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Arthur Rimbaud : The Mystic Way

Dernière mise à jour : 8 avr. 2023

Arthur Rimbaud ; La Table, Henri Fantin-Latour (detail)

(Paris, Musée D'Orsay © Getty / DeAgostini)

Extracts of :

Arthur Rimbaud and the Mystic Way

(...) "To explain why Rimbaud's poetry is not simply radical poetic experimentation, but the record of a mystic or contemplative life, Evelyn Underhill's description of the five stages of mystic experience, and some specific terminology of contemplative poetry developed by Arthur Clements in Poetry of Contemplation, provide a framework.

While Starkie, Gwendolyn Bays and others speak specifically of Rimbaud's use of alchemical and occult ideas in his poetry, the aim of this essay is to make the mystical, or contemplative elements of Rimbaud's life and poetry clear. Rimbaud's biography really is important in this context because not only is his poetry childhood itself, but it conveys in the purest possible terms Rimbaud's spiritual life between 1871 and 1873. His poetry and his life seem inextricable from each other.

Underhill's overview of the mystic way provides a key to understanding the transcendental process which most mystics, and Rimbaud, follow in their lives and describe in their writings. In her classic study Mysticism, Underhill explains the five stages in the mystic's progress toward God:

l) Awakening or Conversion
2) Purgation
3) Illumination
4) Purification or the Dark Night of the Soul
5) Union

Rimbaud proceeded through the first four of these stages and broke off before attaining actual contemplative "union." The whole process is tied in complicated ways to his writing: when he ceases writing, he ceases his intense drive toward God, as shown at the end of Une Saison en enfer, to be discussed in more detail later.


Underhill describes the first stage, Conversion, as "a sharp and sudden break with the old and obvious way of seeing things". Conversion is a reaction of the natural self, as opposed to the social or normal self, to an "uprush of new truth". In Rimbaud's case, conversion coincides with adolescence, when, having been the prize student, he at the age of fifteen drops out of school and focuses attention on two things: poetry, and escaping from his domineering mother. It is not clear that Rimbaud's conversion involved a vision or a transcendent experience; probably it did not.

But it did involve a personal awakening to the strictures of both personal and social life, strictures which he found intolerable and set out to change. His personal and social life was dominated by his mother and the church, and as his poetry progressed rapidly out of an imitative stage, he began to write more original poems critical of the church and religion generally.


This is no conventional awakening, and there is no reason to think at this point that it has anything to do with mystical or contemplative problems at all. Rimbaud exhibits typical adolescent rebellion. but unlike most boys his age, acts it out in poetry. With Rimbaud the rebellion is complicated because at this early age he is already aware of his own opposition to the oppressive moral and social climate of his culture, a climate other writers, such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Villiers and Nietzsche, would also react to strongly.

With Rimbaud the reaction is more violent and intense. Viewing the church - the traditional moral and spiritual center of society-as ugly (and probably inimical to spiritual matters) and as the upholder of conventional morality, his impulse is to reject and even to foul it. Significantly, his inner rejection of the church and Christ is also a poetic act. Even this early, poetry is part of the process of his life and not an ornament or career. His natural adolescent awakening is instantly elevated to an intense personal struggle against everything he knows, which is his "break with the old obvious way of seeing things."


Underhill calls the second stage of the mystic way Purgation, and we can see that Rimbaud engages in a spiritual purgation of his own devising which is unlike Underhill's descriptions in form, but has exactly the same purpose. She states that Purgation involves "the drastic turning of the self from the unreal to the real life" ; it is the stripping away of what needs to be removed and the cleansing of what will remain. This is normally accomplished in two ways, she says: through "Detachment," which employs poverty, and through "Mortification", which is the remaking of the self, adjusting from the needs of the old self to those of the new.

Both ways are difficult, and both play a part in Rimbaud's program for becoming a visionary, which he explains to Izambard and Demeny in the voyant letters of 1871. (...) He expresses this rage against society in general in a discussion of his social duty to make objective poetry, as opposed to Izambard's subjective poetry, which Rimbaud finds insipid. The point here is that he has awakened to the general moral decay of society and is reacting to it.

His reaction is the beginning of the purgative way; moral decay implies a spiritual decay which he feels he needs to escape, even combat. He tells Izambard, "Maintenant, je m'encrapule le plus possible," and his reason for doing this is:

"You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. It’s really not my fault.”

In this letter are several indications of the nature of his project. It is characterized, first of all, by a purgative quality. He is preparing to turn from the "unreal" life of corrupt society to the "real" life which in this letter is referred to as "l'inconnu," suggesting a desire for spirituality at some level, although at this point it concerns more his anger than a thirst for divinity.

He indicates engagement is an act of purgative detachment when he tells Izambard he is on strike from working: he detaches himself from society, and impoverishes himself by striking, as a means of carrying out his greater duty to society, which he says early in the letter is to serve up the "stupidest, meanest, rottenest things" he can think of, both literally and poetically. One senses that he sees little difference between his literal vulgarities and his poetic vulgarities.

Further, he speaks of the sufferings which will result from "Le dérèglement de tous les sens," clearly pointing to Underhill's concept of mortification. He is going to remake himself in the most drastic and deliberate ways. This is born out by his distinction between "je pense" and "on me pense." This implies the understanding, in mystical terms, that there are two selves, the personal self, or the ego, and the supra-self, or in other terms the personal soul and the generalized spirit, or the individual psyche and the collective pneuma of humanity.

"JE est un autre," Rimbaud says in the next paragraph of his letter, and he repeats this in the letter to Demeny. He means that "je," or the self we all recognize as ourselves, is not the real self of the universe, and he has shifted around the perspective from which we might normally understand this. That is, from our everyday lives we may think of any other self than the one we recognize a self other than our own ego-as being "un autre." But Rimbaud takes a characteristic mystical point of view by calling the recognizable ego - the "je" - the other.

"Je" is not real, whereas "l'inconnu" is the realm of the true spiritual self. This is the beginning of a quest for spiritual illumination and divinity. He needs to purge himself of the world as he knows it."


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