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I Promise to be Good


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The poetic genius of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) blossomed early and burned briefly. Nearly all of his work was composed when he was in his teens. During the century following his death at thirty-seven, Rimbaud's work and life have influenced generations of readers and writers. Radical in its day, Rimbaud's writing took some of the first and most fundamental steps toward the liberation of poetry from the formal constraints of its history, and now represents one of the most powerful and enduring bodies of poetic expression in human history.

Wyatt Mason is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine, where his essays regularly appear. He also writes for The London Review of Books and The New Republic. The Modern Library has published his translations of the complete works of Arthur Rimbaud in two volumes. His translations of Dante's Vita Nuova and Montaigne's Essais are in progress.


The story, of course, is the stuff of legend: after a painful affair with the older, married poet Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud (1854-1891) put poetry behind him at age 21 and became a commercial traveler in Africa and Arabia, returning home to Charlevoix and his family only at the end of his brief life and dying painfully of gangrene complications. Mason, the American translator who last year published Rimbaud's collected poems in English, gives us a Rimbaud that's a far cry from the Dionysian figure who inspired Jim Morrison, Patti Smith and David Wojnarowicz with his call for a slow derangement of the senses. In the 27 letters included here that were written before Rimbaud's departure (the first, from 1870, left in a teacher's mailbox), Mason unveils instead an Apollonian craftsman, one who took infinite pains to achieve perfection of expression and who comes clear in the letters "not with rubbery biographical inventions or facile psychological putty" but as a "clear, deliberate personality." Rimbaud quits France after seeing Verlaine for the last time in 1875 for five years of poorly documented sojourns in Europe and the U.K., for which there are only five letters. From there, the interest level of the 149 epistles that follow plunges way down. Mason's an agile, skillful translator, and he does his best to enliven the long litany of profit and loss in Rimbaud's African commercial adventures, but when he tells us he has excluded 34 letters to Alfred Ilg, a trading colleague of Rimbaud's, on the ground that they're too boring, anyone who has read through this whole volume will not feel it a loss. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

In this second volume of Modern Library's "Rimbaud Complete," Mason, who translated and edited Rimbaud's poetry for the first volume, provides a portrait of the poet in his declining years. Mason wants to correct the pervasive biographical picture of Rimbaud as poetry's bad boy, debauched by drugs, alcohol, and sex. The 250 letters collected here-all written between 1870 and Rimbaud's death in 1891-offer a more sober picture of the poet. For example, he begs Verlaine to "come back, come back, dear friend, only friend" and tenderly reports on his journeys around Europe, Africa, and Egypt to his family: "I haven't forgotten you at all, how could I? And if my letters are too short, it's that, as I'm now always going on expeditions, I'm always in a rush when the mail is about to leave. But I think of you, and think of little but you." His famous 1871 letter to Paul Demeny contains his oft-quoted theory of poetry: "The Poet makes himself into a seer by a long, involved and logical derangement of all the senses." Although Rimbaud's letters are not as well documented as those by most poets, these letters reveal glimpses of his loves, his hates, his tenderness, his poetics, and his stubborn will to create. Mason's elegant translations flow smoothly off the page, and libraries that own Mason's volume of Rimbaud's poems will certainly want to add this to their collections.-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

"Wyatt Mason's translation of Rimbaud's letters is a swashbuckler of a book, nothing less than a resurrection of a remarkable life. As such, it is a worthy companion to Mason's fine translation of the poems. No admirer of Rimbaud will want to be without it." -Arthur Goldhammer, translator of more than eighty books from the French

"These letters, together with the poems, provide as direct a record as possible of what the archetypal bohemian boy-genius did with his gift. They brim with curiosity, ambition, spite, self-pity, and a giant talent; his art is as impervious to time as that of Catullus or Heine. Thanks to Wyatt Mason's masterly translations, Rimbaud has, after a century and a half, recovered his gift." -Askold Melnyczuk, author of What Is Told and Ambassador of the Dead

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