Marseille ought to be an exquisite place to die. The shade-sheltered streets of Belsunce in the 1st arrondissement and the view of the ocean horizon from the rooftops of Saint Georges give a person plenty to reflect on when it comes to the vast expanse of nothingness that lies beyond in the next realm. If there even is one.
Arthur Rimbaud may not have an immediate connection with the city during life, but his death there in 1891 gave birth to a new meaning for his work. It was where his legacy was born, where he escaped the fringes of the avant-garde to become recognised as one of the greatest poets to have ever lived.
He died aged just 37, well below the life expectancy of the time, but his predilection for writing poetry died long before. It died when his lover was sentenced to two years in prison, it died with a superficial gunshot wound to his wrist, it died when he felt he had nothing left to pour out onto the page and when he abandoned his recklessness in favour of seeing the world and the pursuit of a steady income.
For years he lived in Ethiopia, settling in Harar, where he sold coffee and expired firearms. He learnt Arabic and several of the other native languages used in, what was, in 1887, still Abyssinia. He also learnt to accumulate wealth but had become miserly with it.
At the age of 33, he’d developed rheumatism from his travels, which had taken their toll on his body. He slowed down, spending simmering Harari evenings with associates and immersing himself in the local culture.
Not that this did him much good. His racism and misanthropy had only worsened over the years. He treated most people he came into contact with miserably. In the midst of this, a pain in his right knee began to flare up. Naturally, he believed this to be the fault of the locals and the unsanitary conditions they lived in. He developed a limp and, not long after, a huge tumour appeared. He kept it bandaged and massaged it frequently but, as the pain grew, he eventually struggled to even bend it.
With no decent hospital in Harar, he realised that he must travel to Marseille to receive the medical care he needed but he put off his trip until he collected all the debts he was owed. When he and an entourage of 16 sherpas set off through the desert, the pain in his leg was so bad that every step over the uneven sand sent bolts of pain through his entire body. The 185 miles to the coast took 11 days to navigate.
It took another three days to reach the port of Aden in Yemen, where he remained to deposit what currency he had in exchange for a French bank draft before admitting himself into the local hospital. A doctor informed him that his leg would likely need to be amputated, so the decision was made to make way to Marseille. Rimbaud bid a fond farewell to his faithful servant Djami and on May 9, 1891, he boarded a ship named the Amazone for his native France.
The Marseille which Rimbaud would have seen from the deck of the Amazone would have been one of great transition. Just 10 years prior, the population swelled to over 360,000 as the port’s importance as a border post between the countries of the south to Northern Europe continued to thrive. Everyone knew why they’d come to Marseille. Why they lived in the city instead of somewhere else. They’d been attracted by the lights of the harbour at Les Goudes and the straits of Les Croisettes, and either stayed for the work or to join the criminal fringes and exploit the trade that swept into its streets.
People settled from Andalucia and the remains of Alexandria, escaping the tensions in Tangiers and Beirut. Armenians, Greeks, Italians, Spaniards and gypsies all followed and stayed. It wasn’t a fortuitous coming together, or a smooth transition. Franco-Italian tensions frequently spilt into violence due to the ethnic unrest. The French preferred the docks when they had a reason to be there—a journey or money, and they found this influx of immigrants tough to deal with.
But life can often be made up of fragments of nothing, with happiness never given and only invented, and to these travellers, the city was an oasis.
Upon returning to the city years before, the poet Gustav Flaubert wrote to a friend: “I’ve come to the conclusion that the things we expect rarely happen.” As with most cities along the Mediterranean coastline, sometimes you don’t find what you want, and in this instance, it all applies to Rimbaud. He came looking for solutions but found none.
Upon disembarking the Amazone on May 20, he was admitted to the Hospital de la Conception in the Balle region of the city. There he was told that his leg would certainly be amputated and that his chances of survival had been hurt by waiting so long to undergo treatment.
Rimbaud’s own greed had been his death sentence, condemning his destiny to be one that wouldn’t befit such a talent.
On May 27 his leg was removed. Dr Edouard Pluyette performed the operation in what was considered the most up to date facility for the time. With so many amputations during the Franco-Prussian war, it was considered to be a relatively simple procedure. The hospital had installed a brand new operating theatre, but this still wasn’t the kind of place where you’d get room service and a sponge bath with a smile. The ward was crumbling and he was surrounded by others, who suffered with everything from smallpox to typhus.
Rimbaud was temporarily buoyed by his recovery. He had visitors, one of whom informed him that famine had hit Harar hard and the locals had resorted to cannibalism. Nevertheless, he stated his desire to return to the region upon his recovery.
In June he attempted to walk using crutches but his stump was still too painful. His mother arrived to come face-to-face with her son for the first time in a decade. She obsessed about his money. A business associate wrote Arthur a cheque for thirty thousand Francs and was meant to accompany Madame Rimbaud to the bank to cash it. In the morning, though, he discovered that she’d left without him to do it herself.
And despite Arthur’s tears and protestations, she departed for the family farm in Charleville just a few days after arriving. Arthur was incredulous. What kind of mother did this? He wrote to his sister: “All I can do is weep night and day, I’m a dead man, I’m maimed for life, I think in two weeks I’ll be cured but I’ll never be able to walk without crutches. All my cares are driving me mad. Face it, our life is just one long misery. What are we living for?”
Walking on the crutches was getting no easier and cancer had weakened him further. His mood plummeted as his ward had just one small window lighting up the dusty gloom. Since being admitted to hospital he had been fretting that he would still have to undergo his military service, but he finally received confirmation that it was off, and he wept in his delirium.
Bored, weary and sad, he decided that he’d made a mistake in letting the doctor take his leg and now his habit of complaining had taken on a life of its own. He feared he’d become a useless vessel, whining all day and waiting for the night to come when he could sleep. Sleep eluded him, however, and insomnia only plunged his sadness to new depths.
