Guillaume Apollinaire (2708 words)

  • Martin Sorrell (University of Exeter)

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Guglielmo Alberto Wladimiro Apollinare de Kostrowitsky – i.e. Guillaume Apollinaire – was one of the most charismatic, multi-faceted and influential figures in the artistic life of Europe during the early twentieth century. Though his reputation is most firmly founded on his poetry, he was a writer of stories, of several stage plays, of art criticism, and of pornographic novels. A gregarious man, he knew the artists who mattered in the Paris of the Belle Epoque, a period when that city’s status as world cultural capital was taken seriously. One critic (Roger Shattuck) labelled Apollinaire the impresario of the avant-garde. This article will give an account of his colourful life, closely bound up with his artistic achievements.

Apollinaire’s beginnings were unusual, as the lengthy baptismal entry above suggests. He was born, illegitimate, in Rome in late August of 1880, most likely the 26th (the birth was not registered until a few days later). His mother, Angelica Kostrowicka, was an independent and alluring young Pole of aristocratic stock. The identity of the father, however, has still to be proved to everyone’s total satisfaction. The generally accepted hypothesis is that it was Francesco Flugi d’Aspermont, a Piedmontese nobleman, with whom Angelica had another son, Albert. Later, Guillaume was not unhappy to fuel the rumours that his father might have been a very high Vatican dignitary, possibly His Holiness Himself.

In 1885, his now-abandoned mother took her sons to live on the French Riviera, where they received their schooling in, successively, Monaco, Cannes and Nice. Guillaume developed the voracious appetite for reading and for acquiring heteroclite knowledge that would never leave him. In 1899, the family moved to Paris, together with the man who was to be Angelica’s partner for the rest of her life. About this time, Apollinaire started to write poems, mainly love lyrics to a certain Mareye. After a traumatic stay in Belgium, involving unpaid bills, and back in Paris, Apollinaire struggled to find employment, exacerbating his nagging feelings of foreignness, but also giving him more time to deepen his eclectic reading. In 1901, he took up a position as private tutor in the employ of the Comtesse de Milhau, accompanying the household to Rhineland for a year. By now, he was writing substantially, sending off the results to the literary reviews of the day. La Revue Blanche [The White Review] published l’Hérésiarque [The Heresiarch], a short story which for the first time used the name by which he has subsequently been known.

During his Rhineland year, Apollinaire fell for one of the Milhau staff, an English governess called Annie Pleyden, and pursued her by various means including poetry. The non-affair yielded some of the finest of the love poetry that forms such an important and enduring part of his output. The fact that it was a disappointing episode made the best poetic sense for him. He was usually at his finest when transmuting his emotional miseries into verbal joys.

By August of 1902, Apollinaire was back in Paris. His literary fortunes picked up. A few poems had been taken in 1901, and he started to publish with some sort of regularity. He accepted menial jobs to make ends meet, but at the same time he was gaining acceptance into Paris’s literary milieux. Indeed, in 1903, he founded his own review, Le Festin d’Esope [Aesop’s Feast], which appeared regularly until August 1904. In that year, he met Picasso and Max Jacob, plus others members of the avant garde. From these meetings, and the friendships formed, emerged the new aesthetic of Cubism, which henceforth contributed centrally to Apollinaire’s development both as poet and critic. In 1905, he published an article on Picasso, effectively the first critical appraisal of that painter ever to appear. He began too to write exhibition reviews, and catalogue prefaces. In a real sense, Apollinaire was the first champion of Cubism, notably of Picasso, Braque and Robert Delaunay. He became well established as an art critic, writing a column successively in two important newspapers until the outbreak of the First World War. Also, it is during this period that he met one of the two or three great loves of his life, the painter Marie Laurencin. As a creative writer his stature was growing apace. He became involved with a succession of short-lived but influential journals, some with a modernist bent, others not. His collection of mystically-inclined short stories, L”Enchanteur Pourrissant [The Rotting Enchanter], appeared in 1909, illustrated by Derain. His long and great lyric poem of failed love, “La Chanson du mal-aimé” [“The Song of the Poorly Loved”], was published individually in the same year. In 1910, the short stories of L’Hérésiarque et Cie [The Heresiarch and Company] contended for the Prix Goncourt. 1911 saw the publication of the charming, if slight, collection of animal-inspired poems, Le Bestiaire [The Bestiary], again accompanied by Derain’s illustrations. This was also the year when he was jailed for a few days in Paris’s La Santé prison, on suspicion of having stolen the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. In 1912, with André Salmon, André Billy and others, he founded a thoroughly avant-garde review named Les Soirées de Paris [Paris Evenings]. Here, the cause of Cubism was loudly proclaimed; here too, Apollinaire published a number of the poems he had been writing recently, and which would be included in his first major collection. In 1913, immediately preceding the outbreak of the First World War, two of Apollinaire’s most significant books were published – the essays on art, Méditations esthétiques: Les Peintres cubists [Aesthetic meditations: the Cubist painters], and the collection of poems, Alcools: poèmes 1898-1913 [Alcohols: poems 1898-1913]. Both were largely composed of already published individual items. In the same year, he began to write poetry in calligrammatic form.

