Mstation Book Reviews
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Tue, 03 Jun 2008

Rimbaud: Wyatt Mason

Wyatt Mason, translator and editor, various Rimbaud titles, 
The Modern Library Classics website

Arthur Rimbaud is well-known to lit students and sundry other people as a wild boy-poet from 19th century France. He kicked over the traces more than somewhat and scandalised Paris with lots of drinking, rowdy behavior, and an interesting love life which included taking up with Paul Verlaine, who had a pregnant wife at the time. He stopped writing poetry (mostly) at 21 and went on, after a few wanders, to live and work in Aden. He died aged 37 in Marseilles from a nasty unidentified disease.

But his name hasn't stayed alive just because he had an interesting and short life, but rather because of the quality of his work which is vibrant, exciting, and a little scary in parts - as well as being abundantly louche in others (if you get the references). But beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder and in his time not too many saw it at all, Now, though, is different and some regard him as the father of modern poetry.

Wyatt Mason is the newest translator of Rimbaud and experts say he has injected an extra jolt of vibrancy and has tuned the English more to modern usage. He's also a Rimbaud scholar in other ways as well and has studied his life as completely as records will allow. His introductions make very interesting reading and his arrangement of the last volume of letters shows his wide scholarship well.

Moderately advanced French language scholars might quibble with some of the translation as "modern" can sometimes be just ungracious and the occasional dumbing-down of tenses just plain ignorant. Let's get away from the idea that the lowest common denominator is the valid way ... please.

Still, there are mysteries - in the Season of Hell, written while he was healing a bullet wound inflicted upon him by Paul Verlaine (and which resulted in Verlaine going to prison) it is widely suggested that here are the whinings of a willful and most unapologetic young hell-raiser, and yet the references to redemption are many, and the wish for the tranquility of that state also seems clear, even though the author clearly thought it out of reach - then, anyway.

Whichever way you look at it (and the literal and utilitarian is not the path to joy or wisdom here) there is still lots to set an imagination along a path never travelled. And if you're reading in English then perhaps you have a new guide.

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