Can one give artistic shape to the bloodshed that was World War I without risking prettifying it? As a poet and a soldier, Guillaume Apollinaire offered a distinctively complex answer to this riddle with his poetry collection Calligrammes, published in April 1918 and subtitled Poems of War and Peace (1913 – 1916).
Apollinaire, originally Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitski, was the son of a Polish mother. A poet, an art critic and a theorist of Cubism, he spent the years leading up to the war living and writing among the French avant-garde. When the conflict started, he went to great lengths to become a French citizen in order to be allowed to voluntarily join the Army; he enlisted on the 5th of November 1914. In 1916, he was demobilised due to a severe wound. Apollinaire died on November 9th 1918, two days before the end of the conflict.
War proved to be a highly creative period for the poet, who also wrote a significant amount of letters and poems to his then lover, Louise de Coligny-Châtillon, published in Poèmes à Lou. This biographical context is essential to understanding Apollinaire’s work, which collapses the frontiers between epic and intimate poetry.
Calligrammes is a collection of experimental poems: the title is a word coined by Apollinaire to depict a poetic form relying on the layout of the poems, using the lines as drawings of sorts to convey additional meaning. Many poems in Calligrammes are more traditional in form, but they are puzzling in their treatment of the war – the core theme of the collection. For example, in his enigmatic poem ‘The Cavalryman’s Farewell’, Apollinaire mingles elegiac verses with near-jingoistic outbursts:
L’adieu du cavalier
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 Cavalryman’s Farewell
Oh God ! isn’t war jolly
With its songs its leisurely hours
This ring I’ve been polishing
The wind mingles with your sighs
Farewell ! I hear the bugle call
He disappeared around the bend
And died there while she
Laughed at this surprising turn of fate
Apollinaire’s playful, distanced tone in this poem and in many more of the collection is still a source of confusion for his readers: how are we meant to read this statement that war is ‘jolly’? He seems to be adopting a provocative pose – up until the last two lines, and the death of the unfortunate cavalryman, which give the poem an ironic twist. Likewise, how are we to understand his fiancée’s reaction? Is her laughter expressing psychopathic joy or, on the contrary, hysteria, alluding to her madness?
Other poems, like ‘The Trench’, reveal Apollinaire’s similarly ambiguous fascination with the violence of the conflict and war technologies:
Ô jeunes gens je m’offre à vous comme une épouse
Mon amour est puissant j’aime jusqu’à la mort
Tapie au fond du sol je vous guette jalouse
Et mon corps n’est en tout qu’un long baiser qui mord
O youth I give myself to you a bride
My love is fierce and I love until death
Crouching beneath I keep watch jealously
My body nought but a long biting kiss
With its blend of lurking violence and eroticism, ‘The Trench’ is another example of paradoxical war poetry. The trench (which, in the original French, was also compared to a ‘boyau’, a gut) becomes a female body endowed with sensual and predatory qualities.
Female figures, however, do not always take on such sinister connotations in his work. They may become part of the poet’s mourning, as in his experimental, elegiac poem, ‘The Stabbed Dove and the Fountain’:
Sweet stabbed faces Dear flowered lips
ANNIE and you MARIE
Cries and prays
This dove goes in ecstasies
All the memories of yore? Where are Raynal Billy Dalize
O my friends marched to war Whose names become melancholy
Spring toward firmament Like steps in a church
And your glances in sleeping water Where is Cremnitz who went to war
Melancholy die They may be dead already
Where are they Braque and Max Jacob My soul is full with memories
Tomorrow with eyes grey as dawn Cries the fountain over my sorrow
Those who marched into war in the North are now fighting
Night falls O bleeding sea
Gardens where rose-bay the warrior flower bleeds abundantly
Interpretations of Apollinaire’s work often focus on his ambiguous stance on the conflict, but poems such as this one remind us not to overlook his involvement in the conflict and his subsequent suffering. The litany of names (‘Raynal Billy Dalize’) refers to his own friends and their uncertain fates: are they dead? will they come back from war? He also uses this elegiac motif to recall his former sweethearts, drawing once again on the associations between love, intimacy and war.
Puzzling as it may be, Apollinaire’s poetry stands as a particularly original response to the conflict, and one that continues to strike readers with its modernity. In Calligrammes, the First World War is given lyrical shape through poems that conflate ironic celebrations of the ‘jolly’ war with the mourning of dead friends and fickle lovers – thus framing the war in more human dimensions.
Words by Marine Furet. Poems co-translated by Marine Furet and Saskia McCraken.
Cuillé, L 2014 ‘Apollinaire et le détournement de l’arsenal militaire : la vitesse comme vecteur amoureux’, RELIEF – REVUE ÉLECTRONIQUE DE LITTÉRATURE FRANÇAISE. 8(2), pp.28–50. DOI: http://doi.org/10.18352/relief.895
Kuchyts-Challier, T 2014 ‘Vitam impendere bello : La Grande Guerre sur l’Autre scène d’Apollinaire’, RELIEF – REVUE ÉLECTRONIQUE DE LITTÉRATURE FRANÇAISE. 8(2), pp.15–27. DOI: http://doi.org/10.18352/relief.894