The Hipsters of Bohemian Paris

THE lamp must be replenish’d, but even then

It will not burn so long as I must watch :

My slumbers if I slumber are not sleep,

But a continuance of enduring thought,

Which then I can resist not : in my heart

There is a vigil, and these eyes but close

To look within ; and yet I live, and bear

The aspect and the form of breathing men.

– Lord Byron, Manfred (1816)

While most tenants will often see the cramped quarters of a Brooklyn bachelor apartment as the very definition of squalor, the modern hipster, motivated by dreams of becoming a writer, artist, performer or musician, will often characterize their life as “Bohemian”. They have no money for regular clothing, so they dress in shabby, discount rags. They have no time for hygiene, so they grow their beards. And they really don’t have money for food, because they must starve for their art.

Bohemia may not be the birthplace of the starving artist, but at no time in history have there been so many intent on giving up literally every perk of “conventional” society to suffer for their work. The name ‘Bohemia’, taken from an archaic province of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was appropriated by a stalwart group of writers in Paris with a utopian vision for a republic where its residents lived on next to nothing, and whose currency consisted of tracts of brooding poetry.

But for every great artist who lived in Paris from the period of around 1830 to the turn of the century, there were dozens who emulated their work, their fashion, their consumption habits, their manner of speaking and essentially, their manner of living. Revolution after revolution disillusioned thousands of young men, and instead of protecting the country from outside aggressors like the Prussians in 1871, these youth fought tooth and nail for immortality.

Eugene Delacroix's

Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”, representing the 1830 July Revolution, marked a turning point in French Life.

Looking back on 19th century Parisian life, the young, idealist writer may see the republic of Bohemia as a kind of heaven. With thousands of young poets, playwrights and novelists vying to become the next Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire or Arthur Rimbaud, few other times in history brought so many desperate artists together into one area with the same need to produce le mot juste.

But many of those who lived within Bohemia’s invisible boundaries saw it as a kind of Hell. Rimbaud, the proto-punk icon who lived and breathed in the din of the decaying city, called one of his only surviving prose works Un Saison en Enfer, or A Season in Hell. Similarly, the poetry of Baudelaire, the great poet of The Flowers of Evil, described the malevolent nature of Parisian urban life on many occasions, including in his poem, “Benediction”:

When, by a supreme decree of Evil’s Expiation,

The Poet appears in the World, this-worn out City,

His terrified mother cries in exasperation

With shrivelled hands toward God, who takes her pity.

And beneath the streets of Paris, a small group of construction workers led by Charles-Axel Guillaumot, the director of quarries for the city, began to reinforce the ground by constructing a series of tunnels around the city. In 1774, a street called The Rue D’Enfer—literally meaning Hell Street—collapsed into a sinkhole, and Guillaumot was tasked with keeping all of Paris above ground.

For the next decade, he helped carve out almost 200 miles of underground tunnels beneath the city. Unbeknownst to the residents up above, a few lone workers were recreating the long streets several dozen feet below, saving it from ruin. In 1786, as the populace burst forth from the city walls, Paris was running out of cemetery space, and needed somewhere to put all the remains. In only a few years, these dark tunnels became one of the largest underground crypts ever built. Guillamot had built the Parisian Catacombs.

To understand the hipsters of the Latin Quarter, you must understand what La Bohème was to begin with. First and foremost, Bohemians were largely impoverished, and not a day went by without starvation and sickness inhabiting the crowded tenement houses where so many migrants from rural France lived. Named after the Austro-Hungarian region that hosted a large nomadic gypsy population in Europe, The “Republic of Bohemia” became a small nation within Paris that hosted transients, artists, alcoholics and drug addicts, the kind of people who could devote themselves religiously to anything but their finances.

But I will have to bring you back over half a century to explain why thousands of prima donnas swilled their absinthe and indulged in endless nuits blanches, hoping to immortalize their art. For one of the most iconic cultural movements in history, one that created a unique hipster culture from the hovels of Pigalle to the salons of the Tuileries, started not in the heart of Paris, but in a small chalet in the Italian Alps.

