Late Conversion

Was Rimbaud a Saint?

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...

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About the Author

Harold Bordwell is a retired editor living in Evanston, Illinois.