Trauma as journey: youth, maturation and community in Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat”



boy narrator-navigator



Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “The Drunken Boat” represents a radical narrative departure from many literary journeys that precede it. The narratives of The Epic of Gilgamesh, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—though rich and complex—are structured, largely linear, and relatively easy to follow. The narrative of the “The Drunken Boat” is anything but: Rimbaud presents us with disparate, unglossed images that come in more of a flurry than in any sort of structure. The world of the drunken boat is one of contradiction, confusion and fantasy—a world of “unmoored Peninsulas”; a world of “flowers [mingling with] the eyes of panthers”; a world constituted by the perceptions, thoughts and emotions of a boat (11; 46-47).

Despite these departures from literary tradition, “The Drunken Boat” shares with its ancestors a narrative of trauma. In David Ferry’s Gilgamesh, the volatile Gilgamesh must be humbled by the pain of loss before he can justly rule his city of Uruk. In the Divine Comedy, Dante must wander from the “straight way” and witness the horrors of hell before he is fit to return to Florence and indicate the straight way to his fellow Florentines. And in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain must struggle with the seduction of a temptress before he may reënter the fraternity of King Arthur’s knights. In each of these journeys, the protagonist overcomes trauma and matures—one from dangerous to just, one from lost to found, and one from naïve to knowledgeable.

Rimbaud’s boat also undergoes trauma, but unlike Gilgamesh, Dante and Gawain, it fails to mature. Instead, it clings to youth in an attempt to cope with trauma. It grapples with loneliness, aimlessness and mortality by invoking youth—both investing itself with youth to compensate for its losses and positing youth as an optimistic counterpoint to visions of danger and death. Because the boat clings to youth, it cannot mature—youth, in the end, mires the boat in the very trauma from which it struggles so desperately to escape.

From the outset, the boat employs youth as a coping mechanism. Its “haulers,” the men aboard it, have been “taken [as] targets” by “Redskins” who “[nail] them to coloured stakes” and do away with them (2-4; 7). As a result, the boat has lost that which gave it purpose—it “no longer feels itself steered by the haulers”—and floats directionless down “unconcerned Rivers” (2; 1). Instead of lamenting the death of its men, the boat sees their demise as an opportunity for youthful freedom. Free of its guiding force, the boat “[sails]… where [it pleases]” and “[dances] on the waves”; its [running] is “triumphant,” and its “sea-borne awakenings” are “[blissful]” (8; 14; 11-12; 13). The boat is overtaken by its newfound freedom, and the way in which this freedom overtakes the boat is itself characterized by youth—the boat is, we are told, “more absorbed” in its freedom “than the minds of children” (10). And because this freedom is a product of the men’s death, the boat paints the men as inimical to it, recollecting that the men called the waves that now allow the boat to dance “eternal rollers of victims” (15). Ultimately, the boat tells us, “[it cares] nothing for all [its] crews” (5). The men are gone, their oppression replaced by possibility. The boat seems like a child who thinks itself blessed by the removal of a parent: the fact that the rivers are “unconcerned” has become a positive thing—the men, like overbearing fathers, were too concerned. Without them, the boat has nothing left to guide it; it may go where it pleases, beholden to nothing. It may have lost its way, but it has its youth.

And on first gloss, its youth may seem to be enough. One could read the boat’s celebration of its independence as entirely sincere and assume that the loss of the men is not “traumatic” for the boat in the least. But the boat’s youthful euphoria, far from being simple and straightforward, is shown to be a method of fighting fear.

The trajectory of youth as a motif in the poem reveals this fear. After the boat compares the joy of finding itself free to the fanatic “[absorption]” of “the minds of children,” the next invocation of youth comes as a central part of a series of complications of the notion of “absorption” (10). The boat tells us that “Sweeter than the flesh of sour apples to children, / The green water penetrated [its] hull” (17-18). Superficially, these lines set up an analogy between the sweetness of the apple flesh and the sweetness of the water; and they posit a single kind of absorption—water being absorbed into the hull. But another absorption occurs here, and it is the product of the presence of youth. Because the boat compares the water to “the flesh of sour apples to children,” rather than simply to “the flesh of sour apples,” an image not directly involved in the manufacture of the sweetness analogy is introduced: that of a child biting into an apple—or, that of the sweet flesh of the apple absorbing the teeth of the child [emphasis added]. This image sets up a second analogy, one of absorption, which relies on the first: an analogy between the sweet apple’s flesh absorbing the teeth of the child and the hull absorbing the sweet water. And in this shadow analogy of absorption, something is a bit off: the “sweet,” the flesh of the apple and the green water, is both penetrated and penetrator. Unlike the simple absorption of the minds of children, absorption here is multivalent, assuming multiple and even contradictory roles. That which was simple is now anything but—and all due “to children,” due to youth.

