Arthur Rimbaud wrote ‘A Season in Hell’ in the 1870s after splitting from fellow poet Paul Verlaine. The two had been pursuing a romantic relationship until the latter, in a rage/stupor, shot Rimbaud in the arm. He wrote this piece while living in the barn loft of his parent’s farm. The poem was self-published in 1873 but the copies weren’t distributed until ten years after his death.
Explore A Season in Hell: Bad Blood
Throughout this poem, the speaker bounces from experience to experience. The running theme throughout is that of dissatisfaction. He expresses his anger with his lineage and his desire to get away from his ancestors. The speaker does not want to be part of the “inferior” French race and continually states that he’s going to run away. But, this doesn’t make him happy, even when he’s mentally able to do so. He’s still invisible to the world—an outsider.
In this long section of ‘A Season in Hell,’ the poet emphasizes the themes that he first introduced in the prior section, sorrow, darkness, alienation, and religion. The speaker is even more isolated and religiously confused than he was before. He pushes back against the “age of reason” and constantly seeks out some answer to his unhappiness. Due to the scattered nature of ‘A Season in Hell’, it is hard to tell where the speaker is going next. But, it is very likely that he’ll continue to feel just as separate from the rest of humanity as he has been. He flits back and forth between writing society off and deciding that he’s going to allow himself to be apart of it.
Structure and Form
‘A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud this long poem is separated out in nine, complicated, and sometimes baffling sections. The second of these is “Bad Blood. It is proceeded by the “Introduction” and then followed by “Night of Hell,” “Delirium 1” and “2” as well as “The Impossible,” “Lightning,” “Morning,” and then finally “Farewell”. The poem was written in French and has since been translated into English. This means that every translation is going to be slightly different and some of the formal choices that Rimbaud made are going to be lost.
‘A Season in Hell’ is written in free verse, something that Rimbaud is quite well known for. But, there are a few moments in ‘A Season in Hell’ in which Rimbaud uses a specific structure. Although none of them are in this particular part of the poem.
Despite the fact that ‘A Season in Hell’ was originally written in French and then translated into English, there are several literary devices that are important to take note of. These include but are not limited to repetition, apostrophe, and imagery. The first of these, repetition, is seen through the use and reuse of words or phrases. For example, the use of the word “Gospel” several times in order to convey the speaker’s sorrow over the transformations that are coming over his world.
An apostrophe is a literary device that appears when a speaker talks to something that is not there or cannot hear him. These examples usually begin with the word “O” or “Oh”. Take a look at lines twenty-one through twenty-nine for example.
It is undeniable that Rimbaud was a master of imagery. Almost every line of this poem has an example that could imprint itself on a reader’s mind take for example: “The Gauls were the most inept flayers of cattle and burners of grass of their age”.
I’ve the whitish blue eye of my Gallic ancestors, the narrow skull, and the awkwardness in combat. I find my clothing as barbarous as theirs. But I don’t butter my hair.
The Gauls were the most inept flayers of cattle and burners of grass of their age.
From them I get: idolatry and love of sacrilege: – oh, all the vices, anger, lust – magnificent, the lust – above all lying and sloth!
In this section of ‘A Season in Hell’, the lines address the speaker’s appearance and history. He’s “Gallic,” something that’s obvious due to his facial features and the way that he fights. He’s unusual in some way, barbaric— an outsider. He takes many of his character traits from this group as well. They gave him his “idolatry and love of sacrilege” and all the vices that he could want. Lust is at the top of this list.
I’ve a horror of all trades. Masters and workers: all peasants, ignoble. The hand on the pen’s the same as the hand at the plough. – What an age of hands! – I’ll never get my hand in. Anyway service goes too far. The honesty of beggary upsets me. Criminals disgust me like eunuchs: me, I’m whole, and it’s all one to me!
But! Who made my tongue so deceitful that it’s guided and safeguarded my laziness till now? Without even using my body to live, and idler than a toad, I’ve lived everywhere. Not a family in Europe I don’t know. – I mean families like mine, who owe it all to the declaration of the Rights of Man. – I’ve known every son of good family!
