The Poem

The son of a Polish adventurer and an Italian officer, Guillaume Apollinaire spent most of his childhood in Monaco and the South of France. By 1899, when he was nineteen, he had come to Paris, where he became one of the most remarkable leaders of the young intellectual movements in the capital. In one way or another he contributed to Fauvism, to cubism, and even to Surrealism. He helped, moreover, to establish the reputation of the painter Henri Rousseau.

Apollinaire’s Alcools, a collection of poems published in 1913, contains works that span the years 1898 to 1913. There is little thematic or formal unity within this collection, and the title expresses the poet’s thirst for vivid sensation and experience as well as his remarkable impressionability.

The rather long poem “Zone” was not Apollinaire’s original selection as the first in the 1913 collection. Its themes and aesthetic are scarcely characteristic, but perhaps an explanation may be sought in the very element of surprise, which is an essential part of Apollinaire’s poetic technique.

“Zone” and several other pieces in Alcools may justifiably be compared with cubist paintings by artists such as Robert Delaunay. There is the same prismatic view of the world, the juxtaposition of apparently disparate elements, and the attempt to offer several views from different angles simultaneously. A contrapuntal or polyphonic effect in “Zone,” as in other pieces, is furthered by Apollinaire’s complete suppression of punctuation from the collection. This effect introduces a constant element of ambiguity and necessitates a careful reading, and often a rereading, which helps to immerse the reader in the atmosphere of the poem. Apollinaire, when he uses punctuation, shows himself to have a faulty knowledge of it; he was later to become skilled in not using it. The reader has the impression of helping to re-create the poem when he or she reads it.

The opening lines of “Zone” situate its mood, if not its true time or location. The poem is ostensibly a lament for excessive devotion to the past, and Apollinaire’s introduction of the Eiffel Tower, automobiles, and precise, proper names is pointedly topical. There is, however, a much deeper theme and unity in the form of the poet’s quest. Unhappy in love, he searches in vain for some consolation. The mood remains nostalgic, even unhappy. Walking through Paris, the poet has the impression that he is cast in the role of unhappy lover, and this unhappiness develops into a pattern, a consciousness of a life lived in frenzy and waste. With a technique similar to that of the flashback in the cinema, the language dissolves into a series of...

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Further Reading

Bates, Scott. Guillaume Apollinaire. New York: Twayne, 1967. A detailed, exhaustive study of Apollinaire’s poetic art, tracing characteristic themes and sources.

Cornelius, Nathalie Goodisman. A Semiotic Analysis of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Mythology in “Alcools.” New York: Peter Lang, 1995. Cornelius closely analyzes several of the poems, using semiotics, or the study of signs and symbols, to discover a structure for the seemingly random use of allusions, myths, and neologisms.

Davies, Margaret. Apollinaire. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1964. A well-grounded life-and-works study in the British tradition, rich in documented anecdote if somewhat short on literary analysis. Davies examines in detail the “riddle” of Apollinaire’s paternity, a major theme in his literary art.

Saul, Scott. “A Zone Is a Zone Is a Zone: The Repeated Unsettlement of Guillaume Apollinaire.” In Understanding French Poetry: Essays for a New Millennium, edited and coauthored by Stamos Metzidakes. 2d ed. Birmingham, Ala.: Summa, 2001. This analysis of Apollinaire’s work is included in a collection of essays that examine French poetry from the Middle Ages to the present in order to determine why French verse has been overshadowed by artistic and critical prose.

Shattuck, Roger. The Banquet Years. Rev. ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1968. A pioneering work of cultural history. Although trained as a scholar of literature, Shattuck ranges freely and knowledgeably across disciplinary boundaries in search of the modernist spirit and its origins, concentrating on the figures of Henri Rousseau, Alfred Jarry, Apollinaire, and Erik Satie. Treats both Apollinaire’s poetry and his role as critic and publicist of modern art.

Stamelman, Richard Howard. The Drama of Self in Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Alcools.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Department of Romance Languages, 1976. Offers insightful commentary and criticism in clear, often memorable prose.

Steegmuller, Francis. Apollinaire: Poet Among the Painters. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1963. Written by one of the best-known and most effective English-language translators of Apollinaire, Steegmuller’s volume complements Shattuck’s discussion of Apollinaire as poet and art critic. Also provides a useful re-creation of artistic life in turn-of-the-century Paris.