Guillaume Apollinaire is another one of those folks who shows that you can be both a poet–and a very serious ass-kicker. Apollinaire tried to join the French army in Paris at the beginning of the First World War, but was turned down–because he wasn’t a French citizen. (Polish, actually.) Undaunted, he travelled south, tried again, and this time got in. He was initially assigned to the artillery, but that wasn’t hard-core enough for him, and he asked for–and received–a transfer to the infantry. 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.
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
In the last two lines, note the inversion: not L’ascèse qui les exerçait à mourir se prolongeait ainsi, but Ainsi se prolongeait l’ascèse qui les exerçait à mourir. If you’d like to read an analysis of the various and sundry kinds of inversion that ainsi can trigger, as well as some quantitative data on ainsi-triggered inversion in Le Monde, see Lena Karssenberg and Karen Lahousse’s paper on the topic.
• 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
You like Apollinaire, but like me, have trouble with the French? I like Anne Hyde Greet’s translation of Calligrammes quite a bit.