World Literature

Guillaume Apollinaire

 

BORN: 1880, Rome

DIED: 1918, Paris

NATIONALITY: French, Italian

GENRE: Poetry, drama, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Alcools (1913)

The Cubist Painters (1913)

The Breasts of Tiresias (1917)

Caligrammes (1918)

 

Overview

Guillaume Apollinaire is known as a leader in the development of avant-garde artistic movements in Europe, and as the person who coined the word ‘‘surrealism.’’ In his brief but prolific career, he produced innovative poetry and theater, and influential works of criticism and literary theory. He became a legend for his artistic daring and his flamboyant, bohemian personality.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Cosmopolitan Childhood. Apollinaire was born in Rome on August 26, 1880, under the name Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitsky. He was born out of wedlock to a poor Polish noblewoman and an Italian army officer, who abandoned Apollinaire’s mother soon after the boy’s birth. He spent his youth moving around the French Riviera with his gambling mother and a younger brother. During this difficult but exciting childhood, he learned several languages, developing a cosmopolitan outlook and an interest in literature. He attended schools in Monaco, Cannes, and Nice, but did not pass the baccalaureate exam and never went to college.

On the Artistic Scene in Paris By the age of eighteen, Apollinaire had settled in Paris. Over the next few years, he worked as a bank clerk and journalist; in between, he spent a year as a private tutor in Germany. At the same time, he became actively involved in the intellectual world of the French capital. He befriended symbolist poets such as Alfred Jarry, and avant-garde artists such as Georges Braque, Henri Rousseau, and Marcel Duchamp. His friendship with the young Pablo Picasso marked a turning point in Apollinaire’s career. He became a defender of experimentation and innovation in the arts. His essays on cubism, starting in 1904 and culminating with a book on The Cubist Painters (1913), remain pertinent for art critics. His writings helped bring artists such as Picasso, Braque, and Rousseau to a wider audience.

Living in an age that fostered inventions such as the airplane and cinema, Apollinaire was fascinated by technology and its potential for the future of culture. He was also greatly influenced by innovations in contemporary art and music. Never affiliated solely with one group or school, but a partisan of all modern artists, Apollinaire was intrigued by and tended to associate with, those who appeared challenging or antagonistic toward bourgeois society. This inclination probably led to his six-day imprisonment in September of 1911, when he was wrongly suspected of being connected with the theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre. He tried to implicate Picasso in the crime, but both were exonerated.

Artistic Experiments. Apollinaire published his first book of poetry, The Rotting Magician, in 1909. His first collection of short stories, The Heresiarch and Co., published a year later, was nominated for the prestigious Goncourt Prize. His first important poetry collection, Alcools (1913), was experimental in content but largely conventional in form, except for the complete (and then- shocking) absence of punctuation.

Another project from this period, At What Time Will a Train Leave for Paris? (1914), is a pantomime Apollinaire created along with two painters and a musician. In this play, which never reached the stage, and the Apollinaire poem on which it is based, a man with no facial features enchants the women of Paris with his flute, in the manner of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. Literary scholar Willard Bohn has suggested that this play is the first theatrical example of Dadaism, a movement officially launched two years later in 1916. Like all Dadaist works, it is intended to shock its audience; words are reduced to their sound and cadence, and the human voice becomes just another urban noise, like an automobile horn.

After the outbreak of World War I, Apollinaire volunteered to defend his adopted country. He joined the infantry and served on the frontlines until he suffered a head wound during combat in March of 1916. He was sent back to Paris, where he resumed his literary career while convalescing.

‘‘A Surrealist Drama’’. Apollinaire gained notoriety in 1917 with the staging of his play The Breasts of Tiresias. He coined a new word for the play’s subtitle: ‘‘A Surrealist Drama.’’ By “surrealist,” Apollinaire meant a representation that surpassed traditionally simplistic or sentimental realism. He felt that theater should suggest the infinite possibilities of the modern world, in which science was turning fantasy into reality. The results might shock or outrage traditional audiences, but would appeal to the modern mindset that understands life as an unpredictable blend of tragedy, comedy, and surprise.

The Breasts of Tiresias takes place on the island of Zanzibar. Therese, a new feminist, refuses to bear children. Her breasts—colored balloons—liberate themselves and facial hair magically appears. Therese becomes Tiresias, the sexually unstable sage of ancient Greek myth. A character named ‘‘The Husband’’ decides to assume his patriotic duty to repopulate society, assisted only by an incubator. This broad, zany burlesque, punctuated by music, juggling, and slapstick comedy, established a model for advanced avant-garde theater that influenced the Dadaists and budding surrealists such as Andre Breton.

