La Chanson du Mal Aimé

La Chanson du Mal Aimé stands on the edge of Modernism. Adding exotic, playful and sometime bizarre imagery to traditional versification, this long poem commemorates Apollinaire's love for Annie Playden but also mixes in many other loves and experiences. {1-5} Texts of the first eight stanzas, original {5} and machine code translation:


A Paul Léautaud

Et je chantais cette romance
En 1903 sans savoir
Que mon amour à la semblance
Du beau Phénix s'il meurt un soir
Le matin voit sa renaissance.

Un soir de demi-brume à Londres
Un voyou qui ressemblait à
Mon amour vint à ma rencontre
Et le regard qu'il me jeta
Me fit baisser les yeux de honte

Je suivis ce mauvais garçon
Qui sifflotait mains dans les poches
Nous semblions entre les maisons
Onde ouverte de la Mer Rouge
Lui les Hébreux moi Pharaon

Oue tombent ces vagues de briques
Si tu ne fus pas bien aimée
Je suis le souverain d'Égypte
Sa soeur-épouse son armée
Si tu n'es pas l'amour unique

Au tournant d'une rue brûlant
De tous les feux de ses façades
Plaies du brouillard sanguinolent
Où se lamentaient les façades
Une femme lui ressemblant

C'était son regard d'inhumaine
La cicatrice à son cou nu
Sortit saoule d'une taverne
Au moment où je reconnus
La fausseté de l'amour même

Lorsqu'il fut de retour enfin
Dans sa patrie le sage Ulysse
Son vieux chien de lui se souvint
Près d'un tapis de haute lisse
Sa femme attendait qu'il revînt

L'époux royal de Sacontale
Las de vaincre se réjouit
Quand il la retrouva plus pâle
D'attente et d'amour yeux pâlis
Caressant sa gazelle mâle


To Paul Léautaud

And I sang this romance
In 1903 without knowing
What my love to the semblance
Beautiful Phoenix if it dies an evening
In the morning sees its renaissance.

An evening of half mist to London
A lout that resembled
My love came to my encounter
And the look that it threw me
Had me lower the shame eyes

I follow this bad boy
Who whistled hands in the pockets
We seemed between the houses
Open wave of the Red Sea
Him Hebrews me Pharaoh

May fall these brick waves
If you well were not liked
I am the sovereign one of Egypt
His sister marries his army
If you are not unique love

At the turn of a burning street
Of all the fires of its facades
Wounds of bloody fog
Where moaned themselves the facades
A woman resembling her

It was her look of inhuman one
The scar to his nude neck
Goes out drunk of a tavern
The moment I recognized
The deceitfulness of even love

When it was return at last
In his fatherland the wise Ulysse
His old dog of him remembered
Close to a rug of high one smooths
His woman awaited that he return

The royal spouse of Sacontale
Tired to overcome rejoices
When it rediscovered it paler
Of expectation and of love eyes become pale
Stroking his male gazelle

First Attempts

The poem, with its exotic imagery and varying moods, has been widely translated, though not generally with the ababa rhyme scheme Apollinaire adopted. Perhaps we shouldn't bother with rhyme at all, when a jaunty octosyllabic line practically writes itself:

1. One night of heavy fog in London
a good-for-nothing looking like
a love of mine came up to me.
The look he gave in that bold eye
made me lower mine in shame.

2. I followed this young tough who,
hands in pockets, whistling, went
across the tenements that seemed
a passage through the Red Sea waves:
he the Hebrews, I Pharaoh.

3. Let those housefronts fall in brick
if you were not the well-beloved
and I be Egypt's sovereign lord
his sister-spouse the army corps
if you are not my only love.

4. At the turning of a street
when all the fires on those facades
became a sanguinary fog
as the housefronts wailed at me:
a woman very much like her.

