The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

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Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem “Vendémiaire” takes as its title the name of the first month of the new calendar adopted in the wake of the French Revolution. This month, corresponding to September 22 to October 21, was named for the grape harvest (la vendange in French, as opposed to la moisson, for harvest in general). Thus themes of wine, drinking, and even drunkenness permeate the poem along with the gathering in of the harvest.

“Vendémiaire,” the last poem in Apollinaire’s collection Alcools (alcohols), parallels the opening poem “Zone” and continues the street scenes of Paris that recur throughout the collection. “Zone” began with an image of the Eiffel Tower as a shepherdess of the bleating flock of Parisian bridges. In contrast to the sights of Paris that dominate the earlier poem, Apollinaire turns in “Vendémiaire” to a general evocation of Paris that emphasizes the sounds of voices.

The opening quatrain focuses on the poet himself rather than his surroundings. Apollinaire situates his life “à l’époque où finissaient les rois,” at the time when the new calendar of the revolution had replaced the time of the monarchy. In accord with the title, he walks through Paris in late September, where, during nights filled with grapevines, he awaits “the harvest of the dawn.” The harvest, however, will be composed not of grapes but of song. One night, he hears Paris sing: “I am thirsty for the cities of France, of Europe and of the world.” This thirst of Paris, which all other cities attempt to satisfy, affirms the dominant position of the capital both within France and in the world beyond.

To this initial voice, seven others reply, as other cities respond to Paris. The first to answer are three cities from Brittany—Rennes, Quimper, and Vannes. This choice underlines the identity of this harvest as something other than the literal production of wine. Brittany is the part of France least capable of producing wine, but this maritime climate produces “reason” and “mystery” that satisfy an intellectual thirst.

The next three voices, those of northern cities, Lyon, and southern cities, reply from within France to pay homage to Paris. The industrial north offers the song of its “holy factories,” while Lyon and the south make more emotional contributions. Then from outside France come voices from Sicily, Rome, and Koblenz. The song of Sicily draws on pagan mythology, invoking the danger of antiquity with references to Ixion, who earned the wrath of Zeus, and to the sirens tempting sailors to their doom. This threat is in the past, but that of Rome extends to the present, as Rome with its “imperious voice” seems to challenge Paris. Still, the pope’s triple crown falls to the floor, allowing Rome to be exploited by enemies. Finally from Koblenz comes only prayerful silence. As the night ends, Apollinaire sees himself as the “gullet of Paris,” drinking in the knowledge imparted by the songs that have come from the rest of the world.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

Several elements place “Vendémiaire” at the beginning of modern poetry. Many of its lines retain the twelve syllables of the classical French Alexandrine form, but some are cut shorter. Many couplets rhyme, but other lines are unrhymed. Also, this was the first poem Apollinaire published without punctuation, a form he continued in his later, freer verse. In keeping with this advent of modern style, the opening section of the poem contains echoes of Charles Baudelaire, who developed a use of imagery that would become modern Symbolism. In his prefatory poem to Les Fleurs du Mal (1857; Flowers of Evil, 1931), Baudelaire describes a descent into hell, where he sees “Satan Trismégiste.” Apollinaire uses the same adjective to describe the “three-times-powerful” kings who were nonetheless dying.

The poet, according to Baudelaire, descends into the sinful temptations of the world seeking the inspiration that will form his poetry, the evil from which he will derive poetic flowers. Central to this experience is drunkenness. Here Baudelaire was continuing a definition established by the Romantic poets, for whom ivresse was not mere physical intoxication but any intense experience, physical or emotional, that led to a form of enlightenment.

Apollinaire uses multiple references to this concept as he describes Paris “at the end of September” (the autumnal season Baudelaire also favored) as a place where vines “spread their light over the city,” while overhead “drunken birds” peck at the “ripe stars.” Baudelaire had also used the flight of the bird as emblem of the inspiration of the poet and described the birds in flight as being drunk. Apollinaire, however, makes these images especially suggestive of poetic productivity because of the light produced and the ripeness of the stars, which parallels that of the grapes.

The wine produced by the harvest of “Vendémiaire” makes the poet drunk with his own inspiration. Thus the birds are “de ma gloire,” the talent through which the poet knows that by morning he will reap the harvest of poetic insight. If physical intoxication produces hallucinations, it follows logically that Apollinaire hears voices. The poet’s gift, however, calls forth both insightful utterances and voices that “sing” in the sense of providing the material of poetry.

The imagery of grapes and harvest frames the poem. At the end, Apollinaire returns to the concept that he has “drunk the whole universe.” The various voices use other images, many of which again recall motifs of Baudelaire’s poetry. The cities of the north especially, with their metallic imagery of factories, echo Baudelaire’s substitution of urban scenes for rural imagery in lyric poetry. The mythological theme of Ixion, repeated by the northern cities and by Sicily, parallels a similar use of repeated figures in Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage” (“The Voyage”), in which the mythological characters, such as Ixion, represent mistaken choices.