The poem is about the death of a young soldier whose body lies among the ferns and flowers in a valley. This poem is most probably written in the October of 1870 but was published in the collection called Anthologie Lemerre in 1888. It is known to have been written in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Since there’s no evidence to suggest any battle to have been fought in Charleville, it is probable that this poem may have been inspired by the war but is not an actual account of a real incident. The original was written in French, named ‘Le Dormeur du Val.’ Paul Schmidt translated this English version.
About the Poet:
Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (20th October 1854- 10th November 1891) was a French poet who started writing poetry very early in his life and stopped almost completely by 21. He was born in Charleville, Ardennes, to Frederick Rimbaud, a good-natured infantry captain, and Marie-Catherine Vitalie Cuif, who pushed her children to scholastic and moralistic excellence. He was the second of five children. His [parents were separated after seven years of marriage. Even during their marriage, Rimbaud Sr. was absent most of the time, especially on military postings. As a result of this separation, the children barely had a relationship with their father.
Arthur Rimbaud was an excellent student and excelled in literature. He was well versed in Latin and Greek. He showed merit as a poet as early as fifteen years of age. And he was encouraged greatly by his tutor, Georges Izambard.
The Parisian literary circle considered Rimbaud a sort of an ‘enfant terrible.’ His decadent lifestyle and Libertine views didn’t sit well with many. Even with harsh criticism, Rimbaud was well known for his literary outputs. The famous writer, Victor Hugo, called him ‘an infant Shakespeare,’ such was his skill in poetry. Libertine at heart, he was part of the Decadent movement. He was also known to have influenced Surrealism.
He was an avid traveler. He is known to have toured three continents. He had given up writing and his decadent lifestyle by the time he was twenty-one, and he settled down in Aden, Yemen as an employee of the Bardey agency. Later on, he ended up running the firm’s agency which was situated in Ethiopia. Shortly after, he gave up that job to become a part of the coffee trade.
He died of bone cancer at the age of 37 in Marseille, France.
His poetry has influenced many 20th century writers, artists, and musicians like Allen Ginsberg, Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Pablo Picasso, etc.
Asleep in the Valley: Setting
The poem is set in a war-ravaged valley. The overall mood of the poem is melancholic. However, the melancholy is undercut by an appreciation of life and acceptance of death. The melancholic yet peaceful mood is brought by Rimbaud’s attention to life, which is portrayed in nature and the slow, gentle pace of the poem. But in the last line, the mood changes to one of shock because the speaker tells us that the soldier is actually dead and not asleep as previously described.
Asleep in the Valley: Summary
“A small green valley where a slow stream flows
And leaves long strands of silver on the bright
Grass; from the mountaintop stream the Sun’s
Rays; they fill the hollow full of light.”
The poem begins with the description of a valley. The valley in question is green with fresh grass, upon which strands of silver light are reflected from the stream which passes through the meadow. The sun, which peeks from behind the mountain that borders the valley, fills it with warm sunlight.
“A soldier, very young, lies open-mouthed,
A pillow made of fern beneath his head,
Asleep; stretched in the heavy undergrowth,
Pale in his warm, green, sun-soaked bed.”
This stanza focuses on a young soldier lying, seemingly asleep, on a bed of ferns. The next two lines describe the bed of the valley, which is green and warm due to the constant and abundant sunlight. The soldier seems pale the light from the sun has bathed him so.
“His feet among the flowers, he sleeps. His smile
Is like an infant’s – gentle, without guile.
Ah, Nature, keep him warm; he may catch a cold.”
This stanza moves the line of vision to the soldier’s feet. They are surrounded by flowers. The speaker then shifts his attention to the soldier’s face, where he describes the soldier’s smile, which is reminiscent of an infant’s smile- innocent and gentle. At this, the poet persona addresses Mother Nature with an imploring voice to keep him warm in his sleep so that he doesn’t catch a cold.
“The humming insects don’t disturb his rest;
He sleeps in sunlight, one hand on his breast;
At peace. In his side, there are two red holes.”
In the last stanza, the poet reveals what he was hiding in the previous stanzas.
The stanza begins with the speaker noticing that the soldier’s sleep is so deep that it is not disturbed by the insects’ constant hum. He says that the young soldier continues to sleep, in peace, despite the insects, with a hand on his breast, as if remembering his country even in his sleep. The focus then shifts to his side, where there are two ‘red holes’- presumably bullet holes that caused his death. The poet finally admits in the last line that the soldier is dead. You can also refer to the analysis, central idea, and theme of Asleep in the Valley.
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