***

“When every man has his face half covered with black hair, it ceases to be a very valuable distinction,” said a young British novelist by the name of Frances Trollope in a series of letters called Paris and the Parisians in 1835. She had come to Paris to observe the French in a time of relative peace, neither encumbered by violent revolution nor Napoleonic tyranny. When she walked through The Tuileries in Paris on one bright morning, Trollope noticed a pattern in the fashion and demeanor of young men. For some reason, not only was their clothing uniformly black from head to toe, but their hair, long and unkempt, resembled that of a world-famous Englishman that died a little over a decade earlier.

Lord Byron was one of the many Romantic poets who ostensibly altered the state of literature forever, if not directly from his pen, then indirectly through his reputation. The early 1800’s were the age of Romantic literature, spurned by a number of flashy English poets and novelists who carried a certain idealism in their work. The themes of Byron (“She walks in beauty”), William Wordsworth (“Nature never did betray the heart that loved her!”) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan”) made a whole generation of young men and women fervent dreamers.

Byron, like his compatriots, injected his verse with the Romantics’ telling sentimentality and sensitivity, but he differed from them by including the scandalous details of his personal life into his verse.

In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Byron and their friend John William Polidori sought the clear air and fair weather of the Swiss Alps, but instead of idle sunbathing and lengthy excursions, they were forced indoors by powerful electrical storms and abnormal weather. The eruption of Batavia’s Mount Tambora in 1815 would literally cause Europe to “miss” a whole summer because of its effect on global weather. So the young writers, stuck indoors and justifiably bored, decided to make up their respective horror stories.

Byron's unkempt hair and dark poetry inspired countless young men to do the same.

Byron’s unkempt hair and dark poetry inspired countless young men to do live rebelliously and pursue the arts at any cost.

Byron and Shelley abandoned their stories almost right away, but Mary Shelley persisted in her creation. For one reason or another, the necessity to confront a horrifying incarnation–and one created by her, for that matter–affected her so badly that she suffered violent, semi-conscious nightmares relating to a “hideous phantasm of a man”. Thus, with the poets mocking her brooding reflectiveness, she saw for the first time the mental image of what would become the most recognizable monster in modern pop culture. After a mad scramble to meet the group deadline, she first introduced the story of a precocious Swiss doctor called Frankenstein.

And Polidori, the proverbial fourth-wheel on this trip, would complete his story, a novella called The Vampyre, now considered the first example of the mythic creature being associated with romance (just imagine a world without Twilight). Two of the most fundamental cultural icons of modern Western Folklore may not have been created were it not for a volatile combination of creative genius and boredom.

While the others created monstrosities, Byron began his own foray into the tenebrous caverns of the supernatural. But the subject of his work-in-progress, Manfred, dealt with a more immediate scandal across the pond.

One reason Byron left for the Swiss Alps was an alleged affair that defined his reputation for better or for worse. In 1813, the poet allegedly had a brief affair with his half-sister, Augusta Byron Leigh. The local gossip mill went viral over accusations of incest. They kept the affair a secret at first, but when Augusta birthed a child in 1814, many speculated that it was Byron’s. The child’s name, Elizabeth Medora, resembled the name of a quasi-mythical character from one of his earlier poems.

While critics still question the veracity of the affair today, Byron “ran with it”, so to speak, and spent the Fall of 1816 composing his paranormal epic about an incestuous relationship.

I mention Manfred because the formation of Bohemian Paris as we know it today would likely not have been the same without it. For countless writers, visionaries, entrepreneurs and fashionistas, Byron’s poem was the bellwether for a whole new way of thinking. A whole new way of living.

France, itself awash in a wave of Romantic novelists, foresaw the end of idealism and gave itself in to the whims of evil. Their heroes did not indulge in the prettiness of flowers or the revelatory forces of nature, but rather bathed in the muck of sacrilege and sin. They didn’t worship Faust, but Mephistopheles. 

