There are some 250 letters collected here, some for the first time in English. Of these, only 30 were written during the time when he was writing poetry. This is all that has been found and collected. Additionally, a few photographs Rimbaud took while in Abyssinia are printed, along with others of Africa, including the slick cover photograph of what appears to be Rimbaud and his co-workers in Aden - never before printed as far as I know. Mason's introduction goes a long way to get to the heart of the real vs. the mythical Rimbaud, and he takes to task previous biographers for simultaneously debunking and promoting the Rimbaud myth. He goes on to compare Rimbaud's letters with those of Van Gogh (I would also include Gauguin, for they all lived & wrote in the same years). The main difference of course being that Van Gogh wrote extensively and confessionally about art and life, while Rimbaud only briefly outlined his thoughts on poetry in the so-called "seer letters". Comparing the relative "salaciousness" and quality of the artist's letters, Mason writes: "There is little of that register in Rimbaud's correspondence. Rather, a sober impatience running from first letter to last. And it is the uniqueness of this tone - a relentless striving - that so informs our understanding of Rimbaud, both as poet and trader."
For those readers unacquainted with Rimbaud and hoping for first-hand accounts of his Parisian adventures, his European travels, debauched meetings with other poets and artists, and poetical inspirations they will likely be disappointed in the long run. Those who are familiar with Rimbaud know that once he left for Africa, he stopped writing poetry. He had gained nothing positive from it, and the Verlaine affair probably pushed him over the edge once and for all. And so he sought his riches in "business"; although, quite unordinary, and therefore, interesting business as a trader in the far reaches of the French colonial empire. To enjoy these letters one must be willing to look past Rimbaud the "genius, maudit, child poet", and open their eyes to the "Somebody Else" of Charles Nicholl's 1997 titled biography. Whether or not you already have a collection of Rimbaud's poems, or intend to buy Mason's Volume I "Rimbaud Complete", Volume II: "I Promise to Be Good" is an invaluable counterpart to the poems, and are the sources for many conjectures and "facts" found in the biographies. On the other hand, if you want to stay away from biographies altogether, but still want to get closer to Rimbaud the person than otherwise possible via his sometimes illusive poems, then "I Promise to Be Good" is the most direct way to go. There is a biographical chronology, reprints of his actual handwritten letters, the poems he included as part of the letters, photographs (including the rare, unprinted cover I mentioned above), maps of his travels, and Above All . . . the letters themselves. It doesn't get much more "complete" than this.