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 Discovery of Two New Portraits of the Planetary Poet-laureate.

Arthur Rimbaud: The Discovery of Two New Portraits of the Planetary Poet-laureate.

On the left the possible new face of Rimbaud, on the right the well-known Carjat studio-portrait.

Rimbaud Forever

The burnout of the messianic Arthur Rimbaud makes the mythological fall of Icarus seem more like a minor hang-gliding accident. The world’s most original modern poet autodestructs so mysteriously and so rapidly that biographers are forced to build his image out of stardust. Particles of evidence about this damned poet’s life seem to have been collected from the coma of comet Wild 2. Rimbaud is aerogel, frozen smoke, solid air. His life itself vaporizes on impact. Rimbaud defines the legend of otherness.

There isn’t much work in the Rimbaudian canon. His complete oeuvre can be read in a day and a night. (How to transform your life in twenty-four hours.) Critical texts and biographical studies pour from presses, raise eyebrows, galvanize controversy. (One can spend three lifetimes reading about the poet.) But Rimbaud’s multiform faces defy analysis. Apart from being the modern world’s poet-laureate, Rimbaud becomes in his meteoric life: teenage runaway, Abyssinian explorer, circus manager, angel of deviance, venture capitalist, philosophical freedom-fighter, Gnostic magician, Wandering Jew, pseudonymous mariner, Moslem prophet, African ethnographer, amateur photographer, gun runner, Communard and finally, military deserter. The list seems to never end. (Rimbaud forever!)

Old Plates

Three major problems exist for Rimbaud studies. First, why did he abandon poetry at eighteen when he had almost single-handedly reinvented the art? Second, what was the exact nature of his relationship with his mother, the tight-fisted but highly intelligent woman the poet venomously nicknamed Shadowmouth? And third, what happened to Arthur Rimbaud during the superviolent Paris Commune when, in the spring of 1871, the French capital was in the hands of a revolutionary government for seven weeks?

The first two questions are monolithic difficulties. And the third has also seemed insoluble – until now. Very recently, while researching Rimbaud’s circle of friends in London (all of them political exiles like him) I came across two photographs taken in the Place Vendome at the height of the demographic convulsion which was the Paris Commune. As luck would have it I enlarged one of these old plates and – suddenly – there right in front of me I seemed to see the sacred presence, the most elusive man in belles lettres, Arthur Rimbaud, the man ‘shod with the wind’.

Rimbaud as Paris Irregular during the Commune. In a follow-up article I will be discussing the identity of the giant to the poet’s right.

A Searing Gaze

In these two photographs (by Bruno Braquehais) we see the poet as we have never seen him before. Here we discover explosive and controversial evidence that Rimbaud was radically involved in the Paris Commune. From these old photographic plates we learn that the poet became nothing less than a juvenile figurehead of revolution. We see him dominating a great public space, surrounded by members of the National Guard; or possibly by the Paris Irregulars: or both. With a searing gaze the poet looks straight into the camera. Recovering from the shock of that gaze we register next that almost everyone apart from the young poet is smiling. Only Rimbaud, with his incredibly distinctive lips, downturns his mouth in an iconic scowl. Now for the first time we really see the Rimbaud grimace, echoed by a million rock-stars (from the second Carjat studio-portrait). But here in the new image that grimace is amplified and intensified.

The second point of interest is that the hard-bitten, middle-distance characters – nasty fellows to a man – all give pride of place to Arthur Rimbaud. It’s not just that the poet stands on a pedestal while they stand further off. No, here we see psychological deference. Whoever he is, this young man on the plinth is so charged with charisma and electricity that he commands the respect of men much older than him. And that could be because this wildman in his grimy kilt of serge, this Lord of the Dance with his regulation rifle, this holy monk of androgynous demeanour is actually Arthur Rimbaud, freedom-fighter. (It is my belief that Rimbaud was quite well-known as a poet during the Commune, though this fame mostly resonated at street-level.) In this new portrait we seem to meet the ‘dear, great soul’ – Verlaine’s words – while understanding that Camus was absolutely correct when he famously called Rimbaud ‘the poet of revolt’.

