Did I not have once upon a time a delightful childhood, heroic, fabulous, to be written on sheets of gold - too lucky! Through what crime, through what error, have I deserved my present weakness? You who say that animals sob from grief, that the sick despair, that the dead have bad dreams, try to relate my fall and my sleep. I can explain myself no better that the vagrant with his incessant Pater and Ave Maria. I do not know how to speak!
|In the beginning, there was Frederic Rimbaud and Vitalie Cuif.
Frederic Rimbaud was Captain of Infantry and the author of several unpublished military works. At one time, he also painstakingly translated The Koran into French (his youngest son, Arthur, would later use this document to learn Arabic.) Frederic was said to have had an easy-going, good natured way about him. A lover of travel and good times, according to Enid Starkie’s incomparable biography ARTHUR RIMBAUD - A BIOGRAPHY.
Marie Catherine Felicite Vitalie Cuif, however, was a different entity altogether. She was raised by her father (known as “Old Cuif”), a farmer, and two unruly brothers. Many say that Arthur Rimbaud’s own unruly nature was in his blood, passed down from his uncles, particularly Vitalie’s brother Charles-Auguste Cuif.
Apparently, Vitalie was in charge of running the family’s farm, and was quite strict on her two brothers, particulary Charles, who was five years her junior. As the story goes, Vitalie’s constant badgering and cruel judgements led Charles to leave home and marry at the young age of twenty-two.
|However, his plan to “escape” Vitalie was slightly foiled, since she soon met Frederic and married in February of 1853. Charles, therefore, was put in
charge of the farm, and, as Starkie puts it, was “a lazy spendthrift, (a) drunkard.” Soon enough, he spent the money alloted to run the farm, and let the entire place go to shambles. It was not long before the family business went bankrupt. Allegedly,
Charles would stop by his sister and brother-in-law’s home, begging for money or a cot on which to sleep. Vitalie would give him small bits of money with the promise he would stay clear of her home, since she was embarrassed by her brother’s “bad ways”.
Charles ended up living the longest of all the Cuif children - 94 years. On his deathbed, he refused a priest and last sacraments, opting for a litre of red wine instead.
Vitalie’s other brother, Jean-Charles-Felix-Cuif proved to be a bit on the eccentric side as well. He was nicknamed “The African” because of his Algerian adventures. He ran away from home at 17 years of age, and only returned just after Frederic and Vitalie married. Felix died the following year.
Arthur Rimbaud and his uncles seemed to share much more in common than Arthur ever found in either of his parents. Adventure, revolution and excess appear to almost have been hereditary traits, passed on by “mad” uncles.
|Naturally, the differences between Vitalie and Frederic proved destructive. Says Starkie: “(Vitalie) was stingy in the money affairs, where he was
lavish, bigoted in her religious views where he was free-thinking, rigid in her morality, whereas he was somewhat lax, and, moreover, was completely lacking in a sense of humor. It is said she treated him with the same severity which she meeted out to
her children, that she tried to eradicate what she considered failings in him and to counteract his levity.”
During their brief marriage, the Rimbauds bore five children. The first was Jean-Nicholas-Frederick, born in February 1953. The second was Jean-Nicholas-Arthur Rimbaud, born on 20 October 1854, followed by a first daughter, who died in infancy. There were two more sisters to follow: Vitalie and Isabelle, respectively.
Paterne Berrichon had an interesting anecdote about Arthur’s birth. Supposedly, a nurse had just washed the newborn and set about to fetch a cloth from another room. When she returned, she found the child on the ground, crawling towards the door. Somehow the child had gotten out of his crib and began wandering, then and there, just a few hours old! But, as Starkie notes, this may just be a story fabricated by Arthur in later years, baring a striking resemblance to the Merlin legend. Perhaps, though, given the history of his life, this piece of the puzzle fits quite snugly.
In 1858, Vitalie’s father passed on. This, too, was the year that Captain Rimbaud left his wife and children, never to return again.
