Celebrate National Poetry Month and practice your French with this reading list from French tutor Carol Beth L. …
April is National Poetry Month, and the French language, like many other languages, is host to a lot of beautiful poetry. Poetry is also a wonderful medium to learn or practice French. If you’re looking to enjoy some of France’s marvelous poetry, here are a few authors to look up, along with some of their most influential works.
1. Charles D’Orleans
Charles D’Orleans (1394 – 1465) was a French duke known for his poetry in both French and English. He succeeded his father as duke at the age of 13 and was later captured by the English King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, where he was a commanding officer. (For a less flattering literary reference from the English side, look up Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” from which the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech hails. Charles D’Orleans appears as a minor character – the Duke of Orleans – in the play.)
The French duke was subsequently provided with much leisure time during the next 25 years in an English prison, where he penned much of his poetry. Despite the assuredly dull surroundings, his poems included “Le Temps a Laisse son Manteau,” a poem quite appropriate to our current spring season. Upon his return to France, he received literary figures such as Francois Villon (see below). His son, born during this later part of his life, would later become the French king Louis XII.
2. Francois Villon
Francois Villon (1431 – 1474?), born the same year that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, was little known during his lifetime, but became one of the most popular medieval French poets in the years after his death. He was never rich, and seems to have been involved in criminal activity that led to troublesome legal problems following his graduation from university. Even as a student, despite his later recognition as a poet, he was not very serious, and his pranks, albeit with the help of friends, led to some trouble as well.
Following a brawl in 1462, he was sentenced to death in early 1463, and then banished from Paris instead. Little can be found of him afterwards; sources are divided on whether he is thought to have died later in 1463 or some eleven years later 1474. Probably his most well-known work is Le Testament, a collection of twenty-some poems in octosyllabic verse.
3. Louise Labe
Louise Labe (1524 – 1566) was born in the early 1520’s (1522 or 1524) of a rope-maker and member of the bourgeoisie who educated her in letters and music. She lived in Lyon for most of her life, publishing a collection of works, Euvres de Louïze Labé Lionnoize in 1556. She moved to the countryside some time later and died several years after her husband in 1566. She is the most celebrated non-noble female French poet of the Renaissance.
4. Jean de la Fontaine
Jean de la Fontaine (1621 – 1695), born in Chateau-Thiery, lived largely during the reign of Louis IV. He is best-known for his fables in verse, bound first into five volumes and later a complete volume titled Contes Choisies. In some ways like Aesop’s fables, many of his fables taught or demonstrated practical life lessons. Many of them also indirectly criticized the excesses of the nobility. Later in life, de la Fontaine had trouble with censorship, and one of his later collections of fables was banned. De la Fontaine also wrote a number of plays (which also used poetic verse). He was also elected to the Académie Française in 1683. He turned to religion in 1692 after becoming sick and died three years later.
5. Theophile Gautier
Theophile Gautier (1811 – 1872) was an art and literary critic, dramatist, journalist, editor, and poet. His travel also influenced his work. He began philosophically and stylistically as a Romantic, but later focused more on “art for art’s sake” (l’art pour l’art). In 1856, he became librarian to Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, the niece of Napoleon Bonaparte. One of Gautier’s poems, “Le Printemps” (“Springtime”) is especially appropriate for our current spring season.
6. Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) is a well-known symbolist and surrealist Parisian poet best known for his collection Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). After spending several years in India at his reform-minded family’s insistence, Baudelaire spent much of his time in Paris living off his inheritance as a dandy, absorbing the artistic culture and developing his eye as a critic, the latter of which helped him earn some supplementary income. However, his family later went to court to appoint someone to manage his inherited and quickly disappearing fortune. Baudelaire is also known for translating the works of Edgar Allen Poe into French.
7. Paul Verlaine
Paul Verlaine (1844 – 1896) was a symbolist poet of the 19th century, and is perhaps one of the best-known and most influential French poets of all time. “Romances sans Paroles” (“Songs without Words”) (1874) was written while he was in prison, and it was based on his travels with the younger French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Sagesse (1881) compiles some of his confessional religious poetry, and Amour (1888) focuses on his adopted son Lucien. His works are notably difficult to translate due to their focus on sound rather than meaning.
8. Arthur Rimbaud
Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891), the younger colleague and traveling partner who helped inspire Verlaine’s “Romances sans Paroles,” is recognized as one of the founders of the symbolist movement in France. He wrote most of his works during his teenage years. One of his most well-known works from this time period is an extended prose poem called “Une Saison en Enfer” (“A Season in Hell”). By the end of his teens, he was forced to search for more stable work to support his family. Verlaine later published many of Rimbaud’s works that were not published during his lifetime.
9. Guillaume Appolinaire
Guillaume Appolinaire (1880 – 1918) was one of the more influential French poets of the early 20th century, influencing Surrealism, Dadaism, Cubism, and Futurism. After finishing school, he worked as a bank clerk, but simultaneously associated himself with many of the Paris-based artists and writers of the day, such as Picasso and George Braques. He died in 1918 of a head wound that he had received two years previously on the front lines during World War I. His two major poetry collections are Alcools: Poemes 1898-1913 and Calligrammes: Poemes de la Paix de la Guerre.
10. Paul Eluard
Early in his life, Paul Eluard (1895 – 1952), a Parisian, excelled in English and became familiar with poets such as Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Appolinaire, in addition to many of the Russian classics. He also served in World War I as a medic. This background and experience would shape his writing. He wrote a number of books during his life, including a poetry collection, Le Livre Ouvert (The Open Book), which was published while France was occupied by the Nazis. During World War II, his poem “Liberté” was dropped into Europe by the British Air Force as anti-Nazi propoganda.
If you love poetry, want to practice or improve your French, or hope to explore some new literature, look up these poets and their works. Poetry can be both more and less difficult than ordinary prose, so be prepared for a new challenge!
Carol Beth L. teaches French lessons in San Francisco, CA. She has her Masters in French language education from the Sorbonne University in Paris and has been teaching since 2009. Learn more about Carol Beth here!
Feature photo by G Morel