The legend of Guillaume Apollinaire— jovial, manic, lewd, charismatic, Roman-nosed Apollinaire—is as potent as his work. He was born Wilhelm Albert Wladimir Alexandre Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky in Rome in 1880. His mother, Angelica Alexandrina de Kostrowitzky, was a Polish adventuress who liked to claim noble blood; his father, probably, was an Italian army officer named Francesco-Costantino-Camillo Flugi d’Aspermont, whose rich Catholic family disdained Angelica. (These murky passages have a faint flavor of Stendhal.) The boy spent his first seven years in Roman squalor until his mother, with Wilhelm and a younger brother in tow, moved to Monaco to become a “hostess” at the casino. It was thus fortuitous that the boy got a French education at all, for only in 1861 had Monaco reverted to being a French protectorate.

From 1888 to 1897 the youngster was a star pupil at Catholic boarding schools in Monaco and Cannes, taking his first communion and writing his first verses in 1892. (Now things acquire more the flavor of Humbert Humbert’s childhood.) He transferred to a public lycée in Nice in 1897 but failed his bac. By seventeen, he had lost his faith, had sex, and, in the words of Scott Bates, “acquired an extraordinary knowledge of fin-de-siècle esoteric, erotic, and revolutionary literature.” Obliged by the authorities to leave Monaco, his mother and her new protector, the Alsatian banker and gambler Jules Weil, moved the ménage north in 1899—first to a gambling spa near Stavelot in Belgium and eventually to Paris. As Roger Shattuck recounts in The Banquet Years (1958), “having suffered gambling losses at Spa, Madame de Kostrowitzky and Weil returned to Paris and instructed the boys to ‘skip’ the pension without paying the six-hundred-franc bill.” There is now a monument to the defaulting poet not far from the pension.

Back in Paris in 1900 the young man toiled as a secretary and at night wrote sci-fi and porn. In 1901 a wealthy German family visiting Paris offered him a job as tutor to their eight-year-old daughter; during his subsequent year in the Rhineland as tutor, he fell unsuccessfully in love with the girl’s shy, pretty, blonde English governess, Annie Playden. Back in Paris in 1902, Guillaume Apollinaire—as he now called himself— moved in with his mother, got a job in a bank, met Alfred Jarry and other literary iconoclasts, and started a magazine, Le Festin d’Esope, which championed, among other things, sci-fi and detective stories. As he later put it himself, they drank a lot of absinthe and learned to laugh. Twice he went to London to propose to Annie; her horrified family packed her off to America.

In October 1904 at the Criterion bar, a hangout for touts and jockeys near the Gare Saint-Lazare, Apollinaire met Pablo Picasso, twenty-three, who soon introduced him to Max Jacob, critic, poet, wit, fantasist. The bande à Picasso was in being: “You’ve heard of La Fontaine and Molière and Racine, well now that’s us,” claimed Jacob in accents heard in every young generation. In the excited words of Picasso’s biographer John Richardson, “until he died, fourteen years after they met, Apollinaire would be a constant solace, a constant goad to Picasso. He opened up his imagination to a vast new range of intellectual stimuli: to new concepts of black humor, to the pagan past and the wilder shores of sex.” The ten years before the war saw the full blossoming of Apollinaire: editor of Revue Immoraliste (1905); founder of the review Les Soirées de Paris (1912); pioneering art critic in Chroniques d’art (1902–18) and Les Peintres cubistes: méditations esthétiques (1913); novelist in Le Poète assassiné (1903–8), L’Hérésiarque et Cie. (1910), and La Femme assise (1912–18); pornographic novelist in Mémoires d’un jeune Don Juan and Les Onze mille verges[1] (both 1906). Not to mention, for the moment, poet.