Apollinaire was now a leader of the avant-garde. In November of 1917, he delivered an influential lecture entitled ‘‘The New Spirit and the Poets,’’ a manifesto for what art might accomplish in the new century. If writers now enjoyed greater liberty than at any other time, he said, they also bore the responsibility of creating a literature that conveyed the spirit of this new age. They should dwell in the realm of pure invention and total surrender to inspiration, taking risks and being as experimental as scientists.

Early Death. Following his own advice, Apollinaire engaged in daring experimentation in his poetry, while leaving a prismatic record of his experiences in the war. His second collection, Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1918), features early examples of visual poetry, in which the words form designs on the page, and collage poems reminiscent of Cubist creations. Some poems consist of snatches of overheard conversation.

Apollinaire, who had suffered numerous bouts of unrequited love, married Jacqueline Korb, a woman to whom he had written during the war, in May of 1918. However, the marriage was short. Weakened by the head wound from which he never fully recovered, the poet succumbed to the influenza epidemic that ravaged Europe at the close of World War I. He died on November 9, two days before the armistice ending the war was signed.

 

Works in Literary Context

Guillaume Apollinaire was an artistic free spirit. He was educated in the traditional canons of Western literature, but by no means bound by their conventional assumptions. The Romantic poets were an influence on him, as were French symbolists such as Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. More direct influences were the writers, painters, and musicians with whom he surrounded himself in Paris. He is famous for his positive appraisal of the notoriously cruel Marquis de Sade (from whom originated the term ‘‘sadistic’’) as ‘‘the freest spirit that ever existed.’’

Dada, Cubism, and the Spectacle Apollinaire’s fame as a playwright rests upon a single work, The Breasts of Tiresias, but his interest in the theater was abiding. Had he lived longer, he may have established a greater reputation as a dramatist. His stage work is noteworthy for incorporating the substance of intellectual movements, such as Dadaism and cubism, into traditional comic genres such as farce and sex comedy. The principles of surprise and spectacle are paramount in his theatrical creations. In Tiresias, characters move about constantly, dancing, performing acrobatics and magic tricks, breaking dishes, and cutting hair; costumes include electric lights and painted faces; actors shout their lines through megaphones; and carefully lettered placards repeating lines of poetry appear frequently to echo the dialogue. In one of his earlier plays, anchovies leap out of their barrels to sing. Yet his are not nonsense plays; rather, in a radical break with nineteenth-century theater, he creates rich, multidimensional spectacles that involve the spectator.

A New Poetry in Traditional Forms. Apollinaire’s poetry and short stories are extravagantly imaginative, full of fantastic characters and situations. Like the symbolist writers before him, he stressed that realistic and naturalistic approaches to writing impose arbitrary limitations on the artist’s vision. Unlike the symbolists, however, whose work intentionally ignored everyday reality, Apollinaire’s strategy was to confront and transform worldly experience. Many themes in Alcools and Calligrammes—images of technology, for example, and the alienation of modern existence—had never been treated before in serious poetry and though some of his themes hark back to Romanticism, including love, nostalgia for childhood, and solitude, his techniques were very up-to-date. He reveled in the irreverent attitudes of Dadaism, the fragmented perspectives in cubist painting, and the flexible structures of jazz. He deliberately juxtaposed the modern with the traditional, and the serious with the ludicrous, in his effort to grapple with the complicated, contradictory realities of the twentieth century.

A Figurehead or a Prophet? Apollinaire’s visual poetry, fantastical theater, and pornographic novels; his theoretical essays championing literary experimentation; and his charismatic personality all represent the artistic traits that led Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists, Andre Breton and the surrealists, and other literary outlaws to claim him as their figurehead, and even their prophet. At the time of his death in 1918, he was the unofficial leader and spokesman of the Paris literary avant-garde. His legacy is claimed by writers such as Jean Cocteau and Gertrude Stein; he also had a notable impact on modern art, through his contribution to the development of cubism.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Apollinaire's famous contemporaries include:

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946): A noted American modernist writer, and part of Apollinaire's literary circle in Paris.

Tristan Tzara (1896-1963): A Romanian-French poet and essayist, and a leading figure of Dadaism.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918): A British soldier-poet of World War I.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965): An Anglo-American poet; his breakthrough piece, ''The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,'' was published in 1915.

D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930): A British novelist and poet, a modernist persecuted in his time for the eroticism of his prose.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): A Spanish painter closely associated with cubism, who was a close friend of Apollinaire.

Erik Satie (1866-1925): A French avant-garde composer and author.

