French poems

The 10 Most Famous French Poems (With translation)

French poems! What better way to dive into the beauty of the language? Here we present you with 10 famous French poems, with their English translation.

If you’re learning the language you already know French can be very melodious and musical. Perhaps that’s why you were drawn to it in the first place! The French language has many different vowel sounds (including nasals vowels), which contributes to this sense of flowing musicality. The French are also avid readers, and they feel very proud of their poetry. In fact, children learn French poems by heart as part of their school instruction. They start in preschool and elementary school with simple rhymes and poems written for kids, and continue in middle and high school, where they learn more classic and modern French poems as part of their literature courses.

The subjects of course are endless, spanning from love, passion and grief to social issues and friendship. Formally, French poems can be very codified (a lot of sonnets for example), but the French love their rebels. Poets who break the rules and invent new ways with the language, such as Arthur Rimbaud or the Surrealists, have become cherished household names and continue to influence contemporary writers.

Classic French poems use a 12-meter verse called “alexandrin” but you will see many variations and other forms as well. For example, Verlaine loved to use an odd number of syllables, favoring an 11-syllable verse for a lot of his work. Rimbaud invented ‘prose poetry’ and by the 20th century, free verse had become very common in French poems.

So without further ado, let us dive in with these 10 most well-known French poems! We chose poems most French people will have read or learned, and might fondly remember from their youth.

Unless otherwise noted, the literal translations are by me.  

1. Demain, dès l’aube by Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

Victor Hugo might be one of the most well-know French writer outside of France, being the author of Les Misérables and considered a giant of literature on par with Dickens or Tolstoy. But he also wrote a lot of poetry, and many a French person will be able to recite a few lines of one of his poems if so inspired. This particular one, a poignant account of grief, follows Hugo in a quaint Normandy town as he goes and visits his daughter Léopoldine’s grave. She had died four years earlier in a drowning accident. This work is full of beautiful nature imagery and melancholy so typical of French poems.

Demain, dès l’aube

 

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.

Tomorrow, at first dawn

 

Tomorrow, at first dawn, when the country starts to whiten,
I will set out. You see, I know you’re waiting for me.
I will go by forest, I will go by mountain,
Away from you I can no longer remain.

I will walk with eyes fixed onto my thoughts,
Without seeing outside, nor hearing any noise,
Alone, unknown, my back bent, my hands crossed,
Forlorn, and the day for me will be night.

I will watch neither the gold of the falling evening,
Nor the sails in the distance descending on Harfleur,
And when I get there, I will put on your grave
A bunch of green holly and blooming heather.

2. Chanson d’automne by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)

This is another classic of French poems that every French person knows from having memorized and studied it in school. The nostalgia of the Fall season inspired Verlaine to liken the falling rain to his tears, and to personify the season by mentioning the “long sobs of Autumn’s violins” as a reflection of Verlaine’s own melancholy, despairing mood.  The short, not quite regular lines mimic the rhythm of the rain, and add to the revolving, merry-go-round feeling that a woeful mood can bring.

Chanson d’automne

 

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Autumn Song

 

translated by Arthur Symons

When a sighing begins
In the violins
Of the autumn-song,
My heart is drowned
In the slow sound
Languorous and long

Pale as with pain,
Breath fails me when
The hours toll deep.
My thoughts recover
The days that are over,
And I weep.

And I go
Where the winds know,
Broken and brief,
To and fro,
As the winds blow
A dead leaf.

3. Ma bohème, by Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)

Arthur Rimbaud is a favorite of many a French teenager. As a rebellious youth, he left his stifling home in search of adventure, and wrote not only his best poetry but also revolutionized the use of language in a way that would make a profound mark on French literature. It would be hard to talk about well loved French poems without mentioning at least one or two of his compositions. This one evokes his days of walking by the side of the road, intoxicated by his newfound freedom and the romance of the bohemian lifestyle. Yet he uses a classical form favored by French poems, the sonnet, with 2 stanzas of 4, and 2 stanzas of 3 lines, all in alexandrins (12-syllable verse). But he breaks the delivery of the classic verse and uses every day language. The result is one of the liveliest French poems, whose musicality and freshness still resonates today.

Ma bohème

 

Je m’en allais, les poings dans mes poches crevées ;
Mon paletot aussi devenait idéal ;
J’allais sous le ciel, Muse ! et j’étais ton féal ;
Oh ! là ! là ! que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvées !

