Wednesday, August 16, 2017

War Song

La Guerre, Henri Rousseau (1894), Musee d'Orsay

And so, then, for all in time of war, here
are the cockerels, clamouring defiance,
and the vultures, ponderous with hate,
talons stained with the blood of memories.
            —epigraph from Granier’s Cockerels and Vultures, 1917

French artillery officer Albert-Paul Granier was born in the Atlantic coastal village of Le Croisic in September of 1888. He was raised in a home where he was surrounded by music; Gabriel Fauré was a family friend. Although Granier studied law and qualified as a solicitor, in his spare time he composed music and was an accomplished pianist.  In the years before the Great War, he was also a “Sunday poet,” having “enough leisure time for artistic activity.”*
Albert-Paul Granier

Joining the French army in August of 1914, Granier was assigned to the 116th Heavy Artillery regiment; in 1916 his unit was stationed at Verdun in support of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. By 1917, Granier had volunteered and been reassigned as an aerial observer, accompanying pilots on reconnaissance missions in the Verdun sector.

Granier recorded his impressions of the war in startlingly modern poetry that has been compared to that of Apollinaire. His only book of poems, Les Coqs et les Vautours (translated as Cockerels and Vultures), was published in Paris in 1917.**

Even his earliest poems, written in 1914, evoke the surreal violence of war in a world gone mad (a video performance of the poem in French can be viewed here).

War Song

Dame Death is joyously dancing,
a drunken, hip-swinging jig,
never a word, just wriggling
and playfully juggling skulls
like so many knucklebones.
Dance of Death, Felicien Rops

Dame Death is glad, and very drunk—
for there’s blood in full flow out there,
a heavy red brookful in every ravine.

Accompanying her weird dancing
is the tom-tom of guns in the distance:
“Tom-tom-tom! tom-tom-tom! Come then, White Lady,
come dance to the sound of the drums!”

Dame Death’s getting drunker and splashing
her sweet little face with blood,
like a child who’s been eating the jam.

Dame Death is paddling in blood,
and slapping down into it with her long hands,
as though she were washing her shroud;
wallowing, and silently sniggering.

Dame Death is flushed, writhing, dancing
like a girl who’s had too much drink.

“Hey, Death, get your hopping in time
with the tom-tom of guns in the distance!”

                        The guns in the distance
quicken their murderous presto,
guns laughing together in rhythm;
the guns in the band force the tempo,
whipping her up for The Jubilation Ball:

“Spin on those dainty thin feet,
squirm the meat off those sinuous hips,
get waltzing and whirling, White Lady!
dancing and skipping! waving your arms!
Here’s blood, here’s blood!
And here’s some more, to keep you busy!
Come on now, drink up! totter and reel!
This is the start of the Orgy in Red!”

Dame Death is dancing, insanely drunk,
to the tom-tom of guns in the distance.
                        --1914, Albert-Paul Granier, translated by Ian Higgins

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle
Hartmann Schedel 1440-1514
Granier’s “Chanson de Guerre” is a highly unsettling portrayal of death as both a gleeful child and a drunken, dancing woman.  Death appears not as the Grim Reaper, but as a child whose “sweet little face” is smeared with blood as if it were jam.  Nightmarishly, this vision of Death playfully juggles skulls and blithely paddles in blood.  At the same time, Death appears as a highly sexualized woman, “flushed, writhing, dancing/ like a girl who’s had too much drink.” She wriggles her “sinuous hips” and welcomes “the Orgy in Red.”

What the child and the prostitute share is an eerie, inappropriate, unstoppable laughter. They thrill at the carnage and laugh at the slaughter; to Death, the war is a joyous event (the British trench poet Julian Grenfell writes quite differently about the “Joy of Battle” at which Death “moans and sings”). 

In Granier’s “War Song,” Death celebrates her addiction to bloodshed. She cannot get enough of her favorite brew, and there’s so very much of it – enough blood to wash in, to wallow in, and to guzzle from “the heavy red brookful” that fills every ravine.  Death rhapsodizes, “Here’s blood, here’s blood!/ And here’s some more, to keep you busy!”

French gunner, 1916
What is it that drives Death’s precarious and tottering dance on her “dainty thin heels”?  She wriggles and writhes to the hypnotic drumbeat of the guns that laugh and “quicken their murderous presto.” As a heavy artillery gunner, Granier would have been intimately acquainted with the rhythmic beat of shellfire as he and his unit tuned the music of their artillery batteries.

Granier’s “War Song” might seem to paint an exaggerated picture of death in the First World War, but the statistics are even more shocking. How much blood? How much death?  During the duration of the war, on average, nearly 900 French soldiers were killed every day; of the 8.4 million French soldiers who were mobilized, 1.3 million died and 4.2 million were wounded. Over 73% of the French troops who entered the war became casualties of the war.† 

Less than three weeks before his twenty-ninth birthday, on August 17, 1917 Albert-Paul Granier was killed while flying as an observer over the Verdun battlefieldHis plane was hit by a shell, and no trace of his body was ever found. He is honored in the Pantheon in Paris, his name appearing alongside those of 560 other French writers who died in the Great War.
*Jean Leclercq, “Albert-Paul Granier, the unknown soldier poet,” Le Mot Juste en Anglais, posted 5 April 2015.
**Despite receiving a commendation from the Académie française in 1918, the book was soon forgotten and only rediscovered in 2008 after a copy was found at a French flea market. Further discussion of Granier and his poetry can be read on this blog at the post “A good death.”
†The average number of French killed each day of the First World War is taken from “War Losses (France), 1914-1918 Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War. The statistics on French total casualties during the war are from C.N. Trueman, “First World War Casualties,” The History Learning Site, posted 17 April 2015.  


  1. The imagery in this poem is fantastic, if horrifying.

    1. Ian Higgins' translation is masterful at conveying Granier's surreal vision -- I can't thank him enough for allowing me to share his work.

  2. For readers with a fair command of French, can I convince you that Granier's Les Coqs et les Vautours is a masterpiece that has gone unnoticed for far too long. In their own way, his poems easily rank with the best of Apollinaire's.