The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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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, like a rose whose hidden essence needs to be discovered.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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

(The entire section is 1,081 words.)