 

Works in Critical Context

Despite his short life and relatively slim body of work, Guillaume Apollinaire looms large in twentieth-century cultural history. He stood on the crest of a wave that broke over the aesthetic sensibilities of Paris, transforming them forever. Aside from the quality and notoriety of his own work, his tireless advocacy for emerging and innovative artists helped bring cubism, fauvism, Dada, and surrealism into the limelight. Some of his friends, and at least one of his biographers (Francis Steegmuller) claim that his knowledge of art was superficial at best; others rank him among the century’s greatest art critics.

A Leader of the International Avant-Garde. Apollinaire’s iconic stature has only grown in the generations since his death. Although some critics hesitate to rank him in the highest echelons of poetry, his vision of artistic freedom, and his willingness to take artistic risks, are his lasting legacies. Much Scholarship on Apollinaire has explored his role in the cultural milieu of the Parisian art world (for example, Steegmuller’s Apollinaire: Poet Among the Painters), and has juxtaposed his artistic theory with his literary works. The American scholar Willard Bohn has written several definitive works on the artist, including Apollinaire and the International Avant-Garde and, more recently, a study of the impact of Calligrammes on modern visual poetry. Bohn argues that ‘‘it is instructive to study Apollinaire’s reception: how his work was received by various artists and writers and what they thought of it,’’ because such study can help us ‘‘shed new light on the paths of aesthetic exchange that characterized France’s relationship with the rest of Europe and with the Americas.’’ Recent scholarship has also looked closely at Apollinaire’s erotic writings, previously ignored or denigrated, to arrive at fresh insights into his personal vision and vitality—though not necessarily nobility of character. Bohn again, for example, suggests in Apollinaire and the Faceless Man: The Creation and Evolution of a Modern Motif that in his erotic writing “Apollinaire takes the women for himself, consigning them to his own personal harem.’’

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Guillaume Apollinaire was a key figure in the artistic movements known as Dada and surrealism. The following works represent landmarks in these movements; each created an outrage in its time.

King Ubu (1896), a play by Alfred Jarry. This glorious and vulgar satire sparked a riot after its very first word—a four-letter word—was uttered on stage.

Parade (1917), a ballet with music by Erik Satie and scenario by Jean Cocteau. Apollinaire used the word ''surrealism'' to describe the premiere of this production, with sets designed by Pablo Picasso; it led to that rare cultural disturbance, a classical music riot.

The Magnetic Fields (1920), a novel by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault. Claimed as the first surrealist novel, it was created through the technique of automatic writing, spontaneous and uncensored.

The Gas Heart (1920), a play by Tristan Tzara. This savage theatrical parody consists of a sequence of absurd non sequiturs, spoken by characters named after parts of the body.

Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1928), a film by Luis Buhuel and Salvador Dali. The slicing of an eye is just one of the shocking images in this silent masterpiece of avant-garde cinema.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Define ‘‘Dadaism,’’ and discuss examples of its sensibility in the work of Apollinaire.

2. What impact have the avant-garde movements Apollinaire is associated with, such as surrealism and Dadaism, had on the literature and culture of today?

3. To what purposes does Apollinaire use humor in his writing? Provide examples from his work.

4. Aside from sheer visual interest, what is significant about the visual poetry Apollinaire created in Calligrammes?

5. How do you respond to the artistic philosophy Apollinaire expressed in works of criticism such as his essay ‘‘The New Spirit and the Poets’’?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Adlard, John. One Evening of Light Mist in London: The Story of Annie Playden and Guillaume Apollinaire. Edinburgh: Tragara Press, 1980.

Bates, Scott. Guillaume Apollinaire. New York: Twayne, 1967.

Berry, David. The Creative Vision of Guillaume

Apollinaire: A Study ofImagination. Saratoga, Calif.: Anma Libri, 1982.

Bohn, Willard. Apollinaire and the International

Avant-Garde. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Bohn, Willard. Apollinaire and the Faceless Man: The Creation and Evolution of a Modern Motif. Hackensack, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991.

Couffignal, Robert. Apollinaire. Montgomery:

University of Alabama Press, 1975.

Davies, Margaret. Apollinaire. Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1964.

Mackworth, Cecily. Guillaume Apollinaire and the Cubist Life. London: Murray, 1961.

Mathews, Timothy. Reading Apollinaire: Theories of Poetic Language. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1987.

Pronko, Leonard. Avant-Garde: The Experimental Theatre in France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.

Shattuck, Roger. The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I. New York: Vintage, 1968.

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

Themerson, Stefan. Apollinaire’s Lyrical Ideograms. London: Gaberbocchus, 1968.