Preludes For Memnon, LVI
~ by Conrad Aiken
Rimbaud and Verlaine, precious pair of poets,
Genius in both — but what is genius? — playing
Chess on a marble table at an inn
With chestnut blossom falling in blond beer
And on their hair and between knight and bishop —
Sunlight squared between them on the chessboard,
Cirrus in heaven, and a squeal of music
Blown from the leathern door of Ste. Sulpice —
Discussing, between moves, iamb and spondee,
Anacoluthon and open vowel,
God the great peacock with his angel peacocks
And his dependent peacocks, the bright stars:
Disputing too of fate as Plato loved it,
Or Sophocles, who hated and admired,
Or Socrates, who loved and was amused:
Verlaine puts down his pawn upon a leaf
And closes his long eyes, which are dishonest,
And says “Rimbaud, there is one thing to do:
We must take rhetoric and wring its neck!…”
Rimbaud considers gravely, moves his Queen;
And then removes himself to Timbuctoo.
And Verlaine dead — with all his jades and mauves;
And Rimbaud dead in Marseilles with a vision,
His leg cut off, as once before his heart;
And all reported by a later lackey,
Whose virtue is his tardiness in time.
Let us describe the evening as it is —
The stars disposed in heavens as they are:
Verlaine and Shakespeare rotting, where they rot,
Rimbaud remembered, and too soon forgot;
Order in all things, logic in the dark;
Arrangement in the atom and the spark;
Time in the heart and sequence in the brain —
Such as destroyed Rimbaud and fooled Verlaine.
And let us take godhead by the neck —
And strangle it, and with it, rhetoric.
When Arthur Rimbaud came to Paris in the 1870s as a 15-year-old literary phenomenon, he had soon developed a sexual entanglement with his married mentor, Paul Verlaine.
After producing a few great works in his youth, Rimbaud abruptly overthrew his Parisian life while still only 19. He became a colonial trader in Africa and a restless man of action, never looking back. His only subsequent writings were his letters.
Thus the line, “Rimbaud considers gravely, moves his Queen; and then removes himself to Timbuctoo.”
“Take rhetoric and wring its neck!” is a direct quote of “Prend l’eloquence et tords-lui son cou!” in Verlaine’s literary credo, “Art Poetique.” So it should ideally be, “Take eloquence ..” which I would prefer.
Conrad Aiken here celebrates two Symbolist forerunners of modernist imagism. I think Aiken’s poem is on a par with Archibald MacLeish’s famed modernist lit manifesto,“Ars Poetica.” The Symbolists had tremendous influence on T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and the modernists in general.
Arthur Rimbaud may well have remained forgotten. But the devoted Verlaine arranged to have Rimbaud’s complete poems published in the 1890s, after Rimbaud had died of cancer, following a surgical amputation of his leg, at only 37.