French is a language of love and romance, right?
And isn’t poetry often an expression of love and heart-felt emotions, read from star-crossed lover to star-crossed lover?
I’m here to tell you yes.
Not only does poetry sound absolutely beautiful in French, but there are loads of great French poets out there.
The Bare Basics of French Poetry
Whether you’re using French poetry as means to learn vocabulary or have intentions of becoming a French poetry master, you need to know how French and English poetry differ.
French doesn’t have significant stressed accents on syllables like English does (High school English refresher: English poetry uses the number of syllables as well as stressed and unstressed syllables). So, where does that leave our meter in French? Again, no stress, it’s just the number of syllables. Ya see? It’s already easier to count syllables in French poetry than finding stressed accents in English!
Diving a little deeper here, the most common metric lengths used in French are 8-syllable, 10-syllable and 12-syllable lines, just to give you an idea of what you’re up against. But something to keep in mind if you’re going to be counting syllables: silent e’s are counted! For example, the last line from Baudelaire’s “Les Chats” (we’ll get to the whole poem soon) may seem like it has 9 syllables, when in reality it has 12. The -ent in étoilent, the -gue in vaguement, and the -es in prunelles are all counted!
To keep this brief and avoid a long winded discussion on the types of French poetry (most of which aren’t used strictly these days), we’ll just cover the bare basics.
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). They are worth mentioning because the likes of Hugo and Baudelaire (who we’ll be meeting pretty soon here) brought les formes fixes back in style in the 19th century. If you want a more in-depth of discussion of how all of the French poem forms work (because it’s so very interesting), check out this nifty little article from Le Monde.
How to Learn French Effectively with Short Poems
“So what, I just read it? Well okay.”
No come on! Get with it! Obviously I’ve got some tips up my sleeve for getting the most out of these poems. Maybe one day you can pop open your 700-page long anthology of French poetry and read a few poems a night just for pure enjoyment, but right now we’ve got work to do; we’ll be getting your French all spruced up with some short poems!
The Translation Game
We haven’t really gotten into that teensy tiny little problem of maybe not understanding everything you’re reading in these poems. And that’s on top of poems already being a little cryptic no matter what language they’re in. No worries, we’ll get through this hump together.
Try printing a version of a short French poem and writing what you think it means in English next to each line, then go over it at the end and adjust it so that it makes sense. Once you’re feeling pretty confident in your translation, look up an official English version and see how you faired. There will definitely be differences, so try and figure out why you differed to help improve your translation skills.
Mimic the Masters
Poems aren’t just for improving your reading skills. In fact, even French school children are assigned poems to memorize and pronounce correctly. You can find a lot of poems recited in French on YouTube and even on certain poetry websites (but just hang on a moment because we’re going to get to that).
Listen to the recording two or three times, with or without the text (depending on your level), then try reading off the text with your fancy French accent. You can even break it up by line if you’re having trouble. It’s a great way to tone those pronunciation skills, especially on more difficult words.
When you’re getting started, it may be a good idea to organize all of the short poems you come across (at least the ones you like). You can write them in the journal with a translation and definitions of words that gave you a bit of trouble. You can even organize them by poet, time period or even type of poem if you’re getting really into it. It’ll prove a good resource as you advance further and further with your French. Heck, you can even try and analyze them.
Resources to Become a Short French Poem Master
But before we start picking apart French poems, let’s get you set up with some websites and all that good stuff so that you’ll be up to your genoux (knees) in French poems and can spread your wings to fly out of my French poem post, out on your own *tear*.
Websites for Short French Poems
AllPoetry.com and PoemHunter.com are fantastic if you want to see the French and English side by side (here’s to you beginners!). The only drawback is that there isn’t an infinite number of French poems. You’ll be able to find classics on these sites in French with the English translation below, but don’t expect to get too obscure; it is an English website after all. (Bonus: Sometimes they include an audio track).
Short-Edition.com is something to geek out over. It’s a go-to for short stories, poems, flash fiction and comics. And it’s all in French. I mean, come on, it doesn’t get much better than this. If you’re looking for a French poem, you’re likely to find it here. Then if you need an English translation, you can back track to an English site.
Honorable mention: 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).
French Poetry Audio Resources for the Road
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 (which you should be), then there’s a whole website dedicated to him and specifically his masterwork of poetry “Les Fleurs du mal” (Flowers of Evil). Not only are there text versions and discussions, but a whole section on the website just for audio.
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.
3 Short French Poems to Get You Going
We’re going to put our money where our mouth is and discuss a few poems by famous French poets just to get your brain in a poetic mood. The first one is more beginner’s speed, the second is intermediate and the third is advanced.
1. “La tombe dit à la rose” by Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo is basically a king when it comes to French literature. Don’t pretend like you didn’t mispronounce Les Misérables before you started learning French. This guy is a household name. In addition to the well-known novels “Les Misérables” (no he didn’t write the musical) and “Notre-Dame de Paris” (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Hugo boasts a long list of published poems, novels you may have never heard of, and over 4,000 drawings. He’s great; we get it. I digress.
The following poem, “La tombe dit à la rose” (The Grave and the Rose), was written after the death of Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine. In his grief, he wrote many poems on the subject, including “Demain, dès l’aube” and “À Villequier.” Her death took a huge toll on Hugo emotionally and was a subject in his work for years after the death.
This poem, using rather simple vocabulary and grammatical structure, 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. But hey, I’m not here to tell you exactly what to think. Read it yourself and see how it strikes you.
