By Graham Robb

Norton. 552 pp. $35

There are no two ways about it: Arthur Rimbaud was the father of modern poetry. Until then, poetry could be obscure and difficult but had to be decipherable: A poem had to mean as well as be. Rimbaud opened the floodgates of the irrational, and not just the unconscious and repressed but also the illogical and the perverse. The process was not so much free association as enforced dissociation. Rational explication of a poem became impossible or, at best, conjectural. You could perhaps trace the origin of an image, the grain of sand that caused it; the pearl, however, beggared analysis.

No use debating whether this was a good thing: Rimbaud happened and changed the landscape of poetry forever. Although not all modern poets have subscribed to the change, none of them could safely ignore it. There could have been a Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur without it; there could not have been a Wallace Stevens or Hart Crane. And to think that this was achieved by a young man who wrote his important poems from age 16 to 21, then stopped writing poetry and devoted his remaining 16 years to pursuits antithetical to it.

In the introduction to his fine new critical biography, Rimbaud, Graham Robb remarks on the poet's enormous popularity today among both serious academicians and swinging youth. "An annual average of ten books and eighty-seven articles" is published on this puzzling figure who refuses to reveal himself entirely but about whom new facts keep trickling into view, all of them attended to in Robb's thorough and up-to-date work.

Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud was born in 1854 to a dour and pious provincial woman, Vitalie Cuif, and a roving officer, Capt. Frederic Rimbaud, whose visits to his wife were sporadic and, after the begetting of several children, ceased altogether. The family lived either in the town of Charleville in the Ardennes or on their farm in nearby Roche, both of which the precocious Arthur found stifling. Nevertheless, he became for a while a model student, excelling especially in Latin poetry.

Soon, however, what has been called Rimbaud's dromomania--the restless need to be on the go--set in. Arthur had sent some verses to one of the then leading Parisian poets, who could not appreciate what Robb calls "troublesome images erupting in the simple narrative like mole-hills on a lawn." Forthwith the youth himself ran off to Paris but was arrested on arrival. His inspiring new teacher, young George Izambard, had to bail him out and expedite him home. His next flight, on foot, was to Douai, to the home of Izambard's kindly aunts. The third (1871) led to a fortnight in Paris. These were the troublous times of the Franco-Prussian War and the ensuing Commune, a harshly suppressed revolution. Rimbaud's own rebellion consisted of scatological anti-God graffiti on park benches and the shedding of his virginity "with a farm girl, a prostitute, or if his cafe stories can be believed, a dog."

In 1871 in Paris, he lived the life of a miserable, "sleeping on coal barges and competing with dogs for scraps of food." Back in Charleville, he sent to another Paris poet, Paul Demeny, the famous "letter of the seer," outlining his revolutionary and outrageous poetic program. This included "the reasoned derangement of all the senses" and the enthroning of the poet as mage. Presently he was writing a poem that Robb calls "one of the loveliest descriptions in French poetry of the act of defecation," making one wonder what the competition was.

Rimbaud's leanings toward homosexuality emerged early. To the poet Paul Verlaine, divining such tendencies in his work, Arthur sent five poems having in common "bottoms and acts of pederasty." Not long after, the youth was welcomed in Paris by the 10-years-older Verlaine, whose marriage to Mathilde Maute the intruder proceeded to wreck. Together, the poets immersed themselves in the artistic and bohemian life of Paris, where drinking absinthe may have been the least of their excesses.

As Verlaine described his seducer, "A kind of sweetness glimmered in those cruel, pale blue eyes and those powerful red lips with their acrimonious curl." Meanwhile Rimbaud was beginning to switch from formal verse, as in his epochal "Drunken Boat" and sensational, synesthetic "Vowels," to poems in free verse (his own invention) and even in prose, which would form eventually A Season in Hell and Illuminations.

Concurrently, Rimbaud and Verlaine, who were to become "the Adam and Eve of modern homosexuality," set out on their wanderings to Belgium and England, back and forth, until Arthur returned to Roche. He liked his sisters, hated his mother and, apparently, missed the father who had deserted them. In weird little chansons, he was erasing his personality from his poems, achieving a disturbing abstractness. A Brussels policeman wrote in a dossier: "He can construct poems like no one else, but his works are incomprehensible and repulsive"--the first, but far from the last, such criticism. Examining the two vagabond poets' bodies showed "that these two creatures were in the habit of fighting and lacerating each other like wild animals just so they could have the pleasure of making up again afterwards."