In these lines of ‘A Season in Hell,’ the speaker announces the various things that he doesn’t like. He doesn’t want to work a trade like “peasants” and “Masters”. He doesn’t like criminals or beggars, eunuchs are distasteful to him as well. It appears that this speaker does not work for a living but gets by somehow. This feature of his life sets him apart from most people and might in the end have been one of the causes of his dissatisfaction with life. He travels around Europe, staying with all the good families and getting to know each other. He’s friends with the bourgeoisie, a class that got its start really during the French Revolution with the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
If only I’d forerunners at some time or other in the history of France!
But no, nothing.
It’s obvious to me I’ve always belonged to an inferior race. I don’t understand rebellion. My race never rose up except to pillage: like wolves round a beast they haven’t killed.
The next three lines of ‘A Season in Hell’ are shorter than most of those which came before them. He’s bored by his “forerunners” of his ancestors. He’d rather have a different heritage than that of the French Revolution. He’s also dissatisfied with his country in general. He doesn’t appreciate his people or what they’ve done. In fact, he calls the French an “inferior race”.
He doesn’t understand what they’ve done, meaning, that he doesn’t feel the same call for rebellion or revolution. He believes they’ve only pillaged like wolves who circle an animal “they haven’t killed”. This is a very poignant simile that paints the French people as scavengers.
I recall the history of France, eldest daughter of the Church. As a peasant I’d have made the journey to the Holy Land: I have all the roads of the Swabian plains in my head, all the views of Byzantium, the ramparts of Suleiman: the cult of the Virgin; tenderness for the crucified, wake in me among a thousand profane enchantments. – I sit, a leper, among broken pots and nettles, at the foot of a wall ravaged by the sun. – Later, a mercenary, I’d have bivouacked under German midnights.
This line of ‘A Season in Hell’ is incredibly long. In it, he continues to discuss the history of French and notes that it is the “eldest daughter of the Church”. It has a deeply religious background, stretching all the way to King Clovis of Gaul and the conversion of the country to Catholicism.
Throughout the next lines, he imagines looking over history and seeing Byzantium, the “Cult of the Virgin” and the “ramparts of Suleiman”. These various allusions require an understanding of French history including the Christian-Islamic battles. Finally, he jumps forward and imagines himself “bivouacked under German midnights”. He’s on the battlefield getting ready to attack.
Ah! Again: I dance the Sabbath in a red glade, with old women and children.
I remember nothing more distant than this country and Christianity. I’d never be finished with viewing myself in this past. But always alone; without a family; what language, even, did I speak? I never see myself in the counsels of Christ; nor in the councils of the Lords – representatives of Christ.
What was I in the last century? I only discover myself in the present day. No more vagabonds, no more vague wars. The inferior race has spread everywhere – the people, as one says, reason; the nation and science.
The speaker describes how he can’t look farther into his past than “this country and Christianity”. This memory, which is defined by his race and history, is limited. If possible, he’d always look into the past. There, he can find some connection when in the real whirl he’s alone. He’s a wanderer who is isolated from everyone else. He isn’t part of the “counsels of Christ”. This relates back to the possibility that this speaker is not as strictly religious as other people during his time period.
The speaker takes the poem back to the “inferior race” that he feels he’s a part of. Nowadays, this “race” is everywhere due to the progression of science.
Oh! Science! They’ve altered everything. For the body and the soul – the Eucharist – we’ve medicine and philosophy – old wives’ remedies and arrangements of popular songs. And the diversions of princes and the games they prohibited! Geography, cosmography, physics, chemistry! …
Science! The new nobility! Progress. The world progresses! Why shouldn’t it turn as well?
It’s the vision of numbers. We advance towards the Spirit. It’s quite certain: it’s oracular, what I say. I know, and unaware how to express myself without pagan words, I’d rather be mute.
