Alchimie Du Verbe Rimbaud Explication Essay

This article is about the poetic work by Arthur Rimbaud. For other uses, see A Season in Hell (disambiguation).

A Season in Hell (French: Une Saison en Enfer) is an extended poem in prose written and published in 1873 by French writer Arthur Rimbaud. It is the only work that was published by Rimbaud himself. The book had a considerable influence on later artists and poets, including the Surrealists.

Writing and publication history[edit]

Rimbaud began writing the poem in April 1873 during a visit to his family's farm in Roche, near Charleville on the French-Belgian border. According to Bertrand Mathieu, Rimbaud wrote the work in a dilapidated barn.[1]:p.1 In the following weeks, Rimbaud traveled with poet Paul Verlaine through Belgium and to London again. They had begun a complicated relationship in spring 1872, and they quarreled frequently.[2]

Verlaine had bouts of suicidal behavior and drunkenness. When Rimbaud announced he planned to leave while they were staying in Brussels in July 1873, Verlaine fired two shots from his revolver, wounding Rimbaud once. After subsequent threats of violence, Verlaine was arrested and incarcerated to two years hard labour. After their parting, Rimbaud returned home to complete the work and published A Season in Hell. However, when his reputation was marred because of his actions with Verlaine, he received negative reviews and was snubbed by Parisian art and literary circles. In anger, Rimbaud burned his manuscripts and likely never wrote poetry again.

According to some sources[who?], Rimbaud's first stay in London in September 1872 converted him from an imbiber of absinthe to a smoker of opium, and drinker of gin and beer. According to biographer, Graham Robb, this began "as an attempt to explain why some of his [Rimbaud's] poems are so hard to understand, especially when sober".[3] The poem was by Rimbaud himself dated April through August 1873, but these are dates of completion. He finished the work in a farmhouse in Roche, Ardennes.

There is a marked contrast between the hallucinogenic quality of Une Saison's second chapter, "Mauvais Sang" ("Bad Blood") and even the most hashish-influenced of the immediately preceding verses that he wrote in Paris.[need quotation to verify] Its third chapter, "Nuit de l'Enfer" (literally "Night of Hell"), then exhibits a refinement of sensibility. The two sections of chapter four apply this sensibility in professional and personal confession; and then, slowly but surely, at age 18, he begins to think clearly about his real future; the introductory chapter being a product of this later phase.


The prose poem is loosely divided into nine parts, some of which are much shorter than others. They differ markedly in tone and narrative comprehensibility, with some, such as "Bad Blood," 'being much more obviously influenced by Rimbaud's drug use than others, some argue.[need quotation to verify] However, it is a well and deliberately edited and revised text. This becomes clear if one compares the final version with the earlier versions.[4]

  • Introduction (sometimes titled with its first line, "Once, if my memory serves me well...") (French: Jadis, si je me souviens bien...) – outlines the narrator's damnation and introduces the story as "pages from the diary of a Damned soul."
  • Bad Blood ("Mauvais sang") – describes the narrator's Gaulish ancestry and its supposed effect on his morality and happiness.
  • Night of hell ("Nuit de l'enfer") – highlights the moment of the narrator's death and entry into hell.
  • Delirium 1: The Foolish Virgin – The Infernal Spouse ("Délires I: Vierge folle – L'Époux infernal") – the most linear in its narrative, this section consists of the story of a man (Verlaine), enslaved to his "infernal bridegroom" (Rimbaud) who deceived him and lured his love with false promises. It is a transparent allegory for his relation with Verlaine.
  • Delirium 2: Alchemy of Words ("Délires II: Alchimie du verbe") – the narrator then steps in and explains his own false hopes and broken dreams. This section is divided more clearly and contains many sections in verse. Here Rimbaud continues to develop his theory of poetry that began with his "Lettres du Voyant", the "Letters of the Seer".[5]
  • The Impossible ("L'impossible") – this section is vague, but one critical response sees it as the description of an attempt on the part of the speaker to escape from hell.
  • Lightning ("L'éclair") – one critic[who?] states that this short section is unclear, although its tone is resigned and fatalistic, indicating a surrender on the part of the narrator.
  • Morning ("Matin") – this short section serves as a conclusion, where the narrator claims to have "finished my account of my hell," and "can no longer even talk."
  • Farewell ("Adieu") – this section allude sto a change of seasons, from Autumn to Spring. The narrator seems to have become more confident and stronger through his journey through hell, claiming he is "now able to possess the truth within one body and one soul."


