short french poems

French Poetry: 8 Short Classics with English Translations

Poetry is often reflective of love and romance, so it only makes sense that the French would excel at it.

Not only does poetry sound absolutely beautiful in French, but there are also loads of great French poets out there.

To top it all off, French poetry is a great short form of literature to read if you’re curious about the French language, and can even show you a thing or two about rhyme and meter!

Contents

1. La tombe dit à la rose” by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo is basically a king when it comes to French literature.

In addition to “Les Misérables” and Notre-Dame de Paris” (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Hugo boasts a long list of published poems, novels and even over 4,000 drawings. 

The following poem, “La tombe dit à la rose” (The Grave and the Rose), was written after the death of Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine.

Her death took a huge toll on Hugo emotionally and was a subject in his work for years afterward.

This poem personifies both the grave and the rose in conversation.

In general, it’s a discussion of death and the afterlife and can be interpreted as life talking to death. 

La tombe dit à la rose :
– Des pleurs dont l’aube t’arrose
Que fais-tu, fleur des amours ?
La rose dit à la tombe :
– Que fais-tu de ce qui tombe
Dans ton gouffre ouvert toujours ?

La rose dit : – Tombeau sombre,
De ces pleurs je fais dans l’ombre
Un parfum d’ambre et de miel.
La tombe dit : – Fleur plaintive,
De chaque âme qui m’arrive
Je fais un ange du ciel !

English Translation:

The Grave said to the Rose,
“What of the dews of dawn,
Love’s flower, what end is theirs?”
“And what of spirits flown,
The souls whereon doth close
The tomb’s mouth unawares?”
The Rose said to the Grave. The Rose said, “In the shade
From the dawn’s tears is made
A perfume faint and strange,
Amber and honey sweet.”
“And all the spirits fleet
Do suffer a sky-change,
More strangely than the dew,
To God’s own angels new,”
The Grave said to the Rose.

Note that the structure is different in the English translation, so it’s not necessarily word-for-word.

Since French and English poems are organized differently, translations aren’t always simple.

2. “Demain, dès l’aube” by Victor Hugo

This is another of Hugo’s works, once again reflecting his grief over his daughter. 

It’s made up of three stanzas, each of which is made up of four lines with the rhyme pattern ABAB:

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.

English translation:

Tomorrow at dawn, at the hour when the countryside grows white,
I shall leave. Do you see, I know that you are waiting for me.
I shall go by the forest; I shall go by the mountains.
I cannot remain far from you any longer.

I will walk with my eyes fixed on my thoughts,
Without anything to see outside, without hearing any sound,
Alone, unknown, the curved back, the crossed hands,
Sad, and the day for me will be like the night.

I will not look at the gold of the evening fall,
Nor the distant sails descending to Harfleur,
And, when I will arrive, I will place on your grave,
A bouquet of green holly and heather.

Notice how similar the tone for this poem is to “La tombe dit à la rose.” 

It’s very somber and sad, demonstrating Hugo’s grief in a beautifully artistic way.

3. “Quand vous serez bien vieille” by Pierre de Ronsard

Near the end of his life, Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard dictated six sonnets for his work, “Sonnets pour Hélène.” 

The style of the sonnets followed two different models developed by French poets Marot and Pelletier.

This sonnet is of the Marot form:

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant :
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle.

Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille réveillant,
Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.

Je serai sous la terre et fantôme sans os :
Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos :
Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain :
Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.

English translation:

When you are quite old, and sit in the evening by candlelight
Near the fire, rambling and burning out,
You will say, singing my verses and marveling at them:
Ronsard celebrated me back when I was beautiful.

Then you shall not have such a servant,
Already under the half-asleep labor, 
Who at the sound of my name doesn’t awake,
Blessing your name of immortal praise.

I will be under the earth and a boneless ghost:
By the myrtle shadows I will take my rest:
You will be an old woman,

Regretting my love and your proud disdain.
Live, if you believe me, don’t wait for tomorrow:
Pick the roses of life today.

This poem (and the others in this work) were actually written to Ronsard’s niece when she refused his advances. 

Ronsard writes to his niece in a way that reminds her that she may regret turning down his love when she is old and alone and he has died.

