‘Zone’ by Guillaume Apollinaire is a 155 line poem that greatly varies in line construction, lines per stanza, and line lengths. In the original work, the poem was divided into pairs of half-rhyming couplets; upon translation from the original French, this rhyme scheme is lost. The poet has chosen to wholly disregard punctuation in this peace, creating a stream of consciousness narrative that spans the work’s length.
It is also important to note that Apollinaire’s speaker, most likely the poet himself, refers to himself as both “I” and “you” in this piece. The language employed by Apollinaire in this lengthy narrative is oftentimes confusing, dream-like, and unclear.
The poem begins with the speaker setting off on his journey at the start of a new day. The initial language gives the city, Paris, an anthropomorphized control over itself. The Eiffel Tower is a shepherd and the bridges sheep. The narrator walks through the streets of the town and as he travels he gets closer and closer to the side of life he has little experience of. He sees the women of the streets, and the poor refugees who, like the “Magi” are traveling on faith alone.
Throughout the city, he sees sights that remind him of the convergence of birds and varied experiences he has had with women, positive and negative. He spends a substantial amount of time discussing prostitutes and the various cities in which he has encountered them. In the final lines, he reaches the end of his journey but is still full of “uncertain” feelings. He goes to sleep after stating that the sun will be decapitated by the land. It is beginning to rise, and appears like a head floating on the horizon.
You can the full poem Zone here.
Analysis of Zone
As stated previously, ‘Zone’ begins at the start of a new day. It is “morning” and the “bridges are bleating,” the Eiffel Tower is acting as a “Shepherdess.” This strange image is not elucidated, but one can assume that the tower’s imposing shape and size is giving the speaker the impression that it is herding all the shapes below it.
The speaker is referring to himself as “you” at this point in the piece and is telling his readers, and perhaps himself, that he is “fed up” with the past. He gains no pleasure from “antiques” or well-used machines like “automobiles.” It seems as if he is seeking something new from the world or something that is straight forward and simple, like “an airport hangar.”
In the second section, the imagery only gets more complex and confusing. The speaker references Christianity once again and speaks of “Pope Pius X” as the most “modern European.”He seems to respect the way in which the Pope is able, through the simplicity of worship, to craft a place in the world.
‘Zone’ continues on, flashing through images that surround the speaker. These are sights that he is seeing, has seen, and objects he turns to for comfort. Instead of entering church, he reads “flyers catalogs” or handouts. He finds meaning in the morning newspapers, and in the,
Disposable paperbacks filled with crimes and police
Biographies of great men a thousand various titles
These simple, uncomplicated tales of good, bad, success and failure, fuel him.
Lines 15- 24
On the journey that the speaker is taking from one part of Paris to another, he notices a “clean” street that is as bright as the “sun’s clarion,” or trumpet. Throughout this landscape move the “laborers” and “stenographers.” They are people who are simply going about their lives. They follow the same routine day in and day out and the speaker finds great pleasure in this. It is unclear whether or not he truly wishes for this kind of life or just enjoys the “swank of that street.”
The speaker returns to referring to himself as “you” and he reminisces on his past, and how that past is impacting him now. He knows that in the eyes of time he is “still a baby,” young enough to be “dressed by [his] mother in blue and white only.” More religious imagery is now introduced into the poem.
The speaker is reminded of his youth when he was at school and would “leave” his bed to “pray all night in the school chapel.” He found a peace and power in that place that is embodied through the speaker’s description of a statue of Christ in the chapel.
The statue is both human and godlike. It has “red-hair” that is touched by an “inextinguishable” torch. The of the statue is skin is pale, but also scarlet. “Behold,” the speaker repeats eight times, truly awed by the sight of Christ and the memory of this site. This god among men has flown higher than anyone is now capable. He has gone higher than “aviator,” or pilots.
In this longer stanza, the poet combines traditional stories of Christianity with the ancient myths of Greece and various worldly landscapes.
The section starts with the narrator saying that Christ is the “pupil” of his eye. He resides there and is seen in every situation. Christ “knows what he’s doing’ and has the ability to change as time moves forward.
The following lines stick to the religious theme that Apollinaire has been developing. The speaker describes “Angels” which are able to “vault” higher than any human being and “Gather around the first airplane.” This fascination with height, and the ability to gain elevation, transitions into birds.
In an effort to embody all the world, or at least a few important parts of it into a metaphor, he describes how different countries become birds that converge in one place. They are all coming together, “Escorted by lyre-bird and shimmery peacock.” The different birds all act according to their natures.
‘Zone’ continues to describe how the “Phoenix” one of the birds converging, and one that is only found in mythology, is able to control fire and its ashes. These ashes “obscure everything.”
These birds have all come together in the hopes of meeting and “befriend[ing]” the “machine that flies.”
The narrator takes the reader away from the long lines of fantastical imagery, back to the streets of Paris. He describes how at this moment it is like He is “walking in Paris alone inside a crowd.” His head is filled with meaning and substance, but his life is lived alone.
The speaker moves through the,
Herds of buses bellow and come to close
The world he is walking in is not without dangers, but it is nothing compared to what happened to him previously. Once more he refers to himself as “you” and describes how he was in a bad emotional situation in which he was “loved.” He refuses to let this happen to him again and his “laughter” at himself and what he was like before, “crackles like hellfire.”