On the outbreak of World War 1, Apollinaire enlisted in the French army, for various reasons. One was that he found himself on the rebound from one of the most tempestuous of his many love affairs, this one with Louise de Coligny. Emotionally adrift, he was spurred on by the strong sense of loyalty to his adoptive France. He joined an artillery regiment in Nîmes. For the first part of the war, he wrote relatively little. He seems to have enjoyed army life, in large measure for its sociability and masculine comradeliness. Nevertheless, during some leave in 1915, on meeting a young woman on a train, Madeleine Pagès, he effectively seduced and won her over with a series of ever-more explicit letters written to her once he was back with his regiment. The two became engaged, but there things came to a halt. There was no marriage. Rather, Apollinaire threw himself into the business of war, celebrated in a number of poems later collected in Calligrammes: Poèmes de la paix et de la guerre (1913-1916) [Calligrams: Poems of peace and war (1913-1916)]. Their surprisingly upbeat tone is due principally to the fact that they related to Apollinaire’s experience before he discovered the misery of trench life, and before a shrapnel wound to the head put paid to his war. He was trepanned, and spent the rest of the war, indeed of his life, in Paris. Here, he immersed himself once more in the literary and artistic worlds. He published in the burgeoning, progressive reviews such as Nord-Sud, SIC, and 391. In a busy 1917, he completed a novel, La Femme assise [Seated Woman], published a slim volume of verse, Vitam Impenedere Amori [To Spend Life on Love], and put together what was to be his last collection of poems, Calligrammes (published 1918). Also in 1917, though it had been conceived much earlier, the more important of his two plays, Les Mamelles de Tirésisas [Tiresias’s Breasts] was given its first performance. The parentage of this interesting farce was Alfred Jarry’s notorious Ubu roi [King Ubu], of 1896. Apart from the play entitled Couleur du temps (first performed in 1918), Apollinaire’s only other contribution to the theatre was the programme note to the collaborative spectacle Parade(1917). In this preface, Apollinaire famously coined the word “surrealism”, although he was to know nothing of the official Surrealist movement, which came into being five years after his death. 1917 was also the year of his important lecture, entitled “L’Esprit nouveau et les poètes” [“The New Spirit and Poets”]. In it, he sought to define and promote the new modernist spirit of poetry. The poetry collection Calligrammes appeared in the spring of 1918, and soon after he married Jacqueline Kolb, the “jolie rousse” [pretty redhead] of one of his best-known poems. By mid-November of the same year, however, he was dead, aged only thirty-eight, carried off by the biggest killer of the war, Spanish influenza. Ironically, on the day of his death, 9th November, the crowds were baying “‘A bas Guillaume!’” [“Down with William!”] beneath his window, a chant not aimed at Apollinaire, of course, but at the defeated German Kaiser.

Apollinaire was born at a time when Symbolism was the dominant literary mode, and he died when the whole world was in a state of cataclysmic change, artistically as much as politically and socially. His illegitimacy coloured his attitudes and thinking, and his artistic output. He was markedly a social being. In and out of love with reliable regularity, his sufferings, real or inflated, were the inspiration of some of his best poetry, at least of the lyric kind. And, inspired by the painter Robert Delaunay’s views on colour, Apollinaire resurrected an old term, “orphism”, to define the mystery and poetry essential to art. Delaunay called his own experiments “windows by simultaneous contrast”, a concept which Apollinaire later re-defined as “simultanism”, more helpful than “orphism”.

Apollinaire’s Symbolist apprenticeship is evident in a good deal of his early work, collected in Alcools. Poems such as “Merlin et la vieille femme”, “L’Ermite” [The Hermit], and “Le Larron” [The Thief] tend to wilful obscurity, and display the young poet’s urge to show off his erudition. But with “Palais” (first published separately in 1905, and also included in Alcools), Apollinaire effectively bade farewell to Symbolism, the old order, and struck out in a different direction. Henceforth, his work becomes a search for a new aesthetic. Passing through traditional compositions – notably “La Chanson du mal-aimé” – Apollinaire arrives in 1908 at the crucial concept of a “lyricism which is both new and humanist”. Poetry should immerse itself in the exciting new technologies which were to become defining if troubled aspects of the twentieth century. Curiously, the poems which announce the new lyricism are not his most fresh and approachable. Echoes of his Symbolist past make poems such as “Le Brasier” [The Brazier] , “Les Fiançailles” [Betrothal], “Vendémiaire” [Month of winds], “Cortège” [Cortege], and others, difficult to understand fully. They reveal that behind the vision of a modern lyricism lies a deal of mystery, perhaps mysticism, of a highly personalised nature.

