La fumée de la cantine est comme la nuit qui vient 

The First World War was a rich source of poetic inspiration which I revisit today with this poem from Guillaume Apollinaire who fought in the trenches in 1015 and 1916 and was ultimately wounded in the head from the explosion of a shell during a German bombardment. He did not die of his wounds, but succumbed to the Spanish flu epidemic a couple of years later. Other World War 1 poems I have posted here focus on the horrors and futility of war as experienced by the poets and their comrades – I have posted such poems from Sassoon, Yeats and Apollinaire himself. This poem, however, has a somewhat different feel to it, it is more of a wistful evocation of the comradeship of the soldiers and the patriotic imperative which has put them in this situation. It is love of their country which has inspired them to put themselves in danger, to experience the discomforts and terrible consequences of the conflict. And this viewpoint is of course completely compatible with the idea of war as a completely destructive force.

La fumée de la cantine est comme la nuit qui vient
Voix hautes ou graves le vin saigne partout
Je tire ma pipe libre et fier parmi mes camarades
Ils partirons avec moi pour les champs de bataille
Ils dormirons la nuit sous la pluie ou les étoiles
Ils galoperont avec moi portant en croupe des victoires
Ils obéiront avec moi aux mêmes commandements
Ils écouteront attentifs les sublimes fanfares
Ils mourront près de moi et moi peut-être près d’eux
Ils souffriront du froid et du soleil avec moi
Ils sont des hommes ceux-ci qui boivent avec moi
Ils obéissent avec moi aux lois de l’homme
Ils regardent sur les routes les femmes qui passent
Ils les désirent mais moi j’ai des plus hautes amours
Qui règnent sur mon cœur mes sens et mon cerveau
Et qui sont ma patrie ma famille et mon espérance
À moi soldat amoureux soldat de la douce France

From <;

The poem describes a group of soldiers in the evening, enjoying their rations, smoking their pipes, in a moment of relaxation and contentment amidst the ravages of war. The third line reveals the poet’s pride in being part of this comradeship, there is a sense of solidarity which is a glue which makes troops work well together. The next eleven lines all begin with the word “ils”, they, and enumerates the experiences, tasks and deprivations which they will all experience along with the poet – they will all leave for the battlefields, they will all sleep under the rain and stars, they will all obey the same orders, they will all die or suffer alongside the poet. Apollinaire takes comfort from sharing the same fate with all these other ordinary soldiers and this helps him endure the experience of war. They all look at the same women passing by on the road, but then the poet finishes the poem with another love – the love of his country, which is in the deepest sense his family, his homeland and all his hopes – la douce France, sweet France. This is not the jingoistic, mindless patriotism of Sassoon’s general, it is a sense of identity which makes even war worth fighting to preserve.

The Poetry Dude


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