1 September 2019 Susannah

Jacques Prévert & Déjeuner du Matin

Déjeuner du Matin by Jacques Prévert

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.

I’ve made a video about this favourite poem of mine. Watch it here on my YouTube Channel.

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 (22)

  1. Alanna

    When I studied this poem one of the main things that is apparent is that we actually don’t know who the speaker is. Often people assume that it’s a female, a lover. But it could also be a child. It could also be a male. There is nothing in the poem that indicates who the speaker is, but our preconceived ideas of what a relationship is come to the surface in our assumptions. I think this is actually the most beautiful facet of the writing, that we don’t know.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, very good point. It could well be another man. I somehow don’t think it’s a child, because the emotions are too complex and it does seem to be an adult point of view, but I agree it adds to the universality and mysteriousness of the poem. It’s a fabulous poem, isn’t it.

  2. Could you share some insights into the challenges that poetry often faces in translation, particularly in terms of the compressed and carefully chosen language that is characteristic of poetry? What motivated you to introduce readers to Jacques Prévert’s poem “Déjeuner du Matin” (Breakfast), and what are you hoping readers will take away from experiencing both the original French and the English translation of the poem?

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have always loved the poem and hoped to share my enjoyment of it with other readers. Translating poetry is ahrd because you lose the rhythm and rhyme.

  3. Mrs Veronica C Ashworth

    One of my favourite poems too.
    I use it when teaching the perfect tense.

  4. I love this poem, I heard a few years ago while studying French, Our teacher read it out to us in class , I think he referred to it as The Cup, that evening he told us to take it home to learn it by the following week and he wanted us to tell him what we thought the poem was about. I was last to say what I thought about it, I told him that I thought it was about the end of a love affair or marriage that had come to an end and that the woman sat and watched him make his coffee, put on his coat, collected his umbrella and walked out of the house into the rain without saying a word to her. But Stewart wasn’t happy with my answer and said I was wrong, but one of the other ladies preferred my answer. I think I was almost right.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I do’t think there are any rights and wrongs on this one. Clearly the poem is about a quarrell between the man and the woman, and about her misery over the relationship and where it is at. We don’t know if they are married, but he does seem to live there, since they are obviously used to breakfasting together and all his things seem to be in the house, so it is a pretty safe bet that they are married.
      It is such an evocative, intense poem, which says so much in so few lines. No poem I have ever discussed in my newsletter has resulted in so may comments!
      Happy New Year and may 2023 be full of good poems.

  5. Steve

    Thankyou. This was the first French poem I learned. That summer I met and fell in love with a beautiful Parisian woman. Our torrid romance lasted for two years.
    I will always cherish this moment in time. 😔

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh goodness, the poem must really resonate with you! It’s so wonderful, isn’t it. If only we could travel to Paris right now.

  6. GRAHAM HENEGHAN

    When there are no more words to be said.
    The begging is over.
    The trying is dead.
    No more words to be said…

    This poem, Déjeuner du Matin, has haunted me for years. Finally I Googled, ‘Une tasse de Cafe,’ and came across your beautiful website. What a goldmine I discovered your words are like jewels, nuggets of knowledge and insights. Thank you.

    I left school in England at 16 years not knowing the Alphabet! When at 23 I met my first wife, Mireille, picking grapes in Brittany, she had to teach me English Grammar so I could try and learn French! DING-BLOODY-DONG!

    Never did become fluent but love the emotion of the French language. Je parle français come une vache espagnole.

    I especially enjoyed the YouTube video by James Hoyle.

    Never much of a book reader but I love words… So Susannah I especially thank you for opening up a treasure chest of words…

    – Graham –

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for your kind words, Graham. I do so love that poem and am glad that my French is good enough to read and enjoy it in the original language.
      Do sign up for my monthly newsletter, ‘Notes from a Book Addict’ which is free and comes out on the first day of each month. I’d love to share my passion for literature with you.

  7. Kevin

    What a beautiful and melancholy rendition of this touching poem. Merci beaucoup. Our French mistress taught us the poem at school in Ireland over 50 years ago. To this day I can still recite the poem in French from memory.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t it a fabulous poem. You were lucky to get it at school. My French teacher never gave us any poems.

  8. Cassandra

    Discovered your post when looking for a picture of black coffee—I found it deeply moving and especially appreciated the reading (video) in French.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so glad you enjoyed the poem. Do visit my website and join up for my free monthly newsletter, ‘Notes from a Book Addict’. That way, you will get a lovely poem to enjoy every month.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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