'Je est un autre' ('I is someone else'), wrote the French poet Arthur Rimbaud in 1871. Of all his cryptic, compressed writings, this odd verbal equation may just be the phrase that takes us closest to his myth. It's certainly close to the soil from which the myth has grown - the sense that the elliptical narratives of his life and work add up to the doings of not just one person, but of an almost infernally multiple being. 'It's wrong to say I think: one should say I am thought', he explained in the same letter. Indeed, legions of writers (Paul Valéry, Albert Camus, Allen Ginsberg) and musicians (Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith) in the 20th century have dreamt up different Rimbauds from the obscure fragments of poetry and fact that he left us. This wasn't what he meant, no doubt, but his legacy thrives on the fact that what he did mean remains forever open and ambiguous - ripe for reinvention, reconstruction and reinterpretation.
Rimbaud biography has become a sub-genre in itself, since what we do know about him is so irresistibly extraordinary. Born in 1854 in Charleville, north-eastern France, he was a model schoolboy, who eloped to Paris and then London at the age of 17 with his lover, the poet Paul Verlaine. The only complete work he published (the print run of 500 was funded by his mother) was the convulsive, hallucinatory Une Saison en enfer (A Season in Hell, 1873), largely written after Verlaine shot him in the wrist. He gave up poetry for good at 21, and travelled throughout Europe, before finally leaving for Abyssinia, where he worked as a merchant and gun-runner (some say slave trader) until his death in 1891. Factory worker, docker, tutor, explorer, money changer, soldier, mercenary, quarryman, labourer were some of his other trades. In Africa he regarded his poetic years with scorn, referring to his verses as rinçures - 'dregs'.
These 'dregs', scattered around in a remarkably careless way by their author during his youth, bear testament to the dizzying speed of Rimbaud's poetic evolution. He imitated forms with precocious skill at a very early age, before moving on to innovations in blank verse and prose poetry, shedding occasional masterpieces like unwanted skin as he went along. By the time of Les Illuminations (Illuminations, 1886), Rimbaud was trying on an electric succession of differing narrative voices in one mightily complex and paradoxical work. The restlessness of its amalgam of scenes, descriptions, manifestos, personas, vatic predictions and fantasies seems at points to touch on (and eerily to mimic) many of the literary styles of the coming century, from T. S. Eliot and James Joyce to Italo Calvino and William Burroughs. This is where Rimbaud's notorious 'long, immense and logical derangement of all the senses' reaps its richest rewards.
André Breton would have disagreed: he favoured Rimbaud's supposedly 'last' poem, a crude piece of doggerel about farting in an army barracks, which Breton declared was 'the absolute triumph of pantheistic delirium'. The view we see of the poet in a welcome new edition of his work, Rimbaud Complete (2003), is panoramic, but tends to focus on the more conventional, early verses. The editor of the volume, Wyatt Mason, acknowledges that its title is 'deceptively tidy', and it might have been better named 'Everything We Could Find That He Wrote'. Perhaps no edition can be said to be truly complete, since much of Rimbaud's work was lost during the headlong scramble of his life. Some people still hope that 'lost' manuscripts may yet come to light. There are no such scoops here, but we do get 50 pages of previously untranslated material: some very early poems, a school notebook, an early draft of Une Saison en enfer, and all the fragmentary poems.
No squiggle by the child prodigy, it seems, is thought unworthy of scrutiny. There are Latin exercises by the ten-year-old Arthur (with typographic blots reproduced in the text to represent every ink spot he left on the page), elementary maths questions and renderings of Aesop's Fables. Mason argues for the inclusion of these items on the grounds that they give us a sense of 'the various texts to which the budding poet was exposed'. They do; but wading through these holy relics isn't really that enlightening. Far more revealing are the rough drafts, which conclusively debunk the myth of Rimbaud as an absinthe-soaked scribe spouting spontaneous, oracular pronouncements through an inspired fog of hallucination. Graham Robb, the latest of his biographers in English, refers to Rimbaud's 'laborious process of accretion and erosion'. Looking at these drafts shows how he built and rebuilt his lines, sometimes even scything a whole page to yield a few words.
Every translation is a revision - more so than ever with poetry - and the feel of this edition softens some of the radical disjointedness of the originals, smoothing out staccato spasms of syntax. In his introduction Mason explains how he has tried to steer a middle course between two theories of translation: on the one hand, staying as close as possible to a literal rendering (a position held by Vladimir Nabokov and Milan Kundera); on the other, trying to create something that can be seen as a work of art in its own right (a position held by Jorge Luis Borges). Only another great poet, perhaps, can manage the latter: Robert Lowell and Samuel Beckett have both done justice to Rimbaud in translation. Mason does a fine job, but some of his nice touches are perhaps too nice, and have an earnest quality alien to the sparks and jolts of the later poetry. 'Je fixais des vertiges', given as 'I nailed vertigo' in a recent version, becomes 'I found the still point of the turning Earth' in Mason's hands - a ham-fisted allusion to the famous line from Eliot's Four Quartets (1943).
Would Rimbaud be turning in his grave? Would he even care, given his professed disgust with poetry after he went to Abyssinia? In some accounts his transformation from man of letters to man of action was so total that he did, finally, succeed in becoming 'someone else'. You can say that his work as a trader enacted the delirious demolition of the ego that some of the poetry imagined. Or you can say that between the poet and the gun-runner lies such a chasm that it is impossible to imagine how he got from A to B. So who, you may still ask, was the real Arthur Rimbaud? Prize-winning schoolboy; poet of adolescent revolt; poet of hallucination; gay icon; relentless walker; poet of the city; poet of nature; forerunner of Modernism; writer of dry, miserable, precise letters home from Harar; teacher of the Koran; pioneering explorer in East Africa; well-respected merchant. A quintessential myth, he somehow remains any, all and none of these things.