Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Auden’s Anxious Library Bench (3): Arthur Rimbaud

As we’ve already seen, the first two poets W.H. Auden mentions in his literary catalog in New Year Letter, Dante and William Blake, are both included in the syllabus for the course he taught at the University of Michigan in 1941. The same is true of the third, Arthur Rimbaud, whose prose work A Season in Hell Auden required students to read.1

Here is how he describes him:

…While to his2 left upon the bench,

Muttering that terror is not French,

Frowns the young RIMBAUD guilt demands,

The adolescent with red hands,

Skilful, intolerant and quick,

Who strangled an old rhetoric.

The Symbolist Rimbaud (1854-1891), despite dying at only 37, exercised an immense influence on subsequent writers, and in particular on literary modernists. In a roughly contemporary piece published in The New Republic called “Heretics,” a review of books on Rimbaud and D.H. Lawrence, Auden says:

Rimbaud and Lawrence have much in common. Both their mothers married beneath them, both had mother-fixations, both combined a personal messianic arrogance with attacking Christian individualism, both were attracted by Eastern mysticism and primitive peoples, both were inveterate wanderers. Rimbaud was born a Catholic in an anti-clerical country at a time when dogmatic scientific materialism was still unchallenged; Lawrence was born a non-conformist, and, by the time he reached maturity, science had abandoned all claim to give an objective picture of reality. While Rimbaud went from extreme individualism, a belief in poetry and a mystic technique, to an extreme collectivism and a belief in engineering and textbooks, from the Cabala to Comte, Lawrence changed essentially little during his life. To understand either, one must see them as sensitive individuals in an atomized industrial society, seeking an orthodoxy, a universally valid faith. Their protest against atomization is linked to a belief that science was responsible.3

Later, incidentally, Rimbaud was to have a profound impact on Bob Dylan, who mentions him (in particular, his relationship with Paul Verlaine) in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” from Blood on the Tracks:

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go

You can get a flavor of Rimbaud here. For instance, this is his “Eternity“:

It is discovered.
What? Eternity.
In the whirling light
Of sun become sea.

O my sentinel soul,
Let us always desire
The nothing of night
And the day on fire.

From the voice of the World
And the striving of Man
You must set yourself free;
You must fly as you can.

For out of you only,
Soft silken embers,
Duty arises
Nor surfeit remembers.

Then shall all hope fail…
Nul orietur.
Science with patience,
The torment is sure.

It is discovered.
What? Eternity.
In the whirling light
Of sun become sea.


  1. His list in New Year Letter is thus geographically ecumenical: the first three are Italian, English, and French.
  2. I.e., Blake’s.
  3. The review, published on 1 November 1939, can be found in his Collected Works, Prose, volume II, 32-5. The quotation is from p. 33.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.