The full image, shot by Bruno Braquehais some time after the 16th of May 1871.

Rebel Angel of the Place Vendome

How can we contextualize this theophanic surfacing? What is the setting for Rimbaud’s emergence in this image?

In both of these Bruno Braquehais portraits we are in the Place Vendome in May of 1871. At the height of the Commune an exorcism of empire is being – or has recently been – enacted. As the Communards see it the Rue de la Paix (Peace Street) is being polluted by the presence of Napoleon Bonaparte on top of the column he set up to commemorate Austerlitz. And after much discussion, spearheaded by the painter Gustave Courbet, they finally decree its demolition. And precisely where the Rue de la Paix begins – in the Place Vendome – Arthur Rimbaud is presiding over the exorcism. He takes up a military stance – first at the feet and then at the head of Napoleon – who is represented as a laurel-crowned Caesar. (We know the poet was recruited to the Paris Irregulars so his uniform is not problematic.) But clearly Rimbaud is more than soldier here. The whole grouping is highly choreographed and the poet has been given an emblematic role. He is high-priest at this revolutionary mass where verticality stands for hierarchy. What delights is that the poet is so cheekily poking fun at the figure of the prostrate Bonaparte. We can only interpret his body-language to mean that he has just used his left elbow to overthrow the Nightmare of Europe.

Brute force and easy pride have fallen. A symbol of barbarism lies in the dust. Paris has been cleansed of Napoleonic earth-magic. Triumphalist and negative symbolism has been defused. (The workers of Paris are not to be treated like idiots.) The 50,000 dead of Austerlitz are no longer insulted. These are the thoughts in Rimbaud’s mind as he gazes into the future from the Place Vendome.

Two mindblowing portraits of Arthur Rimbaud have been hiding in plain sight for more than a century. If they are genuine they are possibly the most dramatic visual study of any poet in the history of the West. Byron, for all the freedom-fighting in Greece, never assumed such a Byronic pose. If Chatterton in his fatal attic had been captured by camera obscura; if Pushkin had been filmed striding through the snow to his doom; if John Donne had been photographed in the pulpit of St Paul’s in the moment of saying No man is an island; if some prehistoric daguerrotype existed which showed us Dante climbing the staircase of exile: then we would have images to place beside Rimbaud in the Place Vendome.

The second Braquehais image. Here Rimbaud (fifth from the right) adopts exactly the same posture as in the first image.

Authenticity and implications

Are these images genuine? To my way of thinking they are authentic. The chin and the mouth are unquestionably Rimbaud’s. Examine closely the slight asymmetry of the Cupid’s bow, one of Rimbaud’s most famous features (apart from his turquoise eyes). Looking closely you will notice that the central portion of the upper lip is shifted very slightly to the left side of the poet’s face. Now look at the perfect oval of the chin. The harsh and infinitely sad expression of the mouth is offset by this perfectly rounded chin: feminine, cherubic and utterly recognizable. The real problem in the first image is the nose. It looks too broad and flat. Yet if you look closely you will see a white square of light beginning on the bridge of the nose, ending at the tip. This square of light seems to spread the nose laterally. If you half-close your eyes the square disappears and the nose becomes Rimbaud’s: thin with a slightly upturned tip. I feel that this square of light is almost certainly an optical effect – caused perhaps by enlargement of the image – but a professional opinion is needed here. What is certain is that when the square is filtered out the problem disappears.

