah, sat to the side, eyes closed, dressed in white.
Suddenly the lights dimmed, enhancing the redness of the set, and Boudjenah sprang into action, delivering the prologue to Rimbaud’s piece. For the next almost two hours, the actor alternated between joy, despair and rage as he delivered the lines of poem. In addition to his extremely expressive voice and face, the actor used theatrical techniques to excellent effect in presenting the work: he used the cross to simulate crucifixion, he donned blackface during the “Bad Blood” section to echo the “savage” sentiments of the poem, and at one point changed into a women’s black shawl to portray “The Foolish Virgin” of “Delirium I”. In all, it was a tour-de-force of stagecraft and spoken word.
As the performance ended, I had one thought: this was truly how a man damned to hell would behave. But a question also arose. Beyond the brilliant, often hallucinatory images, what is the meaning of this work? I had studied Rimbaud in college, and read A Season in Hell in French, but at the time I think I was more interested in “the total derangement of all the senses” than in finding a meaning to the text. The presentation at the Maison de la Poesie made me want to re-read the poem. I dug out my old college version, which was in both French and English, with the English translation by Wallace Fowlie. I read it a couple of times, in both languages. It is not an easy read. The descriptions and phrases are memorable. But the overall meaning remains elusive on the first few tries.
To understanding this work you must put it into the context of Rimbaud’s life. Stylistically, he had finished with his earlier, lyric verse style, and had begun to experiment with prose poems. Personally, he was at the end of his stormy relationship with Paul Verlaine. They had started out by travelling together and living in Belgium and London, and ended with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the wrist after a violent argument. Verlaine went to prison for two years. Professionally, Rimbaud was shunned by his literary friends in Paris because of his outrageous behaviour and his affair with Verlaine. He borrowed money from his mother to have A Season in Hell printed in Belgium. It was to be the only one of his works printed during his lifetime, and then only a handful of copies were created. After this, he broke with poetry, left France, and effectively ended his literary career. He was only nineteen years old.
Rimbaud is in effect sitting down and reflecting on his life so far, and then trying to plot a new course. By sixteen he had proven his poetic genius; by seventeen he had written La Bateau Ivre (The Drunken Boat), perhaps his best poem. Not long after, he left home. He spent much of his time with Verlaine. He consumed drugs, he consumed alcohol, he lived on the streets. And he travelled extensively, often by foot in the open air. In his attempt to become a visionary -- a voyant -- he crammed a lifetime of experiences and sensations into a few short years. He had begun work on A Season in Hell while still with Verlaine. After their break he retired to his mother’s farm at Roche, locked himself in the loft, and worked feverishly on it until it was finished.
The prologue sets the scene (a good translation by Paul Schmidt can be found here). Rimbaud talks about his lost youth, how he has changed since, and then tells Satan “I pass you these few foul pages from the diary of a Damned Soul.” The next section is titled “Bad Blood”, and this is perhaps one of the most difficult sections to understand. The poet talks about being of an inferior race, a pagan, un negre (a nigger). Rimbaud sees himself as a true outcast who no longer fits (or never did fit) into the Western mold based on Christianity and bourgeois mores. He has reviewed his options, and decided to make a break with the West. This section foreshadows his eventual move to Africa: “I am leaving Europe. The air of the sea will burn my lungs; lost climates will turn my skin to leather”.
Next we pass a “Night in Hell”. The opening lines are powerful:
I have just swallowed a terrific mouthful of poison. -- Blessed, blessed, blessed the advice I was given! -- My guts are on fire. The power of the poison twists my arms and legs, cripples me, drives me to the ground. I die of thirst, I suffocate, I cannot cry. This is Hell, eternal torment! See how the flames rise! I burn as I ought to. Go on, Devil!
The poison represents the drugs and other methods he used to derange his senses in order to become a visionary. Despite being tortured by hallucinations, Rimbaud vaunts of his talent and his imagination:
I will tear the veils from every mystery: mysteries of religion or of nature, death, birth, the future, the past, cosmogony, and nothingness. I am a master of phantasmagoria.
The night in hell is followed by two “Deliriums.” The first, “Delirium I” or “The Foolish Virgin -- The Infernal Bridegroom”, is a dialogue by the Foolish Virgin (Verlaine) describing the traits of the Infernal Bridegroom (Rimbaud). We get a hard look at the relationship of the two men, and Rimbaud does not spare himself. The Virgin at one point says “I go where he goes, I have to. And lots of times he gets mad at me, at me, poor sinner. That Devil! He really is a Devil, you know, and not a man.”
After this section comes “Delirium II” or “Alchemy of the Word”. Rimbaud writes “My turn now. The story of one of my insanities.” Now that the Foolish Virgin has talked of him, he will now talk of himself. What he describes is how he approached poetry. He illustrates how his dabbling in the “Alchemy of the Word” changed as he developed, by inserting verse into the prose narrative. At first “I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still.” His alchemy was to change words into visions.
But he could not continue. At first “my mind turned sour.” Then he describes himself thus: “Oh! the little fly drunk at the urinal of a country inn, in love with rotting weeds, a ray of light dissolves him!” Finally, he makes the decision to break with poetry: “All that is over. Today, I know how to celebrate beauty.”
After spending a season in hell, the poet begins to work his way back to the upper world, much as an ancient hero would after a decent into Hades. Along the way he explores various ideas and things that may “save” him. After the “Deliriums” comes “The Impossible”. In this section he discusses the root of his problems as being in and of the West, and ponders the promises of the Orient. In the next section, “Lightning”, he reflects on human labor. Is work, which he has previously despised, an answer for him? He ultimately rejects it: “No! No! Now I rise up against death! Labor seems too easy for pride like mine.”
The section “Morning” follows, in which we find him imagining a new version of the nativity, one without Christ: “When will we go, over mountains and shores, to hail the birth of new labor, new wisdom, the flight of tyrants and demons, the end of superstition, -- to be the first to adore! -- Christmas on earth!” And finally, he concludes with the section entitled “Farewell”. At first, he looks back on his career as a poet, and declares it over: “I was the creator of every feast, every triumph, every drama. I tried to invent new flowers, new planets, new flesh, new languages. I thought I had acquired supernatural powers. Ha! I have to bury my imagination and my memories! What an end to a splendid career as an artist and storyteller!” But he holds out hope for the future “Yet this is the watch by night. Let us all accept new strength, and real tenderness. And at dawn, armed with glowing patience, we will enter the cities of glory.”
Rimbaud thus gives us a look at the Hell of his existence as a poet, in almost memoir form, and then he bids farewell to poetry. This was not a symbolic adieu. Other than some final work on the Illuminations, Rimbaud quit poetry forever with the publishing of this work. I have tried to condense the overall meaning of this poem into a few paragraphs. The fact is that a thorough reading reveals themes, ideas and images that can spawn entire essays in themselves. This is a piece of literature that is well worth taking the time to read. It is difficult, but it has had a wide impact. The Beats, Jim Morrison, the Punk movement, and countless other artists have been influenced by A Season in Hell. We can think of Rimbaud as a sort of 19th century punk, shunning all convention, and then writing a tortured farewell. The farewell of the damned, in the sense that Rimbaud thought himself as damned at the time, although still holding out for some sort of salvation. What that salvation was to be is unknown. We only have the possibilities he explores in the poem.