Arthur Rimbaud: The Brigantine

Arthur Rimbaud: The Brigantine

Rimbaud (in Paris) by Forain

Gold in the Soul

Perhaps in spite of the efforts of all poets literature is powerless in the modern world. Maybe that’s why Arthur Rimbaud gave up.

But did he give up?

I don’t believe that Rimbaud ever ceased to be a seer. For me his deathbed ’Aphinar’ letter proves that he never abandoned inner vision. How so? Because this last heartbreaking letter, dictated to Isabelle and addressed to ‘Monsieur le Directeur’, is really written to someone other than the corporate kingpin of the ‘Aphinar’ steamship company. (Biographers have speculated that ‘Al Fanar’ was intended – the Arabic word for lighthouse – and this seems very likely. Certainly an ‘Aphinar Line’ never existed.) With one leg amputated and his groin on fire, Rimbaud is addressing the source of all light the night before he dies in the Hospital of the Immaculate Conception. Rimbaud is talking to God on his deathbed in Marseille, asking if he has any cosmic credit left, asking if he can hope for anything after death. Naturally he frames the question in terms of business-dealings because he’s so out-of-his-mind on morphine that buying and selling become metaphors for living and dying, in the same way that ‘sailing home to Ithaca’ becomes an allegorical journey for Odysseus. In fact Rimbaud is asking in the most poignant way imaginable whether he is spiritually worth anything, whether there is still any gold in his soul. He is already in the judgment-halls of the afterlife watching the feather of his extraordinary purity being weighed against the heaviness of his experience.

If poetry has become ’an idiot’s game’ (to paraphrase Eliot) and even the ‘unacknowledged legislators’ of Shelley have been shut down, still a new world is coming.

And Rimbaud knew it.

A distressed (and Rimbaudian) waysign in Pancras churchyard

Shamanic synchronicities

I would like to enlarge on my first encounter with Rimbaud. This is a narrative I have never told though I have wanted to tell it for a very long time. Yet because of its strangeness I have hesitated, thinking always that some day or other I would write a long poem about my experience of ‘standing on the rooftop of the universe’, if I may put it that way. Now, just recently – after the Place Vendome – I feel the decision has been taken for me and I have to attempt to capture a once-in-a-lifetime moment when metaphysical windows of coincidence opened, when connective synchronicities suddenly came into play.

To begin this exploration of what happened to me many years ago I need to discuss that enigmatic area of London where Rimbaud and Verlaine lived once upon a time. This is often called Camden Town but in fact Royal College Street is halfway between Camden Town and Kings Cross (where the trains leave for Paris from St Pancras International). As a matter of fact the house of Arthur Rimbaud is only a ten minute walk from the continental terminus.

When I first engaged with the zone of St Pancras back in the winter of 1972 it was a post-industrial wasteland, an urban limbo of tinned-up derelicts where meths-drinkers burned banisters and floorboards by night, where marginals and misfits, artists and musicians congregated against the backdrop of the three-day week. I was one of several hundred maladjusted artists washed-up on an island of non-conformity. I was another Robinson Crusoe shipwrecked in the vast ocean of London. We were insular and defiant, we thought of ourselves as a Commune. We had a basement community restaurant where plates of brown rice were served for pennies every evening. We had a street-festival and a street-magazine (which I edited). An old air-raid siren mounted on a rooftop warned of squad-cars approaching down Royal College Street.

Pancras Old Church in Kings Cross. The foundation is described in Vatican archives as ‘the head and mother of all Christian Churches, under Highgate, near London’. The north-wall is made of Roman tiles, the altar-stone of St Augustine is here. The house of Arthur Rimbaud is only a few steps away.

The Arthurian Mysteries

Within eight weeks of arriving in this place I went through a lifechanging psychogeographical initiation. Later on I came to understand that many hidden forces operate in this part of London. For instance a lost river – the Old River of Wells, also known as the River Fleet – lies buried beneath Kings Cross St Pancras. Once upon a time its waters ran down from Hampstead Heath, where Rimbaud and Verlaine – like John Keats before them – loved to walk. Nowadays the lost river still flows under Royal College Street. Running south it continues beneath St Pancras Old Church and joins the Thames beside St Paul’s Cathedral (where the watercourse gives its name to Fleet Street). In antiquity the Fleet river was regarded as sacred. The Pancras Waters were bottled-up in wooden bottles and sold all over Elizabethan London in Shakespeare’s times. The chalybeate waters of the Old River of Wells were reputed to be healing and restorative. Spas were distributed all along the river’s length. But with industrialization the holy river was buried alive and forgotten. By the end of the 18th century it had more or less disappeared. (In certain places – like Argyle Square where Rimbaud stayed in 1874 – you can still hear the lost river running under the streets.)

Kings Cross St Pancras has another magical aspect. The zone is surrounded by a ring of fire-hills. These ‘high places’ were ritually sanctified long before Christianity arrived in Britain. Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill, St Michael’s Mount and the Penton of Pentonville circle Kings Cross St Pancras as places of power. (Underneath the Penton is the mysterious earth-chamber known as Merlin’s Cave, linked to the Arthurian cycle playing out in London.) What vitalities are we attributing to these high places? Today we talk of terrestrial magnetism and atmospheric electricity, telluric forces and geomantic phenomena. But ancient pagan poets would have had described such cyclic and cosmic energies differently. In dynastic China they would have sung of dragon-forces and dragon-roads. Walking the ‘lung-mei’ with drummers and dancers they would have written poems about ‘escorting the dragon through the land’.

Antiquaries have detected significant remains of megalithic structures in Kings Cross. (When Stephane Mallarme visited this area some time after Rimbaud’s stay, he was shown what he was told was ‘the oldest wall in Britain’.) Legends of London mysteriously refer to two ancient cities underneath Kings Cross. These are Troynovant and Cockaigne. From the older of these two cities, Cockaigne, the Cockneys of London derive their name. Later, as described in the old chronicles of Britain Troynovant was founded by the Trojan exile, Prince Brutus (who also founded Paris, named after Helen’s lover). According to the chronicles Prince Brutus gives his name to Britain and builds his city in the area now known as Kings Cross. (In The Faerie Queene Edmund Spenser says that Troynovant – New Troy – is built ‘in the hollow of the hills under Highgate.’)