4. “Les chats” by Charles Baudelaire

A prominent poet in 19th century France, Baudelaire had a lot to do with the way literature evolved during and after his time.

The man wrote of romance, topics of industrialization and beauty in his time.

He was also a well-known essayist and critic, and even translated Edgar Allen Poe’s work into French with great success.

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires.

Amis de la science et de la volupté
Ils cherchent le silence et l’horreur des ténèbres;
L’Érèbe les eût pris pour ses coursiers funèbres,
S’ils pouvaient au servage incliner leur fierté.

Ils prennent en songeant les nobles attitudes
Des grands sphinx allongés au fond des solitudes,
Qui semblent s’endormir dans un rêve sans fin;

Leurs reins féconds sont pleins d’étincelles magiques,
Et des parcelles d’or, ainsi qu’un sable fin,
Étoilent vaguement leurs prunelles mystiques.

English Translation:

Both ardent lovers and austere scholars
Love in their mature years,
The strong and gentle cats, pride of the house,
Who like them are sedentary and sensitive to cold.

Friends of learning and sensual pleasure,
They seek the silence and the horror of darkness;
Erebus would have used them as his gloomy steeds:
If their pride could let them stoop to bondage.

When they dream, they assume the noble attitudes
Of the mighty sphinxes stretched out in solitude,
Who seem to fall into a sleep of endless dreams;

Their fertile loins are full of magic sparks,
And particles of gold, like fine grains of sand,
Spangle dimly their mystic eyes.

The cat in the poem is actually symbolic of women, and is a character that often appears in Baudelaire’s work.

5. “La courbe de tes yeux” by Paul Éluard

Paul Éluard is one of the fathers of the surrealist movement and even became a prominent member of the communist party.

Due to his political nature, much of his work reflects historical events during the time he was an active writer.

This is a surrealist love poem that is about the adoration of a woman.

Orignal Text:

La courbe de tes yeux fait le tour de mon cœur,
Un rond de danse et de douceur,
Auréole du temps, berceau nocturne et sûr,
Et si je ne sais plus tout ce que j’ai vécu
C’est que tes yeux ne m’ont pas toujours vu.

Feuilles de jour et mousse de rosée,
Roseaux du vent, sourires parfumés,
Ailes couvrant le monde de lumière,
Bateaux chargés du ciel et de la mer,
Chasseurs des bruits et sources des couleurs,

Parfums éclos d’une couvée d’aurores
Qui gît toujours sur la paille des astres,
Comme le jour dépend de l’innocence
Le monde entier dépend de tes yeux purs
Et tout mon sang coule dans leurs regards.

English Translation:

The curve of your eyes goes around my heart,
A round of dance and sweetness,
Halo of time, nocturnal and safe cradle,
And if I don’t know any more all that I’ve lived through
It’s because I haven’t always been seen by you.

Leaves of day and scum of dew,
Reeds of the wind, perfumed smiles,
Wings covering the world with light,
Ships filled with the sky and the sea,
Hunters of noises and sources of colors,

Perfumes bloomed from a brood of dawns
That always lies on the straw of the stars,
As the day depends on innocence
The whole world depends on your pure eyes
And all my blood flows in their looks.

With a tumultuous love life of his own, both the adoration of woman and the woes of love are recurring themes in Éluard’s work.

Notice the colorful imagery that the writer uses to paint a vivid picture of his subject.

6. “Le corbeau et le renard” by Jean de la Fontaine

Jean de la Fontaine is known mostly for his children’s fables.

Most of these stories are centered around animal characters and tend to be rather simple since they are meant for kids.

His stories also usually come with some kind of life lesson.

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 tomber 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.

English translation:

Master Crow, perched on a tree,
Holding in his beak some cheese,
Master Fox, attracted by the smell,
Told him something like:
“Well, hello Mister Crow.
How beautiful are you! How beautiful you are to me!
Without lying, if your voice
Is the same as your feathers,
You are the Phoenix of the hosts of these woods.”
And to show his beautiful voice,
He opened his big beak, letting his prey fall.
The fox seizes it, and says: “My good sir,
Learn that all who flatter
Live at the expense of those who listen to them:
This lesson is worth a cheese, without a doubt.”
The crow, ashamed and confused,
Swore, but a little late, he wouldn’t be taken again.

