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Guillaume Apollinaire

Author Biography
Poem Text
Poem Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


"Always" appears in Guillaume Apollinaire's second volume of poetry, Calligrammes, which was published in 1918 and is thought to contain some of his best and most experimental poems. The poem was reprinted in The Self-Dismembered Man, published by Wesleyan University Press in 2004.

"Always" reveals the influence of cubism, an art movement that emerged between 1908 and 1912. Apollinaire was fascinated by the way such modern painters as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were able to imaginatively reconstruct reality in their work. He applied their methods to "Always" as he examined the nature of poetic inspiration and construction. In a series of separate but related images, the poem focuses on the process of exploration of the universe, from its celestial to its terrestrial boundaries, by such diverse figures as Christopher Columbus and the legendary lover Don Juan. Through creative contradictions and ambiguities, Apollinaire investigates in "Always" the poet's desire to create fresh visions of the world.

Author Biography

Guillaume Apollinaire is considered one of the most important literary figures of the early twentieth century. His use of direct language and unconventional poetic structure had a great influence on his fellow exponents of the avant-garde, his literary descendants, and modern poetic theory, especially cubism and surrealism.

Apollinaire was most likely born with the name Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky in Rome on August 26, 1880. It is difficult to determine his exact name, because his mother, Angeliska Alexandrina Kostrowitzky, a Polish aristocrat, recorded several names for him. Apollinaire's father was probably Francesco-Constantino-Camillo Flugi d'Aspermont, an Italian army officer and gambler. After Flugi d'Aspermont broke off his relationship with Apollinaire's mother, she moved with her children to the French Riviera. Apollinaire was a successful student at Collège Saint-Charles in Monaco, where he often entertained his friends with his imaginative stories. He neglected his studies at the Lycée de Nice in favor of poetry writing and so failed to graduate.

After he moved with his family to Paris in 1899, Apollinaire worked as a copyist, a secretary, and a writer for the newspaper Le matin. One of his stories, Que faire? (What to Do?) was published serially in the paper and later, in 1950, as a novel. The story mixes romance, fantasy, and inventiveness into a style that characterizes Apollinaire's later work.

The revenue from his writing did not provide enough income, so Apollinaire in 1901 went to Germany to work as a tutor, a position that allowed him time for extensive reading and writing. The next year, after being rejected by a woman with whom he had fallen in love, Apollinaire returned to Paris and took a position in banking. During this time, he began his association with literary and journalistic circles, which included the poets Stuart Merrill and René Ghil. Apollinaire also started Le festin d'Esope (1903–1904), a small literary magazine that published many of his stories and musings.

Apollinaire supplemented his small income by distributing and selling pornography, some of which he wrote himself, including Les exploits d'un jeune Don Juan (The Exploits of a Young Don Juan) and Les onze mille verges (The Eleven Thousand Rods), both published in 1907 and later considered classics of erotic literature. After his introduction to the Spanish cubist painter Pablo Picasso in 1904, Apollinaire became intrigued with modern art and became one of its most ardent supporters. He promoted cubism in his articles and lectures on art and coined the term surrealism.

Apollinaire's literary reputation was cemented by the publication in 1910 of his collection of short stories L'Hérésiarque et cie (translated as The Heresiarch and Co, 1965), which was a runner-up for the Prix Goncourt in 1910. Apollinaire's two collections of poetry, Alcools: Poèmes 1898–1913 (1913; translated as Alcools: Poems, 1898–1913, 1964) and Calligrammes: Poèmes de la paix et de la guerre, 1913–1916 (1918; translated as Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913–1916), 1980), which includes "Always," are considered his finest work.

In 1914, when attention in Paris shifted from the fine arts to the war, Apollinaire enlisted in an artillery regiment at Nîmes. His experiences in World War I influenced the poetry of Calligrammes. On March 17, 1916, Apollinaire was severely wounded during battle. After recovering, he returned to Paris, where he continued to write. On November 9, 1918, two days before Armistice Day, Apollinaire died of influenza.

Poem Text

     We'll go even further never advancing
     From planet to planet
     Nebula to nebula
     Never leaving the ground                    5
     The Don Juan of 1003 comets
     Seeks new forces
     Takes spooks seriously
     So many universes forgotten
     Yet where are the truly great forgetters          10
     And whoever will teach us to forget this or that corner of the world
     And where is the Christopher Columbus to forget entire continents
       To lose
     Really to lose
     To make room for the windfall                    15
     To lose
       Life to Victory

Poem Summary

Stanza 1

The first stanza of "Always" consists of only two lines. The first line is the word "Always." The second line introduces the speaker and his or her audience ("we"), neither of whom is initially identified. This line contains a contradiction in its prediction. The "we" on whom the speaker is focusing will go further, to an unidentified place, but will not advance. This contradiction separates the concepts of going further and advancing. The word "even" suggests that the process of going further has already begun.

Stanza 2

The second stanza introduces celestial imagery, including planets, nebulae, and comets. Planets are the large bodies that revolve around the sun in a solar system. A nebula is an area of astronomical dust and gas appearing as a hazy bright patch. A comet is an astronomical mass of ice and dust that produces a long, bright tail of vaporized particles when orbiting close to the sun. The three types of celestial bodies are similar in that they are bright objects in the sky. "The Don Juan of 1003 comets" is apparently traveling to and from these objects, seeking "new forces."

In Spanish legend, Don Juan was a nobleman who seduced many women. He has become a popular hero of plays, poems, and operas. Don Juan in "Always" could be a persona of Apollinaire himself and so of a poet. Apollinaire, who enjoyed many amorous relationships with women, liked to envision himself as a Don Juan. In this stanza, then, the speaker becomes the poet who is "going further," perhaps to new poetic territory. The ghosts are similar to the hazy nebulae, which do not appear clearly. They also may represent something to fear as the explorer seeks "new forces."

Stanza 3

In the third stanza, the speaker pulls the focus from specific objects in the universe to the universe or universes in general, focusing on the relationship between the explorer and the explored. The tension is between finding new universes and forgetting them. The speaker suggests that many places have been forgotten by "truly great forgetters." The speaker also suggests that Christopher Columbus is one of these forgetters, because he thought he had found a new passage to the East Indies (later called Indonesia) and Asia when he landed in what came to be called the Bahamas. In this sense, Columbus's discovery is fleeting, like the hazy nebulae or ghosts in the previous stanza.

Stanza 4

In the last stanza, the speaker focuses on the loss of something that makes "room for the windfall," which is defined as a bonus or a benefit. In the final line, the speaker clarifies that the loss is loss of life, which can result in a sense of victory.



Exploration emerges as the dominant theme of "Always," as Apollinaire presents his view of the creative process. The poet links scientific inventions with literary creations through explorations of the boundaries of the world. The first explorer in the poem, Don Juan, imaginatively investigates the cosmos, hopping from "planet to planet," "nebula to nebula," while "never leaving the ground." During his explorations, Don Juan seeks "new forces" that can replace the old, an important principle in Apollinaire's aesthetic. Christopher Columbus's explorations of the terrestrial world extend this process. He forgets old worlds (Asia and the East Indies) while in search of the new. This ability to "lose" the old in order to "make room for the windfall" (that is, the new) will result in a "victory" for the explorer.