Laser tracks for future trains? St Pancras Railway Hotel (built 1872). Image from ‘Crossing Kings Cross’ by Magdalena Jetelova.

The Pirate-Ship

These are some of the hidden aspects of the zone of London where I found myself cast away. All of these forces – as I am now aware – played some part in my initiation. But it took a shaman to come and clear my vision, to open my path in one vertical moment.

In the winter of 1972 I was passing through an abyss of depression after a self-inflicted catastrophe had suddenly ripped my young life to shreds. I had seriously damaged the tendons in both arms by overpracticing the classsical guitar. (Chromatic octave scales, difficult on the fretboard, actually triggered my self-created disaster.) Unable to play any more – hardly able to speak – I found myself on Desolation Row, living in the derelict houses behind Kings Cross.

One morning in February 1973 I stood on a rooftop overlooking Kings Cross reading Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations. (I still have the edition I held in my hands the day everything in my life changed forever.) I was reading Promontoire. Suddenly I looked up from the page and saw the parallels! The landscape of Kings Cross echoed the text. The skyline of London was encoded into Promontoire.

‘The golden dawn and the tremendous evening find our brigantine anchored out in the roads, opposite this villa and its dependancies, which form a promontory as extensive as Epirus and the Peloponnesus, or as the large island of Japan, or Arabia! Temples lighted up by the return of theories, tremendous views of modern coastal defences… and … railways flank, hollow out, and dominate the outlay of this hotel…’ 

I knew nothing of Rimbaud’s life at this point. A week or so earlier I had discovered his poetry (through Antony Scaduto’s biography of Bob Dylan). Knowing not one thing about this poet whose poem had just capsized reality I ran that winter’s day to Compendium (a wonderful bookshop in Camden Town that seeded the development of Camden Lock). There I found the famous Enid Starkie biography (still perhaps the deepest study of this poet). I took it ‘home’ to my derelict and suddenly forgot all my terrible devastation. My insanity and my self-pity vanished as I turned the pages of that magical book. Some time after midnight – in a thunderstorm – I came to the chapter called The Brussels Drama. With an astonishment even greater than I had experienced on the rooftop I now saw Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine appear out of sulphurous Victorian fogs and take up residence at 8 Royal College Street.

Their address was printed on the page right in front of me.

Now I was given to understand that a hundred years previously the poet who wrote Promontoire had actually lived here in Kings Cross St Pancras! I knew Royal College Street, a hundred yards from my derelict. Running out in the midnight rain I found the house. It was a decrepit Georgian affair with an utterly unique parapet which unmistakeably suggested the bow of a ship.

The brick of Promontoire!

The brigantine!

The pirate-ship.

The bespoke plaque commemorating Rimbaud and Verlaine’s stay in Somer’s Town in 1873. This appeared on the house in the early 80’s, the gift of two mysterious – and forever anonymous – brothers. (Official plaques are usually circular and blue.)

 The Promontory Palace

All followed from the revelation on the rooftop of my derelict. Rimbaud pointed the way and I had to follow.

From him I learned that Baudelaire’s mother was born in Kings Cross (nee au Somer’s Town). Through him I learned that William Blake made Pancras Old Church the centre of his London cosmology, the midpoint of his revolutionary Jerusalem, city of imagination and political freedom. From him I learned that Pancras Old Church is the seed-foundation of the Celtic church. Through Rimbaud I learned that Thomas Chatterton had fallen into an open grave in Pancras churchyard only three days before his death (at the age of seventeen!). From Rimbaud I learned that Shelley had passed through some kind of supernatural gateway here, an experience which utterly changed this poet’s life. Through Rimbaud I learned that WB Yeats had lived in Kings Cross for twenty-three years, the mystical years of his most esoteric work, A Vision. And from Rimbaud I learned that the Order of the Golden Dawn (Promontoire again) had its inner temple next to Pancras Old Church.

As William Blake says, drawing a rectangle round Kings Cross:

The fields from Islington to Marybone
to Primrose Hill and St John’s Wood
were builded over with pillars of gold
and there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Even the ‘Japanese tree‘ of Promontoire I found in Pancras Churchyard (where Thomas Hardy’s initiation took place). Even the laundry ‘surrounded by German poplars‘ I found, though it’s gone now (gone, but not forgotten). And of course, as I saw initially from the rooftop, the Palais Promontoire (the Promontory Palace) is Scott’s Pancras Railway Hotel, completed in 1872, the year of Rimbaud’s first visit to London. (Naturally the Palais is the whole universe too, but that doesn’t preclude its foundation in this world. In fact it’s more alchemical to think of this double-aspect.) From the top floor – or the roof – of 8 Royal College Street this magnificent neo-Gothic monstrosity would have completely dominated Rimbaud’s skyline.

From Pentonville Road looking west: evening (1884) by the Irish painter John O’Connor. This painting shows St Pancras Railway Hotel much as Rimbaud would have seen it 11 years earlier, except that his view would have been looking south.

Pancras: Transcultural Sunchild

In my rite-of-passage Rimbaud wasn’t pointing at himself. Via Promontoire he directed my attention to St Pancras. And as I pursued many lines of enquiry into the subject of earth-mysteries and ancient cosmologies I always came back to one primal question: Who was Pancras?

(This question always leads me back to Rimbaud.)

Pancras is the androgynous mystery-saint of Christianity, the patron-saint of teenagers and truth. And if one traces the beginnings of Christian symbolism in Egyptian cosmology – an extremely fascinating thing to do – Pancras becomes identical with Horus, the child-deity of the Egyptian trinity. Similarly, in the oldest creation-myth of China, Pancras becomes the child-demiurge, Pan Ku, who dies an early death – self-martyred – exhausted by prodigious acts of creation. (Sound familiar?) He is the transcultural Sunchild of all cosmologies, spontaneous, exuberant and androgynous. He/she is the divine child: the inner child at the collective level.