The somber character of Manfred did to Paris what grunge and emo music did to angry youth. “Sorrow is Knowledge”, says Manfred in the poem’s overture. Some youth reported illness upon reading, others claimed they suffered from mad wanderlust, threatening to jump ship to Africa.

The revolution of 1830 brought Paris back to its time-honored tradition of political upheaval. With a populace sick of another Bourbon monarch imposing theological repression upon the citizenry, angry Parisians sacked the Tuileries and the Louvre in as little as three days. Inspired by the events, an artist known as Eugène Delacroix painted the iconic images of the revolution, the bare-breasted Marianne clutching the French flag atop the rubble in his most famous work, Liberty Leading the People.

For many in 1830 and for many today, the painting is a symbol of the fervent zeal of the French underclass. Like the silhouetted face of Che Guevara or Shepard Fairey’s blue and red “Hope” poster of Barack Obama, the Marianne is the product of an artist who put had one foot in politics and another in the darker, grittier side of humanity.

The origins of Bohemia are as varied as the artists who inhabited it, but along with Byron’s Manfred, one of Delacroix’s earlier paintings set the tone for the Bohemian image of stylized vagrancy and poverty.

The Massacre at Scio retells the actual massacre of Greeks by invading Ottoman forces in 1822. But beyond the horrific context of the work, the painting depicts the swarthy flesh, sultanate fashion and sexually-charged mystique of the Orient. The hipsters of today might have a little to say about the “Orientalism” of the painting, but to the Parisian children of the revolution, the painting represented the suffering for art and beauty.

Delacroix’s graphic horror, along with Byron’s Manfred and Alexandre Dumas’ firebrand stage-play, Antony, inspired a whole generation of young men to suffer for their art.

The confluence of various cultural artifacts both local and international prompted a number of underground movements to begin. Some were basic coteries of failed poets trying to gain a reputation into a French society still deeply stratified by class; others went directly from the class divide and used their words to express their gripe against the haute bourgeoisie. But what bridged all these movements together is a pointed awareness for an aesthetic identity.

***

What Trollope noticed during her daytime sojourns were a wholly different breed compared to the usual writers-in-residence that populated the bustling metropolises of Europe. And as cultural historian Ken Gelder notes, the Bohemians lacked money. Not only did most of them flaunt their writerly chops, they also flaunted their lack of money as a sign of martyrdom to the dark arts of poetry, prose and playwriting.

In his wonderful book, Exile’s Return, author Malcolm Cowley compared the Bohemians to a subculture we looked at in chapter 6, the writers of Grub Street in London:

Grub Street develops in the metropolis of any country or culture as soon as men are able to earn a precarious living with pen or pencil; bohemia is a revolt against certain features of industrial capitalism and can exist only in a capitalist society. Grub Street is a way of life unwillingly followed by the intellectual proletariat; bohemia attracts its citizens from all economic classes: there are not a few bohemia millionaires, but they are expected to imitate the customs of penniless artists. Bohemia is Grub Street romanticized, doctrinalized, and rendered self-conscious; it is Grub Street on parade.

The Bohemians contain many of the ingredients of the traditional hipster; they are imitative, self-aware and possess the semi-delusional belief that their way of life is not only more important than that of the average “bourgeois” (i.e. employed professional), but also vital to the survival of culture.

Bohemians used their poverty as a mark of distinction, their unemployment as a form of social protest. As Joanna Richardson notes in her book, The Bohemians, everyday life “demands self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control, a sense of social responsibility.” Unfortunately, she adds, “[they] were qualities which the Bohemians did not possess.”

So what did they do with their lives?  Let’s start with the Bousingots.

The term ‘Bousingot’ derives from a satirical piece written in the Figaro in 1832 by a journalist called Leon Gozlan, who used it to describe a number of men who were arrested for singing loudly in the streets. As a Parisian term for noise, Bousingot bears a stark resemblance to a another group I profiled earlier in this book, the Roaring Boys and Roaring Girls of Elizabethan England. Whenever you find disruption of the literary world, it seems you can always find youth making themselves heard.

As described by Trollope, the Bousingots were brooding, stylish and obtrusively loud

As described by Trollope, the Bousingots were brooding, stylish and obtrusively loud.

