A Rebel French Poet Draws New Followers to the Hometown He Hated

CHARLEVILLE-MÉZIÈRES, France — When Bernard Colin took over as caretaker of this city’s cemetery 27 years ago, his predecessor gave him some remarkably non-prescient advice: “Don’t worry, you won’t be bothered by the grave of Arthur Rimbaud — no one visits it.”

Now 60, Mr. Colin collects a few letters every week, from as far away as South Korea and Japan, addressed to Rimbaud, the poet who wrote classics like “The Drunken Boat” and “A Season in Hell,” and died in 1891. They are left on his grave in Charleville-Mézières, Rimbaud’s hometown — along with poems and train tickets.

The caretaker has also caught couples getting overly friendly at the site, conveniently shaded by the thick, verdant foliage of a couple of conifers.

“Their offspring,” he said, “will all be named Arthur.”

How did Rimbaud — a longtime staple of the high-school curriculum in French schools — become, as Mr. Colin put it, the “Jim Morrison of poets?” To his fans, his grave in a little cemetery in this obscure corner of northern France has become a shrine, just as the rock star’s grave draws daily tourists in the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

“Arthur, it has been so difficult to come here, but at least here I am,” a pilgrim from Italy named Silvia wrote in English on one note.

“Before coming I thought this was the only way I could come nearer to you,” she wrote. “Now I discovered it’s not true. You’re already here, in my heart, I had already found you and you have always been my guiding light. There are so many things I want to ask you, so many things u still tell me. Please keep on shining on me, je t’aime.”

Long ignored because of his flouting of traditional values and his homosexuality, he and his poetry were embraced by the 1960s counterculture.

These days, his way of life — “without any fear of the consequences” and “free just the way you chose it,” in the words of a letter-writer signed Phong — draws admirers, though not necessarily to his poems.

“It’s not really his poetry that interests me, it’s his story,” said Florian Gaudet, 22, who was sitting recently by himself on the steps of the Charleville-Mézières city hall. “People rejected him, and he was alone and unhappy. I understand that.”

Merchants have taken note. After paying homage at the cemetery, fans here can buy “Arthur Rimbaud” plates and mugs, and stock up on “Rimbaud’s terrine” and “Rimbaud’s confit,” both artisanal, as well as jars of “Arthur’s honey.”

They can then wash everything down with craft beer of “Arthur’s vintage” and a choice of Arthur’s cider, juice, lemonade or cola.

If they travel to Paris, they can stay at the Best Western Hôtel Littéraire Arthur Rimbaud, where along with a buffet breakfast and free, unlimited Wi-Fi, each room has “a framed text of a poem, plus a few explanations.”

The poet’s current image is just the latest interpretation of his life, said Adrien Cavallaro, a Rimbaud expert at the University of Grenoble Alpes.

For half a century after his death, the enduring narrative was that Rimbaud had given up poetry — his “sins of youth” — as part of his rediscovery of his Catholic faith. That story had been manufactured by Rimbaud’s family and was long embraced by conservatives, Mr. Cavallaro said.

“It’s the complete opposite of his image now,” he said.

Arthur Rimbaud was born in 1854 in Charleville, a provincial town near the Belgian border for which he showed lifelong scorn but that he never managed to quit. He spun out masterpiece after masterpiece in a literary career that lasted only half a decade, abruptly abandoning poetry forever in his early 20s.

“Long ago, if my memory serves, life was a feast where every heart was open, where every wine flowed,’’ begins “A Season in Hell.’’ “One night, I sat Beauty on my knee. — And I found her bitter. — And I hurt her.’’

But his work was overshadowed by his behavior during his flights to Paris, especially a love affair with the older poet Paul Verlaine, who left his wife and child for Rimbaud and then shot him — not fatally — when Rimbaud tried to leave him.

When the gun that Verlaine likely used was auctioned off in 2016, the municipal government of Charleville-Mézières budgeted 200,000 euros, about $220,000, to buy it. But an anonymous bidder paid 450,000 euros.

“Now, sadly, it’s in some private collection,” said the mayor, Boris Ravignon.

In a post-literary life that only added to his myth, Rimbaud restlessly traveled the world, signing on as a mercenary on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia, then working for years as an explorer and trader in Ethiopia and Yemen. He returned to France when he was struck by the cancer that would take his left leg and, eventually, his life.

He suffered an excruciatingly painful death, at a hospital in Marseilles, at the age of 37. Only his sister was at his side.

Rimbaud had spent the two previous decades trying to leave Charleville behind and even in his final days, he pressed his sister to arrange for his return to Ethiopia. But his body was taken back to the place of his birth.

“It was his mother’s wish,” said Lucille Pennel, the director of the Arthur Rimbaud Museum in what is now called Charleville-Mézières.

At 16, in a letter to a former teacher, he described the town as “exceptionally stupid.” Later, after some failed efforts to leave, he called it “hideous.” He devoted an entire poem, “To Music,” to satirizing the town’s bourgeoisie.

The feeling was mutual. Word of his behavior in Paris had gotten back to Charleville, and for years after his death, his poetry remained taboo in his own hometown.

“Rimbaud wasn’t popular when I was in school,” said Brigitte Rozoy, 71, who dropped by the poet’s grave one recent afternoon.

A retired mathematician, Ms. Rozoy said parents worried that his poems — like one in which a teenage boy admires a girl and says you’re not serious when you’re 17 years old — would be a bad influence on their children.

Still, some teachers slipped some Rimbaud poems into the classroom, Ms. Rozoy said, recalling that the poet’s “rebellion spoke to me.”

Not until 1969 was a museum devoted to him opened in Charleville-Mézières.

“For a long time, the people here were fixated on the image of this kid who said the worst things about Charleville, and there was no reason to honor him,” Ms. Pennel said. “But we moved beyond the fact that he said all these horrible things about us.”

His hometown now embraces him fully — making him a pillar of its plans to develop tourism — as his worldwide reputation has grown and the city’s traditional industrial economy has declined.

In the past few years, the museum was renovated. Giant murals have been painted all over the city, showcasing his poems.

The irony was not lost on one admirer.

“Dear Sir,” wrote Pauline, who visited Rimbaud’s grave a couple of winters ago. “I made it to Charleville, a place that you appeared to hate. You must know that in the 21st century, you are glorified. Everywhere, we hear about you, your poems are the symbol of your nation, and, in class, it’s your poems that we study.”

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