The best French poems
by Audrey Sivadier
October 27, 2020
A book with the best french poems translated to english

Poetry is one of the deepest ways to express emotions. So what could be better than using French, the language of feelings, to do so? Would you like to discover the best French poems to learn more about this language, or to recite one to your loved one? You’ve come to the right place!

The best French poems translated into English

Victor Hugo

He is considered one of the most important writers of French literature. In addition to the novels that the whole world knows (Notre-Dame de Paris or Les Misérables), he is also a playwright and poet. The poem we will read today is well known to the French, since they all learn it at school. It’s called Demain dès l’aube and was published in 1856. Victor Hugo wrote it in a tragic context: he had just lost his daughter Léopoldine. After this collection, he did not produce anymore work until his exile.

Here is the beginning of the poem dedicated to his daughter:

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.
Tomorrow, at dawn, at the moment when the land whitens,
I will leave. You see, I know that you are waiting for me.
I will go through the forest, I will go across mountains.
I cannot stay away from you any longer.

The poem is written in the classical manner – in Alexandrian – i.e. all the verses are 12 feet (~syllables) long, and the rhymes are crossed (or alternated).

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Ronsard

Back now to the French Renaissance with Pierre de Ronsard who wrote in 1545 Mignonne allons voir si la rose, a poem dedicated to the daughter of an Italian banker, Cassandre, whom he had met when he was 20 years old, and she was 13. Ronsard describes the passing of youth as the life of a flower. This reflection on the passing of time and death is typical of this period.

Here is an excerpt (in modern French) of the poem :

Mignonne, allons voir si la rose
Qui ce matin avait déclose
Sa robe de pourpre au soleil,
A point perdu cette vesprée,
Les plis de sa robe pourprée,
Et son teint au vôtre pareil.
Darling, let us see if the rose
Which had this morning unfurled
Her crimson dress to the Sun,
Has this evening began to lose
The folds of her crimson dress,
And its complexion akin to yours.

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Arthur Rimbaud

Let’s now go ahead in time a little, to Arthur Rimbaud who wrote in 1870 Le dormeur du val one of his most famous poems. He was 16 years old when he wrote it! The poem is remarkable in its mastery of versification.

It is a sonnet: a poem composed of two quatrains (paragraph of four verses) and two tercets (paragraphs of three verses), and the verses are still in Alexandrian. It admirably describes a terrible contrast between the soft landscape and the surprising fall.

Read the poem for yourself:

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,
Pâle 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 pas frissonner sa narine ;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.
It’s a green hollow, where a river is singing
Madly clinging to grass rags
Of silver; where the sun, from the proud mountain,
Is shining: it’s a little valley bubbling with sunlight.

A young soldier, his mouth open, his head bare,
And the nape of his neck bathing in cool blue watercress,
Sleeping; he is stretched out on the grass, under the skies,
Pale in his green bed where the light falls like rain.

Feet in the gladiolas, he is sleeping. Smiling like
A sick child would smile, he takes a nap:
Nature, rock him warmly: he is cold.

Sweet scents don’t tickle his nose anymore;
He sleeps in the sun, hand on the breast,
Peacefully. He has two red holes in his right side.

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Guillaume Apollinaire

A poet of the 20th century, Guillaume Apollinaire revolutionised French poetry by transgressing classical versification. He is notably the author of Calligraphies, those poem-drawings that take the form of the theme they address. Apollinaire’s best-known poem is Le pont Mirabeau, where he describes the disappearance of a loved one by comparing it with the Seine, the river that flows through Paris.

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine.
 
Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure
 
Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse
 
Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure
 
L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante
L’amour s’en va
Comme la vie est lente
Et comme l’Espérance est violente
 
Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure
 
Passent les jours et passent les semaines
Ni temps passé
Ni les amours reviennent
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure
Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine
          Must I recall
     Our loves recall how then
After each sorrow joy came back again
Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay
Hands joined and face to face let’s stay just so
          While underneath
     The bridge of our arms shall go
Weary of endless looks the river’s flow
Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay
All love goes by as water to the sea
          All love goes by
     How slow life seems to me
How violent the hope of love can be
Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay
The days the weeks pass by beyond our ken
          Neither time past
     Nor love comes back again
Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine
Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay.

Many artists have covered it in song, you can listen to Serge Reggiani or Marc Lavoine.

Charles Baudelaire

It is impossible to talk about French poetry without mentioning Charles Baudelaire. Contemporary of Arthur Rimbaud, he is a poets who feels cursed and pours his suffering into his work. His best known poem is L’Albatros, where he speaks of the figure of the poet in society, is about being unloved and misunderstood.

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.
Often, to amuse themselves, the crewmen
Catch albatros, vast sea-birds,
Which follow, indolent companions of the voyage,
The ship gliding on the bitter gulfs.

Hardly have they put them on deck,
When these kings of the azure, clumsy and ashamed,
Pitifully let go their great white wings,
Like oars dragging alongside them.

This winged voyager, how awkward and weak he is!
He, once so beautiful, he’s so funny and ugly!
One teases his beak with a pipestem,
Another mimes, limping, the cripple that once flew!

The Poet is like this prince of the clouds
Who haunts the tempest and laughs at the archer;
Exiled on the ground, in the midst of jeers,
His giant wings keep him from walking.

You now know the best French poems and their writers and the rules of classic versification. So why not take the first step? And in French, please!

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