And we are the better for his efforts at a complete disorienting of the senses, his senses, by whatever means necessary. Edmund White has written a new book looking at the l'enfant terrible of poetry.
He smashed the china, soiled the sheets, sunbathed nude and was either drunk or stoned - Arthur Rimbaud was an impossible house guest, but he liberated the true poet in his lover Verlaine, writes Edmund White
Arthur Rimbaud, one of the most revolutionary poets of 19th-century France, grew up in a small town, Charleville, in the north-east corner of the country near the Belgian border. As a child he'd been obedient to his strict mother (his father was a soldier who'd vanished after rapidly siring four children) and he'd been the best student in the region, excelling in the classics and French. But Rimbaud's real interest was poetry. He haunted the local bookstore and read all the latest poetry coming out of Paris. So attracted was Rimbaud to the capital that he ran away from home, arrived in Paris on 30 August 1870 - and was instantly arrested for not paying the correct fare on his train ticket. He was put in prison, and only his favourite teacher from back home was able to get him out. Despite this ignominious beginning, Rimbaud - who was 16 going on 17 - made several other attempts to reach the capital, even though the Prussians had invaded and Paris had declared itself a commune between 26 March and 30 May 1871.
The penniless and friendless Rimbaud could never survive for long away from home during these chaotic times. But in the early autumn in 1871 he fired off a letter to Paul Verlaine, his favourite poet. Without waiting for a response, Rimbaud sent off a few more poems to Verlaine two days later. Then came the fateful response from Paris: "Come, dear great soul, we call you, we await you." Verlaine enclosed the train fare.
Verlaine was a homicidal alcoholic. He was also an extremely gentle, sensitive poet with a distinctive tone and a remarkable musicality. These two aspects of his character had set up a pitched battle over his anguished destiny; he would always be susceptible to one impulse or the other. Like Rimbaud, Verlaine had been a brilliant student in classical languages and written dazzling verses in Latin. But there the resemblance ended. Verlaine was a lazy, always dirty boy who barely squeaked by in most of his classes. Whereas Rimbaud was striking if strange in his looks, Verlaine was indisputably ugly, resembling the popular idea of Socrates while possessing none of the philosopher's equanimity. His skull was too large, his face pushed in, his eyes oblique, his pug nose too small and tipped up. He'd lost most of his hair at an early age and compensated for it by growing sparse, wispy whiskers. The mother of Verlaine's best friend said after meeting him, "My God, your friend made me think of an orangutan escaped from the zoo!"
Whereas Rimbaud seems to have shown no erotic interest in his own sex before meeting Verlaine, the older poet was notorious at school for groping his classmates. After high school, Verlaine enrolled as a law student in Paris but seldom attended classes. He spent most of his time reading poetry old and new and getting drunk on absinthe.
Verlaine drank so much that he soon succumbed to a special form of crazy and violent alcoholism called absinthisme. Eventually he withdrew from law school and began working a boondoggle his parents had found for him at the city hall, where he showed up at 10 in the morning, took a two-hour sodden lunch, lurched back to the office for an hour or two of shuffling papers, and was ready for aperitifs at the Café de Gaz by five. Notwithstanding his habits, Verlaine remained intensely interested in the arts in general and in poetry in particular. He became the art critic for one journal and defended Baudelaire in print, announcing - in the spirit of Art for Art's Sake - that "the goal of poetry is the Beautiful and the Beautiful alone without any reference to the Useful, the True or the Just". By the mid-1860s Verlaine was one of the 37 Parnassians in good standing and published from time to time in their poetry journal. His work was largely ignored by the general public, but was acclaimed over the next few years by fellow poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Victor Hugo. Curiously, Verlaine, who would be known in his life as a brutal husband and an impious wretch, as a writer became celebrated as the greatest Catholic poet in the French language (for his collection Wisdom), and as an ardent defender of married bliss (The Good Song). Verlaine was full of contradictions - by turns wildly exalted and deeply depressed, leading one friend to remark that he was both a clown and an undertaker.
In the autumn of 1869 he met a 16-year-old girl, Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville, to give her full (and probably invented) poetic name. She was prettily chubby in the approved fashion of the day, and painfully innocent. She saw Verlaine two or three times at a literary salon and a musical evening before he noticed her. By the time they spoke she was used to his ugliness and greeted him with a friendly smile, and he was charmed by her freshness and kindness. She noticed how gentle and radiant he became around her. As she later recalled, "At that moment he ceased to be ugly, and I thought of that pretty fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, where love transforms the Beast into Prince Charming."
Quite sensibly, Mathilde's father did not want his daughter even to consider the suit of a much older man. He urged her to wait two years, but she was smitten. By carefully regulating his excesses, Verlaine managed to woo and win Mathilde. They lived with her parents in Montmartre and soon enough had a little boy. But this paradise of sobriety and domesticity was interrupted when Rimbaud arrived.
On 24 September 1871, Rimbaud took the train from Charleville to Paris - less than a month before his 17th birthday. All he had with him were his manuscripts ("The Drunken Boat" taking pride of place) and a change of clothes. No one was there to greet him at the station in Paris. Verlaine kept running back and forth between the Gare du Nord and the nearby Gare de L'Est, accompanied by a young comic poet named Charles Cros. At last Verlaine and Cros gave up and went back to Montmartre and Mathilde's parents' house, a 15-minute walk away. There in the small cosseted salon they found the young, belligerent poet with his sunburned face and large hands, his piercing blue eyes, unsmiling mouth, uttering monosyllables in his heavy Ardennes accent.
Twelve years later Verlaine would recall, "The man was tall, well built, almost athletic, with the perfectly oval face of an angel in exile, with unruly light chestnut hair and eyes of a disquieting blue." Elsewhere Verlaine wrote: "He had a real baby's head, plump and fresh on top of a big bony body with the awkwardness of an adolescent who has grown too quickly."
Mathilde and her mother snobbishly ascribed the brutishness to countrified naivety. They were able to put the boy up for the moment only because Monsieur Mauté was away on a hunting party. When Monsieur Mauté returned, young Rimbaud would have to be hidden away as someone unsuitable for respectable company.
Rimbaud was an impossible guest. He took to nude sunbathing just outside the house. He turned his room into a squalid den. He mutilated an heirloom crucifix. He was proud of the lice infesting his long mane and even pretended he was encouraging the vermin to jump on to passers-by. Verlaine was delighted with Rimbaud's antisocial antics, which recalled to him his own younger excesses before his marriage. Verlaine introduced Rimbaud to his friends in the cafés where they congregated regularly. After the first encounter, one of Verlaine's friends, Léon Valade, wrote the next day to an absent member, "You missed a great deal by not being there. A most daring poet not yet 18 was introduced by Paul Verlaine, his inventor and in fact his John the Baptist. Big hands, big feet, a wholly babyish face like a child of 13, deep blue eyes! Such is this boy, whose character is more antisocial than timid and whose imagination combines great powers with unheard-of corruption and who has fascinated and terrified all our friends."
The modern reader can't help but smile at the readiness of Parisians of that epoch to be "terrified" by "unheard-of corruption". In fact, these poets would soon form the core group of the Decadents (a "school" that took its name from a line by Verlaine: "I am the Empire at the end of its decadence"). Valade concluded by calling Rimbaud "Satan in the midst of the doctors", as opposed to Christ among the rabbis at the temple. When one of the Goncourt brothers shook Rimbaud's hand, he claimed he felt as if he were touching the most notorious murderer of the day.
When Monsieur Mauté was due to return, Charles Cros took the youngster in briefly - until Rimbaud used as toilet paper a magazine in which Cros had just published some poems. Next the Parnassian poet Théodore de Banville offered to take in the young poet and lodge him in the maid's room above his apartment at 10, rue de Buci - just a few steps from the heart of Left Bank Paris, St Germain-de-Prés. His first night in Banville's maid's room, he stood in the illuminated window stark naked and threw down his lice-laden clothes into the street. Within a week Banville had asked the miscreant to leave, but only after Rimbaud had smashed the china in his room, soiled the bed sheets with his muddy boots and sold some of the furniture.