Mathieu describes A Season in Hell as "a terribly enigmatic poem", and a "brilliantly near-hysterical quarrel between the poet and his 'other'."[1]:p.1 He identifies two voices at work in the surreal narrative: "the two separate parts of Rimbaud’s schizoid personality—the 'I' who is a seer/poet and the 'I' who is the incredibly hard-nosed Widow Rimbaud’s peasant son. One voice is wildly in love with the miracle of light and childhood, the other finds all these literary shenanigans rather damnable and 'idiotic'."[1]:pp.1–2

For Wallace Fowlie writing in the introduction to his 1966 University of Chicago (pub) translation, "the ultimate lesson" of this "complex"(p4) and "troublesome"(p5) text states that "poetry is one way by which life may be changed and renewed. Poetry is one possible stage in a life process. Within the limits of man's fate, the poet's language is able to express his existence although it is not able to create it."(p5)[6] According to Mathieu: "The trouble with A Season in Hell is that it points only one way: where it’s going is where it’s coming from. Its greatest source of frustration, like that of every important poem, is the realization that it’s impossible for any of us to escape the set limits imposed on us by 'reality.'"[1]:p.2 Wallace in 1966, p5 of above-quoted work, "...(a season in Hell) testif(ies) to a modern revolt, and the kind of liberation which follows revolt".

Academic critics[who?] have arrived at many varied and often entirely incompatible conclusions as to what meaning and philosophy may or may not be contained in the text.

Among them, Henry Miller was important in introducing Rimbaud to America in the sixties[7]. He published an English translation of the book and wrote an extended essay on Rimbaud and A Season in Hell titled The Time of the Assassins. It was published by James Laughlin's New Directions, the first American publisher of Rimbaud's Illuminations.


During one of her lengthy hospitalizations in Switzerland, Zelda Fitzgerald translated Une Saison en Enfer. Earlier Zelda had learned French on her own, by buying a French dictionary and painstakingly reading Raymond Radiguet's Le Bal du Comte d'Orgel.[need quotation to verify]

Wallace Fowlie translated the poem for his Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters in 1966.[8]

In popular culture[edit]

"To whom shall I hire myself out?
What beast must I adore?
What holy image is attacked?
What hearts must I break?
What lie must I maintain? In what blood tread?"
  • Author Tom Robbins wrote a book called Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates (2000). This title is a line from A Season in Hell.
  • The final song on the US release of Moby's fourth album, Animal Rights (1996), is named after A Season in Hell. In addition, his album Last Night (2008) includes the track "Hyenas" in which a female voice reads the first several lines of A Season in Hell in the original French.
  • In the game Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, an antagonist named Alice has attacks that are all named after famous literary works. (e.g. The Red and the Black is a historical French novel, A Season in Hell is a French poem etc.)
  • A Season in Hell is quoted in the novels The Ghosts of Watt O'Hugh[9] by Steven S. Drachman and As Simple As Snow[10] by Gregory Galloway. Watt O'Hugh is a 2011 novel that features J. P. Morgan as a principal character. In the novel, Morgan reads Une Saison on Enfer in his study, moments before being visited by the ghost of his first wife. The novel was named one of the best of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews.[11]
  • A Season in Hell was quoted several times in the album Pretty. Odd. (2008) by Panic! at the Disco.
  • Contemporary artist Alex Da Corte has cited A Season in Hell as a major influence on his work, most notably in his video A Season in Hell, as well as at his solo exhibition entitled Free Roses at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art with an installation entitled "A Season in He'll". [12]



  1. ^ abcdMathieu, Bertrand, "Introduction" in Rimbaud, Arthur, and Mathieu, Bertrand (translator), A Season in Hell & Illuminations (Rochester, New York: BOA Editions, 1991).
  2. ^Bonnefoy, Yves: Rimbaud par lui-meme, Paris 1961, Éditions du Seuil
  3. ^Robb 2000, p. 201
  4. ^Arthur Rimbaud: Une Saison en Enfer/Eine Zeit in der Hölle, Reclam, Stuttgart 1970; afterword by W. Dürrson, p. 105.
  5. ^Arthur Rimbaud: Une Saison en Enfer/Eine Zeit in der Hölle, Reclam, Stuttgart 1970; afterword by W. Dürrson, S. 106.
  6. ^Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters by Wallace Fowlie
  7. ^
  8. ^Fowlie, Wallace. Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  9. ^Drachman, Steven S. (2011). The Ghosts of Watt O'Hugh. Chickadee Prince Books. p. 153. ISBN 978-0-578-08590-6. 
  10. ^Galloway, Gregory (2005). As Simple As Snow. Putnam,. 
  11. ^"Review, The Ghosts of Watt O'Hugh". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved 2012-02-19. 
  12. ^"Designer detritus: artist Alex Da Corte makes the everyday extraordinary". Wallpaper. Retrieved 2016-11-14. 


