Posted on:Wednesday 13th May, 2020
Musing on the pandemic, I’ve been reminded of how great artists can produce extraordinary work in the most extreme circumstances. You need only think of Stalin’s Russia, where Shostakovich continued to compose music and Akhmatova to write verse under daily threat of imprisonment and execution. Even so, few volumes of poetry can have been conceived and printed in conditions quite like those in which Guillaume Apollinaire found himself when his collection Case d’armons appeared in mid-June 1915.
Like many other artists and writers Apollinaire, although legally a foreign national, volunteered to join the French army at the outbreak of war in 1914.1 By the end of the year he had been enrolled in the 38th Field Artillery Regiment and, after an arduous period of training in Nîmes, in early April 1915 he joined the forward elements of his regiment on the Champagne front, east of the great cathedral city of Reims, as an artillery driver first class (‘1er canonnier-conducteur’).
Although he would spend the next few months largely assigned to the ‘échelon’, or rear unit, of his battery some distance behind the front line, Apollinaire nevertheless had ample opportunities to experience the violence and horror of modern warfare. There was constant enemy shelling, and soon after the poet’s arrival at the front the Germans began gas attacks against the poorly protected French troops. The poet’s duties as an ‘agent de liaison’ or runner, which he soon assumed, also took him daily through the devastated Champagne landscape to within touching distance of the enemy lines as he delivered messages to local commanders and artillery observers.
Despite the dangers and hardships, Apollinaire experienced a renewal of poetic inspiration during this new chapter in his life, ‘le cerveau tout empli d’images neuves’ (‘my brain replete with new images’) as he wrote in one poem. The churned-up chalky ground of Champagne, the bewildering maze of trenches, the ‘fairy-like’ light show created at night by star shells, searchlights and muzzle-flashes, the fearful machinery and practices of war, even the official bulletins coming from the French high command – all provided fresh material and subjects for poetry. Nature too, as Apollinaire’s letters and poems attest, was ever-present since the poet and his comrades, like ‘Robinson Crusoe and trappers’, were encamped in a marshy woodland which teemed with fauna and flora in the fine springtime.
Meanwhile, distance from friends and loved ones – particularly from the two female correspondents, Louise de Coligny and Madeleine Pagès, with whom Apollinaire would exchange hundreds of letters during 1915 – allowed space for the play of memory, reverie and fantasy. The poet would later suggest that no writer could describe the simple horror and mysteries of life at the front. But this is just what Apollinaire began to attempt as he sought refuge and solace in poetry. Dozens of poems, many written by lamplight at night, were the result.
But how to safeguard his work in such precarious circumstances? One way was to send the poems to a variety of correspondents, either embedded in letters or as attached sheets. Another way would be to publish, and from early June 1915 Apollinaire began to plan a collection of 21 poems that eventually appeared on the 17th of the same month with the title Case d’armons (Limber Store), a reference to the space under the driver’s seat of a gun carriage where he would store his personal effects and, by implication, his impressions, sensations, hopes and fears.2
That the volume emerged at all is something of a miracle. Basics such as paper and ink were in short supply at the front – the latter sometimes replaced by soot and water – and printing facilities were limited. Fortunately, most regiments had access to duplicating machines that were used for copying military documents and, in quieter moments, for producing the trench magazines and small collections of songs and verse that helped maintain morale.3
Supervised by Apollinaire, two comrades, the sergeants Bodard and Berthier, transcribed poems by hand from the poet’s original manuscripts (now sadly lost) on to rough graph paper using purple ink, adding little drawings and illustrations of their own devising. From this mock-up, they ran off sheets using the duplicator’s gelatine-based process, ‘at the firing battery…facing the enemy’ as a covering page states. The volumes were then bound in thick paper covers. There were slight variations in the page order of different copies and Apollinaire inked in letters where the text was faint, also making small textual amendments in some cases. Each copy was therefore unique.
For practical reasons, an original plan to produce 112 copies had to be scaled back to 25. Similarly, Apollinaire’s intention of raising money from subscription sales (which in one letter he promised to send to his lover Lou to help pay her dentist’s bills) had to be abandoned when he discovered that army regulations banned all commercial activity at the front. The volumes were mainly distributed to friends and a small number of trusted subscribers.
A few of the poems use classic French metres and rhyme schemes, but most are startingly radical. They reflect not just the creative vitality of a soldier-poet finally released from months of being cooped up in barracks and undergoing mentally and physically exhausting training, but also a sense that traditional verse forms (including those used by ‘patriotic’ poets) were no longer adequate to represent the fragmented, chaotic and hallucinatory experience of modern war. The sheer variety of versification, registers and layouts in the collection mirrors the diversity of odds and ends contained in the ‘case d’armons’, which would include apparently trivial items that were loaded with personal emotion, while the freedom of the poems on the page may be viewed as a poetic response to the constraints of military regimentation.
Shortly before the war, Apollinaire had published a series of ‘idéogrammes lyriques’ – ‘picture poems’ that introduced a strong visual element into the layout of his verse. Case d’armons pushed these innovations even further, taking advantage of the conditions under which the volume was being produced. Since duplication rather than printing was involved, Apollinaire was able to send his lines in different directions, to form shapes with words and letters, and to introduce elements of collage, rather as the poet’s close friend Picasso had done in some of his pre-war paintings. The poem ‘1915’, for instance, was written in stencil-like letters on the reverse side of 25 actual military postcards, each of which was then stuck on a sheet destined for the collection.