Contrast and Contradiction

Apollinaire's interest in cubism can be seen in his use of contrast and contradiction in "Always." When they visually fractured objects into pieces on their canvases, the cubists presented contrasting points of view that often contradicted accepted notions of reality. Apollinaire uses this technique in the poem when he juxtaposes contradictory words and images. He forces readers to view the world from different perspectives and, in this way, participate in the creative process.

The first contradiction presented in the poem is between the notion of progressing and that of advancing. The juxtaposition of these two words suggests that there are different ways to view the concept of progress, forcing readers to reexamine traditional values. As it relates to the literary world, a poem would be valued by how successfully it follows poetic conventions. Yet Apollinaire, who rejected traditional methods of prosody, or metrical structure, insisted that creative progress can be measured only by the inventiveness of the work, thereby resisting conventional notions of advancement.

The contradictions continue in the second through fourth stanzas of "Always," in which the legendary lover Don Juan becomes a celestial explorer and Columbus one of the "truly great forgetters." As the reader examines these juxtapositions, which initially appear incomprehensible, new points of view relating to the creative process open up. As a result, the contrasts and contradictions express an underlying sense of unity.


The sense of victory in "Always" does not rely on traditional notions of success. Apollinaire offers a new definition of success in the opening stanza when he notes that going "further" does not necessarily mean advancement. In the second stanza, he proposes celestial exploration as a way to "go even further," but the type of exploration he describes would be readily rejected by the scientific community. The explorer the poet envisions traveling from planet to planet and nebula to nebula does not appear at first glance to be qualified for the job. Yet by placing Don Juan in this role, Apollinaire suggests that the heavens could be effectively viewed from a different perspective.

Don Juan's legendary amorous adventures would have prepared him to embark on such a journey not from the detached perspective of the scientist but instead from the view of one who seeks connections, albeit previously personal ones. He perhaps would note the "new forces," including the "spooks" in the universe that might be missed by traditional explorers. In the sense that he would discover multiple perspectives of reality, Don Juan would be victorious.

Apollinaire views terrestrial explorations in new ways. Usually commended for his discovery of the New World, Columbus in this poem is praised for what he has forgotten—for his imaginative ability to see the Old World in the New, concluding that he discovered a new passage to the East Indies and to Asia. This oversight becomes a victory. In the final stanza, Apollinaire challenges his readers to see the world in new ways, to be open to the possibility of failure in order to make room for "the windfall." Only in this sense can one ultimately be victorious.

The Process of Interpretation

Apollinaire's vision of the relationship between author and reader stems from his view of the role of the creator. Apollinaire insisted that the poet is not a recorder of experience, taking a picture of it much as a photographer would do. A poet is instead a creator of experience through his imaginative representation of it. The new visions of reality the poet creates require more active participation from readers. Readers are required to use imagination when reading a poem in order to comprehend it. In this sense, the reader participates in the creative process of the work of art.

In "Apollinaire and the Modern Mind," Anna Balakian explains the process of interpretation by noting that the reader must reject the passivity of the traditional method of reading—"of absorbing and feeling the message of the artist"—and assume "the more creative role of relating the sensations of the artist to his own experiences and his own faculties of imagination and association." As a result, the "flexibility of the visions of the artist are set to a perpetual motion of interpretations, which may in themselves be a form of creative activity." This technique, according to Balakian, became one of the dominant principles of the dadaists and surrealists.

Topics for Further Study

  • Read another of Apollinaire's poems from Calligrammes and prepare to lead a class discussion comparing and contrasting it to "Always."
  • Investigate the symbolist school of poetry and write an essay discussing its influence on Apollinaire's poetry.
  • Write a poem of three or four stanzas of self-contained images that as a whole express thematic unity.
  • Rearrange the lines of your poem into a picture that expresses its meaning. Use some of the more visual poems in Calligrammes, such as "Fan of Flavors" or "Cotton in Your Ears," as models.


Ironic Contradictions

A sense of irony is produced by the contradictory imagery and language in "Always." Apollinaire's juxtapositions become ironic as he obscures in order to communicate. He achieves this effect by contrasting images in each stanza. In the first stanza, Apollinaire contrasts going further to never advancing, a contradiction that becomes the main thematic thrust of the poem. This contradiction is reinforced by the juxtapositions in the second stanza, in which, without ever leaving the ground, Don Juan explores the cosmos, contrasting solid objects (planets) to transitory ones (nebulae). The contrast of the realistic (comets and planets) to the fantastic (legends and ghosts) adds an element of playfulness. In the third stanza, Columbus both forgets and discovers, and in the last stanza, loss becomes a gain.

Apollinaire achieves a delicate sense of irony in the shifts of tone across the contradictions. The serious often turns mischievous. Scientific exploration is contrasted to amorous adventures in the second stanza, and the somber condition of forgetting turns into a celebration of forgetting entire continents in the third stanza. The poem ends with the loss of life, ordinarily a sad experience, but transformed through contrast into a victory.

Apollinaire extends the irony to the use of language. He uses free verse and a conversational style to address serious topics. This technique adds to the playfulness of tone. The poet's opaque contradictory language makes demands on readers that force them to slow down and examine each word instead of racing to the end of the stanza or poem to find meaning.

Balakian, writing in her Yale French Studies article, notes that Apollinaire "believed that words could make and unmake a universe." As a result, the poet used his creative imagination to "string side by side images often logically disconnected, demanding of the reader leaps and bounds of the imagination to keep pace with his self-characterized 'oblong' vision." Balakian concludes that Apollinaire's "dislocations of temporal and spatial perspective defy ordinary reality but are of this earth in their tactility, colors and scents."


Apollinaire structures "Always" into stanzas that present four distinct images that can be viewed from different perspectives, much as a cubist painting is viewed. The poet carries this method over into his line construction. In his introduction to Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire, Roger Shattuck concludes that Apollinaire maintains "an integrity of line, a desire to make each line a partially self-sufficient unit which does not depend too greatly upon the succeeding line. This integrity of line extends to an integrity of stanza and of the poem itself." This technique is most evident in the third stanza, in which each line forms a complete thought.

Shattuck notes that Apollinaire's lack of punctuation illustrates this integrity, for "his lines are sufficiently end-stopped to make each a unit." Apollinaire's use of free verse with its conversational tone causes him to end a line at a natural pause. The use of language and the design of the poem in this sense add to its directness.

Historical Context

World War I

World War I was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The war started a month later, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Other European countries soon made their own declarations of war. Great Britain entered on August 4, 1914, after Germany began its invasion of France. The war between the Allied and Associated powers (France, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States as well as numerous other nations) and the Central powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey) raged until 1918. The number of total casualties was extraordinary, estimated at ten million. France lost more soldiers than did Great Britain or Germany. One tenth of the French population was killed or went missing during the war. The French economy suffered as industrial and agricultural production fell to less than half of prewar levels.

In the aftermath of World War I, European society went through a period of change. Traditional beliefs in God, country, and humanity were shaken as Europeans faced the devastation of war. The feelings of confusion and dislocation that resulted led to a questioning and often a rejection of conventional morality and beliefs.


Cubism, an art movement that emerged between 1908 and 1912, was led by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso and the French painter Georges Braque. Artists who followed this movement were influenced by African tribal art and the work of the French impressionist Paul Cézanne. The movement lasted only until about 1920, but it helped generate new ideas about art and literature and influenced later movements, such as expressionism and imagism.

