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French Ecocriticism

From the Early Modern Period to the Twenty-First Century


Edited By Daniel A. Finch-Race and Stephanie Posthumus

This book expounds fruitful ways of analysing matters of ecology, environments, nature, and the non-human world in a broad spectrum of material in French. Scholars from Canada, France, Great Britain, Spain, and the United States examine the work of writers and thinkers including Michel de Montaigne, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Arthur Rimbaud, Marguerite Yourcenar, Gilbert Simondon, Michel Serres, Michel Houellebecq, and Éric Chevillard. The diverse approaches in the volume signal a common desire to bring together form and content, politics and aesthetics, theory and practice, under the aegis of the environmental humanities.

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Ecopoetic Adventures in Rimbaud’s ‘Sensation’ and ‘Ma Bohème’ (Daniel A. Finch-Race)

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Daniel A. Finch-Race

Ecopoetic Adventures in Rimbaud’s ‘Sensation’ and ‘Ma Bohème’

Abstract: The profusion of ecological matters in Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Sensation’ and ‘Ma Bohème’ of 1870 draws attention to the peculiar relationship between mankind and its surroundings in the later years of the nineteenth century. The feeling of fulfilment ensuing from the teenage poet’s communion with nature in a space beyond the confines of urban industry is associated with versificatory particularities that are suggestive of personal and stylistic evolution based on a distinctive mode of enmeshment in the non-human world. Rimbaud’s rendering of a world on the cusp of the metropolis entails a quest for personal independence outside traditional constraints. The visual and tactile evocations of the narrator’s surroundings and corporeal circumstances are complemented by auditory metaphors that emblematise a transition beyond Hugolian lyricism. The present chapter contends that the ecological framework of the poems provides an insight into the peculiar identity of the countryside in the era of industrialisation and Haussmannisation. It is conjectured that the distinctive versification of the poems (several caesurae are overridden; there are multiple instances of enjambement and unsettled rhythms; rhyming richness markedly varies from stanza to stanza) embodies increasingly significant correspondences between environmental circumstances and cultural production at a moment of accelerated change in ecological and sociocultural conditions in France.

The attentiveness to environmental elements in Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Sensation’ and ‘Ma Bohème’ of 1870 contrasts with mid-century accounts lauding the scientific and technological wonders of urban society. The fantastical pieces of verse evoke personal and poetic satisfaction resulting from communion with a kind of nature that is characterised as a grand counterpoint to the narrator’s impoverished circumstances. The emphasis on sensorial experience of a peri-urban space signals the complex relationship of humanity to its environment in the industrial era, and develops the Hugolian Romanticism of the first half of the century. Rimbaud’s rendering of experiences on the cusp of the metropolis bears the traits of a quest for personal independence outside traditional constraints, with auditory, tactile and visual evocations of the world and the narrator’s circumstances emblematising a new breed of lyricism. The ecological framework of the narratives ultimately provides an insight into the peculiar identity of a tensioned borderland between the city and the countryside. This chapter conjectures that structural particularities convey ecosystemic qualities at a moment of accelerated change in environmental ← 99 | 100 → and sociocultural conditions: several caesurae are overridden; there are multiple instances of unsettled rhythms and enjambements; rhyming richness undergoes sizeable shifts; acoustic patterns create surprising resonances. The guiding proposition of the analysis is that Rimbaud’s verse articulates correspondences between ecological circumstances and shifts in cultural production.

‘Sensation’ and ‘Ma Bohème’ depict contact with extra-urban nature in an ecopoetic mode: the earlier poem conveys wonder with reference to tactile and visual phenomena in open fields on summer evenings; the later poem expresses thoughtfulness ensuing from the experience of sitting alongside rural tracks on September evenings after wandering through the countryside. In both poems, the absence of dealings between a human society and the solitary narrator suggests a division between a municipal sphere and the environment through which the protagonist rambles. The narrator’s distanciation from a space of commercial and sociocultural activity opens up the possibility of unalloyed communion with the world in places that are valorised for lacking artifice and the accelerated rhythms of urban life. The two poems point to sixteen-year-old Rimbaud as an ecopoet because they draw attention to the importance of the non-human world amid the escalating metrocentrism of France in the era of Haussmannisation. According to Scott Bryson,

Ecopoets offer a vision of the world that values the interaction between two interdependent and seemingly paradoxical desires, both of which are attempts to respond to the modern divorce between humanity and the rest of nature: (1) to create place, making a conscious and concerted effort to know the more-than-human world around us; and (2) to value space, recognising the extent to which that very world is ultimately unknowable.1

Both poems from 1870 revolve around the narrator’s efforts to determine his position in the world by concertedly interfacing with his surroundings, and Rimbaud focusses on the importance of affording a place to the numinousness of the non-human world as a counterpoint to contemporaneous portrayals of the marvels of urban development. The two evocations of a personal attempt to come to terms with physical nature develop traditional referents for comprehending experience and poetry: the narrator of both poems is an ecopoetic subject making (ποιεῖν) a dwelling (οἶκος) beyond the institutions and the modes of existence shaping the outlook of his increasingly urbanised contemporaries. Rimbaud’s tales of world-making provide an insight into the capacity of versified forms to articulate the poeticity of physical environments. For Jacques Rancière, ← 100 | 101 →

