1 September 2019 Susannah

Déjeuner du Matin

Poetry usually loses a great deal in translation, more than do novels, plays or essays. The language of poetry is so compressed, so every word needs to be chosen with care, and all the nuances can so easily be lost when changed into another language. However, this month I’d like to introduce you to one of my favourite French poems by Jacques Prévert, and I’m hoping that many of you will remember enough classroom French, or are fluent enough, to be able to read the original as well as the translation. In French the poem is Déjeuner du Matin; in English it is Breakfast.

Déjeuner du Matin by Jacques Prévert

Il a mis le café
Dans la tasse
Il a mis le lait
Dans la tasse de café
Il a mis le sucre
Dans le café au lait
Avec la petite cuillere
Il a tourné
Il a bu le café au lait
Et il a reposé la tasse
Sans me parler

Il a allumé
Une cigarette
Il a fait des ronds
Avec la fumée
Il a mis les cendres
Dans le cendrier
Sans me parler
Sans me regarder
Il s’est levé
Il a mis
Son chapeau sur sa tête
Il a mis
Son manteau de pluie
Parce qu’il pleuvait
Et il est parti
Sous la pluie
Sans une parole
Sans me regarder

Et moi j’ai pris
Ma tête dans ma main
Et j’ai pleuré

ENGLISH
Breakfast by Jacques Prévert

He poured the coffee
Into the cup
He put the milk
Into the cup of coffee
He put the sugar
Into the coffee with milk
With a small spoon
He churned
He drank the coffee
And he put down the cup
Without any word to me

He lit
One cigarette
He made circles
With the smoke
He shook off the ash
Into the ashtray
Without any word to me
Without any look at me

He got up
He put on
His hat on his head
He put on
His raincoat
Because it was raining
And he left
Into the rain
Without any word to me
Without any look at me

And I buried
My face in my hands
And I cried.

The poem was written in 1946, soon after the ending of WWII. The French felt disillusioned and traumatised by war – their country had been invaded and controlled by Nazis. Reflecting national disenchantment, we get this domestic scene over the breakfast table, with an estranged husband and a despairing wife who sit across from each other as if they are strangers. Has he been involved in the war, is he suffering from combat stress, or has this couple simply reached the end of the road as far as their relationship goes?

The sentences of the poem are clipped, almost terse. The tense used is the passé composé, a tense that indicates a clear beginning and end. She watches him go through mechanical motions and he doesn’t even look at her – he just prepares coffee, lights his cigarette, smokes, then puts on his coat and heads into the wet, dreary outdoor world. She then sits and weeps. It’s an extremely simple poem and Prévert paints a powerful scene in very few words. The lines are packed with anxiety, uneasiness and tension.

Jacques Prévert in 1961

Jacques Prévert in 1961

Jacques Prévert (1900 – 1977) was a poet and screenwriter (one of his films was Les Enfants du paradis). He was the most popular French poet of the 20th C – his poems are frequently studied in French schools, but have also been translated into many other languages. Many have been set to music. He often attacked the rigid French education system of his day, and the Catholic Church. He mastered the art of the small poetic sketch that could catch a reader off guard.

You can listen to the poem in French which should remind you of just how beautiful the French language is. I love this poem and hope that, in spite of the language barrier, you will love it too.

Were you able to enjoy this poem in its native French? What emotions did it bring to you? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Body image credit- Jacques Prévert in 1961, https://lb.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Pr%C3%A9vert

Comments (6)

  1. Rosaleen Kirby

    Gosh Susannah,

    I can’t believe you chose this poem. It affected me profoundly when I first read it, when somebody gave me a collection of Jacques Prevert’s poetry, in 1975 and, despite its desperate melancholy, I have loved it ever since.

    Rose xxx

    • Susannah Fullerton

      So glad I chose a poem you love too. It is so terribly sad and so powerful.
      Ian and I are off to Turkey this week, but would love to catch up once we are back.

  2. David Castle

    Yes. very compact and moving. Thank you for the introduction. I love your choices of poetry.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks, David. I’m glad you also enjoyed the poem. It seems to be getting lots of positive feedback.

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