Cubists believed that an object could be expressed only by revealing it from multiple points of view presented simultaneously. Objects were thus broken up on the canvas and reassembled in abstract forms, often made up of cylinders, spheres, and cones. Picasso and Braque incorporated openedged planes into their work that slid into each other. Color was limited and muted, and elements such as letters, musical notes, and sand added interest and texture. Later works were made with vibrant colors, often in collages created with a jumble of glued paper and objects such as playing cards and tobacco packets.

Balakian notes that Apollinaire's involvement with and support of the cubist movement made him "a better apologist for the new art than the painters themselves could have been." As a result, she says, stronger links were forged between art and literature, "a relationship which was to prove so significant and influential in the development of dadaism and surrealism."

Compare & Contrast

  • 1910s: Cubism, one of the most influential art movements in the early twentieth century, presents multidimensional views of reality. Cubist painters render these views by incorporating cylinders, spheres, and cones in abstract visions of the human form or of landscapes or still lifes.

    Today: Contemporary art often engages political and social themes, such as human rights or gender issues. Artists do not limit themselves to traditional artistic techniques but instead experiment with performance and multimedia works.
  • 1910s: Poetry often presents an austerely pessimistic view of contemporary society as a reaction to industrialization and war. Poets such as T. S. Eliot ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock") and William Butler Yeats ("The Second Coming") express pessimism most often through the depiction of general, social experience rather than in specific, personal terms.

    Today: Poets such as Sharon Olds ("Taking Notice") and Margaret Atwood ("They Eat Out") continue what has come to be considered the pessimistic zeitgeist, or moral and intellectual trends, of the twentieth century. Pessimism is most often expressed in a personal style that reflects the author's own experience and point of view.
  • 1910s: World War I begins in 1914 and lasts until 1918 and is the largest war to date. Approximately ten million people are killed, and twenty million are wounded. Poets such as Wilfred Owen ("Dulce et Decorum Est"), Siegfried Sassoon ("The Power and the Glory"), and Apollinaire express the devastation of the war in their work. Their poetry does not always engage in a protest of this war. More often, these writers question in a general sense the motives for war and the glorification of the soldier.

    Today: The United States, with aid from thirty-four other countries, invades Iraq in 2003, initiating a war plagued by controversy. Soon after the invasion, the poet Sam Hamill calls on approximately fifty of his peers to express their views about the war in their poetry. Fifteen hundred poets respond immediately with poems of protest that Hamill forwards to the White House. Poets from around the world, including Julia Alvarez ("The White House Has Disinvited the Poets") and Robert Bly ("Call and Answer"), join Poets against War and write poems that voice their opposition.


Dadaism, a movement in art and literature that was characterized by irrationality and anarchy, was started in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916 by the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, along with the French artist and poet Hans Arp (also known as Jean Arp), the German writer Hugo Ball, and the German physician and poet Richard Huelsenbeck, in response to the widespread disillusionment brought about by World War I. The founders meant dadaism to signify total freedom from ideals and traditions concerning aesthetics and behavior. The most important concept of dada was the word "nothing."

In art, dadaists produced collage effects as they arranged unrelated objects in a random manner. In literature, dadaists produced mostly nonsense poems consisting of meaningless, random combinations of words and read them in cafés and bars. These constructions in art and literature stressed absurdity and the role of the unpredictable in the creative process. The dadaists came into vogue in Paris immediately after World War I. Tzara carried the school to England and the United States, where dadaist influence became apparent in the poetry of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. By 1921, dadaism as a movement had modified into surrealism. The influence of dadaism, however, continued for many years in literature and art.


The surrealism movement originated in France in the second decade of the twentieth century and was promoted by Apollinaire, who coined the term; by the French poet André Breton; and by the Spanish painter Salvador Dali. In 1924, Breton wrote the first of three manifestos defining the movement. Influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, which looked at the subconscious mind of a patient, surrealists rejected traditional, rational artistic renderings of reality that called for reason, morality, and intention and instead promoted the removal of all constraints to creativity. Surrealists often worked with automatic writing, which was written expression of the unconscious mind, dreams, and hallucinatory states. Surrealists believed that the true source of creative energy could be found in the unconscious, where the seemingly contradictory elements of daily life were resolved. That energy, surrealists claimed, could be focused by the conscious mind into art.

Painters such as Max Ernst and Picasso and writers such as Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard became involved in the surrealist movement, which often had links to revolutionary political and social groups of the age. The movement continued to influence writers throughout the twentieth century, especially such American writers as Henry Miller, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg and play-wrights like Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, who experimented with free expression of thoughts not tied to formal poetic or dramatic conventions.


The poets of the early decades of the twentieth century experimented with new forms and styles in their concern with the truthfulness of language. A group of poets prominent during this period, the imagists, had an important effect on modernist poetry in this sense, modernism being a style that reflected the social and philosophical fragmentation of modern life. Imagist writers rejected traditional clichéd poetic diction, or the choice and arrangement of words, and regulated meter in favor of more natural expressions of language written in free verse. Des imagistes, an anthology by Ezra Pound, one of the leading proponents of the movement, was published in 1913. The anthology contained examples of what Pound considered imagist verse by James Joyce, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), William Carlos Williams, Frank Stuart Flint, Ford Madox Ford (also known as Ford Madox Hueffer), and Amy Lowell, among others. Pound included in the work his imagist doctrine, which insisted on a direct treatment of what the poet is expressing, the discarding of any language that does not contribute to the presentation of this essence, and an emphasis on a sequence of musical phrases rather than on consistent, regulated meter.

Critical Overview

Reviews for Calligrammes, which includes "Always," are positive for the original edition and remain so for subsequent editions. M. B. Markus, in his review of the 1980 edition for Library Journal, cites the "ebulliency and epic vision of the poems," which "demonstrate Apollinaire's acceptance of World War I as a new realm of experience and creative possibility." Markus notes that the poet "abandoned punctuation, syntax, linear and discursive style for free verse … and contemporary idiom."

In her commentary on "Always," Anne Hyde Greet concludes that the poem is one of Apollinaire's "prophetic" works, revealing "his old love of science-fiction imagery." The paradoxical nature of the first two lines, Greet argues, is made clear in the philosophy of his lecture "L'Esprit nouveau et les poetes," given in 1917. Greet writes that in this lecture Apollinaire declared that progress, "which is limited to the manipulation of external phenomena, exists on the level of scientific invention; newness, which man can find within himself, exists, apart from progress, in science and especially in art."

Margaret Davies, reviewing the 1980 edition of Calligrammes for Modern Language Review, determines the collection to be a "fascinating labyrinth" of "very diverse material" that switches "from the inward turning of Alcools," a collection of Apollinaire's poems published in 1913, to an extroverted "enthusiasm." Davies identifies in Calligrammes "the radical dislocations and discontinuities that were the result of [Apollinaire's] search for simultaneity" and "the new type of 'lecture' which is solicited from the reader." She finds within the poems "the inevitable and continued Apollinarian ambiguities, which culminate in the final choice of anxiety and conflict as the essential condition of his aesthetic." The poems reveal the "interesting effects which can arise when the visual form actually contradicts the semantic message of the words."

