Five of the Most Famous French Poems with their English Translations

As well as creating some of the greatest novels in Western literature, French writers have also produced some of its finest poetry. Throughout the centuries, the universal themes of love, death, nature, and war have all been explored by French poets in their stanzas and rhymes. Our small selection of some of the finest French poems consists of those by Victor Hugo, Arthur Rimbaud, Jacques Prévert, Charles Baudelaire, and Pierre de Ronsard. These renowned poets span several centuries and various literary movements, including the Romantic, the Symbolist, and the Decadent.

It has been famously said that “poetry is what gets lost in translation”, and certainly no translation could capture the elegance and the subtly within these poems. Nevertheless, to help you understand their meanings, we’ve included a relatively direct English translation for each of these poems.

If this article sparks your interest, I’d personally recommend reading Introduction to French Poetry. This anthology contains some of the finest French poems, and provides clear and direct English translations that allow you to fully appreciate the original French texts.


Demain, dès l’aube by Victor Hugo

Demain, dès l’aube is one of the most famous poems by Victor Hugo, who is best-known in the English-speaking world for his novels Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Misérables. This particular poem was based on Hugo’s mourning for the death of his daughter Léopoldine, who accidentally drowned with her husband in September 1843. Hugo wrote it four years after the tragedy and it was later included in his poem collection Les Contemplations, which he divided into Autrefois (“In the Past”) and Aujourd’hui (“Today”). The mark between the two is the moment of Léopoldine’s death.

Demain, dès l’aube

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.

Tomorrow at Dawn

Tomorrow, at dawn, when the countryside brightens,
I will depart. You see, I know that you wait for me.
I will go through the wood, I will go past the mountains.
I cannot remain far from you any longer.

I will walk, eyes set upon my thoughts,
Seeing nothing around me and hearing no sound,
Alone, unknown, back bent, hands crossed,
Sorrowful, and for me, day will be as night.

I will not watch the evening gold fall,
Nor the distant sails going down to Harfleur,
And, when I arrive, I will put on your grave
A bouquet of green holly and heather in bloom.

Buy a Copy of Victor Hugo, Selected Poems (Original French with English Notes)

Related Post: Six of the Most Famous Poems by Victor Hugo with English Translations


Les Feuilles Mortes – Jacques Prévert

Les Feuilles Mortes is a poem written by Jacques Prévert that was adapted into the famous song of the same name. The origins of the poem begin with an instrumental melody called Les Feuilles Mortes, composed by Joseph Kosma for the 1945 ballet Le Rendez-vous, the plot of which was written by Prévert. Based on this melody, Prévert wrote his poem, partly with the intention of it being made into a song, as the director Marcel Carné wanted to adapt Le Rendez-vous into a film.

In 1946, the song Les Feuilles Mortes was featured in Carné’s film adaptation of Le Rendez-vous, with lyrics attributed to Prévert, although portions of the poem were omitted. The film – Les Portes de la Nuit – was a flop, but the song became a hit and has since been sung in many languages. The most famous French renditions of Les Feuilles Mortes have been performed by Yves Montand and Édith Piaf, and the most famous English versions (titled “Autumn Leaves”) by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Indeed, the song has also enjoyed enduring popularity in the English-speaking world.


Les Feuilles Mortes

Oh, je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes,
Des jours heureux quand nous étions amis,
Dans ce temps là, la vie était plus belle,
Et le soleil plus brûlant qu’aujourd’hui.

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,
Tu vois je n’ai pas oublié.
Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi,

Et le vent du nord les emporte,
Dans la nuit froide de l’oubli.
Tu vois, je n’ai pas oublié,
La chanson que tu me chantais.

C’est une chanson, qui nous ressemble,
Toi qui m’aimais, moi qui t’aimais.
Nous vivions, tous les deux ensemble,
Toi qui m’aimais, moi qui t’aimais.

Et la vie sépare ceux qui s’aiment,
Tout doucement, sans faire de bruit.
Et la mer efface sur le sable,
Les pas des amants désunis.

The Dead Leaves

Oh, how I would like for you to remember,
The happy days when we were friends,
Back then, life was more beautiful,
And the sun burned brighter than today.

Dead leaves are collected with a shovel,
You see, I have not forgotten.
Dead leaves gather in their hundreds,
As do memories and regrets.

And the North Wind carries them away,
Through the cold night of oblivion.
You see, I have not forgotten,
The song that you would sing to me.

It’s a song that now reminds me of us,
You who loved me, me who loved you.
We were living, with one another,
You who loved me, me who loved you.

