Illuminations, by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by John Ashbery, Carcanet, RRP£12.95, 171 pages

Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th-century French poet, was a ferocious malcontent, who free-wheeled towards self-destruction with the help of hashish and quantities of alcohol, then renounced literature altogether for a life of vagabondage in Africa. In 1891, after a botched amputation for gangrene, he came home to die in a hospital in Marseilles, aged 37.

Born in the Ardennes, he had descended on literary Paris like a meteor, flaring brightly before burning out. By his late teens, Rimbaud was the author of obscurely beautiful verse. Yet his poetic career was over by the time he was 20.

Bob Dylan, for one, was struck by this story. Songs such as “Chimes of Freedom” and “Desolation Row” jangle with allusions to Rimbaud’s outcast legend. Rimbaud encourages hero-worship. (I wrote a juvenile play about him while at university in the 1980s, with Tilda Swinton in the role of the poet’s mother.) John Ashbery, the New York poet, was inspired to learn French after reading Rimbaud in English in the 1940s. Now he has translated Rimbaud’s most thoroughly modern masterpiece, Illuminations, a sequence of shimmering prose-poems.

First published in 1886, Illuminations effectively changed the language of poetry: TS Eliot’s The Waste Land would not have been possible without the slender volume.

Brocaded with dizzy-making imagery of subways, viaducts, raised canals, bridges and steam engines, the 43 verses are thrillingly metropolitan. “Monstrous city, endless night!”, Rimbaud intones, seer-like. Surreally, a cathedral is glimpsed floating at the bottom of a lake; a circus horse clops riderless through the summer dawn.

Parts of Illuminations were inspired by the trip Rimbaud made to London in 1872 with his then lover, Paul Verlaine. Rimbaud’s bumpkin mockery of literary Paris had thrilled the older poet. Shadowed by Scotland Yard, the couple boozed in Soho taverns and took up sordid rooms in Camden Town.

Adrift in this urban landscape, Rimbaud noted down all he heard and saw. In some ways, Illuminations can be read as a poetic illustration of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital: the London masses as seen by Rimbaud are alienated by “economic horrors” and “feel no need to know one another”.

In 1880, having scorned the literary life, Rimbaud arrived in the Arabian port of Aden, determined to reform. Whether as a coffee dealer, amateur photographer or arms dealer, however, Rimbaud was let down by a profitless mixture of greed and gullibility. He became mortally ill. Nevertheless, his posthumous reputation was to be immense, and John Ashbery should be congratulated on this translation of a masterwork of world literature.

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