"The Passion for Escape – Rimbaud" an extract from Frédéric Gros' A Philosophy of Walking
In this extract, Gros discusses Rimbaud's famous teenage treks across Paris and the influence work had on the great poet.
I can’t give you an address to reply to this, for I don’t know personally where I may find myself dragged next, or by what routes, on the way to where, or why, or how!
Arthur Rimbaud, Letter from Aden, 5 May 1884
Verlaine called him ‘the man with soles of wind’. The man himself, when still very young, had described himself thus: ‘I’m a pedestrian, nothing more.’ Rimbaud walked throughout his life. Obstinately, with passion. Between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, he walked to reach great cities: the Paris of literary hopes, to become known in Parnassian circles, to meet poets like himself, desperately lonely and longing to be loved (read his poems). To Brussels, to pursue a career in journalism. Between twenty and twenty-four, he several times tried the route to the South, returning home for the winter. Preparation for travel ... There were incessant shuttles between Mediterranean ports (Marseille or Genoa) and Charleville; walking towards the sun. And from the age of twenty-five until his death, desert roads.
At fifteen, drawn to the city of poets, and feeling lonely and decidedly redundant in Charleville, Rimbaud took off for Paris, his head full of naïve dreams. He left on foot very early one August morning, without a word to anyone. He walked probably to Givet, and there took the train. But selling his books – valuable ones, for he had been an excellent pupil – did not produce enough money to pay for the full journey to the capital. On arrival at the Gare de Strasbourg, he found the police waiting: he was arrested for theft, deemed a vagabond, and taken immediately to the local police station, then to the Mazas prison. His teacher of rhetoric, the famous Georges Izambard, rushed to his rescue and secured his pupil’s release by paying the railway company the unpaid portion of his fare. The line to Charleville being still cut because of the Franco-Prussian war, Rimbaud went to stay at Douai, with his protector’s family. There followed a sequence of happy days, talking literature and being spoiled by big sisters. But his mother sent for him.
Barely a month later, Rimbaud sold some more books and ran away again. He took the train as far as Fumay, then continued on foot, from village to village (Vireux, Givet) along the Meuse to Charleroi. ‘Eight days earlier, I had ripped my ankle-boots on the stones of the roads. I was entering Charleroi.’
There he offered his services to the Journal de Charleroi, which turned him down. Rimbaud went on to Brussels, penniless, still on foot, to find, or so he hoped, his protector Izambard. ‘I set off, my fists in my torn pockets; my overcoat too was becoming ideal; I was going under the sky, Muse! And I was your vassal; Oh good heavens, what splendid amours I dreamed!’
Fifty kilometres of joyous exclamation, hands in pockets and dreaming of literary glory and love. But Izambard wasn’t there. Durand, the teacher’s friend, gave him enough to set him on his way. Rimbaud did not go straight home, but to Douai, to his new family: ‘It’s me, I’ve come back.’ He arrived charged with a poetry born all along the roads – illuminations of flights and escapades – composed to the rhythms of paths and swinging arms.
A poetry of well-being, of festive relaxation in country inns. Satisfaction with the day’s progress, the body filled with space. Youth.
‘Blissfully happy, I stretched my legs under the table.’
Days and days of walking through golden autumn colours. Laughing outdoor nights, on roadside verges, under the glittering roof of stars.
‘My inn was at the sign of the Great Bear. – My stars in the sky making a gentle fuss.’ Rimbaud made careful fair copies of his inventions on big white sheets. Happy in the affection of his new family. He was sixteen. On 1 November Rimbaud’s mother (‘mouth of shadow’) ordered Izambard to return her son forthwith, via the police ‘to avoid expense’.
In February 1871, with the Franco-Prussian war under way, Rimbaud still dreamed of Paris, of which he had only seen the inside of a prison the first time. Charleville was still in the grip of winter. Arthur took on airs, allowed his hair to grow to an unseemly length, walked proudly up and down the main street smoking a pipe. He fretted and fumed; again without saying anything, secretly, he prepared his next escape. This time he had sold a silver watch, and had enough to pay for a rail ticket to his destination.
By 25 February he was wandering through Paris, gazing excitedly into bookshop windows, wondering what was new in poetry, sleeping in coal barges, living on gathered scraps and leavings, seeking feverishly to make contact with the literary Brotherhood. But it was not a time for literature: the Prussians were coming, the town had veiled itself in darkness. Stomach and pockets empty, Rimbaud crossed the enemy lines to return home, on foot all the way but sometimes given lifts on farm carts. He reached home ‘at night, almost naked and suffering from bad bronchitis’.
