When Arthur Rimbaud reached Marseilles in August 1891, he had only three months to live. He had come from Roche, in the Ardennes, changing trains in Paris on a rainy Sunday evening, his sister Isabelle by his side. He was on his agonizing return to the Hôpital de la Conception, where his cancerous right leg had been amputated in May, and where, he told his sister, “at least it will be sunny and warm.” Only he kept on believing that somehow he could be cured of his cancer and return to Yemen and his trading post in Ethiopia. The poet in him had died years before, but his life as a trader of rifles, ivory, incense, and gold lived on in his imagination.

The stage was set for high drama in Marseilles, and it was not long in coming. One of literature’s bad boys was about to experience a conversion. In place of the young man from Charleville who chalked “Death to God!” on public benches; in place of the author of A Season in Hell who was shot by the poet Paul Verlaine in Brussels; in place of the adventurer who deserted from the Dutch Colonial Army in Java as soon as he could (with his enlistment pay); in place of the foreman who may have killed a man on Cyprus, a saint appeared in those last harrowing days in the hospital.

So, at least, we are led to believe.

Our source for this story is Rimbaud’s sister, who wrote about the poet’s final days in her letters home and in her remarkable book, Relics, a volume that, for the interested reader, necessitates the outlay of a good many euros to rare-book dealers in Paris. In an astonishing letter to their mother dated Sunday, October 28, 1891, she wrote that her blaspheming brother had become “a saint, a martyr, one of the elect!” Much of her evidence came from the hospital chaplain who heard Rimbaud’s last confession and who told her afterward that he “had scarcely ever seen a faith of this depth.” The blaspheming teenager who shouted “A priest!” when he encountered one in the streets, had begun to pray and prepare for a good death.

Death-bed conversions have always been suspect. In Rimbaud’s case, it depends on whose side you are on. The believers want to believe, the disbelievers are followers of a different god. The poet and diplomat Paul Claudel, writing during the Second World War, said that for him Rimbaud wasn’t a poet or a man of letters but a prophet. He stopped short of calling him a saint, but he believed that Rimbaud possessed a purity of spirit almost equal to that of Joan of Arc, a saint. On the other hand, Graham Robb, who has written the latest biography in English on Rimbaud, observes, “Even if Rimbaud did acknowledge the god who exacted his confession under torture, it would be unwise to name the god in question.” Robb is referring to Rimbaud’s long interest in the Muslim world and its beliefs—he liked to discuss the Qur’an with imams. And Robb, among others, sees in Isabelle Rimbaud someone who interpreted events for her own purposes, pointing out that she is the woman who wrote, “Where biography is concerned, I allow only one theme, and that’s my own.”

We are told that in the early church all the faithful were called saints, sancti, holy ones, not because they performed miracles but because they were followers of Jesus. One Catholic encyclopedia offers the opinion that many uncanonized people have probably been more virtuous and dedicated than those who were canonized. Writers, as always, are special cases, with special difficulties. In this they are like political figures. They do not constitute an official church but they certainly have canonizers and detractors. They can write like angels but they also can be accused of corrupting the young. One answer to this puzzling situation has been offered by the novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, he says that “artists are the saints of our secular society” because, in their lives, they often reject what many people want—“wealth, comfort, even, at times, success.”

Today, it seems, it is harder to believe in the miraculous occurring in our lives than to believe that in the pages of a book or in the brushwork of a painting there are both curative and magical powers at work. I think Josipovici’s argument comes out of an intense love of literature, something that should be honored. Perhaps it is better to say that sainthood will never be easy to confirm one way or the other-there are just too many buts and yets. George Orwell’s caution is worth keeping in mind. Saints, he wrote, “should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”

And what of Arthur Rimbaud? There is a commemorative plaque at the hospital in Marseilles where he died on November 10, 1891. It quotes these lines from one of his Illuminations, written before he was twenty:

I have strung ropes from steeple to steeple,
Garlands from window to window,
Golden chains from star to star,
And I dance.

For that alone he deserves to be called blessed.

Harold Bordwell is a retired editor living in Evanston, Illinois.
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Published in the 2008-05-09 issue: View Contents
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