As the speaker moves through the streets of the city he is able to consider his own life carefully. He sees the parts he is embarrassed about and the parts that “spark” and seem like a “painting in a dark museum.”
He is “sometimes” able to “examine” his life “closely.”
The speaker returns to a few lines of more recognizable imagery seen on his walk through Paris. He sees women who are “bloodstained.” They have had to injure themselves, by working on the streets, in an effort to make a living. He sees these women as representing the “end of beauty.” He does not want to have to recall these scenes.
He places himself in Montmartre now, there he remembers the sound of “blissful promises” made by these women and the “venereal disease” that often accompanies them. He is never left by the dark feelings inside of himself, no woman can rid him of them.
The speaker has moved on into the “Riviera” and he is in a somewhat magical world that is much more optimistic than the place he was in previously. He is with “friends” and remembers exactly where they’re from. They see fish in the river, and “giant squid.”
He is now moving faster, away from Paris to the memory of, “an inn outside of Prague.” It is here that he remembers being “happy” that there was “a rose on the table.” It is images like this, simple elements of beauty, that really speak to the narrator. He does not need to do anything else except examine the “rosebug” that sleeps “in the rose’s heart.”
Once more the reader is taken away from this peaceful scene and into another. Now the speaker describes seeing himself “sad” and “near to death” in the “agates,” or mosaics, off “Saint Vitus.” In this moment that he sees himself, he almost dies, but is shocked back into life, like “Lazarus.”
The world has turned backward for him as seen through the “ghetto” clock in the Jewish quarter of the city.
He continues to refer to himself as “you” and notes that he is moving slowly, “backwards” and forwards through his “slow life.” The narrator flashes the reader with three more scenes from his life in which he was, “in Marseilles,” at the “hotel Gigantic” and “beneath a Japanese maple tree in Rome.
The next section flashes the reader with another, longer, memory of being in Amsterdam with “a girl you find pretty who is ugly.” She is someone he can never be with as she is “engaged to marry a student.” He only spent a short time here before going to Spain, and then to Paris once more where he is “hauled before the magistrate” and called a “criminal.”
In reflection of the things that he’s done throughout his life, the speaker remembers the “sorrowful” and “giddy” moments of travel and the “dishonesty” of his life. He knows that he once had “Love” that was more of an “afflict[ion]” than a blessing and that for a long time he “lived like a fool” and wasted his opportunities.
Lines 121- 128
The journey continues and the speaker sees “the sight of refugees.” He is moved by their plight and especially by the women who are nursing babies. The refugees leave a smell behind them that filled the train station as they travel to somewhere they hope is better. They are like the “Magi” following the star to visit the Christ child. They hope to return kings to their own country.
Some of these refugees are seeking a home in Paris and remain there, stuck in the slums. The speaker is very familiar with their presence and often sees them at “dusk” as “they breathe at their doorways.” They haunt the streets and shopfronts of the city.
Now the speaker has moved to stand,
At the metal counter of some dive
Drinking wretched coffee where the wretched live
As he travels, he is getting closer and closer to those whose lives he deems “wretched.” One of these places is a “cavernous restaurant.”
In the next set of lines, the speaker is continuing his description of what the women of the street are like. They are not, he states, “evil” but “used-up” and “regretful” of the lives they have to lead. They all experience torment.
One woman, in particular, catches his eye, she has “hard” and “cracked” hands and her body produces in him a deep “pity.” It is not clear, but perhaps the speaker spends the night with this woman, to wake up and see that he is “alone when morning comes.”
The journey that the speaker has been on is truly coming to an end. The night is withdrawing like “Fraudulent,” or fake, “Ferdine” and carefully like “Leah.” While it is not completely clear, it is likely the speaker is referring to prostitutes who do their job during the night and then carefully retreat beyond one’s view during the day.
In the final lines the speaker states that “you,” meaning himself, mean to walk “to sleep / At home.” He will return, by foot to the safe place that holds his collected items, or “festishes.” It is there that he has gathered “Christs of another shape” that come from other “faiths.” The last lines wish the night, Paris, and the reader, “Goodbye.”
The famous last line of ‘Zone’, which has been variously translated, refers to the rising of the sun when it appears as a head, or circle, on the horizon. The line appears to decapitate or “cut” the head off the sun.
About Guillaume Apollinaire
Guillaume Apollinaire was most likely born in Rome, Italy. His parentage is not clear. It is possible that his father was a military officer or a high ranking member of the Church. His youth was spent traveling throughout Europe where he was able to meet a number of interesting personalities and develop an interest in various fields of study. He eventually settled in Paris where he supported artists such as Braque, Rousseau, and Picasso.
He is intimately connected to an antagonistic culture that artistically revolted against bourgeois society. At one point during his career, he was wrongly arrested, and imprisoned for a short time, for the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911.
Three years later he joined the military and fought for France during World War I. After only a short period of time, while fighting at the front with the infantry, he suffered a head wound. Apollinaire was sent back to Paris soon after. In his last year of life, he lectured on modern art, and staged the play, Les Mamelles de Tiresias: Drame surrealist (The Breasts of Tiresias).
Apollinaire died in 1918 from influenza.