Did he leave again that spring? Legend or reality? An enigma, anyway ... Will we ever know for sure? Rimbaud would have trembled eagerly at news of the Paris Commune. He must have chafed in Charleville, knowing that they were in rebellion down there, he the author of a communist constitution ... His childhood had been pious, but he had become fiercely republican, rabidly anti-clerical. News of the uprising, in the name of liberty and fraternity, entranced him: ‘order is vanquished’. The decree establishing the Commune was issued in March. He is said to have been spotted in Paris in April. But not for certain. Ernest Delahaye recounts that Arthur joined the communard militia, that he enrolled as a sniper at Babylon barracks ... the episode may have lasted a fortnight. Having arrived on a coal barge, he is thought to have returned home on foot, destitute and starving. It’s difficult when you have no money.
He returned to Paris for a fourth visit (or was it only the third?). This time, though, was to be the real consecration. Autumn 1871, just as he turned seventeen. This time, too, his mother had been informed: an official trip, almost. Because he was expected there; invited, it would seem, by a smitten Verlaine to whom he had sent his poems (‘Come, come quickly, great dear soul’). A collection had been organized to pay his train fare. He was carrying his Bateau ivre by way of offering, qualification and evidence.
There followed, as we know, three years during which Verlaine kept Rimbaud, three long years of stormy, passionate relations: thoughtless follies, three tormented visits to London together, sordid binges, monstrous storms and sublime reconciliations, until the unhappy pistol shot in Brussels (wounding Rimbaud in the arm) which ended everything. Verlaine went to prison, while his provocateur- victim made several more returns to the starting line (Charleville or Roche). As always, Rimbaud was bored rigid, but his cavortings with Verlaine had led to his exclusion from literary circles. From his first appearance in Paris his reputation had been that of a filthy brat: a dirty, unpleasant hooligan and inveterate drunkard.
He was twenty in 1875, and had written his Season in Hell and Illuminations, also (perhaps) a Spiritual Hunt which is permanently lost. The publication of A Season in Hell had been a sad disaster. He couldn’t pay the publisher, and had received only a handful of copies. He was never to see his Illuminations in print. A street urchin had transformed the whole of literature in the space of five years. He would never write another poem.
Plenty of letters of course, written in telegraphic style (newsflashes), but not a single poem. He still walked a lot, obstinately. But now he wanted to travel far; alone in his room, he learned languages. He learned German, applied himself to Italian, glanced at Spanish, worked on a Greek- Russian dictionary, doubtless also picked up rudiments of Arabic. For five years, he spent his winters learning. Long walks were for springtime.
In Stuttgart in 1875, he decided to go to Italy. He crossed Switzerland, at first by train, but soon ran short of money and continued on foot, climbing the Saint Gotthard pass, and arrived exhausted in Milan, where a mysterious woman nursed him. He set off to walk to Brindisi, but was laid low by sunstroke on the road between Leghorn and Siena. Repatriated to Marseille, he reached Paris, then Charleville once again. 1876 was a year of adventures, rather than walks. He left for Russia (first having his head shaved), but only got as far as Vienna where he was found half dead and without papers after a beating from a coachman. He enlisted in the Dutch army, but deserted in Salatiga (Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia).
In 1877 he left for Bremen, hoping to reach the Americas, but ended up in Stockholm as the ticket collector on a circus turnstile. He returned to Charleville, and in 1878 boarded a ship to Egypt at Marseille, but quickly fell ill and was repatriated. Returning home on foot, he left for Switzerland. Over the Saint Gotthard again, on foot, to Genoa where he embarked for Cyprus (where he was to become a foreman). But in the spring of 1879 his fever returned and worsened. He went home again. With the first winter chills, however, he headed back to Marseille, but was again stopped by fever, and turned around. It was always the same movement, the same slow oscillation: winter getting bored at home, champing at the bit, learning languages from dictionaries; the rest of the time trying his luck.
In 1880 he left once more, again for Cyprus. From there, after a hurried departure – had he inflicted a mortal wound on a worker? – he pushed southwards for the first time instead of returning to the North: down the Red Sea to Aden. There began the last act of his life, a decade spent mainly between Aden and Harar.
Aden was an oven, with temperatures in the region of 40o Celsius. Rimbaud worked as a supervisor in the selection and sorting of coffee, and was valued by his employers. An established trader, Alfred Bardey, asked him to open a new agency at Harar in Abyssinia, amid high farming land. At 6,000 feet the climate is temperate. Rimbaud agreed and prepared a caravan. To reach Harar he had to travel some 300 kilometres through jungle, stony deserts and finally forests and mountains, with steep passes. Rimbaud was sometimes mounted but usually had to walk. The caravan advanced slowly. The journey took two weeks.