External links[edit]

Cover of the first edition October 1873

Une Saison en enfer

Arthur Rimbaud

The following entry presents criticism of Rimbaud's prose poem Une Saison en enfer (1873). For information on Rimbaud's complete career, see NCLC, Volumes 4 and 35.

In both style and substance, Une Saison en enfer (A Season in Hell) is considered a revolutionary work. Unlike earlier authors of prose poems, Rimbaud shunned conventional description, straightforward narrative, and didactic purpose. Une Saison represents a revolt against the naturalism, precision, and objectivity of the Parnassians, who dominated French poetry in the 1860s and 1870s. Its innovative reliance on suggestion and evocation rather than concrete depiction heralds the inception of the Symbolist movement, whose adherents idolized Rimbaud. In basic form, Une Saison is a unique confessional work in which the poet describes a harrowing emotional and spiritual struggle. Though the poem has been subject to widely divergent interpretations, most recent commentators regard it as both a sardonic account of Rimbaud's beliefs and aspirations, and a moving exploration of universal hopes and desires.

Biographical Information

Rimbaud was born on October 20, 1854, in Charleville, a town in northeastern France not far from the Belgian border. He was eighteen years old when he wrote Une Saison, and his literary career—inaugurated when he was fifteen—was nearly over. He began the work in April 1873, and composed most of it in the seclusion of his mother's farmhouse in Roche, near Charleville; however, he may have written parts of it in London and Brussels, where he spent brief periods in May and July with the poet Paul Verlaine. Rimbaud and Verlaine had become lovers in 1871, but their two-year affair was marked by frequent quarrels and separations. Their relationship came to a dramatic close in Brussels on July 10, 1873, when Verlaine—outraged that Rimbaud intended to leave him once again—shot him in the wrist. After recuperating in a Brussels hospital for a week, Rimbaud returned to his mother's farm and completed Une Saison before the month was over. The work was published in November, and Rimbaud took a few copies to Paris, seeking critical acclaim. Disappointed at the lack of interest in his latest creation, Rimbaud left France and spent much of 1874 in England. In January 1875 he began the

nomadic career that would occupy the remainder of his life. After traveling throughout Europe, he journeyed to Africa in 1880. He spent the following years chiefly in Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) where he became a commercial trader, an explorer, and an arms dealer. He died in Marseilles on November 10, 1891.

Textual History

The composition dates and early publication history of Une Saison en enfer have been well documented by modern scholars. In a letter to his friend Ernest Delahaye, dated May of 1873 and written from Roche, Rimbaud described his progress on a prose poem that he had provisionally titled "Livre païen" ("Pagan Book") or "Livre nègre" ("Negro Book"). After completing the work in July of 1873, Rimbaud took the manuscript to a printer in Brussels, where it was published in November. His sister Isabelle fostered the story that Rimbaud was so discouraged by the lack of critical enthusiasm for Une Saison that he burned the entire edition, and for decades it was generally believed that there were only a few copies in existence. However, in 1901 a Belgian bibliophile named Losseau discovered approximately five hundred copies of the book in the attics of the Brussels printer; apparently they were left in storage because Rimbaud had been unable to pay for them. Losseau shocked the literary world when, in 1915, he revealed his discovery.

Form and Content

Une Saison en enfer is framed as a literary, emotional, and spiritual autobiography. In the course of the work, Rimbaud adopted a series of narrative personas, contended with concrete and abstract protagonists, and addressed a variety of audiences. The prevailing rhetorical style follows a pattern of statement—endorsement of a proposed solution, a philosophical premise, or a moral value—followed by an antithetical or counterstatement; this, in turn, is succeeded by a rejection or dismissal of both positions. Verb tenses frequently switch from past to present, and the poetic language alternates between formal and colloquial discourse.

