Rimbaud Ascends the Alps



Over the Gotthard, an engraving by Wilhelm Rothe after a drawing by Johann Gottfried Jentzsch, 1790.

From a letter by Arthur Rimbaud to his family, dated November 17, 1878, and sent from Gênes. After a disastrous affair with Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud, born on this day in 1854, left France to travel the world, eventually setting up shop in Ethiopia, where he sold coffee and arms before falling gravely ill. This note chronicles his harrowing journey through the Gotthard Pass, in the Swiss Alps. It’s translated from the French by Wyatt Mason, from I Promise to Be Good: The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud.

As for how I got here, it was full of wrong turns and sporadic seasonal surprises … for after a certain point no carriage could get through with an average of fifty centimeters of snow and a storm brewing. The Gothard crossing was supposed to be the route; you can’t get through by carriage in this season, and so I couldn’t get through either.

At Altdorf, on the south side of lake Quatre-Canton along the border of which we strolled through steam, the Gothard road begins. At Amsteg, fifteen kilometers from Altdorf, the road begins to climb and follow the contours of the Alps … At Göschenen, a village that has become a market town because of the affluence of its workers, you see the opening of the famous tunnel at the back of the gorge, the studios and canteens of businesses. Moreover, this seemingly rough-hewn countryside is hardworking and industrious. Even if you can’t see the threshers going in the valley, you can hear the scythes and mattocks against the invisible heights. It goes without saying that most of the local industry manifests in wood. There are many mining operations. Innkeepers show you mineral samples of every variety, which Satan, they say, buys on the cheap and resells in the city. 

The real ascent begins at the Hospital, I think: sidestreets lead to the road the carriages use. Because you can imagine you wouldn’t want to go that way all the time with its zigzags and gentle terraces (which would take forever), particularly when you see the elevation of the adjoining countryside … you take the well-marked routes, which is not to say they’re easy going …

The road, which is never wider than six meters, is filled the whole way with nearly two meters of fallen snow, which, at any moment, might collapse, covering you with a meter-thick blanket you have to hack through during a hailstorm. And then: no more shadows above, below, or beside, despite being surrounded by these massive things; no more road, or precipices, or gorges or sky: just whiteness out of a dream, to touch, to see or not to see, since it’s impossible to look away from the white annoyance in the middle of the road. Impossible to lift your head with the biting wind, eyelashes and mustaches becoming stalactites, ears torn, necks swollen. Without the shadow that is oneself, and without the telegraph poles to mark what one must assume remains of the road, you would be as flustered as a sparrow in an oven.

All this, just to get through snow a meter high, a kilometer long. You haven’t seen your knees in some time. It’s exhausting. Breathless—since in a half-hour the storm can bury you effortlessly—you offer each other shouts of encouragement (you never climb all alone, only in groups). Finally a road-mender appears: you buy a bowl of saltwater for 1.50. And then back at it. But the wind picks up, you see the road begin to fill. Here’s a convoy of sleighs, a fallen horse half-buried. The road disappears. Are we on the road or next to it? … You get off course, sink into the snow up to your ribs and then your armpits … A pale shadow behind a clear path: the Gothard hospice, a civil and medical facility, a hulking mass of pine and stone; a steeple. When you ring the bell, a seedy-looking young man comes to the door; you take the steps to a dirty, low-ceilinged room where you are given the legally determined minimum of bread and cheese, soup and drink. You see the great big yellow hounds everyone has heard of. Soon, half-dead latecomers come in off the mountain. At night, after soup, the thirty of us spread out on hard mattresses under inadequate covers. At night, we hear our hosts exhaling their holy canticles in praise of another day of theft from the government that subsidizes their little hovel.

In the morning, after a morsel of bread and cheese, steadied by this free hospitality that will last as long as the storm dictates, you leave: this morning, in the sun, the mountain is a marvel: no more wind, all downhill, taking shortcuts, making leaps, tumbling for kilometers …

There’s snow on the road for the thirty kilometers from Gothard. Only after thirty km, at Giornioco, the valley widens a little. A few vine-covered bowers and a few patches of meadow that we light carefully with leaves and other detritus from fir trees that must have served as bedding. Goats move down the roads, gray cows and bulls, black pigs. At Bellinzona, there is a major livestock market. At Lugano, twenty leagues from Gothard, you get the train and go from pleasant Lake Lugano to pleasant Lake Como. After that, the expected route.