Staying with depictions of absorption is useful in tracing the motif of youth, for the next instance of absorption is dramatically tied to the death of the men and the boat’s denunciation of them as impediments to its freedom. The green water goes on to absorb some things of its own. First, it “[washes the boat] clean of…bluish wine-stains”; blue is absorbed and integrated into green (19). For a stanza, this absorption is liberating—the boat “bathes in the” “star-infused” sea (21-22). But next, as the boat recalls the death of one of its men, a new absorption occurs: a “drowned man…goes down,” “suddenly dyeing the blueness,” “[fermenting] the bitter redness of love” (24; 25; 28). Green water absorbs blue wine, and the newly created “blueness” absorbs a “redness” which can, in context, be read as the blood of the dying man. Here, absorption is further complicated: this is not the single-minded absorption of children, but one tainted with remorse, bitterness and love.

The boat’s apparent exhilaration at losing its men is drastically undermined by this new absorption. The boat’s joy is not straightforward joy: it is a reaction to the bitterness of losing that which gave it purpose. The boat celebrates its independence because in the absence of purpose, independence is all that is left to celebrate. The parents are dead, and the child, fearing for its fate, reframes their end as a new beginning.

This new beginning does not last long, and when it is decisively undone, the boat again tackles trauma with youth. After being struck by the “[bitterness] of love,” the boat undergoes a psychological shift (28). Rather than continuing to exalt the sea, the boat now sees the sea as full of peril. The “snorting Oceans” are full of “mystic horrors”—“skies of red-hot coals” “splitting”; “swells / battering…reefs like hysterical herds of cows”; a “leviathan”; and worse, “enormous [seething] swamps” capable of “[trapping and rotting]” the leviathan (53; 44; 33; 29; 41-42; 50; 49-50). The sea’s dangers are capped with an image of death for the boat, an image of “Hideous wrecks at the bottom of brown gulfs” (54). To cope with the prospect of becoming one of these hideous wrecks, the boat turns to youth, declaring that “[it] should [like] to show children those dolphins / Of the blue wave, those golden, those singing fishes” (57-58). Both the children and the dolphins come seemingly out of nowhere, standing in stark contrast to the images that precede them. Here, the boat uses the prospect of sharing a heartwarming sight with children to counteract agony; it uses youth to constitute a counterpoint to terror.

In the fourth and final invocation of youth, youth rejects the boat in a way that harks back to the boat’s initial realization that it is alone. In the penultimate stanza, “a child squatting full of sadness…launches / A boat as fragile as a butterfly” into a “Black cold pool” (95-96; 94). Though this stanza alone gives scant evidence to suggest that the boat launched by the child is meant to stand for the drunken boat, this evidence is present earlier in the poem. In the midst of the boat’s transition from youthfully exalting the sea to fearing it, we are told that “the Sea” “[devours] azures”—and an azure, in addition to being a shade of blue, is a type of butterfly (22; 23). The sea devours butterflies just as the black cold pool does, and in both cases, a boat moves from youth to loneliness and danger. The boat’s use of youth to negotiate trauma backfires: youth literally launches the boat into the very traumas it depends on youth to rescue it from.

Gilgamesh, Dante and Gawain end their journeys through trauma endowed with purpose and ready to serve as examples to their communities. The boat ends adrift, with no purpose and no community. The failure of youth to cope with trauma and effect maturity, then, is not strictly a matter of the shortcomings of youth. With no community, with no brethren to share in its existence, the boat has no outstanding drive to recover from its trauma. It clings to youth and fails to mature because maturation would bring no benefits: there is no one to laud it, no one to learn from it. Better, perhaps, to be permanently mired in trauma than to emerge from it and find no one with whom to share your victory.


Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Inferno by Dante Alighieri. 2006. The Literature Network. 7 Feb. 2006 <;.

Ferry, David. Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1992.

Rimbaud, Arthur. “The Drunken Boat.” Poems: The Drunken Boat. 2006. 7 Feb. 2006 <;.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 14 Jan. 2006. 7 Feb. 2006 <;.

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