In 1911 Apollinaire underwent what was even for him an unusual experience: on September 7 he was arrested for the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and spent six days in prison. It seems that, as Shattuck tells it, “one of Apollinaire’s acquaintances from poorer days, who had worked briefly as his secretary, an itinerant Belgian named Géry Pieret, had twice stolen small statuettes from the Louvre out of pure bravado. He sold the first lot to Picasso and left some with Apollinaire.” Pieret—and his famous friends—were innocent of the greater outrage but when it happened he unwisely went to the newspapers and all hell broke loose. The unpleasantness shook the poet, who was indeed almost deported; Picasso, characteristically, wiggled out of any implication. Then from 1907 to 1912 Apollinaire was tumultuously involved with Marie Laurencin, a “wide-eyed, mischievous, slender” painter in whom, precisely “because she both yielded to him and escaped him, he found embodied … the unstilled rhythm of love and disappointment which stimulated him most profoundly” (the words are Shattuck’s). Nineteen thirteen was his annus mirabilis: April saw the publication of Alcools: poèmes 1898–1913 and of Les Peintres cubistes. In December 1914 he joined the artillery; in 1916 he transferred to the infantry; in 1917 he was wounded in the head by shrapnel; in 1918 he got married, published his second important volume of verse, Calligrammes: poèmes de la paix et de la guerre, 1913–1916, which included shape-poems, war poems, and love poems, and died of the flu. He was buried on Armistice Day, the long cortège having to move through crowds that were shouting “Conspuez Guillaume!”—that is, “Spit on the Kaiser!” It was, friends thought, just the sort of thing he would have savored.

The real importance of Apollinaire is as a poet, and the place to start is with Alcools (pronounced al-coal and meaning “spirits”). The poems in that book, although not arranged chronologically and occasionally hard to date, were mainly written from 1902 to 1912 and have for immediate inspiration a cluster of themes: the poet’s 1902–5 obsession with Annie Playden, his 1907–12 obsession with Marie Laurencin, Catholicism, homemade erotic-hermetic substitutes for Catholicism, modern technology, Paris.

Two recent books offer an opportunity to think about Apollinaire’s poetic accomplishment. One is The Cubist Poets in Paris: An Anthology, edited by LeRoy C. Breunig.[2] Mr. Breunig, a distinguished editor and scholar of Apollinaire, includes in this anthology only three poems from Alcools (one of them, though, is the long introductory poem “Zone”), plus seven from Calligrammes. But the slimness of selection is offset by the richness of the company: we get to see what Apollinaire’s pals and disciples and influences were up to poetically, people like Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, André Salmon (Apollinaire wrote a charming epithalamion in Alcools for him), and Laurencin herself. Of particular comparative interest are Jacob and Cendrars: Jacob’s modernist spirit often falls easily into neat alexandrine couplets, while in Cendrars free verse has lost any memory of prosodic rhythm and expresses its modernist wit (“The guillotine is the masterpiece of the plastic arts”) without music.

Apollinaire was, by contrast, able to work exciting changes in the traditional French lines without subsiding into subjectivist sprawl. The idea of “cubist” poetry, by the way, although deriving sanction from much chatter of the period, is fundamentally a meretricious one. “Cubist” poetry is as much an impossibility as “twelve-tone” poetry. Fun with typography is not really a parallel, for shape-poems are an old Alexandrian game and are not specifically “cubist.” A case could be made for such devices as Cendrars’s inclusion of a prospectus issued by the Chamber of Commerce of Denver in his travel-poem “Le Panama ou les Aventures de mes sept oncles” as cubistic, but their weight on the page is so much lighter than on the canvas. “Cubist” poetry is, finally, a stunt.