Mon unique culotte avait un large trou.
– Petit-Poucet rêveur, j’égrenais dans ma course
Des rimes. Mon auberge était à la Grande-Ourse.
– Mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou

Et je les écoutais, assis au bord des routes,
Ces bons soirs de septembre où je sentais des gouttes
De rosée à mon front, comme un vin de vigueur ;

Où, rimant au milieu des ombres fantastiques,
Comme des lyres, je tirais les élastiques
De mes souliers blessés, un pied près de mon coeur !

My Bohemia

 

Translated by David Paley

I went off, fists thrust into my pockets, all tattered;
My jacket suddenly transformed for the better;
Beneath the sky, I went, O Muse, becoming your debtor;
Oh! What joy! What splendid loves I dreamed as your steward!

My only trouser had a big hole;
I dreamt of Tom Thumb and picked my rhymes from the road:
The Great Bear became my abode
And my stars in the sky whispered into my soul.

I heard them whilst I sat at the roadside,
When those balmy September evenings applied,
Feeling the dew on my brow like a wine strong and dark.

Where, rhyming in the midst of fantastic shade,
I plucked from my laces, like lyres, a serenade
From my battered shoes; a foot placed near to my heart!

4 - L’Albatros by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

L’Albatros was published in 1861 as part of the second edition of Les Fleurs du Mal. Inspired by a sea trip Baudelaire took with his stepfather, it remains one of the most well-known French poems. During that excursion the poet witnessed an albatross being captured by the sailors, and as he saw its behavior change, unable as it was to move around on its feet, he drew a parallel between the wild bird and the life of a poet: being among common people, he is humbled and no longer the superior being he once thought he was.

L’Albatros

 

Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d’eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.

The Albatross

 

Translated by George Dillon, Flowers of Evil (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1936)

Sometimes, to entertain themselves, the men of the crew
Lure upon deck an unlucky albatross, one of those vast
Birds of the sea that follow unwearied the voyage through,
Flying in slow and elegant circles above the mast.

No sooner have they disentangled him from their nets
Than this aerial colossus, shorn of his pride,
Goes hobbling pitiably across the planks and lets
His great wings hang like heavy, useless oars at his side.

How droll is the poor floundering creature, how limp and weak —
He, but a moment past so lordly, flying in state!
They tease him: One of them tries to stick a pipe in his beak;
Another mimics with laughter his odd lurching gait.

The Poet is like that wild inheritor of the cloud,
A rider of storms, above the range of arrows and slings;
Exiled on earth, at bay amid the jeering crowd,
He cannot walk for his unmanageable wings.

5 - Liberté by Paul Éluard (1895-1952)

Paul Éluard was a popular French poet and one of the founders of the Surrealist movement. His free verse explores many themes, love, freedom, friendship, and more. This poem was published in 1942, at the height of the Occupation of France by the Germans – a time when the concept of liberty was painfully vital to the French. Throughout its 21 meandering stanzas, the poet takes us on a journey of all the different places where he writes somebody’s name. Only in the last stanza do we learn that this name in fact is that of Liberté – or freedom. This is one of the best loved French poems.

Liberté

 

Sur mes cahiers d’écolier
Sur mon pupitre et les arbres
Sur le sable sur la neige
J’écris ton nom

Sur toutes les pages lues
Sur toutes les pages blanches
Pierre sang papier ou cendre
J’écris ton nom

Sur les images dorées
Sur les armes des guerriers
Sur la couronne des rois
J’écris ton nom

Sur la jungle et le désert
Sur les nids sur les genêts
Sur l’écho de mon enfance
J’écris ton nom

Sur les merveilles des nuits
Sur le pain blanc des journées
Sur les saisons fiancées
J’écris ton nom

Sur tous mes chiffons d’azur
Sur l’étang soleil moisi
Sur le lac lune vivante
J’écris ton nom

Sur les champs sur l’horizon
Sur les ailes des oiseaux
Et sur le moulin des ombres
J’écris ton nom

Sur chaque bouffée d’aurore
Sur la mer sur les bateaux
Sur la montagne démente
J’écris ton nom

Sur la mousse des nuages
Sur les sueurs de l’orage
Sur la pluie épaisse et fade
J’écris ton nom

