Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 688
Alcools, a book of poems, is notable for its lack of chronological order. The long poem that opens the volume, “Zone,” was in fact one of the last composed before the book’s publication. The title of the volume, although evocative of alcohol, in fact has more to do with distilled essences. An earlier working title, “Eau de Vie,” suggests clear beverages, presumably alcoholic. Both titles also suggest something strong yet rare and fleeting.
By presenting his poems in apparently random rather than chronological order, Apollinaire was in fact making a statement, stressing product over process. He did not claim to have moved beyond his early work, but rather to be still present in it. Regardless of chronology, the poems differ widely in length, form, and content. Yet they are all of a piece. “Zone,” in particular, is a remarkable piece of work, a de facto preface to the entire collection. Borrowing in part from cinematic technique, Apollinaire, in “Zone,” frequently shifts viewpoints, alternately addressing himself in the first and second person, as if training a camera on himself. Recent inventions, such as cars and airplanes, figure prominently in “Zone”; yet the speaker seems to need no such transportation for his travels throughout Europe, from Paris to Prague to the Mediterranean.
Also included in Alcools are the “Rhenish” poems, composed during or just after Apollinaire’s residence and travels in the Rhineland. Although technically stateless, the poet regards things German with the ironic detachment of a Frenchman, even as he shows some affinity for the German Romantic tradition. Some poems record overheard conversations, prefiguring later experiments to be published in Calligrammes. A Rhenish poem, “Schinderhannes,” recalls with macabre humor the career of a German outlaw put to death a hundred years before the poet’s German sojourn. The poems inspired by Annie Playden comprise a significant portion of Alcools, both in quality and in quantity; “La Chanson du mal-aimé” (“The Song of the Poorly Loved”) is perhaps the most ambitious of the Annie poems, intensely lyric in assonance and rhythm, yet full of arcane references that have, over the years, demanded (and presumably repaid) close attention from critics. Anticipating both “Zone” and “Mirabeau Bridge,” “The Song of the Poorly Loved” drifts on memories and sensory impressions, beginning on the streets of London where the speaker meets a street urchin who may well be Playden’s double, or perhaps his own; thereafter he wanders back to Paris and his still-divided self. “L’Emigrant de Landor Road” (“The Emigrant from Landor Road”), likewise inspired by his rupture with Playden, contains a number of striking conceits and images.
The apparently random order of the poems in Alcools becomes clear only at the end, when “Vendémiaire” closes the collection that “Zone” may well have expressly been designed to open. “Vendémiaire” (“The Harvest Month”), designating the last drink before closing time and thus consistent with the title Alcools, may well have been written as early as 1909. It anticipates the disturbances that lay ahead in 1913. Allusions to recent Franco-German wars and wry political commentary about Paris as the center of France infuse Apollinaire’s love song to his adopted city. The poem is prophetic of what was soon to follow. Ostensibly structured around a night of pub crawling in Paris, “The Harvest Month,” like “Zone,” declares and demonstrates the author’s ambitions and talents, at once lyrical and thoughtful, striving toward, and sometimes reaching, poetic immortality. Some even finer verses and images occur in Calligrammes, which, however, is a less complete and satisfying collection than Alcools. The ironically titled “Merveille de la guerre” (“Wonder of War”) applies Apollinaire’s vivid imagery to the immediacy of combat, asserting also the poet’s visionary mission. “Tristesse d’une étoile” (“Sorrow of a Star”) uses arresting conceits in dealing with the poet’s combat injury. “The Pretty Redhead,” which fittingly closes Calligrammes, harks back to “Zone” in its sweep and technique, serving also as a fitting literary testament in honor of the poet’s young bride. Alcools nevertheless remains Apollinaire’s strongest poetic statement, best demonstrating the range and the scope of his singular talents.
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