Life Writ Large: Guillaume Apollinaire

There will be no shortage of forceful personalities on the Classical Pursuits trip They Came to Paris: Literature 1910–1940. The French capital nurtured and attracted strivers, artists, dreamers, writers and flâneurs of all kinds. We will meet many of them, from Hemingway and Stein to Picasso to Kiki of Montparnasse. Of all these, perhaps none was more exuberant than poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire. In his short life, Apollinaire helped determine the direction of 20th-century poetry. He was also a bright guiding light in the bohemian life of Paris before and during WWI. In this blog miniseries, you’ll learn about his poetry, life and influence on all that was avant-garde.

Guillaume Apollinaire in 1916, after receiving a shrapnel wound

Guillaume Apollinaire in 1916, after receiving a shrapnel wound

Apollinaire was born in or near Rome in 1880. He was the son of Angelika Kostrowicka, a Polish noblewoman, and possibly Francesco Flugi d’Aspermont, a Swiss-Italian officer and aristocrat. After a nomadic and independent childhood with his brother, Albert, he settled in Paris in the early 1900s. He was in low spirits following the end of a love affair. But it was not long before the energy of the capital, Europe’s centre of creative innovation, pulled him up.

In the pre-war years, the irrepressible Apollinaire was a familiar figure in Montmartre and later Montparnasse. He loved walking, singing, entertaining friends in restaurants, and chatting with anyone and everyone. He became friends with Picasso and Vlaminck, among others, and for several years was the lover of painter Marie Laurencin.

These relationships were formative for his own writing and thought. Although he was never a painter, Apollinaire became a prominent champion of cubism, surrealism (a term he coined) and futurism. For the plastic arts and poetry alike, he embraced the new ideas circulating in Paris’s cafés and studios: the rejection of verisimilitude and linear time as standards to uphold and, crucial for Apollinaire, the use of surprise. Surprise, he said, was “le plus grand ressort nouveau”— the greatest new motivating force. Harnessing this force did not mean doing away with tradition entirely, but rather creating a new order that would serve contemporary life. In Apollinaire’s work, subject matter, vocabulary, punctuation, poetic form, rhyme and imagery would all be re-examined and deployed to create this vital element of surprise.

A brief excerpt from “La chanson du mal-aimé” (“The Song of the Poorly-Loved”) from his major collection Alcools (1913; translated 1964 by Robert Shattuck) will give an initial impression of Apollinaire’s work. In later posts, look for a deeper discussion of his poetry, including more selections from Alcools and works he wrote while serving in the French army during WWI.
 

Juin ton soleil ardente lyre
Brûle mes doigts endoloris
Triste et mélodieux délire
J’erre à travers mon beau Paris
Sans avoir le coeur d’y mourir

Les dimanches s’y éternisent
Et les orgues de Barbarie
Y sanglotent dans les cours grises
Les fleurs aux balcons de Paris
Penchant comme la tour de Pise

Soirs de Paris ivres du gin
Flambant de l’électricité
Les tramways feux verts sur l’échine
Musiquent au long des portées
De rails leur folie de machines

Les cafés gonflés de fumée
Crient tout l’amour de leurs tziganes
De tous leurs siphons enrhumés
De leurs garçons vêtus d’un pagne
Vers toi toi que j’ai tant aimée

Moi qui sais des lais pour les reines
La complainte de mes années
Des hymnes d’esclave aux murènes
La romance du mal-aimé
Et des chansons pour les sirènes

The flaming lyre of June’s sun
Burns my fingers’ tender skin
Tuneful and sad delirium
I stray through Paris’s loveliness
Without the heart to perish there

Sundays become eternal here
And hand-organs from Barbary
Sob heavily in murky courts
Flowers on Paris balconies
Lean as the tower of Pisa leans

Drunk on gin the Paris nights
Blaze with electricity
The trolleys flashing greenish lights
Warble along their staves of tracks
The folly of machinery

The street cafés swollen with smoke
Proclaim the spell of gypsy love
In all their siphons’ husky growls
In the waiters’ wilted apron-strings
Toward you whom I so dearly loved

I who know sad lays for queens
The ballads of regretful years
The choruses of sea-doomed slaves
The romance of the poorly-loved
And songs which only sirens sing

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