Posterity dictates that we keep track of the letters, journals and shopping lists of our great writers and poets and carnival barkers who dabble in poetry. Yet many times in the shuffle–to say nothing of poetic rages and burning of all possessions for warmth–the letters of less-famous interlocutors are lost. This puts present-day historians and scholars in the position of hearing only one side of the conversation–which is annoying when you’re on a bus and someone is on her cell phone, and practically a nightmare when attempting critical studies over a century later. The best one can hope for is close contextual reading of the letters that we do have, taken as an opportunity for wild speculation. Below is an attempt to use the young Arthur Rimbaud’s letters to his close, but much more shallow, friend, Paul Demeny. Just after the siege of Paris in early 1871, Demeny had moved to Douai, not far from his (and Rimbaud’s) hometown of Charleville. Scholars speculate that Demeny probably would never have shot Rimbaud like Paul Verlaine did, but that without Verlaine’s influence we would all be discussing Rimbaud’s legendary skills as dog groomer and not as poet.
Letter from Arthur Rimbaud to Paul Demeny April 17, 1871
Excerpted from Arthur Rimbaud Complete Works. Harper and Row Publishers. New York.
To Paul Demeny
Your letter arrived yesterday, the 16th. Thank you. –As for what I asked you: that was stupid. Knowing nothing of what I ought to know, resolved to do nothing of what I ought to do, I am condemned; have always been, forever. Well, tomorrow’s another day.
Since the 12th, I’ve been working in the office of the Progrès des Ardennes: today, of course, the newspaper is suspended. But I’ve pacified Shadow-mouth for a while.
Yes, you are happy. I say so. –and that there are unfortunates who will never find their Sister of Charity, be she woman, or idea.
For the rest, for today, I would strongly advise you to steep yourself in these verses from Ecclesiastes chap. 11-12, as wise as they are Romantic: “He hath folly sevenfold within his soul, who, having hung up his garments in the sun, will lament when the rain cometh”; but away with wisdom and the 1830s; let’s talk Paris.
I saw some new titles at Lemerre’s: two poems by Leconte de Lisle, Le Sacre de Paris, Le Sour d’une bataille. By F. Coppée: Lettre d’un Mobile breton. Mendès: Colère d’un franc-tireur. A. Theuriet: L’Invasion.
A. Lacaussade: Vae victoribus. Poems by Felix Franck and by Emile Bergerat. A Siège de Paris, thick volume, by Claretie.
I read while there Le Fer Rouge, Nouveaux Châtiments, by Glatigny, dedicated to Vacqerie; on sale at Lecroix, Paris and Brussels, probably. At La Librairie Artistique—I was trying to get Vermesch’s address; they asked me for news of you. You were at Abbeville then as far as I knew.
Every bookstore is selling its book about the Siege, its New of the Siege; the Siege by Sarcey is in its fourteenth edition; I saw endless outpourings of photographs and drawings concerning the siege—all as you can well imagine. The etchings of A. Marie, Les Vengeurs, les Faucheurs de la Mort attracted much attention, and especially the cartoons of Draner and Faustin. What was new were le Mot d’ordre and the fantasies, really good, by Vallès and Vermesch in the Cri du Peuple.
Such was literature—from the 25th of February to the 10th of March. Anyway, I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know. In which case, let us turn our faces to the lances of the storm, and open our souls to the wisdom of the ancients.
And may Belgian literature bear us both beneath its arm.
Letter from Paul Demeny to Arthur Rimbaud. April 12, 1871.
To Art Rimbaud
Rue Vieux Moulin
How are things in Charleville this time of year?! Douai is so rainy!
In answer to your question: no, I don’t think boats rock like that because they are drunk; they just move with the water underneath them. And while water can be drunk, a lake can’t be—unless you’re really thirsty, ha ha!
Have you found work yet? How is your pet turtle, Shadow-mouth?
I’m so happy to report that my local café softball team found a sponsor! The local mill owner is writing us off through his sister organization, a charity, under the stipulation that he get to play first base.
Today is laundry day. Absinthe stains are just impossible to get out. It probably doesn’t help that this is the first time these sheets have been washed since the Bourbon Restoration.
How’s the gang down at Lemarré’s? Read any good books lately?
I’m thinking about writing a book about the Siege. What do you think?
Catch you next time I’m in Charleville. Tell Vermesch I said, “Bonjour” but if he asks, I’m in Abbeville. And remember: if you can’t Budge ‘em, Belgium!