La poésie […] est […] une manifestation particulière de la poéticité d’un monde, c’est-à-dire de la manière dont une vérité se donne à une conscience collective sous forme d’œuvres et d’institutions. […] [E]lle est un organon privilégié pour l’intelligence de cette vérité. Elle est un morceau du poème du monde.2

[Poetry is a peculiar manifestation of the poeticity of a world, that is to say the manner in which a truth presents itself to a collective consciousness in the form of works and institutions. It is a privileged organ for the understanding of this truth. It is a piece of the poem of the world.]

The thought-provoking content and form of Rimbaud’s ecosensitive poems convey an avant-garde vision of the place of humanity in a rapidly altering world. The narrator’s status as a figure outside the strictly delineated order of metropolitan society gives rise to an unconventional perspective on the changing nature of nineteenth-century France, as importance is accorded to the poeticity of places differing from the artificial composition of Haussmannian Paris.

Rimbaud’s poems referring to the non-human world demonstrate a fascination with adventuring beyond the cosseted sphere of civilised society into a space that allows the narrator to undertake a liberatory endeavour of attunement to the cosmos. In both depictions, the protagonist is on an excursion from a municipal sphere to which he is destined to return on account of his need for lodging and nourishment. The two poems – marked by an aspiration to make the most of the freedom gained from the abandonment of a municipal life in favour of the openness of bohemian wandering – draw attention to the extraordinary nature of sites possessing an organic type of place identity that starkly contrasts with the increasingly systematised makeup of industrial Paris and its environs. The absence of a manmade shelter in both poems signifies the appeal of ecosensitive dwelling in an open space that inspires the narrator to become acutely responsive to environmental phenomena. Yi-Fu Tuan proposes that ‘human lives are a dialectical movement between shelter and venture, attachment and freedom. In open space, one can become intensely aware of place’.3 The two poems express the alterity of the protagonist’s position in a rural setting crisscrossed by trails that underscore the transitionality of his contact with the non-human world. Rimbaud’s adventures beyond the anaesthetising artifice of an urban agglomeration indicate a fascination with surveying environmental minutiae that are the primary constituents of a system connected to the numinous cosmos. Both poems accentuate ← 101 | 102 → the sensorial immediacy of the narrator’s engagement with unembellished elements of nature. Michel Collot observes that ‘au lieu d’en maquiller le visage, le poète cherche à dévoiler la face nue de la terre [instead of concealing its face, the poet seeks to unveil the naked appearance of the earth]’.4 Rimbaud’s two poems designate an effort to comprehend the realities of nature by way of a grounded perspective in the wake of Romantic eulogies of bucolically verdant spaces and grandiose phenomena. The unorthodox suppleness of Rimbaud’s verse in 1870 amplifies the attitude of openness signalled by the insistence on imaginative and sensorial stimulation in an environment beyond the confines of human culture.

‘Sensation’ and ‘Ma Bohème’ are the work of a sixteen-year-old whose studious and tranquil existence in Charleville amid the rustic climes of the Ardennes was transformed due to the conflagration of the Franco-Prussian War that inspired the young poet’s precipitous journey to Paris via Belgium in August 1870. The poems from the initial stages of Rimbaud’s creative development appear quite conventional in the light of his revolutionary poetics of 1871 and 1872, yet there are several instances of versificatory particularities that herald an evolution in the identity of poetry at the dawn of the Third Republic. Shifts in rhythm, rhyming richness, medial accentuation, acoustic patterns, and the dynamics of the e caduc demonstrate an escalating incidence of structural diversity that parallels the progressive outlook of post-Romantic narratives. Robert St Clair notes that in Rimbaud’s innovative verse ‘il s’agit d’une poétique […] qui préserve une trace du différent dans le même – la forme métrique de l’alexandrin, par exemple [it is a question of a poetics that conserves a trace of the different in the same – the metrical form of the alexandrine, for example]’.5 Structural quirks in both poems underscore the novelty of Rimbaud’s approach to long-established referents in a world undergoing substantial reconfiguration due to scientific advancements and new forms of urban construction. The signs of stylistic and sociocultural metamorphosis in the two poems herald a new concept of poetry that responds to the intensification of industrialisation and urban modernity as driving forces in French society. The dynamic contours of the Rimbaldian alexandrine emblematise a more open relationship to the non-human world, as a groundbreaking breed of textual environment begins to emerge in tandem with the proliferation of new kinds of spatiality in the physical world. Daryl Lee contends that ‘Rimbaud makes it possible […] to imagine a different poetic ← 102 | 103 → construction, a different verse spatiality’.6 Rimbaud’s verse points to uncharted territories beyond the scope of ideas about poetics and the world that prevailed for the majority of the nineteenth century. The two evocations of ecopoetic adventures from 1870 afford an opportunity for analysis of the dynamics of nature from a rural perspective in the industrial era. The potency of the tactile and visual interaction with non-human elements in ‘Sensation’ particularly stimulates conjectures about modes of ecological attunement in verse.

