Le Bateau ivre  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"Le Bateau ivre" ("The Drunken Boat") is a 100-line verse-poem written by Arthur Rimbaud, then aged 16, in the summer of 1871 at his childhood home in Charleville in Northern France. Rimbaud included the poem in a letter he sent to Paul Verlaine in September 1871 to introduce himself to Verlaine. Shortly afterwards, he joined Verlaine in Paris and became his lover.

The poem is arranged in a series of 25 alexandrine quatrains with an a/b/a/b rhyme-scheme. It is woven around the delirious visions of the eponymous boat, swamped and lost at sea. It was considered revolutionary in its use of imagery and symbolism. One of the longest and perhaps best poems in Rimbaud's œuvre, it opens with the following quatrain:

Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs :
Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles
Les ayant cloués nus aux poteaux de couleurs.
As I was floating down calm Rivers
I no longer felt myself steered by the haulers:
Gaudy Redskins had taken them for targets
Nailing them naked to totem poles.

Rimbaud biographer Enid Starkie describes the poem as an anthology of memorable images and lines. The voice is that of the drunken boat itself. The boat tells of becoming filled with water, thus "drunk." Sinking through the sea, the boat describes a journey of varied experience that includes sights of the purest and most transcendent (l'éveil jaune et bleu des phosphores chanteurs, "the blue and yellow awakening of singing phosphorescence") and at the same time of the most repellent (nasses / Où pourrit dans les joncs tout un Léviathan, "nets where a whole Leviathan was rotting"). The marriage of exaltation and debasement, the synesthesia, and the mounting astonishment make this hundred-line poem the fulfillment of Rimbaud's youthful poetic theory that the poet becomes a seer, a vatic being, through the disordering of the senses. To these attractions are added alexandrines of immediate aural appeal: Fermentent les rousseurs amères de l'amour! ("fermenting the bitter blushes of love").

The boat's (and reader's) mounting astonishment reaches its high point in lines 88-89: Est-ce en ces nuits sans fonds que tu dors et t'exiles / Million d'oiseaux d'or, ô future Vigueur? ("Is it in these bottomless nights that you sleep and exile yourself / a million golden birds, oh future Strength? ) Afterwards the vision is lost and the spell breaks. The speaker, still a boat, wishes for death (Ô que ma quille éclate! Ô que j'aille à la mer! "O that my keel would break! O that I would go to the sea!" ). The grandiose aspirations have deceived, leaving exhaustion and the sense of imprisonment. In this way, "Le Bateau Ivre" proleptically recapitulates Rimbaud's poetic career, which dissipated when he discovered that verse could not provide the universal understanding and harmony that it had seemed to when he was younger.

Le Bateau Ivre remains one of the gems of French poetry and of Rimbaud's poetic output. Vladimir Nabokov translated it to Russian in 1928, but Théodore de Banville disliked the poem. French poet-composer Léo Ferré set it to music and sang it in the album Ludwig-L'Imaginaire-Le Bateau ivre (1982).

See also

  • Ship of fools, an allegory in western art depicting a ship of madmen, who sail oblivious of their destination.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Le Bateau ivre" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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