Authors: Guillaume Apollinaire

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

French poet, playwright, and fiction writer

August 26, 1880

Rome, Italy

November 9, 1918

Paris, France


The mother of Guillaume Albert Wladimir Alexandre Apollinaire (ah-pahl-ee-nehr) de Kostrowitzky, a Polish adventuress, may have been of aristocratic birth; his father has never been positively identified but is said to have been a high church dignitary, perhaps an Italian bishop. Guillaume, their illegitimate son, was born in Rome and baptized in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore; his mother had him christened Wilhelm Apollinaris and gave him her own Polish surname, Kostrowitzky. {$I[AN]9810000678} {$I[A]Apollinaire, Guillaume} {$I[geo]FRANCE;Apollinaire, Guillaume} {$I[tim]1880;Apollinaire, Guillaume}

Guillaume Apollinaire

His formative years were largely spent in Monte Carlo and other fashionable resorts between which he and his mother traveled. He was educated in Nice and Cannes; later he attended school in Germany. Around 1900 he found himself in Paris, where he obtained employment as a bank clerk. His real interests were literary, however, and he soon made his way into the bohemian world of Montmartre. By 1903 he was able to support himself entirely through his writing. He also became involved in avant-garde movements, notably Futurism and cubism.

Apollinaire was a large man, powerful physically, and is said to have resembled a dissolute Roman emperor in appearance. He became an exemplar of French bohemianism and one of Montmartre’s most flamboyant personalities. He delighted in his lurid background, constantly embroidered it with fanciful details, and made it a largely unverifiable legend. He was warm, colorful, bombastic, and full of enthusiasm. As a writer, he was eager to explore and to experiment with form and structure; he wrote poetry, edited journals, and expressed himself forcefully through criticism, essays, fiction (including at least two pornographic novels), and two plays. Apollinaire saw himself as a modern counterpart of the vagabond rogue and poet François Villon, but he was actually a competent scholar, and his poetry is highly cerebral. It is also inventive, kinetic, and often unintelligible: It reflected the artistic trends of the time as expressed in avant-garde painting. To critic William A. Drake it is a mixture of “ribald exuberance, genial madness, grotesque inspiration, and pure imprudence.” It was at the same time a fresh and valid approach to reality. Two volumes in particular, Alcools and Calligrammes, have secured his reputation as a poet; his play The Breasts of Tiresias is generally accepted as having initiated the movement that came to be known as Surrealism. Robert Motherwell calls attention to the fact that Apollinaire “invented the word surréalisme, literally ‘superrealism,’ as a descriptive subtitle” for Les Mammelles de Tirésias.

Although he was an innovator and a significant artist in his own right, Apollinaire’s greatest role, perhaps, was as a discoverer of talents and as an influence on others. He is generally credited with the introduction of such outstanding painters as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Henri Rousseau to general critical attention. Able to recognize greatness, he could also publicize it effectively. His book The Cubist Painters was reviewed by Pär Lagerkvist in Svenska Dagbladet and served its reviewer’s successful campaign for Swedish literature to strike out on the path of cubistic modernism.

Apollinaire’s promising career was brought to a tragic conclusion by the advent of World War I. Like many another poet and artist of the day, he was a romantic; like them, he marched off to defend his adopted country. He went to the front as an artillery officer, transferring to aviation at his first opportunity, and continued to write poems as circumstances permitted. He was seriously wounded on three occasions; the last of these injuries was caused by a bullet that passed through his head. He was slowly recovering from it when he was struck down by the influenza epidemic, dying just before the armistice. He had been married to Jacqueline Kolb only since that May.

Since his untimely death numerous volumes of previously unpublished material have appeared. These include poetry, essays, and letters, and they have served to round out the body of his work. In addition, they have helped to extend his influence through succeeding generations of French poets and to ensure his literary permanence.