The opening quatrain of the eight lines in ‘Sensation [Sensation]’7 presages an intimate experience of rural nature giving rise to far-reaching reflections on the human condition:

Par les soirs bleus d’été, j’irai dans les sentiers,

Picoté par les blés, fouler l’herbe menue:

Rêveur, j’en sentirai la fraîcheur à mes pieds.

Je laisserai le vent baigner ma tête nue.(1–4)

[On blue evenings in summer, down paths,

Spiked by sharp corn, I’ll trample new grass.

Dreaming, I’ll feel the cool on my feet,

The wind will bathe my bare head.]

The arrangement of the rimes croisées (M-F-M-F) sets up the projected entwinement of the narrator and his feminised environment by means of a rhyme scheme that encompasses regular alternation in the wake of the femininely inflected line at the outset. The unequivocal caesurae in the first and second lines (‘d’été,// j’irai’ (1); ‘blés,// fouler’ (2)), which emphasise the generative season and the abundant plants in the foreseen countryside, contrast with the syntactic overriding in the third and fourth lines (‘sentirai/ la fraîcheur’ (3); ‘le vent/ baigner’ (4)) that accentuates the projected journey through the soft grass and the gentle breeze. The attenuations of medial accentuation at the end of the quatrain suggest an opening of the storyteller’s disposition in response to environmental stimuli because the traditional configuration of the caesura-demarcated alexandrine is imbued with fluidity. The narrator’s rapt interest in finding a place of fulfilment in nature is communicated in an ecosensitive mode that expresses burgeoning attunement to climatic and geographic conditions. Bryson asserts that ‘ecopoets encourage us to discover and ← 103 | 104 → nurture a topophiliac devotion to the places we inhabit’.8 The three instances of a first-person singular subject pronoun (‘j’irai’ (1); ‘j’en sentirai’ (3); ‘Je laisserai’ (4)) and two instances of a first-person singular possessive determiner (‘mes pieds’ (3); ‘ma tête’ (4)) highlight a longing to construct a sense of self in relation to the habitat beyond the influence of a metropolitan civilisation. The three occurrences of the future tense (‘j’irai’ (1); ‘j’en sentirai’ (3); ‘Je laisserai’ (4)) underscore an ecopoetic aspiration to become more involved in the non-human world, and the elevenfold alliteration in [ʁ] (‘Par […] soirs […] j’irai’ (1); ‘par […] l’herbe’ (2); ‘Rêveur […] sentirai […] fraîcheur’ (3); ‘laisserai’ (4)) conveys affection for the envisioned environment. The fourfold plosive alliterations in [p] (‘Par’ (1); ‘Picoté par’ (2); ‘pieds’ (3)) and [b] (‘bleus’ (1); ‘blés […] l’herbe’ (2); ‘baigner’ (4)) throw into relief the profusion of tactile and visual phenomena anticipated by the protagonist in his yearning for ecstatic immersion. According to Renaud Lejosne-Guigon,

Les cinq sens sont au cœur du lyrisme rimbaldien dès les poèmes de 1870. Déjà dans ‘Sensation’ […] se dessine un entremêlement du sujet lyrique et du monde où le je, dans une promenade érotique, pénètre la nature tout en étant pénétré par elle.9

[The five senses are at the heart of Rimbaldian lyricism, starting from the poems of 1870. As early as ‘Sensation’, an enmeshment of the lyric subject and the world is depicted, with the I, on an erotic stroll, penetrating nature at the same time as being penetrated by her.]

The fourfold sibilance (‘soirs […] sentiers’ (1); ‘sentirai’ (3); ‘laisserai’ (4)) and the twofold alliteration in [f] (‘fouler’ (2); ‘fraîcheur’ (3)) draw attention to the mellowness associated with the plan to stroll beyond the confines of the neighbouring society into a non-human world of airiness and limpidity. The two manifestations of an e caduc (‘l’herbe menue’ (2); ‘tête nue’ (4)) emphasise the significance of points of contact between humanity and the non-human world because the grass and the storyteller’s head gain prominence from the presence of the femininely inflected vowel that differentiates the rhythmic identity of metrical verse from everyday speech (in which it tends to be left unpronounced). The rising cadence of the third line (3+9), together with the masculine rime suffisante in [je] between ‘sentiers’ (1) and ‘pieds’ (3), starkly sets up the feminine rime léonine in [ə.ny] between ‘menue’ (2) and ‘tête nue’ (4) that expresses the spirited expectation of immersion in nature leading to abundant delight. The enrichment of the textual environment due to the lavishness of the feminine rhyme signals the import of the rural landscape as a source of ecopoetic energy for the versifier’s art. ← 104 | 105 →

The replication of the first-person-singular-subject-pronoun structure from the beginning of the fourth line (‘Je laisserai’ (4)) at the beginning of the fifth line (‘Je ne parlerai pas’ (5)) highlights a shift into reverent quietude in the concluding quatrain:

Je ne parlerai pas, je ne penserai rien:

Mais l’amour infini me montera dans l’âme,

Et j’irai loin, bien loin, comme un bohémien,

Par la Nature, – heureux comme avec une femme.(5–8)

[I shan’t speak, I’ll clear out all my thoughts.

