My history hero: Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918)

Guillaume Apollinaire was a poet and writer who played an important role in the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century. Francine Stock nominates him as her history hero...

Guillaume Apollinaire and his wife, Jacqueline Kolb, on the terrace of the boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris, France, in 1918. (Photo by adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Guillaume Apollinaire spent most of his adult life in Paris, where he published a number of volumes of poetry while befriending and promoting several leading lights in the city’s art scene. After war broke out in 1914, Apollinaire served in the French infantry. In 1916 he was wounded and subsequently discharged, returning to Paris and his literary work for the last two years of his life.

When did you first hear about Apollinaire?

Though I studied French at university, I’d barely registered Apollinaire except as a phenomenon – the distinctive young French poet of the First World War, a poster-boy for the Modern, the man who named both Cubism and Surrealism. Then a couple of years ago, while I was working on the 1914 section of the BBC Radio 4 series The Cultural Front, I re-read his poem The Little Car, about the outbreak of war. Its immediacy and insight, combining reportage, vulnerability and an ambition to synthesise the conflict in unforgettable images, sent me back to read him again.

What kind of person was he?

Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowitsky (Apollinaire’s name at birth) was a dazzling amalgam. Born in Rome the illegitimate son of a young Polish aristocrat and, it’s assumed, an Italian army officer (though one fantasy has it that he was conceived in the most private chambers of the Vatican), he was eventually raised with his brother in France, a country he adopted and fought for. Artist and adventurer, he was at the heart of the Parisian avant-garde. As creative as he was sociable, he was an experimenter and innovator who was also a leader and an eroticist who could be profoundly romantic.

What made Apollinaire a hero?

He may not score high on conventional valour (though he was fearless in pursuit of love) but his invention and his galvanising of his peers in early 20th-century Paris – Picasso, Alfred Jarry, Chagall and Cocteau among them – were crucial to many of the movements we now recognise as modern, in both literary and visual arts. He had a particular sensitivity for the Cubism of human experience: deracinated himself, he could inhabit other perspectives with insight and compassion, such as that of a gunner from Dakar caught in the chaos of a European war. While he experimented with form (even on a page, in verse pictures), his work is always accessible, rich in humanity and humour. He’s also the only French poet I know of to have written a poem about Landor Road in Clapham.

Even his death has an absurd lyricism. His health was compromised in the First World War when he received a shrapnel wound (after which he was trepanned), and he succumbed to the Spanish influenza pandemic days before the armistice in November 1918.

Is there anything you don’t admire about him?

His ebullience was surely exhausting; his amorous pursuit potentially intimidating; his work is not consistently brilliant; some of the erotic juxtapositions he includes in accounts of war seem too obvious, at least to a contemporary reader. And I’ve not yet tackled the pornographic writings that made him the money to continue with more experimental work – but maybe one day…

How would you describe Apollinaire’s legacy today?

He’s insufficiently enjoyed and celebrated. To rectify that I recommend a new edition of his selected poems with parallel translation by Martin Sorrell (OUP, 2015).

If you could meet Apollinaire, what would you ask him?

I’d love to know what he made of a 21st century in which we commune mainly with electronic devices but are as obsessed as any 19th-century symbolist with the meaning of our interior lives.

And I’d want to talk about animals. The Bestiary (an early work illustrated by Raoul Dufy) is a series of short verses, observations on animal traits, that are also acute and amusing about human behaviour. Published in 1911 in a limited edition of 120, only half of the books sold. Which would make a cat laugh.

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Francine Stock is an author and broadcaster. Her BBC Radio 4 series The Cultural Front, about the impact of the First World War on art and society, returns on 9 April.