Notice the animal theme, as this poem follows a crow and a fox.

There is also a beautiful kind of flow to this poem that of course ends with the lesson of being wary of flattery.

7. “Le pont Mirabeau” by Guillaume Apollinaire 

Guillaume Apollinaire was a bold poet, known for his influence on surrealism.

He was a 19th century writer who was an innovator in poetic expression and invented the calligram, a poem in which words are organized to create a picture for the reader.

Read this poem, which is a sad reflection on love:

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

English translation:

Under the Mirabeau bridge flows the Seine
And our love
Must I remember
The joy would always come after the pain

Night comes with the sound of the hour
The days are gone I stay

Love goes away like this running water
Love goes away
How life is slow 
And how hope is violent

Night comes with the sound of the hour
The days are gone I stay

Days pass and weeks pass
Without time passing
Without love returning
Under the Mirabeau bridge runs the Seine

Night comes with the sound of the hour
The days are gone I stay

Notice how Apollinaire uses repetition and a roundabout way of writing to bring everything together.

8. “Chant d’automne” by Charles Baudelaire

This poem comes from “Les Fleurs du mal” (“The Flowers of Evil”), the only volume of poetry published before Baudelaire’s death.

The collection is a reflection of the evil in the world, and contains some of the most melodious verses and deeply emotional feelings.

Bientôt nous plongerons dans les froides ténèbres;
Adieu, vive clarté de nos étés trop courts!
J’entends déjà tomber avec des chocs funèbres
Le bois retentissant sur le pavé des cours.

Tout l’hiver va rentrer dans mon être: colère,
Haine, frissons, horreur, labeur dur et forcé,
Et, comme le soleil dans son enfer polaire,
Mon cœur ne sera plus qu’un bloc rouge et glacé.

J’écoute en frémissant chaque bûche qui tombe;
L’échafaud qu’on bâtit n’a pas d’écho plus sourd.
Mon esprit est pareil à la tour qui succombe
Sous les coups du bélier infatigable et lourd.

II me semble, bercé par ce choc monotone,
Qu’on cloue en grande hâte un cercueil quelque part.
Pour qui? — C’était hier l’été; voici l’automne!
Ce bruit mystérieux sonne comme un départ.

J’aime de vos longs yeux la lumière verdâtre,
Douce beauté, mais tout aujourd’hui m’est amer,
Et rien, ni votre amour, ni le boudoir, ni l’âtre,
Ne me vaut le soleil rayonnant sur la mer.

Et pourtant aimez-moi, tendre cœur! soyez mère,
Même pour un ingrat, même pour un méchant;
Amante ou sœur, soyez la douceur éphémère
D’un glorieux automne ou d’un soleil couchant.

Courte tâche! La tombe attend; elle est avide!
Ah! laissez-moi, mon front posé sur vos genoux,
Goûter, en regrettant l’été blanc et torride,
De l’arrière-saison le rayon jaune et doux!

English translation:

Soon we shall plunge into the cold darkness;
Farewell, vivid brightness of our short-lived summers!
Already I hear the dismal sound of firewood
Falling with a clatter on the courtyard pavements.

All winter will possess my being: wrath,
Hate, horror, shivering, hard, forced labor,
And, like the sun in his polar Hades,
My heart will be no more than a frozen red block.

All atremble I listen to each falling log;
The building of a scaffold has no duller sound.
My spirit resembles the tower which crumbles
Under the tireless blows of the battering ram.

It seems to me, lulled by these monotonous shocks,
That somewhere they’re nailing a coffin, in great haste.
For whom? — Yesterday was summer; here is autumn
That mysterious noise sounds like a departure.

I love the greenish light of your long eyes,
Sweet beauty, but today all to me is bitter;
Nothing, neither your love, your boudoir, nor your hearth
Is worth as much as the sunlight on the sea.

Yet, love me, tender heart! be a mother,
Even to an ingrate, even to a scapegrace;
Mistress or sister, be the fleeting sweetness
Of a gorgeous autumn or of a setting sun.