But love without end shall fill my soul,

And I’ll travel far, very far, Nature’s

Vagabond – happy as with a woman.]

The anaphora and the unequivocal caesura in the fifth line (‘Je ne parlerai pas,// je ne penserai rien’ (5)) point to the serene mood and the absence of utterances in the latter stages of the poem. The manifestation of the traditional rhythm of a caesura-demarcated alexandrine, suggestive of calm and moderation, evokes a restoration of primal creativity resulting from communion with nature. The identical syllabification in each hemistich (1+1+3+1) underscores the prospective opening of the narrator’s quietened consciousness to the world, and the accretion of monosyllabic terms highlights the idea of a soothing retreat from the complexities of everyday existence in an industrial society. The three occurrences of a first-person singular subject pronoun (‘Je ne parlerai pas, je ne penserai rien’ (5); ‘j’irai loin’ (7)) and the occurrence of a first-person singular indirect object (‘l’amour infini me montera’ (6)) bring into focus the concept of the storyteller intimately interfacing with nature to the point of quasi-sexual communion. The four instances of the future tense (‘Je ne parlerai pas, je ne penserai rien: | Mais l’amour infini me montera dans l’âme, | Et j’irai loin’ (5–7)), the only conjugated form in the poem, throw into relief the intention to diverge from tradition through an ecopoetic adventure. The tenfold alliteration in [ʁ] (‘parlerai […] penserai rien’ (5); ‘l’amour […] montera’ (6); ‘j’irai’ (7); ‘Par […] Nature, – heureux’ (8)) creates a network of acoustic correspondences between human and non-human elements that amplifies the impact of the scenario of compenetration. The attenuation of medial accentuation in the sixth line (‘l’amour infini/ me montera’ (6)) exemplifies the joy inundating the narrator’s being, since the traditional rhythm of the caesura-demarcated alexandrine is overridden due to the syntactic association between subject and verb. The overflow of rhythmic energy across the midpoint of the line is suggestive of burgeoning organicity in the textual environment, whereby ecopoetic forces in the physical world trigger growth in the body of the poem. For Pierre Brunel, ‘la montée de “l’amour infini” (Sensation, v. 6) [est] ← 105 | 106 → comme celle de la sève dans l’arbre [the rise of “l’amour infini” (Sensation, l. 6) is like that of sap in a tree]’.10 The adverbial repetition on the cusp of the unequivocal caesura in the seventh line (‘j’irai loin, bien loin,// comme’ (7)) points up the arboreal nature of verse, which is based on lines with different rhythms woven into a harmonious unit, amid a moment of generativeness associated with the soaring pursuit of a mystical ideal. The eightfold alliteration in [m] towards the end of the poem (‘Mais l’amour […] me montera’ (6); ‘comme […] bohémien’ (7); ‘comme […] femme’ (8)) adds to the recurrence of the comparative structure of the seventh line in the eighth line (‘comme un bohémien’ (7); ‘comme avec une femme’ (8)) that underscores the protagonist’s position between humanity and the non-human world. The masculine rime pauvre in [ɛ̃] between the syneresis of ‘rien’ (5) and the dieresis of ‘bohémien’ (7) throws into relief the adjective at the end of the seventh line (‘bohémien’ (7)) that plosively heralds the ecosensitive poet’s continuing adventures in ‘Ma Bohème’. The prepositional structure focalising the non-human world at the beginning of the final line (‘Par la Nature’ (8)), which replicates the ecocentric composition of the opening line (‘Par les soirs bleus d’été’ (1)), signals the apogee of the journey in the rural world. The sole dash of the poem (‘Par la Nature, – heureux’ (8)), together with the rising cadence of the line (4+8), highlights the link between the storyteller’s happiness and his immersion in the non-human world. The association between the proper noun and the adjective is particularly forceful on account of the elision (one of only three occurrences in the poem) that causes the rhythmic energy of the line to be channelled without interruption between the protagonist and the source of his happiness. The proximity of ‘Nature […] femme’ (8) reinforces the impression of feminised nature as an idealised source of bounteous nourishment, and the feminine rime suffisante in [am] between ‘l’âme’ (6) and ‘femme’ (8) puts a spotlight on the intimation of Gaian inspiration. The overall depiction of the narrator of ‘Sensation’ deriving ecopoetic and personal vigour from a vision of female-inflected nature is perpetuated in ‘Ma Bohème’ through the address to the Muse at the outset of the sonnet.

A pioneering mode of ecopoetic adventurousness is called to mind in the quatrain with which the fourteen lines of ‘Ma Bohème [My Bohemia]’11 open:

Je m’en allais, les poings dans mes poches crevées;

Mon paletot aussi devenait idéal;

J’allais sous le ciel, Muse! et j’étais ton féal;

Oh! là là! que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvées!(1–4) ← 106 | 107 →

[And so I went, hands thrust in torn pockets.