The boss of the new agency traded, became acclimatized, got bored, became distracted, and organized expeditions. A year in Harar, then back to Aden; then Harar again, and Aden once more. Back and forth on the same gruelling route. He changed jobs as the agency’s fortunes fluctuated. Nothing really worked out. He launched mad projects which failed, either soon or straight away. He wanted to amass some money, a bit of capital to set him up for good and bring some peace.
In 1885, he had an idea that ought to make him a fortune at last: he would take a consignment of military weapons and ammunition by caravan to Choa, where he would sell them to King Menelik. He invested all his savings in the scheme and found two partners, Soleillat and Labatut. Both soon died, but Rimbaud did not give in. He left in September 1886 (‘the route is very long, nearly two months’ march all the way to Ankober’).
Ugo Ferrandi witnessed his departure: ‘He walked ahead of the caravan, always on foot ... A journey of fifty days in the most arid of deserts.’ Between Tajoura and Ankober was a remote track across the dead immensity of a desert of basalt. The sun burned savagely. The roads were ‘horrible, recall- ing the presumed horror of lunar landscapes’. When he arrived, the king was not there. The expedition turned into a financial disaster. Rimbaud was exhausted and had lost everything. He returned to Harar and calmly resumed his small trading. Until his knee started hurting, and swelled enormously. He was thirty-six.
Arthur Rimbaud at fifteen: a frail boy with eyes of a striking and distant blue. At dawn, on the mornings of his escapes, he rose without a sound in the dark house, and closed the front door quietly behind him. And with beating heart watched the small pale roads calmly emerging from shadow. ‘Let’s go!’ On foot. Every time on foot, and measuring with his ‘unrivalled legs’ the breadth of the earth.
How many times, from Charleville to Charleroi? How many times with Delahaye, in the months of war when the college was closed, to buy tobacco in Belgium? How many times returning from Paris without anything of value, belly gnawed with hunger? How many times later on the southern routes: Marseille or Italy? How many times finally along the desert roads, from Zeilah to Harar, and the 1885 expedition?
Always on foot, every time. ‘I’m a pedestrian, nothing more.’ Nothing more.
To walk, to make progress, anger is needed. With him there is always that parting cry, that furious joy.
Let’s go, hat, greatcoat, both fists in pockets, and step outside. Forward, route!
And he walked. Anger is needed to leave, to walk. That doesn’t come from outside. In the hollow of the belly the pain of being here, the impossibility of remaining where you are, of being buried alive, of simply staying. The weather is bad where you are, he wrote from the mountains of Harar. Where you are, the winters are too long and the rain too cold. But here, where we are, in Abyssinia, the misery and boredom are just as impossible, the immobility palls: nothing to read, no one to talk to, nothing to gain.
Here, it’s impossible. Impossible here, for a single day more. Here, it’s ‘atrocious’. Time to go; ‘Forward, route!’ Every route is good to follow, every road towards the sun, towards more light. Doubtless it’s no better elsewhere, but at least it’s away from here. The route is needed, to get there. ‘Fists in my ripped pockets.’ In reality it is only en route, on paths, on roads, that there isn’t a here.
‘Adieu to here, no matter where.’
Walking as an expression of anger, of empty deci- sion. Taking to the road always means departing: leaving behind. In departures on foot there is always something final which is lacking from other forms of transport that make it possible to turn back, where nothing is irreversible. And when you leave, you always feel this mixture of anxiety and light-heartedness. Anxious because you are abandoning something (coming back is a failure; it is impossible to come back on foot, except from a simple short stroll; but when you walk for a long time, several days, it’s impossible; walking means going forward; the road is long, coming back would mean wasted hours; time is serious and weighty). But light-hearted due to all you are leaving behind; the others stay, remain on the spot, stuck. While our lightness of heart is carrying us somewhere else, trembling.
The Paris escapades, the London walks, the excursions to Belgium, the crossings of the Alps, the treks through the desert. And finally Harar, with that hideously swelling knee. ‘I’m going badly at present,’ he wrote on 20 January 1891. His leg hurt so much that he was unable to sleep. Inured – as he was – to suffering, he continued to work and busy himself. He struggled on. But when the leg became completely rigid he decided to leave, selling up at a loss. On 7 April he left Harar for ever, at six in the morning, on a litter. He engaged six men to carry him, taking turns. Eleven days of unrelieved suffering, including one period of sixteen hours under lashing rain: ‘That did me a lot of harm.’ More than 300 kilometres in eleven days, carried, shaken about, he who knew so well how to cover the ground! After a short stop to settle his affairs, another eleven days on a ship (the Amazone) to reach Marseille.
