Apr 27, 2014

A Season in Hell: Gay Poet Abandons His Art...and Men

When I was studying the symbolist movement at the University of Southern California, I thought that Charles Baudelaire was gay, because he named his book The Flowers of Evil, and because he was an outsider, looking in on Paris.

I read Arthur Rimbaud's Bateau ivre (1871) and Un Saison en Enfer (1873) -- mostly in English translation, as the French was impenetrable -- there was nothing particularly homoerotic about it.

But he was definitely gay.

He began his career at the age of 14, sending scandalous letters to established poets.  In 1871, at age 16, middle-aged poet Paul Verlaine invited him to visit, and they began a passionate but volatile affair.  For two years, they scandalized polite society by openly living together in Paris and London, drinking heavily, carousing in public, and writing scandalous poetry.  Finally, overcome with jealousy and despair, Verlaine shot Rimbaud, injuring him in the wrist.

Verlaine spent two years in prison on charges of sodomy, then returned to his poetic life and had more gay relationships before his death in 1891.

Rimbaud abandoned his art altogether.  He was not yet 20 years old.


He joined the army, worked in a stone quarry, and finally got a job as a coffee merchant in Yemen, where he died at age 37.

Why did he abandon his art?  He never gave an explanation, but his life has has inspired many writers, artists, and directors, even in the days before same-sex relationships could be openly discussed.  Mostly they portray the relationship as inherently evil and destructive to both poets.

There have been two major film versions:

Una stagione all'Inferno (A Season in Hell, 1970) starred Terence Stamp as Rimbaud (left) and Jean-Claude Brialy as Verlaine.  It interprets the abandoning of his art as renouncing the gay "vice," and gives him an African girlfriend to emphasize his heterosexual "redemption."




Total Eclipse (1995) starred Leonardo DiCaprio (top photo) as Rimbaud and David Thewlis as Verlaine. It takes the opposite tactic, emphasizing Verlaine's downfall as he is mesmerized by the young poet and descends into a "hell" of self-indulgent evil.  They both repent and convert to Catholicism.

And get girlfriends.

My friend Farshad claims to have dated DiCaprio while he was filming in Brussels.

See also: The Flowers of Evil and Garcia Lorca: the Homophobic Gay Poet and His Boyfriend