When considering the importance of literature from the 19th century based on its value as a precursor of 20th century values, Arthur Rimbaud’s poem The Drunken Boat stands out. His symbolist contemporaries all made significant contributions through their development of the symbol as a means to evoke particular emotions and their progression of language. Where Rimbaud stands out among his contemporaries is in his theme that permeates The Drunken Boat, a theme that is as much a precursor of things to come as it is a bridge to 20th century ideals. The radical changes of the 20th century, the contradiction of forces, the deconstruction of language, the doubt permeating all aspects of life, are all hinted at in Rimbaud’s piece, making The Drunken Boat a truly timeless poem capable of bridging the gap between the two different eras.
Upon an initial reading, the poem appears to be the history of a commercial boat that has seen much use around the world. Relying heavily upon the suggestive power of language, the poem vacillates beneath the surface between nostalgia, and something darker and more desolate at the end. Rimbaud places an emphasis upon the symbol as a means to evoke the mystery of language itself, rather than to refer to some subjective consciousness or some objective, material world. The symbol is used as a point of convergence for these unspoken things and remains deliberately ambiguous but resonant. The images created through the poet’s retelling of experiences use symbols to convey their emotions.
It is in the closing stanzas of Rimbaud’s poem, however, that the utter hopelessness of 19th century life seems to overcome the poet, and his tone shifts from one of casual nostalgia to despair. Rimbaud’s boat has seen many wonderful and exciting things, from “the low sun… Lighting with far flung violet arms,” to “fantastic Floridas” (Rimbaud 1174). Nevertheless, accompanying the beauty of all that Rimbaud’s boat has experienced are “tempests” and “spiral-flaming skies” (Rimbaud 1174). With all of the good things in life that he has seen and experienced, he has experienced his share of melancholy and despair. The boat in Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat appears to have been on water for ages, and has apparently become weary of both the bad things that he has experienced and the actual journey itself. Like a tired slave at the close of long life of toil, exhausted and broken by “furious lashings of the tides” (1173), Rimbaud’s boat has lived a long life wrought with both splendid experiences and despair. His life has been a continuous push, a constant journey towards some goal that now seems to elude him, and he is exhausted: “True I have wept too much! Dawns are heartbreaking; Cruel all moons and bitter the suns” (Rimbaud 1175).
It is in these concluding stanzas that Rimbaud first diverges from the characteristics that are typical of 19th century writers. While many writers of the period embraced the Industrial Revolution as equally harmful and good, Rimbaud views it as a mechanism by which individuals are treated as machines, much like a commercial boat. In that sense, Rimbaud shares an idea later espoused by another great writer, Karl Marx, who, along with his partner Max Engels, wrote that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx and Engels 1329). Where Rimbaud differed greatly from these writers, however, was in his approach to a solution: Marx and Engels encouraged the use of revolution to propel the working class out of “slavery” and toward a classless society. Rimbaud’s closing stanzas indicate a desolation that is inconsolable, and weary from a lifetime of struggle and hard work (1175):
If I desire any European water, it’s the black pond
And cold, where toward perfumed evening
A sad child on his knees sets sail
A boat as frail as a May butterfly.
Rimbaud closes his poem propelling his boat not towards revolution, but towards death. Rimbaud’s “water-drunken carcass” is worn and “Covered with lichens of the sun and azure’s phlegm” (Rimbaud 1175). The commerce of the river has worn his boat down, broken its spirit and now it can no longer make its weary way up and down the river, nor can it “Obliterate the cotton carriers’ wake” (Rimbaud 1175).
Likewise, if one views the Drunken Boat as an allegory for the life of the poet, of the artist, the same sort of desperation seems to haunt the closing lines of Rimbaud’s poem. After a long a memorable life floating the river of life, the poet feels too weary to create after years of continuous journeys. As a young man, Rimbaud went further than the other symbolist poets did in his attempt to break with conventions, both poetic and social. According to the preface in Western Literature in a World Context, Rimbaud sought to realize a vision in his life and work that went beyond simply good and evil. Rimbaud sought to understand the world by attempting to remove himself from his senses so that he might better understand how they are stimulated and what is evoked. To do so, he cultivated a lifestyle of exacting excess and disorder, an indulgence in degradation that came not from a hedonistic passion for the forbidden, but rather out of a deep, contempt for the noumenal world (1157-8).
Thus, after years of debauchery and excess, perhaps the barnacles have grown too heavy for the weary boat of Rimbaud’s life to continue. In an attempt to better understand the senses, and thus life, Rimbaud’s boat has spent its lifetime trying to depart from its aquatic trappings, to fly up and above the world confined by gravity. His boat has sought to remove itself from its senses, from those things that it can take for granted as existing without understanding how they work. The water and tides that have for so long guided Rimbaud’s boat perhaps also keep him from truly knowing himself, and thus he searches for “Ineffable wings (to give) me wings” (Rimbaud 1174). Only years of disorder and indulgence have not brought him any closer to an understanding of himself. His excess brought him a “triumphant uproar” and he “seeped through all (his) seams” green waters “Sweeter than sour apples to a child” (Rimbaud 1173). But by the end of the poem, these things no longer matter to him. He has done too much, seen too much, experienced too much. In his quest for an understanding of this life, all that he has truly discovered is that he is mortal, and that the only thing he can be sure of is his mortality.
The Drunken Boat is a 19th century piece that appears to have characteristics of modern, or even post-modern, thought. When viewed as an allegory for the dehumanizing features of the Industrial Revolution, it is easier to group with other 19th century literature. However, when one considers the concluding stanzas, the poet/boat’s final resignation and longing for death, the poem becomes something more than typical of the 20th century. The radical changes of the 20th century, the contradiction of forces, the deconstruction of language, the doubt permeating all aspects of life, are hinted at in Rimbaud’s piece, making his poem The Drunken Boat a truly timeless poem capable of bridging the gap between two different eras.