How Apollinaire’s Polish Roots Impacted His Life & Work
#language & literature
default, Guillaume Apollinaire lying on the divan at home, Paris, 1909, Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images, center, apollinaire_gettyimages-141554227.jpg
The influential French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, active in the early 20th century, had Polish roots through his mother, a Polish lady of noble birth by the name of Angelika Kostrowicka. In the 1950s, the Polish poet Anatol Stern, an admirer of Apollinaire’s writings, contacted members of the Kostrowicki family in Poland looking to research Apollinaire’s background. Stern discovered a mind-boggling family tale, filled with themes of forbidden love and European monarchs, which – in all probability – had a profound influence on the French author.
Between symbolism & surrealism
Guillaume Apollinaire was one of the most important poets and writers in early 20th-century France. Also an art critic, he lived from the years 1880 to 1918 and is best remembered for his 1913 volume of poetry Alcohols.
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This collection […] marks a sensitive point of transition between Symbolism and Surrealism in French poetry. Indeed this double loyalty declares itself in the composition of several poems that sandwich long passages of free verse between an opening and a closing section in regular verse. […] His lyricism of immediate reality, outer and inner, bursts forth in all directions and passes through an endlessly renewed cycle of enthusiasm and despair.
From Roger Shattuck’s 1964 article ‘On Translating Apollinaire’ in ‘The New York Review of Books’
Apollinaire’s other famous works include the 1918 collection of poetry Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916), as well as France’s first surrealist play, The Breasts of Tiresias, staged in 1917. The author also wrote for a number of French periodicals including Vers et Prose (Verse and Prose), La Phalange (Phalanx) and Les Soirées de Paris (Evenings in Paris). He was a well-known figure in the French capital and a friend to many artists such as Pablo Picasso, Max Jacob or Marc Chagall.
Some considered Apollinaire to be a scandalous character, due to his bohemian lifestyle and authoring of erotic novels. That reputation was strengthened when he was falsely accused of stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre! After the painting went missing, it transpired that one of Apollinaire’s acquaintances had lifted a few statuettes from the museum, and in connection to that, the poet became a suspect in the Mona Lisa case. Eventually, he was cleared of the charges, and the painting was recovered.
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Apollinaire’s biography is, for many reasons, as interesting as his work. In Poland, there is special interest in his Polish roots – Apollinaire’s mother, Angelika Kostrowicka, was a Polish lady of noble birth. According to the Polish poet Anatol Stern, an admirer of Apollinaire’s writings and a researcher of his life, the author of Alcohols was profoundly influenced by his Polish heritage. Stern argues for this claim in a series of essays that can be found in the 1973 book Dom Apollinaire’a: Rzecz o Polskości i Rodzinie Poety (Apollinaire’s Home: On the Poet’s Polishness and Family).
Some of Stern’s revelations are truly mind-boggling.
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Before we get into the details of Stern’s findings, it ought to be said that in his poetry and prose, Apollinaire seldom mentioned Poland, and when he did, he did so briefly. For example, in his 1916 short story The Case of the Masked Corporal, he writes that the ‘resurrected poet saw […] the battlefields of East Prussia and Poland’. Basing on this quote you wouldn’t get the impression that he had much to say about the Land on the Vistula.
But on the other hand, when you browse through the poet’s letters, you find a number of clear references to his Polish roots:
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Stern claims that Apollinaire exhibited this twofold approach to the issue of Polishness due to a peculiar tale concerning the poet’s Polish family – one that could’ve made him want to keep the details of his Polish roots unknown to the broader public.
His biography was an off-limits topic; he avoided conversations about facts from his past, about his family. Even if he took up that topic circumstantially, he strongly mythologized it so that nobody would take his words seriously.
From the 2010 book ‘Apollinaire’ by Julia Hartwig, trans. MK
In order to explain the mysterious story which Apollinaire may have wanted to keep secret, one has to present the complexities of his Polish genealogy. The poet’s mother came from an old Polish family whose roots reach all the way back to the Middle Ages. Her father, Michał Kostrowicki, participated in the 1863 January Uprising – an armed insurgency against the Russian rule over part of partitioned Poland – and because of that, he had to emigrate from his homeland.
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When Angelika was seven years old, she and her parents moved to Rome, where Michał became a papal chamberlain. His daughter was put in a cloister, where she received schooling but didn’t fit in – and she ended up leaving it as a teenager. Later, in 1880, she gave birth to an illegitimate child, who was given the name Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary de Kostrowitzky…
Wilhelm would go on to adopt the literary pseudonym of none other than Guillaume Apollinaire.