He was taken to the Conception hospital. ‘I’m bad, very bad.’ Urgent amputation was deemed necessary. They cut well above the knee. ‘The doctor says I’ll still be getting it for a month, and even then I will only be able to start walking again very gradually.’ The cut healed correctly. ‘I’ve ordered a wooden leg, it only weighs two kilos, it’ll be ready in eight days. I’ll try to walk very slowly with that.’ Immobility infuriated Rimbaud. His mother came to see him at one point, then returned home. ‘I would like to be doing this and that, going here and there, seeing, living, going away.’ He couldn’t bear the hospital any longer, and decided to return to his family in Roche, by train. Back to the starting point after twenty years. His sister Isabelle cared for him with immense devotion, ignoring his irascibility. His condition worsened nevertheless: he hardly ate, he could no longer sleep, his whole body hurt. He drank infusions of the poppy all day long.
Mere skin and bone, insubstantial as an autumn leaf, he still decided to set off again. Even summer had become too cold for him in the North. He would board a ship from Marseille and disembark at Algiers, or Aden. He was close to the end, but he wanted to leave, and he left. ‘Lord, when cold is the prairie ...’ Towards the sun.
On 23 August, accompanied by his sister, he took a train. Every transfer, from the house to the cart, from the cart to the train, from station to station, was a new calvary. The journey broke him completely, and he was hospitalized on arrival at Marseille.
The doctors who received him knew he was dying: they gave him a few weeks, months at most. This would be his last stop, but no one told him so. On 3 September he managed to note in a firm, unshaky hand: ‘I am awaiting the artificial leg. Send it to me at once when it arrives, I am in a hurry to get away from here.’
To walk again. Every day he talked about his new leg, he longed for it so that he might ‘try to stand up, to walk’. He was in constantly increasing pain, he wept on seeing through the window a vivid blue sky, calling him to go out. As if in bitter reproach, he told his sister: ‘I’ll be going into the ground and you’ll still be walking in the sun!’ His whole body was gradually stiffening, going rigid. ‘I’m just an immobile log.’ He was taking morphine almost continuously, to suppress the unbearable agony. Early in November he fell into delirium. It was his final week.
Isabelle’s memoirs include an account of the dying Rimbaud’s last-minute conversion,* but if I had to state a preference it would strongly favour the description of his final delirium. He was confined to bed, his upper body increasingly paralysed. Soon the heart would be affected. He was hallucinating: he saw himself walking, departing once again. He was in Harar, and had to leave for Aden.
‘Let’s go!’ How many times had he said that? The caravan had to be organized, camels found and hired. He dreamed that his prosthetic leg was a success, that he ‘walked very easily’. He was running, desperate to be on his way. ‘Quick, quick, fasten the valises and let’s leave.’ His last words: ‘Quick, they’re expecting us.’ He complained that he shouldn’t be allowed to sleep so much, for it was late. It was too late.
‘Lord, when cold is the prairie.’ To travel far, to flee once more the family and the mother (‘la daromphe’, a Rimbaud distortion of ‘daronne’ meaning ‘old lady, mother’), to escape the cold of the Ardennes, the freezing wind howling in the dark forests; to flee from sadness and boredom, over- cast skies, dark days, black crows too in a dark grey sky, to flee the atrocious misery of winter. To flee the sordid idiocies of the seated ones. ‘Leave behind the warblers of May.’
Walking. I find in Rimbaud that sense of walking as flight. That deep joy one always feels when walking, to be leaving behind. There’s no question of going back when you are walking. That’s it: you’ve gone, departed. And the immense complementary joys of fatigue, extenuation, forgetfulness of the self and the world. All your former nar- ratives, and those tiring murmurs, drowned by the beat of your tread on the road. Exhaustion that drowns everything. You always know why you are walking: to advance, to leave, to reach, to leave again.
‘Let’s go, route! I’m a pedestrian, nothing more.’
Rimbaud died on 10 November 1891. He was just thirty- seven. In the deaths register of the Conception hospital, he is identified thus: ‘Born in Charleville, passing through Marseille.’
Passing through. He had only gone there to leave again.
- Extract taken from A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.
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As part of our Walking week, we have an extract from Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London on our blog. Read more here.