But to clearly define them as hipsters, we need to take a closer look at the sense of style. Some vivid descriptions by biographers and the great novelists of the day, Honoré de Balzac, reveal a particular aesthetic codified in their clothing and personal hygiene. The Bousingots wore their beards scruffy and their hair long, feigning a downtrodden look while also adorning themselves in tightly cropped suits and the bolder fashions of the day.

The “leader” of the Bousingots (as not all of them appropriated the term for themselves) was a man known as Pétrus Borel, a thin-faced man with a Spanish complexion and an absolute distaste for all things traditional. Borel was a hipster in almost every sense of the term; like the ardent critics of the contemporary mainstream, he loved to hate works far more than he appreciated them.

Borel was also known as the “lycanthrope” of Paris, an image he cultivated in both his writings and daily life. The model for this nocturnal aesthetic, he  fancied himself a young Castilian who was both foreign and mysterious. Although he lived in Paris until 1872, he would possess the Byronic posture of a stranger in a land awaiting his acculturated perspective.

Considering the eye-rolling narcissism of these young gentlemen, it’s fitting that the best descriptions of the subculture we have today are from two of the most famous female authors of the day, British novelist Frances Trollope and French icon George Sand. The former, who ran into some of them in the Jardin de Tuileries while sojourning in Paris during a vacation, describes their style in great detail: “We amused ourselves by speculating upon the propensity manifested by very young men,” she said, “who were still subjected to restraint, for the overthrow and destruction of everything that denotes authority or threatens discipline.”

Petrus Borel, the lycanthrope of Paris

Petrus Borel, the lycanthrope of Paris

Later in her walk around Paris, she found “four or five hundred” of these same “disorderly young men” accosting a professor for the crime of representing the stodginess of academia.

But for all the disorderly rumblings of the loudmouth street walkers, the Bousingots primarily wrote, and did so with the incessancy of Ginsberg and Kerouac on a Benzedrine cocktail. For them, writing was not a métier, but rather a way of living every second of one’s life.

What outsiders called this novel grouping of young men was rococo.  “This new-born word is ‘rococo’,” said Trollope, “and appears to me to be applied by the young and innovating to everything which bears the stamp of the taste, principles, or feelings of time past.” It’s worth noting that the young hipsters of the July Revolution, then, likely inspired the song “Rococo” by modern-day hipster idols The Arcade Fire, who use the term to satirize the naive plight of modern youth:

Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids

They will eat right out of your hand

Using great big words that they don’t understand

They’re singing:

Rococo, rococo, rococo, rococo

Rococo, rococo, rococo, rococo.

But for all the posturing in the streets of Paris, dozens of writers moved behind closed doors to write, and write incessantly. The extravagances of the Moulin Rouge, made all-the-more popular by the 2001 Baz Luhrmann musical of the same name, were often too much for the writers, who instead sought out the decrepit attics of tenement houses to write, paint and sculpt without inhibition. And their style responded less to the high fashion of the bourgeoisie and more to the mythical inclinations of dead poets. Most of the Bousingot poets smoked constantly because of its association with Romantic Spain and Lord Byron, who believed smoking gave one a sense of “fatality.”

Their manner of dress emulated the same pattern that many other hipster movements did before and after them. The end of the Romantic era also meant an end to the frilly, peacock style of dandyism, to the brooding reds and bright pantaloons. The Bousingot style was more serious and, to their satisfaction, more mournful. Some fashion historians identified this shift in Parisian fashion and dubbed it the “Great Masculine Renunciation”.

George Sand noticed the habits of these youth, who seemed more inclined to hang around the busy garden and look good than do anything productive with their life: “But a certain number of youth,” she says, “remain attached to these habits of dandyism, of billiards, or endless smoking at estaminets [a small Parisian bar], or in wandering around in loud groups in the Jardin de Luxembourg.”