The family then picked up and moved from Rue Napoleon to the nearby Rue Bourbon, a low-income rather “slummy” area. Vitalie kept a very tight household, not allowing anyone in, and rarely anyone out. She was rude and disdainful towards the neighbors because of their “lower” place on the hierchal ladder. But, somehow, young Arthur Rimbaud managed to sneak past his mother from time to time, playing and adventuring with his “poor, lowly” neighbors.
Vitalie responds to this by moving the family to a lovely, more upscale area, Cors d’Orleans. It is here that both boys were to attend Pension Rossat, studying Latin and Greek. While at Rossat, Rimbaud composed his first piece: a 700-word compostion which earned him praise both in the classroom and within his home. Vitalie set about to make this budding prodigy a trophy of sorts, giving up altogether on Arthur’s slower brother. She would send Arthur to bed supperless when he incorrectly recited the large collections of Latin verse she forced him to memorize.
|Naturally, Arthur began to resent his mother for this, and yet, each Sunday he would march single file with his siblings to church, following the strict
Vitalie, clad in her constant black wardrobe.
Arthur kept himself occupied by reading incessantly; in particular, he fancied fairy tales and adventure novels by authors like Fenimore Cooper and Gustave Aimard. At this time, he also began developing a deep-rooted obsession with the sea, which would later prove to be one of his biggest muses.
When Frederick was twelve and Arthur eleven, they were sent to College de Charleville. It was here that Arthur became absolutely obsessed with religion. He spoke of the guilt he felt for his sins - this was the beginning stages of a complex that would haunt both his work and mind until his death.
He excelled in school, and was given private lessons from his form master, M. Lheritier, who taught him Greek and Latin, as well as French literature. Arthur finished his third year with great success.
|It was then that the Rimbauds moved for the last time, to Quai de la Madeleine (now Quai du Moulinet).
He proved awkward in his early teens, making few friends. He was growing tired of schooling, of his mother’s tireless pushing, and of life in a small town as well. He would sneak off with his close friend Delahaye to smoke tobacco and talk of politics, literature and philosophy. It was at this time that Arthur began writing original verse for the first time.
At age 13, he sent a poem of 60 Latin hexamters to the Prince Imperial on 8 May 1868 and was publicly thanked. Teachers began regarding him as a prodigy, and he won several awards, becoming a bit of a scholarly legend in his school. At age 15, his first poem was published in La Revue pour Tous. It was called Les Etrennes de Orphelins (The Orphans’ New Years Gift).
|Enter George Izambard, the first true influence in young Arthur’s life. He came as a master to the College de Charleville, and soon the two became more
than teacher and pupil. They became peers.Izambard began lending books to Arthur; books of Parnassian poetry, in particular. He once lent Arthur a copy of Hugo’s Les Miserables. This resulted in a huge protest from Mme. Rimbaud, when she found her son
reading such "filth".
In a letter to Izambard, Mme. Rimbaud wrote:
I am extremely grateful to you for all that you are doing for Arthur....But there is one thing that I cannot approve of and that is, for instance, his reading the book you lent him the other day (les miserables, V. hugot.) [sic] You must realize, even better than I, that great care is needed in the choice of books that are put in the hands of children. And so I am forced to believe that Arthur must have gotten hold of the book without your knowledge. It would certainly be dangerous to allow him to continue such reading...
Izambard continued giving Rimbaud “challenging” and “controversial” books anyway, and he was forever scorned by Vitalie for his “encouragement of revolt”. However, Izambard had plans of leaving, which crushed the young child. He left Arthur a key to his study, however, so that he might continue reading from his library.
In a note to Izambard in August of that year, Rimbaud wrote:
"P.S. Very soon I shall give you some startling news of the kind
of life I’m going to lead after the summer holidays."
This short line proved true, though, perhaps not in the way Arthur intended.
|This biography could not have been possible without the labor of Enid Starkie, author of ARTHUR RIMBAUD: A BIOGRAPHY (New Directions) and Oliver Bernard, translator and essayist for ARTHUR RIMBAUD: COLLECTED POEMS (Penguin). Both of these books are available for purchase from Amazon.com via the BOOKS link.|
Last Update: 08/05/98