The answer, I think, is not to prejudge the issue but simply write both and see. The unrhymed version should be closer to the prose meaning, but may miss the neatness and playful charm of the original. Apollinaire is not aiming at the verse perfection of Valéry, of course, being happy with broken rhythms, off rhymes and non sequiturs No one would call inhumaine, taverne and même perfect rhymes. And what does Sa soeur-épouse son armée intend, but to echo Si tu ne fus pas bien aimée? Rhymed and unrhymed versions of the opening stanzas:


I was singing this refrain
in nineteen three, not knowing my
love and phoenix were the same,
that if they fled the
evening sky
they were reborn when morning came.

1. One night of London fog and flame
a ne'er do well resembling my
love was passing: up he came
and showed me such a knowing eye
it made me lower mine in shame.

2. With that young tough I had to go
who hands in pockets took his ways
whistling through the parted row
of tenements as Red Sea waves:
he the Hebrews, I Pharaoh.

3. May waves of brick fall ton on ton
if anyone has yearned for more.
I am king of Egypt's son,
his sister-queen his army corps,
if you are not my only one,

4. At a turning of the street, ablur
with housefronts lit in sullen flare,
and red fangs stuck in fog's thick stir
that wailed about the housefronts there:
a woman very much like her.


And so I sang of this romance
in 1903 not knowing that
my love had semblance to a phoenix
which if it ever dies some evening
morning finds it born again.

1. One night of heavy fog in London
a good-for-nothing looking like
a love of mine came up to me.
The look he gave in that bold eye
made me lower mine in shame.

2. I followed this young tough who,
hands in pockets, whistling, went
across the tenements that seemed
a passage through the Red Sea waves:
he the Hebrews, I Pharaoh.

3. Let those housefronts fall in brick
if you were not the well-beloved
and I be Egypt's sovereign lord
his sister-spouse the army corps
if you are not my only love.

4. At the turning of a street
when all the fires on those facades
became a sanguinary fog
as the housefronts wailed at me:
a woman very much like her.

At first glance, the unrhymed version looks the more attractive: straightforward, tuneful, yielding its meaning immediately. It's only on subsequent readings that the rhymed version comes to the fore, its neatness, verse melody and wistful charm beginning to echo those qualities in the original. But since the rhymed version may have seen more work, or be closer to the translator's particular skills, we ought to look at other translations before making up our minds.

Other Translations

Henri Peyre:

One evening of half fog in London
A rascal who looked like my
Love came up to me
And the glance he threw me
Made me drop my eyes in shame

I followed that bad fellow
Who whistled (his) hands in his pockets
We seemed to be between rows of houses
(Like the) divided waters of the Red Sea
He the Hebrew I Pharaoh

Let those waves of brick fall down
If you were not the (once) well loved
I am the sovereign of Egypt
His sister-wife his army
If you are not (my) only one

At the turning of a street burning
With all the fires (lights) of its housefronts
Wounds of bleeding fog
Where the housefronts were wailing
A woman very much like her

An prose translation, accurate and unpretentious. Voyou and mauvais garçon cause problems, 'rascal' and 'bad fellow' lacking the tang of street speech.

Roger Shattuck

One evening in a London fog
A waif who might have been my love
Came boldly walking up to me
The look he threw me as we passed
Forced me to drop his eyes in shame

I followed this malicious boy
Who whistled as he strode along
In front of him the buildings yawned
As the Red Sea opened to the Jews
For I was Pharaoh in pursuit

May all those waves of brick wash down
If you were not most dearly loved
I am the great Egyptian king
His arm and his sister wife
If you are not my only love

The street in turning flared to light
The wounds of its facades oozed out
A bloody fog into the night
A discharge of their dark lament
A woman who resembled him

A free verse rendering becoming less faithful by stanza four. Some words are questionable: 'waif', 'pursuit', 'malicious boy'. Most translators have translated lui as him, perhaps merging genders to generalize the concept of love . I prefer 'her', suggesting the voyou was acting as pimp more than hustler. It's love for women and not men that's continually stressed in the poem, and Apollinaire was not bisexual.

