The Hills

by Guillaume Albert Wladimir Alex Kostrowitzky

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The Poem

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“The Hills” is a poem in blank verse divided into forty-four stanzas of five lines each. The title is a metaphor that will continue throughout the poem, thus giving coherence to a long sequence of apparently disparate images. The hills suggest altitude and, implicitly, the possibility of a better vision: One can have a better perspective and see farther from the top of a promontory. This elevated position becomes the equivalent of foresight and superior knowledge.

Like traditional lyric poetry, “The Hills” is written mainly in the first person, but, in the original French version, poet Guillaume Apollinaire sometimes uses the second-person singular (tu) when addressing his old self in order to make a clear distinction between his old nature and his new one, between past and future. He also uses the second-person plural (vous) when he addresses the whole of humankind in a prophetic voice.

The poem begins with an image that could be related to Apollinaire’s experience in World War I: two planes involved in combat over Paris. However, one of the planes symbolizes the poet’s childhood and youth, and it is brought down by the other one, which symbolizes the future. This metaphoric victory of the future over the past announces a new era of unlimited knowledge and magic, where poets can perceive, as if from the top of a hill, things that had not been seen before and where they can announce “Billions of prodigies” to come.

Each of the following stanzas contains a prophecy, a memory, or a dreamlike image that implicitly continues the oscillation between future and past. The origin of these images is not observation but rather something that may evoke psychoanalysis: the productive “Depths of consciousness” to be explored in a near future. It is from these “abysses” that the poet-prophets emerge like hills and bring a different type of knowledge of the world that is as precise and valid as scientific knowledge. In a reversed time perspective specific to many poems by Apollinaire, this new predicted era is actually “coming back,” as if the future has already happened. The world is cyclic: “Here nothing ends nothing begins” and the “Helpful spirits” of the ancestors mingle among the new generations.

The poet talks about his own role as a prophet and his ability to remember and foresee at the same time. The instrument of his magic tricks is language, that “talisman . . ./ Dead and yet subtler than life.” Language has a history and therefore has its roots in the past, but it also belongs to the fugitive present of the utterance and to the future by the poetic legacy of innovation. As a prophet, the poet can levitate and raise himself above “all natural things.” Like a shaman, he can explore realms that nobody else has ever imagined. He can view his past, and poetry becomes a way by which the poet can freely contemplate himself, split into a subject and an object, author and matter of the poem: “it is I/ Who am the flute I play.”

All these trancelike images end when the poet is reunited with himself as he hears his “footsteps coming back.” He sits at his desk to write about his experiences of travel in time, and each stanza represents disparate images meant to break any connection with tradition, literary convention, or prosaic semantics: The orange tastes like a fireworks display, a maître d’hôtel pours unreal champagne for his dead customers, and a chauffeur discovers new universes around every corner. The poem ends with a complex image of a multilayered world,...

(This entire section contains 608 words.)

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like a rose whose hidden essence needs to be discovered.

Forms and Devices

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Although it has no punctuation, “The Hills” may seem more traditional than other poems published by Apollinaire in Calligrammes because of its regular stanzas. (Calligrammes is famous for its poems that are shaped like objects such as cigars, trees, guitars, and the Eiffel Tower.) In spite of its regular pattern, however, “The Hills” experiments with new poetic language and imagery. Each stanza contains a global and instantaneous image of the world. The poem is made of several such independent frames that succeed each other in an order that seems arbitrary; it is actually the result of a different temporal perspective that is specific to a poetic vision that covers present, past, and future in one glance. The poet uses the future tense to mark his prophetic tone (“A time will come for suffering” or “Man will become a god”), and he alternates it with both the past tense, which indicates a return in time, and the present tense, which he uses to describe himself experiencing the future he predicts.

Many critics have contrasted the Apollinaire of Calligrammes to the Apollinaire of Alcools (1913; Alcohols, 1964) and other early works in prose and verse, stating that the war experience marked a turning point in the writer’s style and themes. However, the unique graphic arrangement of some poems in Calligrammes should not prevent readers from seeing the continuation of certain images and themes throughout his work. Thus many of the metaphors in “The Hills” can be better understood when placed in the context of other poems or writings in prose. For instance, the whole sequence describing Italy in stanzas 21-23 is a literary allusion to Apollinaire’s short story “Giovani Moroni,” in which Rome during carnival represents a powerful childhood memory. The “dead talisman” in this poem is a metaphor for language, as is the “dead purple” in the earlier collection entitled Le Bestiaire (1911; Bestiary, 1978). Even the image of the dual or split persona appears in the poem “Cortège” (Alcools), in which the poet is described as waiting to meet himself and calling his own name as if calling a friend’s name.

What is definitely new in this poem, however, is the sequence of dismantled visual fragments evocative of cubist or Dadaist painting. The images are decomposed, and their separate elements are juxtaposed: The still life in stanza 37, for example, gathers different and unrelated objects (a hat, fruit, gloves) on a table. The dreamlike sequences (stanzas 37 and 38) anticipate the incongruous associations in surrealist art. Apollinaire, after all, is said to have invented the word “surrealism” and also wrote the first surrealist play, Les Mamalles de Tirésias (1917; The Breasts of Tiresias, 1961). These elements allow the reader to establish a connection between Apollinaire’s poetry, his art criticism, his aesthetic vision, and even his relationship with contemporary artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp.