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The prose poem as puzzle: letter patterns in Rimbaud's "Mystique".

ARTHUR Rimbaud casts the Illuminations as puzzles. He ends "H" by directing the reader to decipher clues as to the identity of "Hortense." He also employs the language of cryptography in "Parade," referring to a "key" that is inaccessible to the reader. Atle Kittang notes as well that the poem "Genie" "exhibe ... des similarites frappantes avec la structure semiologique propre aux mots croises et aux enigmes" (227). The theme of the poem as puzzle provides an interpretative framework potentially applicable to all the Illuminations given their obscurity. Paul Valery describes the collection as a whole as "un cryptogramme d'un genre singulier" (qtd. in Little, Rimbaud 18-19) and Pierre Brunel suggests that "H" articulates a "poetique de l'enigme" applicable to all the Illuminations ("Poetique" 197). The question is to what extent the notion of the prose poem as puzzle informs the Illuminations.

If Rimbaud frames the prose poems as puzzles, does he inscribe "solutions"? Many critics have considered whether the prose poems can be "decoded," some debating whether they are even readable. (1) Kittang argues that the Illuminations are not intended to deliver a meaning, but simply represent "une combinaison d'elements signifiants" (192), and Tzvetan Todorov declares that one should not and in many cases cannot interpret the Illuminations (17). In opposition to Todorov's position (Duplicites 108), Andre Guyaux endorses and develops Robert Faurisson's identification of "Hortense" with "l'Habitude," masturbation, in "H" (143-64). More recently, Seth Whidden proposes a solution to the puzzle in "H," while suggesting that his interpretation is only one of many that are possible (185).

Although critics discuss the prose poem as puzzle most often in analyzing "H" and "Parade," many have observed phonetic patterns resembling verbal play throughout the Illuminations. (2) Kittang notes such phonetic repetition, including an anagram-like structure in "Mouvement" (254), but conceives of the Illuminations as "games" only metaphorically, as language freed from the need to communicate (190-92). Stamos Metzidakis has theorized the existence of meaningful letter repetition, which in some cases produces an anagram embedded in a sentence in prose poems (Repetition 85-86). He points out, for example, an anagram in the first sentence of Rimbaud's "Ouvriers": "O cette chaude matinee de fevrier." The word "ouvrier" is present in the o and u and the end of the word "fevrier" (Repetition 87). However, he does not characterize such anagrams as intentionally produced (Repetition 87). Antoine Raybaud similarly observes anagrams appearing in a scattered fashion across sentences in the Illuminations, but leaves open the question of whether they are a "marque d'auteur, ou mode de travail, ou inconscient du texte" (105). Thorsten Greiner provides a particularly persuasive example of wordplay in "Antique": he identifies the phonetic presence of the "satyre" within the word "cithare" (105). This wordplay is meaningful because it corresponds to the prose poem's themes, in keeping with Susan Wirth Fusco's observation that the Illuminations' coherence emerges through the "reciprocal interpenetration of ... semantic, syntactic, phonological and rhythmic factors" (167). Although it is impossible to prove Rimbaud's intentions, verbal play that relates to a number of other features of the prose poem points to deliberate crafting. (3)

"Mystique" contains such an example of verbal play. In "Mystique," palindromic and anagrammatic letter patterns correspond to other structures and imagery in the poem, suggesting that their presence is not merely accidental. "Mystique" thus speaks to the nature and significance of the puzzle in the Illuminations.

The palindromic and anagrammatic letter patterns occur in the first sentence of "Mystique": "Sur la pente du talus les anges tournent leurs robes de laine dans les herbages d'acier et d'emeraude." The sentence is composed of three parts, two prepositional phrases that mirror each other and a main clause at the center, and each of these segments includes a palindromic pattern in which a series of letters is repeated in reverse order. In the first prepositional phrase, the letters s, u, l, a and t in "sur la pente" recur in reverse order in the word "talus." With all the letters of "talus" appearing in "sur la pente," the palindromic pattern becomes striking and provides as well the first instance of an anagrammatic structure in the poem. In the main clause, the letters n, l and r in "tournent leurs" similarly recur in reverse order in "robes de laine." In the final prepositional phrase, the mirroring effect becomes more complex, occurring in the sequence d, r, d in "dans les herbages d'acier" and "d'emeraude" and in the assonance surrounding the two ds at the center: the two [a] sounds in "herbages d'acier" and the three [e] sounds in "acier et d'emeraude." Not only does each segment of the sentence contain the same type of pattern, but this pattern corresponds to the syntax of the sentence as a whole: the inverse repetition creates a mirroring effect emphasizing the center, just as the two prepositional phrases mirror each other and emphasize the centrality of the main clause. Moreover, these recurring patterns correspond to the image of the "hillock" in the poem: the inverse repetition suggests two "slopes" that converge at the center, the "sommet du mammelon."

