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: Love’s To Be

Arthur Rimbaud: Love’s To Be

The Place Vendome image side-by-side with the Carjat studio portrait. Note that Rimbaud tilts his head down on the left, making his nose look wider than in the Carjat, where his head is slightly thrown-back, a standard studio technique to achieve exactly this more aristocratic look.

Christmas on Earth

I’m chanting – eyes closed – under my breath:

Love’s to be.

Over and over I’m breathing a spell, letting it drift in my bloodstream, work in my spine, cycle over and over:

Love’s to be!

Slowly I surface from five times deeper than sleep. The world seems more tranquil. Has it been reinvented? I hear the old-fashioned sound of children at play on the green, how quaint, how charming. They should be locked up in classrooms. Isn’t that so?

All schools should be under trees. (Who said that?)

The sun is shining. I look up. For the first time this century vast skies are clear of contrails, those white cancellations which cross-out the blue, which slash our atmospheres horizon-to-horizon, the whip-scars of our self-hating civilization. Has the selfish giant who writes human destiny – out of limited identifications – gone to sleep? Has he swallowed his own toxic marker-pen? For the first time this century clean turquoise skies are clear of poisonous transports, thundering machines. The jets which service our restlessness have been grounded. The big planes which relay jetlagged industrialists back and forth across the international dateline sit idle near runways where grass begins to grow.

Should I weep?

These big dreamy skies make me think of the eyes of Rimbaud. In his eyes we see the light of the oversoul, in his eyes we see the possibility of ‘Christmas on Earth’. Rimbaud dreamed that we could ‘reinvent’ love.

Bruno Braquehais’ main image of the demolition of Napoleon’s column in the Place Vendome. The Communard Rimbaud stands on the plinth nearest to Napoleon, scowling into shot with his feminine baby-face.

After the Pandemic

Our world has changed in just a few weeks. In March we were living under a capitalist system, now in April some sort of quasi-socialist dispensation is in place. With world-populations under house-arrest many are saying that democracy has died. with so many businesses destroyed by self-isolation Covid-19 could be the beginning of guaranteed basic income. (We’re seeing ramped-up digital surveillance; mobiles are fast becoming pocket-informers.) It would seem that  governments are trying to act selflessly,  putting the sick and the elderly first, funding vastly-accelerated medical research.

Yet the heartening scenario of what humans can do together is overshadowed by the question of what remains to be done. When this pandemic is beaten the real work begins. One in ten people on this planet perishes from drinking foul and contaminated water. (That’s more than all the wars put together.) Seven-hundred and eighty-five million souls slake their thirst each day with stagnant filth, refresh their children from a putrid source. (Can anyone imagine fighting C19 fevers with ditchwater?) Yet suddenly, when the developed world is threatened, governments are trying to act responsibly. If such principled actions and mobilizations had happened before the pandemic struck we might not be in the present apocalyptic situation.

Capitalism is flawed. The price of an individual claiming his or her freedom is fiscal slavery for the collective, this we know. It is scientifically proven in Das Kapital. On the other hand, socialism also is broken. Marx based his theory of rapid social change on Hegel when he would have done better to use a Darwinian model. Nature evolves gradually over time. Revolutions are sudden spikes of chaos creating vacuums of power to be occupied by monsters and tyrants. Revolutions have changed everything except the human heart.

Rimbaud doesn’t like what he sees as he gazes at us from the Place Vendome.

Picasso’s Boy With A Pipe alongside Braquehais’ image of Rimbaud in the Place Vendome. In my next essay I will be investigating Picasso’s most arcane portrait, said by Sir John Richardson to be based on Verlaine’s poem about Rimbaud, Crimen Amoris.

Overcoming the Plague

Arthur Rimbaud dreamed not of a revolution but of something far more impresssive: a transformation.

The children sing to you: Change our fate, overcome the plague.

Cosmic socialism could not persecute the Falun Gong simply because their disciplines are non-reductive. And altruistic capitalism could function in the way medieval monasticism related – comfortably – to the marketplace. Yet while nature transforms and man’s possibilities are infinite, we’re throwing away our most precious resources. The loneliness of the modern world means that the streaming of pornography is the only solace for isolated males addicted to self-stimulation. The internet is hypersexualized; it is 60-70% pornography.  Dirty servers – euphemistically called ‘the cloud’ – running on carbon-based fossil-fuels contaminate our skies (and our souls, in some cases).

Love is not here yet.

It’s on the horizon. It’s recently come a bit closer, like Rimbaud himself.

Unconditional love is within reach.

Love’s to be!

AAD in front of the House of Arthur Rimbaud in Kings Cross St Pancras, Central London. Rimbaud lived here for seven or eight weeks while writing Une Saison en Enfer in 1873. AAD’s epic poem Vale Royal unlocks the psychogeography of this mystic zone of London to which many visionary poets have been drawn, among them William Blake, WB Yeats, Shelley and Chatterton, who (dying at 17 in Kings Cross) can be considered the English Rimbaud.