In the introduction to the 1980 volume, S. I. Lockerbie concludes that Calligrammes is "the second major volume of poetry on which rests Guillaume Apollinaire's reputation as one of the great modern poets in French literature," Alcools being the first. The poems reveal "a novelty of accent and composition which clearly rests on aesthetic assumptions different from those underlying" his previous works. The assumptions "can conveniently be drawn together under the concept of modernism." Lockerbie states that the mood in these poems "reflects much greater confidence and enthusiasm for life" than those in Alcools, showing a change that resulted from "the rapid technological advances of the early years of the twentieth century and the general widening of horizons brought about by such inventions as the motorcar, the airplane, radiography, cinematography, and radio communications." Lockerbie concludes that "now [Apollinaire] seemed the triumphant master of his own destiny."

Anna Balakian, in her article on Apollinaire for Yale French Studies, writes that the poet's importance "lies not so much in being the originator of an attitude as in having stated it more provocatively and held to it more persistently than his contemporaries." Balakian argues that Apollinaire's "ideas on art did not remain in the realm of theories but were illustrated consciously in the major part of his poetic work."

In her review of Calligrammes, Balakian concludes that the collection "is a more striking example of [Apollinaire's] inventive approach to writing" than is his earlier collection, Alcools. Balakian finds that in Alcools, the poet displays a "vigorous imagination" that "often accepted the challenge of new vistas revealed by the inventions pertaining to the war." She adds that in Calligrammes, Apollinaire effectively uses "juxtaposition and discarded symmetry and order much more than in his previous works." The poems in Calligrammes are "circumstantial in the sense that their point of departure is a factual event or concrete detail of the color of the times." Balakian argues that the poems "fear-lessly" illustrate Apollinaire's theory that symbolism should sometimes contain contradictions and so set "a new relationship between the artist and his audience." Balakian concludes that this theory had a profound influence on other poets.

Scott Bates, in his book-length study of Apollinaire, writes that the collection is "strikingly freer, the freest in Apollinaire's poetry since his first adolescent experiments." Bates believes that Apollinaire noted "the need of bringing even more of the twentieth century into his simultaneous vision of it in order better to influence it in return." As a result, Apollinaire "adopted a synthetic style, incorporating various techniques of European art and poetry around him."

In his afterword to his translated edition of selected poems from Calligrammes, including "Always," Donald Revell writes that the "vivid and witty" poems express "the fullest and most beautiful horizons of Apollinaire's combat, contoured to sweet reason and to new, new music." They are, he claims, the "final, finest of his poems."


Wendy Perkins

Wendy Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, she examines Apollinaire's focus on the creative process.

Anna Balakian, in her article on Guillaume Apollinaire in Yale French Studies, notes that in the early decades of the twentieth century, a rift that had emerged at the end of the nineteenth century between art and science was growing wider. Artists concluded that "science seemed to be the destroyer of the marvelous and the mysterious." In addition, after scientific inquiry produced inventions such as the electric light, the cinema, and the subway, "the supremacy of the scientist in the history of human progress" appeared assured.

Unlike others, who felt challenged by the supremacy of the scientist, Apollinaire was fascinated by the new world scientists were creating. As a result, Balakian states, Apollinaire "sought conciliation between the work of the scientist and of the modern artist." This conciliation becomes the main focus of his poem "Always," which explores the role of the poet as a creator of new worlds.

Like the modernist authors of his age, Apollinaire rejected forms of art that were attempts to imitate reality, such as photography. Balakian explains that Apollinaire determined reality to be "dependent not on physical nature but on the mind's creativeness." As a result, Balakian writes, "he found in the cubists the truest competitors of the imaginative technologists." In an effort to fuse creatively with reality, cubists expressed objects by breaking them up on canvas and presenting them from multiple points of view simultaneously.

In his introduction to the 1980 edition of Calligrammes, S. I. Lockerbie writes that Apollinaire "had the creative genius to transform aesthetic concepts that were in general circulation into powerful and appealing poetry." Lockerbie explains that "central among these aesthetic ideas was the notion that the modern work of art must adequately reflect the global nature of contemporary consciousness."

In the twenty-first century, people are continually bombarded with different kinds of information transmitted in different forms. Lockerbie claims that Apollinaire knew that in order to "mirror such a multiple form of consciousness, the work of art had to abandon linear and discursive structures, in which events are arranged successively." The simultaneity that Apollinaire proposed would necessitate "a type of structure that would give the impression of a full and instant awareness within one moment of space-time." This arrangement, according to Apollinaire, created a fresh view of reality, a process that becomes the subject of "Always."

In "Always," Apollinaire links the worlds of scientific and poetic invention in his exploration of the poet's creation of new worlds through conflict and contradiction, a process that encourages multiple points of view. As he juxtaposes contrary, often obscure images, Apollinaire forces readers to see in different ways and thus take part in the creative process. He does not insist on any absolute visions of reality but instead, through his playful juxtapositions, suggests that anyone can become an explorer and an inventor.

Each of the four stanzas contains a separate statement that the reader must derive from the text. Balakian notes that Apollinaire tries "to infuse his work with unexpected sparks: visions concretely resplendent and limitless, meant to surprise and mystify the reader" in order to involve the reader in the interpretative process. The surprise begins in the first stanza with the seeming contradiction of its two lines. The "we" is most likely the poet and the reader, both taking an active part in the exploration and interpretation of the world. In Apollinaire's aesthetic, the reader contributes to the creative process begun by the poet by gathering together the fragments of the poem in an effort to discover meaning.

The speaker confounds the search for meaning by claiming that when "we" go even further, we do not advance. Still, a careful examination of the apparent contradiction of this line helps the reader understand the speaker's point. Apollinaire suggests that the discovery of different perspectives does not necessarily mean advancement in the traditional sense of progress. The new vision that may be achieved through the collaboration of poet and reader may not be accepted as a realistic vision of the universe, but it can be an accurate vision.

The second stanza appears as a separate unit of the poem, focusing on Don Juan's exploration of the universe. This stanza, however, contributes to the underlying unity of the poem's focus on the creative impulse through its linking of cosmographic explorations of new forces and the construction of art. Apollinaire blends realism and fantasy as he confounds the reader with his inclusion of the paradoxical Don Juan, an odd choice for a cosmological explorer. The legendary lover may be Apollinaire's persona, and this hypothesis is supported by the poet's biographical details. The "1003" shooting comets may be an image of war, which Apollinaire experienced firsthand. In this sense, the imagery suggests that the experience of war taught the poet to view the world in new ways.

Don Juan becomes an appropriate explorer in a universe that Apollinaire suggests must be viewed from diverse perspectives for it to be understood in its fullest sense. Unlike traditional space explorers, who view the cosmos from an objectively analytical position, Don Juan focuses on personal connections, because they form the basis of his experience. Don Juan takes any "spooks" he encounters seriously, refusing to find rational explanations for them.

An avid reader, Apollinaire could have used "1003" to represent the year the Norse mariner Thorfinn Karlsefni left Greenland with three ships for a three-year exploration of the western continents. Karlsefni did not establish any settlements, therefore not making progress in the traditional sense, but his explorations would have provided him with new visions of his world.