The importance of the center in this pattern encourages a further step: the combination of the letters at the center of each segment to form an overarching word. Such an anagrammatic structure coincides with the pattern established in the first segment, in which "talus" is inscribed in "sur la pente." The central letters in the first two segments are t and r. The final segment is more complex, the mirroring effect occurring in part through two instances of assonance involving different sounds. If the assonance is factored into the pattern, the letter i functions as a "summit" as the vowel between the [a] and the [e] in acier. The word created by joining the center of each segment is "tri," whose meaning corresponds to the process of its own creation, that is, the extraction and combination of the repeating letters within each segment of the sentence and then the extraction and combination of the letters at the center of the segments. In sorting the letters in the first sentence, the reader enacts the "tri," experiencing and actualizing the word's meaning. Furthermore, the reference of the prefix "tri" to the number three corresponds to the three segments making up the pattern in the sentence.

The letter patterns in the first sentence correspond as well to the structure that Roger Little observes in the last sentence of "Mystique": "La douceur fleurie des etoiles et du ciel et du reste descend en face du talus, comme un panier,--contre notre face, et fait l'abime fleurant et bleu la-dessous." In "Rimbaud's 'Mystique': Some Observations," Little identifies a pattern he describes as a "parabola":
   Working from the outside of the stanza in, one finds the following
   balancing terms which in four cases are a clear sound echo of one
   another and in the fifth related but opposing concepts: 'la
   douceur' 'la-dessous'; 'fleurie' 'fleurant'; 'des etoiles et du
   ciel et du reste' 'l'abime', where both are expressions of the
   infinite, one upwards, the other down ... ; 'en face' 'notre face';
   and finally 'comme' and 'contre'. (286)

As in the set of patterns in the first sentence of "Mystique," the last sentence creates a mirroring effect. Little similarly notes the significance of the center of this pattern: "it is no accident that 'panier' ... stands at the centre of a series of palindromic elements" (286). Much as in the case of the i at the center of "acier," the word "panier" does not represent a palindromic element, but occupies the center of the structure. Little identifies the palindromic pattern with the curved shape of the basket, a connection analogous to the correspondence of the letter patterns to the hillock in the first sentence (286). The repetition of the same pattern at the beginning and end of "Mystique" reinforces the mirroring of the two parabolic images, the hillock and the basket. (4)

The word "tri" also relates to the image of the basket. The word "tri" and the image of the basket convey the complementary notions of separation and combination, themes developed in a religious context in "Mystique." The theme of spiritual separation emerges in the second paragraph, which evokes Judgment Day, a division between the "homicides" and "battles" on the "left" and "progress" on the "right." (5) By contrast, the basket, as a receptacle, corresponds to the inclusiveness conveyed by a joining together of "heaven" and the "abyss."

In this context, the third paragraph may refer to the first sentence of "Mystique," evoking both its form and its relationship to the final paragraph of the prose poem:
   Et tandis que la bande en haut du tableau est formee de la rumeur
   tournante et bondissante des conques des mers et des nuits

   La douceur fleurie des etoiles et du ciel et du reste descend en
   face du talus, comme un panier,--contre notre face, et fait l'abime
   fleurant et bleu la-dessous.

The imagery in the third paragraph corresponds to the first sentence of "Mystique" in several ways. The first sentence does constitute a type of "band" at the top of the artwork as it is the first paragraph of the prose poem. The description of the band as both visual and auditory relates to the graphic and phonetic dimensions of the letter patterns in the first sentence. The notion of "turning" sounds corresponds to the fact that the letter patterns are organized around a center and repeat across the sentence. In addition, the conjunction "tandis que" conveys the relationship between the first and last sentences of the poem as they mirror and contrast with each other, the first inscribing the "tri" and the image of the hillock and the last the notion of oneness and the image of the basket.

The letter patterns in "Mystique" support the notion expressed in the third and fourth paragraphs that the artwork coexists and merges with the cosmic scene it depicts. Not only does the palindromic structure correspond to the hillock, but the acts of separating and joining emerge both as divine gestures and as actions performed in discerning the letter patterns. The reader becomes a "mystic" connected to the divine through the act of deciphering and the letter patterns evoke a hermetic text, in keeping with the use of anagrams in the Kabbalah and other esoteric traditions. 6 Above all, the hidden word "tri" concerns the process of deciphering itself, suggesting Rimbaud's development of a specifically literary hermeticism requiring the reader to find patterns in cryptic writing. "Mystique" thus confirms Olivier Bivort's notion that Rimbaud's hermeticism, his "alchimie du verbe," is poetic ("Remarques" 146).

