Translator's notes

Hill 146

By Guillaume Apollinaire

Of the translations, or transpositions, that appear in MPT 3/7 'Love and War', the first four are taken from Apollinaire’s collection Poèmes à Lou, which was published posthumously in 1947, almost thirty years after the poet’s death.  The delay was due in part to the fact that the correspondence in which these poems are inserted had to be discovered, and in part due to the explicit nature of some of the material, all the more startling in its conflation of erotic conceit and martial imagery, the latter drawn spontaneously from Apollinaire’s daily life as an artilleryman on the Champagne front.  He served there from 1915 until he was wounded in the head on 17 March 1916, just a week after he was awarded French nationality.  Apollinaire enlisted, and in April 1915 entrained North from Nîmes, bathed in the afterglow of a week of what appears to have been sweet and wild sexual ecstasy in the company of Louise de Coligny-Châtillon – “Lou” - a young aristocratic beauty he had just met in Nice, and whose every aspect seemed to correspond point for point with the poet’s ideal. The erotic pressure, a mixture of memory and desire, is unrelenting in the torrential letters and poems that he fired off to Lou in the weeks and months after their encounter.  At their best, the poems draw into the vortex of longing the extraordinary sights and sounds of the Western Front; they are a wholly original mixture of French classicism in the style of the blasons du corps feminin, and modernist inclusiveness and invention.  The Poèmes à Lou stand alongside the more famous Calligrammes in their “celebration” – which is still startling to those accustomed to the poetry of protest of the British War Poets – of the “matériel” of war.  Not that Apollinaire was in any way duped, as the poem “Cornflower” (written later, in 1917) makes clear.  As for Lou, she replied more and more evasively to her lover’s declarations; and after two brief leaves of absence early on in 1915, Apollinaire never saw her again, though the letters and poems continued until January 1916.

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