My coat was more idea than fact.

Beneath the sky – my Muse, my liege – I went;

Oh my! what dreams of splendid loves I had!]

The rising cadence of the first line (4+8) in the sonnet emphasises the aspirational quality of the narrator’s frequent wanderings beyond the world of time-honoured referents to which the conventionality of the rimes embrassées (F-M-M-F) alludes. The four instances of the first-person singular subject pronoun (‘Je m’en allais’ (1); ‘J’allais […] j’étais’ (3); ‘j’ai rêvées’ (4)) couple with the two instances of a first-person singular possessive determiner (‘mes poches’ (1); ‘Mon paletot’ (2)) to underscore the activity generated from the protagonist’s communion with a celestial ideal. The four occurrences of the imperfect tense (‘allais’ (1); ‘devenait’ (2); ‘J’allais […] j’étais’ (3)) invoke a sense of frequent wanderings that is perpetuated by the seven instances of the imperfect tense in the later stanzas (‘avait’ (5); ‘égrenais’ (6); ‘était’ (7); ‘avaient’ (8); ‘écoutais’ (9); ‘sentais’ (10); ‘tirais’ (13)). Brunel suggests that ‘“Je m’en allais” conjugue à l’imparfait le “j’irai” de Sensation [“Je m’en allais” transforms the “j’irai” of Sensation into the imperfect tense]’.12 The repetition of the first-person-singular form of the imperfect tense from the first line at the beginning of the third line (‘Je m’en allais’ (1); ‘J’allais’ (3)) amplifies the feeling of an evolution in outlook and style centred around a deeper and more brooding appreciation of nature than was the case with the rapturous experience of ‘Sensation’. The sole instance of the perfect tense in the sonnet (‘que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvées!’ (4)) hints at a transition beyond outlandish adulations of nature, and the remaining verbs – a past participle (‘assis’ (9)) and a present participle (‘rimant’ (12)) – draw attention to the lowly versifier deriving ecopoetic inspiration from the cosmos. The attenuation of medial accentuation due to a syntactic linkage in the first, second and fourth lines (‘poings/ dans’ (1); ‘paletot/ aussi’ (2); ‘d’amours/ splendides’ (4)), and due to the elision – the sole instance in the quatrain – at the heart of the third line (‘Muse!/ et’ (3)), highlights the overflow of ecopoetic invigoration ensuing from the protagonist’s attunement to the non-human world, since the traditional structure of the caesura-demarcated alexandrine is overridden as part of an ebullient rhythm. The fourfold plosive alliteration in [p] (‘poings […] poches’ (1); ‘paletot’ (2); ‘splendides’ (4)), together with the fivefold sibilance (‘aussi’ (2); ‘sous […] ciel, Muse!’ (3); ‘splendides’ (4)), throws into relief the storyteller’s lowliness as a contrast to the sidereal backdrop. The second-person singular possessive determiner in the third line (‘ton féal’ (3)) ← 107 | 108 → evokes a movement towards intimacy with the classical spirit of creativity that is accentuated by the masculine rime léonine in [] between ‘idéal’ (2) and ‘féal’ (3). The lavishness of the rhyme points to the fruitfulness of heeding a celestial ideal because the borders of the textual environment are potently enriched by the masculine coupling. The dramatic interjection at the beginning of the fourth line (‘Oh! là là!’ (4)), which communicates wonderment in the face of nature, becomes more striking due to the feminine rime suffisante in [ve] between ‘crevées’ (1) and ‘rêvées’ (4) that bears the tinge of a rime léonine due to the reinforcing [ʁ]. The intimation of a particularly rich rhyme underscores the stimulatory quality of the ecopoetic adventure, since the supplemented harmony of the feminine coupling draws attention to the narrator transcending an impoverished existence through dreams of love inspired by his wanderings in the countryside.

The latter quatrain of the sonnet markedly contrasts with the opening quatrain because the phonemic patterns of the second set of rimes embrassées, which unexpectedly entail a masculine rhyme enclosing a feminine rhyme, are new:

Mon unique culotte avait un large trou.

– Petit-Poucet rêveur, j’égrenais dans ma course

Des rimes. Mon auberge était à la Grande-Ourse.

– Mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou(5–8)

[My one and only trousers were hugely holed.

– Starry-eyed Tom Thumb, I strewed my path

With verse. I laid my head at Great Bear Inn.