Rimbaud's use of anagrammatic and palindromic patterns in "Mystique" is not surprising given the description of his writing in Une saison en enfer: in his "alchimie du verbe," he manipulates letters, attributing color to vowels and establishing "la forme et le mouvement de chaque consonne" (106). Moreover, he explains his "alchimie du verbe" in part by evoking his taste for "la litterature demodee, latin d'eglise, livres erotiques sans orthographe, romans de nos aieules, contes de fees, petits livres de l'enfance, operas vieux, refrains niais, rhythmes naifs" (106). His preference for the old-fashioned, the obscure and the juvenile is consistent with his interest in the poetic puzzle, a secondary poetic genre practiced notably in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (7) By the nineteenth century, puzzle forms were not current, but represented "curiosities," as seen in their inclusion in Ludovic Lalanne's discussion of "curiosites litteraires" in 1857. Rimbaud's use of puzzle forms in the Illuminations represents a reinvention of this old-fashioned, obscure, and playful poetic genre.

Whereas the traditional poetic puzzle is in verse, the puzzle-like structures in the Illuminations emerge as a feature of the prose poem as a distinct genre. The palindromic and anagrammatic structures in "Mystique" suggest the embedding of a reinvented poetic form in prose. The use of repeated sounds aligns the form with that of verse, yet the form corresponds specifically to the images and ideas in the prose poem, that is, the shape of the hillock and the acts of separating and joining. The embedded structures thus function much as the poetry that Rimbaud envisions in the "Lettre du voyant," in which the poet chooses a form corresponding to his visions: "si ce qu'il rapporte de la-bas a forme, il donne forme; si c'est informe, il donne de l'informe. Trouver une langue" (252). Because the form is unique to the work and embedded in prose, it is relatively difficult to perceive.

The model of the prose poem as puzzle accounts for the difficulty of perceiving the reinvented poetic form in prose. The reader must become highly active in searching for form and meaning, a challenge conveyed by the word "tri," which alludes to the operations necessary to find the hidden word. The "tri" confirms what Kittang terms Rimbaud's "poetique du faire" (187), while at the same time challenging Kittang's notion that the Illuminations are a "game" only in a metaphorical sense, as autonomous play divorced from communication (190-92). The "tri" points to Rimbaud's engagement of the reader in actual games, poetic jeux d'esprit.

The notion of the prose poem as puzzle does risk giving the impression that only one valid interpretation exists, representing the "solution." However, as Little has pointed out, the puzzle is simply a type of literary form and the solution to the puzzle is a part of that form; the prose poem's potential meanings exceed the puzzle's solution ("H" 140). "Mystique" confirms Little's insight. The palindromic and anagrammatic patterns in "Mystique" do not encapsulate the prose poem's meaning, but represent a formal structure contributing to the development of the work's themes and images. The palindromic structures draw attention to the mirroring shapes of the hillock and the basket, the word "tri" contributes to the themes of separation and combination, and the letter patterns as a whole elucidate the idea of a link between the "tableau," the artwork itself, and the spiritual landscape. The submerged patterns in "Mystique" bring the work's broader patterns into greater focus.


Ascione, Marc, and Jean-Pierre Chambon. "Les 'zolismes' de Rimbaud." Europe 529-530 (1973): 114-132.

Bivort, Olivier. "Pour une lecture textuelle des Illuminations." Rimbaud: Le poeme en prose et la traduction poetique. Ed. Sergio Sacchi. Tubingen: Gunter Narr, 1988. 39-49.

--. "Remarques sur l'alchimie du verbe." Litteratures 54 (2006): 133-146. Brunel, Pierre. Eclats de la violence: Pour une lecture comparatiste des Illuminations d'Arthur Rimbaud: Edition critique commentee. Paris: Corti, 2004.

--. "La poetique de l'enigme: Une devinette: 'H.'" "Minute d'eveil": Rimbaud maintenant. Paris: SEDES-CDU, 1984. 187-197.

Chaplot, C. La theorie et la pratique des jeux d'esprit. Paris: Mendel, [c. 1900].

Claes, Paul. "L'hermetisme des Illuminations." Parade Sauvage 19 (2003): 99-110.