But the authorities had also tired of the youth, who were intent on growing their own “Occupy” movement in the middle of Paris. Trollope recognized the Bousingots by their hats, “whose crown”, she says, “if raised for a few inches more would be conical, is highest in importance, as in place. On the particular day she walked around the Place Vendome, she noticed the young students encamped on the grass, bickering with the passing authorities:

In the midst of lilacs and roses an encampment of small white tents showed their warlike fronts. Arms, drums, and all sorts of military accoutrements were visible among them; while loitering troops, some smoking, some reading, some sleeping, completed the unwonted appearance of the scene.

The only spine these student militias upheld were those on their books. Trollope soon noticed a police officer shooing them away, and in that hasty dispersal, found two Bousingots to draw. In their ridiculous hats and tight suits, she sketched an image of them in their signature, sulking demeanor.

***

But for the all the noble-minded poseurs of the Byronic hero, worth noting are the Viveurs, another subculture that leeched off of the fraternity of Bohemia for its own personal gain. Today, the word ‘Bohemian’ not only evokes the long list of artists who suffered financially for their art, but also the many imitators of the vicious game.

The Viveurs were the men and women of the upper bourgeoisie and aristocracy who dipped their toes in the Bohemian lifestyle but just as easily took their sedans home from their dining clubs and exclusive cafés, satiated with what they believed was “culture” at its most genuine.

But what ultimately separated the Viveurs from the genuine sufferers of art was the revolution of 1848. The same discontent for the leisure class that drove the Jacobins and the Republicans in previous upheavals prompted this revolution, whose main target were those who could afford La Dolce Vita of the gilded cafés of the Latin Quarter. I mentioned earlier the Bohemian fascination with the Oriental; many of the wealthy Viveurs expressed that obsession through interior design and fashion, often “thrifting”, as a young Williamsburg hipster may do, on Ottoman weaponry and Narghiles, the traditional version of the hookah. What would a hipster be without the occasional foray to their local head shop?

Les Viveurs imitated the manners of the Bohemian poor, but took comfort in expensive taste

Les Viveurs imitated the manners of the Bohemian poor, but took comfort in expensive taste

The Viveurs were those who indulged in the excesses of Bohemia, most of which the poor could not afford. While they drank Veuve Clicquot, the poor often spent their remaining money on absinthe, the drink pejoratively known as “The Green Fairy”. Rumored to have hallucinatory properties, the poets who drank it did so to liberate their minds. But its mystique as a magical narcotic stems more from what its drinkers lacked than what the elixir contains. Often famished and too poor to afford food, the poets likely championed its properties because their hunger accentuated its effects. Take Baudelaire’s view of the drink:

None of that equals the poison that flows
from your eyes, your eyes of green,
lakes where, mirrored, my trembling soul is seen…
my dreams come flocking, a host,
to quench their thirst in the bitter stream.

On the subject of drug use, Bohemian life would not be as genuine without the allure of absinthe nor the exotic draw of hashish and opium. Many were drawn by their association with the far east and orient. Others, like the poet Baudelaire, saw their use as a window into a whole new world of understanding.

Over a century before the hippies of Haight-Ashbury began their experiments with LSD, Baudelaire wrote of his own drug-induced experiences in the streets of Paris. Unlike many of the artists who migrated from the country, Baudelaire lived a semi-charmed existence in Paris from the time he was a child, and he only suffered the pangs of ill health and hunger because he squandered all of his money.

This is not an exaggeration. In his twenties, the man some credit as the founder of modernist poetry was deemed unfit to handle money, and he and his three cats were forced to meander from house to house, looking for one of his fellow poet friends to put them up.

If brooding thought and exoticism were the paints with which the Paris youth colored their verses, then Baudelaire was the main supplier of their inspiration. His view of Paris is no better represented than by in his book, Paris Spleen, where he riffs upon the mad confluence of artists and vagrants in the city’s down-and-out quarters. “The solitary and thoughtful stroller derives a singular intoxication from this universal communion,” he says of the urbanite in his prose-poem, “Crowds”.

