It’s not often a poet turns from selling sonnets to selling guns. The career track doesn’t seem to run naturally from writing lyrical verses about your true beloved’s neck or free verse about little red wagons to setting up and running a mercantile enterprise involving firesticks.
But Arthur Rimbaud wasn’t your typical poet, even by the loose standards poets are judged. As a beautiful young man, oppressed by very loving mother, he ran away repeatedly for the bright lights of Paris (or Brussels, or just about anywhere his mother wasn’t). He lived on the streets, by his wits, when he decided to make himself into a poet. He soon mastered the popular forms and then promoted a new style that involved the ”long, immense and systematic derangement of all the senses.” He took up with older, more famous poet, Paul Verlaine, and for several years was either on the run with him, which they spent most of their time fussing and arguing, with Verlaine finally ending the relationship by shooting his protégé-lover’s wrist.
By 21, Rimbaud was burnt out, and he swore off poetry and riotous living. For the rest of his life, he turned to whatever lay at hand to make money: signing on as a mercenary, helping to run a circus and even foreman on a construction gang.
Finally, he ended up in Africa, on the coast of East Africa between the Red Sea and the Horn. On this day, he wrote a letter to his mother (he may have been at odds with her, but that didn’t stop him from keeping in touch), to announce his latest scheme. King Menelik II of Shoa needed guns, and Rimbaud and his partners had acquired 2,040 rifles and 60,000 cartridges. The weapons were outdated in Europe, Rimbaud told his mother, “old percussion rifles declared unfit for service forty years ago.” But in Africa, he could sell them for five times their worth.
But first he had to get them to the king’s capital, Entotto, near what is now Addis Ababa, a journey of some 400 miles through desert wastelands and intense heat and inhabited by scrubby villages and bandits.
Misfortune marked Rimbaud’s venture from the start. While waiting for permission to begin the trek, natives stole from the caravan when they could. His two partners died: one from cancer, another from a stoke. Rimbaud set off and reached Entotto four months later. He sold his weapons to the king, but he later complained that Menelik had robbed him. Plus he was being dunned by his late associates’ creditors chased after him (including one man’s native wife), and he had to settle with them. By the time he returned to the port of Aden, he complained that “I have emerged from the deal with a 60 per cent loss on my capital, not to mention 21 months of atrocious exertions spent liquidating this wretched affair.”
Or did he? Rimbaud’s biographer, Graham Robb, points out that the former poet changed the amount of money he made, depending on who he was writing to. The man who complained of making a pitiful 6,000 francs from the affair managed to deposit 16,000 francs (about $90,000 today) in his bank after his African adventure.
“Rimbaud had abandoned poetry,” Robb writes, “but not fiction.”
Also from the Reader’s Almanac:
- Jack London catches gold fever (1897)
- Stephen Crane: I Fought the Law and the Law Won (1896)
- Casey strikes out; Thayer doesn’t (1888)
- The Hoax That Backfired (1877)
Here’s a list of the essays published so far.