The whole of Alcools has been newly translated, with facing French but with a skimpy introduction and with no notes, by poet Donald Revell.[3]Alcools opens and closes with two poems, “Zone” (1913) and “Vendémiaire” (1912), that were among the last written and that offer large, apocalyptic statements. “Vendémiaire” (the Revolutionary month of vintage) strains for a Whitmanesque omnivorousness in lines like “Je suis ivre d’avoir bu tout l’univers/ … / Ecoutez-moi je suis le gosier de Paris/ Et je boirai encore s’il me plaît l’univers/ Ecoutez mes chants d’universelle ivrognerie.” (Revell: “I am intoxicated with cosmos/ … / Listen to me I am the gullet of Paris/ If it pleases me I will swallow all of creation/ Listen to my songs of cosmic drunkenness.”) For the moment, I want to point to the closeness of the verse here to an alexandrine base: the first line is a syllable away from being an alexandrine; the second and third are quite traditional, even to the median caesura; even the fourth can be heard as an alexandrine with an added syllable. But the Romantic egoism is, in the poem as a whole, cut with a Parisian sweetness, as in “Que Paris était beau à la fin de septembre” (Revell: “Paris was beautiful in late September”) and as in the poem’s three final lines, all alexandrines and the last two a couplet with feminine rhyme: “Et la nuit de septembre s’achevait lentement/ Les feux rouges des ponts s’éteignaient dans la Seine/ Les étoiles mouraient le jour naissait à peine.” (Revell: “And the September night ended in no hurry/ The fiery bridges were doused in the Seine/ The constellations died and day had barely begun.”)

What is Revell up to? First of all, he gives the title of this poem so soaked in wine and drinking as “The Harvest Month,” as if it were called “Messidor”—a pointless change. Then in rendering the verse he loses the traditional rhythm so clearly audible in the French and offers nothing in its stead but a timid conversational swagger and a blurred rhyme or two. He has, in fact, announced an intention “to distort certain moments of syntax deliberately to reproduce Apollinaire’s verbal and thematic strayings.” This licensing of his own operations by reference to Apollinaire’s promenades is an all-too-familiar kind of postmodern sleight-of-hand, and one is not surprised to find Revell claiming authority for it in Marjorie Perloff’s notion of “strolling” indeterminacy and in the “beautiful solecisms” of John Ashbery. He sees Apollinaire as championing “aimlessness, the total surrender of language to the immediate moment,” and sees himself as entitled to do the same thing.

He is wrong on both counts. In Apollinaire’s best verse there is no aimlessness or total surrender but an electric tension between innovative impudence and the formal French poetry he knew and loved. And even if Revell were right about Apollinaire, he would be wrong about what a presenter of Apollinaire in English ought to do. Apollinaire needs scholarship, modesty, fidelity. He wants lovers, not apes. He gets what he deserves in the excellent edition of Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913– 1916) with the facing French translated by Anne Hyde Greet, plus a full introduction and copious annotation by Greet and S. I. Lockerbie (University of California Press, 1980). In meticulously reproducing on the English side of the page the shaped calligram poems, this volume is a triumph of typography as well as of expository scholarship and linguistic tact.

“Zone,” Apollinaire’s signature poem, sets the poet (called variously “tu” and “je”) walking through the scenes—the zones—of his life, above all, Paris. It begins in the morning, goes through the night, ends with a sunrise—not unlike “Vendémiaire.” With deadpan éclat the poet praises the Pope and Christ as avatars of modernity: Christ “holds the world’s altitude record… . And the century become a bird climbs skyward like Jesus” (Shattuck). In “Zone” Apollinaire shakes off the alexandrine and soars into the free ether. He has lots of provocative things to say about his own and modern life, but his way of saying them is less vital, less tense than earlier. The opening of “Zone” became as celebrated a cri de coeur and rallying cry as “Let us go then, you and I …”: “A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien/ Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin.” Breunig: “In the long run you’re tired of this ancient world/ Shepherdess oh Eiffel Tower the flock of bridges bleats this morning”; Revell: “At last you’re tired of this elderly world/ Shepherdess O Eiffel Tower this morning the bridges are bleating”; Samuel Beckett (in a 1950 translation): “In the end you are weary of this ancient world/ This morning the bridges are bleating Eiffel Tower oh herd.”

None of these too-faithful versions gets either the exhausted, uphill, monosyllabic pitch of the first line or the urban-pastoral conceit of the second. (As an example of how Apollinaire was operating deep within French tradition, I cite as lying somewhere behind that very modernist second line Du Bellay’s dawn poem that begins: “Déjà la nuit en son parc amassoit/ Un grand troupeau d’étoiles vagabondes.”) In the one striking departure from the French, Beckett metathesizes the vocative and it becomes an instance of ugly Beckettian bathos.