Based entirely on the revelation on the rooftop I worked obsessively for twenty-three years on the theory of my epic poem Vale Royal. Much of that time I lived like an urban gypsy, a scholar of the derelicts. (Once, just for fun, I calculated that over a period of sixteen years I had lived in nearly a hundred different addresses. In those days books were my only ballast. When an eviction-order came one loaded one’s library into a taxi and moved on.)


Vale Royal (Goldmark, 1995) about which the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott said: Vale Royal moves with the ease and the clarity of a fresh spring over ancient stones, making its myths casual, even colloquial – an impressive achievement.

The Patron Saint of Teenagers and Truth

As surely as if he dictated it himself my epic poem Vale Royal came to me through Arthur Rimbaud. At long last – and after a terrible battle – the poem was published by the only man in England who would publish it – Mike Goldmark – printed by Martino Mardersteig at the Stamperia Valdonega in Verona – the finest printing press in the world – and launched at the Royal Albert Hall in 1995. Allen Ginsberg did me the honour of coming over from New York specially for the launch, and he and Paul McCartney performed Skeletons in the White House that night, McCartney riffing on guitar as Allen rapped his rebel lines to the beat.

Fifteen years after the launch of Vale Royal I chained myself – with fellow-poet and Rimbaudian Niall McDevitt – to the railings of 8 Royal College Street to stop the house of Arthur Rimbaud being gutted for flats. And, thanks to our timely intervention (and some help from Graham Henderson of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation) the house has been perpetually willed to the British nation – and more importantly saved for the planet – as most significant shrine of modern poetry.

The house of Arthur Rimbaud today, showing the ‘prow’ of the ‘brick‘, the brigantine. (I am not aware of any other Georgian house in London having a similar pyramidical feature.) A brigantine was a small two-masted vessel often associated with piracy. It is believed that Rimbaud and Verlaine occupied the top floor at number eight.

Octagonal Stone of Free Speech on Parliament Hill overlooking Kings Cross St Pancras, an atavistic marker referencing the open-air parliaments of the pre-Christian Druid religion.

Arthur Rimbaud: Racing the Clock

Arthur Rimbaud: Racing the Clock

Picasso’s sketch of Rimbaud

No paper-trails

Based on Rimbaud’s movements in the spring of 1871 there is one possible chronological objection to the authenticity of the Place Vendome images. This argument suggests that the poet is unlikely to be in Paris on the 16th of May for the demolition of Napoleon’s Column because one of his date-stamped letters proves that on the 15th he’s a hundred-and-fifty miles away in Charleville. However, though rail links are obviously compromised at this time, some of Rimbaud’s biographers believe the ‘man shod with the wind’ could just have managed to be in Paris on the 16th. And yet, as we will see, this is not absolutely essential to the argument for his appearance in the Braquehais images.

There have been many misunderstandings about Rimbaud’s activities in April and May of 1871 partly because of the internecine chaos sweeping northern France at this time. Sequential precisions fly out the window as two separate governments begin a fight to the death over Paris. Then – as I’ve just mentioned – a question-mark hangs over transport options as train timetables vaporize in the ultimate lunacy of a civil war. And finally there’s the biographical stumbling-block: Rimbaud doesn’t leave a paper-trail. Intense and infrequent, his letters reveal next to nothing about his day-to-day affairs. (Arthur Rimbaud wasn’t on Facebook.)

Jean-Luc Steinmetz, perhaps Rimbaud’s most illustrious biographer, himself a French poet of distinction, clearly defines the poet’s timetable during the crucial seven weeks of the Commune. He writes:

‘There are two strongly circumscribed periods of time – April 17th to May 12th and May 15th to May 28th – during which he could have gone to Paris and demonstrated his solidarity with the insurgents.’

(Arthur Rimbaud: Presence of an Enigma, p.59)

The Vendome Column about to come down

Postliminary images

The Vendome Column falls on the 16th of May. We realize from Jean-Luc Steinmetz’ calculations that Rimbaud can indeed witness the actual demolition if he races to Paris the day after writing ‘the letter of the Seer’ in Charleville on the 15th of May. In this scenario he rides a train part way to the city –  perhaps to the outer suburbs – slips through Versaillais lines and enters the metropolis. However, against a backdrop of collective pandemonium this journey is more likely to take a few days. Which means that Rimbaud cannot be present when the column comes down on the 16th of May. (Though Steinmetz deems it possible.)

But another possibility opens up if we conservatively suppose that Rimbaud gets back to besieged Paris on either the 17th or 18th of May.   (We know how frantic he is to be there. In a letter dated the 13th of May he says that ‘mad anger drives me towards the battle of Paris where so many workers are dying as I write to you now.’) Arriving on the 17th he misses the climactic moment of the Commune by one day. Yet though this disappointment matters greatly to him it doesn’t matter at all to us, because of course the Vendome Column still lies across the square; and will continue to lie there for many long months, until 1873 in fact. And the poet is still in time to be captured by Bruno Braquehais because his photographs are not taken on the 16th! The Braquehais images are clearly postliminary. Every detail of these images betrays the fact that they are carefully orchestrated group-portraits, artificially composed and thoroughly choreographed. The Braquehais photographs are taken several days after the actual toppling of the Emperor. It’s a mistake to challenge the authenticity of the Braquehais images based only on the date of the actual demolition.

The actual fall of the Vendome Column on the 16th of May, 1871

Smoothly Driven

There exists one photograph – of unknown provenance – which does seem to record the immediate aftermath of demolition. We note that in this shot a vast crowd of soldiers (and maybe civilians) is in a state of great turbulence and excitement. Here no one has dared to ask the mob to hold still through a long exposure-time. Naturally the result is a blurred sea of forms in which we can make out the ghost of a face here and there. Hundreds of people appear in this composition, ranks upon ranks retreat into the background. In the foreground there is debris and dust everywhere. From extreme left to extreme right people jostle against a crowd-barrier in the form of a long rope slung on stakes. We can safely assume a circular multitude completely surrounding the military idol. If it weren’t for the stout line holding them back this excited rabble would be dancing on the fallen god. Almost certainly this is the 16th of May. As we look at this image we can almost hear the Marsellais roaring out a thousand throats.