But his effect upon the Bohemian hipster should not be understated. Baudelaire, like Delacroix or Victor Hugo in the earlier days of Bohemia, channeled the philosophical dualities of the starving artist. In the essay “The White Negro”, Norman Mailer explains the role of the urban mystic, and its description is uncannily similar to Baudelaire’s project:

[The Mystic’s] inner experience of the possibilities within death is his logic. So, too, for the existentialist. And the psychopath. And the saint and the lover. The common denominator for all of them is their burning consciousness of the present, exactly: that incandescent consciousness which the possibilities within death had opened for them.

 Baudelaire’s short book, The Artificial Paradises, inspired various other works revolving around the theme of experimentation, including Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In his poem, “The Poison”, Baudelaire describes the ecstasy of its potent high:

Opium heightens our unlimited Illusions

Beyond Eternity

Deepens Time, hollows Sensuality,

And, with the pleasures of our Delusions,

Fills the soul beyond its own captivity.

Baudelaire was 21 years old in 1842, and had just come back from a trip to Indian Ocean. While most of the Bohemians would have been lucky to leave the Latin Quarter in one piece, Baudelaire’s whirlwind tour of the tropics of Africa and nearby Mauritius would only contribute to his mystique. To the young poets, Baudelaire represented the bridge between the mysterious East and modern Europe.

Baudelaire grew up in an upper middle class home, and lived relatively comfortably

And like the royalist gentry trying to gentrify on the Right Bank, Baudelaire outfitted his first studio apartment  with whatever Oriental antiques he could find in the bazaars of Montmartre and the Latin Quarter.

In his room, Baudelaire hung a painting by Delacroix, The Women of Algiers, as well as a tableau of lithographs depicting Hamlet’s descent into tragedy, a melodrama the young Charles tried to emulate several times throughout his daily life. Baudelaire’s portrait of himself, painted by a close friend, hung nearby above his fireplace. The young poet fancied the piece, which made him look like every Bohemian’s favorite anti-hero, Mephistopheles, a devil appearing in Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s epic Faust, and Byron’s Manfred.

Bohemians fawned over all things

Bohemians fawned over all things “oriental”, including Eugene Delacroix’s “The Women of Algiers”, which hung in Baudelaire’s bedroom.

But he also confronted the issue of the authentic “self”, an important aspect of Parisian life given the brimming narcissism of the quasi-political subcultures inhabiting its underworld. Another one of his prose poems, In “The Painter of Modern Life”, Baudelaire made a cause for wearing makeup and dressing extravagantly.

Instead of attacking the hip socialites of hedonist Bohemia, he praised their penchant for artificiality. ”The dandy should aspire to be uninterruptedly sublime,” he said. “He should live and sleep in front of a mirror.” Many worshipped the doctrine of Baudelaire because he so insistently put himself and his image before anything else, including his finances, which he was deemed unfit to handle for most of his twenties.

But he had loftier goals. While working at a political magazine in the late 1840’s, he holed himself up in his bedroom read treatise after treatise, and when he emerged, he mingled with activists hoping to subvert the social order. One of them, excitedly lapping over the prospect of an upcoming revolution, told Baudelaire, “my appetite functions in accordance to the great things I mean to achieve.” The man was Joseph Proudhon, the founder of anarchism. With such inspiration, it is no wonder that the poet was, in the words of a fellow writer, was “fidgeting to rush off to martyrdom.”

But a world of refined political ideals could not mend his love life. In a letter written shortly after breaking up with his girlfriend, Jeanne, he lamented how his friends might see his girlfriend: “I do not want them to see a woman who was once mine, beautiful, healthy and elegant, in poverty, lll and badly dressed.”

And Baudelaire admitted himself that he was a dandy, going so far as to rebuke the impulses of revolution, preferring artificial judgement to emotion and makeup to the natural figure.In his series of essays “The Painter of Modern Life”, Baudelaire defines the dandy as “[the] man who is rich and idle, and who, even if blasé, has no other occupation than the perpetual pursuit of happiness.”