Anne Hyde Greet {8}

One misty dusk in London
A hoodlum resembling
My love came to meet me
And the look he flung me
Made me lower my eyes in shame

I followed that lawless boy
Whistling his hands thrust into his pockets
Between the house
Gaping Red Sea waters
I was Pharaoh he the Hebrews

May those brick waves clatter down
If I did not love you well
I am Egypt's sovereign lord
His sister queen his army
If you are not my only love

At a street corner burning
With all the lamps of its windows
Wounds in the blood-filled mist
There where windows lamented
A woman resembling him

A musical free verse rendering, which makes good sense though a little free in the fourth stanza: it was the red lamps burning in the brothel windows that 'lamented' love.

William Meredith

In London on a dismal night
I met a hoodlum in the street
Who might have been my love—
He looked so much like her his gaze
Made me blush and drop my eyes.

I trailed him as he slouched along,
Hands in pockets, whistling:
The street became a trough,
Two billows of the Read Sea rose
And I was Pharaoh, he the Jews.

Oh if I have not loved you well
Let that brick ocean comb and fall.
I am the King of Egypt,
His chariots, his sister-wife,
If you are not my only love.

I turned then down a street that glowed
With fire along its whole facade,
So that the house-fronts wept.
Where sores of fog were bleeding flame
I met a woman who looked like him.

A brisk rendering with rather uncertain versification. An aaxbb assonance pattern replaces the original Ababa rhyme scheme, beats per line vary from three to four, and the five line stanza becomes four later in the translation. The version adopts the punctuation that appeared in the first version of the poem. I do the same: the added clarity of meaning allows more freedom in word arrangement.

Oliver Bernard

One night of London mist and flame
A corner boy who looked like my
Lover came up and asked my name
But what I saw in that one's eye
Made me lower mine in shame

I followed this young dog who hands
In pockets whistled as he went
That street became the Red Sea sands
Open for him the Jews and meant
To drown me Pharaoh all my bands

Let these piled bricks fall ton on ton
If I did not love you then
I am a King of Egypt's son
His sister-Queen and all their men
If you are not the only one

At a corner of the street
That burned with all its signs alight
Like sores that fogs and acids eat
In old housefronts that weep all night
Like him but for her faltering feet

A pleasing rhymed version, which departs rather freely from the prose sense to get the rhymes, however: it was not 'sands' that parted for the Israelites, and 'faltering feet' hardly describes the 'young dog'.

Other Versions

Giovanna Summerfield reviews three translations of this poem. The lines cited suggest the versions by Anthony Hartley and Donald Revell are in free verse or prose: one foggy evening in London and boy resembles my love.

Case for Rhyme

All different, with the last rhymed version perhaps the most successful. Before concluding it's simply a matter of taste, however, we might look at how Apollinaire gets his effects. Outwardly, the poem is straightforward: a traditional lament for loves past, only modern in its exotic imagery and collage of passages. The imagery is certainly bizarre or obscure — needing the glossary below — but adds a generality to the work, with its author standing as though on the threshold of a new world. The collage nature of lines, accentuated by Apollinaire's removal of punctuation when the poem was collected in Alcools, is an important element of Modernism, as much in painting as here. The aim is an increased vividness, with passages or images standing for themselves rather than as illustrations of some theme. That approach is not without its problems, however, as we can see with verse 10. As with many such stanzas, the straight French and any literal rendering are baffling:

J'ai hiverné dans mon passé
Revienne le soleil de Pâques
Pour chauffer un coeur plus glacé
Que les quarante de Sébaste
Moins que ma vie martyrisés

I wintered in my passed
Return the sun of Easter
To heat a more frozen heart
What the forty of Sebaste
Less than my tormented lives

We could ask: line 1: passed what? Line 4: what forty of Sebaste? Line 5: how does this relate to the first half of the stanza? Apollinaire is referring to the forty Christian soldiers at Sebaste in Armenia, who were martyred by being left naked on a frozen lake in 320, but the knowledge is not sufficient to make the stanza come alive. Translators have had to supply the connecting thread that Apollinaire omitted, and rhyme then helps enormously to make the images seem less arbitrary. In the rendering below, for example, the neat turning of lines 4 and 5 reinforces the meaning:

10. I winter in my past come back.
May Easter sun revive at last
this frozen heart with warmth I lack
far worse than forty of Sebaste
who died upon their icy rack.

