Sunday, April 23, 2017

1913: Apollinaire

Pablo Picasso: Potrait of Guillaume Apollinaire (1913)

on 7 September 1911, Guillaume Apollinaire was arrested and imprisoned as a possible accomplice in the theft of the Mona Lisa, as well as some Egyptian statues, from the Louvre in Paris. He was released after a week, but only after implicating Pablo Picasso (also called in for questioning, but not arrested). The statues, later recovered, had actually been stolen by the poet's former secretary, Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret.

As for the Mona Lisa itself, the actual thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, was not arrested till 1913, when he tried to sell the stolen painting in Florence. He had expected to be rewarded for his patriotism in returning 'La Gioconda' to Italy, but in fact the director of the Uffizi, to whom he entrusted it for 'safekeeping,' had him arrested for theft. The painting was returned to France at the beginning of 1914.

1913 was a vital year for Apollinaire. He published his masterpiece, Alcools [Alcohol], a selection of his best poems from the past two decades. He also published his classic work Les Peintres Cubistes, one of the first systematic attempts to theorise the aesthetic practice of such painters as Picasso, Georges Braque, Marie Laurencin, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp.

Louise Faure-Favier (1870-1961)

Judging from the poem below, written as a letter to his friend and fellow-writer Louise Faure-Favier in July 1913, he was in his usual state of heart-sick turmoil at the time. It's tempting to see, in the storm with which his poem ends, some kind of presentiment of what was going to happen to Europe over the next few years.

Certainly he wouldn't have been the only one to have been troubled by strange dreams and visions in this last year of peace. Carl Jung, in his autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1962) has left on record the strange dreams he was plagued with in the winter of 1913-14:
In October, while I was alone on a journey, I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood. This vision last about one hour. I was perplexed and nauseated, and ashamed of my weakness.
Nor was he the only one. In 1914, the painter Giorgio de Chirico painted Apollinaire in silhouette, with (as the Guardian puts it) "what looks like a target drawn on his cranium":

Giorgio de Chirico: Premonitory Portrait of Apollinaire (1914)

Apollinaire was hit in the head by shrapnel in 1916, while sitting reading in the trenches (he had enlisted in the French artillery at the outbreak of war). Despite a brain operation, he was weakened by his wounds, and died in the great Spanish 'flu epidemic at the end of the war.

As he lay dying in his hospital bed, he could hear the crowds outside chanting: "À bas Guillaume" - Down with Guillaume. They meant Kaiser Wilhelm, who was on the point of abdicating just before the German surrender, but to the poet himself, it seemed the final irony. It was 9 November, 1918. He died just two days before the Armistice was signed.

(after Apollinaire)

Sea’s edge
summer’s end
gulls fly
waves leave behind
glass blobs
of jellyfish
ships pass
on the horizon
wind dies in the pines

sun sinks
behind the islands
bruises the sand
the sea
darkens to purple
you fool
shout your fear into the storm



And here's a rather more literal version of the same poem:

Je suis au bord de l’océan sur une plage
I am at the edge of the ocean on a beach
Fin d’été : je vois fuir les oiseaux de passage.
at summer’s end: I see the birds of passage fly.
Les flots en s’en allant ont laissé des lingots :
The receding waves have left ingots:
Les méduses d’argent. Il passe des cargos
silver jellyfish. Freighters pass
Sur l’horizon lointain et je cherche ces rimes
on the far horizon and I look for rhymes
Tandis que le vent meurt dans le pins maritimes.
while the wind dies in the coastal pines.

Je pense à Villequier « arbres profonds et verts »
I think of Villequier's "deep, dark trees"
La Seine non pareille aux spectacles divers
the Seine unequal to the diverse shows
L’Eglise des tombeaux et l’hôtel des pilotes
the church of tombs and the pilots' hotel
Où flotte le parfum des brunes matelotes.
where the aroma of brown stew floats.