Now let’s jump ten years ahead, where Baudelaire has just left court because his book of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal, was deemed obscene by censors and subsequently banned. After losing the trial, he walked the streets in an all-black suit, emulating the crape of a mournful widow. In a solemn tone, he told a journalist that he was “in mourning” for his book, which he believed would never see the light of day.

“Fashion,” he writes, “should thus be considered as a symptom of the taste for the ideal which floats on the surface of all the crude, terrestrial and loathsome bric-a-brac that the natural life accumulates in the human brain.”

***

Arthur Rimbaud and a cult of one

In the Fall of 1870, a young schoolboy from the North of France arrived in Paris with nothing but a few sous and a couple of rags of verse in his pocket. Like any other youth from his time, he spent his childhood reading incessantly and learning how to emulate the greats, including Victor Hugo, Francois Villon and his predecessor, Charles Baudelaire. The latter especially had a profound effect on the reams of poetry he’d knocked out with relative indifference.

The reason that the arrival of Arthur Rimbaud would make such a big impact on the lives of the innumerable poets was his lack of pretension. This kid hadn’t burned the midnight oil along the skids of Faubourg St.Germain, and neither did he roam the coulisses of the tenement houses looking for bread in exchange for a pack of regurgitated Alexandrines, the standard poetic meter of the day.

In only four years, the teenager would upend the poetic mores of a whole generation of predecessors. But by the end of his tenure in the City of Lights—and additionally, before the end of his adolescence—Rimbaud will have rewritten the rules of poetry, planted the first seeds of literary modernism and written arguably the most famous poem of the 19th century.

Rimbaud was a divisive figure who was both loved and loathed by his peers, from his time as a precocious Grammar School Student to a messianic figure in the Parisian Art world. The origin of his last name, ribaud, was a blanket term for a vagrant, at one point in the lexicon meaning everything from a prostitute to a vagabond. But Rimbaud was an outlaw, bound by little but verse and depravity from a young age.

But Rimbaud espoused certain opinions that set him apart from the hack poets of the day. In A Season in Hell, his autobiographical journey through hashish bars, opium dens, absinthe binges, also contains fragments of proto-feminism throughout the text.  “I see women with the marks of happiness whom I might have turned into good comrades,” he says, “but who are instantly consumed by brutes who have all the sensitivity of a stake.”

Writing over a century after Rimbaud’s punk ballads drew the ire of the traditionalists and the bewilderment of the Parnassians, Patti Smith lauded him for his proto-feminist verse. Rimbaud was “[the] first guy who ever made a big women’s liberation statement, saying that when women release themselves from the long servitude of men they’re really gonna gush. New rhythms, new poetries, new horrors, new beauties.”

The Parnassians were a group of poets who attempted to revive Greek literature into the modern day by combining tradition French verse with antiquated texts. Rimbaud laughed them off immediately as “schoolboys”, “imbeciles” and even “journalists”.

Arthur Rimbaud (second from the left) and Paul Verlaine (Second from the right) in a painting by Henri Fantin-Latour

Arthur Rimbaud (second from the left) and Paul Verlaine (Second from the right) in a painting by Henri Fantin-Latour

But since Napoleon III took power in 1851, censorship pushed the writers to the back rooms of Paris, away from the loud, public forum of occupied parks and rampant city streets. Rimbaud arrived from the small town of Charleville, north of Paris. When a fifteen year-old Rimbaud sent some verse to Paul Verlaine, another up and coming poet, he was invited to grace the presence of various writing groups.

Rimbaud lived as an outsider in Paris, to the point that the secret service, in reporting on the youth at large in the salons full of artists and intellectuals, dubbed him a “Paris Irregular”. But as a feminist, anarchist and homosexual youth with barely a franc to his name but a talent for writing verse, Rimbaud would later take on a kind of messianic aura, particularly when described by hipsters of the Modern era.

Arthur Rimbaud arrived in Paris at the tail end of one of the most bizarre but vivacious cultural movements ever witnessed. Not a few months after Paris was defeated in the short Franco-Prussian war, a group of radical Marxists known as Communards occupied the middle of Paris, setting up barricades and taking control of neighborhoods. General dissatisfaction with the crushing defeat of the French fueled many young men, as did their readings of Joseph Proudhon—the Parisian who pioneered anarchism—and Karl Marx, who Rimbaud saw several times at the British Museum library only a few years later.

