Simply entitled Paris, this first world war poem from Apollinaire evokes the sights and atmosphere of the city from the point of view of a soldier on leave from the front line, which was quite close to Paris. We are implicitly invited to imagine the contrast between life in the city and life in the squalor and danger of the trenches.
And then there is the final line of the poem to express the poet’s main preoccupation.
J’ai vu Paris dans l’ombre
Hypogée où l’on riait trop
Paris une grande améthyste
Ces soldats belges en troupe
Vieilles femmes habillées en Perrette
Après le pot-au-lait
L’officier-pilote raconte ses exploits
J’ai entendu la berloque
Mais quel sourire celui de celui qui eut sursis d’appel illimité
Ombre de la statue de Shakespeare sur le Boulevard Haussmann
Laideur des costumes civils des hommes qui ne sont pas partis
Les peintres travaillaient
Mon cœur t’adore
Guillaume Apollinaire(1880 – 1918)
Once again we can read Apollinaire and come away with an expanded vocabulary. Hypogee, Perrette, berloque.
Hypogee is an underground burial chamber, so yes, Paris with the street lights dimmed or extinguished at night could well suggest this, but then the qualifier – where people laughed too much – is incongruous, suggesting the frivolity of those who managed to stay in the city rather than go and fight on the front line. There are some references to this type of thing in Proust also, of course.
Perrette – a character in a fable by La Fontaine, “La Laitière et le Pot au Lait”, who goes to town to buy milk
“Ayant mis ce jour-là, pour être plus agile,
Cotillon simple, et souliers plats.”
So in this poem the Belgian troops are like old ladies dressed very simply, perhaps because they have not been given proper uniforms and equipment.
Berloque – a drum, used to call soldiers in for meals or a roll-call. When Apollinaire says he has heard the drum, he is saying that he is a soldier, then he immediately goes on to contrast this with the broad smile of someone who has been given an unlimited deferment of being called-up.
So the poem is a direct criticism of the cosy civilian life of those in the city who are carrying on their normal occupations in as much comfort as they can muster, while the soldiers are risking their lives close by, in constant danger and discomfort.
And the final line reminds us of Apollinaire’s constant preoccupation – his love from which he is separated while at the front. His passion is so strong and omnipresent that it bursts through, even in a poem which is more one of social commentary and criticism.
The Poetry Dude