I would leave, fists in my torn pockets; My jacket too becoming ideal; Leaving under the sky, Muse! and I would follow you; Oh! la! la! what splendid loves did I not dream of! My only trousers had a big hole. - Dreaming Little Thumb, I would scatter as I went Rhymes. My inn was at the Great Bear. - My stars in the sky made a sweet swishing sound And I would listen to them, sitting on the roadsides, On those good September evenings when I would feel dew Drops on my forehead, like a fortified wine; When, rhyming in the midst of the fantastic shadows, Like lyres, I pulled the elastics of my wounded shoes, one foot close to my heart!
Ma Bohème Je m’en allais, les poings dans mes poches crevées ; Mon paletot aussi devenait idéal ; J’allais sous le ciel, Muse ! et j’étais ton féal ; Oh ! là ! là ! que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvées ! Mon unique culotte avait un large trou. – Petit-Poucet rêveur, j’égrenais dans ma course Des rimes. Mon auberge était à la Grande-Ourse. – Mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou Et je les écoutais, assis au bord des routes, Ces bons soirs de septembre où je sentais des gouttes De rosée à mon front, comme un vin de vigueur ; Où, rimant au milieu des ombres fantastiques, Comme des lyres, je tirais les élastiques De mes souliers blessés, un pied près de mon coeur ! Cahier de Douai (1870)
Behind its apparently simple surface, Rimbaud’s sonnet Ma Bohème, hides ulterior meanings in plain sight- meanings that are helpful for the interpretation of explicitly enigmatic poems of his, such as the sonnet Voyelles. It seems as though all Rimbaud is packed into this sonnet, which manifests the Hierogamic marriage of Heaven and Earth, at the center of several other important Rimbaud poems. Another important feature of his poetry is also front and center, something I will call outside-ness for lack of a better term- the holes in his torn pockets, the “ideal” jacket, the big hole in his trousers, the Great Bear, or Big Dipper as inn, the leaving or going “under the sky.” There is a major fantasy here of going inside the outside or filling the hole, so to speak, of finding intimacy in exteriority. The fantasy is explicitly referred to as “splendid loves” that are dreamt of, as “fantastic shadows.” The objects of the fantasy are the Muse, the constellation, with its stars rustling their petticoats, a sound that carried erotic significance in the 19th Century. In French, the adjective “doux,” stronger than “sweet” in English, leaves little doubt as to the erotic charge of this sound. The allusion to Little Thumb, or Le Petit Poucet, a fairytale familiar to French readers, that features elements of Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the beanstalk and Puss in boots, tells the story of the youngest of seven brothers abandoned in the forest by their poverty-stricken parents, who manages to find his way back by leaving a trail of pebbles, and who eventually rescues his family from poverty by stealing an ogre’s money and seven league boots. These two occult (because buried in the story and because they relate to occult tradition) occurrences of the number seven help overdetermine the other two occult occurrences of the number in the text, the mention of September, which contains the French seven, and the Great Bear/Big Dipper, aka Septentrion, so named for the seven stars of the constellation pointing North. Now, the religious symbolism of the number seven cannot be underestimated. It represents not only the divine, but as the combination of three and four, heaven and earth, the encounter between the human and the divine, which figures mightily in Rimbaud’s Lettre du Voyant, where he calls on the poet to be Promethean, a “thief of fire.” But here, the relationship to the divine is truly a marriage, a physical union, as in the Hieros Gamos- divine sex ritually represented. Dew on the forehead in the first tercet, in a month named seven, amounts to an anointment by the divine, the dew also being compared to wine fortified by cocaine, as Vin Mariani was at the time. Dew was an important ingredient in alchemy as well, precisely because, like Mercury, it spoke of a transmission from Above to Below. Dom Pernety, in his Dictionnaire Mytho-Hermétique of 1758, states that many alchemists “consider the dew of the months of May and September the prime matter of the Hermetic work.” The final tercet would seem to allude to Orpheus, famous for his lyre, an instrument invented by Mercury, that Orpheus perfected. The parallels between Rimbaud and Orpheus are too numerous to list here, but what better commentary on Rimbaud’s poetry in general, its Promethean ambition, its realization of the Hermetic “as above, so below” principle, than to be anointed by the divine precisely “when, rhyming amidst the fantastic shadows” and pulling his shoelaces “like lyres.” If transmuting the laces of “wounded shoes” into lyres isn’t a Hermetic operation worthy of alchemy’s mud into gold, what is? The “wounded shoes” could also allude to the wounded king or fisher king of Arthurian legend, keeper of the Holy Grail, an object reminiscent of the seven-league boots, Orpheus’s lyre, the Philosopher’s Stone, all with divine properties available to humans. The sonnet ends on an interesting pun, and the organ associated with emotional authenticity, the heart, as though telling the reader: no irony here, this is real feeling. A flexible young man, a boy of sixteen really, is sitting by the side of the road, and in a semi-lotus like position, is tugging at his laces so hard that his foot is brought up, level to his chest, his right foot, for it to be next to his heart. But as much as his feet mattered to Rimbaud (“the man with soles of wind”) there is also another foot that relates to the heartfelt: the poetic foot, the poem’s heartbeat. French, unlike English, puts virtually the same stress on every syllable. So that, in French prosody, syllable and foot are virtually identical (I say virtually, because the last syllable of certain phrases may be stressed for rhythmic purposes) and poetic forms, like the Alexandrine, are known by the number of feet- so the term “foot” is more common in French poetry, even though there are a greater variety of feet in English, known by their specific names: Iamb, trochee, etc.