Arthur Rimbaud – the rara avis of all time – appears to have been fabulously captured in collodion-brown. Yet scowling out of the new portrait the world’s most controversial poet may be secretly smiling to himself. Hardcore Marxists are going to jump on these images as proof that Rimbaud was a full-blooded Communard. And as contemporary poster-boy for Extinction Rebellion the teenage Communard Arthur Rimbaud will empty classrooms faster than Greta Thunberg. But the truth is that Rimbaud was a magpie-Marxist at best. After the dissolution of the Commune he became rapidly depoliticized. Admittedly at the time – aged sixteen – he was one-hundred percent drunk with utopianism. While the red flag flew over the Hotel de Ville Rimbaud saw himself as a partisan. (Of course in the 1870’s this was still the flag of the French – not the Bolshevist – revolution.) In the Place Vendome he incarnates the Commune. But the image’s significance is much greater than this. It is not just Napoleon that Rimbaud topples with a casual nudge from his left elbow. By implication it’s the whole military industrial complex.

Many people are in for a shock. The Rimbaud damage-limitation exercise is over. With the emergence of these new photographs it is time to conclude that Arthur Rimbaud went through a phase of proto-communism. When Paris became an experimental city-state the poet was on the frontline of class-war. (Graham Robb, Rimbaud’s best biographer by far, has taken the view that any role in revolutionary Paris was fairly minimal; while Terry Eagleton and Kristin Ross are now likely to see, however wrongly, radical political convictions reinforced.) Yet, as the dust settles after the controversial materialization of Rimbaud in the Place Vendome, it must be remembered that after the failure of the Commune the poet continued to evolve a supernaturalist philosophy. Without a massive cosmic frame of reference even Rimbaud could never have written A Season in Hell. The confessional metaphysics of this work far transcend dialectical materialism. And Rimbaud’s primary, non-reductionist faith will always be in the occult praxis of his art. At the height of his powers (in ’72 and ’73) he believes that the world can be magically transformed through his art. His engagement is truly with his holy guardian angel.

I repeat: many are going to read into the new images a narrative affirming Marxist engagement. Yet this would be a selective interpretation. In The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune I note that Kristin Ross makes no mention at all of the Rue d’Babylone assault – when Rimbaud was almost certainly gang-raped in a Commune barracks. This ordeal takes place only a week before the photo-shoot in the Place Vendome. All the maladjustment to come pours out of the vortex of what the poet goes through at this time. All Rimbaud’s cruelty to his only real love – Paul Verlaine – is explained by events in the Rue d’Babylone. The harsh and sad expression in Rimbaud’s face as he stands in the Place Vendome has to be related to this recent nightmare experience. Yet Kristin Ross does not – in her rush to recruit Arthur Rimbaud for the revolution – even critique Stolen Heart, the poem which dramatically codifies the poet’s core-trauma, the poem in which the poet’s heart is ‘degraded’ by the ithyphallic soldiery. In my opinion Rimbaud’s text is excluded on purpose since the poem makes manifest a dystopian aspect of the Commune. (Revolution has changed everything except the human heart.) In a sometimes highly perceptive investigation Ross more or less overthrows her own thesis by this glaring omission. And similar errors of selective analysis need to be avoided when deconstructing the new images.

After the rape in the Rue d’Babylone Rimbaud doesn’t give in. The poet is not defeated. He doesn’t go back to his hometown and collapse in provincial bitterness. Instead he issues his doctrine of the Seer – Suffer everything so as to be in mystic solidarity – and returns to Paris to take a heroic stand. His face tells the full horror of what he has been through. But in the Place Vendome he shows what it means to be a hero.

Ecce homo.

Let’s leave the last word to Rimbaud himself. Let’s have the poet tell us precisely what he thinks about armed risings.

At dawn, armed with burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities.

Here the impatience of the revolutionary, the understandable hunger for change, has been transformed into something far more impressive. Now the enemy within has been identified. Now the ultimate traitor has been exposed. Instead of burning Paris (as the Communards did when outgunned and outmaneuvred by the Versaillais) Rimbaud lights the lamp of interior alchemy and says with Mahatma Gandhi:

Be the change you wish to see in this world.

In the next article (of a series) I will be discussing the idea that Picasso may have known the Place Vendome images and used them when painting Boy with a Pipe.

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