What French Poets Can Teach Us About Love
Apr 14, 2024

What French Poets Can Teach Us About Love

What French Poets Can Teach Us About Love
Julien Mainguy

French and based in Vancouver since 2014, Julien Mainguy is the co-founder of Best of France. Passionate about the cultural difference between Canada and Europe, he is leading numerous projects to create awareness, help people grow, and bring communities together.

If a language draws unanimous consent regarding its beauty and romanticism, it is French. Sensual, flowing, elegant: poets celebrated the French language through their art over the centuries. The universal theme of love was one of their primary sources of inspiration, whether for its brightest or darkest sides. Poets often teach us valuable lessons about relationships by sharing their personal experiences and bringing their unique perspectives and tone. To combine powerful life lessons with beautiful moments of poetry, we prepared a selection of the finest French love poems.

The Ups and Downs of Relationships

Nous dormirons ensemble, Louis Aragon

Que ce soit dimanche ou lundi - Be it Sunday or Monday
Soir ou matin minuit midi - Evening or morning, midnight, midday
Dans l'enfer ou le paradis - In hell or paradise
Les amours aux amours ressemblent - Love to love resembles
C'était hier que je t'ai dit - It was yesterday that I told you 
Nous dormirons ensemble - We will go to bed together

This short yet powerful poem is structured in three stanzas representing the succession of stages in a relationship. The opening stanza is about the passion of the beginnings. The poet highlights the unconditionality of this passionate love “be it Sunday or Monday”, “in hell or paradise”. The second stanza introduces the routine installing itself after some time. This routine is not presented as something negative since it is associated with the development of a deep and tender love. That is the moment where trust is built as the poet “puts [his] heart in [her] hands”. In the closing stanza, Aragon implies that death is the only thing separating two people in love by making allusions to a funeral. Even if death sets them apart, his love will remain intact “as long as [she] wants” it.

The lesson: Passion is temporary. Love naturally evolves over time, but that does not make it any less valuable.

Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux, Louis Aragon

Il n’y a pas d’amour qui ne soit à douleur - There is no love that is not in pain
Il n’y a pas d’amour dont on ne soit meurtri - There is no love from which one is not withered
Il n’y a pas d’amour dont on ne soit flétri - There is no love that is not bruised
Il n’y a pas d’amour qui ne vive de pleurs - There is no love that does not live on tears
Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux - There is no happy love
Mais c’est notre amour à tous les deux - But it is our love

Louis Aragon is not one to romanticize only the brightest sides of love. This longer poem refers to the sad moments associated with romantic relationships. Every stanza ends with the same verse, “there is no happy love,” reminding the reality of the situation. According to the poet, true love cannot be dissociated from pain. However, the poem ends on a high note: even during bad times, lovers share unique emotions and experiences, making the beauty of their relationship. 

The lesson: No romantic relationship is perfect. Going through difficult times is normal, and overcoming them together makes the relationship unique and strong.

The Intensity of Love

Air vif, Paul Eluard

L’été l’hiver je t’ai vue - Summer and winter I saw you
Dans ma maison je t’ai vue - In my house I saw you
Entre mes bras je t’ai vue - In my arms I saw you
Dans mes rêves je t’ai vue - In my dreams I saw you
Je ne te quitterai plus - I will never leave you

Short and accessible by its simplicity, this poem is probably the most famous by its author Paul Eluard. It tells the story of a man so hypnotized by the woman he loves that he sees her everywhere he looks. He enumerates all the contradictory places and times where she appears to him, whether in reality or in his dreams. The repetition of “I saw you” at the end of most verses reflects his obsession with her. In the second stanza, there is an allusion to the ups and downs of relationships with the contrast of the elements “water” and “fire”. He also appreciates that this woman is present in moments of “laughter” and “torments”. In the last verse, the tense switches from past to future, showing the future that this woman represents for the poet.

The lesson: Love can be so intense that you cannot think about anything else, and your whole world revolves around that person. This obsession can sometimes become unhealthy when it completely invades your thoughts. 

Je respire où tu palpites, Victor Hugo

Je respire où tu palpites, - I breathe where you pulse
Tu sais ; à quoi bon, hélas ! - You know, what’s the use, alas!
Rester là si tu me quittes, - To stay here if you leave me
Et vivre si tu t'en vas ?” - And live if you go

In this poem, we can feel the poet's desperation about losing his loved one. He is questioning the value of his life. This poem can represent at the same time a separation or a grieving process. It seems that the poet is completely lost without her. He does not even know "what to desire", "what to be afraid of", or "what to do with life" if she is not by his side anymore. Like the previous one from Paul Eluard, this poem by Victor Hugo is a pure testimony of passion. It reflects how the world falls apart when losing the ones we love

The lessons: Passion can be detrimental to the well-being of someone when they become dependent on the other person to be happy. The grieving process involves a step of questioning the value of life and feeling that it is not worth living anymore. 

L’isolement, Alphonse de Lamartine

Un seul être vous manque et tout est dépeuplé. - Only one person is missing and the whole world seems depopulated

You probably already heard this famous quote. It comes from the poem L’Isolation, written by Lamartine. When his muse passes away, he is so overwhelmed with grief that he isolates himself from the world in the countryside. He writes this poem as he observes the surrounding nature and meditates about the sense of his life. We can feel the melancholy and sadness that brings him to make several allusions about leaving this world. Even the beauty of the natural landscape does not make him feel anything. The scene occurs at dawn, thus implying that the landscape is inevitably disappearing under his eyes, just like his loved one disappeared from his life.