But life separates those who love each other,
Very gently, without making a sound.
And the sea washes away on the sand,
The footprints of lovers since separated.

Buy a Copy of Paroles by Jacques Prévert (French Edition)


Le Dormeur du Val

Le Dormeur du Val is one of the most well-known poems of Arthur Rimbaud, and was surely inspired by the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The original manuscript of the poem is dated to October 1870, which was one month after the Battle of Sedan (Sept. 1, 1870). This particular battle was a decisive French defeat, and was followed by an uprising in Paris a few days later that resulted in the abdication of Napoleon III and the end of the Second French Empire.

It has been suggested that Rimbaud may have witnessed the scene that he described in the poem. He ran away from home on various occasions, and the Battle of Sedan itself was less than 20 miles from his home at the time.

Le Dormeur du Val

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.

The Sleeper in the Valley

It’s a green hole where a river sings
As it madly hangs onto the grass its rags
Of silver; where the sun, from the proud mountain,
Shines down: it’s a little valley bubbling with light.

A young soldier, open mouth, bare head,
And neck bathing in the sweet blue watercress,
Sleeps; he is stretched out among the grass, beneath the skies,
Pale in his green bed where the light rains down.

Feet in the gladiolas, he sleeps. Smiling like
An ill child would smile, he takes a nap:
Nature, cradle him in warmth: he is cold.

Fragrances don’t make his nostrils quiver:
He sleeps in the sun, one hand on his chest,
Motionless: he has two red holes in his right side.

Buy a Copy of Rimbaud, Complete Works, Selected Letters (Original French with English Translations)


Mignonne, allons voir si la rose – Pierre de Ronsard

Pierre de Ronsard is probably the most famous poet of the French Renaissance. As well as his body of work, he is also remembered as the leading member of “La Pléiade”, a group of seven French writers that wanted to elevate the reputation of French poetry by drawing from the works of the ancient Roman and Greek poets.

This particular poem was devoted to Cassandre Salviat, the daughter of an Italian banker who Ronsard became enamoured with. It has since been set to music many times throughout the centuries, and has become very well-known among the French public.

Mignonne, allons voir si la rose

A Cassandre

Mignonne, allons voir si la rose
Qui ce matin avoit desclose
Sa robe de pourpre au Soleil,
A point perdu ceste vesprée
Les plis de sa robe pourprée,
Et son teint au vostre pareil.

Las ! voyez comme en peu d’espace,
Mignonne, elle a dessus la place
Las ! las ses beautez laissé cheoir !
Ô vrayment marastre Nature,
Puis qu’une telle fleur ne dure
Que du matin jusques au soir !

Donc, si vous me croyez, mignonne,
Tandis que vostre âge fleuronne
En sa plus verte nouveauté,
Cueillez, cueillez vostre jeunesse :
Comme à ceste fleur la vieillesse
Fera ternir vostre beauté.

Darling, let us see if the rose

For Cassandre

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.

Alas! See how in such short time
Darling, she has from her lofty place,
Alas! Alas dropped her beauty to the floor!
Oh truly cruel Mother Nature,
For such a flower lasts
Only from morning till evening!

So, if you believe me, darling,
While your age is blossoming
In its most green freshness,
Gather, gather your youth:
For old age will fade your beauty
As it has the rose.

Buy a Copy of Pierre de Ronsard, Selected Poems (Original French with English translations)


L’Albatros – Charles Baudelaire

L’Albatros appears in the 1861 second edition of Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire’s most well-known poem collection. It was inspired by a sea voyage to Bourbon Island (now Réunion) that Baudelaire took with his stepfather at the age of 20. The poet was forced to go on the trip as punishment for squandering his father’s inheritance and despised the experience. Nevertheless, the trip did influence much of his work.

L’Albatros

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.

The Albatross

Often, for sport, the men of the crew
Catch albatrosses, those immense seabirds
That trail, as fellow travellers,
The ship gliding along the briny depths.

Scarcely have they been put on the deck
Than these kings of the sky, clumsy and ashamed,
Pathetically let their great white wings
Like oars, drag beside them.

This winged explorer, how he is awkward and weak
Once so beautiful, that he is now laughable and ugly
One sailor teases his bill with a tobacco pipe,
Another limps around, mimicking the bird who used to fly!

The Poet is alike the prince of the clouds
Who haunts the storm and laughs at the archer;
Exiled on the ground amidst jeers,
His gigantic wings prevent him from walking.

Buy a Copy of Les Fleurs du Mal (Original French with English translations)


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