Sur les formes scintillantes
Sur les cloches des couleurs
Sur la vérité physique
J’écris ton nom

Sur les sentiers éveillés
Sur les routes déployées
Sur les places qui débordent
J’écris ton nom

Sur la lampe qui s’allume
Sur la lampe qui s’éteint
Sur mes maisons réunies
J’écris ton nom

Sur le fruit coupé en deux
Du miroir et de ma chambre
Sur mon lit coquille vide
J’écris ton nom

Sur mon chien gourmand et tendre
Sur ses oreilles dressées
Sur sa patte maladroite
J’écris ton nom

Sur le tremplin de ma porte
Sur les objets familiers
Sur le flot du feu béni
J’écris ton nom

Sur toute chair accordée
Sur le front de mes amis
Sur chaque main qui se tend
J’écris ton nom

Sur la vitre des surprises
Sur les lèvres attentives
Bien au-dessus du silence
J’écris ton nom

Sur mes refuges détruits
Sur mes phares écroulés
Sur les murs de mon ennui
J’écris ton nom

Sur l’absence sans désir
Sur la solitude nue
Sur les marches de la mort
J’écris ton nom

Sur la santé revenue
Sur le risque disparu
Sur l’espoir sans souvenir
J’écris ton nom

Et par le pouvoir d’un mot
Je recommence ma vie
Je suis né pour te connaître
Pour te nommer

Liberté.

Liberty

 

On my school books
On my school desk and on the trees
On the sand and on the snow
I write your name

On all the pages read
On all the pages left blank
Stone blood paper or ash
I write your name

One the golden pictures
On the warriors’ arms
On the kings’ crowns
I write your name

On the jungle and on the desert
On the nests on the gorse
On the echoes of my childhood
I write your name

On the wonders of the nights
On the white bread of the days
On the betrothed seasons
I write your name

On all my rags of azure
On the pond, moldy sun
On the lake living moon
I write your name

On the fields of the horizon
On the wings of birds
And on the windmills of shadows
I write your name

On heath breath of dawn
On the sea on the boats
On the demented mountain
I write your name

On the foam of clouds
On the sweat of the storm
On the thick and tasteless rain
I write your name

On the scintillating forms
On the bells of colors
On the physical truth
I write your name

On the awakened paths
On the deployed roads
On the squares overflowing
I write your name

On the lamp that turns on
On the lamp that turns off
On my gathered houses
I write your name

On the fruit sliced in two
Of the mirror and of my room
On my bed, empty shell
I write your name

On my food loving and tender dog
On his perked ears
On his awkward paw
I write your name

On my door’s springboard
On the familiar objects
On the flow of blessed fire
I write your name

On any flesh given
On my friend’s forehead
On each hand extended
I write your name

On the windowpane of surprises
On attentive lips
Well above silence
I write your name

On my destroyed refuges
On my crumbled beacons
On the walls of my boredom
I write your name

On the absence without desire
On naked solitude
On the steps of death
I write your name

On health returned
On danger dispelled
On hope with no memory
I write your name

And by the power of a word
I begin my life again
I was born to know you
To name you

Freedom.

6. Les roses de Saadi by Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786-1859)

One of the loveliest French poems, short, sweet and nostalgic, Les roses de Saadi is a great example of Desbore-Valmore’s straight-forward yet lyrical style. Whether or not the poem is a love poem is left to the imagination, but the roses have movement, something burst, went to sea…and is left as a fragrant memory.  Marceline Desbordes-Valmore published numerous acclaimed works during her lifetime. Les roses de Saadi is one of her most loved poem, and considered one of the best and most beautiful. Inspired by lines from the Persian poet Saadi, it was published posthumously in 1860.

Les roses de Saadi

 

J’ai voulu ce matin te rapporter des roses ;
Mais j’en avais tant pris dans mes ceintures closes
Que les noeuds trop serrés n’ont pu les contenir.

Les noeuds ont éclaté. Les roses envolées
Dans le vent, à la mer s’en sont toutes allées.
Elles ont suivi l’eau pour ne plus revenir ;

La vague en a paru rouge et comme enflammée.
Ce soir, ma robe encore en est tout embaumée…
Respires-en sur moi l’odorant souvenir.

Saadi’s roses

 

This morning I wanted to bring you roses
But I had gathered so many in my sash’s closures
That the knots were too tight and couldn’t hold them all.

