Of Poets, Absinthe and Coffee

In the course of doing reading and research (both for this site and my own pleasure), I often come across weird its of symmetry in the most unexpected of ways.

Two weeks ago, I was reading this book on Absinthe, where the author goes into some detail about French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud, for those of you not acquainted with French symbolist poets, has been a major influence upon the art scene, having been attributed as the influence upon Henry Miller, Anais Nin, William S. Burroughs, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, John Lennon and many, many others. Leonardo DiCaprio even portrayed him in the movie Total Eclipse. His work can easily be seen as the fore-bearer of spoken word poetry, so he’s a big deal for those people interested in this sort of stuff.

That a French poet from the 1870′s was mentioned in a book about Absinthe is not that big of a deal, akin to rock stars of the 1960′s and 70′s being mentioned in a book about marijuana. It is true that Rimbaud acted obnoxiously during that period of time, but not excessively more than any other member of the Symbolist/Decandent/Bohemian movements (although his act of shouting ‘merde’ at the end of every line of poetry read at a poetry reading is something I’ve longed to do).

Anyway…A French poet drinks absinthe and acts like knucklehead. This is hardly noteworthy.

At least it was until I find him again in a book I am reading that has a chapter about coffee in Ethiopia. It is here that Rimbaud shows up again.

It seems that Msr. Rimbaud grew tired of his literary life and wanted to fulfill a desire presciently mentioned within his work ‘A Season in Hell‘:

And now I am on the beaches of Brittany. Let cities light their lamps in the evening. My daytime is done ; I am leaving Europe. The air of the sea will burn my lungs ; lost climates will turn my skin to leather. To swim, to pulverize grass, to hunt, above all to smoke ; to drink strong drinks, as strong as molten ore, – as did those dear ancestors around their fires.

I will come back with limbs of iron, with dark skin, and angry eyes : in this mask, they will think I belong to a strong race. I will have gold : I will be brutal and indolent. Women nurse these ferocious invalids come back from the tropics. I will become involved in politics. Saved.

So Rimbaud heads to what is present day Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) and becomes a merchant in Harrar, where he deals in coffee. This is not a simple task, being a European man in an area of the world that turned out to be strongly anti-colonialist. As Stewart Lee Allen wrote about Rimbuad:

…Rimbaud’s risking his life for the bean (in fact, it killed him) is perhaps not so unreasonable. It’s worth noting, however, that the poet/merchant did not seem to hold Harrar’s coffee in high regard. “Horrible” is how he describes it in one letter; “awful stuff” and “disgusting”. Oh well. Perhaps all of those years of absinthe had dulled his taste buds. The fact that the locals were fond of selling him beans laced with goat shit probably didn’t help matters.

In actuality, it wasn’t simply coffee that killed Rimbaud, and he didn’t deal strictly in coffee. There is evidence that he was a bit of a gun dealer, and rumor has it that he also dealt in slave trafficking. He died, not from the coffee trade, but likely from an advanced state of cancer.

At any rate, I thought it odd that this poet would show up in two dissimilar books that I had read back to back. Like I previously mentioned, symmetry can be odd at times.

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