– My stars swished softly in the sky]

The masculine rime suffisante in [ʁu] between ‘trou’ (5) and ‘frou-frou’ (8) incarnates a weakening of rhyming richness that emphasises the meagreness of the storyteller’s frayed trousers in comparison with the majesty of the sidereal presences. The limited resonance of the masculine coupling, which goes against the opulence of the masculine rhyme in the opening quatrain, constitutes a divergent strain in the textual environment that hints at an ecopoetically energised system emerging from the heavily codified form of traditional verse thanks to non-human inspiration. The four instances of a first-person singular possessive determiner (‘Mon unique culotte’ (5); ‘ma course’ (6); ‘Mon auberge’ (7); ‘Mes étoiles’ (8)), along with the sole instance of the first-person singular subject pronoun (‘j’égrenais’ (6)), convey the protagonist’s increasing attunement to his surroundings. The grandly creative echoes of the elevenfold alliteration in [ʁ] (‘trou’ (5); ‘rêveur, j’égrenais […] course’ (6); ‘rimes […] auberge […] Grande-Ourse’ (7); ‘frou-frou’ (8)) frame the unequivocal caesura in the sixth line (‘rêveur,// j’égrenais’ (6)) that contrasts with the attenuation of medial accentuation in the fifth, seventh and eighth lines ← 108 | 109 → due to elisions (‘culotte/ avait’ (5); ‘auberge/ était’ (7)) and a syntactic linkage (‘ciel/ avaient’ (8)). The ecopoetic energies overflowing the traditional structure of the alexandrine in three-quarters of the quatrain vividly counterpoise the caesura-demarcated line with its focus on lyrical dreaming. The sevenfold assonance in [u] (‘trou’ (5); ‘Petit-Poucet […] course’ (6); ‘Grande-Ourse’ (7); ‘doux frou-frou’ (8)) points up the idea of the young wanderer becoming acutely beholden to feminised nature on a creative ramble through a space characterised by rural openness that counterpoises the built world of the versifier’s origins. According to Michel Murat,

À l’univers artificiel et dégradé de la vie parisienne [Rimbaud] substitue une rêverie d’intimité cosmique, et il unifie ce mundus muliebris en reprenant la même voyelle /u/ dans les deux rimes du quatrain.13

[In place of the artificial and degraded universe of Parisian life, Rimbaud substitutes a reverie of cosmic intimacy, and he unifies this mundus muliebris by reusing the /u/ vowel in the two rhymes of the quatrain.]

The two proper nouns – the last of the three in the sonnet – framing the female-inflected coupling at the core of the quatrain (‘Petit-Poucet’ (6); ‘Grande-Ourse’ (7)) give prominence to the mythological and cosmological interests of an agrarian culture in harmony with nature. The enjambement of the sixth line runs into a trisyllabic rejet (‘j’égrenais dans ma course | Des rimes’ (6–7)) that culminates in the unusual incidence of a full-stop in the midst of the first hemistich of the seventh line (‘rimes. Mon’ (7)). The coupe lyrique of ‘rimes’ (7) combines with the syntactic overrun and the rising cadence of the line (3+9) to foreground versificatory practices inspired by the wanderings in a rural space. The two occurrences of a dash – the only occurrences in the sonnet – at the beginning of the sixth and eighth lines (‘– Petit-Poucet’ (6); ‘– Mes étoiles’ (8)) glaringly frame the feminine rime riche in [uʁs] between ‘course’ (6) and ‘Grande-Ourse’ (7) that underscores the importance of liberatory contact with feminised nature at the heart of the quatrain. The enjambement of the eighth line (‘frou-frou | Et je’ (8–9)) highlights the creative impetus of the protagonist communing with the non-human world because the space of the volta is overridden. The blurring of the conventional contours of the textual environment augments the aura of generativeness surrounding the open-field experience on nights replete with climatic and artistic luminosity.

The wave of ecosensitive creativity in the quatrains surges into the first tercet at the beginning of a meditative and witty envoi: ← 109 | 110 →

– Mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou

Et je les écoutais, assis au bord des routes,

Ces bons soirs de septembre où je sentais des gouttes

De rosée à mon front, comme un vin de vigueur; (8–11)

[– My stars swished softly in the sky

And, seated on roadsides, I heard them

On lovely evenings in September, feeling dew

Drop on my face, like invigorating wine;]

