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Ah Dieu! Apollinaire. 9 November 1918.

 By Martin Sorrell.

THE NEWS SENT DELIRIOUS crowds into the streets: 11 November 1918, and the Armistice was signed, the war at last was over. In Paris, there was singing and dancing, hugs and embraces, as crowds choked the streets – including the Boulevard Saint-Germain, famous for its artists and cafes, where they chanted “A bas Guillaume!”– “Down with Guillaume!”– meaning German Kaiser Wilhelm – and “Fallait pas y aller!” – “You shouldn’t have gone to war!”

But upstairs, at no. 202, lay the body of a different, much loved Guillaume – Guillaume Apollinaire, France’s great poet of the First World War, dead just 48 hours before the crowd began chanting. Apollinaire had gone to war, to his ultimate cost, and the war outlived him by two days. On 9 November 1918, he died, aged thirty-eight.

He has left us a wealth of remarkable poems, some of the most modern, energetic, and surprising to come out of that hell. Poems adventurous and exciting in ways hardly seen in those British poets who had been caught in the nightmare world of the trenches. Like them, Apollinaire also served on the front line, midway between Verdun and the Somme, and produced poems such as  “L’Adieu du Cavalier” – “The Cavalryman’s Farewell”:

Ah Dieu ! que la guerre est jolie
Avec ses chants ses longs loisirs
Cette bague je l’ai polie
Le vent se mêle à vos soupirs

Adieu ! voici le boute-selle
Il disparut dans un tournant
Et mourut là-bas tandis qu’elle
Riait au destin surprenant

The first line I translated as, “Good God, isn’t war a lovely thing” – well, here’s the whole thing:

Good God! Isn’t war a lovely thing
With its songs its killing time
I’ve been polishing this ring
Your sighs mingle with the wind

Good bye! The bugle call! He saddled up
And disappeared some place to die
While she             she remained
To laugh at life’s surprises

But that first line could actually, loosely, be translated as, “Oh, what a lovely war” –  a line which we know as the deeply ironic title of Joan Littlewood’s famous musical.

BUT APOLLINAIRE DIDN’T INTEND irony in that line. It’s about two opposite and simultaneous truths, symbolised by the French pun,  that bright “Ah Dieu” – “Good God” – and the more resigned “adieu” – “goodbye”. This duality is one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by his poetry, a duality that’s particularly acute in the poems he wrote during the First World War.

Here’s a portion of a poem, written to his lover of the moment,  early in the War.

Canonnier n’entendez-vous pas ronfler deux avions boches
Mettez votre cheval dans le bois Inutile de le faire repérer
Adieu mon bidet noir
Un pont d’osier et de roseaux un autre un autre
Une grenouille saute
Y a-t-il encore des petites filles qui sautent à la corde
Ah! petites filles Y a-t-il encore des petites filles
Le soleil caressait les mousses délicates
Un lièvre courageux levait le derrière

You can hear, alongside the soldier’s constant complaints – exhaustion – noise – something else: awe, excitement – “it’s terrific!”

APOLLINAIRE HAD WANTED to go to war for a variety of reasons. One was the romantic lure of a theatre of war made doubly attractive by the latest technologies that so captured his modern turn of mind: aeroplanes, armoured trains, huge cannon mounted on wheels, machine guns. This man, who didn’t obtain French nationality till halfway through the war, had an intense patriotic fervour and a real empathy towards the “poilus” – the whiskered ones, the French Tommies, men about to go over the top to “casser leurs pipes” – break their pipes, snuff it.

My grandfather, a veteran of Verdun, first put me onto Apollinaire. Here was a poet as poignant as the British, but more spirited, modern, less conservative. Apollinaire, part-Polish, part-Italian, Russian passport, born out of wedlock with an unknown father, a glittering presence in Belle Époque Paris, is a voice very different from the Georgian war poets so familiar to British readers. He is the emblem of a fragmented, volatile Europe. War is his big chance to get stable, to fix his identity.  Here’s a poem written about the very moment war was declared.