There is nothing composed about this raw image. (If Rimbaud is here we certainly can’t see him.) Compare this turbulent, seething photograph with the relative tranquility of the Braquehais image and immediately we understand that the Rimbaud group-portrait is shot several days after the event, when the fuss has died down, when the mob has dispersed, when the first delirious excitement has subsided.

So, erring on the side of caution, if we allow a driven Rimbaud four days to make the difficult journey to Paris, this means that he arrives on the 17th or 18th of May. Now the movement of the clock runs smoothly and easily. Now the chronologies work properly. Because, before the beginning of Semaine Sanglante (which commences on the 22nd of May) there exists an interval of almost a week during which Bruno Braquehais has the opportunity to set up a complex photgraphic procedure; and Arthur Rimbaud has time to get to Paris.

The fallen idol of military France. (Image of unknown provenance, thought to be taken on the 16th of May 1871.)

The handsome renegade of the Place Vendome stands as tall as he can, the franc-tireur incarnate. With his rifle-butt raised in his right hand and his bayonet pointing at God’s blue sky he challenges all the basic premises. Europe is going to hell and has to change. As poet and freedom-fighter he dreams of transformation. The free-state of Paris will show the rest of the world. A new order of cosmic socialism is coming.

Beside him stands the one true friend he can trust. Everything seems possible at this moment. Holy Paris may be encircled with devils, just as Troy was surrounded long ago.  But he is the Trojan prince who has slept with Beauty. And now – like Hector – he guards Her under seige. He and his companions may be outnumbered, they may be encompassed by demonic enemies. But his muse is immortal. She cannot die.

In my next piece I plan to analyse the triumvirate, to decode the mystery of the Third Man who stands in front of Rimbaud and his nameless friend.

Please stay tuned!

The enigmatic triumvirate of the Place Vendome. The ‘Third Man’ stands closest to the camera, smiling.

Arthur Rimbaud: The Secret Police File

Arthur Rimbaud: The Secret Police File

The dark side of Arthur Rimbaud. (A portrait of the poet by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, 1978, drawing on the Etienne Carjat studio portrait of October 1871.)

Rimbaud on File

I saw myself in front of an infuriated mob, facing the firing-squad. (A Season in Hell.)

There is a famous sentence in a French police dossier of 1873: ‘Young Raimbault (sic) belonged, under the Commune, to the Paris Irregulars.’ There is nothing tentative about this statement, the file is clear: ‘young’ Rimbaud is accused of a crime against the state. In 1873 any definite affiliation with the Communard regime was still an imprisonable offence. To have actually been enlisted in the Paris Irregulars in 1871 was much more dangerous. During Bloody Week it had meant the firing-squad.

At the time when this file on him was compiled Rimbaud had fled to London. In 1873 many of his fellow-communards were also London-based, hardcore revolutionaries like Andrieu and Vermersch. Rimbaud (and Verlaine) fraternised and socialized in these circles. They most probably rubbed shoulders on several occasions with Karl Marx who quite frequently lectured French Communards in London.

Do we know how the secret intelligence on ‘young Raimbault’ was gathered? Was it based on anything more than hearsay? Was there ever any substratum of proof for such an explicit and clinical assertion? An interesting fact has come to light regarding the photographer of the Place Vendome, Bruno Braquehais, evidence which may possibly help to elucidate these questions.

Bruno Braquehais, pioneering photojournalist of the Place Vendome.

An Objective Artform

Bruno Braquehais was born in Dieppe in 1823. Deaf from birth he was educated at the Royal Institute of the Deaf and Mute in Paris. In his twenties Braquehais started working for a well-established Parisian photographer who specialized in coloured daguerrotypes and stereoscopic prints. At some point he married his employer’s daughter and eventually inherited his father-in-law’s business. Throughout the 1850’s and 1860’s Bruno Braquehais continued to explore portraiture. His subjects were usually fashionable artists, minor composers and ballet choreographers and the like. Relatively successful in this field he also created nude studies (which were coloured by his wife, Laure).

Bruno Braquehais was 48 when the Commune was declared in 1871. By now he was quite well-known and had exhibited his portraits at several notable Parisian institutes and galleries. However with the rapid evolution of the Paris Commune Braquehais suddenly transformed his modus operandi. Overnight the studio photographer became a photojournalist, one of a new breed of objective artists recording historical events with advanced technology. Bruno Braquehais became one of the mysterious ‘collodion-gunners’ who terrrifed the citizens of Paris with their ‘painting-machines’. Parisians who’d lived through the Prussian seige were not easily intimidated; they were accustomed to the sight of armed Communards on street-corners. Yet when bizarre spider-like contraptions started appearing on the shell-scarred boulevards, Parisian workers – most of whom had never been inside a photographic studio – were baffled and frightened. Strange three-legged monsters had invaded their city! Black boxes raised on stilts remained threateningly pointed in their direction for hours at a time, while trousers moved about disconnectedly beneath huge sombre skirts. (It took a long time to shoot a collodion plate. It was dangerous too; cameras could explode with a build-up of nitrate.) Civilians spread the half-serious rumour that these black boxes were some new secret weapon resourced by the Communards to perpetuate socialism. And in a sense they were right because images captured by Braquehais (among others) did eternalize the demographic experiment which turned the world upside-down for seven weeks.

Braquehais shot a great number of Parisian scenes during the Commune, perhaps as many as 200. In these he portrayed insurgents of both sexes at the barricades, showed mixed classes in carefree mood in the streets, captured collapsed railway-bridges, picturesquely ruined buildings and so on. From a total of approximately 200 images he published 109 in a pamphlet titled Paris During the Commune. (The unpublished images have all been lost.) It is important to emphasize that the published Braquehais photographs were largely forgotten until 1971, which partly explains why Rimbaud’s presence in two of them was never detected before now. It is also important to note that among Braquehais’ 109 plates in Paris During the Commune the standout image is the Place Vendome. The picture which seems to present us with a new portrait of Arthur Rimbaud is the master-image of the entire collection.

