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Arthur Rimbaud by Enid Starkie

Read this kick ass literary biography back in college soon after I'd "discovered" the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud.  Rimbaud was a huge influence on Jim Morrison and, being such a faux-poet-Jim-Morrison-wannabe at the time, I was curious to find out why Morrison was so driven to emulate Rimbaud, both artistically and self-destructively.  Once I'd read and re-read and unintentionally memorized passages galore of Illuminations, I moved on to A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat, the New Directions edition, and completely forgot about Jim Morrison.

Lines from A Season in Hell like "Misfortune was my God" or "I played sly tricks on madness" knocked my impressionable nineteen year-old self out!  And I don't think I've ever completely come to since.  Thank you, Arthur Rimbaud, for mesmerizing me (and millions others of your French Symbolist adherents) with your radically original visions, and for letting us glimpse inside your divine "notebook from one of the damned".

Enid Starkie, Rimbaud academician extraordinaire, must be paid homage as well for having crafted Arthur Rimbaud, a masterfully written, researched, and scholarly (though never snooty) examination of one of World Literature's most tortured enigmas. Rimbaud's life-story makes Sylvia Plath's seem a happy and serene one by comparison.  How could such a precociously gifted prose poet (and at times, wildly acerbic and satiric personal correspondent to boot) have completely rejected his literary genius barely turned twenty-one, and ultimately end up as an alleged slave trader dead from the untreated effects of syphilis less than twenty years later?  Enid Starkie's comprehensive analysis offers all the known clues — and more.  I didn't know, for instance, prior to reading Starkie's biography that without Rimbaud's poetry — and particularly the reality shifting ethereal poems in Illuminations — that what became the school of surrealism in art, soon to flourish in France and then the world, would have been denied perhaps its greatest influence.

Arthur Rimbaud is a fascinating read, and includes numerous passages involving Paul Verlaine, and their sordid, on-again-off-again affair.  Rimbaud's affair with absinthe and opium is well chronicled too.  Starkie pulled no punches while retaining obvious compassion for Rimbaud's sad plight.  It's like she was urging him on sometimes, was the vague sense I got, as she brought him to vivid life in her fine writing.  Arthur Rimbaud remains a lovely, unflinching, essential biography of Rimbaud the boy, the adolescent poet, the man.


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