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French Poetry

If French hadn't existed I think someone would have invented it just to write poetry as it's hard to think of another language better suited to the art. Indeed, one of my primary reasons for learning French was being able to read the literature in the original, and when I achieved enough skill translation invariably followed.

Instead of offering you my favorite French poems, an exercise that would tend to over-represent certain poets, I am attempting here to give you a historical outline of the primary movements and writers of French poetry in the last two centuries. All poems are included chronologically according to the birth year of the author. And again, as I state on my main poetry page, I am striving to give you a solid sense of the meaning of the original works, so all translations are in free verse even where the originals use meter and rhyme.


Marceline Desbordes-Valmore: Les Roses de Saadi (The Roses of Saadi)
Alphonse de Lamartine: Extrait de «Le Lac» (Extract from "The Lake")
Victor Hugo: «Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanche la campagne» ("Tomorrow, at dawn, at the hour when the countryside whitens")
Théophile Gautier: Carmen (Carmen)
Charles Baudelaire: L'Albatros (The Albatross)
José Maria de Heredia: Antoine et Cléopatre (Antony and Cleopatra)
Stéphane Mallarmé: Cantique de Saint Jean (Canticle of St. John)
Paul Verlaine: Langueur (Languor)
Arthur Rimbaud: L'Eternité (Eternity)
Jules Laforgue: Triste, Triste (Sad, Sad)
Paul Valery: Le Vin perdu (The Lost Wine)
Léon-Paul Fargue: Romance (Romance)
Guillaume Apollinaire: Cote 146 (Hill 146)
Jules Supervielle: «Dans la forêt sans heures» ("In the hourless forest")
Pierre Reverdy: Le Nouveau Venu des Visages (The Newest Face to Arrive)
Paul Eluard: Grand Air (Great Air)
André Breton: Le Marquis de Sade (The Marquis de Sade)
Philippe Soupault: Cinéma-Palace (Palace Cinema)
Benjamin Péret: Petite Chanson des Mutilés (Little Song of the Mutilated)
Robert Desnos: L'Epitaphe (Epitaph)


Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786-1859)

Marceline Desbordes-Valmore was one of the more personal of the Romantic poets, known for dark works often dealing with unrequited love, a sensibility born of a series of personal griefs including losing three of her four children. Her mature poems expressed the closeness to nature that frequently showed up in Romantic poetry. "The Roses of Saadi" provides a good example of her simple, direct style.

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 toute embaumée . . .
Respires-en sur moi l'odorant souvenir.

The Roses of Saadi

I wanted to bring you roses this morning;
But I had closed so many in my sash
That the knots were too tight to contain them.

The knots split. The roses blew away.
All blew off to the sea, borne by the wind,
Carried to the water, never to return.

The waves looked red as if inflamed.
Tonight, my dress is still perfumed.
Breathe in the fragrant memory.


Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869)

With a revolutionary sensibility that crossed over from writing into political involvement (during the revolution of 1848), Lamartine made quite a mark on his era by supporting liberal causes and writing poetry of the heart characterized by spontaneity and intimacy. His 1820 book of poems, Méditations Poétiques, is considered a manifesto for French Romantic poetry, and "The Lake" is the most famous from this volume and from Lamartine's body of work. By only presenting an extract I don't mean to slight the poet's work, but the poem is rather long and it only takes a few stanzas to capture the general themes, which include standard Romantic tropes like the railing against devouring time, the condolences of nature, and faith in the vitality of human passion.

Extrait de «Le Lac»

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

Hé 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?

O 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!"

Extract from "The Lake"

Jealous time, can these moments of euphoria,
When love floats happiness to us in long streams,
Fly far from us as quickly
As unhappy days?

What? Can we not at least fix a trace of it?
What? Gone forever? What! Lost entirely?
Time gave, this time that erases,
Will it not deliver us?

Eternity, nothingness, the past, dark abysses,
What do you do with the days you devour?
Speak: do you return these sublime ecstasies
That you tear from us?

Oh lake! Speechless rocks! Caves! Dim forest!
You that time spares or can rejuvenate,
Keep this night, keep it, lovely nature,
At least remember it!

Let it be in your moments of rest, and in your tempests,
Beautiful lake, and in the look of your laughing hillsides,
And in these dark firs, and in these savage stones
That hang over your water!

Let it be in the wind that trembles and passes,
In the sounds of your shores reflected by your opposite shores,
In the silver-faced star that whitens your surface
With its soft clarity!

Let the wind that whimpers, the reed that sighs,
Let the light perfumes of your fragrant air,
Let all that one hears, sees, and breathes,
All say: "They loved!"


Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

The writer most firmly associated with the Romantic movement in France, Hugo expressed his sensibilities in a variety of genres. Though he is most famous for his novels (including Les Misérables, which he probably never imagined would provide Broadway-busting material), his poems are filled with some of the same pivotal Romantic concerns, including the longing for the unattainable and the primacy of passion. The poem that begins "Tomorrow, at dawn, at the hour when the countryside whitens" is firmly grounded in the traditional Romantic preoccupation with death (sorry if I've given away the ending).

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanche la campagne

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanche la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je nu 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 dawn, at the hour when the countryside whitens

Tomorrow, at dawn, at the hour when the countryside whitens,
I will depart. You see, I know you wait for me.
I will go through the forest and over the mountain.
I cannot live far from you any longer.

I will walk with my eyes fixed on my thoughts,
Ignoring everything around me, without hearing a sound,
Alone, unknown, back stooped, hands crossed,
Saddened, and the day will be like night for me.

I will neither see the golden glow of the falling evening,
Nor the sails going down to Harfleur in the distance,
And when I arrive, I will place on your tomb
A bouquet of green holly and flowering heather.


Théophile Gautier (1811-1872)

Though his writing career was inspired by a meeting with Hugo, Gautier's poetry eventually signaled a counter-movement to Romanticism. His work eschewed the personal expression and exuberance of the Romantics and urged for art for art's sake, a formalist, classical ideal that valued highly crafted verse, painterly images, and beauty over emotional expression or morality. His poetry book Émaux et Camées was highly influential and helped to launch the Parnassian movement, so-called because its followers wanted to take poetry back to the summit of Mount Parnassus (the home of poetry in Greek myth) from where they believed Lamartine and others of his type had made it fall. The poem "Carmen" offers a good example of Parnassian principles, and you will notice how the careful word choice and deliberate construction of each line of this finely hewn work examines the iconic figure, known for her unrestrained passion, with a remove suited to pre-Romantic painting or sculpture.


Carmen est maigre, un trait de bistre
Cerne son oeil de gitana.
Ses cheveux sont d'un noir sinistre,
Sa peau, le diable la tanna.

Les femmes disent qu'elle est laide,
Mais tous les hommes en sont fous,
Et l'archevêque de Tolède
Chante la messe à ses genoux;

Car sur sa nuque d'ambre fauve
Se tord un énorme chignon
Qui, dénoué, fait dans l'alcôve
Une mante à son corps mignon.

Et, parmi sa pâleur, éclate
Une bouche aux rires vainqueurs;
Piment rouge, fleur écarlate,
Qui prend sa pourpre au sang des coeurs.

Ainsi faite, la moricaude
Bat les plus altières beautés,
Et de ses yeux la lueur chaude
Rend la flamme aux satiétés.

Elle a, dans sa laideur piquante,
Un grain de sel de cette mer
D'où jaillit, nue et provocante,
L'âcre Vénus du gouffre amer.


Carmen is thin, a trace of sepia
Rings her gypsy eyes.
Her hair a sinister black,
Skin tanned by the devil.

Women say she is ugly,
But all the men are mad for her,
And the archbishop of Toledo
Chants mass at her knees.

For around her tawny amber neck
Twists an enormous coil of hair
That unravels in the bedroom,
A cloak for her dainty figure.

From a pallid face bursts
A mouth of conquering laughter;
A red pimiento, a scarlet flower,
Dyed purple with bloodied hearts.

Thus made up, the dark one
Rivals the proudest beauties,
And a hot glimmer in her eyes
Rekindles a flame in sated appetites.

She has, in her stinging ugliness,
A grain of salt from that sea
Where Venus, nude, provocative,
Sprouted from bitter waves.


Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

One of the most influential of all French poets and an inspiration to bohemians, drunkards, the beat movement, goths, and beyond, Baudelaire caused quite a sensation in his own time with the publication of the book Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), a collection of poetry whose sometimes transgressive examination of sex and death both scandalized and awakened. He was partly inspired by the Parnassian dictum of art for art's sake and thought of poetry as carefully constructed and dispassionate rather than spontaneous. He also had an interest in discovering the beauty in the grotesque and the strange, an impulse that influenced the fin de siècle artists who came after him. Yet, Baudelaire rejected the realism that many of his literary contemporaries championed, preferring to use imagery to create symbolic resonances with truths beyond reality. Many of these aspects of his work are evident in "The Albatross."


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.

A 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

Often, just for fun, sailors
Capture albatrosses, the great sea birds,
Idle companions of the voyage, who follow
The ship gliding through bitter gulfs.