This theme of exploration is carried over into the third stanza, which focuses on Christopher Columbus. Apollinaire confounds the reader's attempts to find meaning when he characterizes Columbus as a forgetter. Looking at the concept of forgetting in a new way, however, the reader may be able to understand Apollinaire's odd image. The stanza appears to begin with a complaint, because on the surface forgetting an entire universe does not seem to be a preferable state. In the second line, Apollinaire gives the condition of forgetting a positive quality, insisting that the reader must study the "truly great forgetters," because they have so much to teach about forgetting "this or that corner of the world." If the reader considers the history of Columbus's exploration, an interpretation can be derived.

When he reached what came to be known as the Bahamas, Columbus believed that he had found a new passage to the East Indies and Asia. In this sense, his discovery is an act of forgetting an old continent or universe and discovering a new one. The image of forgetting can be linked to the hazy nebulae or ghosts in the previous stanza, which suggest an ephemeral, or fleeting, state of matter. In a sense, Columbus did not "advance" in a traditional way, but his explorations resulted in the discovery of a new world. Columbus triggered extraordinary changes in the concept of the world as the people of the East began to intermingle with the West. Another way to look at the act of forgetting is to consider that the new territory Columbus claimed for Spain was eventually lost by the Spaniards. Still, the independence gained by the inhabitants of North America helped create a new world for them.

The final stanza presents another mysterious image that resists interpretation. The speaker juxtaposes the seemingly contrary words "lose" and "Victory." Yet the speaker suggests that if it is viewed in a positive sense, the act of losing can be interpreted as a victory. Losing one's life force allows a new one, a "windfall," to emerge—what Don Juan and Columbus are searching for in their cosmological and terrestrial explorations. The creative act sometimes necessitates "forgetting," or the rejection of the old in the process of constructing the new.

The final stanza links to the first and creates a harmonious whole. The contradiction between going further but never advancing is recreated in the juxtaposition of loss and victory at the end. New, sustaining visions can be created through an imaginative engagement with the universe.

Lockerbie argues that Apollinaire's conclusions about the nature of poetry in the modern world "led to a radical dislocation of poetic structure." In his efforts to encourage readers to view different perspectives simultaneously, Apollinaire juxtaposes thoughts that, taken as a whole, seem to suggest "considerable disorder." The discontinuities, Lockerbie claims, are "much more radical [than in traditional verse], forcing the reader into a greater effort of synthesis to discover the underlying unity." As a result, the reader is required "to reassemble the apparently random fragments in a new order." "Always" is a striking example of this innovative process. As he encourages readers to join his creative expeditions in the poem, Apollinaire challenges them to discover fresh and invigorating visions of the world.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on "Always," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

L. C. Breunig

In the following essay, Breunig explores the "fusion of laughter and despair" and the resulting sense of malaise in Apollinaire's poetry.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Cubism (1998), by David Cottington, is a comprehensive overview of this important art movement.
  • Stanley Appelbaum's Introduction to French Poetry (1991) is a collection of poems by several important French poets, including Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Arthur Rimbaud, and Apollinaire, that includes critical and biographical information on each poet.
  • T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), one of the most celebrated poems of the age, captures the pessimism and sense of hopelessness of the war years. It can be found in Eliot's Collected Poems, 1909–1962 (1963).
  • "Ocean of Earth," another selection in Calligrammes (1918), is often cited as one of Apollinaire's most inventive poems.

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Source: L. C. Breunig, "The Laughter of Apollinaire," in Yale French Studies, No. 31, 1964, pp. 66-73.

Anna Balakian

In the following essay, Balakian discusses Apollinaire's attempts to define and further the role of the artist in the early twentieth century.

An unusual experience in historical self-consciousness must have belonged to those who reached the age of reason with the turn of the century and felt compelled to express awareness of a new era. Dates are arbitrary landmarks, and the world does not change suddenly because a new figure appears on the calendar. Yet, a reading of the more personal writings of those who turned the big leaf from the eighteen hundreds to 1900 gives indications of a psychological upheaval and of a conviction on the part of these writers that if things had not changed they should,—an attitude not as readily associated with the mid-century adult. The writings of Guillaume Apollinaire, born in 1880, show that he was not only conscious of a transition but felt responsible to have a hand in heralding and shaping a new world.

Nineteen-hundred brought to France an international exposition. One of the most important gadgets peddled there was the magical electric bulb; it was also the year of the cinema, the Paris subway, and liquid oxygen. It marked the advent of the supremacy of the scientist in the history of human progress, not the pure scientist who dealt with the abstract, but the man who applied the principles of science and produced. Whatever else twentieth-century man was going to possess in the way of distinguishing traits, he seemed assured of a generous share of concrete intelligence, an inventive spirit, which would provide unfathomable resources to the activity of his imagination.

This development of technical imagination seemed, however, to have no immediate parallel in artistic activities. Art suddenly appeared a weak sister. Since the end of the nineteenth century a rift had taken place between science and art which was growing wider and wider. Art, after a shortlived alliance with positivism, had soon protested, revolted, taken refuge in the dream, unsuspecting that soon science was to claim the dream itself as one of its legitimate domains of investigation. Science seemed to be the destroyer of the marvelous and the mysterious. The resentment was not untouched by a certain amount of jealousy on the part of the artist in regard to the strides made by the scientific inventor.

This conflict is vividly demonstrated by Apollinaire in his Le Poète assassiné (1916). Much of this Rabelaisian novelette is autobiographical. We trace the fantastically confused origin and international upbringing of the poet-hero, Croniamantal, which parallels closely the apocryphal data about Apollinaire's own early years; we see the poet making ties with the vanguard painters of his time, like Apollinaire's relations with the cubists. We are exposed to Croniamantal's conception of an extraordinary play containing in a one-paragraph description the seeds of playful irrationality which was to be more notoriously demonstrated the following year in the staging of Apollinaire's play, Les Mamelles de Tirésias, and was to reach fruition in the works of the surrealists:

Close to the sea, a man buys a newspaper. From a house on the prompt side emerges a soldier whose hands are electric bulbs. A giant three meters high comes down from a tree. He shakes the newspaper vendor, who is of plaster. She falls and breaks. At this moment a judge arrives on the scene. He kills everyone with slashes from a razor, while a leg which comes hopping by fells the judge with a kick under the nose, and sings a pretty popular song.

Finally Croniamantal comes face to face with the archenemy of poets, not the smug unimaginative bourgeois, but the champion of the scientists, Horace Tograth, who demands the killing of all poets because they have been overrated and are contributing nothing valuable to present civilization:

True glory has forsaken poetry for science, philosophy, acrobatics, philanthropy, sociology etc. Today all that poets are good for is to take money that they have not earned since they seldom work and since most of them (except for cabaret singers and a few others) have no talent and consequently no excuse…. The prizes that are awarded to them rightfully belong to workers, inventors, research men …

Croniamantal protests furiously against this persecution of the artists, and pays with his life. Yet Apollinaire leaves an undertone of criticism not only of the rash generalizations of the glorifiers of science, but also against the artist who has partially merited the attack. The fault for this apparent impotence of poets is partly the public's, that public which demands boredom and unhappiness as the subject matter of literature instead of magic such as is expected of the modern scientist and even of the acrobat. As for Croniamantal, he is Apollinaire's concept of the authentic twentieth-century artist, one who has looked God in the face:

I am Croniamantal, the greatest of living poets. I have often seen God face to face. I have borne the divine refulgence which my human eyes made softer. I have lived eternity.

