"But when will you and Monsieur Rimbaud be home?" the pregnant Mathilde begged her husband, now anxious to leave as she lay red and bloated on the fainting couch, with a maid to daub each eye. Did Verlaine actually think that a few hours of solicitude would erase a week's utter dereliction? With Mathilde, perhaps, but not with the Dragon now at her daughter's side.
"Well?" said the Dragoness. "Will you answer your wife?"
"Not late," he said. "This is a reading." Rimbaud's Paris debut this would be. "Rarely do these things go that late. Unless, of course, there is a great éclat."
"But, my darling," said Mathilde, desperate, even then, to be agreeable, "I am about to deliver. I need to deliver."
What had come of those lyrics he had once written, overpowering feelings of love and happiness and gratitude? You've got a child coming, he kept telling himself.
Paul, she would say, as they lay in bed, feel him. He's kicking? Do you feel it?
Feel something. Anything to shake this growing paralysis. And he had tried to prepare himself for the child, he had; why, manfully one morning for more than an hour he had sat at his desk, numbly endeavoring to write a poem entitled "The Child." The child, the child—what? Nil. Naught. Nothing. Haze over fog.
But mainly Paul Verlaine felt torn between his wife and Rimbaud.
And this could well be the night, he reminded himself, not altogether sure whether he meant the new arrival or finally something physical with Rimbaud. He was not a cruel or unfeeling man. It was her first child; she was young and frightened and feeling abandoned—too true. But how could he leave Rimbaud, even younger than she, to brave literary Paris alone? And where was Mathilde's own father, the deserter? At his club, of course, smoking and playing cards.
"Oh, let him go," moaned the Dragoness to her daughter as he made ready to leave. "They're males, they're going to go—so go."
Wringing a pillow, Mathilde called out.
"Do you even care about this child, Paul Verlaine? Do you?"
It was then that Rimbaud appeared. Mme. Mauté rose in shock.
"What, you bathed? Ah," she said, nodding, "now I see! You bathe for these poets, eh, but not for we who house and feed you?"
It was true. His shoes were shined, his suit was brushed, and his twisted black tie hung down like two licorice sticks. All was prepared. In his still perfect schoolboy hand, he had carefully copied out "Le Bateau Ivre," then read it aloud—twice. Dérangement tomorrow. Tonight for careering.
"Jeune homme," said Mme. Mauté, attempting to convey a more familial note to the young feral. "Please, come here."
With queer pride she straightened the tie. Licked her thumb and, without protest from him, repaired a curl. In fact, for a split second the Dragoness reminded him of his mother, one of those rare, momentary truces when they both could drop the masks.
"Paul," cried Mathilde as they left. "Please—not late. This could be the night."
Strange sight. Seen from behind, to Mathilde, the two vaguely looked like father and son, off to church, perhaps. Inside the baby was kicking, alive. Why could her husband not feel that? Numb, Mathilde Mauté Verlaine smoothed her belly as expectant mothers do, rocking her own cradle. And without quite knowing why, she felt a deep, involuntary shudder.
Verlaine's branch of the Parnassians called themselves les Vilains Bonshommes, the Nasty Fellows, a nom de guerre earned by the poet-playwright François Coppée. An official in the Ministry of War by day, this Coppée had the looks and gravitas of a possum yet somehow had managed, in his tepid verses, to upset a critical nobody who called him, in print, "a nasty fellow."
Brilliant! Henceforth Verlaine's clan would be known as the Nasty Fellows. But nasty? Hardly.
Poets by night and on weekends, they were, by day, professors and bureaucrats, engravers and journalists, and one, Ernest d'Hervilly, an agent with the Ministry of Bridges and Roads. See them now assembling in the back of the Café Procope over some crusts and wine, the cheese already devoured. Orotund voices, rubicund faces, freely laughing and gesturing, they are anything but stiff and disagreeable, these men in their worn black boots, overstarched collars, and sagging dark suits with shiny elbows. Most are in their twenties and thirties, a handful in their forties, and there, in the front, bearded, silver-haired, and bald-pated, looking rather like an old priest, is the grand old man of the group, Théodore de Banville, now almost fifty. Banville, we'll recall, was the poet to whom Rimbaud had sent his mocking poems only one year before. And yet, although Banville had not forgotten his cheek and insolence, unknown to Rimbaud he had promised Verlaine, and with considerable foresight, that he would house the prodigy once, inevitably, the Mautés had had enough.