Hardly have they dropped to the planks
That these kings of the azur, awkward and ashamed,
Pitifully drag their great white wings
Like oars at their sides.

How clumsy and feeble is the winged voyager.
So recently beautiful, now how ludicrous and ugly.
One sailor attacks his beak with a stubby pipe,
Another mimics, limping, the cripple who once soared.

The poet is like the prince of the clouds
Who stalks the storm and laughs at the hunter;
Exiled to the earth among hoots of mockery,
Paralyzed by his mighty wings.


José Maria de Heredia (1842-1905)

Heredia typifies the Parnassian aesthetic pioneered by Gautier and others. Unlike Baudelaire and his followers, who were interested in working with symbols, Heredia's imagery was concerned only with its surface impact. He was also a gifted adaptor of classic myth and narratives. His concerns are exemplified in "Antony and Cleopatra," which takes a moment that lends itself to dramatic effect (most notably in Shakespeare) and turns it into a static, perfect image that is nevertheless vivid and intense.

Antoine et Cléopatre

Tous deux ils regardaient, de la haute terrasse,
L'Égypte s'endormir sous un ciel étouffant
Et le Fleuve, à travers le Delta nois qu'il fend,
Vers Bubaste ou Saïs rouler son onde grasse.

Et le Romain sentait sous sa lourde cuirasse,
Soldat captif berçant le sommeil d'un enfant,
Ployer et défaillir sur son coeur triomphant
Le corps voluptueux que son étreinte embrasse.

Tournant sa tête pâle entre ses cheveux bruns
Vers celui qu'enivraient d'invincibles parfums,
Elle tendit sa bouche et ses prunelles claires;

Et sur elle courbé, l'ardent Imperator
Vit dans ses larges yeux étoilés de points d'or
Toute une mer immense où fuyaient des galères.

Antony and Cleopatra

From the terrace's height they watch
Egypt lulled under a stifling sky
And the river cleaving the dark delta,
A fattened wave rolling to Bubastis or Sais.

The Roman, a captive soldier in his bulk of armor,
Cradled like an infant in sleep, can feel
A voluptuous form grasped in his embrace,
Bent and weakening against his triumphant heart.

Turning her white face nested in brown hair,
To he who is drunk with the irresistible scents,
She offers her mouth and clear eyes.

And bent over her, the ardent imperator
Sees in these wide eyes starred with flecks of gold,
An immensity of sea teeming with the flight of galleys.


Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898)

Though his early poems were associated with the Parnassian style, Mallarmé's work soon went in a different direction partly inspired by Baudelaire's interest in exploring correpondences between images and transcendant truths. His work, which came to be called Symbolism, reveled in the imagery of nature but not in a Romantic sense. Instead, Symbolist poems used natural images as emblems for spiritual truths. However, unlike Baudelaire, the Symbolists worshipped beauty in its purest form and reviled the repugnant.

Mallarmé's poems are notoriously difficult to translate. For one thing, the sounds of words are as important as the meaning, which cannot be effectively rendered in another language. Also, Mallarmé's poetic language was deliberately contrived, very different from ordinary speech, and reveled in ambiguity and suggestion rather than concrete description. A translation of a Mallarmé poem must necessarily be an interpretation as the translator needs to choose between the many possible meanings inherent in the work. I've chosen "Canticle of St. John" because it is simpler in a syntactic sense than most of Mallarmé's poems and thus easier to faithfully render into French, but it is still dense with possible mystic meanings that I hope I've managed to at least suggest if not capture.

Cantique de Saint Jean

Le soleil que sa halte
Surnaturelle exalte
Aussitôt redescend

Je sens comme aux vertèbres
S'éployer des ténèbres
Toutes dans un frisson
            À l'unisson

Et ma tête surgie
Solitaire vigie
Dans les vols triomphaux
            De cette faux

Comme rupture franche
Plutôt refoule ou tranche
Les anciens désaccords
            Avec le corps

Qu'elle de jeûnes ivre
S'opiniâtre à suivre
En quelque bond hagard
            Son pur regard

Là-haut où la froidure
Eternelle n'endure
Que vous le surpassiez
            Tous ô glaciers

Mais selon un baptême
Illuminée au même
Principe qui m'élut
            Penche un salut.

Canticle of St. John

The sun whose unearthly
Pause excites
Promptly descends again

I feel as vertebrae
Separating and spreading in darkness
All trembling
            In unison

And my head rises
Sole witness
To the triumphal flights
            Of the scythe

As a clean rupture
Represses or slices
The old discords
            With the body

Drunk with youth
Stubborn to follow
With a crazed leap
            Its pure glance

Up high where the eternal
Cold allows
You to overcome it
            Oh, all the glaciers

But due to a baptism
Lit by the same
Source that selects me
            I bow in salute.


Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)

Like Mallarmé, Verlaine was a Parnassian in his early years who branched out to something completely different, but though he was often labeled as a Symbolist like Mallarmé, Verlaine's style was actually a bit different. He certainly followed the Symbolist program by creating music with poetry and using language that avoided explicit statements, but Verlaine's poetry took him in a direction that placed him firmly among the Decadents, a fin de siècle ("end of the century") movement presaged by Baudelaire and his interest in the seemier side of contemporary life. Verlaine's poem "Languor" captures the spirit of an era characterized by self-deprecation, paralysis, and spiritual decay.


Je suis l’Empire à la fin de la décadence,
Qui regarde passer les grands Barbares blancs
En composant des acrostiches indolents
D’un style d’or où la langueur du soleil danse.

L’âme seulette a mal au coeur d’un ennui dense,
Là-bas on dit qu’il est de longs combats sanglants.
Ô n’y pouvoir, étant si faible aux voeux si lents,
Ô n’y vouloir fleurir un peu cette existence!

Ô n’y vouloir, ô n’y pouvoir mourir un peu!
Ah! tout est bu! Bathylle, as-tu fini de rire?
Ah! tout est bu, tout est mangé! Plus rien à dire!

Seul, un poème un peu niais qu’on jette au feu,
Seul, un esclave un peu coureur qui vous néglige,
Seul, un ennui d’on ne sait quoi qui vous afflige!


I am the empire at the end of a decadent age,
who watches tall blond barbarians pass,
while composing these indolent acrostics
In a style of gold dancing with the sun's languor.

The solitary soul is sick at heart with a dense ennui,
They say all is bloodied there from lengthy battles.
Ah, without power, feebled by such sluggish wishes,
Ah, without will, an existence that cannot bloom.

Ah, without will, without the power to die a little!
Ah! All is drunk! Bathyllus, are you done laughing?
Ah! All is drunk, all eaten! Nothing more to say!

Alone, an empty poem thrown on the fire,
Alone, a racing slave neglected,
Alone, an unnameable ennui that pains you!


Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)

One of the most infamous poets of his time, Rimbaud is often lumped into the Symbolist category like his mentor and lover Verlaine (see the film Total Eclipse, starring, of all people, Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud, for a good dramatization of their relationship). However, Rimbaud was more of a visionary than a worker of symbols, and in his work the objects are meant to signify what they are. "Eternity" is typical of his more evocative poems, containing both concrete and enigmatic images and plumbing depths even as it reaches for the heights.


Elle est retrouvée.
C'est la mer allée
Avec le soleil.

Ame sentinelle,
Murmurons l'aveu
De la nuit si nulle
Et du jour en feu.

Des humains suffrages,
Des communs élans
Là tu te dégages
Et voles selon.

Puisque de vous seules,
Braises de satin,
Le Devoir s'exhale
Sans qu'on dise: enfin.

Là pas d'espérance,
Nul orietur.
Science avec patience,
Le supplice est sûr.

Elle est retrouvée.
C'est la mer allée
Avec le soleil.


It has been rediscovered.
What? Eternity.
It is the sea fled
with the sun.

Sentinel soul,
We whisper confession
Of the empty night
And the fiery day.

From human prayers,
From common spirits
You free yourself
And thus you fly.

Since from you alone,
Satin embers,
Duty breathes
No one says: at last.

No hope here,
No emergence.
Knowledge with patience,
Torment is certain.

It has been rediscovered.
What? Eternity.
It is the sea fled
with the sun.


Jules Laforgue (1860-1887)

Though included among the Symbolists, Laforgue was actually more of a bridge to modernism as his poems started to break free of the constraints of meter and rhyme and approached what would later be called free verse. His language is also of a more grounded and prosaic nature, more direct and closer to natural speech. For example, note how simply stated are the narrator's observations in the poem "Sad, Sad," even as its rather domestic scene expands to a typical fin de siècle mode.

Triste, Triste

Je contemple mon feu. J'étouffe un bâillement.
Le vent pleure. La pluie à ma vitre ruisselle.
Un piano voisin joue une ritournelle.
Comme la vie est triste et coule lentement.

Je songe à notre Terre, atome d'un moment,
Dans l'infini criblé d'étoiles éternelles,
Au peu qu'ont déchiffré nos débiles prunelles,
Au Tout qui nous est clos inexorablement.

Et notre sort! toujours la même comédie,
Des vices, des chagrins, le spleen, la maladie,
Puis nous allons fleurir les beaux pissenlits d'or.