The two instances of the first-person singular subject pronoun (‘je les écoutais’ (9); ‘je sentais’ (10)) combine with the sole instance of a first-person singular possessive determiner (‘mon front’ (11)) to highlight the storyteller’s tactile and synaesthetically auditory (hearing triggered by vision) immersion in his surroundings. The attenuation of medial accentuation due to a syntactic linkage in the ninth line (‘écoutais,/ assis’ (9)), and due to the elision in the tenth line (‘septembre/ où’ (10)), contrasts with the unequivocal caesura of the eleventh line (‘front,// comme’ (11)) that re-establishes the traditional contours of the textual environment after the rhythmic inundation of the initial alexandrines. The flow of ecopoetic energy through the first two-thirds of the tercet, corresponding to a crescendo in the narrator’s attunement to his environment, conveys the great worth of nature for the young versifier’s creative efforts. Steve Murphy proposes that ‘le troubadour est à la recherche de la nature, de l’amour et de la créativité, trois aspirations dont les figures du poète inscriraient l’association intime [the troubadour is in search of nature, love and creativity, three aspirations whose intimate association is inscribed in the poet’s figures]’.14 The enjambement of the tenth line (‘des gouttes | De rosée’ (10–11)) embodies the dew trickling down the protagonist’s forehead in an overwhelmingly sensual interaction with non-human matter, as the intoxicating experience of nature provokes an upsurge of generativeness that reshapes the conventional contours of the body of verse. The construction of the tercet according to a pattern of feminine rimes plates plus a masculine line (F-F-M) emphasises female-inflected identities in the closing stages of the sonnet. The feminine rime suffisante in [ut] between ‘routes’ (9) and ‘gouttes’ (10), enmeshed in the fourfold alliteration in [ʁ] (‘routes’ (9); ‘soirs […] septembre’ (10); ‘rosée’ (11)), points up the refreshing conditions of the rustic environment crisscrossed by manmade tracks that emblematise the activities of a progress-oriented populace intervening in nature. The limited resonance of the ← 110 | 111 → feminine coupling incarnates a diminution in the textual environment that hints at the peculiarity of the moment of confluence between humanity and nature. The threefold plosive alliteration in [b] (‘bord’ (9); ‘bons […] septembre’ (10)) and the fourfold sibilance (‘assis’ (9); ‘soirs […] septembre […] sentais’ (10)) foreground the storyteller’s gratifying familiarity with tranquil evenings towards the end of summer in a space beyond an industrial culture.

The final tercet humorously expresses an outpouring of versificatory activity in the midst of the non-human world at dusk:

Où, rimant au milieu des ombres fantastiques,

Comme des lyres, je tirais les élastiques

De mes souliers blessés, un pied près de mon cœur!(12–14)

And rhyming verse among the phantom shadows,

I harped on the laces of my wounded boots,

One foot by my heart.]

The locative relative pronoun at the beginning of the twelfth line (‘Où’ (12)), which appends a clause to the temporal expression in the tenth line (‘Ces bons soirs de septembre/ où’ (10)), embodies a syntactic amalgamation that draws attention to a correspondence between lyrical creativity and experience of the non-human world. The rising cadence of the line (1+11) heralds a rush of ecopoetic energy, propelled by the storyteller’s concentrated communion with nature, that effervesces through the sixfold alliteration in [ʁ] (‘rimant […] ombres’ (12); ‘lyres […] tirais’ (13); ‘près […] cœur’ (14)), the fivefold assonance in [i] (‘rimant […] fantastiques’ (12); ‘lyres […] tirais […] élastiques’ (13)), the sixfold alliteration in [l] (‘milieu’ (12); ‘lyres […] les élastiques’ (13); ‘souliers blessés’ (14)), the threefold assonance in [j] (‘milieu’ (12); ‘souliers […] pied’ (14)), and the fourfold sibilance (‘fantastiques’ (12); ‘élastiques’ (13); ‘souliers blessés’ (14)). The attenuation of medial accentuation due to a syntactic linkage in the twelfth and fourteenth lines (‘au milieu/ des’ (12); ‘blessés,/ un’ (14)) contrasts with the césure lyrique in the thirteenth line (‘lyres,// je’ (13)) that underscores the witty comparison of the narrator’s shoelaces to the strings of the instrument symbolising poetry from antiquity. The mottled constitution of the alexandrines surrounding the evocation of ecopoetic inspiration denotes a case of hybridisation in the textual environment that is the result of humanity intermingling with the non-human world. The lavishness of the feminine rime léonine in [a.stik] between ‘fantastiques’ (12) and ‘élastiques’ (13) foregrounds the wondrous creativity inspired by the fantastical experience of the non-human world, as the body of verse is bountifully enriched in the wake of the protagonist’s communion with the cosmos. Benoît de Cornulier remarks that ‘au second tercet, comme une conséquence naturelle de l’influence ← 111 | 112 → du ciel, succède […] l’expression d’une activité poétique de l’enfant inspiré [in the second tercet, the expression of poetic activity by the inspired child ensues as a natural consequence of the influence of the sky]’.15 The enjambement of the thirteenth line (‘les élastiques | De mes souliers’ (13–14)), which amplifies the humorous presentation of the narrator’s relationship to lyrical conventions, embodies a rhythmic and syntactic surfeit that demonstrates the far-reaching effects of such an ecosensitive event. The versificatory polysemy of the noun at the beginning of the final hemistich of the sonnet (‘un pied’ (14)) points up the particularities of form linked to the open-field pastime, as the masculine rime suffisante in [œʁ] between ‘vigueur’ (11) and ‘cœur’ (14) draws attention to the unusual kind of invigoration reaching from the rural world to the storyteller’s viscera and essence. The limited resonance of the final rhyme in the sonnet heralds a transition beyond a conventional understanding of verse because the harmony of the textual environment is blurred in the wake of the ecopoetic adventure.

