Rimbaud museum opens in poet's hometown

The new Arthur Rimbaud Museum in Charleville-Mézières.
The new Arthur Rimbaud Museum in Charleville-Mézières. Ville de Charleville-Mézières

The town of Charleville-Mézières has renovated the Old Mill on the river Meuse to house a new collection telling the story of its most famous son, the 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud only lived to 37, but as unsettled as his poetry can be unsettling, he travelled the length and breadth of Europe as far as Harar in Abyssinia, today Ethiopia.


In its bucolic setting, the new Arthur Rimbaud Museum may seem a more suitable location to house works and memorabilia from Alphonse de Lamartine, a French contemporary of Romantic poet or John Keats than the wayward genius himself.

The town's approach to things poetic is broad, says André Marquet, deputy mayor of Charleville-Mézières and head of cultural affairs."

“Poetry is one of the pillars of the town’s cultural policy, after all Rimbaud was born here,” he explains with a hint of pride in his voice, underscoring its cultural value, "The new museum will give the public access for the first time ever to interesting manuscripts.”

The town’s aim was to combine objects telling the story of Rimbaud’s short life and his literary legacy in one space but also to demonstrate his influence on artists in words, images, sound, shapes and colours. It’s also given them the opportunity to update the collection and the way it’s presented. The new design incorporates audiovisual elements in the light-diffused rooms, passages and vertically open space on four floors. The bottom floor affords the visitor a close-up view of the river flowing beneath.

Rimbaud, born in 1854, began publishing poetry at the age of 15 in the town which is neat to the borders of Luxembourg and Belgium. He ran away at 16 for Paris but returned soon after, only to spend the rest of his short life sailing from port to port.

Best known as a brilliant poet, his imagination and writing was for some time encouraged by his older lover, Paul Verlaine. The collection A Season in Hell was inspired by their dramatic break-up where Verlaine ended up in prison after shooting at Rimbaud.

Rimbaud’s last known poems predate his 22nd birthday. By the time of his death, he had travelled over most of Europe and had earned a reputation as a coffee trader in the Middle East and Africa.

His last stop before he died was in the town of Harar in Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia) where he landed in 1880. He spent more than 10 years there and his trade extended to procurement of guns for the then-Emperor Menelik II.

The new museum touches on these experiences, works and relations as well as adding exhibits describing the historical period of upheaval, militarism and empire-building in which he lived.

It also shows how the adventurous Rimbaud inspired others. For example, visual artists in the 20th century like Fernand Léger or Sonia Délaunay chose Rimbaud’s poems as subjects for original illustrated books.

Some of them form part of the museum’s collection inside the neutral, modern whitewashed interior of the old mill, in the Revolutions section.

In what’s called "the Attic" the words and phrases of Rimbaud’s poetry and prose are softly recited through speakers overhead in several languages, including English.

The light reflection from the water below scatters on the windows through the sound of lines such as "The earliest adventure was, on a path already filled with cool and creamy splendours, a flower that whispered its name to me…" from the poem Dawn (Aube) in his collection Illuminations. This is one of the dreamlike poems which fits the setting.

Downstairs the small room with the African and Ethiopian objects, artefacts, fabrics and a few of Rimbaud’s personal possessions, is less of an art trip and the small space feels more like a classical museum.

Rimbaud’s relationship with Harar was a practical, everyday one.

“Charleville-Mézières has a special relationship with Harar, where they call Rimbaud, Rambo! I have been there a number of times and we have a water project there,” says André Marquet.

Rimbaud, inspired as he was, continues to inspire and create ties, poetic and others.

All kinds of artists today, have headed to Charleville-Mézières on the hunt for Rimbaudian vibe. They include late US Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and singer-songwriter Patti Smith.

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