Author Works Poetry: Le Bestiaire, 1911 (Bestiary, 1978) Alcools: Poèmes, 1898-1913, 1913 (Alcools: Poems, 1898-1913, 1964) Case d'armons, 1915 Le flâneur des deux rives, 1918 Calligrammes, 1918 (English translation, 1980) Il y a, 1925 Le Guetteur mélancolique, 1952 Tendre comme le souvenir, 1952 Poèmes à Lou, 1955 Oeuvres poétiques, 1956 Long Fiction: Les onze mille verges, ca. 1907 (The Debauched Hospodar, 1953) L’Enchanteur pourrissant, 1909 Le Poète assassiné et puis ressuscité, 1916 (The Poet Assassinated, 1923) La femme assise, 1920 Short Fiction: L’Hérésiarque et Cie, 1910 (The Heresiarch and Co., 1965) Drama: Les Mamelles de Tirésias, pr. 1917 (The Breasts of Tiresias, 1961) Couleur du temps, pr. 1918 (Color of Time, 1980) Nonfiction: Pages d'histoire: Chroniques des grands siècles de la France, 1912 Peintres cubistes: Méditations esthétiques, 1913 (The Cubist Painters: Aesthetic Meditations, 1944) L'Esprit nouveau et les poètes, 1917 Anecdotiques, 1926 Chroniques d’art, 1902-1918, 1960 (Apollinaire on Art: Essays and Reviews, 1902-1918, 1972) Lettres à Lou, 1968 Lettres à Madeleine: Tendre comme le souvenir, 2005 (Laurence Campa, editor) Correspondance avec les artistes: 1903-1918, 2009 (Laurence Campa and Peter Read, editors) Correspondance générale, 2015 (3 vol.; Victor Martin-Schmets, editor) Miscellaneous: Oeuvres complètes, 1966 (8 volumes) Le Flâneur des deux rives suivi de Contemporains pittoresques, 1975 Oeuvres en prose, 1977 (Michel Décaudin, editor) Les dessins de Guillaume Apollinaire, 2008 (Claude Debon and Peter Read, compilers) Un album de jeunesse, 2015 Bibliography Adéma, Marcel. Apollinaire. Translated by Denise Folliot. New York: Grove Press, 1955. This is the prime source of biographical material, the bible of scholars researching the poet and his epoch. Bates, Scott. Guillaume Apollinaire. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. This book offers detailed erudite analyses of Apollinaire’s major works and informed judgments on his place in French literature and in the development of art criticism. It emphasizes the importance to the entire world of Apollinaire’s vision of a cultural millennium propelled by science and democracy and implemented by poetry. Included are a chronology, a twenty-six-page glossary of references, notes, and selected bibliographies of both primary and secondary sources. Bohn, Willard. The Aesthetics of Visual Poetry: 1914-1928. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Chapter 3, “Apollinaire’s Plastic Imagination,” reveals the lyric innovations that Apollinaire brought to visual poetry with Calligrammes: new forms, new content, multiple figures in a unified composition, a dual sign system used to express a simultaneity, and a difficulty of reading that mirrors the act of creation. Chapter 4, “Toward a Calligrammar,” offers a sophisticated structural and statistical analysis of the calligrammes to demonstrate metonymy as the principal force binding the visual tropes, whereas metaphor and metonymy occur evenly in the verbal arena. Bohn, Willard. Apollinaire and the Faceless Man: The Creation and Evolution of a Modern Motif. Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991. Traces the history of Apollinaire’s faceless man motif as a symbol of the human condition, from its roots in the poem “Le Musicien de Saint-Mercy” to its dissemination to the arts community through the unproduced pantomime “A quelle heure un train partira-t-il pour Paris?” Bohn, Willard. Apollinaire and the International Avant-Garde. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Chronicles the early artistic and critical reception of Apollinaire in Europe, North America, and Latin America. Especially interesting is the discussion of Argentina, exported through the Ultraism of Jorge Luis Borges, and Apollinaire’s place in the revolutionary circles of Mexico. Cornelius, Nathalie Goodisman. A Semiotic Analysis of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Mythology in “Alcools.” New York: Peter Lang, 1995. Examines Apollinaire’s use of linguistic and mythological fragmentation and reordering to mold his material into an entirely new system of signs that both encompasses and surpasses the old. Chapters give close semiotic readings of four poems: “Claire de lune,” “Le Brasier,” “Nuit rhëane,” and “Vendémaine.” Couffignal, Robert. Apollinaire. Translated by Eda Mezer Levitine. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1975. This is a searching analysis of some of Apollinaire’s best-known works, including “Zone,” strictly from the Roman Catholic point of view. It traces his attitude toward religion from his childhood to his death. The book contains a chronology, translations of ten texts, both poems and prose, with the author’s comments, a bibliographical note, and an index. Matthews, Timothy. Reading Apollinaire: Theories of Poetic Language. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987. Uses a variety of historical, biographical, and stylistic approaches to offer an accessible point of entry into often difficult texts. Matthews’s detailed discussion of Alcools focuses heavily on “L Adieu” and “Automne malade,” which allows for a reading that may be transferred to the rest of the book. His chapter “Poetry, Painting, and Theory” offers a solid historical background that leads directly into his examination of Calligrammes. Shattuck, Roger. The Banquet Years. Rev. ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1968. In the two long chapters devoted to Apollinaire, “The Impresario of the Avant-garde” and “Painter-Poet,” the author gives a year-by-year and at times even a month-by-month account of his life, loves, friends, employment, writings, and speeches. The tone is judicial, the critical judgments fair and balanced. Includes a bibliography and an index. Steegmuller, Francis. Apollinaire: Poet Among the Painters. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1963. This is an exhaustive, extremely well-documented, unbiased, and highly readable biography. Contains a preface, translations, numerous photographs and illustrations, two appendices, notes, and an index. Waggoner, Mark W., ed. Guillaume Apollinaire: A Critical Bibliography. Encinitas, Calif.: French Research Publications, 1994. A bibliography of critical works on Apollinaire. Contains indexes.

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