While we are discussing Braquehais I cannot resist suggesting that a very wonderful phrase of Rimbaud’s – which has delighted and puzzled many commentators  – could be related to the technical process of producing a collodion wet-plate.

I dried myself in a criminal air. (A Season in Hell)

Braquehais would have had to bring a portable dark-room to the Place Vendome because the entire procedure of coating a glass plate with collodion solution, exposing and developing the image all had to be done within the space of ten to fifteen minutes. The crucial  ‘drying’ of the plate would have been done in situ, and Rimbaud, with his interest in the new ‘objective’ artform might well have been the witness of his own theophany  as a negative image magically emerged. It would be in keeping with Rimbaud’s techniques to superimpose a straightforward physical phenomenon on top of an abstract reality in order to achieve the strangeness of this phrase, which works so well because criminals must harden themselves, ‘bake’ the outer crusts of personality, evaporate all softer elements. 

Bruno Braquehais’ master-image from Paris During the Commune. Rimbaud stands on the plinth at Napoleon’s feet.

House-to-House Searches

The long-forgotten photographs of Braquehais are now universally admired. What is often not remembered about Paris During the Commune is the fact that this pamphlet was used by the French secret police as a reference manual for hunting down underground Communards. Agents would actually take copies of the Braquehais publication with them as they seached house-to-house for fugitives, identifying suspects by checking them against Braquehais plates. (Suddenly the humorous term ‘collodion-gunner’ acquires a more sinister resonance.) Effectively Bruno Braquehais, against his will, was transformed into a forensic photographer. His work was resourced as incriminating documentation, undoubtedly causing the artist much heart-searching and hand-wringing in the process. Bruno Braquehais understood that during Semaine Sanglante – the bloodiest week in French history – numerous men and women were executed as a direct corollary of the click of his lens-shutter.

Fire! Fire at me! (A Season in Hell.)

Now we can perhaps more fully understand that Rimbaud’s moment of bravado and machismo in the Place Vendome may have powerfully fed into into his lifelong paranoia. To explain the poet’s fuming and fretting from the African continent biographers have come close to assuming something like a persecution complex on Rimbaud’s part. He grills his mother from Abyssinia, he involves his family in complex liasons with French military authorities over questions of his eligibility for National Service, and all this while he knows very well that he is exempt because his older brother Frederic has already served. Then there is the mysterious and unsavoury business of this same brother’s attempt to blackmail the poet, apparently hoping to raise the money for his marriage. (Frederic was a bus driver and, we assume, badly paid. And he guessed his younger brother had amassed a small fortune in Abyssinia.) What exactly was the dark secret that the apparently not-so-brainless Frederic threatened to expose? Frustratingly we don’t know much about any of these issues. Most of the letters from the family side have been lost so we only hear Rimbaud’s part of the dialogue: an everlasting lamentation on the emptiness of his life mingled with hysterical outbursts regarding military authorities. I don’t think it at all unlikely that the Place Vendome portrait – considered by the French police to be the scientific record of a crime scene – could have haunted Rimbaud for the rest of his short life, casting a long and persistent shadow in his mind. As we have already seen, the demolition of the Emperor’s ‘sacred’ column was by far the most provocative statement made during the Commune.

What sacred image are we attacking? (A Season in Hell.)

Marching to an Open Grave

Rimbaud must have known that Braquehais’ pamphlet was being used to identify ‘terrorists’. Furthermore, knowing that his friend from the 88th regiment – the man I have previously called the Gentle Giant – was shot during Bloody Week, Rimbaud may well have traced a connection between his friend’s tragic fate and the infamous Braquehais image of the Place Vendome. He may have reflected ruefully that his friend guaranteed his own death by standing beside him so protectively on the plinth. One thing is clear. Had ‘young Raimbault’ remained in Paris during Semaine Sanglante he too could have been marched in chains to a grave-pit and summarily executed without trial. (Some estimates of Communard dead reach the terrifying figure of 20,000.) The poet’s life of relentless wandering, and even his desire to put a literary lifestyle behind him, make more sense if we know, as Rimbaud may have known, that the evidence against him was scientific, forensic and unambiguous.

I called to my executioners to let me bite the ends of their guns, as I died. (A Season in Hell.)

In my next piece I am planning to discuss the problematic timings of Rimbaud’s movements in April and May of 1871. Is it feasible for him to be in the Place Vendome?

Please stay tuned!

The triumvirate of the Place Vendome.

Rimbaud: In Arthurian Country

Rimbaud: In Arthurian Country

The soldier-boy of the Place Vendome (left) and (right) Picasso’s enigmatic portrait Boy With A Pipe, believed by Sir John Richardson (the painter’s best biographer) to be a portrait of Rimbaud.

Virgin Soldier of the Place Vendome

A soldier-boy stands in the Place Vendome. A mighty youth with a gimlet stare personifies and incarnates revolution. The shockwave of his gaze is intense. It’s the look in the eyes of an angel on the burning lake. It’s a blast of white-hot rage which seems to say: Here’s faster-than-light vengeance for centuries of enslavement. Here’s instant justice,  death to your martial gods. An androgynous nineteenth-century Che Guevara glares nastily out of the Place Vendome, personally overseeing the destruction of the Imperial cosmos. We are looking at some ‘marvellous boy’ who has just masterminded the coup d’etat of all time. (We don’t even really see the eyes but the black fire coming out of them is unmistakeable.)

We also observe ultra-narcissism here. (Note the carefully-cloned attitude in both images. The second Braquehais is reproduced below.) A very self-consious young man has been spending a lot of time in front of mirrors recently. He’s been double-checking the validity of his self-presentation with great care. We detect massive arrogance in his bearing, his assumption of the role of nemesis to all power-structures; but we see also the vanity of some brand-new recruit who has only donned his war-uniform in the last few weeks. Whoever gazes out of the Place Vendome – aged roughly sixteen and a half? – we sense he’s quite new to the business of insurrection. He’s putting on his grimmest face for the camera.

