Born at Constantinople in 1762 of a French father and Greek mother, André Chénier grew up in pre-revolutionary France and studied at Paris. Well-read, and enamored with ancient Greece, he is considered one of the last classicists in verse, and for his sentiment, a precursor to the romantics. He was executed by mistake in the Reign of Terror just two days before the fall of Robespierre. His poems, only two of which appeared during his lifetime, contain the famous Idylles, published 27 years after his death.


Art, feeble interpretation
Of the soul! Art and only verse,
While the heart alone is poet!
Oppressive to the fruitful mind
Are those adornments, which despite
Themselves, hide within such words
As truth and surety commit
To thought, the loss of thought itself.
The heart speaks, genius writes: master
To obey, his hand turns divine,
But only if loved and happy,
Freed of torment, only if joy
Light-hearted and ardent youth spread
Across his face their beaming glow,
Will his verse, as clear as amber,
Or as flowers blush, find renewed
With their fairest looks, a sweetness
To the world, and in ripe old age
A guide. But mild and generous
If his heart must endure the cries
Of betrayal, or if beauty,
The absurd leave him to bewail
The sting of burning sands alone,
From their long black veils, where only
Sorrow exists, the quickest death
Is best, his elegies lament.
Always truthful, against himself
He turns, expressing his desire
With blame or kind words. But so quick,
So fleeting, are thought’s vagaries,
When close, in its passing, he writes
With a need for the past always
Present, and a soundness of mind,
Life and soul himself to remind.


Original French

L’art, des transports de l’âme est un faible interprète:
L’art ne fait que des vers; le coeur seul est poète.
Sous sa fécondité le génie opprimé
Ne peut garder l’ouvrage en sa tête formé.
Malgré lui, dans lui-même un vers sûr et fidèle
Se teint de sa pensée et s’échappe avec elle.
Son coeur dicte; il écrit. A ce maître divin
Il ne fait qu’obéir et que prêter sa main,
S’il est aimé, content, si rien ne le tourmente,
Si la folâtre joie et la jeunesse ardente
Étalent sur son teint l’éclat de leurs couleurs,
Ses vers, frais et vermeils, pétris d’ambre et de fleurs,
Brillants de la santé qui luit sur son visage,
Trouvent doux d’être au monde et que vieillir est sage.
Si, pauvre et généreux, son coeur vient de souffrir
Aux cris d’un indigent qu’il n’a pas pu secourir;
Si la beauté qu’il aime, inconstante et légère,
L’oublie en écoutant une amour étrangère;
De sables douloureux, si ses flancs sont brûlés,
Ses tristes vers en deuil, d’un long crêpe voilés,
Ne voyant que des maux sur la terre où nous sommes,
Jugent qu’un prompt trépas est le seul bien des hommes.
Toujours vrai, son discours souvent se contredit,
Comme il veut, il s’exprime: il blâme, il applaudit.
Vainement la pensée est rapide et volage:
Quand elle est prête à fuir, il arrête au passage.
Ainsi, dans ses écrits partout se traduisant,
Il fixe le passé pour lui toujours présent,
Et sait, de se connaître ayant la sage envie,
Refeuilleter sans cesse et son âme et sa vie.


Douglas Thornton is a poet and English teacher living in France.  Please visit his blog at

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3 Responses

  1. E. V.

    Although it’s been over 30 years since I’ve studied French in school, I enjoyed reading the English version. You are very talented.

  2. C.B. Anderson

    I found this tough sledding, but that’s my fault, not yours.

  3. Leo Yankevich

    Here’s Google’s translation with a few fixes by me :

    Art, which transports the soul is a weak interpreter:
    Art is only worms; the only heart the poet.
    Under his fertility the oppressed genius
    Can not keep the work in his head formed.
    In spite of himself, in himself a sure and faithful verse
    Dyes her thoughts and escapes with her.
    His heart dictates; he writes. To this divine master
    He just obeys and lends his hand,
    If he is loved, happy, if nothing torments him,
    If the joy sports and the ardent youth
    Spread on their complexion the radiance of their colors,
    His worms, fresh and vermeil, dotted with amber and flowers,
    Brilliant health glowing on her face,
    Feel sweet to be in the world and grow old is wise.
    If, poor and generous, his heart has just suffered
    To the cries of a pauper whom he could not help;
    If the beauty he likes, inconstant and light,
    Forgets him by listening to a foreign love;
    Painful sands, if his flanks are burned,
    His sad verses in mourning, a long veiled crepe,
    Seeing only evils on the earth where we are,
    Judge that a speedy death is the only good of men.
    Always true, his speech often contradicts himself,
    As he wants, he expresses himself: he blames, he applauds.
    In vain the thought is fast and fickle:
    When she is ready to flee, he stops by.
    So, in his writings everywhere translating,
    He fixes the past for him always present,
    And knows, to know oneself having the wise desire,
    Recollect constantly and his soul and his life.

    Anyway, Googles does a better job.


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