The Song of Roland, composed between 1040 and 1115, is the oldest surviving major work of French literature. It is an example of the chanson de geste, a literary form that celebrated legendary deeds. Medieval French poetry was influenced by Southern France where the Occitan language was spoken. The greatest impact of the Occitan poets was their elaboration of a complex code of love called “fin amors” or “courtly love”. The Renaissance in the 16th century saw a revival of ancient Greco-Roman traditions; and a great deal of 17th and 18th century French poetry celebrated a particular event or mourned a tragic occurrence. European literature in the first half of the 19th century was dominated by Romanticism, a movement characterized by glorification of the past and of nature. Victor Hugo’s Tomorrow, at dawn and Lamartine’s The Lake are prime examples of French Romantic poetry. Romanticism was followed by Symbolism and French poets like Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud played a key role in the movement. Know more about French poetry through the 10 most famous poems in French Literature.
#10 Les Feuilles mortes
English Title: Autumn Leaves
Poet: Jacques Prevert
Jacques Prevert is considered one of the leading French poets of the 20th century and Les Feuilles mortes is his most famous poem. “Les Feuilles mortes” literally means “Dead Leaves”. Thus the title of the poem is symbolic of the paradoxical co-existence of the past and the present. The poem is about the power of memory and it stresses how the painful experiences of the past can never be completely forgotten. The poet tells the reader that even though one does not wish to consciously remember the past, seeing certain things involuntarily reminds one of past experiences. Remembering the past brings back to the poet both joy of pleasant moments and sadness of his loss of love. Despite their separation, the poet still appreciates the value of his love in his life. The deceptively simple style of Autumn Leaves hides its subtle and profound psychological power.
Oh I would like so much for you to remember
the happy days of when we were friends
In that time, life was more beautiful
And the sun more burning than today
Dead leaves are shovelled up
You see, I did not forget
Dead leaves are shovelled up
Memories and regrets as well
#9 Mignonne allons voir si la rose
English Title: Sweetheart, let’s see if the rose
Poet: Pierre de Ronsard
Pierre de Ronsard was a Renaissance poet referred to as the “prince of poets“ due to his great talent. Also known as Ode to Cassandre, this is perhaps his most famous poem. Ronsard was in love with Cassandre Salviati, daughter of an Italian banker. This poem is an ode dedicated to her. In it, the poet plays the game of seduction while paying tribute to the beauty of women and nature. He begins by telling his sweetheart to see whether the rose which is blooming this morning retains its beauty till the evening. It then informs her that ultimately the rose will lose its beauty as mother nature takes its toll. The poem ends with the poet telling the reader to take advantage of her youthful bloom before she loses it as she grows old.
So if you believe me, my sweetheart,
While time still flowers for you,
In its freshest novelty,
Do take advantage of your youthful bloom:
As it did to this flower, the doom
Of age will blight your beauty.
#8 Le Bateau Ivre
English Title: The Drunken Boat
Poet: Arthur Rimbaud
Though he had only a short poetic career, Arthur Rimbaud is among the most renowned French poets and he had a major impact on modern literature and arts, especially on Surrealism. The Drunken Boat was written by him when he was only 16. Rimbaud included the poem in a letter to introduce himself to Paul Verlaine, another famous French poet. The Drunken Boat consists of 100 lines and is written in the first person from the point of view of a boat that is adrift after all of its passengers have been massacred. It is rich in vivid imagery and symbolism. Rimbaud was inspired to write it after reading Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The novel is a source of many of the poem’s allusions and images.
As I was going down impassive Rivers,
I no longer felt myself guided by haulers:
Yelping redskins had taken them as targets
And had nailed them naked to colored stakes.
#7 Roman de la Rose
English Title: The Romance of the Rose
Poet: Guillaume de Lorris & Jean de Meun
Written in the 13th century, this poem is a prime example of courtly love. The first 4,058 lines of the poem were written by Guillaume de Lorris around 1230 and around 1275, Jean de Meun added an additional 17,724 lines to it. The purpose of the poem is to both entertain and to teach others about the art of romantic love. Throughout the poem, Rose is used both as a name of the leading female character as well as a symbol of female sexuality. The other names in the poem also serve as both characters and abstractions illustrating the various factors involved in a love affair. The Romance of the Rose was one of the most widely read works in France for three centuries and it was perhaps the most read book in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Lovely Idleness came next, holding close to me. I have given
you an accurate account of her size and appearance, and I will tell
you no more of her, for it was she who gave me so great a bounty
when she opened to me the wicket of the flowering garden.
English Title: Liberty
Poet: Paul Eluard
Paul Eluard was a leading poet of the 20th century. Initially associated with the Surrealist movement, his later works like this poem were known for their political militance. Liberté is an ode to liberty written at the time of German occupation of France during the Second World War. The poem is structured in 21 quatrains or four line stanzas. They all follow the same pattern with the poet naming real and imaginary places where he would write a name. The 21st stanza reveals that name to be Liberty. A simple and inspiring poem, Liberty is not only the most famous poem of Eluard but also one of the most popular French poems of all time.
