The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

First appearing in the French publication Le Voile de Pourpre (1909), “Fir Trees” was later published in Guillaume Apollinaire’s Alcools (1913) as one of nine short poems that make up the Rhenish suite. The poems were written during his stay on the Rhine in Germany from August, 1901, to August, 1902, as a tutor in the household of Vicomtesse de Milhau. In its original French, “Fir Trees” is composed of six stanzas of five eight-syllable lines, with six-syllable middle lines and a rhyme scheme of aabab.

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“Fir Trees” is a purely descriptive poem, focusing on the picturesque appearance of the trees as seen through the changing seasons. Apollinaire essentially creates a fantasy by whimsically toying with a German tradition of attributing benevolent magical powers to trees.

In the first stanza, Apollinaire draws on his visual imagination, seeing the pine trees as wearing “peaked bonnets” and “trailing robes.” These are the firs of spring or summer. The robes, those of “astrologers,” personify the trees as enchanted entities. From the beginning of the poem, they are cloaked in awe-inspiring mystery. Whimsical lines follow in which the trees view the wooden boats on the Rhine as “felled brothers.”

The poem then establishes almost a mythology as the reader learns that young firs are apprentices to their wise “elders,” who instruct them in the magical “seven arts”; seven is a significant number in the folklore of the supernatural. Notice the self-referential line that the old and wise trees are “great poets.” Apollinaire associates poetic vision with the supernatural: Like the great fir trees, poets are in touch with the secrets of life, knowledge that is beyond that of the common man. The fir trees are eternal, omnipotent in their connection with the cosmos; they are “fated/ To outshine the planets.”

In the next three stanzas, the reader is treated to a beautiful vision of fir trees going through various transformations in the changing seasons. In winter, they become “stars,” gleaming in the snow, but they are quiet in trancelike dreams, perhaps storing their magical powers for spring’s enchantments. In stanza 5, Apollinaire envisions the snow-covered trees swaying in the wind as “white cherubim/ Rocking their wings.”

The rustling noise of autumn’s winds whirling through the fir trees’ branches is heard as “ancient carols” sung by the “fair musicians.” The use of “ancient” associates the trees with the primeval forests of aged Earth; their experience and knowledge significantly precede the advent of man. Yet, suddenly, autumn transforms them into ominous “magicians,” conjuring incantations to “hurl” at “thunder.” The visual source for this image may be lightning bolts striking the tops of trees during a thunderstorm.

Summer offers a more whimsical change as the trees are seen as “tall rabbis” or “aged spinsters.” The inspiration for these metaphors belongs entirely to the fantastic and often puzzling imagination of Apollinaire. As “rabbis,” the trees may be seen as spiritual guides; in the next stanza, their healing qualities are introduced as “traveling doctors” whose “pungent salves,” strong aromas of tree sap, remedy the mountain’s ailments.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436

The poem follows regular verse form, with one important exception: There is no punctuation. Apollinaire reportedly chose to remove all punctuation at the last minute, when he read the proofs for Alcools right before publication. He later claimed that the rhythm and division of the lines are the only punctuation that is needed. In essence he is correct. “Fir Trees” is a very accessible poem, and the lack of punctuation provides a fluidity of language that enables the transformation of images without sacrificing understanding. In this poem, punctuation would seem redundant. The combination of conventional form and lack of punctuation shows an adherence to traditional poetry while looking forward to the much more modern free verse of Apollinaire’s later poetry.

The essence of the poem is infused by metaphor. Often, however, the poem does not reveal the identity of the metaphor’s source; that is left up to the reader. A metaphor seeks identification between the known and the unusual. If the metaphor were to reveal its source, the poem might contain a line such as: “The very tops of fir trees are peaked bonnets.” “Fir Trees,” however, does not provide the reader with the element on which the metaphor is based; thus the poem simply reads: “Fir trees in peaked bonnets.” A metaphor with an indefinite source allows more freedom in interpretation. It appeals to the individuality of a reader’s perception. The reader may decide for himself or herself a source that best allows the reader to identify with the metaphor.

Many of the poem’s metaphors are based on unusual associations between normally incongruous images. For example, the full bases of the trees are “trailing robes,” and their lush snow-covered boughs blown by the winter wind are like “rocking wings” of “cherubim.” Such descriptive and, in many ways, poignant images are essential to the effectiveness of this poem.

The metaphors are not limited, however, to visual associations. The trees’ associations with “tall rabbis,” “aged spinsters,” or “traveling doctors” are based on qualities that the poet attributes to the fir trees. Like religious leaders, they are spiritual guides. Like spinsters, they grow old, lonely, and unappreciated. Like doctors, their ointments “heal.” Like magicians, they possess the mysterious and charmed powers of nature.

Above all, the fir trees are extensively personified, or given qualities usually attributed to human beings. They display pride as they “hail their felled brothers.” They raise their young and teach them the “seven arts.” They dream, sleep, sing, and “hurl spells” in anger. The trees are envisioned as sentient beings conscious of their own existence and of their profound fate.

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Themes