‘Sensation’ and ‘Ma Bohème’ ultimately represent the initial stages of Rimbaud’s crafting of a modern identity for verse. The early compositions by the young poet from the eastern reaches of France express a pioneering sensitivity to nature and worldly experience that is highlighted by versificatory particularities. The textual environments of the two poems evince an ecopoetic evolution based on an increasingly profound attunement to climatic and geographical elements, as ecosensitive moments in the narratives correspond to modulations in the structure of verse. The dynamics of the e caduc articulate the complex relationship between feminised nature and the male protagonist because the manifestation or the attenuation of the major differentiator of verse evokes the fluctuating importance of a female-inflected construct in the poet’s consciousness. Shifts in the intensity of caesurae disclose a transformation of long-established referents ensuing from invigorating contact with nature because the variable authoritativeness of the marker of medial accentuation hints at a redrawing of environmental contours. Rhythmic fluctuations suggest the emergence of new currents of energy in a world marked by accelerating progress because the altering cadences of the body of verse allude to reconfigurations in the life-cycles around which an ecosystem is synchronised. Multiple enjambements reveal the generativeness of the journey towards nature on the limits of society because the rhythmic and syntactic overflow of the alexandrine surpasses the confines of conventional modes of being. Oscillations in rhyming richness divulge the elementally diverse constitution of ← 112 | 113 → the storyteller’s non-human surroundings because the euphony or the scantiness of the accord between phonemes illustrates the interplay of abundance and dearth in natural systems. Acoustic resonances foreground the subtle links in the ecosystemic mesh encompassing the protagonist because the repetition of assorted consonants and vowels in close succession exposes deep correspondences in the body of verse that add to individual materialities. Rimbaud’s ecopoetic adventures of 1870 narratively and structurally create places of communion with the non-human world, and valorise spaces that are creatively and ecologically fruitful beyond the precincts of metropolitan industry. The youthful poems evoke the worldliness of poetry, and the poeticity of the world, at a key moment in the environmental and sociocultural evolution of modern France.


Brunel, Pierre, Rimbaud: projets et réalisations (Paris: Champion, 1983)

Bryson, J. Scott, The West Side of Any Mountain: Place, Space, and Ecopoetry (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2005)

Collot, Michel, Paysage et poésie: du romantisme à nos jours (Paris: Corti, 2005)

Cornulier, Benoît de, De la métrique à l’interprétation: essais sur Rimbaud (Paris: Garnier, 2009)

Lee, Daryl P., ‘Rimbaud’s Ruin of French Verse: Verse Spatiality and the Paris Commune Ruins’, Nineteenth-Century French Studies 32.1–2 (2003), 69–82

Lejosne-Guigon, Renaud, ‘Consommer le réel: les poèmes de 1872 d’Arthur Rimbaud’, Dix-Neuf 18.3 (2014), 247–58

Murat, Michel, L’Art de Rimbaud (Paris: Corti, 2002)

Murphy, Steve, Stratégies de Rimbaud (Paris: Champion, 2004)

Rancière, Jacques, La Parole muette: essai sur les contradictions de la littérature (Paris: Hachette, 1998)

Rimbaud, Arthur, Collected Poems, trans. by M. Sorrell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

—, Poésies; Une saison en enfer; Illuminations, ed. by L. Forestier (Paris: Gallimard, 1999)

St Clair, Robert A., ‘Le Moderne absolu? Rimbaud et la contre-modernité’, Nineteenth-Century French Studies 40.3–4 (2012), 307–26

Tuan, Yi-Fu, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1977) ← 113 | 114 →

1 J. Scott Bryson, The West Side of Any Mountain: Place, Space, and Ecopoetry (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2005), 8.

2 Jacques Rancière, La Parole muette: essai sur les contradictions de la littérature (Paris: Hachette, 1998), 40 [unless indicated, translations are mine].

3 Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 54.

4 Michel Collot, Paysage et poésie: du romantisme à nos jours (Paris: Corti, 2005), 93.

5 Robert A. St Clair, ‘Le Moderne absolu? Rimbaud et la contre-modernité’, Nineteenth-Century French Studies 40.3–4 (2012), 307–26 (318).

6 Daryl P. Lee, ‘Rimbaud’s Ruin of French Verse: Verse Spatiality and the Paris Commune Ruins’, Nineteenth-Century French Studies 32.1–2 (2003), 69–82 (70).

7 Arthur Rimbaud, Poésies; Une saison en enfer; Illuminations, ed. by L. Forestier (Paris: Gallimard, 1999), 50; Collected Poems, trans. by M. Sorrell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 11.

8 Bryson, The West Side of Any Mountain, 12.

9 Renaud Lejosne-Guigon, ‘Consommer le réel: les poèmes de 1872 d’Arthur Rimbaud’, Dix-Neuf 18.3 (2014), 247–58 (247).

10 Pierre Brunel, Rimbaud: projets et réalisations (Paris: Champion, 1983), 53.

11 Rimbaud, Poésies, 74–5; Poems, 63–5.

12 Brunel, Rimbaud, 56–7.

13 Michel Murat, L’Art de Rimbaud (Paris: Corti, 2002), 182.

14 Steve Murphy, Stratégies de Rimbaud (Paris: Champion, 2004), 123.

15 Benoît de Cornulier, De la métrique à l’interprétation: essais sur Rimbaud (Paris: Garnier, 2009), 53.