He is killed by the science worshipper, who does not realize that Croniamantal is not a stereotype poet. His sculptor friend, cognizant of the hard times through which poets are passing, manages to build him a statue, an extraordinary one, "une profonde statue en rien," ironically symbolic of the emptiness of art and glory, also indicating that the substance of which the true poet is made is undistinguishable to ordinary eyes.

Although in Le Poète assassiné the conflict between science and art ends in tragedy and defeat for the artist, Apollinaire defied in his own life and writings the secondary role attributed to the artist in the world of new values. He sought a conciliation between the work of the scientist and of the modern artist. He called himself and those like him "pilgrims of perdition" because they were risking what intellectual security they had as artists to explore the uncertain and the unproven.

Although his conjectures about the potentialities of the modern mind were most precisely stated in an article, "L'Esprit moderne," which appeared in the Mercure de France in 1918 shortly after his death, he had been crystallizing these views since his earliest associations with the artistic and literary coteries of Paris.

The need for inventiveness to preserve the prestige of the twentieth-century artist in competition with the twentieth-century technologist was first illustrated through Apollinaire's negative reaction to the existing imitative character of early twentieth-century writings and their author's concern with autobiographical lamentations. This critical attitude is particularly apparent in his evaluation of the current novel, of which he was the principal reviewer on the staff of La Phalange for a number of years early in his literary career. Even when commending the originality of a novel such as Tzimin-Choc by Louis-Bréon he makes of it an opportunity to chide the average contemporary novelist and expresses the hope that a change of direction is at hand:

Wonder should be the primary concern of the novelist, we should abandon for a while—long enough to realize what reality is—all this false realism which overwhelms us in most novels of today, and which is only platitude. Under pretext of following the trend for psychological and sentimental naturalism, most authors do not even need to have recourse to their imagination any longer. Autobiography is all that is needed, and those who take the trouble to invent the most insignificant little story become famous. They have almost no competition to fear. But things appear to be changing. Imagination seems to be reclaiming its rightful place in literature.

While literature had been neglecting imagination, science had learned to make maximum use of it. It had cast aside the known patterns of matter and through ingenuity had created new ones. Science's contribution in Apollinaire's opinion was its ability to give to reality a relative meaning and thus to liberate it from its established synonymity with the natural. The unnatural could become a reality, as twentieth-century objects, which had no connection with nature, were proving more conclusively every day. The factory worker was all the time creating reality. The automobile had a dynamic existence which removed Apollinaire from the old world and its limited concepts; candidly he states it in his poem, "La Petite Auto:"

  Nous dîmes adieu à toute une époque …
  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.

Why not a parallel between the creativeness of applied science and that of the arts? In his preface to Les Mamelles de Tirésias he fabricated the word "surreal" to designate the human ability to create the unnatural, and he pointed out that man's first surrealistic act was the creation of the wheel, which imitates the physical function of motion but creates a form entirely independent of natural entities; the wheel becomes for him a product of purely creative work on the part of man, a manifestation of unconscious surrealism. Now the magic of the telephone, the automobile, the electric bulb, the airplane,—creations in the same sense as the wheel—disproved even to a further degree the well accepted adage that there is nothing new under the sun. The same independence from natural objects, which the technologist had achieved by his inventions, and through which he revolutionized the physical appearance of the world, should be sought by the artist in the intellectual realm. To Apollinaire the acquisition of that freedom was to be the fundamental attainment of the modern mind.

One could be a poet in many fields, and the technologist had proved for the moment to be a "poet" in a truer sense than the artist, admits Apollinaire in "L'Esprit moderne":

Poetry and creation are one and the same thing; he alone must be called poet who invents and creates, as much as it is given to man to create…. One can be a poet in all fields: all that is needed is to be adventurous, to be after discoveries.

In retrospect it occurred to him that the poet had until recently been the precursor of the scientific inventor. Had he not conceived of the airplane centuries before the technologist was able to materialize his legend of Icarus? But Apollinaire accepted the fact that for once the scientist had stepped ahead of the artist in the realm of magic, and he took the attitude that since the scientist had become not a destroyer of fantasy but a producer of marvels, his inventiveness should prove a challenge and an incentive to the artist:

The wonders impose on us the duty of not letting imagination and poetic subtleties lag behind those of the artisans who improve the machine. Already scientific terminology is in deep discord with that of the poets. This is an unbearable state of affairs.

"L'Esprit moderne"

Art's pitfall in recent times had been its imitative approach to nature. Apollinaire waged war against photography, which to him was in all its technical perfection what smoke is to fire. He made photography the symbol of imitation and the antithesis of art. Some years later Louis Aragon was to repeat Apollinaire's words against photography even more vehemently in defining his concept of the relation between reality and art. Since reality, according to Apollinaire, was dependent not on physical nature but on the mind's creativeness, all the arts had the same basic revolution to promote: that of creating rather than representing the object.

The symbolists had had a similar notion about the "interiority" of art but they had feared the object, feared the concrete, which to them had been synonymous with the natural. With this difference of attitude in mind Apollinaire had made up the word "surreal" as opposed to the word "symbolist." In his judgment art had to be terribly concrete albeit unnatural. He looked for this twofold quality in the works of his contemporaries, signaled it in the poetry of André Salmon, his companion pilgrim of perdition.

Although Apollinaire showed a certain affinity at first with Marinetti and Company, he soon noticed something superficial in the way the futurists extolled science. They were confusing speed with progress. It was the object of scientific creation which interested them rather than the process of creation. Marinetti's attitude toward science is a far cry from Apollinaire's. When in an unfriendly apostrophe to the moon the futurist praises the electric bulb and belittles the light of the moon, he is led to no adventures of the imagination by the stimulus of the newly created object of science but merely expresses a journalistic appreciation of technological progress. In much the same manner, in his The Pope's Monoplane the airplane is admired as a means of escape and not as an impetus to broader artistic visions.

Apollinaire's relations with the cubist painters were of a much more fundamental nature. He found in the cubists the truest competitors of the imaginative technologists. As the perfect illustration of his own theories he defined cubism in Les Peintres cubistes (1913) as "an art of conception which tends to rise to the level of creation." In looking back on traditional painting he found too many painters who worshipped plants, stones, water and men. Without being iconoclastic,—as some of his followers were to become—he warned the artist not to be too much attached to the dead. He foretold before José Ortega y Gasset a dehumanization in art, contended that the true artist tends to be inhuman: "They painstakingly search for the traces of inhumanity, traces which are to be found nowhere in nature."

He discovered in the works of the cubists the fourth dimension of reality, which he deemed not only an act of creation but of divinity. This new dimension was conveyed by simultaneous representations in various perspectives, giving the impression of the immensity of space which pointed in all directions at the same time and suggested the infinite. The cubists were thereby producing, according to Apollinaire, a fusion of science and metaphysics. Through his observations of the cubists' activities he was able to make a crucial distinction between the new and the old mental formation of the artist: the traditional artist is a sieve of human experiences and, stimulated by the muse of inspiration, he is a facile interpreter of life; while the new artist, like the scientist, plods from effort to effort in the process of construction, unaided by divine inspiration, but possessing himself the grains of divinity.