Yet this is no simpleton boy-soldier proud of carbine and tight-fitting kepi. Here we seem to observe some Dostoyevskyan Raskolnikov ‘stepping over obstacles’ as he rises up rapidly through the ranks, ready to wade through blood, armed to the teeth. Or we could be viewing some obscure corporal singled-out for valour and fanaticism. This young man on full display has about him the aura of some future general. (That familiar Napoleonic-Hitlerian profile.) This virgin-soldier – whoever he is – has been chosen to epitomize the symbolic dimension of the ritual being performed in the Place Vendome. His solemn, standardized deportment and demeanour, his lasering look and his stance with ‘left-foot-forward’, drive the whole composition powerfully. He is the essential presence in an epic group-portrait. (There are echoes here of Delacroix and Jacques-Louis David. The canvas of Braquehais has certainly been planned with the mythical, legendary and historical in mind.)

enigmatic triumvirate

Arthur Rimbaud as Paris Irregular during the Commune of 1871.

Battlefields of the Spirit

Someone has consciously made the decision that the ship of revolution needs a figurehead. But  who stands in the Place Vendome as the ‘figure on the prow’ (as the French expression translates)? I propose that the stern-featured rebel-angel vaunting over the fallen Napoleon is none other than the poet Arthur Rimbaud. I propose that if the soldier-boy on the plinth is not him then the poet must have had an unknown twin-brother who joined the Paris Irregulars in May of 1871 (when Rimbaud is supposed to have done exactly this). And if this outlandish theory collapses (like the Vendome Column itself) then in desperation we can only suppose that the poet’s occult studies in the libraries of Charleville somehow suddenly accelerated to the point where he was able to project his doppelganger into besieged Paris at will.

I admit that such theories are too far-fetched for me. I also confess that hair crackled on top of my skull when I – accidentally – enlarged the main Braquehais image from a thumbnail and saw the face of the great poet of France in a flash. There was no tentative moment at all, I experienced immediate recognition! Later, the filters which exclude the impossible kicked-in, and ‘It cannot be Rimbaud‘ and similar assumptions surfaced. (But not for long.) My very first glance proved fatal to me because it removed all possibility of long-term doubt. Yet my own subjective and automatic faith is irrelevant. Rimbaudian experts will have to decide whether new images of the poet have miraculously – and very unexpectedly – emerged. Where this process will end is hard to say but I am convinced there has definitely been a beginning. Perhaps if Rimbaudians worldwide unanimously wish it Napoleon will be demolished for a second time and the poet will be appropriately remembered in the Place Vendome. (A sacramental crystalline obelisk with no ‘dot in the sky’ might best serve. Arthur Rimbaud is already in the stars.)

As he faces us from the Place Vendome a brave footsoldier is marching towards a battlefield. He has seen terrible carnage  in the Rue d’Babylone. (Most biographers are agreed that Rimbaud was sexually assaulted in the Babylon Barracks very shortly before Braquehais’ photograph was taken.) But the poet is marching on towards an even more traumatic event: the spiritual battlefield of A Season in Hell. Written in 1873, only two years after the demolition of Napoleon’s column, Rimbaud’s nekyian masterpiece shows us his own personal Waterloo. (Yet clearly the battlefield he describes in his short prose-poem is actually situated inside every one of us: this is what makes the work so universal.) Only two short years after the Place Vendome the poet faces the culminating crisis of his life. Though we can’t be quite certain exactly what he thinks about the outcome, Rimbaud seems to tell us that he loses this great fight. Apparently he emerges empty-handed from the battlefield. He wins nothing and loses everything. His pride dies but he still does not love God. (So he says.) In one interpretation of A Season in Hell the poet cannot differentiate between God and Lucifer. Why? Because as he looks back at all his magnificent superstructures, his holy cities of bacchanalian happiness, his good – as revealed by the devil – he sees that only evil was generated in the world. He marched in cold blood over too many ‘obstacles’. He pushed too hard and he assumed too much. He said in his pride: To a good man all things are good. But he wasn’t good enough. (In his own opinion.) Now – as he tells us in A Season in Hell – he falls back to earth from his pedestal of transcendence. Now he crashes down from the sky of human conceit. And admitting the truth of his unholiness he finally breaks the demonic code and exposes the self-esteem which fell for false promises. (The devil is such a humanitarian!) Yet he still won’t acknowledge the Christian God who punishes him now with nervous breakdown and near-madness. (As he richly deserves, he informs us.) Thus God becomes the devil and vice-versa. And there is no vision at all, just the sense that human existence is a meaningless farce. He is left with nihilism and fragmentation.

Two years after the Place Vendome, in the loft of a grim farmhouse (in a place called Rocks) Rimbaud takes on the cosmic mystery of the problem of evil: and comes up with no solution. (The very name Roches seems to hint at some desert for the tempatation of a St Anthony.) When the spiritual battle is over Arthur Rimbaud is left speechless; and the poet remains mute for the rest of his life. Rimbaud cannot say, as Goethe says after the battle for the soul of Faust has taken place:

Evil is that force which constantly wills evil but against its own will ends up doing good.

At this point Arthur Rimbaud has no such faith. And that’s why the poet is an existential saint. His terrible silence is his gospel of Nothingness. He is like some Nietzschean superman who overcomes himself yet reveals no new dogma. (Example alone is efficacious, he seems to say.) And precisely this absence of evangelizing in the French poet is what makes Rimbaud so appealing to agnostics – even to atheists – many of whom have found something in his Nothing. One very great attraction lies in the fact that Rimbaud says clearly and squarely: I do not know. This humble admission, this negative testament – coupled with his transcendental verse, some of which is profoundly religious – makes Rimbaud the international poet-laureate: quoted in hip hop, studied in academe. Here is the purest European poet since Dante. Rimbaud is both high-brow and low-brow. Ultimately Arthur Rimbaud is no-brow. He takes poetry out of the study, liberates poetry from the library and restores her to some primordial countryside.

Here is his early Sensation (in my translation).

