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127 years after his death, letters of love and angst still come to Rimbaud’s grave.

Aaron Robertson

July 31, 2019, 3:41pm

I’ve always loved the tradition of trekking to a beloved author’s grave and leaving gifts for them (and future visitors) to find. Attention has recently turned to the resting place of Arthur Rimbaud, that scraggly-haired tempestuous poet, in the Charleville-Mézières cemetery in northern France.

Bernard Colin has been the sexton of Charleville-Mézières for the last 37 years (coincidentally, Rimbaud was 37 when he died prematurely of bone cancer). Colin regularly receives two or three weekly mail drops in a yellow postbox outside the cemetery and stores the many letters addressed to the poet in shoeboxes.

Some of these bemoan fading youth, while others wish Rimbaud well. Those who don’t leave empty, commemorative absinthe bottles might opt instead to deposit cigarette packages. “People confide in Rimbaud about their disillusionment,” Colin told the Agence France-Presse. “He is their confidant. They talk to him as if he were still alive.” Colin has even come across couples having sex between the grave’s two white headstones, which I imagine would’ve made Rimbaud glad.

Rimbaud lived an often turbulent life plagued at times by opium addiction and a passionate tryst with fellow poet Paul Verlaine (who once shot Rimbaud in the arm during an argument in Belgium). The changing cultural tide of the 1960s spurred a Rimbaud revival, thanks in no small part to The Doors‘ Jim Morrison. In 1969, a museum in Rimbaud’s name opened in Charleville.

When Colin took over the position of caretaker from his predecessor, he was told that no one was interested in visiting the poet at the time.

Fast forward 40 years and the enfant terrible‘s renaissance feels fully realized. It wasn’t long ago that Patti Smith bought a reconstruction of Rimbaud’s childhood home in the village of Roche, near the French-Belgian border. Decades after serving as a touchstone for the likes of River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain, and Leonardo DiCaprio, the poet’s rebel chic has even found its way into 21st-century fashion trends.

Among the most sensitive reflections on Rimbaud’s life in recent years is Charlie Fox’s This Young Monster (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017), an incredible history of monsters, freaks, and other outcasts, real or not, in Western pop culture.

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