First and last, Rimbaud was an entrepreneur; so his was no ‘double life’. He embarked on new and invariably risky undertakings. Sometimes he won and sometimes he lost – mostly the latter, at least from his own perspective. The poet–gambler declared in his teens, in 1871 (the year of attempts by the communards to overthrow the established bourgeois order in Paris), that he was working to become a visionary: ‘The Poet becomes a seer through a long, immense and carefully reasoned disordering of all the senses’. In the same letter to Georges Izambard, the 22-year-old poet and schoolteacher who had most supported his pupil’s efforts to become an accomplished classicist and widely read in French literature, he declared his famous-to-the-point-of-cliché, ‘Je est un autre’, which Edmund White, curiously, translates twice in his deft and racy new biography: ‘I is another person’ or ‘I is someone else’. But Rimbaud’s poetry – startlingly fierce, vigorous in its engagement with reality and constantly experimenting with the limits of intelligibility – didn’t get him anywhere in life.
In fact, coupled with his risk-taking behaviour and scorn for all notions of politesse (and this even in the loose-living world of nineteenth-century bohemian Paris), it quickly made him a true pariah. At the end of his short life, Rimbaud had reinvented himself as a trader in Africa,