On blue summer evenings
I’ll walk the trackways
over stubbled grass
needled by the wheat.

Daydreaming, I’ll feel
the coolness at my feet
letting the wind bathe
all of me, bareheaded.

I will not speak;
I will have no thoughts.
Yet infinite love
will mount in my soul

And I’ll go very far
like a vagabond
across the country
happy as if with her.

In Bruno Braquehais’ second image Rimbaud stands fifth from the right, adopting exactly the same stance as he takes in the main image: rifle raised, left foot forward. The Mystery Man stands ninth from the right, hooded.

Mystery Man

Can we absolutely pinpoint the identity of anyone in Bruno Braquehais’ main image? So far, definitively, we cannot. (There is no objective proof that Arthur Rimbaud is in these photographs.) But in Braquehais’ second image, where the soldier-boy stands over the fallen Napoleon’s head, we do know the identity of one very special person. This is the ninth figure from the right: the man with the heavy beard and the hood. (He is the only hooded figure in the image.) We can just detect the glint of his spectacles as he peers out towards us from the very back rank, possibly a shy and myopic man, a man who keeps himself to himself, unlike the top-hatted gentleman next to him who smiles with great complacency into the camera. This hooded man – who also wears a military kepi underneath his dark hood  – is the celebrated American Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg.

(Just a split-second of bufoonery, testing to see if I’ve put any readers to sleep.)

Ninth from the right – and fourth from Rimbaud – stands the great French realist painter, Courbet. Gustave Courbet was the original driving-force behind the project to dismantle the Vendome Column. In the summer of 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, Courbet had written a letter to the then-government stating:

In as much as the Vendôme Column is a monument devoid of all artistic value, tending to perpetuate by its expression the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty, which are reproved by a republican nation’s sentiment, citizen Courbet expresses the wish that the National Defense government will authorize him to disassemble this column.

The artist went on to elaborate his view that the Rues de la Paix – which actually commences in the Place Vendome – was being degraded by the presence of Napoleon perched on top of his egomaniacal column. When the Communards took charge of Paris the bold idea of cleansing the Street of Peace suddenly made a lot of sense to many people. And on the 16th of May 1871 the maypole of Imperium came crashing down onto a bed of sand prepared for its landing. Its magnificent serpentine coating of bronze – made out of melted-down enemy cannon from Austerlitz – lay in a thousand twisted fragments in the dust. Courbet’s bright idea had run away with itself.

In fact the clandestine, hooded outfit of the painter suggests that he was already terrified of possible repercussions. And indeed, once the Commune had been annihilated by the ‘legitimate’ government of France, Courbet rapidly had to go into hiding. The luckless painter was soon caught however (the new government actually used Braquehais’ photographs to identify many Communards). Courbet was jailed for six months, an extremely light sentence considering his role in the demolishment. (In prison he was allowed easel and paints, but no models.) But even when the sentence had been served this wasn’t the end of the affair by any means. The restored government quickly decided that the Emperor Napoleon’s erectile dysfunction was an huge embarrasment to all self-respecting Frenchmen. (As the column crashes down we can imagine the crowds chanting ‘Not tonight, Josephine!’) And shortly after poor Courbet’s release from prison he was presented with a vast bill for the re-erection. Relatively penniless the painter fled to Switzerland where he died the day before the bill fell due.

So much for the fall of the Vendome Column. But what truly interests about Gustave Courbet is that the painter was a close and lifelong friend of Charles Baudelaire, who for Arthur Rimbaud was the modern poetry-god. (Courbet’s famous 1847 portait of Baudelaire is warm and intimate. The poet sits at a little table smoking his pipe and deeply absorbed in a book. A large white quill stands ready for the page.) Thus a strong literary linkage can be established which makes Rimbaud’s presence in our image much more understandable. As a member of Charles Baudelaire’s inner circle and a lover of poetry himself Courbet might very well have got wind of a young Communard who happened also to be a poet of prodigious virtuosity. And as a painter – supposing Courbet actually met Rimbaud – he would have been very sensitive to his extraordinary beauty. Immediately the artist (who we can safely assume to have known the celebrated photographer, Braquehais) would have recognised in the young man – this Arthur Rimbaud – the perfect figurehead for a historical moment. (Of course an advantage was there for the painter as well. With the handsome boy-soldier as the focus of the composition, Gustave Courbet could then retire to the background, cover himself up as much as possible and remain visually dissociated from the scene in case of later political complications.)

Can we possibly identify the man standing next to Rimbaud?

The Gentle Giant

I’d now like to return to the main image and look at a second figure of significance. This is the towering man who stands next to Rimbaud, who seems a few years older than the poet, who shelters and almost protects him as his left shoulder cordially overlaps the poet’s right. His enormous chest is twice the size of Rimbaud’s. We notice that his gently smiling expression creates a perfect counterpoising geniality which contrasts starkly with Rimbaud’s infernal scowl. Another point to notice is that though this man is clearly a soldier he’s not in full uniform, he’s dressed in army fatigues. Off-duty, he seems faintly amused by his friend’s central role in the proceedings, the soldier-boy’s prominent placement at the heart of the drama. A big, warm sun-like face is the avuncular antithesis of Rimbaud’s dark lunar visage. Together they form an alchemical dyad, opposites conjoined from archetypical extremes.

I assert that we know the identity of this gentle giant. Charles Nicholl, in his Somebody Else: Rimbaud in Africa tells us

Rimbaud was befriended by a soldier in the 88th Infantry, of whom he afterwards spoke ‘with a tender sadness, thinking it certain that he was shot during the Versaillais victory.’

This crucial information comes through Delahaye, the closest friend of Rimbaud’s early years. Pursuing Delahaye’s revelation we discover that the 88th Infantry Regiment were specially venerated during the Commune since they refused to open fire on women and children at a vital phase of the ‘Paris-as-free-state’ experiment when the Versaillais tried to impound Communard cannons. Effectively the 88th Infantry disobeyed orders and prevented a bloody massacre of defenceless civilians during the so-called ‘Louise Revolution’ (when women-Communards in Montmartre became involved in street-fighting).

