Jim Morrison of the Doors

Jim Morrison Irreverent Scribe

This essay exploring Arthur Rimbaud’s influence on Jim Morrison is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.

The Doors (front to back): Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore.
The Doors (front to back): Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore.

I Want Dramatic Summer

Jim Morrison would be dead before it would register with Wallace Fowlie that he’d been contacted by a rock star. Two years after the Duke University professor published a translation of Rimbaud’s complete works and selected letters, Fowlie was still receiving correspondence about the book. “One of those letters, a brief one, was signed ‘Jim Morrison,’” he explained. “I am ashamed to say that in 1968, when I received that note, I did not recognize the name.”

When he did figure out who had written it, he decided to take the letter into one of his classes to ask if anyone recognized the name. His students were shocked that he hadn’t, of course, which made Fowlie admit, “My stock dropped low that morning in my classroom.” To repair his reputation, he shared it with his students so they could say they were among a select group who had touched a personal note written by the lead singer of The Doors. “Just wanted to say thanks for doing the Rimbaud translation,” Morrison had written. “I needed it because I don’t read French that easily…I am a rock singer and your book travels around with me.”

Detail of the cover of The Rebel as Poet by Wallace Fowlie with images of Rimbaud and Jim Morrison.
Detail of the cover of The Rebel as Poet by Wallace Fowlie.

Fowlie was an older gentleman when he received the note, which explains why he wouldn’t recognize the name of one of America’s notorious celebrities at the time. He included the anecdote in his book Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet, which I had packed to reread during a trip to Paris. When I found the book decades ago, I was surprised to learn that during the last several years of his life, Morrison told close friends he wanted to be remembered as a poet rather than a singer. He would spend many an afternoon at the Café de Flore in Paris drinking beer and hashing out verses in the notebooks he carried around.

Café de Flore in Paris where Jim Morrison liked to hang out. Image © Saxon Henry.
Café de Flore in Paris where Jim Morrison liked to hang out. Image © Saxon Henry.

I decided to spend a chunk of the day in the café with three books—Fowlie’s comparison of the two rebels, Morrison’s book of poems, and Fowlie’s translation of Rimbaud’s poetry—in order to see if I agree with Fowlie that Morrison had modeled certain aspects of his persona after Rimbaud. According to Fowlie, the imitation became more pronounced during the last four months of the singer’s life, which he spent holed up in an apartment at 17 Rue Beautreillis, tapping out poems on a typewriter surrounded by notebooks and newspaper clippings. He had come to Paris expressly to dedicate his time to becoming a published poet. Sadly, he would be gone before Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison would cement that facet of his legacy. 

Jim Morrison Echoes Rimbaud

After a second reading of Fowlie’s books and an exploration of Morrison’s poems, I began to hear certain repetitions in Morrison’s poems and The Doors’ music; catching phrases that threaded through the verses and the lyrics that certainly felt like they were inspired by Rimbaud’s philosophy. The singer referenced assassins in his music, a word that ends Rimbaud’s poem “Morning of Drunkenness” with the line “Behold the time of the Assassins.” In Rimbaud’s poem “Hunger,” from A Season in Hell, he wrote, “Morality is a weakness of the brain.” And it’s Jim’s disillusionment I hear echoed in Rimbaud’s poem “Evening Prayer”: “Like the warm excrement of an old pigeonhouse, / A thousand dreams gently burn inside me…”

French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
French poet Arthur Rimbaud.

One of Rimbaud’s most famous lines that Morrison would later use to dramatic effect can be found in the poet’s letter to Georges Izambard dated May 13, 1871: “I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself a seer. It is a question of reaching the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but one has to be strong, one has to be born a poet, and I know I am a poet. This is not at all my fault.”

The phrase “derangement of all the senses” is also mentioned in a letter to Paul Demeny two days later: “The first study of the man who wants to be a poet is the knowledge of himself, complete. He looks for his soul, inspects it, tests it, learns it. As soon as he knows it, he must cultivate it! It seems simple: in every mind a natural development takes place…The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences.”

Henri Fantin-Latour’s By the Table: the three standing are from left to right: Elzéar Bonnier, Emile Blémont and Jean Aicard. The five seated are: Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Léon Valade, Ernest d'Hervilly and Camille Pelletan.
Henri Fantin-Latour’s By the Table: the three standing are from left to right: Elzéar Bonnier, Emile Blémont and Jean Aicard. The five seated are: Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Léon Valade, Ernest d’Hervilly and Camille Pelletan.

Once I had found these two letters in Fowlie’s translation, I was convinced of a strong echo between Rimbaud’s philosophies and Morrison’s fascination with suffering and poisons. It’s no wonder the rock star held Rimbaud in high regard: the singular and epic way the poet had lived in the end as he wandered the deserts of Africa would have appealed to Morrison’s edgy side. And the fact that Rimbaud was determined to be a seer in his poetry would have made Morrison want to follow suit. During the last few weeks of his life, Fowlie says Morrison talked about his poetry to the few people who approached him at the Flore, the number less than you might expect because by then he was a heavyset man whose face was heavily bearded: “From time to time, he would interrupt the conversation to jot down notes on bits of paper which he then slipped into his pockets.”

Those notes informed the Wilderness poems in which you can hear Rimbaud’s brand of dissension in Morrison’s language: “Lost in the vanity of the senses / which got us where we are”; “Those lean sweet desperate hours. / Time searched the hallways / for a mind”; and “I am a guide to the Labyrinth.” When seeing his death through the lens of history, it feels plausible that Morrison was using Rimbaud as a guide out of his own personal labyrinth—these lines written by the French poet echoing the brashness that had made Morrison a legend on stage and off: “To be patient and to be bored / Are too simple. Fie on my cares. / I want dramatic summer.” The last night Morrison spent in Paris as he lay dying in the bathtub was certainly one of the most dramatic of his life.

Jim Morrison Irreverent Scribe © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose other books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promiseand Four Florida Moderns