Posted on:Thursday 21st May, 2020
Of the many riddles contained in Rimbaud’s famous ‘Vowels’ sonnet, scholarship has largely set itself the task of solving only the most obvious one: explaining why Rimbaud assigns each vowel its particular colour.
The poet’s reason for inverting the order of the O and U in the first line must seem, by contrast, too straightforward to merit more than passing mention. Rimbaud has clearly placed the O at the end of the vowel sequence so that it can be identified in the last line with the Omega, the last letter of Greek alphabet, which has in turn been set up by the closing allusion to the trumpets of the Apocalypse, the last book of the New Testament, St. John’s prophecy of last things. Cased closed, nothing more to see here.
But Rimbaud’s inversion of the vowel order has always puzzled me, especially in light of the promise he makes in the second line, the sonnet’s unusually early volta. Needless to say, it is not kept. Nowhere, neither in the remainder of the poem, nor in the passage in A Season in Hell in which the poem’s composition is discussed (and where the correct order is curiously restored), nor, to my knowledge, in anything Rimbaud would write before he leaves Europe to become a commercial trader in the Horn of Africa, does he ever tell of the latent births of the vowels.
VOYELLES 40x35 in by Herve Constant Private collection France
Granted, it would be surpassingly naïve to expect that someone like Rimbaud, whose words and actions had scandalized an entire generation of ultra-bohemians into a grudging respect for bourgeois propriety, would single out a promise, that least obligating of moral institutions, for special respect. Yet it has always struck me that it is here—and only derivatively in the colours he assigns to the vowels—that the poem’s true mystery lies.
In this post, I would like to take a modest first step toward keeping his promise for him, starting and ending where he finishes, with that out of place O.
It is well known that the vowels, as such, were ‘born’ sometime in the 8th century BC, when the Greeks reassigned the sonic values of a handful of the letterforms they had imported from the people they called the Phoenicians, probably after the reddish-purple dye they produced. Less well known is that the Omega owes its terminal position in the alphabetic sequence to the fact that it was only added centuries later, long after the alphabet had already traveled west, to the Italian peninsula, where it would form the basis of the Latin—and thus the French—alphabet.
We can be even more specific about its patrimony than this, however. Tradition, in the form the Suda, the Byzantine proto-encyclopedia and lexicon, attributes the invention of the Omega to a single individual, the poet Simonides of Keos (c. 556-467 B.C.).
Although the vast majority of his literary output has been lost, few poets have had as great an impact on the history of Western poetry as Simonides. In Economy of the Unlost, her comparative study of Simonides and Paul Celan, Anne Carson justifiably calls him ‘the smartest person in the 5th century B.C’. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he divides the whole history of Western poetry in two.
Along with the Omega, Simonides is credited with adding three other letterforms to the Greek alphabet, perhaps in order to facilitate the carving of epigraphs on tombs. This genre, which he invented, is, as Carson notes, the first instance of European literature—poetry meant to be read with the eye, not listened to with the ear. He is responsible for developing an influential memorization technique (the so-called ‘memory palace’) and an even more influential theory of reference (the so-called ‘picture theory of language’). He is thought to have added another string to the lyre, and may even have had a hand in the recension of the Homeric epics. Several of his lines, such as ‘the city makes the man’ and ‘we all owe nature a death’, have become proverbial. But for our purposes here what is most important about Simonides is the thing for which he was despised by all of antiquity: he is the first person to charge money for the writing poetry.
Simonides, as Carson explains, lived in the hinge between two economic systems, the old aristocratic gift economy and the nascent commodities market. The introduction of the alphabet into Greece made it possible to objectify and quantify language; the introduction of coinage not long thereafter made it possible to give it an objective and quantifiable value. It is not known how Simonides, who lived during the first generation in which the use of coin money was widespread, priced his poems—by the work? the line? the letter?—but our notions of artistic and commercial value have been entangled and confused ever since.
AEIOU Oil on canvas 16x12inx5 Herve Constant Private Collection
When the relationship between the poet and his audience changes from the intimacy of reciprocal gift giving to the alienation of selling and buying, the meaning and function of poetic language also undergoes a dramatic shift. Whereas before poetry was a kind of ‘magico-religious speech’, in the words of the historian Marcel Detienne, with Simonides the functions of poetry are ‘secularized’. Poetic truth (aletheia) is no longer a name for the magical ability to generate reality through the very act of speaking, but the name for a written image of the real. Likewise, poetic memory (mnemosyne, that is, a-letheia) is no longer the twin of truth. It is no longer a kind of ‘second sight…encompassing the past, present, and future’, but a technique for making mental images of the past, whose rules can be taught, for a modest fee.