Apollinaire's friendship with Picasso, Braque, Picabia and the Douanier Rousseau made him a better apologist for the new art than the painters themselves could have been, thus setting a precedent for closer association between the arts of painting and writing, a relationship which was to prove so significant and influential in the development of dadaism and surrealism.

The influence of ideas is a subtle thing and an elastic one. To what extent an individual is the originator and principal propagator of concepts can be a subjective evaluation. Certainly in the writings of several early century thinkers there are to be found parallel challenges to the new artist to become concretely creative. Saint-Pol-Roux, that remarkable esthetician too long associated exclusively with symbolism, had made in his analysis of current tendencies in French literature in 1913 the same prediction as Apollinaire in regard to the viability of art under the stress of science's competition: "Not to reproduce but to produce. The whole future of art seems to be there." Similarly Max Jacob, who was Apollinaire's friend and contemporary, laid the same stress on inventiveness and the faculty of using concrete imagery in his Conseils à un jeune poète; and the gifted young poet, Pierre Reverdy, was seeing in cubism in 1917 much the same thing as Apollinaire and expressing it in almost the same words: "an art of creation and not of reproduction or interpretation." And strangely, in an issue of La Phalange, at the time when Apollinaire was book reviewer of it, there appeared the translation of an article by the American, Gerald Stanley Lee, explaining the modern writers' fear of the machine and deploring their melancholy attitude toward it. The artist, he said, is afraid of the machine only because he has let himself be dominated by it instead of emulating the attitude of mind which created it. The examples could be multiplied; Apollinnaire's importance lies not so much in being the originator of an attitude as in having stated it more provocatively and held to it more persistently than his contemporaries. His ideas on art did not remain in the realm of theories but were illustrated consciously in the major part of his poetic work.

Apollinaire was not a suggestive artist in the way that the symbolists have been found to have developed the art of suggestion. Like the magician whom he wished to emulate, the poet tried to infuse his work with unexpected sparks: visions concretely resplendent and limitless, meant to surprise and mystify the reader in the manner of one who pulls a rabbit out of his sleeve. The old artistic aim was to arouse the emotions of the reader or spectator; now art was to be a sort of jovial game to create not pity nor empathy, but wonder—and sometimes irritation.

His earliest poetical work, L'Enchanteur pourrissant (1909), in which he depicts the imprisonment of the enchanter by those who exploited his power but also prophesies the magician's eventual resurrection, ends with a piece of writing called "Onirocritique," which is a natural appendix to his work. It represents Apollinaire's earliest example of inventive writing: in an apocalyptic vision of the universe he combines creatures and disintegrates them into a hundred feet, eyes, in an ever-changing panorama; sounds are transformed into beings, silence into movement, trees consume stars; and each reader is left with his own interpretation of the imagery.

In Alcools (1913), his first collection of verse, we find instances of the same mixture of perspectives and sensations. Just as the technologist formed a new world of realities with existing matter, Apollinaire believed that words could make and unmake a universe. He attempted to use his "five senses and a few more" to string side by side images often logically disconnected, demanding of the reader leaps and bounds of the imagination to keep pace with his self-characterized "oblong" vision. His dislocations of temporal and spatial perspective defy ordinary reality but are of this earth in their tactility, colors and scents. "Cortège" presents one of the utmost incoherent yet challenging visions in the theme of the inverted flight of a bird and its effects on the relativity of land, sky and light:

   Oiseau tranquille au vol inverse oiseau
   Qui nidifie en l'air
   A la limite où brille déjà ma mémoire
   Baisse ta deuxième paupière
   Ni à cause du soleil ni à cause de la terre
   Mais pour ce feu oblong dont l'intensité ira s'augmentant
   Au point qu'il deviendra un jour l'unique lumière

"Le Brasier," "Le Voyageur," "Vendémiaire," could be called experimental poems: attempts to avoid ordinary descriptions of the world and to personalize and thus recreate the realities of fire, sun, sky, sea, heights, depths and the elixirs of human thirst. In "La Maison des morts" he goes as far as to combine the two spheres of life and death, and he allows his living and dead creatures to intermingle and coexperience not abstract but very concrete sensations.

Calligrammes (1918) is a more striking example of his inventive approach to writing. The leitmotiv of this collection of poetry is the newness of the world: new fires, new forms, new colors impatient to be given reality. The wand which has brought about the return of the "age of magic" is the war. Although Apollinaire experienced the tragedy and pathos of war first hand on the front line of action, nonetheless his vigorous imagination often accepted the challenge of new vistas revealed by the inventions pertaining to the war, and he partially at least overcame his emotional susceptibility to the catastrophe. With a prophetic eye he placed the marvels of war above its miseries. Beyond the political conflict he discerned the more fundamental quarrel between tradition and invention:

   Ne pleurez donc pas sur les horreurs de la guerre
   Avant elle nous n'avions que la surface
   De la terre et des mers
   Après elle nous aurons les abîmes
   Le sous-sol et l'espace aviatique

He felt the science of war making him at once invisible and ubiquitous; he felt that time had acquired a new flexibility which could make it vanish and be restored. He sensed that man was approaching the exploration of the lower depths not only of the physical world but also of his own consciousness.

In Calligrammes, Apollinaire used juxtaposition and discarded symmetry and order much more than in his previous works. These poems are circumstantial in the sense that their point of departure is a factual event or concrete detail of the color of the times. But the submarine cables, the planes fighting overhead, the bombs, the flares, the telephone or the phonograph, each serves as an impetus to new imagery surpassing its circumstantial nature and announcing to Apollinaire the need to alert and sharpen the senses.

When Apollinaire was criticized for the obscurity of the symbols in his play, Les Mamelles de Tirésias, he defended himself by stating that true symbolism, like the Sibylline Oracles, lends itself to many meanings, "to numerous interpretations that sometimes contradict each other." Calligrammes fearlessly illustrates this theory, thereby setting a new relationship between the artist and his audience: if the writer or painter is no longer to be a mere interpreter of life but a creator, then his erstwhile role of interpreter will be transferred to the reader or spectator, who loses his passive task of absorbing and feeling the message of the artist and assumes the more creative role of relating the sensations of the artist to his own experiences and his own faculties of imagination and association. Thus the flexibility of the visions of the artist are set to a perpetual motion of interpretations, which may in themselves be a form of creative activity. This same technique, called by the uninitiated the obscurity of modern art forms, was to become the sine qua non of the works of the dadaist and surrealist disciples of Apollinaire.

Perhaps fifty years from now the greatest mark left by Apollinaire on the current of ideas will be the break he dared to make with the mal du siècle attitude which, after having played the poetic strings of melancholy in the nineteenth century, had continued uninterrupted through the undetermined inquiétude and unease over the modern world's ills shared by the leading writers before and after the First World War,—and which has been deemed by many critics to be synonymous with profundity. Apollinaire rose like a mountain above the dejection of his times. He felt that it was time to replace "this pessimism more than a century old, ancient enough for such a boring thing." The fat, jovial, buoyant cosmopolite had had his share of the personal disappointments of life and the tragedy of war. In "La Jolie Rousse," the last poem of Calligrammes, he sums himself up, not forgetting his misfortunes:

   Me voici devant tous un homme plein de sens
   Connaissant la vie et de la mort ce qu'un vivant peut connaître
   Ayant éprouvé les douleurs et les joies de l'amour
   Ayant su quelquefois imposer ses idées
   Connaissant plusieurs langages
   Ayant pas mal voyagé
   Ayant vu la guerre dans l'Artillerie et l'Infanterie
   Blessé à la tête trépané sous le chloroforme
   Ayant perdu ses meilleurs amis dans l'effroyable lutte….