One night, he lay awake reminiscing about the time he and his brother made fun of a cripple and threw stones at him when they were children and became convinced that he was being punished.
After 63 days in the hospital, on June 23, he left his bed and travelled alone to his mother’s farm. Only he hadn’t travelled to see her, he’d come for his sister, Isabelle, who now replaced his mother in his affections. His mother abandoning his bedside had helped him remember how cold and tyrannical she could be, but once the cold and damp north of the farm had not provided him with the comfort he desired, he set off again for Marseille with his sister.
He took with him a collection of opium poppies to help ease his pain, but stopped using them once Isabelle had let on that he had poured his heart out through the delirium. She was 31 now and for her whole life had no idea that her brother had been a poet, having barely been a teenager when Une Saison en Enfer had been published. Furthermore, their overprotective mother had shielded her from his more salubrious work.
The road to Marseille had always had a special place in Arthur’s imagination. As a bored and unruly child, he had dreamed of boarding one of the vessels of Messageries Maritimes to set sail for anything that lay beyond France and his dreary village that couldn’t handle his righteous little genius.
But he was still wary about the military being on his tail, and had registered himself at the hospital as ‘Jean Rimbaud’. To anyone who laid eyes on him now, he was never the precocious poet - he was simply just another Rimbaud.
His condition worsened. Black rings formed around his eyes, he perspired heavily and constantly and would frequently wake from slumber with a jolt and sent him into a daze. He lost the use of his right arm and his left began to follow soon after. He cried whenever his senses had been released from the stupor but held onto the hope that the doctors gave him about getting better. Whenever Isabelle rose from his side, he shuffled over with a flop to grab onto her and begged her not to leave him.
The doctors decided to try electroshock therapy on his arm, but to no avail. A week later a specially tailored mechanical leg arrived in a box he had mistaken for a coffin. He stared at the leg in horror and said: “I shall never wear it. It’s over. I can feel that I’m dying.”
While this was happening, a publishing house in Paris had just acquired a bundle of poems that had been bled onto pages by a schoolboy in Charleville twenty years before. A young journalist named Rodolphe Darzens had been taken with them ever since reading Paul Verlaine’s article on the boy in Le Poetes Maudits and had painstakingly spent the following years hunting them down. He now had enough to publish a complete volume with a biographical preface to go with it.
However, that boy was now lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by all manner of diseases and with his own to contend with. Nurses had now stopped changing his bed sheets as moving became too painful. One of his eyelids drooped, his heartbeat had become irregular and he couldn’t shit. Awful things were happening to him in the dark. His hope had died before his body. He spent his 37th birthday in pain. His stump had swollen and a growth (most likely a tumour) had grown between his hip and his stomach that had doctors stopping by his bed to look at for fun. The hospital chaplain refused to see him, fearful of the retching and spitting and opted not to offer communion ‘for fear of an involuntary profanation’ – meaning the last rites could not be offered to someone that was more than likely going to choke on the body of Christ.
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Rimbaud’s nightly morphine injections had him in delirium again and Isabelle noted that he’d repeat the phrase “Allah Kerim” (Allah is munificent).
Marseille was known as being radiantly sunny and a place where ‘there are avalanches of fruit of every sort’, but the bright sun that shone through the window in his room only served to make him even more miserable. Isabelle recorded that upon looking at the cloudless sky, he turned to her and wept: “I shall go under the earth, and you shall walk in the sun.”
His last act was to dictate a letter to a former business associate back in Africa detailing a convoy of goods to be left in his possession. Arthur Rimbaud died the following morning on November 10, at 10am.
His funeral was expensive but hastily organised. As his body was transported back to Charleville his mother had organised a send off fit for a king. However, she didn’t invite anybody and it was sparsely attended. He was laid to rest in the family vault with a tombstone that bore only his name, age, date of death and the words ‘pray for him’.
News of his death spread, but the details were sketchy. One report in L’Echo de Paris claimed that he’d died at the docks in Marseille while others reported that he’d made a full recovery and was living everywhere between Harar and the Latin quarter in Paris.
Victor Hugo had once described Rimbaud as an ‘infant Shakespeare’ but the truth was that this ‘brutish little vagrant’ was seldom understood outside of the avant-garde. His poetry was either too difficult or too violent to be appreciated by the masses and the details of his life only seemed to compound his eccentricity.
His sister Isabelle, distraught from grief and the rotten things being written about her brother, began to act as the main informant for would-be biographers, even marrying one in the process.
Between the sea and the light of Marseille, his work had found a new lease of life. Over the years numerous biographies and collections of his work appeared. Everything from his early-published works to errant sentences scribbled on café napkins had been included. A lot was discredited but there is still a healthy bank of material.
Marseille can’t claim to have had Rimbaud’s best years, but the city still feels a deep connection with the man. The hospital he dies in is now a state of the art complex, while in 1989 artist Jean Adamo sculpted a monument to Rimbaud’s life on the Plage du Prado. Cast out of sand, porphyry, cement and water, ‘Le Bateau Ivre’ (The Drunken Ship) stands in homage to a poem Rimbaud wrote in 1871 at the tender age of 16. It’s disjointed shapes and crooked structure makes it look as though it had weathered a hallucinatory thunderstorm before crashing ashore by the chasms of the sea. Much like the man and the city.
Years later, Marseille-born author Jean-Claude Izzo said: “Marseille isn’t a city for tourists. There’s nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed. It can only be shared. It’s a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see. And you realise, too late, that you’re in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseille, even to lose you have to know how to fight.” Rimbaud wouldn’t have known that at the time, but he’d agree with it now.
By Stevie Green, IBWM Editor.