As soon as I got round to reading this poem I knew I was in for a treat. And I wasn’t disappointed; it most certainly was a treat. It’s the classic journey into hell—a pilgrimage for the damned, the rebellious, and the lecherous. Although unlike Dante’s Inferno, where hell is described in all its horrible glory, A Season in Hell offers only a short sojourn into the underworld, a little taster. Within the poem it’s the author himself, Arthur Rimbaud, who has consigned himself to this often-tread passage into the fiery pits, but near the end he does something which no other mortal soul has managed to do: he comes back. Exactly as the title suggests, it’s about a season in hell, and in much the same way that all seasons must pass, so too does Rimbaud’s torment, as he’s momentarily offered a small glimpse of hope.
In being a true libertine in every sense of the word, Rimbaud was the most rebellious of artists. He also has one of the most mispronounced names in all of literature (for an accurate pronunciation, think Sylvester Stallone’s ‘Rambo’, and you’re practically there). His rebellious streak was borne out of his distain for late nineteenth century bourgeois convention, and his poetry perfectly encapsulates this defiant attitude, which is, more often than not, maniacal, savage, exotic, and utterly imposing. And like any Bohemian artist worth his salt, the content of his poetry spilled out into his everyday life, which was filled to the brim with sex, drugs and whatever the nineteenth century version of rock-and-roll was. Through his poetry he also changed the face of literature for good, effectively dragging it against its will into a new era defined by modernism, symbolism and surrealism. But the most astonishing aspect of his genius was the fact that he did all of this whilst in his late teens, before retiring as a poet at the ripe old of age of 21 (depressing, huh?). He then went on to become, of all things, an arms dealer in Colonial Africa.
Arthur Rimbaud at 17 years of age
Rimbaud wrote A Season in Hell in the middle of 1873 at his family’s farmstead just outside Charleville. He was 18 years old at the time, which in a way shows throughout the poem, as it’s replete with the kinds of personal struggles and feelings of alienation that we today would associate with teenage angst. It begins almost in the style of a suicide note, with Rimbaud exclaiming that he’s about to spill his guts about the sins he’s committed throughout his short yet eventful life thus far. This is then followed by him addressing Satan directly, with the chilling line “I pass you these few foul pages from the diary of a Damned Soul.” What comes after this is an astonishing journey into Rimbaud’s psyche. He decries his Gaulish ancestry, seeing himself as being part of an inferior race whose mores are entirely at odds with the world of Christian faith and French, Bourgeois principles. He described the thought processes behind his unique style of writing, and how he felt as if he ultimately failed in his poetic endeavours as his “mind turned sour.” At one point he even alludes to swallowing vast amount of psychoactive drugs (his “poison”), before going off on a surreal reverie about his impending descent into the hellfire, where he goads Satan into burning him alive.
But at the heart of this struggle lies Rimbaud’s tumultuous, on-and-off-again relationship with his fellow poet Paul Verlaine, a relationship which forms a major part of A Season in Hell. Rimbaud first met Verlaine in 1871, and despite being a mere 16-year-old kid at the time, he managed to seduce Verlaine both intellectually and sexually. This sparked off an intense, drug- and alcohol-fuelled love affair which very often descended into violence, particularly in the form of knife fights (think Pete Doherty vs. Carl Barat, but far more extreme…). Eventually Verlaine, in a drunken fit of rage, shot Rimbaud in the wrist, thus ending their brief dalliance. I mean, you just couldn’t make this stuff up; it’s the greatest romantic fling ever told! Rimbaud’s feelings towards Verlaine are told in excruciating detail within the poem’s aptly titled fourth part, “Delirium 1: The Foolish Virgin – The Infernal Spouse.”
Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud
The poem ends with a shift in the seasons, and Rimbaud’s resultant return from hell. He imagines a kind of Brave New World, one stripped of the torments that had previously held him back, one without Christ or political tyrants. This can effectively be seen as his farewell to poetry, and he needed to go to hell and back in order make this adieu. This was a trip filled with maniacally surreal imagery and some of the most profound symbolism you’ll probably ever read.
If you’re a fan of poetry, the chances are you’ve already read A Season in Hell, and that you probably know more about it than I do; I am after all a relative newbie to poetry in general, let alone that of the French flavour. But if not, then it may very well serve as your gateway drug (pun most certainly intended) into the realm of all things poetic, so it’s definitely worth your time.
by Rhys Morgan