The lesson:  The deep sadness and loneliness felt when losing a loved one can make you insensitive to the beauty of the world around you. 

The Questioning of Sexuality 

Une saison en enfer, Arthur Rimbaud

L'amour est à réinventer, on le sait - Love has to be reinvented, we know it

Given the mindset of the society at the time where most poets lived, we could think that homosexuality cannot be found in poetry. However, some artists like Arthur Rimbaud make implicit references to it in their works. A young prodigy, he wrote his first poems at age 15 and rapidly became a figure in French literature. Rimbaud is also famous for his tumultuous homosexual relationship with another French poet: Paul Verlaine. 

Verlaine once abandoned his wife to be with Rimbaud, who was only 17 then. He ended up returning to her, only to realize later that he wanted to be with Rimbaud. The two lovers lived for a year in London since their homosexuality caused a scandal in France. After many scenes of violence from an alcoholic Rimbaud, Verlaine escapes to Brussels and thinks about ending his life. Rimbaud will come to find him to announce the end of the relationship. Drunk and angry, Verlaine shoots Rimbaud in the wrist and ends up incarcerated.

It is after that tragic event that Rimbaud starts to write Une saison en enfer. This book relates the time he spent in London with Verlaine, his torments, and his homosexuality. He will even send a copy of it autographed “no hard feelings” to the prison where Verlaine is incarcerated.

The lesson:  Love is stronger than public opinion. Even when homosexuality was almost considered a crime, these two poets had the courage to leave everything behind to live their love story. 

The Pain of a Separation

Le pont Mirabeau, Guillaume Apollinaire

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine - Under the Mirabeau bridge flows the Seine
Et nos amours - And our love
Faut-il qu'il m'en souvienne - Must it remind me?
La joie venait toujours après la peine - Joy always came after pain
Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure - Let come the night let ring the hours
Les jours s’en vont je demeure - Days go by I remain

This famous poem by Guillaume Apollinaire talks about lost love by comparing it to the flow of the river Seine under the Mirabeau bridge in Paris. Love that once existed is going away like the water under the bridge. The syntax of the poem itself also illustrates the rupture. Instead of having all verses of 10 syllables like it would be the norm, the second and third verses of each stanza are cut into 6 and 4 syllables, thus creating a sensible rupture in the rhythm.

Rumour has it that a breakup experienced by Apollinaire inspired this poem. Its title would come from the fact that the poet once had to cross the Mirabeau bridge to see his lover. To commemorate his work, a plaque containing the poem's first part was installed on the Mirabeau bridge.

The lesson: When love is going away, there is nothing that can stop that from happening.

Green, Paul Verlaine

Voici des fruits, des fleurs, des feuilles et des branches - Here are fruits, flowers, leaves and branches
Et puis voici mon cœur qui ne bat que pour vous - And here is my heart that beats only for you
Ne le déchirez pas avec vos deux mains blanches - Do not tear it with your two white hands
Et qu’à vos yeux si beaux l’humble présent soit doux - And may the humble gift be sweet to your beautiful eyes.

Remember that Verlaine left his wife to go to London with his lover Rimbaud? And that he ended up incarcerated for shooting at him? Well, he wrote this poem during his time in prison. Confused about his feelings and his homosexuality, this poem expresses his desire to obtain forgiveness from his wife. 

The title “green” represents his exile in England and the linguistic separation between them. It also refers to the theme of nature which is strongly present throughout the poem. Green can be an image of spring and the notion of starting fresh. In the poem, Verlaine completely idealizes his wife: she is young, has beautiful eyes, and pale skin. These are the beauty standards at the time. We can feel his despair as he offers “humbly” his heart to her, hoping that she will not reject his love. When knowing the bigger picture, we can think that this declaration is not motivated by his passion but more by the fear of being alone. Unfortunately for him, his wife will not forgive him and will later obtain a divorce.

The lesson: Being desperate for someone to love you can sometimes be for the wrong reasons. The fear of being alone can be mistaken for love.

The Basis of Long-lasting Relationships

Le petit prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur, l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. - It is only with the heart that one can see clearly, the essential is invisible to the eyes

With versions existing in 288 languages and dialects, Le Petit Prince is the most translated book in the world. It is considered a philosophic tale, perfectly accessible to children but hiding valuable life lessons.

The main character, a little prince, comes from another planet and goes to Earth. In one of the scenes, he sees flowers that look exactly like one he has on his planet. But for him, his rose is unique because he chose it and has memories with it. The Little Prince represents the innocence and spontaneity of feelings: where humans would see it as just a rose, he thinks with his heart and sees what cannot be seen.

The lesson: The most important things in the world are those we cannot see; they are those we feel. Thinking with the heart is essential not to miss on beautiful moments and persons.

Terre des hommes, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

L’expérience nous montre qu’aimer ce n’est pas nous regarder l’un l’autre, mais regarder ensemble dans la même direction. - Experience shows that loving is not gazing at each other, but looking together in the same direction

Throughout his work, Saint-Exupéry addresses various topics like friendship, courage, perseverance, but also love. He regularly highlights the different ways of loving. In Terre des Hommes, a collection of autobiographical essays, he starts a reflection on the real significance of loving someone. According to him, feelings are not enough; having a shared vision of the future is also essential.

The lesson: Loving each other is insufficient to build a long-lasting relationship. Having the same vision and projects for the future is what creates a deeper connection and makes a relationship successful.