The translation of something as bulky as Alcools means selfless application for very little money, and reviewers can only work with what's given them. But if we expect a translation to convey the qualities for which the original is worth reading, then the verse skills of the previous renderings have not risen to the occasion. However it may appear to contemporary poets, rhyme is not an obstacle but a real help in crafting lines, and it seems wise to retain Apollinaire's scheme, which is not, as the completed poem shows, all that difficult to manage. The arguments for rhyme indeed are:

1. it's what Apollinaire wrote in: it's the most faithful to the original as a poem.

2. it was clearly the rhymes that led Apollinaire to some of his more successful lines.

3. the rhymes continually return the reader to the actual words of the poem, making for resonance and fuller meaning.

4. without rhyme, the poem reads as prose: we take in the meaning but not the qualities for which we read the original.

5. the symbolist style that Apollinaire adopts in places require fastidious craftsmanship, in which rhyme assists.

6. prose and free-verse renderings seem halfway houses, sketches towards the final picture.


The completed version is here. For readers who don't have Anne Hyde Greet's attractive volume, I add a very abbreviated version of her glossary to explain the more obscure lines:

Stanza 7: Shakuntala is a Sanskrit play by Kalidasa.

Stanza 10: Forty of Sebaste were Christian soldiers martyred in 320 by being left naked on a frozen lake.

Aubade is a rural invitation to love.

Stanza 15: Pâquette is short for pâquerette or Easter daisy.

Stanza 22: Zaporogian Cossaks were models of fidelity to Moscow, and so hostile to the Sultan of Constantinople.

Stanza 25: Rotting fish may be an allusion to Balkan corruption under the Ottomans.

Stanza 26. Podolia is a part of Poland obtained (i.e. ruined) by the Ottomans in 1672.

Stanza 28: Florentines had the reputation of being moneylenders and traitors.

Stanza 29: Danaïdes: Zeus impregnated Danae in a shower of gold: an allusion to emotions wasted on Annie Playden.

Stanza 32: Désirade is an island in the Antilles.

Stanza 33: Pyraustus is a fabulous insect supposed to live in fire. Aegipans is an epithet of pans and satyrs.

Stanza 39. Argyraspids, literally 'with silver shields' were Alexander's bodyguard. Dendrophore refers to certain gods, to those carrying sacred trees in processions or members of certain guilds in Roman times.

Stanza 40. French says 'arse of Damascus ladies'.

Stanza 43: Carabosse was an evil fairy that gave unfortunate gifts.

Stanza 44. Chibriape may be a conflation of 'Cypriot' and 'Priapus'. Hermes Trismegistus, or thrice great, is attributed by Neoplatonists to the Egyptian god Thoth, but has here been shrunk to a dwarf: another of Apollinaire's recondite jokes.

References and Resources

1. Guillaume Apollinaire. Wikipedia Wikipedia entry.

2. Guillaume Apollinaire. Ubu Sound: recordings of three poems (but not La Chanson du Mal Aimé)

3. Guillaume Apollinaire. Wikiquote with several short translations.

4. Guillaume Apollinaire. Official . site (in French)

5. Alcools by Guillaume Apollinaire. French text in Gutenberg.

6. Burnshaw, Stanley (ed.) The Poem Itself. (Penguin Books, 1960), 82-3.

7. Roger Shattuck. Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire (New Directions Publishing, 1971), 95.

8. Alcools: Guillaume Apollinaire. Translated by Anne Hyde Greet. (Univ. California Press, 1965)

9. Alcools: Guillaume Apollinaire: Poems 1898-1913. Translated by William Meredith. (Doubleday, 1964).