A Dark Place

I have travelled with Arthur Rimbaud for many years. He changed my life in a supernatural manner when I was in a dark place, turning twenty. Two decades later I stood on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall in front of five-thousand people to recite the prologue of an epic poem which had taken twenty-three long years to write, years spent living on the streets of London, years spent meditating in derelicts. That poem, Vale Royal, was – in a sense – dictated to me by Arthur Rimbaud. (I will go into this elliptical history in a later piece.) In another – more famous – example of theophanic intervention, Paul Claudel was transformed on Christmas Day in 1886 when Rimbaud seemed to lead him into Notre Dame Cathedral. There – as an atheist – he went through a spiritual initiation which made him the greatest Catholic poet of the 20th century, the man who visibly stood up against the Nazis, condemning them as ‘wedded to Satan’, ‘utterly demonic’.

Do I think of myself as a Rimbaud scholar? Yes, but my approach to his biography is less individual, more universal. I base my understanding of this poet at archetypal levels. Over the years I have come to regard his emergence onto the world-stage as nothing less than mythical. His unique presence in contemporary world-culture makes him a Mighty Youth: an Absalom, a Hermes. I see him as messenger, winged runner between dimensions. Rimbaud is an interpreter of the multiverse, decoding the realities folded into our world. For all these reasons – and many more – I believe that this Christlike poet has appeared in the Place Vendome for revelatory purposes. The greatest Frenchman (like the greatest Englishman, William Blake) has a message for us in the time of plague.

Through the Spirit we go to God. Heartbreaking misfortune.

Rimbaud began with a doctrine of excess, driving himself at any cost to become a seer. He ended – only three years later – by saying the words above, his wonderful irony coming to bear on the fact that our five senses are circumscribed and limited but human superconsciousness is infinite. Rimbaud is teaching that death – in the context of the multiverse – represents the supreme misunderstanding. He says that death is a false interpretion based on partial data and incomplete experience. Yet the ‘absolutely modern’ seer adds that the manner of our dying is very real; and he asks us not die miserable deaths.

A bad death would be one where the meaning of life dawns too late; where an ego-driven individuality understands only on the threshold of the unknown that if unconditional love had allowed forgiveness – and freedom! – an experience might not have involved monotonous repetitions.

The plague could come back if we don’t transform.

Chant the Aquarian prayer with me:

Love’s to be!

Rimbaud in the Place Vendome with his nameless friend (who places his left hand on Rimbaud’s shoulder). The small man in front of Rimbaud may be Jules Andrieu.

Arthur Rimbaud: The Third Man

Arthur Rimbaud: The Third Man

The enigmatic trio of the Place Vendome. The ‘third man’ stands closest to the camera, smiling.

Positive choreography

In Bruno Braquehais’ group-portrait most probably showing Arthur Rimbaud in the Place Vendome the poet is the psychological focus of the plinth-group. An inverted triangle comprises the poet himself, his friend from the 88th regiment (who places his left hand on Rimbaud’s left shoulder in a cordial and protective gesture) and a third man who stands in the foreground almost like a herald. I’d now like to examine the identity of this last figure.

The third man is the nearest person to the camera, which works to his advantage because in this position his height is amplified by his proximity. In fact we don’t realize how small he really is because of this clever photographic positioning. (The placement of this individual contributes to the argument for a completely choreographed ensemble where selected characters are represented in symbolic poses. Note also how the middle-distance group of Communards are distributed in geometric symmetry, strung like beads on the guard-rope which defines the central third of the composition. A triangle touching both ends of this rope will have its apex exactly in the centre of the photograph, while its two lower points neatly bisect the lower corners. This layout of this image has been proportioned for visual harmony.)

The third man thrusts himself importantly into the foreground yet at the same time he seems to make it clear that he doesn’t consider himself worthy of standing on the plinth. His kindly and intelligent face wears a slightly bashful expression. This individual seems to say he’s proud to be near Arthur Rimbaud but we note that he consciously places himself so as to obscure only the giant while leaving the visual path to the poet clear. By his act of stepping-aside our view of Rimbaud is absolutely unimpeded. (One more argument for careful choreography.)

Bruno Braquehais’ main image of the demolition of Napoleon’s column in the Place Vendome.

A man of Napoleonic stature

The third man smiles quite broadly but a heavy moustache blocks this expression. (He looks a bit too genial for a soldier.) While Rimbaud holds his rifle correctly by the butt, shouldering it menacingly – ready-for-action – this man rests his rifle more casually on the ground. This fusil – with bayonet affixed – is almost as tall as its diminutive bearer. We notice a white collar at the third man’s neck; also a watch-chain half-way down his chest: both these suggest some kind of military bureaucrat. We note too that he carries no ammunition, unlike the poet who slings his cartridges to his left in a small lightweight metal case, well out of the way yet easily accessible on his hip. The fact that the third man carries no live ammunition could denote an administrative role in the Communard military structure.

