Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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While “The Song of the Poorly Loved” began as the expression of a young man’s unhappy experience as a lover, the poem it grew into is primarily about a young man’s sense of vocation as a poet. This is Apollinaire’s main concern in this poem: how to turn one’s past and present life into a source of creativity.

The past upon which the poet draws consists of his own personal experience, the literary forms and techniques of the centuries of poets who preceded him, and the vast range of his historical and cultural heritage. At first, the poet employs examples from the past to illuminate his own experience, but in doing so he remains too immersed in personal emotions. What he strives for and eventually finds is a way to use all of the past, including his own, as material for creative expression.

Apollinaire invests the poet with an analogous relationship with the present. Initially, the modern urban environment oppresses him, whereas what he seeks is a means to take advantage of it artistically. The poet demonstrates his progress toward this goal through the contrast between the London of the opening and the Paris of the close; by the end he is able to look Paris in the face and recognize both its sadness and its beauty.

A key metaphor for poetic creativity, established immediately by the title and epigraph, is the act of singing. At first it appears as if the poet will be singing about love, but in fact he will ultimately be singing about singing, that is, about the creative process. The “Aubade” is an example of simply singing about love, and the gently self-mocking tone in which the poet writes reflects his dissatisfaction with such modesty. The final stanza describes the true poet, one gifted and ambitious enough to make poetry out of any kind of experience.

“The Song of the Poorly Loved” also embodies a particular approach toward language and its possibilities. The linguistic variety that characterizes the poem in general, and especially the range of the language, constitutes a statement on Apollinaire’s part about how poets may use words. By combining the most familiar and the most strange, the oldest and the newest, the poet can reenliven language, recognizing its past without being restricted by it.

Overall, the poem is about the quest for a means to transform experience into art, and it represents Apollinaire’s own fulfillment of that quest. All seven sections are about experience turned into artistic form, but the final parts are the most original, because the poet has discovered his own voice. However one chooses to interpret “The Seven Swords,” it is, like the closing stanzas about Paris, an emphatic statement of the poet’s individualistic response to the inspiration of his past and his present.