Et quand aprés avoir passé l’aprés-midi
Par Fontainebleau
Nous arrivâmes à Paris
Au moment ou l’on affichait la mobilisation
Nous comprîmes mon camarade et moi
Que la petite auto nous avait conduits dans une époque
Et bien qu’étant déjà tous deux des hommes mûrs
nous venions cependant de naître

This is “The Little Motorcar”, Apollinaire’s first poem of war – and one of his best. Like so many of them, what starts affirmatively, ends more cautiously. Here’s an English translation:

The 31st August 1914
Just before midnight I left Deauville
In Rouveyre’s little car

With his chauffeur that made three

We said goodbye to an entire epoch
Crazed giants were standing over Europe
Eagles left their eyries to await the sun
Voracious fish surfaced from the deep
Nation probed nation
Underground the dead shook with fear
Unimaginable heights where men fight
Higher than the soaring eagle
Man struggles with man
Then falls like a shooting star
I felt skilful new beings
Were building and stocking a new world
I’ll never forget that night drive
No one said a word
O dark departure our headlights dying
O tender pre-war night
O villages where farriers hastily return
Between midnight and one a.m.
Somewhere near blue Lisieux or golden Versailles
Three times we stopped to mend a puncture
And passing Fontainebleau after lunch
We reached Paris
As general mobilisation was announced
We knew my friend and I
That the little car had steered us into a new age
And though we were both grown men
We’d only just been born

What does he mean in the last line “We’d only just been born”? Is it a brand new life, like a phoenix rising, or a rude awakening to the sober realities of adulthood? I’m pretty sure Apollinaire meant both. His amazing gift was to embrace opposites within a single poem, a single stanza, even a single line. As many ways of taking things as in a cubist painting. No one I can think of did it better.

BY 1914, APOLLINAIRE WAS already a celebrated, even notorious figure on the Parisian artistic scene. My grandfather had me believe he’d seen him up to the sort of tricks that once landed him in jail on suspicion of having stolen the Mona Lisa (Picasso was a suspected partner in crime). But Apollinaire’s serious reputation had been secured in 1913 with an astonishingly modern collection of poems provocatively entitled Alcools.

Brian Turner served with the US army for seven years, including a year’s tour of duty in Iraq as an infantry team leader. He is one of the few living poets writing in English to have fought in the thick of war, an experience at the heart of his award-winning collection Here, Bullet. He recognises in “The Little Motorcar” the momentous nature of what’s to come, the “sweep of history.” There is, he says, “an allure to it…in the process of destruction there’s a recreation.” Apollinaire, he says, is “on the money.”

APOLLINAIRE NOT ONLY TOOK in the big picture; like all well-trained soldiers, he developed a sharp eye for the specifics – not for the sake of realism, but for a reality far more deranged than what had been known before.

Here’s Apollinaire at his most experimental. It’s as if clusters of words have been fired at points on the page from a scatter gun. The poem’s title, “SP” – for Secteur Postal – means a postal district on the front line, from where these staccato messages winged their way home.

That’s certainly a far cry from Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke – the big hitters we associate with the British experience of the First World War. These are the names that have been anthologised, says Tim Kendall, Professor of English Literature at the University of Exeter, and it’s their lyric style that is synonymous for us with war poetry.

So was Apollinaire the lone innovator? Was there anyone comparable writing in English? As Tim Kendall points out, it took David Jones, who’d served in that war, nearly twenty years to produce work such as “In Parenthesis“. Apollinaire, on the other hand, wrote both spontaneously and experimentally, out of the here and now. Take “Flare”, a poem of erotic charge – even yearning. Here are the opening lines:

The black curls on your neck are my treasure
My thoughts target you yours intercept mine
Your breasts are the only shells I love
Your memory is the lantern guiding us through night

