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:||Dead Leaves|
Oh, I’d like so much that you might remember those happy days when we were friends… Wasn’t life back then so beautiful? And didn’t the sun burn more strong than today? Dead leaves now gather themselves into the shovel – don’t you see, I haven’t forgotten! Dead leaves gather all around our wet kisses – yes, memories and regrets as well. And the north wind carries them off into the cold night of oblivion… You know: I haven’t forgotten that song you used to sing for me. . It’s a song that’s a lot like you and me – you who loved me, and I who loved you. And we were living – the two of us – together – you loving me, and I you. But this life separates those who love, softly, with not a hint of noise – just as the sea erases the footprints of lovers divided. . Dead leaves now gather themselves into the shovel – mementos and remorse as well. But my love, quiet and true, smiles, always, and gives thanks to this life. Oh, how I loved you! And you were so pretty! How can you wish that I should forget you? Life back then was so beautiful, and the sun scorched – much more than today. You were my only, my sweetest girl – and I have no time for regrets. And that song you used to sing for me, well – always it’s ringing in my ears!
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.
#9 Mignonne allons voir si la rose
|English Title:||Sweetheart, let’s see if the rose|
|Poet:||Pierre de Ronsard|
Sweetheart, let’s see if the rose That this morning had open Her crimson dress to the Sun, This evening hasn’t lost The folds of her crimson dress, And her complexion similar to yours. Ah! See how in such short space My sweetheart, she has on this very spot All her beauties lost! O, so un-motherly Nature, Since such a beautiful flower Only last from dawn to dusk! 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.
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.
#8 Le Bateau Ivre
|English Title:||The Drunken Boat|
As I further down the impassive Rivers came, No longer felt I guided by the bargemen’s hauls: Screaming Redskins had used them to practice their aim, And they had nailed them, naked, onto colored poles. I didn’t much care for any of the crewmen, The Flemish wheat, the English cotton in their tow. As all that clamor died along with my bargemen, The River let me sail at will upon its flow. Straight into the furious lashing of the tide, I, that other winter more deaf than toddler mind, Ran! The Peninsulas, unmoored and set aglide, Never knew a cry of triumph so unconfined. The tempest blessed me as I woke unto the sea. More lightweight than a cork I danced on crest and trough, (Eternal rollers of victims they’re said to be,) Ten nights without the lantern and its banal glow! Read Full Translation Here
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.
#7 Roman de la Rose
|English Title:||The Romance of the Rose|
|Poet:||Guillaume de Lorris & Jean de Meun|
Many men seyn that in sweveninges Ther nis but fables and lesinges; But men may somme swevenes seen, Which hardely ne false been, But afterward ben apparaunte. This may I drawe to waraunte An authour, that hight Macrobes, That halt not dremes false ne lees, But undoth us the avisioun That whylom mette king Cipioun. And who-so sayth, or weneth it be A Iape, or elles [a] nycetee To wene that dremes after falle, Let who-so liste a fool me calle. LE ROMAN DE LA ROSE. Read Full Translation Here
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.
On my school notebooks On my school desk and the trees On the sand on the snow I write your name On all the pages read On all the blank pages Stone blood paper or ash I write your name On the golden images On the warriors’ arms On the kings’ crown I write your name 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 On all my rags of azure On the pond mildewed sun On the lake moon alive I write your name On the fields on the horizon On the birds’ wings And on shadows’ mill I write your name On every puff of dawn On the sea on the boats On the insane mountain I write your name On the foam of the clouds On the sweat of the storm On the thick and dull rain I write your name On the scintillating figures On the colors’ bells On the physical truth I write your name On the awake paths On the unfurled roads On the overflowing squares I write your name On the lamp that comes alight On the lamp that dies out On my combined houses I write your name On the fruit cut in halves Of the mirror and of my room On my empty shell bed I write your name On my gourmand and tender dog On his pricked up ears On his clumsy paw I write your name On the springboard of my door On the familiar objects On the flood of the blessed fire I write your name On any granted flesh On my friends’ forehead On every hand held out I write your name On the window of the surprises On the attentive lips Well above the silence I write your name On my destroyed shelters On my crumbled beacons On the walls of my boredom I write your name On the absence without desire On the bare solitude On the steps of death I write your name On the health returned On the risk disappeared On hope without remembrance I write your name And by the power of a word I start my life again I was born to know you To name you Freedom.
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.
|English Title:||The Albatross|
Often for sport the crewmen will ensnare Some albatrosses: vast seabirds that sweep In lax accompaniment through the air Behind the ship that skims the bitter deep. No sooner than they dump them on the floors These skyborn kings, graceless and mortified, Feel great white wings go down like useless oars And drag pathetically at either side. That sky-rider: how gawky now, how meek! How droll and ugly he who shone on high! The sailors poke a pipestem in his beak, Then limp to mock this cripple born to fly. The poet is so like this prince of clouds Who haunted storms and sneered at earthly slings; Now, banished to the ground, to cackling crowds, He cannot walk beneath the weight of wings.
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.
#4 Le Lac
|English Title:||The Lake|
|Poet:||Alphonse de Lamartine|
Towards new and different shores forever driven onward, Through endless darkness always borne away, Upon the sea of time can we not lie at anchor For but a single day? Oh lake, the year has scarce run once more round its track, And by these waves she had to see again, Look! I have come alone to sit upon this rock You saw her sit on then. Beneath those towering cliffs, your waters murmur still, And on their ragged flanks, your waves still beat, The wind still flings those drops of spray, that last year fell On her beloved feet. Do you recall that evening, when we sailed in silence? Upon your waters a great stillness held; The only sounds were those of oars that struck in cadence Your harmonious swells. Read Full Translation Here
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.
#3 Le Dormeur du Val
|English Title:||The Sleeper in the Valley|
It’s a green hollow, where a river is singing Crazily hanging on the grasses rags Of silver; where the sun, from the proud mountain, Is shinning: 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, Is 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. Fragrances do not make his nostrils quiver; He sleeps in the sun, hand on the breast, Peacefully. He has two red holes in his right side.
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.
#2 La Chanson de Roland
|English Title:||The Song of Roland|
|Published:||1040 – 1115|
Carle our most noble Emperor and King, Hath tarried now full seven years in Spain, Conqu'ring the highland regions to the sea; No fortress stands before him unsubdued, Nor wall, nor city left, to be destroyed, Save Sarraguce, high on a mountain set. There rules the King Marsile who loves not God, Apollo worships and Mohammed serves; Nor can he from his evil doom escape. Read Full Translation Here
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.
#1 Demain dès l’aube
|English Title:||Tomorrow, at dawn|
|Poet:||Victor Marie Hugo|
Tomorrow at dawn, when the countryside whitens, I will leave. You see, I know you’re waiting for me. I will go through the forests, I will go by the mountain. I cannot stay away from you any longer. I will walk with my eyes fixed on my thoughts, Not seeing anything outside, not hearing any noise, Alone, unknown, back bent, hands crossed, Sad, and the day for me will be like the night. I will not look at the gold evening falling, Nor at the far off boats sailing towards Harfleur, And when I arrive, I will put on your grave A bunch of green holly and heather in bloom.
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 poem by a French poet.