Most researchers of Apollinaire’s life believe that his father was an Italian aristocrat by the name of Francesco d’Aspermont, whom Angelika had befriended. But there’s not a single document or letter to back that claim. It’s based on what Angelika once told a friend in a conversation… Moreover, she’s said to have never actually told her son who his father was.
Curious about the obscurity shrouding Apollinaire’s background, Stern contacted members of the Kostrowicki family in Poland to see if he could find out more.
‘No ordinary mortal’
In the 1950s and 1960s, Stern received a number of letters from Jan Kostrowicki, a distant relative of Apollinaire, who was living in Poland. In them, Kostrowicki told of a story circulating within his family that concerned Apollinaire’s lineage. According to the tale, Angelika Kostrowicka had her child not with d’Aspermont, but with another member of the Kostrowicki family. In other words, the news was that Apollinaire was the fruit of incest.
In this version of events, Apollinaire’s father would’ve been the son of Melania Kostrowicka – and an illegitimate child himself. Melania, a distant relative of the insurgent Michał and a great beauty, was a courtier at the Austrian court in Vienna in the 19th century. At the age of 18, she became pregnant out of wedlock and was sent to Rome, where in 1831, she gave birth to a boy.
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Her son was given her surname (his name remains unknown) and was raised under the care of the Vatican. Melania herself returned to Vienna. Interestingly, the father of Melania’s child is said to have been none other than Napoleon II, the son of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was at the court of Austria at the same time Melania was there. Here’s how Jan Kostrowicki writes of this in his letters to Stern:
The story goes that in Rome, Melania’s son eventually met Angelika Kostrowicka (her father’s working for the Vatican could have easily made that possible) and that the two distant relatives had an affair. Guillaume Apollinaire’s birth was to be its result.
Such a turn of events would explain why Apollinaire’s mother never disclosed to him the identity of his father. And would mean that the poet was not only born from an incestuous relationship between two members of a noble Polish family, but that he was also the great-grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte…
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In Dom Apollinaire'a, Stern says that Apollinaire knew about this story (possibly from Melania Kostrowicka, with whom he was acquainted) and that he derived some of his own literary motifs from it. The strongest piece of evidence to back that claim can be found in Apollinaire’s 1916 short story The Eagle Hunt, which takes place in Vienna:
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They say there was a clandestine marriage between the Duke of Reichstadt and a maiden from our great aristocracy, and that the son who was the fruit of this relationship was raised in secrecy even from those close to the court. This grand figure, this true heir of Napoleon Bonaparte, lived, in this manner, to an old age, and according to gossip, died only two or three days ago in unusually tragic circumstances, of which I know no details, however. (Quote from ‘Dom Apollinaire’a by Anatol Stern, trans. MK)
There are also other motifs in the poet’s work that could’ve been taken from the long history of his Polish family. The many kings and rulers that appear throughout his writings may echo the ties the Kostrowicki family had to various monarchs. For example, in the 18th century, the Polish king Stanisław August Poniatowski appointed a certain Michał Kostrowicki as his chamberlain. Also, the mediaeval Lithuanian Duke Norymund is said to be the progeny of one of the Kostrowicki family lines.
A more gruesome connection comes in the figure of one Ostik, another member of that lineage, who was beheaded for treason on the order of the Polish king Stefan Batory. As already mentioned, Melania Kostrowicka had, in all probability, an affair with Napoleon II.
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Apollinaire could’ve known about all these curious links his family had to royalty from his mother, or from Melania Kostrowicka.
Shouldn’t one ask about the origins of this ‘liking for fairy tales’ which in time was to populate with kings, sorcerers and knights […] the mysterious pages of ‘The Rotting Sorcerer’ and the surrealistically grotesque collection ‘The Heresiarch & Co.’? These kings came from Apollinaire’s past ]…] from family memories.
From ‘Dom Apollinaire’a’ by Anatol Stern, trans. MK
‘Giants covered with seaweed’
Another analogy between Apollinaire’s work and ancestry sketched out by Anatol Stern is linked to the historical figure of Rurik. Rurik was a Viking chieftain in the 9th century and the founder of the state of Kievan Rus’, which once neighboured Poland. Apollinaire was – in a very distant way – related to him. That’s because one of Apollinaire’s relatives in Poland married Duchess Maria Massalska, who came from an aristocratic family descending directly from the Viking ruler.