Fusco, Susan Wirth. Syntactic Structure in Rimbaud's Illuminations: A Stylistic Approach to the Analysis of Form in Prose Poetry. University, Miss.: Romance Monographs, 1990.

Greiner, Thorsten. "Die Verwandlung des Satyrs: Zum Verstaendnis eines Rimbaud-Textes (Antique)." Romanistisches Jahrbuch 30 (1979): 100-111.

Guyaux, Andre. Duplicites de Rimbaud. Paris: Champion; Geneva: Slatkine, 1991.

Guyaux, Andre. Poetique du fragment: Essai sur les Illuminations de Rimbaud. Neuchatel: A la Baconniere, 1985.

Kingma-Eijgendaal, A.W.G. "Une lecture iconique de quelques Illuminations de Rimbaud." Neophilologus 66 (1982): 179-209.

Kittang, Atle. Discours et jeu: Essai d'analyse des textes d'Arthur Rimbaud. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget; Grenoble: PU de Grenoble, 1975.

Lalanne, Ludovic. Curiosites litteraires. Paris: Adolphe Delahays, 1857.

Little, Roger. "'H': L'enigme au-dela de l'enigme." Revue des Sciences Humaines 184 (1981): 129-144.

--. Rimbaud: Illuminations. London: Grant and Cutler, 1983.

--. "Rimbaud's 'Mystique': Some Observations." French Studies 26 (1972): 285-288.

Macklin, G.M. "A Study of Beginnings and Finales in Arthur Rimbaud's Illuminations." Neophilologus 68 (1984): 22-36.

Metzidakis, Stamos. Repetition and Semiotics: Interpreting Prose Poems. Birmingham: Summa, 1986.

--. "Visionner Rimbaud." Lire Rimbaud: Approches critiques: Hommages a James R. Lawler. Ed. Paul Perron and Sergio Villani. Toronto: Canadian Scholars', 2000. 69-82.

Murat, Michel. L'art de Rimbaud. Paris: Corti, 2002.

Pomet, Georges. "Faut-il 'decoder' Rimbaud? Note sur l'interpretation de 'Devotion.'" Revue des Sciences Humaines 133 (1969): 73-81.

Raybaud, Antoine. Fabrique d'"Illuminations." Paris: Seuil, 1989.

Rimbaud, Arthur. Une saison en enfer. Oeuvres completes. Ed. Antoine Adam. Paris: Pleiade, 1972. 93-117.

--. Illuminations. Oeuvres completes. Ed. Antoine Adam. Paris: Pleiade, 1972. 121-155.

--. "Rimbaud a Paul Demeny." 15 May 1871. Oeuvres completes. Ed. Antoine Adam. Paris: Pleiade, 1972. 249-254.

Todorov, Tzvetan. "Remarques sur l'obscurite." Rimbaud: Le poeme en prose et la traduction poetique. Ed. Sergio Sacchi. Tubingen: Gunter Narr, 1988. 11-17.

Whidden, Seth. "Lire 'H': Une question de temps." Lire Rimbaud: Approches critiques: Hommages a James R. Lawler. Ed. Paul Perron and Sergio Villani. Toronto: Canadian Scholars', 2000. 183-200.

(1) See Pomet, Ascione and Chambon, Kingma-Eijgendaal, and Claes.

(2) For discussions of phonetic patterns in the Illuminations, see also Guyaux, Poetique du fragment 169-175, Bivort, "Pour une lecture textuelle des Illuminations" 43-44, and Metzidakis, "Visionner Rimbaud" 77.

(3) Many critics have hesitated to attribute intentionality to a given structure in the Illuminations. However, Murat has emphasized that formal effects such as rhyme "ne sont pas des soubresauts d'un 'marteau sans maitre', mais des procedes porteurs d'intentions et d'enjeux esthetiques" (371).

(4) The placement of the letter patterns in the first sentence and their mirroring in the palindromic structure at the end of "Mystique" correspond to Macklin's observation about the importance of beginnings and endings in the Illuminations.

(5) For a discussion of the image of Judgment Day in "Mystique," see Brunel, Eclats de la violence 397-98.

(6) Lalanne's Curiosites litteraires (1857) reflects such a conception of anagrams in nineteenth-century France: he notes the importance of anagrams in the Kabbalah and speculates on their use in alchemy and "occult sciences" (8).

(7) SeeChaplot's discussion of the poetic jeu d'esprit (6).


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Title Annotation:Arthur Rimbaud
Author:Bordeau, Catherine
Publication:Romance Notes
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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