Reader’s Corner: Rimbaud in Ethiopia

The legend of Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) is an intoxicating one. He started writing young, and by the time he was done at 21 years of age, had quite possibly changed Western literature forever. Poems like The Drunken Boat ripped something open in the era’s creative mindset:

If there is one water in Europe I want, it is the
Black cold pool where into the scented twilight
A child squatting full of sadness, launches
A boat as fragile as a butterfly in May…

Rimbaud also led the poetic lifestyle that many adolescents would dream to emulate. He debauched, he innovated, he caroused, he blazed forth briefly and brilliantly, he defined libertine.

He also may have changed history.

Rimbaud in Harar, Ethiopia (self-portrait, c. 1883)

After a dustup with his lover, poet Paul Verlaine, in which Verlaine ended up shooting him, Rimbaud left France. In 1880, he washed up in, all of all places, the ancient trading city of Harar in Ethiopia. There, Rimbaud changed from dangerously licentious artiste to jack-of-all-goods trader. He even became an arms dealer, at one point agreeing to secure weapons for Ethiopia’s emperor, Menelik II, who apparently swindled Rimbaud out of the money he was promised.

According to Rachel Doyle:

Frustration aside, Rimbaud’s procurement of weapons for Menelik II may have been his greatest contribution to modern African history. Scholars reckon that the guns he sold in 1887 likely helped the emperor defeat Italy in 1896 when the country’s troops tried to invade Ethiopia. As a result of the rout at Adwa, Italy signed a treaty recognizing Ethiopia as an independent nation…

It’s not every poet who is still remembered over a century after their death. And it’s certainly not every poet who might have changed the course of world history.