But he has hope in the future with its challenges and surprises. In the words of his friend Philippe Soupault, who recalled Apollinaire's character some years after his death, he was "l'être le plus heureux de vivre" and although sometimes sad, languorous and melancholy, yet never a "désespéré."

Apollinaire had an unfailing faith in modern man who, according to his prediction, would be "plus pur, plus vif et plus savant." He believed more fervently perhaps than any writer of his generation in the future of art, and he announced in one of his very last writings, Couleur du Temps, that the resurrection of the poets was approaching. At a time when despair would have been a more natural note to strike on his lyre, he preferred to give man confidence in himself:

   Mais il y a si longtemps qu'on fait croire aux gens
   Qu'ils n'ont aucun avenir qu'ils sont ignorants à jamais
   Et idiots de naissance
   Qu'on en a pris son parti et que nul n'a même l'idée
   De se demander s'il connaît l'avenir ou non
   "Sur les Prophéties," Calligrammes

Having cultivated in himself the power of prophecy he saw beyond the grimness of mechanization, beyond the dumbness of uncontrolled instincts, beyond the gruesomeness of war. He was not afraid to use the word "progress" although he had inklings that a more appropriate term for what he wanted would be found perhaps in a hundred years. Beyond mechanization was to be the new world of enchanters, beyond uncontrolled instincts would be the discovery of their secret motivations and possibly the eventual improvement of man, beyond the gruesomeness of war would be the letting down of physical barriers, the broadening of the domains of man in all directions. And through all these, what primarily interested him was the possibility of new subjects for the artists' imagination: thousands of new combinations which spell progress in art, as well as in life. The hymn of the future would be "paradisiac," as he announces in his poem "La Nuit d'Avril 1915," and "victory" has for him a more basic meaning than the cessation of hostilities:

   La Victoire avant tout sera
   De bien voir au loin
   De tout voir
   De près
   Et que tout ait un nom nouveau
   "La Victoire," Calligrammes

Has Apollinaire's optimism been an anachronism so far in the intellectual history of the twentieth century? Considering the utter pessimism of established writers in most countries today, even including some of the new post-war crop, one is inclined to believe that Apollinaire's tone of hope and faith is alien to the general tenor of the times. Yet many of his contemporaries and younger confrères had the conviction that he would exercise great influence on art and literature. Philippe Soupault called him a "signal flare" on the artistic horizon and pointed out that Apollinaire subjected his contemporaries to a sort of contagion: "It is … thanks to him that poetry was revived…. All he had to do was to write a poem and immediately many poems would be born, publish a book like Alcools and all of the poetry of his time found an orientation." André Breton, who according to Soupault was one of the first to realize what a poet Apollinaire was, grants him the credit of having been the reinventer of poetry, in his article on Apollinaire in Les Pas Perdus; and he points to the psychological truth revealed in the apparent disorder of his writings, this disorder which through Breton was to become a major characteristic of surrealism. Awareness of Apollinaire's role as a motivator of ideas went beyond French boundaries. In his preface to Apollinaire's Il y a, Ramón Gómez de la Serna states that he was the poet who has suffered the least degree of death in dying.

Today, observing what used to be the initially despairing school of surrealists who borrowed so much from Apollinaire's technical concepts but rejected his tone of optimism, one notes that most of the present and past members of the coterie have undergone a change of outlook and in the midst of the tragic social and political chaos of troubled Europe have adopted the note of fortified prophecy bequeathed to them by their precursor. The war and post-war poems of Breton, Aragon, Char and Eluard abound in the same type of energetic optimism and hope as in the vigorous poems of Apollinaire written during the previous war. The enthusiasm shown on the thirtieth anniversary of his death last year, the number of memoirs appearing lately about him, and "the great enthusiasm and fervent admiration of Apollinaire which animates the youth of today," according to a letter of Madame Apollinaire addressed to me last year, may be further indication of increasing influence and even of a new trend.

For the critic to be prophetic is even more presumptuous than for the creative writer, and yet I venture to ask what can be the utter and outer limits of the pessimism of the more popular and distinguished writers of today? Silence or suicide, both literary dead ends! This brings Apollinaire's prophecy into the category of Pascal's wager. He can be right or wrong. If wrong, no matter, for the line of artists will have extinguished itself. If he is right in believing in the energy and creativeness of the modern mind, he is indeed a herald of a new age of enchantment and will loom more and more prodigious in the history of ideas as well as of literature.

Science is never pessimistic about its powers and is never ashamed to foretell beyond its existing limitations its capacity for tomorrow. Perhaps art, following more and more in Apollinaire's footsteps, may rid itself of its apologetic attitude and find, as Apollinaire hoped, that after all the world is just beginning and imagination has yet to come of age.

Source: Anna Balakian, "Apollinaire and the Modern Mind," in Yale French Studies, No. 4, 1949, pp. 79-90.


Apollinaire, Guillaume, "Always," in The Self-Dismembered Man: Selected Later Poems of Guilluame Apollinaire, translated by Donald Revell, Wesleyan University Press, 2004, p. 109.

Balakian, Anna, "Apollinaire and the Modern Mind," in Yale French Studies, No. 4, 1949, pp. 79, 81, 83-87.

Bates, Scott, Guillaume Apollinaire, Twayne Publishers, 1967, p. 111.

Davies, Margaret, Review of Calligrammes, in Modern Language Review, Vol. 77, No. 3, July 1982, pp. 730-31.

Greet, Anne Hyde, "Commentary," in Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913–1916), translated by Anne Hyde Greet, University of California Press, 1980, p. 435.

Lockerbie, S. I., "Introduction," in Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913–1916), translated by Anne Hyde Greet, University of California Press, 1980, pp. 1-3.

Markus, M. B., Review of Calligrammes, in Library Journal, August 1980, p. 1639.

Revell, Donald, "Translator's Afterword," in The Self-Dismembered Man: Selected Later Poems of Guillaume Apollinaire, Wesleyan University Press, 2004, p. 141.

Shattuck, Roger, "Introduction," in Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire, translated by Roger Shattuck, New Directions, 1971, p. 26.

Further Reading

Berry, David, The Creative Vision of Guillaume Apollinaire: A Study of Imagination, Anma Libri, 1982.

Berry traces the development of Apollinaire's theories on creativity and their application in his poetry.

Davies, Margaret, Apollinaire, St. Martin's Press, 1965.

Davies explores biographical information about Apollinaire and presents analyses of his work.

Mackworth, Cecily, Guillaume Apollinaire and the Cubist Life, Horizon, 1963.

Mackworth analyzes the cubist artists' influence on Apollinaire's life and work.

Steegmuller, Francis, Apollinaire: Poet among the Painters, Farrar, Straus, 1963.

In this study, Steegmuller outlines Apollinaire's relationship with the artists of his age.

Themerson, Stefan, Apollinaire's Lyrical Ideograms, Gaberbocchus, 1968.

Themerson concentrates on the style of Apollinaire's later poetry.


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