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On Rimbaud’s “Vowels”, Again: Vowels or Colors?

Victor Ginsburgh () and Stamos Metzidakis

No 2019-23, Working Papers ECARES from ULB -- Universite Libre de Bruxelles

Abstract: Arthur Rimbaud’s sonnet Vowels presents a poetic vision based ostensibly on a quasi-psychedelic or synesthetic experience. It has inspired writers, critics, painters, and singers for over a century mainly because of its often obscure form and content. From the first verse of the text, for instance, the author juxtaposes each of the normal five French vowels printed in capital letters with what appears to be a random choice of an "appropriate" color. As a result, the majority of readers assume that these colors somehow correspond, semantically speaking, to the selected vowels. In making such connections, however, our poet suggests that his specific fusion of basic colors and sounds is capable of generating not just one but multiple significations, be they religious, erotic, aesthetic, even anthropological. Yet the poem itself - an irregular French sonnet - already derives much of its obscurity from another odd feature: the faulty order of French vowels used by Rimbaud: A to O instead of A to U or Y. Formal explanations are often cited to justify this so-called "mistake." This paper demonstrates that his poem hides a different interpretation of the words used to expand upon these sound/color combinations. After all, vowels are metonymically linked to sounds, since they constitute the minimal elements of the latter. Contemporary linguists have discovered, however, that in almost all languages, colors come in the same fixed order of words - Black, White, Red, Green and Blue - that Rimbaud proposes. Indeed, in countless documents created over millennia, people in dissimilar societies have tended to identify the same basic colors in the same sequence, for reasons we can only begin to explore here. This previously unnoticed coincidence thus provides further proof that Rimbaud’s sonnet thematically conflates ideas about the historical Beginnings and Endings of various civilizations. Thanks to this chronological conflation, the poem also develops more effectively than previously thought three major themes: the Apocalypse, the Final Judgment, and the future of poetic language. Through its form and content, it thus specifically illustrates the future of French poetry, which Rimbaud compares elsewhere, paradoxically, to Ancient Greek poetry.

Keywords: ancient languages; Arthur Rimbaud; clairvoyance; symbolist poetics; synaesthesia; the Apocalypse of St. John (search for similar items in EconPapers)
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Date: 2019-10
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