Within a few short weeks after his arrival he was no longer being described as an angel or a devil but as an obnoxious boor. The only person who couldn't see his faults - or who delighted in them - was Verlaine. In the 14 months since he'd married, Verlaine had written no new poetry, though he had successfully curbed the excesses of his drinking. Now Rimbaud was encouraging him to live like a savage and stay drunk - and to write like the seer he was destined to be. Moreover, Rimbaud represented Verlaine's sexual ideal, a dominant adolescent who appeared to be always available erotically. Soon enough Verlaine had given up his respectable clothes and returned to his slouch hat and dirty muffler, and although he and Rimbaud lived like beggars and Rimbaud was constantly being moved from one guest room to another, together the two managed to spend considerable sums of money. Rimbaud was so belligerent that the two lovers found their circle shrinking - especially since they made no secret of their "vice". They collaborated on a sonnet celebrating the asshole ("Sonnet du trou du cul") - Verlaine wrote the first eight lines and Rimbaud the last six.
Rimbaud became still more difficult in November, when, according to a childhood friend, he tried hashish for the first time. Between hash and absinthe he was well under way in his long, immense and systematic disordering of all the senses, a project he was deliberately cultivating in the name of art.
On 21 October 1871, Verlaine's son Georges was born. The birth seemed only to enrage Verlaine all the more. Mathilde later claimed that Verlaine threatened her life every day between October 1871 and January 1872. One day in January, after Mathilde refused to give Verlaine money for drink, he seized the three-month-old Georges and flung him against the wall. And then he started to choke his wife.
Until now, Mathilde had been successfully concealing her husband's brutality from her parents, even though they were all living under the same roof. But now they could see for themselves the marks on their daughter's throat and, in a flood of tears, she confessed all the horrors visited on her since Rimbaud's arrival four months earlier. Perhaps already foreseeing a separation (divorce would not become legal until 1884), Monsieur Mauté asked a doctor to examine the bruises and to sign a document attesting to what she had suffered. Mauté also decided that the couple must be separated and sent Mathilde and the baby off to a hiding place in Périgueux, where his family lived.
Verlaine decided he needed time to salvage his marriage. He begged Rimbaud to leave town and return to his mother in the Ardennes. Rimbaud saw himself as an archangel descended to earth to liberate Verlaine from his bourgeois temptations as a human being and the tendencies towards prettiness in his poetry. It was Rimbaud who made Verlaine reread the technically brilliant poems of Musset and Leconte de Lisle. It was Rimbaud who convinced him to write in 10-syllable lines (instead of the flowing, automatically eloquent 12 syllables of French tradition or the eight syllables of ballads). And it was Rimbaud who tried to banish human anecdotes, realistic sketches and sentimental portraits from Verlaine's work.
Something of the tenor of their relationship can be deduced from "Vagabonds", one of the prose poems included in Illuminations. In it, Verlaine, "the pitiful brother" (but a paragraph later "the satanic doctor"), complains that Rimbaud's peculiar blend of bad luck and innocence has isolated them and led them into poverty and exile. The "poor brother", with his mouth rotten and his eyes starting out of his head, wakes up every night shouting reproaches - his "dream of idiotic grief" - which prompts the offended, misunderstood Rimbaud to think: "Actually in all innocence I had undertaken to return him to his original state of Child of the Sun - and we kept wandering, nourished only by spring water and dry biscuit, as I urgently tried to find the place and the formula."
What was this place and formula Rimbaud was so eager to discover? It undoubtedly had to do with a utopian future that would exclude the deadening effects of conventionality and would usher in a whole new era of love. Again and again he refers to "the new harmony", "the new love" and "the new men". He calls for a "departure" towards "the new affection". Historically, we have entered an era, Rimbaud tells us, that is one of both murderous and pitiless assassins, and of hashish-smokers - le temps des Assassins. (The original "assassins" were a fierce Muslim band of hashish-smokers and bandits who flourished from the eighth to the 14th centuries.) Rimbaud could certainly be as pitiless as a real assassin. He once had Verlaine play a "game" in which Verlaine would stretch out his hand on the table and Rimbaud would stab at his spread fingers. Verlaine thought the point of the game was to show that he wouldn't flinch, that he trusted Rimbaud. But Rimbaud quite simply stabbed him in the wrist.
By the beginning of March 1872, just six months after his arrival in Paris and into Verlaine's life, Rimbaud was heading home to his mother. He knew that he would be back with the older man as soon as Verlaine had straightened out his marriage. Verlaine also knew that the retreat was only temporary. Eventually Mathilde returned to Paris with their son, and for a while everything seemed back on an even keel. Verlaine was even looking for a job again. But soon he was writing Rimbaud passionate letters, asking for instructions about how they would live together.
• Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel by Edmund White is published by Atlantic Books (£16.99). To order a copy for £15.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop