by Leconte de Lisle

Midsummer is now upon us with days of oppressive heat and cloudless skies.  For more Northern people, it can be hard to take and we often end up panting in precious corners of shade and waiting for the cooler times of evening, to take up our lives again.

The Romantic movement in poetry (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats) spread its influence to France, where it promptly splintered into a dozen different branches, as the need to express a personal response to emotion and to nature grew into the Arts for Art’s Sake movement – called with typical modesty, Les Parnassiens (dwellers in Parnassus, the home of the gods) – the Art for Artifice’s Sake group, the lovers of the morbid, like Baudelaire with his Fleurs de Mal (Flowers of Evil)  and the Symbolists.

Leconte de Lisle was the greatest of the Parnassiens and laid strong emphasis on poetic skills, rhyme, imagery and word music, preferring to express his emotional response indirectly through the flow and word painting of his work.  He shows the picture, and leaves you to feel his response.  The ending draws on the contemporary fascination with oriental mysticism which appears also in the poems of W B Yeats.


This poem is hard to understand for those who have never lived in the Midi, or southern part of France, but once the hot summer days have been experienced, it makes perfect sense.  De Lisle was a native of Réunion, where he grew up with even hotter and more overwhelming summers.  As it is longer and the vocabulary is more demanding than in some of my other choices, I have alternated the French with the English version.

Midi (from Poèmes Antiques)

Midi, roi des étés, épandu sur la plaine,
Tombe en nappes d’argent des hauteurs du ciel bleu,
Tout se tait. L’air flamboie et brule sans haleine ;
La terre est assoupie en sa robe de feu.

Midday, king of summer, spread out over the plain,
Falls in silver sheets from the heights of the blue sky
All is silent.  The air flames and burns breathlessly;
The land is drowsy in its robe of fire.

L’étendue est immense, et les champs n’ont point d’ombre,
Et la source est tarie où buvaient les troupeaux ;
La lointaine forêt, dont la lisière est sombre,
Dort là-bas, immobile, en un pesant repos.

The spread of light is immense, and the fields lack any shade,
And the spring is dried up, where the herds used to drink;
The distant forest, whose borders are shaded,
Sleeps there, unmoving, in a weighty repose.

Seuls, les grands blés mûris, tels qu’une mer dorée,
Se déroulent au loin, dédaigneux du sommeil,
Pacifiques enfants de la terre sacrée,
Ils épuisent sans peur la coupe du soleil.

Alone, the great fields of ripe corn, like a gilded sea,
Roll away in the distance, disdaining sleep,
Peaceful children of the sacred soil,
They fearlessly drain the cup of sunlight.

Parfois, comme un soupir de leur âme brulante,
Du sein des épis lourds qui murmurent entre eux,
Une ondulation majestueuse et lente
S’éveille, et va mourir a l’horizon poudreux.

At times, like a sigh from their burning souls,
From the heart of the heavy ears which murmur together,
A majestic and slow wave in the corn
Awakes and goes to die on the dusty horizon.

Non loin, quelques bœufs blancs, couchés parmi les herbes,
Bavent avec lenteur sur leurs fanons épais,
Et suivent de leurs yeux languissants et superbes
Le songe intérieur qu’ils n’achèvent jamais.

Not far away, some white cattle, lying in the grass,
Dribble slowly on their thick dewlaps,
And with their proud and languishing eyes, follow
The interior dream which they will never fulfil.

Homme, si, le cœur plein de joie ou d’amertume,
Tu passais vers midi dans les champs radieux,
Fuis, la nature est vide et le soleil consume :
Rien n’est vivant ici, rien n’est triste ou joyeux.

Man, if with a heart full of joy or bitterness
You passed at midday in the sunlit fields,
Flee, nature is empty and the sun consumes it:
Nothing lives here, nothing is sad or joyful.

Mais si, désabusé des larmes et du rire,
Altéré de l’oubli de ce monde agité
Tu veux, ne sachant plus pardonner ou maudire,
Gouter une suprême et morne volupté,

But if, purged of tears and laughter,
Thirsting for forgetfulness of this restless world,
And no longer knowing whether to forgive or curse,
You wish to taste a final and gloomy pleasure,

 Viens !  Le soleil te parle en paroles sublimes;
Dans sa flamme implacable absorbe-toi sans fin ;
Et retourne à pas lents vers les cités infimes,
Le cœur trempé sept fois dans le néant divin.

Come!  The sun speaks to you in sublime words,
Let yourself be absorbed endlessly in its implacable flame;
And return with slow steps to the mean and petty cities,
Your heart steeped seven times in divine nothingness.




Leave a Comment