It’s clear at this point that the speaker is connecting science to progress in a way that makes him upset. He’s bothered by the way it’s “altered everything”. Medicine, spirituality, and “arrangements of popular songs” it’s all been changed by science. It creates the “new nobility”. Progress is what everyone values most. He knows that something, even more, life-changing is coming. His words are “oracular,” meaning they predict the future.
The pagan blood returns! The Spirit is near, why doesn’t Christ help me by granting my soul nobility and freedom? Alas! The Gospel has passed! The Gospel! The Gospel.
I wait for God with greed. I’ve been of inferior race from all eternity.
Here I am on the Breton shore. How the towns glow in the evening. My day is done: I’m quitting Europe. Sea air will scorch my lungs: lost climates will tan me. To swim, trample the grass, hunt, above all smoke: drink hard liquors like boiling metals – as those dear ancestors did round the fire.
I’ll return with iron limbs; dark skin, a furious look: from my mask I’ll be judged as of mighty race. I’ll have gold: I’ll be idle and brutal. Women care for those fierce invalids returning from hot countries. I’ll be involved in politics. Saved.
Now I’m damned, I have a horror of country. The best is a good drunken sleep on the beach.
Because science is taking over the world, the speaker goes to the opposite, God. He asks “Christ” for help and receives none, something which frustrates him. He wants his soul to gain “nobility and freedom”. Things have changed too much and the “Gospel” has passed into this new world. A reader can feel the speaker’s angst in these lines as he repeats the word “Gospel”.
The speaker mentally leaves his country and his “inferior race” behind him and goes to the shores of Britain. There, he’s about to embark on a sea voyage to an unknown designation. He wants to end up somewhere very different than he is now. There, he can work, spend time in the sun, and feel alive in a very physical way.
The speaker believes that when he comes home from this strange vacation that he’ll be transformed. His body will no longer belong to its own lineage. He won’t be of the “inferior race” any longer. Women will “care for those” who are as he is and he’ll “be involved in politics” and therefore gain power. But, all of this is just a fantasy. He’s not really going to do any of it. Anything is better than his “horror of country”.
One doesn’t go. – Let’s take to the roads again, full of my vice, the vice that has thrust its roots of suffering into my side, since the age of reason – that rises to the sky, strikes me, knocks me down, drags me along.
The last innocence, and the last timidity. I’ve said it. Not to carry my disgust and betrayals through the world.
Let’s go! Marching, burdens, deserts, boredom, anger.
Whom shall I hire myself to? What beast must be adored? What saintly image attacked? What hearts shall I break? What lie must I uphold? – Wade through what blood?
Rather, protect oneself from justice – a hard life, pure brutalisation – to open the coffin lid with a withered hand; sit down, stop your breath. So no old age, no dangers: to be terrified is un-French.
– Ah! I am so forsaken I could offer any divine image no matter what my urges towards perfection.
O my self-denial, O my marvellous pity! Even down
De profundis Domine, what a creature I am!
The next lines take the reader into a description of his “vice” in these lines. It’s not clear what this is, but with the reference to opium in the introduction, that’s a possibility. He reemphasizes how frustrated and exhausted he is with the “age of reason”. He has spent too long suffering and being knocked down by this new world. The speaker looks at the possibility of disappearing and wonders what he’d do in a new land. Who would he work for and what kind of beliefs will he get? All of these lines are poetically complex, bringing in images of “beasts,” “saints” and hard labor.
It’s also very clear that the speaker is desperate for a change in ‘A Season in Hell’. So much so that he knows that he shouldn’t worry about death or injury. He pities his own position, using apostrophes to speak to the forces that bombard him. The last lines of this section contain a Latin phrase “De profundis Domine”. This means “From the depths, oh Lord”. He’s calling out to God, seeking out some direction or help.
Still a child, I admired the stubborn convict on whom the prison gates always close again: I visited inns and lodgings that he might have sanctified with his presence: I saw the blue sky with his mind, and the flowering labour of the countryside: I scented his fate in the towns. He had more strength than a saint, more good sense than a traveler – and he, he alone! As witness to his glory and reason.
In contrast to his hatred of criminals in the first section, here, the speaker says that he admires the “stubborn convict” who is continually be loved in prison. They are real to him in the same way that hard labor is real. The convict is as much an outsider as he is.
The speaker describes moving through the world with the “eye” of a convict. He looked at the sky and “scented his fate in the towns”. This imagined person had a different kind of good sense and a knowledge of reason that went beyond science.
On the roads, on winter nights, without shelter, without clothing, without bread, a voice would clutch my frozen heart: ‘Weakness or strength: with you it’s strength. You don’t know where you’re going or why you’re going: go everywhere, react to everything. They won’t kill you any more than if you were a corpse.’ In the morning I had such a lost look, such a dead face, that those who met me perhaps they did not see me.
Suddenly, in the towns, the mud would seem red or black to me, like the mirror when the lamp is carried about in the next room, like a treasure in the forest! Good luck, I’d cry, and I’d see a sea of flames and smoke in the sky: and to right and left all the riches flaming like a trillion lightning flashes.
The speaker is traveling, likely metaphorically, through different landscapes. He is suffering as he wanted to and seeing things he needs to. His inner voice tells him to go on and embrace the suffering. He’s still as isolated as he was before but now he has a purpose, to see and experience what he can. The voice tells him that nothing bad can happen to him as he’s already as “corpse”. He’s invisible to the world in these lines, and many others of ‘A Season in Hell’.
But orgies and the company of women were forbidden me. Not even a friend. I could see myself before an angry crowd, facing the firing-squad, weeping with a misery they couldn’t have understood, and forgiving them! – Like Joan of Arc! – ‘Priests, professors, masters, you’re wrong to hand me over to justice. I’ve never been part of this race. I’ve never been a Christian: I’m of the race that sings under torture: I don’t understand the law: I’ve no moral sense, I’m a brute: you’re wrong…’
Yes, I’ve shut my eyes to your light. I’m a beast, a black. But I can be saved. You are really blacks, you maniacs; wild beasts, misers. Merchant, you’re a black: magistrate, you’re a black: general, you’re a black: emperor, you old sore, you’re a black: you’ve drunk an untaxed liquor, Satan’s make. – This race is inspired by fever and cancer. Old folks and invalids are so respectable they ask to be boiled. – The cleverest thing is to quit this continent, where madness prowls to find hostages for these wretches. I’m off to the true kingdom of the sons of Ham.
Do I know nature yet? Do I know myself? –No more words. I bury the dead in my gut. Shouts, drums, dance, dance, dance, dance! I don’t even see the moment when the whites land and I’ll fall to nothingness.
Hunger, thirst, shouts, dance, dance, dance, dance!
The new few lines of ‘A Season in Hell’ are quite long and take the speaker back to the mind of the convict from the previous lines. He’s isolated from the rest of the world as usual. So much so that he can’t take pleasure in the “company of women” nor can he have a friend. He doesn’t follow the rules that society sets out for its citizens and he can imagine himself in front of a firing squad. He’d forgive them for their actions and “sing” under torture just like the rest of his race.
Through the short and choppy lines of this section of ‘A Season in Hell,’ the speaker declares that he is “a beast, a black” he can still be saved though. He isn’t as “black,” a troubling way to refer to someone who is sinful and lawless, as a “Merchant” or an “emperor”. Once again, the speaker declares that he’s going to leave. His wandering narrative is just as listless and meandering as his opinions of the world. The speaker seems to lose control of himself at the end of this section. The repetition of the word “dance” makes it seem as if he’s having trouble expressing himself clearly. This also goes back to his desire for something more primitive.
The whites are landing. Cannon! We have to submit to baptism, clothes, work.
I’ve received the coup de grâce to my heart. Ah! I hadn’t foreseen it!
