By Rachel B. Doyle |
In December of 1880, the mercurial French poet Arthur Rimbaud entered the ancient walled city of Harar, Ethiopia, a journey that had involved crossing the Gulf of Aden in a wooden dhow and 20 days on horseback through the Somali Desert. Several years before, the author of the prose poems “A Season in Hell” and “Illuminations” had abruptly renounced poetry and embarked on peregrinations that would take him around Europe, Asia, the Middle East and, finally, Africa. At age 26, Rimbaud accepted “a job consisting in receiving shipments of bales of coffee” with a French trading firm in a thriving corner of what was then called Abyssinia.
Then as now, Harar was a market town threaded with steep cobblestone alleys that wind between high limestone and tuff walls. Today those walls are painted with geometric designs in green, white, pink and blue. As one strolls down the narrow, mazelike streets lined with single-story dwellings, the city, fortified and enigmatic, feels closed off. Donkeys carrying bundles of firewood wait patiently for their owners near the crenelated entrances of the city’s historic gates. In the densely populated Old City, there are over 180 mosques and shrines, some dating to the 10th century. Occasionally one comes upon open-air markets where spices, khat leaves and coffee beans are sold in huge sacks.
Rimbaud arrived in Harar “sick and completely helpless,” according to his employer, Alfred Bardey. He rented a rough, clay-walled house with a thatched reed roof. The man credited by many with reinventing modern European poetry would reside in this preindustrial Ethiopian city for nearly five years, during three distinct periods between 1880 and 1891, the longest time he ever stayed anywhere as an adult. It was a life he had visualized years before he began his travels. “I sought voyages, to disperse enchantments that had colonized my mind,” the 19-year-old author wrote in “A Season in Hell,” a hallucinatory collection of nine poems that had been published seven years before his arrival in Harar, featuring a narrator who rages at, and then roams, the world. “My life would always be too ungovernable to be devoted to strength and beauty.”
Rimbaud’s travels had been preceded by a dramatic flameout in Europe: His lover, the French poet Paul Verlaine, had shot him in the wrist with a revolver in a Belgian hotel room. Living with his difficult mother in a farmhouse in Charleville, his constricting hometown in the French Ardennes, was intolerable for the high-strung poet. It didn’t help that “A Season in Hell,” which would later bring him acclaim, was barely noticed at all when it was published in 1873.