However, when modern lyricism is at its brightest and most adventurous, Apollinaire’s poetry sparkles and intoxicates. One example must suffice. Though the subject matter of the great opening poem of Alcools, “Zone”, is downbeat – loss of love, alienation on a par with Eliot’s almost identically-titled The Waste Land – the poetic language and forms are new, adventurous, and exciting. Stanza and line lengths vary greatly, perspective and viewpoints change kaleidoscopically. It abounds in astonishing imagery of the kind that has become synonymous with the name Apollinaire. The Eiffel Tower becomes a shepherdess, the bridges across the Seine her flock; Christ is now an aviator who holds the world altitude record; the setting sun is a human neck post-decapitation.

Then, in the arguably more experimental collection of poems, Calligrammes, Apollinaire mixes war poems which often are of a naïvely optimistic outlook (“God, how beautiful war is!”, recast as Oh What A Lovely War for Joan Littlewood’s celebrated anti-war theatre work) with up-to-date versions of the ideogram, or calligram. The principle is simple: the words of the poem are disposed over the page, not top to bottom and left to right, but as if they were the brushstrokes of a painting whose subject coincides with the verbal language. The ancient tradition of the ideogram has its origins in early Chinese practice, and Apollinaire uses it impressively in poems such as “Il Pleut” [It’s Raining], “La Petite Auto” [The Little Car], “La Colombe Poignardée et le Jet d’Eau” [The Stabbed Dove and the Fountain], to name but a few. Thus, in “La petite Auto”, the poet anticipates war on a page which pictorially resembles the side view of an army tank.

Yet, in fact, Apollinaire is less innovative in his ideograms than in some of the orthodox poems of Calligrammes. For example, “Les Fenêtres” [The Windows], inspired by Robert Delaunay’s experiments with colour, attempts an ambitious structure of multiple and simultaneous meanings, without a fixed centre of authorial perspective. Apollinaire had been working towards this conception from the time leading up to Alcools. At proof stage of this volume, he took the crucial decision to suppress all its punctuation marks. The major effect of “unbinding” language in this way is to create ambiguity. Where a phrase, clause, or sense group begins and where it ends remains ambiguous. Arguably, this technique allows Apollinaire to come as close as is possible in language to the ideal of simultaneity, of disclosing the plural meanings in a single group of words.

Apollinaire’s forays into prose fiction produce mixed results. Certainly he has a feel for one of its possibilities, the short story, as is made evident by the fluency of tales and anecdotes contained in Le Flâneur des deux rives [The Riverside Wanderer], published in 1918. But in more ambitious mode, he over-extends the short story form, and a good deal of L’Enchanteur pourrissant (1909), L’Hérésiarque et Cie (1910), Le Poète assassiné [The Poet Assassinated] (1916), and La Femme assise (1920) can make for unsatisfactory and confused reading. One critic (Roger Little) has identified three thematic strands in Apollinaire’s short stories: myth/legend, eroticism, and interest in language. What is clear, however, is that Apollinaire is more at home in verse than prose (with the possible exception of his pornographic writing, undertaken solely for money, such as Les Onze mille verges [Eleven Thousand Rods] of 1907). Interestingly, both of his stage plays are in verse, and certainly one of them, Les Mamelles de Tirésias, though eccentric and fragmented, remains a lively and ambitious piece of avant-garde theatre, which in recent years has been produced to considerable effect. The stage design which the play proposes in its verse prologue posits a circular playing area enclosed by a ring of spectator seats, with a further area outside this auditorium. Presumably, Apollinaire envisaged that the audience would be able easily and comfortably to follow the action both inside and outside the O.

Finally, and briefly, the critical writing which Apollinaire produces on the subject of art and aesthetics can be considered of historical value, in that it is among the first in France to offer a definition of the modern and modernist spirit. Similarly, his book on the Cubist painters has the virtue of promoting (before anyone else) the talents and the innovations of certain artists who are now household names. Yet, Apollinaire’s writings on art, though valuable as trail-blazers, are now generally considered to be undistinguished in terms of their critical force. Equally unenduring is the Symbolist-inspired poetry, often overwritten and published seemingly to advertise his dazzling intellectual range. Collectively, these pieces of work might be considered as curiosities, and the same charge could be laid against the door of much of his fiction.

Apollinaire’s lasting reputation is as one of the great French poets of the twentieth century, and France’s one significant poet of World War I. His finest poetry falls broadly into two categories: poems which are modernist in conception and execution; or lyrical poems, fresh, heartfelt, and of that apparent simplicity and sincerity which masks the skill and subtlety of its composition.

Works Cited

Shattuck, Roger, The Banquet Years, 1955 (USA), 1969 (UK).
Little, Roger, Guillaume Apollinaire, 1976.
Eliot, T.S., The Waste Land, 1922.
Jarry, Alfred, Ubu roi, 1896.
Littlewood, Joan/Charles Chilton, Oh What A Lovely War!, 1965.

Sorrell, Martin. "Guillaume Apollinaire". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 11 April 2007
[, accessed 07 December 2016.]

Articles on Apollinaire's works

  1. Calligrammes: Poèmes de la paix et de la guerre (1913-1916) [Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916)]

Related Groups

  1. World War 1 Literature