So who is this third man in the plinth-group? I want to suggest that this person who steps forward so authoritatively towards the camera – as if to say ‘I created all this!’ – is the man who actually signed the bureaucratic order which triggered the demolition of the Vendome Column. I want to speculate – more recklessly than any banker – that this small stocky figure with the genial expression and the bushy moustache is none other than Jules Andrieu. Who? (Even some Rimbaud fanatics have never heard of Jules Andrieu.) If I am correct in this surmise then another significant link has been found which makes the identification of the boy-soldier as Arthur Rimbaud much more probable.

Jules Andrieu. In the studio portrait (left) it is important to note that lighting and camera-angle have flatteringly hidden the prominent and chubby cheeks which are so much a feature of the Place Vendome shot. We are also looking at a younger Andrieu in the studio-portrait. (He appears here to be about twenty-five or so, whereas during the Commune he is thirty-three.)

Jules Andrieu’s photograph of the Place Vendome, post-demolition. Andrieu’s Parisian sequence Disasters of War is a photojournalistic masterpiece, like Braquehais’ Paris During the Commune. It is highly likely that the two photographers – working in a new and very specialized field – knew eachother professionally and even socially.

A polymath and an autodidact

Jules Louis Andrieu was born in Paris in 1838 and he died in exile aged only 46 in Jersey. He is usually described as a ‘short, shaggy-haired man’ who ‘smiles easily’. (We have two portraits of Andrieu and he smiles in both of them, unusual facial language for the time.) Jules Andrieu was something of a polymath and an autodidact (like Rimbaud himself). A poet, a linguist, a teacher, an occultist and a civil-servant, he was also a prolific author and a photographer. Before the Commune he worked for the Paris Prefecture in a fairly subordinate position in the municipal administration. Yet in his spare time he gave free lessons in secondary education to working-class Parisians, openhandedly sharing his passion for poetry, history and philosophy. In 1860 he published Palmistry: a Study of the Hand, Skull and Face. Six years later his History of the Middle Ages appeared. In 1867 followed Philosophy and Ethics. At some point during this period, as a habitue of the poetry cafes of the Latin Quarter, Andrieu met and became friends with Paul Verlaine.

Now, in 1871, the Commune’s utopian reverie begins, and Andrieu, with his altruistic curriculum vitae, is immediately appointed chief of staff of the Hôtel de Ville de Paris. Now he rubs shoulders daily with Verlaine who is elected head of the press bureau of the Central Committee. But it is Andrieu, and not Verlaine, who becomes what Graham Robb describes as ‘ringmaster of the republican Parnassians’. (The ‘Parnassians’ were a post-romantic, pre-symbolist poetry movement probably started by Theophile Gautier. De Banville, Mallarme and Verlaine all belonged to this group which was mercilessly swept away by Rimbaud.) Robb describes Andrieu as ‘an encourager and facilitator’. Robb also expresses the interesting opinion that Jules Andrieu’s poetry is valuable and worth reading. (At this point I have not read him myself and so cannot comment, but Robb’s bibliography mentions two collections both of which will have to be explored, both aesthetically and forensically.)

We know that later, in London, Andrieu and Rimbaud will become extremely close, so close that Verlaine will have an episode of jealous rage about their intimacy. (Andrieu’s contemporaries all hint at his homosexuality.) We also have Delahaye’s testimony that in exile Andrieu becomes Rimbaud’s ‘favourite intellectual brother’. In London, these two banished poets discover that they have much in common, sharing not only the craft of making poems but a fascination with mysticism, folklore and alternative history. In fact, as evidence of the closeness between Rimbaud and Andrieu, as proof of how long their friendship endures, we have the recently-discovered ‘Splendid History’ document, turned up among family-papers by the great-grandson of Andrieu, Alain Rochereau. This is a letter from Rimbaud to Andrieu written on the 16th of April 1874. It is addressed from 30 Argyle Square in London’s Kings Cross St Pancras district. (This is the small hotel where Rimbaud’s mother and sister stayed with him for several weeks while he attempted – rather half-heartedly – to find work in England, still effectively an exile, still unable to return to France.) In the ‘Splendid History’ letter Rimbaud sets out a plan for a visionary and alternative historical text which the poet hopes Andrieu is going to help him publish. (I intend to look at this extraordinary letter in detail in a future essay.) From the dating of this correspondence we know that Rimbaud’s friendship with Jules Andrieu lasted long after the ‘London pilgrimage’ period. While Rimbaud was writing his ‘Splendid History’ letter in Kings Cross St Pancras in 1874, Verlaine was languishing in a Belgian prison cell looking back to 1873 and the crisis in Camden Town. (In fact Argyle Square is only a ten minute walk from Great College Street, where the Infernal Bridegroom and the Foolish Virgin descended into the relational insanity delineated in A Season in Hell.)

