Alcools, Apollinaire's manuscript
How did Guillaume Apollinaire, a young man just in his thirties, come to develop acclaimed poems such as “Le Pont Mirabeau” (Mirabeau Bridge), “Automne” (Autumn), “La Loreley” (The Lorelei), “Zone” (Zone) and "La Chanson du Mal-Aimé" (Song of the Poorly-Loved)? Published by French publisher Mercure de France in 1913, was the composition of Alcools (Alcohols) a dazzling outpouring or, alternatively, the result of years of artistic and intellectual development?
Most likely, the truth lies somewhere between the two scenarios. Real name Guillaume Albert Wladimir Alexandre Apollinaire de Kostrowsky, the writer was always scribbling, taking notes or writing in prose or verse. Born in Rome in 1880, he started writing properly around 1897, signing his poems under the pseudonym Guillaume Macabre. Consequently, he had begun to make a name for himself at the beginning of the 20th century and in the years preceding the First World War. He established himself in the literary and journalistic circles of Paris, choosing the pen name Apollinaire in homage to his maternal grandfather Apollinaris, which evoked in his mind Apollo, god of the arts. Lecturer, art critic and writer for literary reviews, Apollinaire wrote L’Hérésiarque & Cie (The Heresiarch & Co.) in 1910 which was nominated for the Goncourt Prize, not to mention the anonymously-published Onze Mille Verges (The Eleven Thousand Rods), a pornographic novel signed only with his initials.
This edition reproduces a key document in the understanding of Alcools and its impact on the history of poetry and French literature: the corrected set of proofs conserved in the Rare Books Reserve at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France). This set was bound by Sonia Delaunay, and was then owned by Tristan Tzara before being acquired at auction by the BnF in 1989.
It is between and around these printed lines that the poet put the finishing touches to his work. At the very last minute - possibly even on the way to the printers - he completely altered his use of punctuation. In a simple but radical move, Apollinaire decided to completely erase it all, in order to express the rhythm solely through the music of his words. The collection, initially titled Eau-de-vie (Water of Life) became Alcools; he rearranged the order and at the last moment added the poems ‘Zone’ and ‘Chantre’ (Cantor).
Fifteen years in the making
For Apollinaire, almost everything was a source of inspiration. From his love for the English governess Annie Playden whom he met in Germany, to his tumultuous affair with the beautiful Marie Laurencin… Alcools was the culmination of fifteen years of work and a lengthy process. As early as 1904, he considered collecting together poems he had written in Germany into a booklet under the name Le Vent du Rhin (The Rhine Wind). However, undoubtedly influenced by Marie Laurencin, he dreamed bigger: he set about carefully selecting texts from among more than 250 of his poems written between 1898 and 1913. He would have also been influenced by reading La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France), a poem by Blaise Cendrars.
Together with the first set of corrected proofs, SP Books has brought together fragments, manuscripts and typewritten texts annotated by hand (those used for the publication of poems in journals long before the formation of Alcools). This assemblage illustrates the various stages of Apollinaire’s composition process, though it is not exhaustive, as some manuscripts have been destroyed, lost, or are kept in private collections.
n addition to the set of corrected proofs, the assembled documents come from the Jacques Doucet Literary Library and from various BnF collections (see sources cited at the end of the book).
Manuscripts: a treasure hunt
The task of uncovering Apollinaire’s drafts and fragments across many documents is that of an immensely rewarding treasure hunt. To compare the well-known final version of Alcools to earlier versions reveals much about the poet’s approach - leaving much open to interpretation and the scrutiny of literary analysis. Some notable changes include:
- ‘Zone’ was retitled ‘Cri’ (Scream) in the corrected proofs. In the final version, Apollinaire also deleted several verses;
- ‘Cortège’ (Cortege) was previously ‘Brumaire’ ((the second month in the French Republican Calendar) - this manuscript also contains a draft plan of the entire collection;
- ‘Le voyageur’ (The Traveller) is much developed, as evidenced by the fragment entitled ‘Villes’ (Cities);
- ‘À la Santé’ (To Health), was previously titled ‘À la Prison de la Santé’ (To La Santé Prison), and the order rearranged;
- In the poem ‘La Clé’ (The Key) there are fragments of other poems, including ‘L’Adieu’ (The Farewell), ‘Rhénane d´automne’ (Autumn Rhine) and ‘La Dame’ (The Lady);
- ‘Marzibill’ was previously ‘Marie Sybille’, while ‘La Dame’ was formerly ‘La petite souris’ (The Little Mouse).
The collection Alcools, published in 1913 by Mercure de France, brought together fifteen years of work and demonstrates the poet’s literary evolution.
A landmark publication
Alcools – its title an homage to symbolic drunkenness, the intensity of poetry and a thirst for life – was first printed in 567 copies. Reception was mixed, with audiences both shocked and seduced. The Critic Georges Duhamel termed it a ‘brocante’ (flea market) emphasising its disparate nature, while André Gide called it a ‘miracle ingénu’ (ingenuous miracle). The publication would go down in history, and Apollinaire is today considered the forerunner, if not the founder, of surrealism.
The singer-songwriter Léo Ferré adapted a number of poems from the Alcools collection, including ‘Le Pont Mirabeau’ (Mirabeau Bridge), ‘Marizibill’, ‘L'Adieu’ (The Farewell), ‘Tzigane’ (Gypsy), ‘Zone’, ‘L'Émigrant de Landor Road’ (The Emigrant of Landor Road) and ‘La Chanson du Mal-Aimé’ (Song of the Poorly-Loved). Even today, music groups like Feu! Chatterton are inspired by Apollinaire’s poetry.
A preface by Philippe Tesson
Philippe Tesson is a journalist, founder in 1974 of French newspaper Le Quotidien de Paris, owner of the publishing house L’Avant-scène theater and director of the Théâtre de Poche-Montparnasse in Paris. To introduce this book he has written a passionate text on the creative impetus of Apollinaire, and how the collection charts his poetic development. Philippe Tesson is the author of several books, including De Gaulle 1er, la révolution manquée (Albin Michel, 1965) and La Campagne de France (Léo Scheer, 2012).
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