Posted on:Wednesday 18th November, 2020
About 5 years ago I went to Cork in Ireland for a long weekend of cycling. I had been working hard on something related to the charity and was looking forward to getting away from the French poets for a while. The cycling is quite tough. County Cork specialises in concave hills which seem to go up for ever without ever resolving themselves into a ridge. However, we were lucky with the weather. The countryside was washed in bright greens and the sun sparkled on the ridges of the ocean. One day we cycled out to Cobh (formerly Queenstown) where the coast road passes alongside the famous deep-water anchorage. It was from this steep edge that the Titanic set off on its final voyage in 1911. Now a modern multi-storey cruise ship, equally awesome in its scale, stood at anchor right up against the side of the road. Nearby, the little local museum contained extraordinary images of this former Victorian port in its heyday. As it turns out, Rimbaud is a difficult character to get away from. I soon learned that he had disembarked here in December 1876, when the ship on which he was travelling docked in the port, and that he too spent some time in the city of Cork…
One of the fascinating things about the interlocking stories of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine is the way in which they encompass the whole late Victorian world. The time spent by the poets in Paris and London is well known, but then one discovers Rimbaud operating the box office in a Circus in Sweden, or managing a quarry in Cyprus, or being repatriated from Naples by an irritated French Consul; or one discovers Verlaine serving time in a Belgian prison, teaching French to young ladies in a boarding school in Bournemouth, or failing to deliver a commission to the fabulously wealthy American heiress Winnaretta Singer in Paris; and suddenly the whole interconnected world of late 19th century globalised culture and communication comes into view. Of the two poets, of course, it was Arthur Rimbaud who travelled further and more adventurously, going off the map both literally and metaphorically as he travelled first to the Far East then to the interior of Ethiopia (then the unexplored African kingdom of Abyssinia). Verlaine later described him as ‘l’homme aux semelles de vent’ (‘the man with soles of wind’). So perhaps it should not be surprising that Arthur should have turned up briefly in Ireland, and presumably wandered the elegant streets of Cork city. For me, it felt as though the enfant terrible had once again erupted onto the scene like the unwelcome house guest he most certainly could be…
How did he come to be there? The story will already be well known to some readers. Having renounced poetry forever the constantly impecunious Rimbaud had certainly not lost the desire for travel and adventure. This led him, perhaps unwisely, to travel to Harderwijk in the Netherlands in 1876 and enlist as a mercenary in the Dutch Colonial army for service in Batavia (now Indonesia). He enlisted for a 6-year term, no doubt incentivised by the 300 florins given to new recruits. In June his unit shipped out from DenHelder aboard the Prinz van Oranje. Arriving in Java in the East Indies in July, Rimbaud was soon after listed as having deserted. It seems likely that he had absolutely no intention of serving his time. It was not the first time he had enlisted in a foreign army in order to collect a joining fee before promptly deserting. He had enlisted with the Carlists in Marseilles in 1875, supposedly to fight for Don Carlos in support of his claim to the throne of Spain. Astonishingly he attempted to enlist in the Dutch colonial army for a second time in May 1877 and even made enquiries about becoming a sailor in the American navy. Whether this was in the hope of further cash advances or in a desire to see more of the world is unclear.
Deserting in Marseilles is rather easier than deserting on the other side of the world, in colonial Java. There has been much speculation as to how Rimbaud managed to get himself home again so efficiently. However, some clever detective work by biographers has established what happened. After laying low in Samarang for a couple of weeks Rimbaud boarded a Scottish ship, The Wandering Chief, which was bound for Europe with a cargo of sugar. He joined the crew under the pseudonym Edwin Holmes and in order to work his passage back to Europe. It appears that he had reached a private and illegal arrangement with Captain Brown. The mysterious Mr Holmes was offered only 75 francs a month, not the 87 offered to the others. In the end he received even less in pay than the cabin boy. We know that the ship endured a vicious storm around the Cape of Good Hope and nearly foundered. Anchored off St Helena ‘Mr Holmes’ attempted to swim ashore to visit the spot where Napoleon had lived out his final years, before being dragged back on board by a sailor. It also seems likely that the ship anchored briefly in Dakar in Senegal. Finally the ship put into port in Queenstown near Cork on 6 December 1876, where Rimbaud disembarked. His friend Delahaye later joked that Rimbaud had taken ‘A little voyage from Brussels to Cork - via Java’.
We have no idea how the Frenchman, back on dry land after a long voyage, spent his time in Cork city, or how he got himself home from there to Charleville in the Ardennes. However, it is nice to imagine him walking along the coast road from Cobh to Cork, perhaps in cold winter rain, and then enjoying a raucous evening drinking in the city’s pubs. Perhaps the Oval (1759), The Long Valley (1842) or the Mutton Lane Inn (1845), the latter establishment being in a narrow alleyway leading to what was then (and is still) called the English Market. I wonder what the regular topers made of the young Frenchman with his accented English, perhaps weather-beaten from his time before the mast? After his brief and undocumented stay in Cork Rimbaud probably travelled by ferry to Liverpool, then by train to London and thence across the channel to Dieppe. Shortly afterwards he was spotted in La Place de la Bastille in Paris by a sculptor called Wisseaux who reported that he was dressed ‘as an English sailor’. Rimbaud’s friend Nouveau now jokingly referred to him as ‘Rimbaud the Sailor’ (perhaps rhyming his name with that of Sinbad?).
It is inevitable that even Rimbaud’s brief and undocumented stay in Cork should have attracted interest. He is the character who turns up everywhere, inspires a thousand new stories, and refuses to live only in and through his poetry. Like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe or Che Guevara his image has become synonymous with a certain attitude: cool, rebellious, forever young. Whether I like it or not, Rimbaud gets everywhere!
It is only fitting that I should end this blog with a poem by the celebrated Irish poet John Montague (1929-2016), who was born in Brooklyn but who eventually settled in Cork, imagining the angelic ruffian’s visit to the city in 1876, complete with the (perhaps wishful) thought that somewhere in an attic in Cork there might still be an unpublished Rimbaud manuscript!
Rimbaud in Cork
You sailed out on the Prinz von Oranje,
Sporting the azure and orange of the
To carry its flag through a sweltering
(good-bye to Europe, anywhere will do),
Under the smouldering crest of
Months later, you signed on The
A lean deserter, living off tropical fruit,
You took the name of ‘Holmes’,
(did you swim to Napoleon’s bleak St
Finally you docked in Queenstown,
But what befell you, that lost day in
Bemused by a signpost reading
Rimbaud stumbles into the Long
Meets Humphrey Moynihan, and
‘This man has deranged all his
He stays long enough to sign the
Then in the Corner House, surrounded
By those petulant accents of Cork
(a chorus of aggrieved doves), he finds
Who slaps him on the back, buys a
round of Murphy,
And brings him to meet McCarthy in
At long last, the voice of sanity!
‘That Charleville signpost leads to
And not your famous French
Better leave for Waterford or Wexford,
To embark again for the Continent.
If you get lost, look up Dorgan in
He’s a sailor himself, and knows the
In the attic of his Cork B&B,
Is there still a dusty sailor’s trunk,
Impounded by an angry landlady?
‘That skinny Frenchie had no English
There’s nothing in it but a scribbled
Hallucinations, I think, says the cover
Tomorrow I’ll burn it, or take it to the flea market!’