When I was a child I learned much from an encyclopedia called The Book of Life that my father bought as a weekly and collated part-by-part into plastic binders (ah, the sophistication of the 1970s). It had a mix of medical, social and psychological topics; and one in particular on Synaesthesia  caught my eye because it quoted the poem “Voyelles” (Vowels) written by Arthur Rimbaud in 1872. Synaesthesia  is when you think about one  sense in terms of another – in this case the association of colours with the letters that are vowels. “A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles“.  As Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked; “What color has the vowel A for you?’ So, for example, the letter U reminds Rimbaud of waves undulating in a green sea – “U, waves, divine shudderings of verdant seas”.

I’d never heard of Arthur Rimbaud, and it opened the flood-gates on a wonderful, sleazy river of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Genet, Camus, Bresson, etc. Before I knew it I was a young teenager sitting in the local University’s film society watching films by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Good character-building stuff for an impressionable age. As Woody Allen said, the problem with childhood is that you were so young.  If you’d been older you could have handled it better.

Rimbaud, of course, only wrote poetry when he was a teenager and stopped by the time he was 21. He must have had a better education than me because he was a true enfant terrible. In the same year that he wrote Vowels he went slumming it to London with Paul Verlaine. After a stint in Bloomsbury they shacked up at 8 Royal College Street, on the border between St Pancras and Camden Town. Rimbaud was 18. It didn’t last, however, ending literally with a slap in the face with a wet fish. Verlaine went back to France and they met up shortly after in Belgium. That ended with an argument and a gunshot wound delivered by Verlaine to Rimbaud’s wrist. It was time to stop.

After he had finished with poetry, Rimbaud settled down to a life of what might be called colonial servitude. By the year of his death in 1891 he was working as a merchant in Aden, Yemen – although Abyssinia sounds much more poetic.He had a pain in his knee he thought was arthritis. It was mis-diagnosed and his leg was amputated. It was in fact Bone Cancer, and he dies at just 37.

So when I am reading Patti Smith’s “rimbaud dead” poem in 1978, I didn’t know then that “he is thirty seven. they cut off his leg. the syphilis oozes.” was wrong. Maybe she did better with “dream of rimbaud” which is after all just a fantasy “oh arthur arthur. we are in abyssinia aden. making love smoking cigarettes. we kiss. but it’s much more. azure.”

I’d like to be azure.

Around the time that Rimbaud was born, an Irish child was leaving Dublin in the company of his parents to start a new life in Canada. It was not long after the Famine and emigration was at a high point still. Many of those who left just after the Famine years (1845-46) ended up on the Quebec equivalent of Ellis Island. It was called Grosse Île, or Oileán na nGael. Canada was exporting timber to England back then and it was cheap to fill the holds of the cargo vessels with people on the return journey. Ships sailed out of the west of Ireland, heaving with their human ballast. It was cheaper to put the poor on the ship (£3) than pay for them to enter the workhouse (£7 per year). And out of sight is out of mind. Between the starvation before getting on the boat, and the conditions traveling in those summers, many developed “famine fever” on the journey. They had to be quarantined on the island as the boats entered the St Lawrence river. If a family had just one sick member, they usually all elected to remain there. Around 15,000 of them never got any further.

But David Nelligan, the Irish child in question, was traveling in 1856 and it was better then. He did well in Montreal, and got a good position in the Canadian Post Office. He met and married Emilie. Another Catholic, but she was French-Canadian, not Irish, and that was unusual then. On Christmas Eve in 1879 they had first child, a boy they named Emile Nelligan. As Emile grew up, he became distanced from his father and grew closer to his mother. His father did not allow French to be spoken in the house. Ironic, given that his surname was pronounced “Nellig-A'” by the locals. Like Rimbaud, Emile was a teenage prodigy as a poet. Although influenced by the likes of Rimbaud and Poe, he decided to write in French rather than English. As a lonely teenager, he was befriended by a priest (careful, there) who helped him to get his poetry published later in 1904. The priest was later caught up in a bit of a scandal himself when it was discovered he’d been in an affair with a woman.

I like the story about when, in 1899, there was an anti-drinking Prohibition movement pushed mainly by Anglo-Canadians. This managed to unite the normally disparate Irish and French-speaking Canadians in protest against the bill. A case of Catholic boozers, unite and fight. When Emile read his poem “Le Romance du Vin” to a public meeting the crowd cheered wildly and carried him home in triumph on their shoulders.

Rimbaud wrote “Le Bateau ivre” (The Drunken Boat). Nelligan wrote “La Vaisseau d’Or” (The Ship of Gold).  Both surrealist masterpieces.

But all this came to a sad end. Some say it was the duality of language and culture he had to endure all his life. Some way it was guilty tension between his sexuality and his religion. He was like the lyric in a Red House Painters song: “bruised internally, eternally”. Whatever the cause, Emile was committed by his family to a mental asylum. Today his condition would probably be called schizophrenia. He lived the rest of his life in two institutions, until he died in 1941.

He had a deficit of what medics call “eunoia”, which is the state of normal mental health. It is also the shortest word in the English language which contains all five vowels. The shortest French word to use all five vowels is “Oiseau” (bird). Go gently, Arthur and Emile, little birds of poetry.

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