Arthur Rimbaud, Coffee Trader

Author : Richard Goodman

Year : 2001

When Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) abandoned poetry altogether in 1873, at the age of 19 or 20, he left behind a small, incendiary and revolutionary body of work that included "The Drunken Boat," A Season in Hell, and Illuminations, a series of mystical prose poems. He had come out of nowhere, from the small town of Charleville in the Ardennes. His parents were not literary. He began writing poetry at 13, serious poetry at 16. He came to Paris and befriended the poet Paul Verlaine. They had a tempestuous relationship which culminated in Verlaine's shooting Rimbaud in the wrist in a fit of hysteria. Verlaine went to prison; Rimbaud, after completing A Season in Hell, burned his papers and stopped writing altogether. All this in three short years.

From that point onward, Rimbaud led an itinerant life marked by an insatiable restlessness and, especially in the end, a concerted and frustrated quest for money. His wanderings took him from one unlikely place to another: from Indonesia, where he deserted from the Dutch colonial army; to Scandinavia, where he interpreted for a touring Danish circus; to Cyprus, where he supervised road-building gangs; and, finally, in 1880, to Aden in the British protectorate of Yemen near the southern entrance of the Red Sea. Intermittently, he returned—or was repatriated, sick or penniless, by the French diplomatic corps—to his family in Charleville. It was a life from which literature was completely absent. As far as I can determine, in all the letters he wrote to his family during these last years, he never once mentions literature. (He does mention books, but they are invariably technical or instructional ones.) He certainly never wrote poetry again. He did write, though: He published several pieces on East Africa, including a treatise on Ogaden that appeared in the bulletin of the French Geographical Society. It was decently, though not memorably, written, but its author hardly seemed the same Arthur Rimbaud who had upset and forever altered the French literary world.

In fact, like many before him and after, Rimbaud reinvented himself. The problem for posterity has been that with this reinvention, Rimbaud discarded his marvelous ability to spin words in the stars. When, some years later, Pierre Bardey's brother Alfred happened to learn that Rimbaud had written poetry and was revered in certain small circles in Paris, he confronted Rimbaud with this. Rimbaud seemed aghast: "Absurd! Ridiculous! Disgusting!" he said to Bardey. The Rimbaud who had written "The Drunken Boat" and A Season in Hell was dead and buried. The new Rimbaud wanted to make money. And, perhaps, to do some exploring and a bit of photography. This was the Arthur Rimbaud who arrived in Aden, Yemen in August of 1880: a different person entirely.

At that time, coffee had become extremely popular in Europe, and especially in France. Though the plant was being cultivated elsewhere— notably in Java by the Dutch—the best coffee was considered to come from Yemen. Coffee had come into its own there. The name of the port of al-Mukha in Yemen had become synonymous with coffee, and still denotes a certain superior quality today. For years, Arab merchants and traders had kept coffee entirely to themselves. Releasing it at last to the outside world, they then held a monopoly on its trade. They knew a good thing when they saw one.

Coffee's origin is placed variously in Yemen and Ethiopia, with most food historians now believing it to be the latter. Some believe that the word "coffee" derives from the name of the Ethiopian province of Kaffa. It was discovered perhaps as early as the ninth century, and the legend of its discovery was described by the French traveler Jean de La Roque in A Voyage to Arabia the Happy, published in English in 1726. La Roque writes that a goatherd noticed that after eating the berries of a particular bush his goats "leaped and frisked about all night." A local cleric heard of this and gave some of the berries to his disciples "to hinder them from sleeping, when they were called up to their prayers…."

It was not a great leap from munching the berries to making a decoction of them, and from that to roasting the "beans" they contained before