The knots burst. The roses blew away
In the wind, and off they were all out to sea.
They followed the water never to return;

From them the wave seemed red and as if set ablaze.
Tonight, their scent on my dress still remains…
On me you will breathe their fragrant memory.

7. Le Corbeau et le Renard by Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695)

A 17th century celebrated poet and fabulist, La Fontaine is one of the most studied poets in elementary school. For this reason, his works are now among the best-known French poems, affectionately recalled by all from their school years. His 239 Fables de La Fontaine followed the Greek poet Aesop’s model and sometimes retold the same stories. By showcasing animals in various roles, the fable enables the poet to write a social commentary on dignitaries and courtiers of their time, and delivers a philosophical moral with each finely chiseled miniature. This one has been recited and performed by many French schoolchildren!

Le Corbeau et le Renard

 

Maître Corbeau, sur un arbre perché, 
Tenait en son bec un fromage.
Maître Renard, par l’odeur alléché, 
Lui tint à peu près ce langage:
Hé!  Bonjour, Monsieur du Corbeau.
Que vous êtes joli! Que vous me semblez beau!
Sans mentir, si votre ramage
Se rapporte à votre plumage,
Vous êtes le phénix des hôtes de ces bois.
A ces mots le corbeau ne se sent pas de joie;
Et, pour montrer sa belle voix, 
Il ouvre un large bec, laisse tombe sa proie.
Le renard s’en saisit, et dit: Mon bon monsieur,
Apprenez que tout flatteur
Vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute:
Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute.
Le corbeau, honteux et confus,
Jura, mais un peu tard, qu’on ne l’y prendrait plus.

The Crow and the Fox

 

Translated by Norman Spector

At the top of a tree perched Master Crow;
In his beak he was holding a cheese.
Drawn by the smell, Master Fox spoke, below.
The words, more or less, were these:
“Hey, now, Sir Crow! Good day, good day!
How very handsome you do look, how grandly distingué!
No lie, if those songs you sing Match the plumage of your wing,
You’re the phoenix of these woods, our choice.
” Hearing this, the Crow was all rapture and wonder.
To show off his handsome voice,
He opened beak wide and let go of his plunder.
The Fox snapped it up and then said, “My Good Sir,
Learn that each flatterer Lives at the cost of those who heed.
This lesson is well worth the cheese, indeed.”
The Crow, ashamed and sick,
Swore, a bit late, not to fall again for that trick.

8. Les Feuilles Mortes by Jacques Prévert (1900-1977)

An activist, journalist, playwright and screenwriter, Prévert is considered a leading poet of the 20th century, and is widely studied in school in part because of the poems he wrote specifically for children.  He became popular after the Second World War with his first poetry collection, Paroles, and he is well liked for his use of familiar language and play on words. One of the most famous poems from that collection is Les Feuilles Mortes. Set to music by his friend Joseph Kosma and later adapted into English by Johnny Mercer as Autumn Leaves, it was recorded many times, from the French artists Edith Piaf and Yves Montand to American jazz greats Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra or Stan Getz. The poem meanders the path of memories brought about by the sight of Autumn leaves, and explores the impossibility of reconciling the past with the present – a recurrent theme of French poems. 

Les Feuilles Mortes

 

Oh! je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes
Des jours heureux où nous étions amis.
En ce temps-là la vie était plus belle,
Et le soleil plus brûlant qu’aujourd’hui.
Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle
Tu vois, je n’ai pas oublié…
Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi.
Et le vent du nord les emporte
Dans la nuit froide de l’oubli.
Tu vois, je n’ai pas oublié
La chanson que tu me chantais.

C’est une chanson qui nous ressemble,
Toi, tu m’aimais et je t’aimais.
Et nous vivions tous deux ensemble,
Toi qui m’aimais, moi qui t’aimais.
Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s’aiment
Tout doucement, sans faire de bruit.
Et la mer efface sur le sable
Les pas des amants désunis.

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi.
Mais mon amour silencieux et fidèle,
Sourit toujours et remercie la vie.
Je t’aimais tant, tu étais si jolie,
Comment veux-tu que je t’oublie?
En ce temps-là, la vie était plus belle
Et le soleil plus brûlant qu’aujourd’hui.
Tu étais ma plus douce amie
Mais je n’ai que faire des regrets.
Et la chanson que tu chantais
Toujours, toujours je l’entendrai!