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 !
What to Take from This:
To start we’ve got an easy one. Mostly everything in this poem is in the present tense, most of which is dialogue, though there’s some great vocabulary you can pluck (so to speak) from it:
L’aube (dawn) is a vocabulary word you should add to your list of “time of day” vocabulary: le matin (morning), l’après-midi (afternoon), le soir (evening), la nuit (night), le crépuscule (dusk), yay specific times of day!
Un gouffre is an abyss, a gulf. In this poem, un gouffre refers to the tomb’s mouth (completely figurative, don’t get scared), where in theory the souls fall into. It’s hard to use this vocabulary word without being morbid, for example, un gouffre financier is a financial blackhole. Yikes.
Speaking of souls, une âme would be that wonderful vocabulary word you were looking for. Not to be confused with un âne (a donkey). This noun translates directly to soul in English, and you can use it in compound forms like une âme charitable (a kind soul) or une âme en peine (a lost soul).
Note that the structure is different in the English translation, so it’s not necessarily word-for-word. You’re going to have to study up on the missing vocab using your French dictionary to find those missing links. Since French and English poems are organized differently (remember all that talk about syllables and stress accents?), translations aren’t always simple.
“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.
2. “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, and like in “Les Fleurs du mal,” grand sweeping topics of industrialization and beauty in his time. But unfortunately, like many lives of French writers, it was on the tragic side, including and not limited to: drug use, horrible health, un gouffre financier, and despite his immortal place in literature, quite a stressful life. He wrote not only poems, but was a well-known essayist and critic, and even translated Edgar Allen Poe’s work into French with great critical success.
“Les Chats,” a sonnet written for “Les Fleurs du mal,” isn’t the only poem Baudelaire wrote that used cats as a symbol. Often times, Baudelaire used cats as a symbol for women. And while the tone of this poem certainly has to do with lovers, the cats act as a parallel to them. People often have a lot to say about the personality of cats, something of a double-edged sword: gentle but gloomy, loving but maybe not showing the entire story. So with the cats reflecting the nature of the lovers, see how far you get with interpreting the rest. Oh and it rhymes in French. Yay rhyming!
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.
What to Take from This:
Ah yes, a nice mix of tenses here to take a look at. The vocabulary in this one is a bit more heady, but luckily it’s mostly the adjectives that pose a momentary threat.
In line 7, Baudelaire employs the second form of the French conditional perfect, also known as the second form of the past conditional (don’t run away, we’re not going to learn how to form it). Just know that this is a fancy literary version of the conditional perfect. In the English translation of this poem, eût pris turns into “would have used” (remember these aren’t word-for-word translations, guys). But again, this is good to know so that you don’t get weirded out when you see this tense in writing.
Great adjectives to remember from Les Chats:
- fervent (devoted)
- austère (stern)
- puissant(e) (strong)
- doux/douce (soft or gentle)
- funèbre (relating to funerals) – literary
- allongé(e) (stretched out) – also good for ordering espresso in France
- fécond(e) (fertile)
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.
3. “La Courbe de tes yeux” by Paul Éluard
To shake things up a bit, let’s fast-forward to the 20th century and get surreal! In fact, Paul Éluard is one of the fathers of the surrealist movement (it’s not all about Dali). Though fun fact: Éluard’s wife did leave him for Salvador Dali himself. Later in his life, Éluard became a prominent member of the communist party, and due to his political nature, much of his work reflects historical events during the time he was an active writer.
We’ll stick to some quintessential Éluard, a little bit of surrealism from 1926. “La Courbe de tes yeux” (The curve of your eyes) is one of many love poems that Éluard wrote. With a tumultuous love life of his own (remember that fun fact about Dali?), both the adoration of woman and the woes of love are apparent themes in his work.
“La Courbe de tes yeux” is no exception! This poem, in addition to being a love poem, is also a surrealist one, and employs imagery that may not be first instinct. To avoid a possibly strenuous discussion on what exactly this poem means, just know that it is essentially about the adoration of the woman, as told with round and circular imagery, more specifically, the curve of her eyes.
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.
What to Take from This:
Though this poem is the hardest of the three to analyze (that being in either French or English), Éluard sticks to pretty basic tenses. There is some important vocabulary in here though that you need to be familiar with (for both understanding the poem and to build you French vocab).
- Une auréole is a halo or ring and goes with the circular imagery of this poem quite well.
- Une mousse has a few definitions. It means moss, foam/father, or as we know it in English (the tasty way)—chocolate mousse. In the poem, it’s used to describe a mossy consistency of dew, which translates well into “scum” (as in pond scum, not necessarily an insult).
- Une aile is a little bit of a confusing vocabulary word. Meaning “wing,” make sure you don’t get it confused with the word for garlic: ail. This word paves the way for great figurative phrases like “battre de l’aile” (to be in a sorry state) or to talk about politics: aile gauche (left wing), aile droite (right wing).
- Couler is a great verb meaning to flow or run, or as a reflexive verb (se couler), to slip into. And we get this great phrase from it: Ça coule de source, meaning “It’s obvious.”
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.
Okay, take a deep breath. We did it. We went through those poems, and you know what? It wasn’t that bad at all.
In fact, I’d venture to say that they can be kind of fun. So if you’re feeling poetic after that and thirsty for more, remember that there are short poems a-plenty out there, just begging to be an addition to your new poetry journal.
And One More Thing…
As you can see, French poems make for some awesome, old-school, authentic learning material.
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