In his decency and devotion to his art, Banville expressed perfectly the best of the Nasties, or any other community, for that matter. An in Paris—whatever one did, down to the ragpickers and sewer men—community was essential. For the average inhabitant, Paris was dark and dank, not gay and glittering. For aspiring poets, from the provinces especially, it was a life of cheap rooms and no wife—impossible, too expensive. Better and cheaper, le pinard—plonk wine—and a prostitute every now and then. Not much.
And life was short: rare was the person who lived to forty-five, let alone to fifty, like Banville. Community mattered, but then what could Rimbaud, raised by a semi-shut-in, have known about that?
Who, then, was Rimbaud in this place, and who did he imagine these people would be? Just who was his public? His ideal reader? Well, other than God, of course.
Whatever posterity's harsh judgments, these Parnassians were not the silly poseurs and mediocrities the kid expected. These were able and committed craftsmen—decent men, amusing and intelligent. Most, too, were realists, relieved finally of the sad, wearying burden of kidding themselves about one day standing among the Pantheon. Failure, pain, rejection: the dawning, then resolute certainty that ceaseless effort and passion, or even talent, were not enough—that, all kidding aside, one was, after all, unexceptional. They knew the writer's lot. They did the work. They did it as best they could—was that not enough?
Of course the boy did not, could not, and would not know about this—any of it. Death in the abstract—easy to conjure. Eternity—even this could be imagined. But ordinary life—the ceaseless proof of living day after day after day? Of this, the wunderkind knew almost nothing, nor could he, obviously.
Then again, les Vilains Bonshommes arrived with their own preconceptions.
All had seen—and some, like monks, had hand-copied to further distribute—the kid's now semidisinherited earlier works, such as "The Stolen Heart," "The Seekers of Lice," and "First Communions."
At these works the poets of Paris stared. Picked them up, threw them down, and debated them. And yes, freely admitted they were works of genius—but. Inevitably there came the "but."
But his rhymes, they are somewhat ... irregular.
But his word choice is, well ... odd.
But as with "The Stolen Heart," parts are ... irrational, crazy.
But his subjects, although fresh, can be a trifle ... jejune.
But, not bad, you understand. But ...
And so that night, before his arrival, the Nasties could be heard fulminating.
"Has the Boy Christ arrived?"
"And did you read 'The Stolen Heart'?"
"Well, genius, clearly. But vile if true. And if not ... "
Let us not forget, moreover, that it was the threadbare Nasties who had cobbled together the funds necessary to bring the bumpkin to Paris. As they saw it, he was their discovery. And so, quibbles aside, Rimbaud had no reason to fail and every possible reason to succeed.
And yet, entering upon this room of smiles and bows and open hands, the boy colored and froze. Froze because it was nothing like he imagined it would be—in fact, it was all wrong. So what, then, had he imagined? Poets ripping up their feeble efforts and breaking their pens, all clapping and bowing, waiting to anoint poetry's uncrowned king?
"Well, he is so excited to be here!" gushed Verlaine, talking enough for two, as the boy spurned a glass of water or wine, then bleakly stared at the floor, hands balled in his pockets. It was a mercy when Banville called the meeting to order.
"Well, then, Monsieur Rimbaud," said the worthy Banville, "we are honored to have you, and we welcome you, so young and talented. And I'm told you have brought us a poem."
"No," said the boy with nervous irritation, "the poem brought me, Monsieur."
Stupid. The second these words fled his lips he felt stupid and embarrassed, then angry—angry at these older men, these mediocrities, staring at him as if he were a freak.
"Ah," replied Banville nimbly, "then perhaps the poem will lead you to the podium?"
Rimbaud looked at him. He woke up. He had never spoken publicly before—school didn't count. He didn't know the terror and dazzlement of a room full of people all watching you, waiting for you to trip up. Nor did he know how a speaker loses all track of time, speaking into the void as people sit submerged, thinking what, what?
"Messieurs, my good sirs," said Verlaine nervously, rushing up to the lectern, "allow me to explain. Or rather to add, if I may, a bit of context to what you are about to hear. This poem you shall hear, it is new—radically new. But to many of you, it may strike you as—ah, what word shall I use? Rude? Obstreperous, as is the way with youth?"