Commentators generally view Une Saison as comprising nine sections, although some regard the fourth and fifth sections—"Délires I" and "Délires II"—as a single entity. The first section, untitled, is usually referred to as the prologue or preface; here the speaker reminisces about his former life and his rebellions against authority, and sets the stage for the poem's ambiguous treatment of good and evil. In the second part, "Mauvais Sang" ("Bad Blood"), the poet explores his pre-Christian, Gallic origins and emphasizes his alienation from modern civilization. "Nuit de l'enfer" ("Night of Hell") is a tortured account of hallucinations, spiritual combat, and damnation, in which the narrator parodies his attempts to become a semi-divine being and change the world. "Délires I" ("Deliriums I")—subtitled "Vierge folle—l'Époux infernal" ("Foolish Virgin—The Infernal Bridegroom")—is generally agreed to be an ironic presentation of the failed relationship between Verlaine and Rimbaud, although several critics have asserted that the two personas also represent the feminine and masculine aspects of the author's temperament. "Délires II"—subtitled "Alchimie du verbe" ("Alchemy of the Word")—evokes Rimbaud's failed literary experiment to find, through the role of voyant or seer, a new mode of poetic expression; it includes seven of the poems he wrote the previous year, in slightly altered form. "L'Impossible" ("The Impossible") is highly intense, abstract, and metaphysical; here the author bitterly denounces nineteenth-century Western civilization, mourns the loss of purity, and acknowledges that his dreams of escape are futile. "L'Éclair" ("The Flash [of Lightning or Insight]") is alternately hopeful and mocking, remorseful and defiant, as it considers alternatives to traditional modes of religion, art, and cultural institutions. In "Matin" ("Morning"), the narrator reflects on his past even as he looks to the future; he appears to accept, with resignation, the necessity of adapting to life's realities. In the final section, "Adieu" ("Farewell"), the speaker advances the possibility of finding a new way of achieving truth and then expressing it in innovative language; the narrator mocks this effort, too, and points out that the search will be a lonely venture.

Major Themes

Perhaps because it is a richly complex work, there is no critical consensus regarding the principal motifs in Une Saison en enfer. Some critics emphasize the theme of evil, others focus on the topic of alienation, and still others stress the significance of sin and redemption in the poem. Many scholars have called attention to the narrator's struggle to reconcile the ideals of Christianity with the hypocrisy and corruption of Western civilization. The poem presents a myriad of dualities or conflicting themes, most of which have their origin in the Christian opposition of body and spirit. The attempt to resolve these dualities—to achieve salvation through some yet unknown means—is diffused throughout the work. The motif of damnation occurs repeatedly and is variously met with hope, despair, mockery, and resignation. The poem's title itself suggests the theme of time and the different stages of life, including innocence as well as corruption. Although the issue of literary aspirations is dealt with most extensively in "Délires II," it appears frequently throughout the poem, as the narrator alternately speaks with pride of his earlier verses and denigrates these lyrics as failures. Whether "Adieu" presents the poet as vowing never to write again, resigned to his role as an ordinary man, or still hopeful that he can find a way to express the ineffable and achieve personal salvation, is unclear. Alluding to the essential ambiguities of Une Saison en enfer, C. W. Hackett has asserted that, like most of Rimbaud's work, it is "both 'closed' and 'open,' final and provisional, an end and a beginning."

Critical Reception

The earliest critical appraisals of Une Saison en enfer almost invariably disparaged the poem as the confession of a debauched scoundrel. In the 1890s, however, commentators began to perceive in it a deep spirituality. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics generally believed the myth that Rimbaud personally destroyed every copy of the poem, and they were unaware of the likelihood that he continued working on his other major prose poem, the Illuminations, after completing this work. Thus they viewed Une Saison as Rimbaud's final, emphatic farewell to literature. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, commentators frequently adopted a biographical approach to the poem, tracing—or hypothesizing—connections between the text and Rimbaud's life. This approach yielded a variety of judgments, as various critics concluded that Une Saison reveals its author as a mystic and a blasphemer, an atheist and a devout Catholic, a bourgeois and a communist. To some degree, explications of the poem's biographical resonances are still being proposed; in the 1960s, for example, Enid Starkie asserted that the work demonstrates the nexus between Rimbaud's poetic doctrines and his religious beliefs, and that he was chiefly concerned with the issues of sin, his personal belief in God, and his compromised principles. Similarly interested in the link between art and religion in Une Saison, W. M. Frohock proposed that while the poem displays Rimbaud's rejection of both Catholicism and the poetry he wrote before 1873, it also reveals his determination to continue searching for a new path to wisdom and a new way of expressing the realities of human existence. The 1970s marked the beginning of a movement away from the critical preoccupation with the link between Rimbaud's life and his poetry. In 1979, C. Chadwick adopted a more formal approach to Une Saison, comparing it with Rimbaud's other work and focusing on such issues as structure, tone, and vocabulary. Soon thereafter C. A. Hackett continued this trend, emphasizing Rimbaud's artistry and the unique dramatic technique he devised for Une Saison. In 1987 Jonathan Monroe evaluated the poem's formal and thematic structure, particularly its fragmented narrative and its disjointed presentation of time and space. And in the early 1990s, James Lawler analyzed the self-dramatizing nature of Une Saison, calling attention to its pervasive emotional ambiguities. Common strains running through recent criticism have included a focus on Rimbaud's dramatic technique and on his juxtaposition of pagan and Christian thought, together with forceful assertions about the universal ramifications of this acutely personal narrative.


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