Guillaume Apollinaire: Exercice

2014-07-04 19.10.09
Street sign in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood.

I grow weary of technical terminology.  I love World War I poetry in English, and thought that I would look at some in French.  Guillaume Apollinaire was a (very) famous French poet who fought in the artillery and in the trenches in WWI.  He suffered a head wound in 1916, never really recovered from it, and in his weakened condition, died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.  Here is one of his poems, Exercice.

Exercice

Vers un village d l’arrière
S’en allaient quatre bombardiers
Ils étaient couvert de poussière
Depuis la tête jusqu’aux pieds

Ils regardaient la vaste plaine
En parlant entre eux du passé
Et ne se retournaient qu’à peine
Quand un obus avait toussé

Tous quatre de la classe seize
Parlaient d’antan non d’avenir
Ainsi se prolongeait l’ascèse
Qui les exerçait à mourir

•    la poussière: dust.
•    la plaine: plain.
•    se retourner: (tourner la tête) turn around, do a double take; (changer de sens, de position) turn over, toss and turn; (se mettre à l’envers) turn over, overturn
•    la peine: punishment, sorrow, trouble—but, that’s not what it means here—see the next entry.
•    à peine: scarcely, hardly
•    un obus: shell (artillery).
•    tousser: to cough
•    d’antan: of yesteryear, of long ago
•    se prolonger: continue; perpetuate itself; persist; linger; go on; be continued; be extended
•    ascèse: This word is a tough one.  It’s not in any of my French-English dictionaries.  In Anne Greet’s translation (see below), it’s rendered as “ascesis.”  I found it in a monolingual (French-French) dictionary; the definition seemed to be something like asceticism.
•    exercer: to train, exercise, practice

What should we make of the past imperfect tense that is used throughout the poem?
Greet’s notes suggest that it produces a detachment between the poet and the four men: “The poet…is not part of the graphic little scene he is painting.  The verbs, in third person and imperfect tense, indicate that he is an omniscient observer.  This role produces a…fine balance in the poem between compassion and detachment.”

Towards a village in the rear
Marched four bombardiers
And they were covered with dirt
From head to foot

They stared at the vast plain
As they talked about the past
And they barely looked around
When a shell made a coughing sound

All four of class sixteen
Spoke of the past not future time
Thus the ascesis dragged on
That practiced them in dying

Translated by Anne Hyde Greet

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