Short task! The tomb awaits; it is avid!
Ah! let me, with my head bowed on your knees,
Taste the sweet, yellow rays of the end of autumn,
While I mourn for the white, torrid summer!

It’s clear that Baudelaire is using a much more sophisticated vocabulary (rhyming ténèbres and funèbres), but he certainly paints a grim, vivid picture.

Since “Les Fleurs du mal” is about Baudelaire’s reactions to the evil in the world, you might see his poetry as rather dreary.

But his way of painting a picture for the reader was adopted by many poets after him, and he is known for this skillful description.

Where to Find More French Poems

While these poems may be a good introduction, chances are that you’ll want to venture out and search for even more French poetry.

Here are some great resources to do that:

Websites for Short French Poems

AllPoetry.com and PoemHunter.com are fantastic if you want to see the French and English side by side.

The only drawback is that there isn’t an infinite number of French poems.

Short-Edition.com is a go-to for short stories, poems, flash fiction and comics, all in French.

Sitaudis.com is another French website with tons of poems, stories and essays.

So in addition to being a great poetry site, it’s a good place for literary criticism in French (if you’re feeling up to it).

Here are three French poems about spring.

French Poetry Audio Resources

French Today has a great podcast that is all about French poetry and analysis. It's available on iTunes and on their website.

Not only are the poems read aloud, but also discussed using simple French to get your brain churning.

If you’re really into Baudelaire, there’s a whole website dedicated to him and specifically “Les Fleurs du mal” (Flowers of Evil). 

Not only are there text versions and discussions, but a whole audio section.

And of course, if you have a specific poem or poet in mind, typing it in on YouTube will bring up recitations of the most popular French poems.

Basics of French Poetry

Whether you’re using French poetry for pleasure or have intentions of becoming a French poetry master, you need to know how French and English poetry differ.

Here are some of the main differences you may notice:

  • French doesn’t have significant stressed accents on syllables. You only need to worry about counting syllables to find the meter. Just keeping mind that silent e’s are counted for syllables!
  • The most common metric lengths used in French are 8-syllable, 10-syllable and 12-syllable lines.
  • In French, you have your three formes fixes which are the Ballade, Rondeau and Virelai. These were commonly put to music back in ye olden days (13th-15th century), but were brought back into style in the 19th century by the likes of Hugo and Baudelaire. 

How to Learn French with Short Poems

Here is how to make the most out of French short poems:

  • Translate the poem to English and back into French. This way you can get used to the idea of translating. 
  • Look up words that you don’t understand. This way you can learn their meaning and understand the whole poem better. 
  • Make flashcards out of those words you have to look up. This way you can commit them to memory. 
  • Make it a routine. If you are able to read French short poems regularly, you will find yourself being able to understand them easier and easier every time. 
  • Write your own poemsOnce you’ve understood French style, you can try creating your own poems in the language. This will help you practice your writing skills!
  • Try listening to the poems. Lots of poems will have audio versions of someone reciting it out loud. This can help you practice your listening skills and gain a better understanding of the poem as a whole.
  • Read the poem out loud. As mentioned before, this will help you practice correct pronunciation and realize how French flows as a language.
  • Analyze the poem. Go line by line and write what the words mean literally as well as any figurative meaning that you interpret. 

Why Learn French with Poems

  • Poetry will teach you lots of new grammar and vocabulary. Poems tend to use lots of vivid imagery with vocabulary and grammar you may not typically hear.
  • The French pride themselves on having some of the best poetry in the world. By reading French poems, you can catch a glimpse of the French culture and way of thinking.
  • Given that poems are written with a very distinct style and rhythm, reading them aloud can be a great way to get used to pronouncing the unfamiliar words and to learn the appropriate diction of the language. 

One great resource for learning with French poems is the language learning program FluentU.

Not only can you find some videos with recitations of French short poems, but you’ll also find tons of other kinds of clips from music videos to movie scenes or TV shorts.

It provides tools like interactive subtitles, flashcards and word lists to help you learn the content. 

Download FluentU on iOS or Android

 

Now you’ve had a taste of some fantastic French poetry, get out there and find some more!

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