The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 611

“The Song of the Poorly Loved” consists of fifty-nine stanzas, each five lines long. It is divided into seven sections, three of which have their own titles. Guillaume Apollinaire assembled it, probably in 1904, from poems and fragments he had written at various times over the previous few years.

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The initial motivation for the poem came from Apollinaire’s own life: In Germany, he had met and fallen in love with a young Englishwoman named Annie Playden. He visited her twice in London with intentions to marry her, but she emigrated to America. The poem opens in misty London, where Apollinaire was rebuffed by Annie in November, 1903, and closes the following June in Paris, where he returned with all hope lost in May, 1904. As the comparison between his love and the phoenix in the five-line epigraph indicates, the poem revolves around Apollinaire’s efforts to resurrect his life after this unhappy love affair.

The long first section begins with a nightmarish episode in London. The poet is confronted by two figures who resemble his beloved and remind him of the transitory nature of love. He compares the mistreatment he has suffered to various fictional and historical examples of fidelity. Contemplation of his memories and regrets brings him to the nostalgic recollection of the heyday of his love. This he depicts in the three-stanza second section, which he calls an “Aubade” (a traditional form of morning love song).

In the third section, the poet is in Paris, reflecting on the death of love and on his inability to put his unhappy experience behind him. In pondering his faithfulness, he once again compares himself to a legendary paradigm of fidelity, this time the Zaporogian Cossacks of the Ukraine. Asked by the Turkish sultan to join his army, these Christian warriors of the seventeenth century are said to have rejected the invitation to betray their faith in a violently worded letter. In the three-stanza fourth section, the poet composes his version of the Cossacks’ insulting and obscene reply.

In the first stanzas of the long fifth section, the poet returns to his own very mixed feelings about his beloved, expressing bitter disdain, then enduring commitment. Wondering what it will take to make him happy, the poet examines grief and unhappiness, both in relation to his own experience and in general. In thinking about his memories, he addresses his shadow—an image of his past, which will always follow him. Then he describes the transition from winter to spring, and this change signals the beginning of a more positive and productive attitude toward his past.

It seems as if the poet cannot completely come to terms with the pain of his unhappy love affair until he has somehow exorcised his melancholy, and this is apparently what he accomplishes in the sixth section. “The Seven Swords” is the most obscure part of this difficult poem: It has been interpreted in many different ways, none of which can claim to be definitive. Most significant, however, is the conclusion, namely the poet’s claim that he never knew the beloved.

Consequently, in the eleven-stanza seventh section, the poet writes about fortune and fate with a new detachment. He tells of the mad Bavarian king, Ludwig II, who committed suicide—a reaction to unhappiness that the poet no longer feels inclined to emulate. Instead, he turns to Paris, seeing the modern city with a new responsiveness. The poem closes with a confident assertion of the poet’s creative ability: Rather than feeling alienated from the city around him as he mourns his lost love, he is now sure that he can draw inspiration from both the present and the past.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587

Probably the most striking formal feature of “The Song of the Poorly Loved” is the enormous variety of tone and mood. Apollinaire borrows techniques from the poetic practice of both the recent and the distant past and adds his own inventions to create an original and quintessentially modern work.

In many passages, Apollinaire’s writing owes much to the French Symbolist poets who were his illustrious predecessors. The description of the poet’s melancholic state of mind in stanzas 9 through 11 employs images and formulations similar to those used by Charles Baudelaire in his “Spleen” poems. The complex syntax of stanza 13 is reminiscent of the work of Stéphane Mallarmé. Yet Apollinaire constantly disrupts this Symbolist tone by employing surprisingly crude language; the lyrical evocation of spring in stanzas 38 and 39, for example, is followed by the use of cul (“ass”) as a simile.

The range of language in “The Song of the Poorly Loved” is such that scatological words rub shoulders with extremely erudite allusions. Most readers will need to research such esoteric terms as “argyraspids”; and they may look in vain, since Apollinaire liked to coin his own neologisms.

Another aspect of the poem’s variety is the constantly shifting perspective. Even within a single section, the poet’s point of view may change from impassioned lover to dispassionate narrator to reflective commentator. All of the wide-ranging stylistic variation is carried out with great panache and considerable humor.

“The Song of the Poorly Loved” has earned a reputation as a breathtakingly ambitious yet brilliantly executed poem because Apollinaire succeeds in uniting all these elements. He does so partly by means of the narrative of the poet’s quest, to which the poem always returns in spite of the long detours it takes. Additonally, the whole poem is written in stanzas of five eight-syllable lines, and in French the same rhyme scheme is retained throughout. This meter not only provides consistency, but also invests the poem with a compelling rhythm that, like the narrative thread, drives the poem forward.

Finally, Apollinaire uses two recurring stanzas to bind the poem together further. Stanza 13, which expresses the poet’s aspirations toward something higher, symbolized by the Milky Way, is repeated as stanzas 27 and 49. The insertion of these five lines at three different turning points means that they serve as a measure of the poet’s progress toward that higher realm. The final stanza of the poem first occurs in the third section, and this repetition also highlights the development of the poet’s state of mind. The first time, it reads as a despondent expression of regret, but at the end it resounds as a triumphant assertion of confidence.

The modernity of the poem resides in Apollinaire’s synthesis of so many disparate elements. Modernist literature is characterized by the lack of a stable center, of any reliable continuity; here the poet repeatedly disorients the reader by jumping from one mood and from one story to another. The order in which the poem proceeds is not dictated by conventional notions of time or logic. The technique of depicting the same event from several angles is related directly to the innovations of cubist painting (Apollinaire was an influential supporter of such contemporary artists as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque). While the whole poem is unified by the voice of the “poorly loved,” that aspect also reflects a very modern outlook: The poet’s self is not depicted as a single, coherent entity, but rather as a succession of states of mind.

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Themes