Delahaye recounts Rimbaud’s belief that his great friend was shot at some point in Bloody Week when the Versaillais regained control of Paris. (Estimates of the numbers shot in Semaine Sanglante vary, some suggest the mass-execution of as many as 20,000 Communards.)  The gentle giant standing next to Rimbaud in the Place Vendome could very possibly be this nameless friend. There seems to be a significant closeness between them. (The Californian poet Arturo Mantecon has pointed out to me recently that the giant’s left hand actually rests on the poet’s left shoulder. What I had subconsiously dismissed as an epaulet turns out to be demonstrative and moving evidence of friendship.)  If we are correct in this identification we owe this gentle giant a great deal. Without his protection and real friendship Rimbaud could have been murdered in the Rue d’Babylone. And without this champion and protector the poet might never have returned to Paris after fleeing to his hometown in anguish in early May, traumatised by his experience in the Caserne d’Babylone. The certainty that he had one true friend in the city might just have tipped the balance. I feel we can definitely assume that without this friend by his side Arthur Rimbaud would never have taken his central place in the Braquehais portrait.

Yet the gentle giant – this hero who saves the lives of women and children in Montmartre and who then saves Rimbaud in the Caserne d’Babylone, – stands in the shadow of a tragic destiny even while he smiles and lays his hand on the shoulder of his magnetic young friend. When death pits are dug in parks and squares, when thousands of Communards are marched in chains to mass-graves, our gentle giant sadly loses his life. Delahaye is clear: Rimbaud believed his only friend was murdered in the Semaine Sanglante.

We may need to thank this man for one more thing. It is possible that our unknown soldier of the 88th regiment actually warned his young friend that after the excitement of the Place Vendome photoshoot his face would be ‘on file’. He’d be a marked man!(As I pointed out earlier, the Braquehais images were actually used to track down Communards.) Perhaps Rimbaud’s champion, with his greater knowledge of the world, instructed the poet to get out of Paris just before the commencement of Bloody Week, a few days after Braquehais’ photographic happening.

Ironically, the gentle giant may himself have been condemned by the act of standing next to Rimbaud in the bright May sunshine. Perhaps the poet was so certain of his friend’s death because he understood that the flattering lens actually represented the barrel of a gun. (Parisians complained during the Commune that wherever they went they were confronted not only by armed insurrectionaries but also by those they termed ‘collodion-gunners’.) Now we realize that the unknown soldier may have saved Rimbaud’s life twice in the space of a month.


A banal countryside somewhere in the wilderness of Rocks. The midday sun is a machine of death countersinking light into the brain. (The riveting of all things has come loose.) Hot screws penetrate the cortex, winding into bone.

Alas, the Gospel has gone by. The Gospel. The Gospel.

In the heatwave someone is suffering from sunstroke. He’s been immobilized in the house, a dehydrated fieldworker probably. His memory seems to be affected, he’s forgotten his own name. They’ve brought him indoors, given him the day off, bathed his temples with cool well-water. He’s resting in an airless attic, isolated.

He’s less than nineteen, still a boy really.

Up in the dusty rafters pigeons hum. Muted wingbeats fan a superheated mind.


When he whispers he is taking flight into the past, hidden from him like the doves in the roof: his secrets fight with one another in the darkness. Once there were innocent flights of wanderlust, bids for freedom, bohemian roads. Once there were out-of-the-body trajectories across transdimensional bridges of light. But he travelled too far into the sun and crashed  to the shadows of the Rue d’Babylone. Then the wax which had sealed his wings melted as hot blood pooled behind his knees. Then came the sulphurous fogs of Camden Town.

Through the spirit we go to God. What a disaster!

Now he’s reached the lowest point. With the stigmatic wound where Verlaine nailed him throbbing like the pulse of Jormungandr, he’s finished. With his left arm in a sling he sits and writes. In between dizzying panic-attacks he pulls himself upright at a packing-case desk and describes a Faustian pact with occult principalities. (Now will-to-power intersects with hell-on-earth.) In the pages of a strange discontinuous diary he confesses a long history of possession. Certainly he’s been given the miraculous gifts and shown the super-utopian visions. Yes! He has even levitated like Simon Magus, using his breath to manipulate weightlessness. But the siddhi have brought only overshadowing. (The two-faced spirits have often told half-truths in order to finally insinuate the lie.)

They promised me to bury in the dark the tree of good and evil, to destroy the dictatorial honesties, so that I might bring forward my very pure love.

If evil is only a catalyst there is no danger. With our energies behind you you will push against evil and lever yourself towards grace. (All men believe in saints after all. And that selflessness proves something about the world.) If you overwhelm yourself with our powers we’ll show you where the rites of the Great Work end. You’ll change the world with a cabbalistic alphabet. We’ve shown you the sunchild dancing in the Tree of Life. You’ve seen the vision of Seth, the third son of Eden. Now imagine your good, its implementation. To a good man all things are good. Remember that!

Yet deep down he knows he’s not good enough. (It was vile to use Verlaine as a stepping-stone. He deserved the bullet, he deserved to die.) Now he feels filthy inside. Christ Jesus! In broad daylight he turns and looks over his shoulder. In the still of the night there are others in his solitude. He has reached the spiritual battleground of near-madness.

Drink! No more dust behind you.

He sweats in the noons of Thermidor. Outside they’re working in the fields. Now rays of sunlight move the harvesters this way and that like little marionettes. (Smells of burning float through a tiny window.) They’re reaping hot coals in the harvest of hell. Now commandments of Shadowmouth reverberate, knife-like and strident, sharp decrees stabbing. The glad time of his harvest will never come.

Be as wise as serpents, as gentle as doves.

Sometimes when he hears the night-train to Luxembourg he returns to Somers Town in the rain. (Winged thoughts stir like a pigeon dreaming in the eaves.) Once upon a time he was close to the place and the formula.

The spiritual battle is as brutal as the battle of men. But the vision of justice belongs to God alone.

Picasso’s pen-and-ink study of Rimbaud.

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