At the age of 16, writer Edmund White discovered the writings of another teenager, the 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
It was a match made not in heaven but in hell — Rimbaud, the enfant terrible and author of the groundbreaking prose-poem Une Saison en Enfer; White, in 1956 living a hell of his own as a gay, self-loathing boarding-school student in the Midwest but with some major ideas already in mind: run away to New York, get published, and fall in love — preferably with an older man to take care of him.
Rimbaud would have recognized the game plan, as White explains in Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel, a handy, brief biography published by Atlas & Co. in its continuing series of "Eminent Lives."
But New York wasn't Rimbaud's destination at the age of 15. It was Paris, where he hoped to publish his poetry and live free — free from the middle-class expectations of his mother in a village in northeast France and free to live the visionary life of a poet/seer, which in Rimbaud's case meant a disordering of the senses thanks to beaucoup boozing. So, goodbye to bourgeois prudishness, and hello to whatever the deranged senses might detect and perceive. The poet/seer's job: to write it down.
What others detected and perceived in the young Rimbaud, despite his obvious genius, was another matter, and a healthy head of lice wasn't the worst of it. "A vile, vicious, disgusting, smutty little schoolboy" is how one observer described Rimbaud at the time, but try telling that to the poet Paul Verlaine, who was 10 years older than Rimbaud and crazy about the kid and his work.
More than crazy. According to White, Verlaine, no slouch himself in the history of poetry, was a "brutal husband," "impious wretch," "homicidal alcoholic," "slacker," and "drama queen." Case in point, in the drama department: the time a drunken Verlaine smashed the bottles holding the fetuses of his mother's two miscarriages — fetuses she displayed in her home and fetuses Verlaine proceeded to dismember. Why? Because Verlaine's mother refused to fork over any more money.
Little wonder, then, that by the time Rimbaud got to town, Verlaine, impressed by the youngster's radical way with words and ga-ga over his brilliant blue eyes, was, according to White, "up for anything," which, in 19th-century Paris and then London, meant "the lurid but exciting depths of bohemian depravity." Another match made in hell? Yes, but there's always the other side to a story, and leave it to Rimbaud to put it not so poetically:
"He can satisfy himself on me as much as he likes," Rimbaud said of Verlaine. "But he wants me to practice on him! Not on your life! He's far too filthy. And he's got horrible skin."
And a trigger finger. After Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist, police in Brussels got wind of the rumors surrounding the nature of their relationship, so officials gave Verlaine the going-over he apparently couldn't get from Rimbaud. Not so poetically put, White writes that, thanks to Belgian police work, "we know more about the condition of [Verlaine's] penis and anus than we do about the intimate anatomy of any other major poet of the past."
As for the master of obscurity himself, Rimbaud, there's still the abiding mystery: how to account for the fact that this "father of modern poetry" — who went from being a Romantic, to a classicist, a Symbolist, and a Surrealist (avant la lettre), who went from scandal to scandal as a thug and troublemaker — by the age of 21 abandoned the literary world altogether.
Failing to be recognized for his poetry, Rimbaud turned to traveling — to Germany and Italy, to Indonesia and Cyprus — and to a series of unsuccessful moneymaking schemes. He then traveled to Ethiopia and became a coffee-seller and gunrunner. He died from cancer in Marseille in 1891, age 37.
As White writes in his fast-moving overview: "[Rimbaud] looked back on his years of creativity (from age fifteen to nineteen) as shameful, a time of drunkenness, a period of homosexual scandal, of arrogance and rebellion that led to nothing."
Not so. Ask, to name a few, Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Neruda, Mario Vargos Llosa, Milan Kundera, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith — and Edmund White.