L'Univers nous reprend, rien de nous ne subsiste,
Cependant qu'ici-bas tout continue encor.
Comme nous sommes seuls! Comme la vie est triste!

Sad, Sad

I contemplate my fire. I stiffle a yawn.
The wind weeps. The rain streams against my window.
Next door a piano plays a ritornello.
How sad is life and how slowly it flows.

I sing to our earth, atom of a moment,
In the infinite screen of eternal stars,
To the few that have deciphered our feeble eyes,
To all that is inexorably closed to us.

And our type! Always the same comedy,
Vices, griefs, melancholy, sickness,
And then we make lovely golden dandeloins blossom.

The universe reclaims us, nothing of ours endures,
Nevertheless let everything down here continue again.
How alone we are! How sad is life!


Paul Valery (1871-1945)

Valery was the chief successor to Mallarmé and the one who most closely followed the Symbolist program of polished traditional form, unusual word choice, and difficult syntax even as the age of Symbolism and the other nineteenth-century styles was passing and modernism was beginning to dominate. "The Lost Wine" is a perfect example of Valery's style, and it should become quickly clear to the reader that the subject is much more than a simple lament on the loss of a bottle of fine vintage.

Le Vin perdu

J'ai, quelque jour, dans l'Océan,
(Mais je ne sais plus sous quels cieux)
Jeté, comme offrande au néant,
Tout un peu de vin précieux . . .

Qui voulut ta perte, ô liqueur?
J'obéis peut-être au devin?
Peut-être au souci de mon coeur,
Songeant au sang, versant le vin?

Sa transparence accoutumée
Après une rose fumée
Reprit aussi pure la mer . . .

Perdu ce vin, ivres les ondes! . . .
J'au vu bondir dans l'air amer
Les figures les plus profondes . . .

The Lost Wine

I threw, one day, into the ocean,
(But I no longer know under which skies)
As an offering to nothingness,
A little bit of precious wine.

Who desired your waste, oh liquor?
Perhaps I obeyed a fortune-teller,
Perhaps my anxious heart,
As I mused upon blood, poured the wine.

From the smoky rose
The sea reclaimed its purity
Its habitual transparency

The wine lost, the waves drunk!
In the bitter air I saw
The most profound shapes leap.


Léon-Paul Fargue (1876-1947)

Modernism in poetry started expressing itself in many ways, certainly in the subject matter explored by Baudelaire and the Decadents as well as in the directness of language used by Laforgue and others. Yet the clearest sign of the modern movement's ascendance was the abandonment of rhyme and meter in favor of free verse. Rimbaud and Laforgue both experimented with it, and many nineteenth-century poets wrote prose poems, but by Fargue's time the new style was firmly entrenched. Fargue himself was influenced by Rimbaud's rhythmic sentences and condensation of images and created a flexible language combining the qualities of prose and verse. "Romance" is a particular favorite of mine, both light and dense with imagery and meaning.


Certes nous vous avons aimée,
Marie . . . Vous le saviez,
N’est-ce pas? Vous vous rappelez?

Un soir
(Nous partions dans la nuit
Arthème et moi), nous allâmes sans bruit vous voir
Sous l’abside du ciel d’été, comme à l’église.

Il y avait de la lumière et vous lisiez.

Nous avons gardé les dessins
Aux trois crayons, et les oiseaux à l’encre bleue
Que vous faisiez.

Ah! Marie, vous chantiez si bien!
C’était au temps
Où vous étiez heureuse à l’école des Soeurs,
Où la Processions toute pâle de fleurs
Chantait dans le désert du Dimanche.
J’étais auprès de vous qui étiez toute en blanc.

L’orgue parlait d’ombre à l’église . . .
Sur l’autel pendait le jour bleu.
Par les blessures du vitrail, l’appel de brise
Où fuse un gros bourdon d’onyx! chassait le feu
Des cierges, vers vous qui étiez grise
De lumière et de chants sages.


Indeed, we loved you
Marie . . . and you knew it,
Didn't you? Can you remember?

One evening
(Setting out into the night,
Artheme and I), we went in silence to see you,
Above us, the cathedral apse of the summer sky.

You were reading in the light.

We kept the three-color sketches
And the blue ink birds
You were drawing.

Ah! Marie, you sang so sweetly!
Back then
When you were happy at the convent school,
When the procession pale with flowers
Sang in the blight of Sunday.
I sat beside you, you were all in white.

At church, the organ spoke of shadows . . .
The blue day hanging over the altar.
The summons of the breeze through wounds in stained glass
Blended with the broad onyx drone and drove the flames
Of the tapers towards you, drunk
With light and songs of virtue.


Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918)

Many critics insist that Modernism didn't truly begin until World War I, when the horror of mass, mechanized slaughter tore the European consciousness and engendered responses in all of the arts. Indeed, many of the early proponents of Modernism were themselves involved in the war, among them Apollinaire, who was wounded and later buried in Paris just as the city was celebrating the armistice. Though he is credited with inventing the word "surrealism" and wrote in that vein in his influential play "Les Mamelles de Tirésias," most of his poetry was more grounded even as he relished odd juxtapositions of imagery. For Apollinaire, logical connections were not as important as getting across an immediately seized feeling.

He is also associated with the Futurists, a primarily Italian group of artists interested in capturing the dynamism of modern, industralized life. "Hill 146" was inspired by the war and evinces a Futurist technique in its representation of action. Also note the typographical rendering of the word "horse," designed to represent a receding rider. Experiments with typography were frequent among the Surrealists and the Dadaists. The latter group reacted to the absurdity of the war by creating a literature of absurdity.

Cote 146

Plaines désolation enfer des mouches fusées le vert le blanc le rouge
Salves de 50 bombes dans les tranchées comme quand à quatre on fait claquer
            pour en faire sortir la poussière un grand tapis
Trous semblables à des cathédrales gothiques
Rumeur des mouches violentes
Lettres enfermées dans une boîte de cigares venue d'Oran
La corvée d'eau revient avec ses fûts
Et les blessés reviennent seuls par l'innombrable boyau aride
Embranchement du Decauville
Là-bas on joue à cache-cache
Nous jouons à colin-maillard
Beaux rêves
Madeleine ce qui n'est pas à l'amour est autant de perdu
Vos photos sur mon coeur
Et les mouches métalliques petits astres d'abord
À cheval à cheval à cheval à cheval
O plaine partout des trous où végètent des hommes
O plaine où vont les boyaux comme les traces sur le bout des doigts aux
            monumentales pierres de Gavrinis
Madeleine votre nom comme une rose incertaine rose des vents ou du rosier
Les conducteurs s'en vont a l'àbreuvoir à 7 km d'ici
Perthes Hurlus Beauséjour noms pâles et toi Ville sur Tourbe
Cimetières de soldats croix où le képi pleure
L'ombre est de chairs putréfiées les arbres si rares sont des morts restés debout
Ouïs pleurer l'obus qui passe sur ta tête

Hill 146

Plains desolation hell of flies rockets the green the white the red
Salvos of 50 bombs in the trenches as when at four you clap
            to rid the dust a large carpet
Holes like gothic cathedrals
Murmur of violent flies
Letters kept in a cigar box from Oran
The water detail returns with its barrels
And the wounded return alone by the innumerable arid communication trenches
Branch line of the Decauville railway
There we play hide-and-seek
We play blind-man's-bluff
Beautiful dreams
Madeleine what is not for love is as good as lost
Your photos on my heart
And the metallic flies small stars at first
By horse by horse by horse by horse
Oh everywhere plain of holes where men vegetate
Oh plain where the trenches run like traces of fingertips in the monumental
            stones of Gavrinis
Madeleine your name like an uncertain rose rose of the winds or the rose bush
The drivers are going to the water hole 7 km from here
Perthes Hurlus Beauséjour pale names and you Ville sur Tourbe
Soldier cemeteries cross where the kepi weeps
The shadow of putrified flesh the trees so rare are the dead still standing
Hear the wail of the shell that passes overhead


Jules Supervielle (1884-1960)

Like many of the poets of the Modernist generation, Supervielle was attracted to the possibilities of Surrealism, a form of art that plumbed the depths of dream imagery and is probably most familiar through the paintings of Salvador Dalí. In poetry, Surrealism generally manifested itself in unusual juxtapositions of imagery. However, Supervielle rejected what he saw as excesses, including automatic writing, a technique of writing in which the poet attempts to write without conscious control. Instead, he wanted to use Surrealism to explore the mysteries of existence and the human soul. I think the short jewel-like poem "In the hourless forest" accomplishes at least the former aim fairly successfully and achieves an almost koan-like quality. Also note how the surreal elements are grounded in concrete images.

«Dans la forêt sans heures»

Dans la forêt sans heures
On abat un grand arbre.
Un vide vertical
Tremble en forme de fût
Près du tronc étendu.

Cherchez, cherchez oiseaux,
La place de vos nids
Dans ce haut souvenir
Tant qu'il murmure encore.

"In the hourless forest"

In the hourless forest
A tall tree is felled.
A vertical emptiness
Trembles in the form of a shaft
Near the outstretched trunk.

Look birds, look for
A place for your nests
In this lofty reminder
While it still murmurs.


Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960)

Reverdy was associated with both the Surrealists and the Cubists, and I'm sure you're wondering how the Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque could possibly have counterparts in poetry. Indeed, Cubism's application in poetry was quite limited, but Reverdy found inspiration in the Cubist outlook toward reality and the alternate dissociation and synthesis of elements. His poems tend to form images by juxtaposing realities that are otherwise distantly separate. I don't think it takes too much of a stretch to imagine "The Newest Face to Arrive" as a Cubist painting with each element of imagery carefully broken from the others.

Le nouveau venu des visages

Contre la glace éteinte les têtes se retournent
            La carte de visite pivote au bout des doigts
C'est la girouette qui grince pour indiquer la route au
            vent des ailes
Mais le nom de l'enseigne qui y est écrit on ne le voit
Celui qui entre revient avec la marée montante des
Dans la dernière maison après les terrains vagues et
            avant la campagne saine et propre sans détours
Le café c'est un nuage à l'ombre plein de voix
Où le passant se glisse entre l'odeur et le froid
Contre la glace éteinte les têtes se retournent
La nuit suit son chemin
                        Mais quelqu'un s'en détache et entre
Toutes les têtes se retournent pour deviner le nom
            approximatif de ce nouveau visage

The Newest Face to Arrive

Against the unlit glass the heads turn around
            The calling card pivots between fingertips
The weatherwane grinds to indicate the road to the
            wind of the wings
But the name of the sign written there is
The one who enters returns with the mounting tide of the
In the last house after the vague plots and
            before the sane and proper countryside that has no detours
The café is a shadowed cloud full of voices
Where the passer-by slips in between the smell and the cold
Against the unlit glass the heads turn around
The night follows its way
                        But somebody detaches from it and enters
All the heads turn around to guess the approximate
            name of this new face


Paul Eluard (1895-1952)

Eluard was friends with Breton, one of the major Surrealists, and his work certainly uses some of the odd associations that Surrealism is known for. However, he is distinguished from the others in the movement by a romantic (with a small "r," finally) sensibility and an appreciation of the simple delicacy of everyday reality. In his poems, love appears as a way of both escaping and of knowing the world. I am particularly fond of "Great Air" and its depiction of lovers sealed in from a frightening environment.

Grand Air

La rive les mains tremblantes
Descendait sous la pluie
Un escalier de brumes
Tu sortais toute nue
Faux-marbre palpitant
Teint de bon matin
Trésor gardé par des bêtes immenses
Qui gardaient elles du soleil sous leurs ailes
Des bêtes que nous connaissions sans les voir

Par-delà les murs de nos nuits
Par-delà l'horizon de nos baisers
Le rire contagieux des hyènes
Pouvait bien ronger les vieux os
Des êtres qui vivent un par un

Nous jouions au soleil à la pluie à la mer
A n'avoir qu'un regard qu'un ciel et qu'une mer
Les nôtres

Great Air

The shore the trembling hands
Descended in the rain
A stairway of mists
You emerged all nude
False marble palpitating
Color of a fine morning
Treasure guarded by immense beasts
Who hid under their wings from the sun
Beasts we did not see but understood

Beyond the walls of our nights
Beyond the horizon of our kisses
The contagious laugh of hyenas
Could have consumed the old bones
Of beings who live one by one

We played in the sun in the rain in the sea
Having only one look one sky and one sea


André Breton (1896-1966)

Breton is frequently considered one of the principal founders of Surrealism, a valid assertion as the Surrealist Manifesto he wrote in 1924 helped spread the new genre. The manifesto insists that artists should follow the pure expression of thought without the constraints of reason and aesthetics, and Breton's own poetry is some of the most exuberant and strange but also the most free among Surrealist works. "The Marquis de Sade" is an ideal example as it uses surreal imagery to pay tribute to a figure hailed by the Surrealists as one of their progenitors due to his philosophy of radical liberation and his praise of primitive instincts.

