“The Hills” is considered to be one of Apollinaire’s poetic testaments (a quote from it is engraved on the poet’s tombstone) in which he develops his vision of the future of art and literature. In this poem, he predicts a new kind of aesthetic ideal, superior to the traditional one that “arose from symmetry.” This idea of new aesthetic creation is expressed in an allusion to a Greek myth. In stanza 8, when he foresees that “Sea-foam would once more be mother,” the poet refers to Venus, the goddess of beauty born from the sea foam, and he announces the advent of a new type of beauty.
Apollinaire refers to another Greek myth when defining his vision of the poet’s new mission. For him, the poet is also similar to a magician or a prophet gifted with almost supernatural powers. In this definition, the reader can identify the mythical figure of Orpheus who, in Greek mythology, was a poet, musician, and prophet with magical powers. His art could charm the most ferocious beasts and bring peace and harmony. He traveled to the underworld to bring his wife, Eurydice, back from the dead. This myth is one of Apollinaire’s favorites, and, in “The Hills,” the imagery of travel in time and space, beyond life and death, can be interpreted as a modern replica to Orpheus’s journey.
In Apollinaire’s interpretation, the myth of Orpheus also incarnates the idea of the poet as a martyr and of poetry as a sacred and sacrificial gesture (Orpheus, who appears in many of Apollinaire’s poems and stories, is killed and torn to pieces by bacchantes who do not understand his art). “A time will come for suffering,” the poet predicts in stanza 25, and this theme of poetry as suffering and martyrdom is continued throughout the poem in images inspired also by Christian parables and medieval legends. In “The Hills,” the poet’s words become vegetal: They are “sweet fruits” and “grain” (in stanzas 27 and 28) that can be shared and eaten. The suffering (converted into vegetal food) is always mentioned in relation to the goodness of heart (in stanzas 24, 25, and 35, for example), so it appears like a deeply humanitarian sacrifice. The image of the poet-martyr sacrificing himself for humankind and offering himself to be eaten as fruit or grain is derived from the Eucharist (in which Christ symbolically offers his body to be eaten).
The presence of numerous archetypes, timeless stories, and myths in Apollinaire’s poetry may seem surprising when one considers that he was trying to promote what he called “a new lyricism” and a “new spirit.” However, his temporal perspective explains this intermingling of ancient figures (references to myths and legends) and modern descriptive elements (such as airplanes, car drivers, and elevators): In “The Hills,” Apollinaire expresses his belief that the poet must include in his view both tradition and innovation. The past and the ancestors must somehow be permanently present in an artist’s life. Thus, the new aesthetic ideal that he predicts is not the destruction of older models but rather the continuation of a heritage.