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This article is taken from PN Review 84, Volume 18 Number 4, March - April 1992.

The Shaping of Modern French Poetry: Rainbow Rimbaud Roger Little

THE SUPREME EXAMPLES in French poetry of the totally mastered self-designating act of writing are Mallarmé's verse and Rimbaud's prose poems. So long considered at opposite poles, partly no doubt because of the very obvious differences of presentation, but partly too, I suspect, because literary biography is an appealing substitute for literary analysis, both take to an extreme the desire to create complex artefacts which, in text and texture, re-enact the totality of a mood-event (the two being inseparable) while contributing to the further dynamic re-enactment of that mood-event in the reader's mind.

It is understandably easier to recognize Mallarmé's mastery than Rimbaud's because he generally works within a familiar formal tradition. Like Valéry after him, however, he did make occasional excursions into prose poetry. The example of Baudelaire, with a major collection in both verse and prose, was that of a colossus straddling the apparent abyss. But it is clear that Mallarmé's inquiring mind led him to range widely over the potential field and benefit from his reflections to the point where, near the end of his life and the century, he produced the epoch-making Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard. I shall return to this extraordinary spatial poem to consider its antecedents and impact on another occasion: suffice it to say for the moment that it takes a place of honour in the development of awareness of organic adéquation as a principle for poetry.

In his parallel exploratory adventure, Rimbaud produced ...


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