Autumn, Guillaume Apollinaire, from Alcools (1913)
A bow-legged peasant and his ox receding
Through the mist slowly through the mists of autumn
Which hides the shabby and sordid villages
And out there as he goes the peasant is singing
A song of love and infidelity
About a ring and a heart which someone is breaking
Oh the autumn the autumn has been the death of summer
In the mist there are two gray shapes receding
Another W. S. Merwin translation, p. 130 of Selected Translations 1948-1968. I also just finished Roger Shattuck’s book, Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire (1948), which does not include this poem but is full of other original and amazing things.
Does this Apollonaire poem seem particularly original? Observed scene followed by small revelation about the poet – that’s an old form. How many T’ang Dynasty poets wrote how many variations of this form? The French poem looks even more conventional, by which I mean, it rhymes:
Dans le brouillard s'en vont un paysan cagneux
Et son bœuf lentement dans le brouillard d'automne
Qui cache les hameaux pauvres et vergogneux
Et s'en allant là-bas le paysan chantonne
Une chanson d'amour et d'infidélité
Qui parle d'une bague et d'un cœur que l'on brise
Oh ! l'automne l'automne a fait mourir l'été
Dans le brouillard s'en vont deux silhouettes grises
Merwin only hints (-ing, -ing, -ing) at the French rhyme scheme (ABA BCD CD). The sounds of the rhymes are wonderful, and it’s a shame to lose them. The switch from the dark, round (-eux, -onne) to the bright, sharp (-é, -ise) vowels is pleasing.
Shattuck helpfully informs me that Apollinaire’s rhymes violate all sorts of rules of classical French prosody, which is a nightmarish tangle that I don’t pretend to understand. He also identifies Apollinaire’s expungement of punctuation marks, even at the occasional expense of sense.
Apollinaire repeats “Dans le brouillard” in the first and last lines. Merwin repeats “receding.” He can’t repeat “brouillard / mist” because, curiously, he has rearranged the first two lines to emphasize the repetition – “Through the mist slowly through the mist of autumn.” Odd. But he is then able to keep the ox and the peasant together in the first line, more closely resembling the two silhouettes grises at the end.
I’m fussing around, ignoring what I really like. Two things, the obvious ones. First, the peasant’s song, which the reader can never quite hear, but which now has a tune, almost, and all because of the single concrete object, the ring. That one small addition turns a generic song into the suggestion of a specific one.
And second, of course: “Oh the autumn the autumn” etc. Poor mournful poet. What happened last summer? He’ll never tell. Or, he has already told all he can.
Context: Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) was a French poet, writer of short stories and literary Critic who became very popular among Modernists; and he was himself an open spokesman of the Cubists. In 1911 he joined the Puteaux Group, a branch of the Cubist movement soon to be known as the Section d’Or. The opening address of the 1912 Salon de la Section d’Or—the most important pre-World War I Cubist exhibition—was given by Apollinaire. Some call him an early father of Surrealism. Born as Wilhelm Kostrowicki his family had both French, Italian and Polish roots. He lived a short life, enrolled as a soldier in WW1 in which he got wounded and never fully recovered. He died in the Spanish Flu pandemic which took many lives during 1918. Most of his publications including letters can be found on wikisource and wikilivres. If you follow this blog you know I often make references to English Wikipedia. The poem comes from the poetry collection named Alcools.
Themes: In this poem translated as ‘Autumn’ Apollinaire uses an external narrator who focus on a poor farmer’s life and frames his life together with an approaching autumn and the dying summer. He’s also surrounded by a fog which makes him a bit difficult to relate to as he’s working in the field. We cannot see him properly with his oxen. The poem is more like a painting in which Apollinaire refers to colours to help set the mood. The farmer is singing an old folksong about love. His song is the major theme in this short poem. The farmer refers to a true love, a love that is lying, a ring and a heart.
Dans le brouillard s’en vont un paysan cagneux
Et son bœuf lentement dans le brouillard d’automne
Qui cache les hameaux pauvres et vergogneux
Et s’en allant là-bas le paysan chantonne
Une chanson d’amour et d’infidélité
Qui parle d’une bague et d’un cœur que l’on brise
Oh ! l’automne l’automne a fait mourir l’été
Dans le brouillard s’en vont deux silhouettes grises