English version of the song by Johnny Mercer:

 

The falling leaves
Drift by my window
The autumn leaves
Of red and gold
I see your lips
The summer kisses
The sunburned hands
I used to hold
Since you went away
The days grow long
And soon I’ll hear
Old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all, my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall
Since you went away
The days grow long
And soon I’ll hear
Old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all, my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall
Yes, I miss you most of all, my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall

9. Le Lac by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869)

Lamartine was a prominent French romantic poet and Le Lac is one of his best-known and most iconic poems. A lament on the passing of his beloved – a woman named Julie Charles he had first met by a lake in the Alps, and who passed away from tuberculosis before they could meet again – this famous French poem contains the notorious line ‘Ô temps suspends ton vol’ (‘O time, suspend your flight’). We have here  a classic structure of 16 quatrains (4-line stanzas) of alexandrins, the seminal French 12-syllable verse, and a wistful yet passionate elegy, an invocation of the powers of nature to acknowledge the power of love.

Le Lac

 

Ainsi, toujours poussés vers de nouveaux rivages,
Dans la nuit éternelle emportés sans retour,
Ne pourrons-nous jamais sur l’océan des âges
Jeter l’ancre un seul jour ?

Ô lac ! l’année à peine a fini sa carrière,
Et près des flots chéris qu’elle devait revoir,
Regarde ! je viens seul m’asseoir sur cette pierre
Où tu la vis s’asseoir !

Tu mugissais ainsi sous ces roches profondes,
Ainsi tu te brisais sur leurs flancs déchirés,
Ainsi le vent jetait l’écume de tes ondes
Sur ses pieds adorés.

Un soir, t’en souvient-il ? nous voguions en silence ;
On n’entendait au loin, sur l’onde et sous les cieux,
Que le bruit des rameurs qui frappaient en cadence
Tes flots harmonieux.

Tout à coup des accents inconnus à la terre
Du rivage charmé frappèrent les échos ;
Le flot fut attentif, et la voix qui m’est chère
Laissa tomber ces mots :

” Ô temps ! suspends ton vol, et vous, heures propices !
Suspendez votre cours :
Laissez-nous savourer les rapides délices
Des plus beaux de nos jours !

” Assez de malheureux ici-bas vous implorent,
Coulez, coulez pour eux ;
Prenez avec leurs jours les soins qui les dévorent ;
Oubliez les heureux.

” Mais je demande en vain quelques moments encore,
Le temps m’échappe et fuit ;
Je dis à cette nuit : Sois plus lente ; et l’aurore
Va dissiper la nuit.

” Aimons donc, aimons donc ! de l’heure fugitive,
Hâtons-nous, jouissons !
L’homme n’a point de port, le temps n’a point de rive ;
Il coule, et nous passons ! “

Temps jaloux, se peut-il que ces moments d’ivresse,
Où l’amour à longs flots nous verse le bonheur,
S’envolent loin de nous de la même vitesse
Que les jours de malheur ?

Eh quoi ! n’en pourrons-nous fixer au moins la trace ?
Quoi ! passés pour jamais ! quoi ! tout entiers perdus !
Ce temps qui les donna, ce temps qui les efface,
Ne nous les rendra plus !

Éternité, néant, passé, sombres abîmes,
Que faites-vous des jours que vous engloutissez ?
Parlez : nous rendrez-vous ces extases sublimes
Que vous nous ravissez ?

Ô lac ! rochers muets ! grottes ! forêt obscure !
Vous, que le temps épargne ou qu’il peut rajeunir,
Gardez de cette nuit, gardez, belle nature,
Au moins le souvenir !

Qu’il soit dans ton repos, qu’il soit dans tes orages,
Beau lac, et dans l’aspect de tes riants coteaux,
Et dans ces noirs sapins, et dans ces rocs sauvages
Qui pendent sur tes eaux.

Qu’il soit dans le zéphyr qui frémit et qui passe,
Dans les bruits de tes bords par tes bords répétés,
Dans l’astre au front d’argent qui blanchit ta surface
De ses molles clartés.

Que le vent qui gémit, le roseau qui soupire,
Que les parfums légers de ton air embaumé,
Que tout ce qu’on entend, l’on voit ou l’on respire,
Tout dise : Ils ont aimé !