So they traveled, lived hand to mouth, took occasional jobs (or tried to--Verlaine had an allowance), until Verlaine, drunk and hounded by his wife and in-laws, shot Rimbaud in the wrist. At the trial, Arthur did not mention Paul's inebriated state, thereby helping his lover earn two years of prison. Also in Belgium, Rimbaud got a tiny edition of his poetry published, the only one he was ever to see. It sank without much of a trace. To most people, the poems looked like spontaneous ejaculations, though, when the drafts were posthumously published, they revealed "a laborious process of accretion and erosion."

Although Robb makes gallant stabs at interpreting A Season in Hell, he no more than anyone else can provide definitive explications, despite his claim that the poems are less obscure than they have been made out to be. It may indeed be "one of the first modern works of literature to show that experiments with language are also investigations into the self." But does that validate Robb's claim for it as "an autobiography that is also a history of the western mind"?

The book's failure did not immediately deter Rimbaud from writing poetry; as Robb remarks, "Rome was not demolished in one day." Nevertheless, the petering out began in the course of writing his most advanced and arcane poems, the Illuminations. It led to a complete break with literature, which has puzzled scholars and critics ever since. For Robb, the main explanation was that Rimbaud gave up poetry when he stopped living with other people. True, "the man with soles of wind," as Verlaine had dubbed him, was by now roaming restlessly, often on foot, all over Europe, picking up, with his extraordinary gift, all major European languages, then branching out into Hindi, Ethiopian and Arabic. He took on sundry odd--very odd--jobs, even enlisting in the Dutch colonial army for a bonus, and promptly deserting upon reaching Batavia. In all, he visited 13 countries.

In between these trips he would return to Charleville or Roche for brief stays, replicating his father's procedure. His longest sojourn was as a building foreman on Cyprus, where his business sense emerged. Rimbaud, I believe, above all wanted success and wealth. When poetry did not pay off, he threw it over, as he did numerous human beings. His father having served in Africa, that is where Rimbaud headed for a long stopover in Aden, where he formed a lasting association with a trading company.

Other things, too, changed. Rimbaud now got involved with women. From one of them he got syphilis; another, in Abyssinia, became his live-in mistress for several years. He proved an excellent trader as well as (illegally) an accomplished gun-runner. He spoke the native languages, knew how to deal with rulers and chieftains, and was fearless even in areas where other whites were brutally killed. From his base in Harar, he supervised or led expeditions, partly as a trader, partly as an explorer, making important geographical and scientific discoveries, some of which were published in France.

Back in Paris, Verlaine began bringing out Arthur's later poetry in magazines and books. Fabulous stories circulated about Rimbaud and, quite unbeknown to him, he was becoming the lodestar of new schools of poetry. His African adventures, related by Robb, make for fascinating reading and could, in the right hands, become a hit movie. The African Rimbaud was "a tall scrawny man with hair already turning white . . . who could be silent and morose at times; at others, a delightful story-teller who had his audience in stitches." To his mother and sister, he wrote, "I'd like to make about 50,000 francs quickly in four or five years; and then I'd get married." He hoped for a son whom he could teach everything he himself had not been taught, and could groom into "a renowned engineer . . . powerful and rich."

He was financially highly successful, and would have become more so. But cancerous tumors appeared on his leg, and he was urged to return home for treatment. Fatefully, he delayed, wishing to liquidate everything; "money was still . . . to protect him from the world's duplicity and his mother's false love." When he finally reached home, minus one leg amputated in Marseille, "the irreconcilable similarities," as Robb puts it, made "the reunion . . . a renewed separation."

In the end, he had truck only with his sister, Isabelle, who, however devoted, was also devout, bent on turning Arthur into a good Catholic. She accompanied him back to Marseille, where the other leg was amputated and, even while feverishly planning his return to Africa, Rimbaud died at age 37. His alleged deathbed conversion was Isabelle's fabrication. "Rimbaud," Robb concludes, "is still an ambiguous presence--warning his unknown readers of the hell to which 'derangement' inevitably leads, and showing them exactly how to get there."

Wit, elegance and thoroughness characterize this book--also occasional lapses in grammar and usage. The style is fluent, at times poetic, with sometimes quaint, more often striking imagery. The balance between biography and literary criticism is cogent, as is the awareness of the interdependence of life and work. To his important books on Balzac and Victor Hugo, Robb has added an equally winning third.

John Simon is drama critic of New York magazine and film critic of the National Review.