“To Music” by Arthur Rimbaud


I decided to read something a little different today, so I got my complete collection of works by Rimbaud, translated by Wyatt Mason down from the shelf and flipped through. It is, by the way, an excellent book and I encourage you to invest in a copy.

Because I have been thinking about music a lot lately, the poem “To Music” caught my attention. I am including Mason’s translation here for reference purposes only and to provide context for my analysis of the poem.

Pruned into stringy plots of grass, the public square,
Where trees and flowers and everything is just so,
Finds wheezy bourgeois strangling in the heat,
Trotting out petty jealousies on Thursday nights.

—The military band, in the middle of the garden,
Balance their shakos while playing the “Waltz of Fifes.”
—Around them, in the first rows, dandies strut,
The notary hangs from his own monogrammed fob.

Women wearing ruffles like advertisements
For themselves flounce like elephant wranglers
Around bloated bureaucrats and bloated wives:
Petty bourgeois with lorgnettes hang on every clinker;

On green benches, clubs of retired grocers rest
Poking the sand with knobbed canes,
Discussing treaties with great sobriety,
Taking snuff from their silver boxes, saying: And so…!”

Spreading the roundness of his rump across the bench,
A bourgeois with bright buttons and a Flemish gut
Savors his pricy Onnaing pipe overflowing with tobacco:
“This stuff’s still illegal, don’t-you-know?”

All along the green lawn, little hoodlums sneer;
Naïve young soldiers smoking roses,
Made lovesick by the sad trombones,
Pat the heads of babies to charm their nannies….

Me? Looking like a scattered student
I follow exuberant girls through the green chestnuts:
They know I’m there, and turn towards me
Laughing, eyes brimming with indiscretion.

I don’t say a word: I just stare at the flesh
Of their white necks framed by tresses:
I follow the curve of their shoulders down
Their divine backs, hidden by bodices and flimsy finery.

Soon I’m ogling their boots and socks…
Burning with fever, yearning for flesh.
They think I’m silly. They whisper to each other…
—And I feel kisses blossom on my lips…

The poem describes Rimbaud’s impression of a day at the Railway Square in his childhood home town of Charleville. While a band is playing music, Rimbaud observes and comments on the bourgeois loafing around the park. You get a sense of Rimbaud’s disdain at the superficial qualities of these people. They are almost alien to him, absorbed into their own worlds and oblivious to what is going on around them.

The tone of the poem shifts about halfway through and becomes more reflective. He begins to fantasize about the girls he sees, and I get the feeling that these fantasies are fueled by the music. It is a strange combination of lust and innocence, something that is familiar to most adolescent males.

Overall, I really liked this poem. It is a great combination of impressionism and personal reflection, and Mason does an amazing job of capturing the cadence of the language in this translation.


Filed under Literature

6 responses to ““To Music” by Arthur Rimbaud

  1. Amazing poem, Jeff. Really sounds so contemporary. I think you have tremendous feel for Zeitgeist choosing it, as Venus has just entered Libra, and this is exactly what the poem is about – to me.

    • Wow. That’s quite a compliment. I’m really glad the poem resonated with you, but then again, this does not surprise me. From what I gather, Jim Morrison was heavily influenced by Rimbaud.

      It feels good to be writing again. Between work and traveling, I had to take a break. But sometimes, that’s a good thing. Hope all is well with you. Sending my best — Jeff

  2. It’s very much a young man’s poem. At that age we’re not only inclined to those passionate fantasies but to that feeling of somewhat judgmental separateness from ordinary middle-aged folks. It’s beautifully expressed.

  3. I didn’t like the beginning of the poem–the disdain in all his observations turned me off, but when it turns more personal toward the end, it grabs me and I enjoy it very much. I can see the lusty youth following the giggling girls and feel his erotic fantasies of flesh.

    • Hi Deborah! Thanks for taking the time to comment. I can understand why the first half of the poem could be a turn-off. I think, personally, that he is just being brutally honest. When people are young, they are often filled with anger (or disdain in Rimbaud’s case) and lust. Although it was quite a long time ago for me, I recall having similar feelings when I was a teenager.

      Thanks for stopping by and I hope you have a wonderful evening!