As for the poet himself, he is no longer an inspired oracle or prophet or seer, for whom poetry ‘comes naturally as breathing’ because it is an ‘attribute and privilege of a social function’ with which he is totally identified. With Simonides, the poet is now one ‘professional’ among many. His poems are the individual expressions of his private thoughts, and are accompanied by his written ‘signature’, which is nothing more, according to Detienne, than an ‘instrument of publicity’.
If this sounds familiar, it is because Rimbaud sketches out a remarkably similar history of poetry in his letters to Izambard and Demeny, written in May 1871, as he was desperately trying to get to Paris to participate in that great anti-capitalist experiment, the Commune. (Marx, incidentally, attributes the failure of that experiment to the unwillingness of its leaders to seize the gold reserves stored at the Bank of France.)
In the letters, Rimbaud tells of how the social institutions of Greek poetry had been progressively corrupted until the appearance, in the generation before his own, of the Romantics. Simonides, it must be admitted, is not mentioned; it is unclear if Rimbaud even knew who he was. Poetry’s fall from grace is instead attributed to Ennius, a Roman poet of the 3rd century B.C., but Rimbaud’s description of ‘writers and versifiers’ as ‘civil servants’ tartly captures the social position into which poets had been cast ever since Simonides had dragged poetry into the marketplace. For Rimbaud, the time had come to restore poetry to the ‘harmonious life’ it had enjoyed in the economy of Greece before the introduction of coin money. The name he gave to this once and future poet is famous. He—or, if all went well, she—would be known as ‘the Seer’.
VOWELS Oil on canvas 30x30inx5 Herve Constant
Rimbaud’s ideal Seer bears all the hallmarks of the historical Seer described by Detienne. Possessed of visionary ability, she or he would employ a kind of magico-religious speech, a ‘universal language…of the soul for the soul’, unmediated by the written sign and ‘containing everything, smells, sounds’ and most importantly ‘colours’. The Seer’s poetry would be objective, even materialist. ‘Fundamentally it would be Greek poetry again, in a way’. As a necessary corollary, Rimbaud’s Seer would lack all individuality, all sense of self, all Ego, as was the case with the poets of archaic Greece. After all, Rimbaud writes, when one becomes a Seer, ‘I is someone else’ (‘Je est un autre’).
But who—or what—exactly? In his letter to Demeny, Rimbaud gives one answer: brass. Or copper, depending on the translation. In any case, a metal alloy that has woken up to find itself transformed, not into a coin, but into a ‘trumpet’.
A trumpet blown by an angel, from the Greek angelos, meaning ‘messenger’, that is, ‘one who announces or tells’. (As in the fragment of Simonides which holds that ‘swallows announce the Spring’, echoed by Rimbaud in a schoolboy poem written almost a year to the day before the two ‘Seer Letters’.) Indeed, the very same trumpet Rimbaud will later identify with the letter O in the last stanza of the sonnet, in which he promises to tell of the latent births of the vowels, and which, as we have seen, is also a secret history of the corruption of poetry's powers by its two-and-a-half millennium long association with the commodity form of value.
The ‘Vowels’ sonnet has often been read as an illustration of the poetic principles laid out in the ‘Seer Letters’, but rotating the axis of the investigation around a genealogy of the vowels, as I have done here, rather than an investigation into the alchemical or synesthetic bases for the correspondences between the colours and the vowels, as is typically done, could provide the basis for a fruitful investigation into some as yet unexplored resonances contained in the poem. Further research might, for instance, explore why the O, assigned the colour blue in the first line, becomes violet when shot like rays from the eyes of the angel in the last. (An allusion perhaps to the name of the Phoenicians, whose letterform ayn, or eye, would become the basis for the omicron in Greek, and the Latin letter O?)
And so on, for the latent births of U, I, E, and, finally, A. But I will conclude this post here, mindful of what Rimbaud writes in his letter to Demeny: people who ‘begin to think about the first letter of the alphabet, would soon rush into madness!’
17 May 2020
A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue : vowels,
One day I will tell your latent birth:
A, black hairy corset of shining flies
Which buzz around cruel stench,
Gulfs of darkness; E, whiteness of vapours and tents,
Lances of proud glaciers, white kings, quivering of flowers;
I, purples, spit blood, laughter of beautiful lips
In anger or penitent drunkenness;
U, cycles, divine vibrations of green seas,
Peace of pastures scattered with animals , peace of the wrinkles
Which alchemy prints on heavy studious brows;
O, Supreme Clarion full of strange stridor,
Silences crossed by Worlds and Angels:
-O, the Omega, violet beam from His Eyes!
Translation by Wallace Fowlie, from Rimbaud Complete Works, ©1966, published by the University of Chicago
Voyelles par Arthur Rimbaud
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!