Guillaume Apollinaire World Literature Analysis - Essay

Guillaume Apollinaire World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

It might well be said of Guillaume Apollinaire that, had he never existed, he would have had to invent himself, as in many respects he did. Exploiting the “freedom” of being illegitimate (already a frequent theme in French literature), Apollinaire would proceed to explore his sense of self in a variety of poetic forms, exploring the fragmentation and reintegration of the self.

Although Apollinaire wrote plays and prose, it is as a poet that he made his strongest and most enduring literary statement. Uncertain of his nationality as well as of his paternity, Apollinaire was, in a sense, afloat in time and space, fatherless and free. Growing up in Mediterranean France, coming of age in the time of the first triumphs of modern technology, Apollinaire had a double fascination with applied science and with the mysteries of human identity; like his older contemporary Marcel Proust, Apollinaire seemed in many ways to anticipate, or even to predict, pending developments and discoveries in the field of psychology. His earliest writings show a vivid imagination fertilized by voracious reading in a wide variety of fields, some of them profane and obscene, most of them esoteric. Science fiction, offbeat prophecy, political theory, and occasional mysticism joined the teachings of the Roman Catholic church in Apollinaire’s suggestible mind. Even his earliest poems, derivative of the Symbolist movement then in vogue, depict his experience as fragmented, distorted, and rearranged. Like those seen through a kaleidoscope, Apollinaire’s images at first appear hard to decipher, yet with time and attention they yield both familiarity and beauty. Apollinaire’s work, prose and verse, has been described as a letter to the world; it is intensely personal. Using creative distortion, he turned the mundane into the surreal.

Like Baudelaire before him, Apollinaire often sought, and found, beauty in the most unlikely places. Just as Baudelaire found in the rotting carcass of a dog an image for decomposed love, so would his successor as poet and art critic describe, in well-rhymed, unpunctuated quatrains, a grotesque banquet in which fragments of his own mind are served up, with the finest of sauces and preparations, to an assemblage of distinguished guests. The poem in question, “Le Palais” (in French, both “palace” and “palate”; English translation, “Palace”), derives also from the legend of Rosamond Clifford, alleged mistress of Henry II of England, who was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine. According to legend, Eleanor found the thread leading to Rosamond’s secret castle and followed it to poison her. “Palace,” denounced by some of Apollinaire’s critics and admired by others, combines sex, violence, esoteric erudition, and lyrical beauty to evoke the poet’s personal sense of fragmentation and self-loss. Supposedly inspired by Apollinaire’s often competitive friendship with his fellow poet Max Jacob, “Palace,” although far from the best of Apollinaire’s poems, is at once typical and transitional. Probably composed around 1902, it shows Apollinaire moving beyond Symbolism toward the new spirit that he soon claimed to share with the cubist painters.

As Apollinaire himself states in one of his last poems, “The Pretty Redhead,” his entire career as a poet was about the conflict between order and adventure, between tradition and experimentation. Characteristically, even the tradition that he alternately sought and rejected—the French lyric tradition beginning with François Villon in the fifteenth century and ending with Paul Verlaine at the end of the nineteenth—was acquired rather than inherited, as was Apollinaire’s French citizenship. Often, what appears to be experimentation turns out, upon examination, to be tradition in disguise. It is well known that the decision to omit punctuation from the poems in Alcools was made at the last minute, and that all but a few of the poems had originally been composed in more or less traditional form. The removal of punctuation provides more than the mere appearance of modernity; it frees the individual lines in order to permit a variety of interpretations. Nowhere is such freedom more evident than in the case of what has become his most famous poem, “Mirabeau Bridge,” in which the lack of...

(The entire section is 1755 words.)