In 1886, a Frenchman named Arthur Rimbaud led a caravan across what is now Ethiopia. Although he was only 32, grey peppered his blonde hair. Hollow cheekbones, tanned beyond recognition, betrayed years of malnutrition and poverty. Only his eyes remained of the looks his childhood friends remembered: They were still a fierce, piercing blue. Despite his exhaustion, he often chose to walk alongside the caravan as it made its way through a wild, volcanic moonscape.
As he trekked, literary critics in Paris were lauding France’s greatest poet, “the late Arthur Rimbaud,” a meteoric wild child who’d streaked across their world of salons and parties before his untimely death. They had no idea their enfant terrible—who’d written and partied with equal intensity—was alive and was at the moment shepherding a shipment of rifles and cannon across one of the most dangerous regions in Africa: Before the journey, both of Rimbaud’s partners in the venture died of disease, and fierce Danakil tribesmen had massacred the last Europeans to pass this way.
Restlessness had always dogged Rimbaud. Born in Charleville, France, on October 20, 1854, he excelled as a student. Teachers and tutors encouraged him to write; at 15 he published his first poem. Soon, the teenager shed his clean-cut, teacher’s pet exterior. He began to wander, often around the battlefields of the Franco-Prussian war, running away for weeks on end and drinking heavily. He grew his hair. Poetry, the angst-ridden juvenile argued, required shedding any fear of death and any self-respect.
The eminent poet Paul Verlaine took notice, writing Rimbaud a letter from Paris. “Come, dear, great soul. We await you. We desire you.”
Verlaine meant desire literally. Sixteen-year-old Rimbaud moved to the city and the two carried out an affair in front of Verlaine’s wife, experimenting with absinthe, opium, and hashish. They were not good for each other. As they caterwauled across western Europe, the affair lost its luster. Rimbaud cut off contact with his dangerous mentor. When a despondent Verlaine threatened suicide, Rimbaud relented, allowing Verlaine to see him in a hotel room in Brussels. As Rimbaud got up to leave, Verlaine pulled out a pistol and fired three shots at the teenager. One bullet lodged in Rimbaud’s wrist. Verlaine was arrested, his victim hospitalized.
After being shot, Rimbaud soured on poetry. His many detractors (a recent Guardian headline argues “Rimbaud was no genius”) couldn’t have been happier the absinthe-swilling anarchist no longer stalked their literary haunts. He collected himself and delivered two manuscripts: his famous Season in Hell and the subsequent Illuminations. At the age of 20, he’d given up writing altogether.
“Rimbaud was primarily an adventurer,” biographer Enid Starkie notes, and adventures he had. In 1874 Rimbaud attempted to thru-hike Europe. He crossed the Alps in a storm, only to arrive in a small mountain village at the brink of exhaustion. He was angling for Russia. It is unclear whether or not he made it.
Tired of his own continent, Rimbaud enlisted in the Dutch Army—a common practice for the era’s vagrants—and landed in present-day Indonesia. He deserted, escaping for three weeks through dense jungle to avoid capture and execution.
In August of 1880, seven years after he published his final poems, Rimbaud arrived in Yemen “ill with fever, thrown up like a wreck on the torrid desert sands,” according to Starkie. He found employment in a coffee export firm and set about exploring the countryside of East Africa. When he reached the city of Harar later that year, he was one of the first Europeans to settle there. He fell in love with the place, living with an Ethiopian woman who, it can only be hoped, was better for him than Verlaine.
Rimbaud undertook an expedition to reconnoiter Harar’s desolate, unexplored surroundings in 1894. A subsequent report detailing his month-long trek for the French Geographic Society piqued interest. The society requested photographs and a biography. Rimbaud, fearing recognition in exile, refused to respond.
By the time he marched his caravan of rifles and cannon across Ethiopia two years later, Rimbaud was intent on selling the arms to a king named Menelek II. He hoped the gun-running would overturn his rotten financial luck. After four months evading murder by the Danakils, Rimbaud tracked Menelek to Entoto, or modern-day Addis Ababa.
But a shrewd barterer Rimbaud was not, and Menelek nabbed the guns at a fraction of his asking price. Still, the weapons earned a place in African history; Menelek used them to defeat would-be Italian invaders a decade later. With the act, Ethiopia remained the only African nation to never succumb to European rule.
In 1891, a pain Rimbaud assumed was rheumatoid arthritis crippled his right knee, though he insisted on limping through his daily hikes around Harar. When the knee became unusable, Rimbaud was carried by caravan back to the coast and then on to France. Doctors diagnosed the problem as carcinoma and amputated his leg. Rimbaud’s life of wandering had caught up with him; he died in Marseilles in November that year. He was 37. The day before, in a high fever, he’d dictated a letter detailing his return to Africa. The lure of adventure still promised.