“Zone”’s last line, bidding farewell to a rising sun seen as a bleeding neck, is the unforgettable “Soleil cou coupé.” Breunig: “Sun clean-cut neck”; Revell: “Sun cut throated”; Beckett: “Sun corseless head.” The three bare words, which proleptically epitomize all the Surrealism that was to owe so much to Apollinaire, pack together asyndeton (unarticulated juxtaposition), pun (coucou = cuckoo), shock. Breunig’s “clean-cut” is a nice attempt to give a reverse charge to an American cliché; Revell’s “cut-throated” is a clever neologism but might be improved with the simpler “sun cut throat”; Beckett exaggerates the horror, but his faux-Jacobean “corseless” does shock.

The best poem of Alcools is the long lament called “La Chanson du mal aimé” (“The Song of the Poorly Loved”), which was written shortly after a visit to London in 1903 in search of Annie Playden. Consisting of sixty five-line ABABA stanzas of eight-syllable lines that hark back to Villon, Ronsard, and Du Bellay, the poem opens on a foggy London evening as the narrator, “I,” follows a scruffy cupid (or devilish anticupid) toward his love. The frustrated quest opens onto a phantasmagoric terrain of biblical allusion, classical myth, Christian hagiography, and coded obscenity. The lovelorn poet ends up—pleasingly but perhaps not surprisingly—on a Sunday night in June wandering around his lovely Paris (“J’erre à travers mon beau Paris”). The antepenultimate stanza distills the magic of Apollinaire:

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

(Much was made in 1913 of Alcools’s lack of punctuation—a last-minute whim of the poet’s. Now passing unnoticed, it was a big deal then in French.) Roger Shattuck:

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


The Paris nights are blind with gin
And blaze with electricity
The green fires of a great machine
Derange my city
To the spinal music of the trains

Shattuck’s homely fidelity keeps close to the original, though Apollinaire’s variations in meter and rhyme (he prided himself on renovating the eight-syllable line and on revolutionizing masculine and feminine rhyme) are far more subtle and daring, as in the first line’s choriamb-like swing. Shattuck makes a stab at rhyme and then lets it go. Revell starts off promisingly, the rhythms of his first two lines being stiffer than the French; then, drunk on his own assonance (nights/ blind/ fires/ spinal; blaze/ derange/ trains), he forsakes meter and sense for a blurry trippiness, an Ashbery-ian high. “Green fires of a great machine”—far out, dude!

Alas, Apollinaire, though he loved to tease with arcane and imagined allusions, was not a postmodernist; his was not the sound of half-overheard conversations or radio-station surfing. His was an erudite, Alexandrian wit; he was a poète précieux in a defined tradition. He smelled, attractively, of the perfumes of the lonely modern city —of alcohol and gasoline and the dust of the forbidden wing of the library.

Was he a great poet? It was, of course, his destiny to write in the wake of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, true founders of languages, sensibilities, poetics. Next to such figures Apollinaire seems more a Gautier or a Verlaine—indispensable but of the second rank. He was a great figure, a great modernist without being a great poet. He was a belated Byron who, though he lived slightly longer than the Englishman, was not fated to produce his Don Juan.

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  1. The title Les Onze mille verges—the 11,000 rods/ cocks—alludes waggishly to the 11,000 Virgin Martyrs of Cologne. Indeed, a certain adolescent sauciness about Catholicism was never to forsake Apollinaire. Richardson calls the book “a masterpiece of its kind—a brilliant take-off on the Marquis de Sade that is saved from horror by irony and black humor.” Picasso, to whom Apollinaire gave the manuscript, thought it the author’s best work; it appeared in English in the 1960s as a sleazy paperback called The Debauched Hospodar. Go back to the text.
  2. The Cubist Poets in Paris: An Anthology, edited, translated, and with an introduction by L. C. Breunig; University of Nebraska Press, 326 pages, $35. Go back to the text.
  3. Alcools, by Guillaume Apollinaire, translated and with an introduction by Donald Revell; Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 171 pages, $30; $15.95 paper. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 4, on page 28
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