On Translating Apollinaire

Alcools: Poems 1898-1913

by Guillaume Apollinaire, translated by William Meredith, Introduction and notes by Francis Steegmuller
Doubleday, 242 pp., $4.95

A spate of books about Apollinaire in recent years has almost nudged him alongside the other French heavy-weights since Baudelaire: Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Valéry. It has been no handicap that he can beat them all, except Rimbaud, when it comes to biographical glamor. He is probably best known as the bohemian writer imprisoned as a suspected accomplice in the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, and as the poet whose published volumes eliminate punctuation and at the end include word drawings called calligrammes. Yet his poetry remains little known in English in spite of his growing reputation. The qualities of his work are not easily conveyed in translation or literary studies.

The most cautious thing to say of this collection is that it marks a sensitive point of transition between Symbolism and Surrealism in French poetry. Indeed this double loyalty declares itself in the composition of several poems that sandwich long passages of free verse between an opening and a closing section in regular verse. But Alcools can stand on its own feet, not because its biographical allusiveness makes it a “veritable novel” as Francis Steegmuller concludes in his final note for this translation, but because Apollinaire, having drunk the world like an eau-de-vie, can convey the heat and sting of that liquor in his language. His lyricism of immediate reality, outer and inner, bursts forth in all directions and passes through an endlessly renewed cycle of enthusiasm and despair. His own terminology seems a little grandiose: poet of Order and Adventure. It is simpler and truer to say that in his village there is always a sunny and a shady side of the street. He keeps crossing and recrossing like a restless child until he finally disappears, or multiplies to fill the whole street with his alternate selves, or turns up again as a forlorn wanderer heavy with wisdom.

A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien

In the end you are weary of this ancient world.

So begins the first poem, “Zone.” But that declamatory alexandrine (it ceases to be one as soon as one has read further) turns out to be the opposite of the truth, for Apollinaire in his endless quest for himself tires of nothing and finds equal inspiration in religion and aviation, in the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Eiffel Tower. The falsest note of all is his self pity and yearning for the indulgence of future generations. Such passages reveal his greatest weakness: the incapacity to prune his work.

So here we have what the squeeze of the literary market place can deliver only too infrequently: a translation by a poet (William Meredith was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets Series in 1944 and has published two collections since) of a complete volume of poems with lasting literary merit. Meredith states his strategy as a translator thus: “I have tried, when I had to alter the sense, to pay very close attention to tone and imagery,…

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