As for content, Apollinaire combined elements of his own personal life, memories and mythology, including references to his intense wartime love affairs with Lou and Madeleine, with the day-to-day reality of the war that surrounded him, using a skilful mix of sources and deploying an allusive and at times telegraphic style. A poem such as ‘SP’, for instance, manipulates text taken directly from military instructions in an ironic and irreverent manner that suggests the distance between officialdom and the experience of the frontline soldier. Apollinaire’s use of typography and layout to suggest graffiti, military hardware or topographical features adds a further layer of complexity. The converging lines in the poem ‘Visée’ (‘Aim’) could represent shells homing in on a target, the image of an artillery sighting device, a spray of machine-gun fire, or even a flag. Readers are offered multiple entry points into the poems and the possibility of many different interpretations.
Every poem in the collection warrants analysis, but ‘Venu de Dieuze’ provides a particularly good illustration of Apollinaire’s approach. The title refers to a commune in north-east France that became German in 1871 and was rebaptised Duss in 1915. Apollinaire pointedly refuses to use the German name. The poem includes many references to the poet’s daily life at the front – the exchange of passwords that Apollinaire’s role as a runner would have frequently required, the neighing of artillery horses in the marshy landscape with its mushrooms and hens, the Picard patois spoken by his comrades in the battery.
There are striking images. Shells like tightrope walkers (‘funambule’ towards the centre of the poem being military slang for shell) destroy trees that stand like Gardes des Voies et Communications (G.V.C.), the elderly troops who guarded the railways and telegraph lines (vines?) that were so vital to modern warfare. The poet has inserted musical symbols and references to both popular song and the Marseillaise, while the last two lines may contain a subtle criticism of the French commander Joffre’s cautious approach to the war, since one of the Roman generals named Fabius played for time in the face of Hannibal’s attack. Meanwhile, Antisthenes was a Greek philosopher who advocated an ascetic life lived in accordance with virtue – perhaps a reminder of Apollinaire’s pledges in his letters of early April to his lover Lou that he would remain faithful to her, but also a reflection of the poet’s attachment to chivalric values and his pride in his noble Polish military ancestry.
Amidst this mix of personal and day-to-day references, the poet places elements of the sacred (Dieuze, of course, contains the word ‘Dieu’), his hopes for a better world, and his belief in the power of poetry. The Claire-Ville-Neuve-En-Cristal-Eternel evokes the New Jerusalem of the Bible, while reminding us that north-east France was renowned for its high-quality crystal glassware. The importance of ‘Le mot’ may reflect not just the life-or-death power of passwords at the front, but also Apollinaire’s views on the vital creative role of poetry.
These complex layers of meaning were further enhanced when the poem was revised for publication in 1918 (the version shown with the English translation above). Some of the text was moved, while the small ring placed in the top right-hand corner would add a further emotional reference, since soldiers, including Apollinaire, commonly fashioned such objects from the aluminium of spent projectiles and sent them to their loved ones. Most striking of all perhaps is the visual dynamism and artistic expressiveness of the calligraphy, now in Apollinaire’s own hand rather than his comrades’, and probably done using a brush or reed pen before being photographed for printing.
What became of the poet and Case d’armons? Apollinaire continued to serve in Champagne as an artilleryman and, from the bitter mid-winter of 1915, as an infantry officer in the frontline trenches, winning the Croix de Guerre. He was seriously wounded in the head in March 1916, trepanned and invalided out of active service, dying in Paris on 9November 1918 – a victim of the flu pandemic. He is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery and is now widely acknowledged as France’s greatest poet of the war, an artist who did not exalt the conflict but strove to remain creative in the face of it.
The poems of Case d’armons were revised and became a major section of the poet’s 1918 publication Calligrammes, poèmes de la paix et de la guerre (1913-1916). As for the individual volumes, as Apollinaire foresaw, they have become a ‘vraie rareté’, selling for enormous prices on their occasional appearance at auction. Perhaps, we should be generous and interpret such financial interest as reflecting the continuing value we place on the human spirit’s ability to produce great art in the midst of destruction, to seek beauty in the monstrous, and to find solace in poetry even in the worst and most absurd of times.
David Hunter – author of Apollinaire in the Great War 1914-18, Peter Owen Publishers, 2015
This blog was written in memory of Jacqueline Peltier – greatly missed as a scholar and a friend.
In preparing this article I have been fortunate in being able to draw upon the research and insights of wonderful Apollinaire scholars such as Laurence Campa, Claude Debon and especially Peter Read.
The images of ‘1915’ and ‘Venu de Dieuze’ can be found in Calligrammes dans tous ses états by Claude Debon, published by Calliopées in 2008. The English translation of ‘Venu de Dieuze’ is by Anne Hyde Greet from the bilingual edition of Calligrammes by University of California Press, reprinted in 2004.
1 The poet was born Wilhelm de Kostrowitzky in Rome in 1880 to a mother of Polish origins and an unknown father. He adopted the pen name Apollinaire in the early 1900s and did not formally receive French naturalisation until March 1916
2 Aware of the fragility and value of the publication, Apollinaire also posted a copy to the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris where it can be viewed online in its entirety alongside another copy acquired later. See https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k1510321v/f1.image.r=case%20d'armons
3 The magazine produced by Apollinaire’s battery, the 45th, was named the Tranchman’Echo in honour of their British allies