Men were staring. The boy's cheeks were now as red as two candy sticks.
"You see," Verlaine continued, like a magician announcing his next feat, "on my first hearing of this poem, I was, I can tell you, shocked. Note, my friends, I do not say this for effect—no. For the simple fact was, I did not know what to say. I had to let it sink in, really over many days. I will also tell you, often I didn't properly know who was talking. The way things flowed. The way some of it seemed, quite deliberately, not to make sense." He smiled at the kid—he was just trying to prepare them. "Make sense, I mean, in the way that I make sense. I and most people, perhaps. But, as I say, often I did not know who was talking and—"
"Then stop talking, Verlaine!" cried a voice. "Let the boy read."
Are they daring me? thought the kid. He was petrified, but he couldn't flee, not now. His head was on fire and his ears were ringing—he saw spots. Pulling out his pages, his hands shook. Then no sooner did he still his hands than his knees were trembling. Nonetheless, he started, his voice quavering:
The Drunken Boat
As I was going down impassive Rivers,
I no longer felt myself guided by haulers! ...
One blew his nose. Another drilled his finger into his ear. Verlaine looked around. Closed eyes. Stone faces. Pained squints. No, he realized much too late, this was not a poem to be read aloud:
Sweeter than the flesh of hard apples is to children,
The green water penetrated my hull of fir
And washed me of spots of blue wine
And vomit, scattering rudder and grappling-hook.
"Vomit?" said someone quite audibly. "Did he just say 'vomit'? In a poem?"
A titter was heard. Coughs and nose blowing, ear tugging, twitches.
But by then the kid was deaf, numb, a voice in a body reading:
I followed during pregnant months the swell,
Like hysterical cows, in its assault on the reefs ...
"What?" said another. "Is it now pregnant hysterical cows?"
"Gentlemen," chided Banville, staring with deep concentration at his boots.
Had his audience had the text to follow, this would have been bad enough. But reading it aloud, and badly—a fiasco. And just what was this phantasmagoria that he was reading? A poem, of course, had a clear speaker or point of view. A poem had a more or less consistent tone. A poem, however fanciful, was obliged to make sense. But what was anyone to make of this—these violent shifts of perspective, this drunken illogic? But at long last—seemingly hours in a mere twenty minutes—he concluded:
If I want a water of Europe, it is the black
Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight
A squatting child full of sadness releases
A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.
No longer can I, bathed in your languor, O waves,
Follow in the wake of the cotton boats,
Nor cross through the pride of flags and flames,
Nor swim under the terrible eyes of prison ships.
He stopped. The room fell as still, then Verlaine clapped. One clap, then two, then—not knowing what to say—they were clapping. Thrilled—anything for this ordeal to be over. But then, as the clapping subsided, before the kid could flee, a gentleman with a shock of dark hair, beard, and mustache—Léon Valade—asked:
"Monsieur Rimbaud, if I remember correctly, in that penultimate stanza ... how does it go? 'A water of Europe'—I believe this was what you said—it then becomes a puddle? Presumably, a sea, then a puddle?" In evident alarm and vexation, Valade looked around for support and found it in the folded arms and nodding heads; nobody then made these wild leaps. "Then, Monsieur Rimbaud," he continued, "in two lines there is a child releasing a boat, then"—he sighed—"then, I guess, he is an adult? Do you see? I—I—I just wonder if you might explain. Since"—he smiled—"since it is so very interesting to us."
"It is not," replied the boy coldly, "my job to explain."
"But," said the elder poet, swiping his long, slick mustache, "but, Monsieur Rimbaud, surely as poets, it is our job to explain, to be clear."
"No," said the boy testily, "but you see, when I read your writings—many of you—you labor to explain. To merely be clear, as if a poem were, what, a newspaper? Read once, then used to wipe your—"
It was, in short, an incendiary debut, as the young honoree not only bit the hand, but even managed, on the way out, to pinch a hat and a pair of gloves.
Bruce Duffy is the author of the The World As I Found It, a fictional life of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Last Comes The Egg. His first novel has just been released in the New York Review of Books Classics series. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
.Disaster Was My God: A Novel of the Outlaw Life of Arthur Rimbaud