This morning I took my copy of Rimbaud Complete from my shelf and flipped through it. I came upon this poem and decided to read it. Since it is a translation, I am including the text here.
As if from a green tin coffin, a woman’s head
Rises from an old bathtub, slow and dumb,
Hair greased back to hide bald patches
And not succeeding very well;
First: a fat gray neck, jutting shoulder blades,
A squat back with all kinds of curves;
Then: her heavy hips begin and never seem to end;
Folds of fat shift beneath her skin:
Her spine’s a little raw, and the whole mass
Reeks; above all, you notice irregularities
Better appreciated under a microscope…
Two words are engraved across her ass: Clara Venus;
–And then her body shifts and offers up her ample rump
For a view: a repellant frame for the ulcer on her anus.
(translation by Wyatt Mason)
In the poem, Rimbaud takes a common artistic theme—the birth of Venus from the ocean—and gives it a more human twist. Venus is the symbol of female physical beauty which has become the ideal in Western culture. But how accurate is this image? Women frequently end up starving themselves or surgically altering their bodies in an attempt to meet this idealized construct of what is beautiful.
Rimbaud takes the average woman and makes her an erotic icon. The Venus here has all her human imperfections: she’s overweight, aged, balding, has back problems, and she has some body odor. But these “irregularities” are what make her unique as a person, and she proves to be just as erotic as the flawless, idealized Venus lounging in her shell. And yes, Rimbaud’s Venus also has an anus, just like every other woman, unlike the other artistic representations of Venus that focus primarily on her front.
It speaks volumes about our culture that some 2000-year-old idealized image of what female beauty is supposed to be still dominates our views. We can thank our media for helping keep this ideal alive.