On the jungle and the desert
On the nests on the brooms
On the echo of my childhood
I write your name
On the wonders of the nights
On the white bread of the days
On the engaged seasons
I write your name
English Title: The Albatross
Poet: Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire is regarded as the first author in the Symbolist tradition and he, more than anyone else, moved the literary world from the Romantic poetry of statement and emotion to the modern poetry of symbol and suggestion. The Albatross is part of his poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), which was one of the most influential and controversial poetic works of the 19th century. To amuse themselves, sailors used to often catch albatrosses. This poem is about how an albatross, which is so elegant in flight, looks so clumsy and awkward on the ship when it has been captured by sailors. The poet then compares this situation to a poet, who flies high in his poetic world, but on earth has to face the hooting crowds.
The Poet is like this monarch of the clouds
riding the storm above the marksman’s range;
exiled on the ground, hooted and jeered,
he cannot walk because of his great wings.
#4 Le Lac
English Title: The Lake
Poet: Alphonse de Lamartine
Lamartine is considered to be the first French romantic poet and Le Lac is his best known poem. The poem is an elegy for Julie Charles, the poet’s muse and the wife of the famous physician Jacques Charles. Lamartine had met Julie in 1816 on the shores of Lake Bourget in Savoie, France. The two were supposed to meet again in August the following year but she became ill with tuberculosis and subsequently died. Lamartine went to the lake alone visiting the places they that explored together the previous year. He then recorded the experience in this poem of sixteen quatrains. Le Lac met with great acclaim on being published and inspired a generation of French Romantic poets. It is the most famous French elegy and one of the most widely read French poems.
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.
#3 Le Dormeur du Val
English Title: The Sleeper in the Valley
Poet: Arthur Rimbaud
This poem was written by Arthur Rimbaud in 1870 when France and Germany were involved in a conflict. The 16 year old Rimbaud wrote this poem to denounce war and its atrocities. In the poem, the speaker talks about a young man who is taking a nap in the beautiful countryside. Moreover, the speaker calls on nature to aid the soldier in peacefully taking his nap. It is only at the end that it is revealed to the reader that the soldier is actually dead. Arthur Rimbaud is one of the best known French poets of all time and The Sleeper in the Valley is his most famous poem.
Feet in the yellow flags, he sleeps. Smiling
As a sick child might smile, he’s dozing.
Nature, rock him warmly: he is cold.
The scents no longer make his nostrils twitch:
He sleeps in the sunlight, one hand on his chest,
Tranquil. In his right side, there are two red holes.
#2 La Chanson de Roland
English Title: The Song of Roland
Published: 1040 – 1115
The Song of Roland is a poem about the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 AD between the army of the famous French emperor Charlemagne and the Basque forces. Although this battle was a minor skirmish, the poem glorifies it to the heroic stature of the Greek defense of Thermopylae against the Persians in 5th century BC. The protagonist of the poem Roland is Charlemagne’s nephew. In the poem, he fights gallantly but is ultimately killed. Chanson de geste means “songs of heroic deeds” and it is a type of French epic poem that flourished between the 11th and 15th centuries. La Chanson de Roland is considered the masterpiece of this genre. It is the oldest surviving major work of French literature. The probable author of the poem was a Norman poet, Turold. Since 1837, the Song of Roland is recognized as the national epic of France.
The day will come; the term will pass; no tidings will there be;
And the King’s wrath is terrible, and a proud man is he.
And forthwith from our hostages the heads he will let smite.
Let them die, so Spain we lose not, the beautiful and bright,
Or ever bitter evil be forced to undergo.
#1 Demain dès l’aube
English Title: Tomorrow, at dawn
Poet: Victor Marie Hugo
Victor Hugo was at the forefront of the romantic literary movement in France and he is regarded as one of the greatest French poets. Leopoldine Hugo, the eldest daughter of Victor, died in a boat accident with her husband while she was 3 months pregnant. She was only 19. Her death had a deep impact on her father and he wrote many poems expressing his loss, including this one. In the poem, the speaker expresses his love for a person telling her how he is unable to remain away from her. He is going to meet her and he says he knows that she waits for him. In the last lines of the poem it is revealed that he is visiting her grave. One the best-known masterpieces of Victor Hugo, Demain des l’aube is perhaps the most famous French romantic poem.
Tomorrow, at dawn, the moment the countryside whitens,
I will leave. You see, I know that you await me.
I will go through the forest, I will go across the mountain.
I can no longer remain away from you.
I will trudge on, my eyes fixed on my thoughts,
Without seeing anything outside, without hearing any sound,
Alone, unknown, back bent, hands crossed,
Sad, and the day for me will be like the night.
I will not look upon the gold of nightfall,
Nor the sails from afar that descend on Harfleur,
And when I arrive, I will place on your grave
A bouquet of green holly and heather in bloom.