Rimbaud in Royal College Street
In the third of his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley unearths the facts about the writer Arthur Rimbaud
03 July, 2018 — By Neil Titley
HEADING a list of admirers that included Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison of the Doors, it is maybe the punk “poet laureate” Patti Smith who has proved to be the greatest fan of the Symbolist writer
Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). Last year, she went so far as to purchase his childhood home in Roche, a French village on the Belgian border. She stated that he was “so cool. When I was young, he was like my boyfriend”.
Described variously as “the pederast assassin” and “perversity incarnate”, Rimbaud had a psychopathic personality and through his poetry unerringly followed his creed of “derangement of the senses”.
Despising the conventional life he stated: “Man hopes to spend three quarters of his life suffering in order to spend the last quarter taking his ease. Usually, he dies of poverty without knowing how far along he is with his plan.”
Rimbaud had no intention of following suit. In Britain he is possibly most famous for the three months of 1873 when he lived with his bisexual lover Paul Verlaine at No 8, Royal College Street, Camden Town. This relationship was portrayed in the 1995 film Total Eclipse starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud.
However, his life was wilder than even that frenzied episode.
At the start of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Rimbaud interrupted a brilliant school career and ran away to see the action in Paris. Arrested because he had failed to pay the rail fare, he was thrown into prison. While there, he became the object of sex attacks by both convicts and policemen, but appeared to be unfazed by such incidents.
Escaping back home through the Prussian lines, Rimbaud became a feared hooligan, espousing anarchic revolution, and openly deriding the concept of marriage in favour of untrammelled bisexuality.
The plaque on the house shared by Rimbaud and Verlaine in Royal College Street
His time in Paris was spent in a riot of antisocial behaviour. Having been banned from Verlaine’s in-laws’ home for stealing, Rimbaud rented new lodgings and on the first night there was spotted dancing naked on the rooftop. Having wrecked the place, he sold off the landlord’s remaining furniture. Taking up the smoking of hashish with alacrity, he survived by bar work and the selling of key rings.
He repaid one friend’s hospitality by defecating in the morning milk, while lacing a companion’s glass of absinthe with sulphuric acid – fortunately the victim realised in time.
Ending his relationship with Verlaine, an affair spiced with ultra-violence and gunplay, he left him imprisoned in Brussels and returned to England. He acquired a teaching post in Reading, Berkshire, after he had offered his services in a newspaper advert claiming that he had “Good References”.
Three months later, after the school discovered that the references did not quite tally with the reality, Rimbaud left for Brussels and signed up with the Dutch colonial army. In 1876 he was sent to Java, where he found that his military career might involve fighting a horrific campaign in the disease-ridden interior. He deserted and, having been pursued through the jungle, reached the coast and signed on under a false name as a sailor on a British ship. He returned to Cork in Ireland and then made his way back to Brussels. A friend described Rimbaud’s journey as “a little voyage from Brussels to Cork – via Java”.
He then moved to Hamburg, Germany, where under another false name he re-joined the Dutch army as a recruitment agent for the army he had just deserted. Shortly afterwards, he deserted it for a second time.
By 1878, after killing a man in Cyprus, he escaped by rowing himself out to a departing ship. Arriving in the Yemen port of Aden, he made a series of hazardous treks across the Red Sea into the Somalian hinterland. Establishing his credentials in Ethiopia, he took up slave trading and especially gun running, delivering several thousand rifles to the new capital of Addis Ababa. These armaments proved to be crucial when in 1896 at the Battle of Adowa the Ethiopians decisively defeated the Italian attempt to colonise their country.
Settling in the Ethiopian city of Harar, he acquired a harem of mistresses and studied the Koran. Intrigued by the sacred text, Rimbaud began to supply his own interpretation and gained a personal religious following. This heresy so infuriated the local imams that he came under attack by stick-brandishing zealots.
Forced to return to France, he died of cancer aged 37. After finishing his greatest work, A Season in Hell, Rimbaud entirely abandoned poetry when aged only 19. However, during the 1890s, this teenage verse was recognised as the greatest of his age and later inspired the Surrealist and Dadaist movements.
“I loved deserts, burned out orchards, faded boutiques… I dragged myself down stinking alleyways… General, if there’s an old cannon left, aim for the glass of splendid shops, into the living rooms… make the city eat its own dust.”
• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk