The Subversion of Traditional French Poetry in Arthur Rimbaud’s “Morning of Drunkenness” By Yu Shi Wang

 The Subversion of Traditional French Poetry in Arthur Rimbaud’s “Morning of Drunkenness” By Yu Shi Wang

My name is Yu Shi Wang. I am studying in Enriched Health Science. I would like to thank Sarah Burgoyne, the teacher for whom I wrote this essay, for having encouraged me to publish it. In her class, we learnt, among other things, to blur the border between what makes sense and what does not. In the future, I wish to become a surgical oncologist as much as I want to delve into the wonders and mysteries of Traditional Chinese medicine. But to be honest, if I really had the choice, I would be doing nothing all day but music.


 The Subversion of Traditional French Poetry in Arthur Rimbaud’s “Morning of Drunkenness”

By Yu Shi Wang

              Until the late nineteenth century, French poetry had mainly been written in compliance with strict rules of prosody, which were then further tightened during the Parnassian movement. It also often searched for objectivity and for the precise capture of beautiful images or stories, while repelling personal sensations, which were considered carnal sins by the Church. However, in his prose poem “The Morning of Drunkenness,” Arthur Rimbaud, a Symbolist poet, subverts the themes of traditional French poetry by reproducing the experience of a deranged spirit and by attacking religious values. To do so in an innovative way, he uses hallucinatory imagery, employs thought-provoking paradoxes, and produces a parody of religious speeches.

To begin with, Rimbaud uses highly personal and confused imagery, as opposed to the coherent descriptions typically found in Parnassian poetry, with the purpose of depicting the dream-like effect of drunkenness. At the beginning of the poem, he portrays the extent to which his mind is disturbed by writing that “[he is stretched on an] enchanted rack.” A rack is a torture device that stretches and tears the victim’s body while causing great pain, but Rimbaud characterizes it as a delightful object that procures him pleasure, an idea which at first appears to be nonsensical or even shocking. However, Rimbaud does not necessarily intend to make any logical sense, and he is using language to evoke rather than to describe: he is simply putting into words the immediate sensations that emerge from his mind under the imagined effect of alcohol. This image of the “enchanted rack” is no more than a combination of words that brings to mind an intoxicated person’s feeling of having his or her own soul distorted, pulled and twisted in euphoria. Moreover, Rimbaud makes an appeal to other senses: “It began with a certain disgust and ended . . . in a panicked rout of perfumes.” He does not clarify the identity of “it,” nor does he specify  the origin of the “disgust” for the readers, which turns this image into a personal one. Nevertheless, this lack of precise meaning does not prevent the “panicked rout of perfumes” from recalling the fragrant paradise in which one’s spirit is submerged after having introduced the “poison,” or alcohol, “in all [his or her] veins.” Therefore, Rimbaud revolts against arriving at conclusions and against the pretentious teaching of lessons, which are prevalent in Parnassian poetry, by putting emphasis on the thrilling journey of the human mind and its imaginations.

Furthermore, Rimbaud employs multiple paradoxes to attack the conservative ideas and conceptions of the world that are usually conveyed in traditional French poetry. As an illustration, he reclaims “[the promise of] bury[ing] the tree of good and evil in the shade.” This seems contradictory, since trees already have their roots embedded in the ground, and since to “bury” a plant is a peculiar act to do in opposition to burying a human. On top of that, he suggests that this action should be done “in the shade,” while trees themselves already create shadows. As Rimbaud uses these paradoxes to defamiliarize the verb “[to] bury,” he is compelling the reader to reflect upon the uncommon context in which this word is placed and to read this passage more closely. Effectively, this excerpt can be interpreted in several ways. For instance, “the tree of good and evil” could be referring to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. It represents the conception, deeply rooted in conventional French beliefs, that everything in this world is classified as either “good [or] evil,” either black or white, with no ambiguity, no in-between. In the same way, people at the time of Rimbaud perceived his homosexuality as nothing other than wrong and immoral, which is why Rimbaud despises the traditional worldview and wants it “bur[ied] . . . in the shade,” that is, eliminated in an absolute way. Indubitably, homosexuality is unlikely to be considered as a topic for classic French poems, yet Rimbaud brings it up deliberately to challenge the Parnassian movement, as well as the social and religious constructs at large.

Lastly, Rimbaud mocks religion and therefore derides the conventional themes in French poetry by writing “Morning of Drunkenness” in a satiric way. He employs religious diction such that he creates a parody of religious declamations. For example, he exclaims: “[l]ittle eve of drunkenness, holy!” From the standpoint of the Church, “drunkenness” is regarded as sinful, yet Rimbaud worships it as he describes it with the adjective “holy,” and by doing so, he intends to be blasphemous. Moreover, he adds an exclamation mark at the end of the sentence to stress and to further sneer at the false sentimentality in religious speeches that venerate God and that praise the “morally good” values. He also claims that “[he has] faith in the poison,” thus declaring that he believes in alcohol instead of God. Hence, Rimbaud aims to be irreverent and to offend the public, which is against traditional French poetry’s objective of amazing its readers with “lasting beauty.”

In brief, Rimbaud uses complicated imagery in the poem to produce a confused and delusional effect, and by making use of paradoxes, he causes the reader to rethink the themes and views that can be conveyed by poetry. Additionally, he applies a religious formula to his writing, defying the moral lessons taught by the Church. Rimbaud employs these literary techniques in a way that contributes, without any doubt, to justifying his being labelled as an “enfant terrible,” but more importantly contributes to showing his revolt against the conventional content of French poetry. By doing so, this “poète maudit” is liberating not only poetry from the inflexible rules of prosody, but also people’s mentality from rigid and conservative societal norms.


Work Cited

Rimbaud, Arthur. “Morning of Drunkenness.” Trans. John Ashbery.

 Poetry Foundation,     drunkenness. Accessed 9 October 2018.

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