On first being introduced to Rimbaud’s poetry, I would guess most people encounter “Le bateau ivre” and/or this poem, “Les Voyelles”. They are both indeed fine poems, but they are not so accessible as some of his other poems which I have tried to feature in previous blog posts, so I wonder if some people are inadvertently deterred from going deeper into Rimbaud’s poems. At least “Les Voyelles” is a sonnet, so it doesn’t take too long to tease it out.
It is a poem of synaesthesia, or at least that is how it has always appeared to me. Perhaps there are other explanations.
Arthur RIMBAUD (1854-1891)
A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu : voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes :
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,
Golfes d’ombre ; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,
Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d’ombelles ;
I, pourpres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles
Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes ;
U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,
Paix des pâtis semés d’animaux, paix des rides
Que l’alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux ;
O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,
Silences traversés des Mondes et des Anges ;
– O l’Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux !
The first line sets the tone admirably – each of the vowels in the alphabet, although not quite in alphabetical order, assigned a colour in a sort of sensory cross-dressing which is the characteristic of all synaesthetic art. In the second line the poet assigns himself the task of explanation, of the origins of this rapprochement between language and color. And indeed the rest of the poem consists of Rimbaud proceeding through the vowels, in the order assigned in the first line – A, E, I, U, O giving them mysterious and atmospheric attributes or origin stories. There is usually a reminder or a hint of the colour scheme outlined in the first line, but it is only completely explicit in the case of the A, with the blackness of the fly buzzing around rotten carrion. The white of the E is implied by the imagery of steam, tents and glaciers. The purple of the I becomes its sister-colour, the red of blood, or of lipstick on beautiful lips, magnified by anger or drunken abandonment. The U is green, one possible colour of the sea, but also peace. I particularly like the notion of the peace of the lines etched in the brow of wise old alchemists. O comes last, perhaps reflecting the Omega of the Greek alphabet, and its blueness is also modified to become violet, like eyes.
Vowels. Did Rimbaud ever follow up with a poem on consonants?
The Poetry Dude