7 AUGUST 1964, Page 20

Status Seeker

MODERN poets, on the whole, make poor sub- jects for the biographer. If—in the words of Yeats- - they chose 'perfection of the work,' their lives are likely to have been as uneventful and as private as possible. Their outward circum- stances may also be largely irrelevant to their work, if, like Wallace Stevens or Gottfried Benn, they led double lives, as professional men and as poets. It is with reservations of this kind that I turned to Miss Margaret Davies's biography. Apollinaire's life was interesting enough, but straight biography is one thing, 'critical bio- graphy' another, because it demands a correla- tion of the life with the work, and this can So easily become specious. Nor did I look forward to further speculations about the identity of Apollinaire's father. Miss Davies has avoided most of the expected pitfalls. She does speculate a little over the paternity question, but is content to state the available evidence and to leave the matter open. Her interpretation of La Chanson du Mal-Ainie is rather far-fetched in places, but the obscurities of the poem have baffled critics with no bio- graphical designs, and many of her critical com- ments are most helpful. Above all, she does not try to impose a false consistency on Apollinaire's work or personality, either by positing a closer harmony between them than he achieved, or by ironing out the seeming contradictions. Apollin- aire emerges as the highly gifted, but sporadic, artist he undoubtedly was and as an-extraordin- arily complex personality. Much of this complexity is due to Apollin- aire's ambition to be a poet in the grand nine- teenth-century manner, and to combine `perfec- tion of the life' with 'perfection of the work.' This ambition was curiously naive, and it is Apollin- aire's fundamental naivety that makes him so at- tractive a figure. The same naivety accounts for many of his shortcomings as a poet—his tendency to plagiarise, for instance, or his inability to resist conventional rhetoric and lyricism of a kind in- compatible with his equally genuine passion for modernity and innovation. His insecure status as a French poet, as distinct from his status as an international figure, is mainly due to his open- ness to the charge that he was a literary junk, merchant,' and there does not seem to be a real connection between the insecurity of •his literary status and his insecurity as a man. Apollinaire never quite came to terms with his illegitimate and foreign birth. Hence his extreme need to be appreciated, loved and accepted—whether by the Parisian avant-garde or by the Academie Franeaise—his paranoia, his exaggerated pat- riotism and his fits of dejection. Even his death at the age of thirty-eight could be traced to the compulsion to compensate for his rootlessness; not content with joining up, after being rejected as a foreigner, he insisted on leaving the COM' parative safety of the artillery so as to qualify for a commission, even though the mere sense, of belonging to the French Army had almost staunched the inner wound. Miss Davies, too, has some difficulty in cle; termining Apollinaire's place in the many mod. ernist movements with which he was associated; or wished to be; and no wonder, since his claims and manifestoes are muddled, self-contradictorY, or seemingly disingenuous. They are 'mixed tIP exactly the same way that his poetry and fiction are, and for the same reasons. Apollinaire Was essentially janus-faced, pointing back not only to Nerval and the Symbolists, but beyond than

to Villon's confessional starkness, yet pointing forward also to the styles and movements that flourished after his death (including,, incidentally, some of the best poems of another and more cunning eclectic, Brecht).

As Miss Davies recognises, Apollinaire's very dilemma was a modern one, so that even his impurities and his disorientation become ex- emplary. His quite untypical zest and charm— present in his work as much as in his personal- ity—make him an excellent subject for a bio-

graphy that should have the wide appeal of Dr. Enid Starkie's books on Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Miss Davies provides literal renderings of the longer verse quotations. One of these surprised me. In the famous lines 'Et moi led le cccur aussi gros I Qu'un cul de dame damascene,' I had always taken the adjective to refer to the whole lady, not only her behind; but Miss Davies associates 'damascene' with damask, whereas I associate it with Damascus.