Le Marquis de Sade

Le marquis de Sade a regagné l'intérieur du volcan en éruption
D'où il était venu
Avec ses belles mains encore frangées
Ses yeux de jeune fille
Et cette raison à fleur de sauve-qui-peut qui ne fut
Qu'à lui
Mais du salon phosphorescent à lampes de viscères
Il n'a cessé de jeter les ordres mystérieux
Qui ouvrent une brèche dans la nuit morale
C'est par cette brèche que je vois
Les grandes ombres craquantes la vieille écorce minée
Se dissoudre
Pour me permettre de t'aimer
Comme le premier homme aima la première femme
En toute liberté
Cette liberté
Pour laquelle le feu même s'est fait homme
Pour laquelle le marquis de Sade défia les siècles de ses grands arbres abstraits
D'acrobates tragiques
Cramponnés au fil de la Vierge du désir

The Marquis de Sade

The Marquis de Sade reclaimed the inside of the erupting volcano
From where he came
With his beautiful hands still fringed
His girlish eyes
And reason with its flower of every-man-for-himself that could
Only be his
But from the phosphorescent parlor with its visceral lamps
He has not ceased hurling mysterious orders
That open a breach in the moral night
Through this breach I see
The vast cracking shadows the old eroded bark
To let me love you
Like the first man loved the first woman
In full liberty
This liberty
For which even fire made itself man
For which the Marquis de Sade defied the centuries of his great trees abstracted
From tragic acrobats
Held fast to the Virgin of desire's thread


Philippe Soupault (1897-1990)

Along with Breton, Soupault is considered one of the founders of Surrealism. He participated in some of the early experiments in automatic writing, but he was later excluded from the movement for being too literary, whatever that may mean. In my opinion, Soupault and others like him managed to save Surrealism from its excesses, and I really appreciate the controlled imagery of the poem "Cinema Palace."


                                           à Blaise Cendrars

Le vent caresse les affiches
La caissière est en porcelaine


le chef d’orchestre automatique dirige le pianola
il y a des coups de revolver
l’auto volée disparaît dans les nuages
et l’amoureux transi s’est acheté un faux col

        Mais bientot les portes claquent
        Aujourd’hui très élégant
        Il a mis son chapeau claque
        Et n’a pas oublié ses gants

Tous les vendredis changement de programme

Palace Cinema

                                           to Blaise Cendrars

The wind caresses the posters
The cashier of porcelain

                                    The screen

the automatic conductor directs the player piano
there are revolver shots
the stolen auto disappears in the clouds
and the numbed lover bought himself a false collar

        But soon the doors slam
        Today very elegant
        He put on his theatre hat
        And did not forget his gloves

Every Friday a change of program


Benjamin Péret (1899-1959)

Yet another of the poets associated with both Dada and Surrealism, Péret was fond of celebrating the absurdities and marvels of quotidian life, yet at the same time he liked to think of the poet as both prophet and priest. One of my favorite Péret poems is the grim little work "Little Song of the Mutilated." He did fight in the war himself, but I don't know whether he lost a leg.

Petite Chanson des Mutilés

Prête-moi ton bras
pour remplacer ma jambe
Les rats me l’ont mangé
à Verdun /
à Verdun \
J’ai mangé beaucoup de rats
mais ils ne m’ont pas rendu ma jambe
c’est pour cela qu’on m’a donné la croix de guerre
et une jambe de bois /
et une jambe de bois \

Little Song of the Mutilated

Lend me your arm
to replace my leg
The rats ate it
at Verdun /
at Verdun \
I ate a lot of rats
but they did not return my leg
for that I received the croix de guerre
and a wooden leg /
and a wooden leg \


Robert Desnos (1900-1945)

Desnos was introduced to the Dadaists by Péret and later joined the Surrealist movement, though a rift later developed between him and the group. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he also enjoyed writing in classic rhyme and meter quatrains, as demonstrated in "The Epitaph." However, I don't believe his return to formalism was responsible for the alienation from his Surrealist brethren.


J'ai vécu dans ces temps et depuis mille années
Je suis mort. Je vivais, non déchu mais traqué.
Toute noblesse humaine étant emprisonnée
J'étais libre parmi les esclaves masqués.

J'ai vécu dans ces temps et pourtant j'étais libre.
Je regardais le fleuve et la terre et le ciel
Tourner autour de moi, garder leur équilibre
Et les saisons fournir leurs oiseaux et leur miel.

Vous qui vivez qu'avez-vous fait de ces fortunes?
Regrettez-vous les temps où je me débattais?
Avez-vous cultivé pour des moissons communes?
Avez-vous enrichi la ville où j'habitais?

Vivants, ne craignez rien de moi, car je suis mort.
Rien ne survit de mon esprit ni de mon corps.


I have lived in the present for a thousand years.
I have been dead. I lived, not fallen but hunted.
All human nobility imprisoned,
I was free among masked slaves.

I have lived in the present and yet I was free.
I watched the river and the earth and the sky
Revolve around me, keep their balance
And the seasons supply birds and honey.

You who live, what have you done with these treasures?
Do you regret the time that I struggled?
Did you sow for common harvests?
Did you enrich the town where I lived?

You who live, do not fear me, for I am dead.
Nothing survives my spirit or my body.

Last update for this page: 4 May 2007