Les noirceurs de mon âme ont bien plus de saveur.
The blackness of my soul has far more taste.

Et le soleil décline avec un air rêveur
And the sun goes down with a dreamy air
Une vague meurtrie a pâli sur le sable
a bruised wave pales on the sand
Ainsi mon sang se brise en mon cœur misérable
while the blood breaks in my miserable heart
Y déposant auprès des souvenirs noyés
lying down next to my drowned memories
L’échouage vivant de mes amours choyés.
the living wreck of my cherished loves.

L’océan a jeté son manteau bleu de roi
The ocean has thrown off its royal blue robe
Il est sauvage et nu maintenant dans l’effroi
it's wild and bare now with the fear
De ce qui vit. Mais lui défie à la tempête
of living things. Defiance in the teeth of the storm
Qui chante et chante et chante ainsi qu’un grande poète.
which sings and sings and sings like a great poet!

[23 juillet 1913]

- Guillaume Apollinaire. 'Je suis au bord de l’océan...' Poèmes Retrouvés. Oeuvres poétiques. Ed. Marcel Adéma & Michel Décaudin. Préface d’André Billy. 1956. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 121 (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1966): 734.

Pablo Picasso: Portrait of Apollinaire (1918)


Richard said...

This is interesting. I knew Apollinaire had died of head wounds. I think at the start of 'The Fire' by Barbusse the patients have a dream of the war or it is imagined. Barbusse as you probably know also took part in the war. His book is a great and tragic picture of the war. I wonder if Apollinaire was so affected by his head wound he became confused. Another who entered the war with great gusto was Siegfried Sassoon who went to the English Parliament (he was an officer and ironically decorated for heroism) to protest the war. A lot of that is convered by Pat Barker in her 'Regeneration' trilogy which I also found very interesting.

But Apollinaire is ambiguous. At least he didn't go as far as Marinetti and become a fascist. It is strange this fascination for war that some men have.

Is your version a critique of Apollinaire's? It seems to leave perhaps too much out but it is a good poem. I think Apollinaire's is just too long and unclear. Perhaps a bit more in yours and a little less in A's and we have the poem set to rights!?

But his importance historically with Alcools and his Calligrammes are undoubted, he avoids the excesses of surrealism and is aware of cubism. De Chirico did some strange (and very great) works in the early years, then reverted to a kind of classicism. Ashbery used titles of his works for titles to his books of poetry.

Perhaps people can have a kind of prescience of war and other things. The Balkan wars had ended around the beginning or WWI so maybe the stage for another war was already set.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

I guess my point -- in the translation -- was that the date '1913' now has a resonance for us which it could not have had at the time. Apollinaire's poem is really an extended postcard home from the beach, but I wanted to extract certain elements from it in order to make it seem more prophetic of the coming war.

Yes, I've read Barbusse's Le Feu, his novel about the war - powerful stuff.

Richard said...

I think your translation is good. More concise and it could be more than just Apollinaire himself. 'Le Feu' I saw in the library. I take passages from books and a lot were taken from that. It is quite tragic but almost poetic in a way.

I picked up a collection including the Alcools and the Calligrammes etc from the Hard to Find a month or so ago. These writings about books and writers is very informative I feel as though I am attending lectures again! And I feel that others can inform. And it doesn't matter that one is 'old' life as long as one is healthy enough one should live and if it seems to have no meaning try to do the best for others as one can.

I meant to go to the launch (Liz Mortonius etc) and buy all three books but I had a broken tooth which was fixed but it threw me out for the day. I just bought a stove and my dentist, who is very good, is recommending caps at about $1000!! So with some car troubles and ongoing house painting repair, art and lit projects or interests fade a bit. But I would like to have been able to get those books as I support these things.

Any book reviews in the air? I cant promise to put the boot in though Jack! I am too generous... (he lies, a bit)...

But re this, de Chirico's work I like a lot. It has just that air possibly of also somewhat like that of Edward Hopper and of course the Surrealists.