Stern claims that Apollinaire knew of this connection and that in his poetry, he included motifs evoking the story of Rurik and his Viking warriors, known as Varangians. The Polish poet points to this portion of Apollinaire’s Procession from the volume Alcohols as proof:
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One day I awaited myself
I said to myself Guillaume it's time
And those I love advanced in lyric step
Myself not among them
Giants covered with seaweed
Trans. Donald Revell
The ‘giants covered with seaweed’ are possibly the seafaring Vikings and ‘those I love’ the descendants of Rurik, or Apollinaire’s kin. In another poem from the same volume, The Traveller, Apollinaire writes of ‘bearded shadows’ ‘brandishing air and shadow weapons’ (trans. Donald Revell). Stern would have us believe that these words describe Rurik’s Varangians.
Regardless of whether these claims are true or not, it’s quite possible that Apollinaire knew of his connection to Rurik; in one of his letters to Louise de Coligny-Châtillon, the poet writes that he ‘descends’ from him. Perhaps this connection was just another reason to include kingly characters in his works – or perhaps it was indeed reflected in his writings in a more direct fashion.
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The noblest, saddest & bravest
Apart from uncovering the literary traces of Apollinaire’s lineage, Stern also inquires how the author of Alcohols was affected by his own Polish roots. Interestingly, it seems that Apollinaire’s Polishness may have impacted one of his most important decisions: to volunteer for the French Army in World War I as an artilleryman. In the early 19th century, two members of the Kostrowicki family served as artillerymen for Napoleon (one in the rank of general, the other as an officer). Thus, Apollinaire’s choice of joining an artillery unit could be seen as an upholding of family tradition.
This supposition curiously correlates with what Apollinaire wrote to Louise de Coligny-Chatillon in a letter sent as he was leaving for the front in 1915:
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The country that suffered the most because of war is Poland. […] We’re the noblest, saddest race on Earth – but also the bravest. […] You can’t deny your own blood.
From ‘Dom Apollinaire’a’ by Anatol Stern, trans. MK
As a soldier Apollinaire, suffered a serious wound to the head. For his wartime efforts, he was awarded the Cross of War and French citizenship (until then, he had been a Russian national, as his mother had been born in the Russian Empire). He never fully recovered from the head injury and died only two years later.
The fact that Apollinaire became, legally, a Frenchman at such a late point in his life could explain why he mentioned Poland in his poetry and prose so seldom. According to some scholars, by doing so, he was trying to blend into the cultural landscape of France – as a foreigner writing in French, he didn’t want to highlight his foreignness in his work.
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But perhaps he wasn’t keen on discussing his Polish roots due to the strange tale of incest which he knew about? That could’ve been a good reason to keep the subject of his Polishness ‘off-limits’ (and why the mentions of Poland in his correspondence were so rare). Then again, his family heritage was so rich that he most probably drew upon it, but in an indirect manner.
As to the question of being a descendant of Napoleon, Apollinaire presumably didn’t address it in order not to appear ridiculous. A humble poet, not even knowing exactly who his father was, and accused of stealing the Mona Lisa – how would anyone have believed that he was the great grandson of the Emperor?
A new dimension
Stern’s revelations were met with a warm response from many French intellectuals including André Rouveyre, a close friend to Apollinaire, and Raymond Warnier. The American professor LeRoy C. Breunig, a noted scholar of Apollinaire, wrote the following to the Polish author:
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The more I think about your hypothesis on Apollinaire’s lineage, the more it seems probable. […] If your hypothesis proves to be true, then, seeing that Apollinaire’s work is more autobiographical than the work of any other author, I’m sure that all existing studies of Apollinaire will have to be modified. (Quote From ‘Dom Apollinaire’a’ by Anatol Stern, trans. MK)
A specifically Polish perspective on the impact of Stern’s Napoleonic hypothesis (which still awaits confirmation) is given in the foreword to Dom Apollinaire’a:
Not only did Anatol Stern’s essays bring forth the sensational legend of Apollinaire’s Napoleonic ancestry […] but they also broadly expanded the scope of information on his Polishness so that from now on Polish literature will have to take him into account like it does Conrad.
20th century poetry
polonais en france
Thanks to Stern’s essays, reading the brilliant works of Guillaume Apollinaire gains a whole new cultural dimension.
Written by Marek Kępa, 10 Sep 2019