The point that I am trying to make here is that contact between Rimbaud and Andrieu – however glancing – might just have been initiated during the seven weeks of the Paris Commune. And it is possible that if that such contact was made Rimbaud might have referred to it in his first letter to Verlaine, the text of which has been almost completely lost, destroyed by Verlaine’s wife Mathilde. We have only fragments of this crucial first letter, so we don’t know exactly what connections Rimbaud used in reaching out to the famous Parnassian. But the tone of his letter is warm, intimate and autobiographical, very different in style to a letter previously written to Banville. It is just possible that Rimbaud – knowing that Andrieu was close to Verlaine –  might have mentioned some (even anonymous) contact made during the Commune (when most aritsts making political statements used pseudonyms). 

These are necessarily tentative speculations, but how could contact with Jules Andrieu have actually happened?

Jules Andrieu in a second studio portrait (left). Once again clever lighting and camera-angle have hidden the chubby cheeks which are so much a feature of the Place Vendome shot. Both studio portraits would seem to be taken at least eight years before the Communard group-portrait in the Place Vendome.

Hands full of horsepower

It is not difficult to imagine a man like Jules Andrieu spending a lot of time in the poetry cafes of the Latin Quarter. As a man of influence under the new pre-socialist regime his project is to cast a cultural dragnet through the literary underground of Paris hoping to discover some new voice which truly articulates ‘the resurrectionary mythology of the Commune’ (Graham Robb’s phrase.) We can easily suppose that in one of these atmospheric smoke-filled dives he witnesses a young hoodlum called Jean Baudry – or is it Alcide Bava? – reciting the most inflammable verses he has ever heard. This baby-faced soldier-poet in the uniform of the Paris Irregulars is declaiming a seasick poem of mysterious violence. Nautical imagery amplifies an orgiastic nightmare in which the stern of a vessel is rammed in a nauseant assault. As the baby-faced poet howls his Stolen Heart a subterannean gas-lit den begins to sway side-to-side like a drunken ship. (Someone spews quietly in a corner.) Now the mass-hypnosis intensifies with a poem titled The Hands of Jeanne-Marie. As the grim singer chants a hymn of rage to the anger of Parisian working-class women he suddenly seems to become one of them. (His huge red hands flail the shadows as he declaims his republican battle-song.)

More fatal than machines
these hands full of horsepower.

Andrieu is left breathless. Stunned, he has just seen some transgender petroleuese set fire to the fabric of reality, burn down the sky. When the demented recitation finally subsides he goes over to a candlelit table  where the young poet sits with a bulky companion who seems to act like a personal bodyguard. Andrieu introduces himself, not as a poet but as a photographer. (Andrieu’s valuation of his own verse has just sunk several octaves lower.) He elegantly compliments the adolescent genius, then mentions casually that the following day, a colleague and close friend of his – the deaf-mute ‘collodion-gunner’ Bruno Braquehais – is planning to capture the demolished Napoleon lying in the rubble of the Place Vendome. Would this young poet deign to appear in the composition? Gustave Courbet has promised to be there.

The young poet gives a surly grin and mumbles something non-committal. (He enjoys the street-game of pussyfooting around.) Andrieu, baffled, plays his ace-card:

‘I’m the one who signed the demolition-order!’

The revelation has no impact. There’s zero response. An infernal adolescent grimace remains firmly superimposed on the baby-face.

Doomed brother-Communards

Like the Commune itself our dream has been brief.

If the third man is really Jules Andrieu then we know that the plinth-grouping is intentional. If Jules Andrieu as-it-were introduces Rimbaud then the symbolism of Braquehais’ masterpiece is complete. Now we see ‘the resurrectionary mythology of the Commune’ expressed by the mighty youth of armed revolution, backed-up by his best friend (Hercules of the warm-heart) and introduced to the world by the Communard chief-of-staff.

To conclude.

I have a notion about the crowbar, that crowbar so obviously placed as a prop right next to the third man, the emblematic and phallic crowbar which screams ‘I toppled a military dictator. Deal with that!’ I want to speculate – if possible without crashing the literary stock-market – that it just might have been Jean-Arthur himself who suggested to Andrieu the employment of some ugly stage-furniture. As the poet about to invent literary symbolism it would have been a nice ironic gesture on the poet’s part to provide the miniscule Jules Andrieu with the lever which brings the Second Empire down. That crowbar gives Jules a bit of extra weight, makes a small man seem a lot more substantial.

It’s just a vague suspicion.

But isn’t life itself a second-guess?

Andrieu’s crowbar is the symbolic lever which has turned the Second Empire upside-down.

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.

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