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Propaganda Fide

Paris was not as he dreamed

Rebellion was not as it seemed

Witness to a ravaged whore

His mother pounding at his door

Ignoring her as his mind burned

Poor heart dribbles at the stern

* * *

I’m reading The Day on Fire by James Ullman, a novel written in 1956 inspired by Arthur Rimbaud’s life. Rimbaud, born in 1854, was raised in Charleville, Ardennes France. He was a brilliant student who won awards but who later turned into an infant terrible. He had been raised by a single mom who nagged him to death and he would put a chair up against the door to keep her out of his bedroom while he wrote. Rimbaud quit sharing his writing before he turned 20 and became a wanderer and an adventurer. Still young, someone asked him if he was still into writing. The person who asked the question wrote later that Rimbaud gave him a look as though he had been asked if he still played with hoops. He died from cancer at age 37.

According to the author of The Day on Fire, Rimbaud took part in the uprising of the Paris Commune. Returning home to his small town, he gave a poem he wrote called “The Cheated Heart” to his teacher and friend. The teacher had introduced him to the modern world of literature — as opposed to the classics traditionally learned in the Catholic school his mother sent him to. The teacher, who had introduced him to Victor Hugo and perhaps the poetry of Paul Verlaine, had thought “The Cheated Heart” was a pornographic joke. He told Rimbaud he had thrown the poem in the trash and that he should go back to school. That ended their relationship and Rimbaud rewrote it from scratch. He was too proud to explain or tell the teacher and former friend from where the poem came. Nor was he one to explain a joke, for that matter. And like his mother, he was a bully who took himself very seriously. But he didn’t go back to school.

The last line of this rhyme is from “The Cheated Heart,” (“Ravaged Heart” or “Stolen Heart”) which he wrote in 1871, just 17. Some believe it was written from his experience in a homosexual gang rape in the Paris Commune that he had left home to see. But that could be propaganda since he continued to support the Communards in his writing. (The word propaganda comes from Propaganda Fide, the Catholic Society formed to propagate, or spread, the Gospel.)

The title of the book, The Day on Fire is from one of Rimbaud’s rhymes: ...hold fast to desire/in spite of the night/and the day on fire. I’ve seen several different translations of it, but “and the day on fire” is always the same. The poem comes from “Alchemy of the Word” in A Season in Hell.

Until a friend turned me on to The Day on Fire, the only connection I had with Rimbaud was that 30 years ago I worked in a restaurant in Berkeley named Le Bateau Ivre (The Drunken Boat), named after a poem Rimbaud wrote. Like any modern Philistine, curiosity that requires effort has never been my strong suit, so I never looked up and read “The Drunken Boat” until recently. Rimbaud’s imagery filled my mind with textured hues, but I’ll use a color chart, dictionary and maybe an encyclopedia if I read The Drunken Boat again.

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