The Paris Commune lasted only a few months, when the working classes and young Communist sympathizers teamed up with government troops who refused to shoot at protesting women. As did the royal family nearly a century before, the government fled to Versailles, leaving the center of Paris out of government control.

Too nihilistic to be a political activist, Rimbaud frequented the Commune but never engaged in combat with the authorities. He nevertheless regaled at the implosion of Paris during long walks around the occupied streets, absorbing the destruction and bloodshed as earlier poets may have gazed at bright flowers:

After your feet have danced at such a raging pace,

Paris! Sprawling prostrate, stabbed by so many knives,

And while in your clear eyes, through fugitive the trace,

some lingering sweetness of the fallow Spring survives.

Rimbaud wrote “Paris Repopulated” (or as it’s more crudely known, “Orgie Parisienne”) around the time when the blood of the protesters ran through the streets. The French government lay siege to Paris, resulting in the massacre of 25,000. But Rimbaud was more interested in laying siege to his own personality. The city had changed him, and he wanted to embrace the destructive tendencies he associated with urban depravity.

A young Patti Smith idolized Rimbaud, whose protofeminism and no-nonsense approach to poetry made him a visionary among countless hacks.

A young Patti Smith idolized Rimbaud, whose protofeminism and no-nonsense approach to poetry made him a visionary among countless hacks.

The letters and biographies of poets from the era refer to many subgroups of poets, many of the writers wanted to rebuild the local literary scene from the ground up, and they did so by converging in the dimly-lit inns of the Latin Quarter. In a hashish-filled room off the beaten path of St.Germain de Près, Rimbaud met the group of avant-garde poets, who had recently adopted the nickname their opponents had dubbed them: The Nasty Fellows.

This group of poets undertook an artistic method that blended irony with cultural cynicism. They were one of the first groups to embrace meaninglessness as an act of freedom. Their verse was sarcastic and often lewd; during the few months that Rimbaud stayed with them, he wrote poems about toilet bowls and exhibitionist vagrants. By virtue of his own curiosity, he also explored Queer Poetry in a crudely-named “asshole sonnet”, an ode to sodomy that remained banned in France until the 1960’s.

Unlike the Viveurs, the Bousingots, and even his Nasty Fellow colleagues, the young northerner didn’t need some well-adorned coterie to boost the merit of his work. And unlike the thousands of men who moved from the nether regions of France and abroad to try to emulate the great life of their demi-god rake, Lord Byron, and unlike the precocious youth who brooded out of artistic principle and spent whatever money they had left to evoke the stylings of gothic horror, the kid from Charleville had barely introduced himself to Paris before the poets of his day lauded him as the next messiah of verse.

What Rimbaud would do was essentially set out the roadmap for the works of the beat poets, who would eventually become the founding fathers of hipsterdom in Greenwich village. In a letter to a friend, he proclaimed the simple adage, ‘I’ is somebody else, which would release poetry from the bind of a single perspective. To Rimbaud, The ‘I’ limited the exploration of images, of disparate words creating spontaneous ideas. This compulsion to create through spontaneity would enliven the beatniks of the 1940’s and 50’s, and forever alter the course of poetry.

In his book Vie de Bohème: A Patch of Romantic Paris, historian Orlo Williams presents an apt description of the time and place. “The republic of Bohemia in general,” he writes, “had all the follies and virtues, the amiability and brutality of youth. It was generous, noisy, more often hungry than drunk, often on the verge of despair and always fantastically clothed.”

Not all cultural time periods host fair conditions for the hipster to emerge, but the age of Bohemia allowed for more than just the experimentation of letters. Rather, it also permitted the experimentation of the self; from the playful Satanism of the early Bohemians to the proto-psychedelic affinities of the latter-day Parnassians, the forty-year period between the July revolution and the Paris Commune became the ultimate petri dish to experiment on the self.

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