WHEN HE ENLISTED, APOLLINAIRE was having a no-holds-barred affair with Louise de Coligny – his “Lou”. Once that burnt itself out, Apollinaire replaced his passion for Louise with an extraordinary and unconsummated romance with Madeleine Pagès, a virginal young lady he met once only on a train journey, and whom he persuaded in an avalanche of ever-more explicit letters, sent from the trenches, to accept his proposal of marriage. (That was never to happen – perhaps fortunately for both Madeleine and Apollinaire.) In a letter sent in December 1915, the lovely shadows Apollinaire sees in Madeleine’s eyes seem to foretell a darker and more ominous future. And in the poem “To Italy”, he conjures up the dead in the trenches, trenches whose true horror he had discovered for himself only a month before. He’s  still enthralled by the spectacle of war. But listen to the conflict of emotions in these first three lines:

O night o dazzling night
The dead are with our soldiers
The dead are standing in the trenches
Or falling below ground towards the Dearly Beloved
O Lille Saint-Quentin Laon Maubeuge Vouziers
We hurl our towns like grenades
Our rivers are brandished like sabres
Our mountains charge like cavalry

Brian Turner talks about the sexuality of war, the frustration, of long deployments. As the war moves into 1916 the dark side of Apollinaire’s poetry – though it never eclipses the energy, the humour and the optimism – does intensify. Reading the next poem, “Women Watching Close”, I’m aware of the lonely soldier yearning for tenderness and consolation.

He who tonight must die in a trench
Is a little soldier whose casual eye
Observes all day the Glories which by night
Were strung up on the concrete battlements
And since he must die I must look beautiful
I’ll light the torch of my bare breasts
With my big eyes I’ll melt the freezing pond
Let my hips become a tomb
For since he must die I must look beautiful

Sunset cattle low their roses
The bluebird’s wing fans me softly
It’s time for love’s burning neuroses
It’s time for Death and last wishes
He who must die the way roses die
Is a little soldier my brother my love

IN MARCH 1916, APOLLINAIRE receives a shrapnel wound to the head. Picasso makes a quick sketch. Apollinaire is trepanned and invalided out of the army. The Belle Époque is over, but Apollinaire, the irrepressible optimist, continues to believe in a bright new future for humanity. Because he still has faith in human progress, he still has visions of new forms of artistic expression. In 1917, he coins the word “surrealism” – but sadly never lives to see its extraordinary flowering.

I’m grateful to my grandfather for introducing me to Apollinaire. His voice is unique, so is that fusion of war, art and romance. Yet insecurity and confidence, doubt and optimism, preserve a constant precarious equilibrium in all his work.

Here finally is Apollinaire’s self-portrait, in a poem called, with typical verve, “Marvel of War”.

I and my company have slipped into the softness of this war along
The long communication trenches
Shouts of flame endlessly announce my presence
I’ve dug out the bed where I slide and spread
Into a thousand rivers that flow everywhere
I’m in the front line trench and yet I’m everywhere or rather
I’m starting to be everywhere
I’m the one beginning this thing of centuries yet to come
It will take longer to realise than the fable of the airman Icarus

I leave to posterity the story of Guillaume Apollinaire
Who went to war and fetched up everywhere
In among the happy towns behind the line
Every corner of the universe
In among the barbed-wire dead and dying
In among women cannon horses
The nadir and the zenith all four cardinal points
And in the unique ardour of nights before combat
That knight’s vigil

And doubtless it would be more lovely
If I could suppose that all those things
In which I’m everywhere
Might inhabit me too
But in that matter it’s no go
For at this hour that I am everywhere
Inside me there’s still just me


MARTIN SORRELL is a BBC radio playwright and Emeritus Professor of French at Exeter University, where he teaches an MA course on Literary Translation. He has published widely in the field of translation, including three volumes in the Oxford University Press World’s Classics series, and the first substantial anthology of modern French poetry by women. In June 2010, his two new translations of Verlaine appeared in The Fortnightly Review. His most recent publication is Baudelaire: Paris Spleen. Two of his translations have won BCLA/John Dryden prizes, and one original play for the BBC, a Mental Health Media Award for Best Radio Drama. This is an adaptation of a radio broadcast first transmitted on BBC Radio 4. The English translations are by Prof. Sorrell.

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    I quoted your article as a reference( on my blog about opera). I hope you do not mind.Best regards.

    Tuesday, 22 July 2014 at 13:31 | Permalink

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