The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

“The Little Car” is written in free verse, its forty lines divided into six stanzas, excluding the calligram inserted in the middle of the poem. It is autobiographical, relating the feelings and impressions of Guillaume Apollinaire as he thinks back on his journey with friends from Deauville across the French countryside to Paris, where they enlisted to fight in World War I.

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By providing the date, hour, and location of their departure, Apollinaire establishes a specific setting and moment in time. The mention of the “little car” in the third line, and in the title, gives a sense of significance to a usually trivial detail. The following one-line stanza tells that the men in the car numbered three, a number that appears two more times in the poem.

In the next stanza, the poem shifts to a more profound level as the speaker suggests that their seemingly innocuous journey actually symbolizes the end of an entire “era.” War is described in apocalyptic and prophetic metaphors as a wave of mysterious and otherworldly forces unleashed around the frail, helpless little car. Armies become “furious giants”; planes are “eagles” flying from their nests; submarines seem like “fish” ascending from the sea.

The poem shifts back to a more intimate focus in the fourth stanza. The “dogs” can be seen in two ways: literally, as dogs the speaker hears barking in the distance, or figuratively, as the dogs of war beckoning their destructive forces. The speaker expresses empathy with the battling armies in that he carries them within himself. The landscape on which the armies “meandered” suddenly transforms into the pleasant little villages and locales of the French countryside. The poem then expands its focus to encompass universal concepts. Contrasting sensations of beauty and horror are combined as the speaker again envisions war: those facing death hail “brightly colored life”; men fight at heights “higher than the eagles glide”; a fighting man “falls like a shooting star.”

In the next stanza, the speaker expresses his feelings that the war will somehow transform the world. The mysterious dreamlike image of the “merchant” arranging a “showcase” and the giant shepherds leading “silent flocks” can be read metaphorically as rich and powerful men staging the war, leading people moved by the tyrants’ rhetoric, feeding on their violent words. The poem then shifts back to a more intimate force, the dogs on the road.

Next, Apollinaire inserts a calligram, a device he used in many poems. A calligram is designed to appeal literally to the sense of vision by arranging the words in a picture that in some way deals with the poem. This calligram resembles two people riding in a little car down a winding road, as a chauffeur clutches a steering wheel. The text of the calligram describes more details of the quiet little journey.

The final stanza is a very direct telling of their arrival in Paris as the draft is being posted. Here, the speaker again expresses his sense of inevitable change the war will effect on both personal and worldly levels.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523

The most significant aspect of the poetic form of “The Little Car” is its freedom. Apollinaire wanted to divorce himself from the traditional poetic forms of the past, feeling they did not allow enough freedom for him to express himself in a spontaneous manner. The stanzas are not uniform in either line length or line number; he even offers a one-line stanza.

To further distance himself from the rigid forms of the past, Apollinaire removed all punctuation from the poem. One can see how lack of punctuation serves his purposes for the poem: Without punctuation, words and meaning become ambiguous; ideas and images flow and shift with more ease, just as images and impressions change and transform as they swirl through the speaker’s mind during an emotional moment.

The most dramatic resistance against traditional poetic form is the inclusion of the calligram. Just as a poet uses imagery to help the reader form a vision in his or her mind, Apollinaire provides the vision by literally forming words into a picture. This concept stretches the poem’s appeal to different senses. The effectiveness of the calligram is debatable, though, because the words seem subordinated to the image, their meaning obscured and impact weakened by the more powerful visual effect of the picture.

The frequent shifts in focus, the sense that the speaker is moving in and out of reality and dream, sometimes functioning in both at the same time, and the coupling of contrasts and incongruities all stem from Apollinaire’s use of a technique dubbed “simultanism.” This technique is similar to a painting style known as cubism. Cubism sought to expand conventional ways of seeing by showing every surface from all possible perspectives at the same time. For example, a cubist painting of a table would show the top, bottom, and all four sides of the table at once. Likewise, Apollinaire’s poetry does not follow any conventional or logical approach of relating experience. The poem expresses contrasting perspectives and types of consciousness simultaneously. It subverts our conventional associations of death and war by combining contrasting sensations of beauty and horror in such images as a dying man falling like “a shooting star.” Apollinaire believed that the simultaneous experience of both the splendid and the hideous, the refined and the vulgar, or the joyful and the sorrowful would expand one’s perception in such a way as to reveal some truth of life, to help one better understand life.

Similarly, the poem exists in both a dream world and in reality simultaneously—two different types of consciousness. For example, following the elaborate and prophetic metaphor of the merchant and the shepherds, the “dogs on the road” bark at both the “silent flocks” of the dreamlike image that inhabits the speaker’s imagination and at the actual tangible flocks on the French countryside, which the speaker is watching from the little car. Simultaneous experience also can be seen in the way the poem shifts focus back and forth from the trivial (happy forests, the little car, changing a tire) to the more profound (heading into a new era, horrifying prophecies of war).

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Themes