Arthur Rimbaud, the genius behind Historic Evening, made a great impact on the surrealism movement and, moreover, he was a major figure in symbolism during the second half of the nineteenth century. Throughout his poetic career, Rimbaud developed his own particular poetic style and elaborated the theory of voyage, a program in which the poetic process functions as the vehicle of exploration of parallel realities.
From 1873, Arthur Rimbaud started writing prose poetry, which later was compiled in Les Illuminations. For many critics, Les Illuminations is Rimbaud’s most important work. This poetry collection maintains the themes of his previous poems (including the topic of revolt, fascination of elements, travel in the search for an ideal, etc.) but it experiments with new poetic structures, dissimilar terminology, and a dynamic punctuation. Les Illuminations was partly published in 1886 and the collection includes 42 texts. “Illuminations” is an English word that stands for colored engravings; specifically, colored plates, as Rimbaud wrote in his manuscript. The title was proposed by Paul Verlaine, who was at Rimbaud’s side during the composition of most of the poems of this collection.
Historic evening is the poem number 32 or 36 in Les Illuminations, depending on the edition. In his poetry, Rimbaud focuses on the evocative quality of words and the construction of rich sensory imagery. As the majority of the poems in Les Illuminations, Historic Evening is a prose poem. This means that the poem is written paragraphs rather than in verses, but preserving poetic characteristics such as imagery, language play and meter. The following version of Historic Evening was translated by A. S. Kline.
Historic Evening Analysis
In whatever evening, for instance, the simple tourist retiring from our economic horrors finds himself, the hand of a master wakes the harpsichord of meadows; cards are played in the depths of the pond, mirror, evoker of queens and favourites; there are saints, sails, and threads of harmony, and legendary chromaticism in the sunset.
This first paragraph presents an extensive sentence. The opening of the poem situates the reader in a particular moment of the day, but with no specification of the date or of the hour in which the actions described take place (“In whatever evening”). The lyrical voice depicts the movements of the “simple tourist”, which are also undetermined, and how he/she wants to escape from “economic horrors”. This figure, according to the lyrical voice, is able to discover several things which are listed in the sentence (“the hand of a master wakes the harpsichord of meadows;cards are okayed in the depths of the pond […] evoker of queens and favourites; there are saints, sails, and threads of harmony, and legendary chromaticism in the sunset”). These descriptions use greatly evocative words and build strong natural images, such as that of the pond and of the sunset. Thus, this first paragraph establishes this figure’s search over things he/she didn’t explore before.
He shudders at the passing of the hunts and the hordes. Drama drips on the platforms of turf. And the superfluity of the poor and the weak on these stupid levels!
This second paragraph continues the description of the exploration of the “simple tourist”. The “simple tourist” seems to fear “the hunts and the hordes”. On the next sentences, the lyrical voice will continue to use highly evocative language, as in the first paragraph. The “simple tourist” is still discovering things in this “whatever evening”. Notice the last sentence, and how this is a comment from the lyrical voice towards the understanding of the poor, the weak, and this “simple tourist”.
To his slave’s eye, Germany towers upwards toward moons; Tartar deserts light up; ancient revolts foment at the heart of the Celestial Empire; along the stairways and armchairs of rocks a little world, pale and flat, is to be built. Then a ballet of known seas and nights; chemistry without virtue, and impossible melodies.
This third paragraph focuses on strong images that appear to the “simple tourist”. This figure sees a vision of the world and how it works. The figure, with his “slave’s eye” and “retiring from economic horrors”, sees diverse groups of people. The construction of the first sentence is similar to that of the first paragraph: the figure is mentioned in a certain circumstance and there is an enumeration of the visions he/she has. Notice that the words are greatly evocative and they build a strong imagery that continues with the theme used in the previous paragraphs.
The same bourgeois magic wherever the packet-boat deposits us! The most elementary physicist feels it is no longer to possible to submit oneself to this personal atmosphere, this fog of physical remorse, observation of which is already an affliction.
The fourth paragraph, rather than describing actions of the figure mentioned, focuses on the lyrical voice. The lyrical voice appears to be making a statement about the historical and cultural context that surrounds both him/her and the figure described (the “simple tourist”). The poem changes its tone and abandons the lyrical descriptions that were made in the previous paragraphs. According to the lyrical voice, it is impossible to escape from the “bourgeois magic” no matter where you go (“wherever the packet-boat deposits us!”). Furthermore, the following sentence describes this feeling of entrapment that the lyrical voice expresses in the first part of the paragraph.
No! The moment of the steam room, of evaporating seas, of subterranean conflagrations, of the wandering planet and the consequent exterminations, certainties indicated with so little malice by the Bible and the Norns which it will fall to the serious being to witness – However it will be no matter of legend!
The last paragraph expands the message already stated in the fourth paragraph. The lyrical voice continues talking about the “bourgeois magic” and the inability to escape from it (“The moment of the steam room, of evaporating seas, of subterranean conflagrations, of the wandering planet and the consequent exterminations”). The feeling towards the present is reflected in the lyrical voice’s description and in the immersion made in the pattern of the elements mentioned. The poem finishes with a strong statement made by the lyrical voice (“However it will be no matter of legend!”). This sentence shows the lyrical voice’s reflection towards bourgeois life and capitalism. Furthermore, this particular historical moment, according to the lyrical voice, “will be no matter of legend!” opposing his/her present to a much yearned past time.
About Arthur Rimbaud
Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud was born in 1854 and died in 1891. He was a French poet known for his influence in 20th century and modern literature, particularly in surrealism. Rimbaud started writing at a very young age, but he also stopped composing poetry altogether when he was 21 and after assembling his most important work Les Illuminations. He is known for contributing to symbolism and for being a precursor to modernism. Arthur Rimbaud was said to be a libertine and a restless soul. He had a passionate relationship with Paul Verlaine, a fellow poet that lasted almost two years. After his literary career ended, Rimbaud traveled considerably on three continents as a merchant. He died from cancer after his thirty-seventh birthday.