The Lake

 

Translated by A.Z. Foreman

So driven onward to new shores forever,
Into the night eternal swept away,
Upon the sea of time can we not ever
Drop anchor for one day?

O Lake! Scarce has a single year coursed past.
To waves that she was meant to see again,
I come alone to sit upon this stone
You saw her sit on then.

You lowed just so below those plunging cliffs.
Just so you broke about their riven flanks.
Just so the wind flung your spray forth to wash
Her feet which graced your banks.

Recall the evening we sailed out in silence?
On waves beneath the skies, afar and wide,
Naught but the rowers’ rhythmic oars we heard
Stroking your tuneful tide.

Then of a sudden tones untold on earth,
Resounded round the sounding spellbound sea.
The tide attended; and I heard these words
From the voice dear to me:

Pause in your trek O Time! Pause in your flight,
Favorable hours, and stay!
Let us enjoy the transient delight
That fills our fairest day.

Unhappy crowds cry out to you in prayers.
Flow, Time, and set them free.
Run through their days and through their ravening cares!
But leave the happy be.

In vain I pray the hours to linger on
And Time slips into flight.
I tell this night: “Be slower!” and the dawn
Undoes the raveled night.

Let’s love, then! Love, and feel while feel we can
The moment on its run.
There is no shore of Time, no port of Man.
It flows, and we go on.

Covetous Time! Our mighty drunken moments
When love pours forth huge floods of happiness;
Can it be true that they depart no faster
Than days of wretchedness?

Why can we not keep some trace at the least? 
Gone wholly? Lost forever in the black?
Will Time that gave them, Time that now elides them
Never once bring them back?

Eternity, naught, past, dark gulfs: what do
You do with days of ours which you devour?
Speak! Shall you not bring back those things sublime?
Return the raptured hour?

O Lake, caves, silent cliffs and darkling wood, 
Whom Time has spared or can restore to light,
Beautiful Nature, let there live at least
The memory of that night:

Let it be in your stills and in your storms,
Fair Lake, in your cavorting sloping sides,
In the black pine trees, in the savage rocks
That hang above your tides;

Let it be in the breeze that stirs and passes,
In sounds resounding shore to shore each night,
In the star’s silver countenance that glances
Your surface with soft light.

Let the deep keening winds, the sighing reeds,
Let the light balm you blow through cliff and grove,
Let all that is beheld or heard or breathed
Say only “they did love.”

10. Le dormeur du val by Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)

Here we encounter Rimbaud again, in a short French poem very often studied in school and notable for its cinematic perspective: Rimbaud takes us on a little journey, first glancing at a soldier in the grass who appears to be napping, taking a rest. But by the end of the sonnet we learn of the wound at his side, which reveals to us he has in fact succumbed to battle. Rimbaud was 16 years old at the time, and the Franco-Prussian war was raging. Given that Rimbaud lived in the Eastern part of France and frequently left his home for long trips on foot, it might very well have been a scene he himself witnessed. This is one of those French poems many people remember by heart from their school days.

Le Dormeur du Val

 

C’est un trou de verdure où chante une rivière
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D’argent; où le soleil de la montagne fière,
Luit; C’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.

Un soldat jeune bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort; il est étendu dans l’herbe, sous la nue,
Pale dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.

Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme:
Nature, berce-le chaudement: il a froid.

Les parfums ne font plus frissonner sa narine;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au coté droit.

The Sleeper of the Valley

 

It’s a green hollow where a river sings
Clinging madly to the grasses with its rags
Of silver, where the sun, from the proud mountain,
Shines; it’s a little valley, bubbling with sunlight.

A young soldier, open-mouthed, bare-headed
And the nape of his neck bathing in cool blue watercress,
Sleeps; he’s stretched out in the grass, under the sky,
Pale in his green bed where the light rains.

His feet in the gladiolas, he sleeps. Smiling as
Would smile a sick child, he takes a nap.
Nature, cradle him warmly: he is cold.

Perfumes no longer make his nostrils quiver;
He sleeps in the sun, hand on his chest,
At peace. There are two red holes on his right side.

Voilà!

We hope you enjoyed these well-loved French poems as a peak into what the language sounds like in poetry. If you are interested in learning more one on one, feel free to contact the Strommen office for a private lesson with me or one of our other French tutors. I for one am always happy to discuss literature! And watch this space for more on French letters, poetry and more.

RELATED:

Share this post