I’ve done nothing wrong. The days will pass easily for me, repentance will be spared me. I’ll not have known the torments of the soul that’s almost dead to virtue, where the light rises severely like that from funeral tapers. The fate of a son of good family, an early coffin scattered with crystal tears. Doubtless, debauchery is foolish; vice is foolish, rottenness must be thrown out. But the clock has not yet taken to striking only hours of pure sadness! Shall I be carried off like a child to play in paradise forgetting all unhappiness?
Quick! Are there other lives? – Repose with riches is impossible. Wealth has always been so public. Divine love alone offers the keys of knowledge. I see that nature is nothing but a show of kindness. Farewell chimeras, ideals, errors.
In his new, imagined country in ‘A Season in Hell,’ he sees the “whites…landing”. They’ve come to take over and force the population into baptism and clothes and work, all the things that he’s tried to escape. In this imaginative world, he dies and does not have to experience the boring, modern world that he’s trying so hard to escape from. After another confusing section of discussion about love, spiritual connection, and devotion, the speaker comes back to reality, at least somewhat. He decides that he’s going to accept the world as it is and says that “nature is nothing but a show of kindness”.
Tedium’s no longer my love. Rage, debaucheries, madness, all of whose joys and disasters I know – my whole burden’s laid down. Let us appreciate without dizziness the extent of my innocence.
I’d no longer be capable of demanding the comfort of a bastinado. I don’t think I’m embarking for a wedding with Jesus Christ for father-in-law.
I’m not a prisoner of my reason. I said: ‘God, I want freedom in salvation: how to pursue it? Frivolous tastes have quit me. No need for self-sacrifice or divine love any more. I don’t regret the age of sensitive hearts. Each has his reason, scorn, pity: I retain my place at the summit of this angelic ladder of good sense.
As for established happiness: domestic or not…no, I can’t. I’m too dissipated, too feeble. Life flowers through work, an old truth: me, my life is too insubstantial, it flies off and drifts around far above the action that focus dear to the world.
What an old maid I’m becoming, lacking the courage to love death!
If God would grant me celestial, aerial, calm, prayer – like the ancient saints – the Saints! Strong ones! The anchorites, artists for whom there’s no longer need!
Continual farce! My innocence should make me weep. Life is the farce all perform.
The speaker is trying, in these lines of ‘A Season in Hell,’ anyway, to stop acting as depressed and nihilistic as he has been in the previous sections. He has decided to give up his vices, “Rage, debaucheries, madness” and the like. He’s going to be innocent from now on and move closer to God. But, he is still not a “prisoner” of his reason. He’s not cut out for a normal life but he wants to continue on. He asks God for strength and the ability to find calm and prayer.
Enough! Here is the sentence. – March!
Ah! My lungs burn, my brow throbs! Night revolves in my eyes, in this sun! Heart…limbs…
Where to? To fight? I’m weak! The others advance. Equipment, arms…the weather! …
Fire! Fire at me! Here! Or I’ll surrender – Cowards! – I’ll kill myself! I’ll hurl myself under the horses’ hooves!
– I’ll get used to it.
That would be the French way, the path of honour!
These last lines of ‘A Season in Hell: Bad Blood’ are divided up by dashes and a lot of punctuation. There are many examples of caesurae. The narrative jumps again, taking the reader into a battle of some sort. He’s trying to work hard and push himself to the limit as if there is some heroic act coming. He’s seeking out something honorable or he’ll “surrender” himself. He’s going to accept his fate as the French would. But, after everything he’s said so far, it seems very unlikely that Rimbaud’s speaker is going to be happy how he is, no matter his state.
After reading section II of ‘A Season in Hell,’ the themes of sorrow, religion, and Hell, and even damnation, are going to be at the top of one’s mind. Further reading on these topics can be found in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ as well as Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. Rimbaud’s ‘Season in Hell’ engages with life and death in a more confusing way than Dante or Milton, but the imagery is just as poignant. Readers might also be interested in ‘Acquainted with the Night’ by Robert Frost,‘The Darkling Thrush’ by Thomas Hardy, and ‘Darkness’ by Lord Byron.