French Book Week: From SURREALIST, LOVER, RESISTANT by Robert Desnos, translated by Timothy Adès

No Spitting

To Georges Gautré

No spitting on the ground

and the ceiling’s round.

A chicken laid an egg [or so I’m told]

on the well-stuffed chairs of leather and gold

but never shall any cockerel 

hatch as a Poussin from that chick-shell.

Eggs boiled in their shells

that no-one broke, though

Come an Orinoco

buccaneer in his native gear.

Mouth like a tenor, what a gaper

Jean Richepin reads a learned paper

on Nanterre’s May-Queen, rosed and crowned,

NO SPITTING ON THE GROUND.

Il est Interdit de Cracher

À Georges Gautré

Il est interdit de cracher par terre 

et le plafond est de forme circulaire. 

Une poule a pondu 

sur les fauteuils de cuir et d’or 

mais nul coq du futur 

n’en sortira jamais Poussin.

Les œufs à la coque nul ne les a brisés 

Vienne un bandit de l’Orénoque 

en Peau-Rouge déguisé. 

Bouche ouverte à l’instar d’un ténor 

Jean Richepin lit un discours 

sur la rosière de Nanterre, 

IL EST INTERDIT DE CRACHER PAR TERRE


The Road

Hereabouts there is a road

Where I hear the cars go by,

The wind, and the uncertain plod

Of a heavy entity,

Coming, going, with a sigh,

Stumbling on the stones, and I

Hear it beg and plead and die.

Is it guttersnipe or god?

Heavily one hand he raises

To the meadow of his hair,

He delineates caresses,

Clamps the nervous fingers there.

Then his other parts all rush

Helter-skelter to the moon

And the sun gilds with its brush

The big beast of the lagoon.

Is it Hercules? Or Atlas?

Striding on across the plain

Falls full-length, no cry of pain,

Winded in the solar plexus.

Blotting out the countryside

He obliterates the place,

Not a single mountainside, 

Not a pathway, not a trace.

Less real than mirror-images

The man who would be disappears,

Dictator of the centuries,

The winds, the nights, the days, the years.

La Route 

Une route est près d’ici, 

J’entends le bruit des voitures, 

Le vent, les pas indécis 

D’une lourde créature 

Qui va, qui vient, qui soupire, 

Trébuche sur les cailloux, 

Implore, mendie, expire. 

Est-ce un dieu? Est-ce un voyou? 

Lourdement sa main se dresse 

Sur la prairie des cheveux. 

Elle esquisse une caresse 

Et crispe ses doigts nerveux. 

Enfin le restant du corps 

Surgit droit jusqu’aux nuages 

Et le soleil couvre d’or 

Le géant des marécages. 

Est-ce Hercule? Ou est-ce Atlas? 

Il marche à travers la plaine. 

De son long sans un hélas 

Il tombe et perd son haleine. 

Il recouvre de sa masse 

Le paysage en entier 

Et puis plus rien, plus de trace, 

Ni colline, ni sentier. 

Moins réel que les mirages 

Ainsi disparaît celui 

Qui voulait dicter aux âges, 

Aux vents, aux jours et aux nuits.


To Conquer Day, To Conquer Night

To conquer day, to conquer night,

To conquer time’s insistent hold,

This world of tumult and of quiet,

My thirst, my fate, my depth of cold.

To rule this heart and lay it bare,

To crush this body stuffed with fable,

To plunge it in the void, somewhere

Unknowable, impenetrable.

To smash the idols of the past

And hurl them down the blackest drains,

Recover hope from hate’s disdains,

Turn evil speech to good at last.

My time is spent and I am through:

Paris, you bled my arteries.

I am the hanged man, hung on you,

I, this free soul who laughs and cries.

Published posthumously, July 1947, in Les Regrets de Paris.

Vaincre le Jour, Vaincre la Nuit

Vaincre le jour, vaincre la nuit, 

Vaincre le temps qui colle à moi, 

Tout ce silence, tout ce bruit, 

Ma faim, mon destin, mon horrible froid. 

Vaincre ce cœur, le mettre à nu, 

Écraser ce corps plein de fables 

Pour le plonger dans l’inconnu, 

Dans l’insensible, dans l’impénétrable. 

Briser enfin, jeter au noir 

Des égouts ces vieilles idoles, 

Convertir la haine en espoir, 

En de saintes les mauvaises paroles. 

Mais mon temps n’est-il pas perdu? 

Tu m’a pris tout le sang, Paris. 

À ton cou je suis ce pendu, 

Ce libertaire qui pleure et qui rit.


The Countryside

I dreamed of loving. Still I love, but now

Love is no more that rose and lilac spray

Whose perfume filled the woods where each pathway

Led on directly to the blazing glow

I dreamed of loving. Still I love, but now

Love’s not that storm whose lightning kindled high

Towers, unhorsed, unhinged, and fleetingly

Would set the parting of the ways aglow.

Love is the flint my footstep sparks at night,

The word no lexicon can render right,

Foam of the sea, the cloud across the sky.

Old age makes all things fixed and luminous:

Knots are unravelled, streets anonymous; 

Set in our ways, the countryside and I.

Le Paysage 

J’avais rêvé d’aimer. J’aime encor mais l’amour 

Ce n’est plus ce bouquet de lilas et de roses 

Chargeant de leurs parfums la forêt où repose 

Une flamme à l’issue de sentiers sans détour. 

J’avais rêvé d’aimer. J’aime encor mais l’amour 

Ce n’est plus cet orage où l’éclair superpose 

Ses bûchers aux châteaux, déroute, décompose, 

Illumine en fuyant l’adieu du carrefour. 

C’est le silex en feu sous mon pas dans la nuit, 

Le mot qu’aucun lexique au monde n’a traduit 

L’écume sur la mer, dans le ciel ce nuage. 

À vieillir tout devient rigide et lumineux, 

Des boulevards sans noms et des cordes sans nœuds. 

Je me sens me roidir avec le paysage.

Here is the translator, Timothy Adès reading Robert Desnos’s Le Paysage / Countryside

By Robert Desnos

Translated by Timothy Adès

From Surrealist, Lover, Resistant by Robert Desnos, bilingual English / French edition, translated and with an introduction by Timothy Adès, published by Arc Publications (2017), part of Arc Classics: New Translations of Great Poets of the Past series edited by Jean Boase-Beier.

Thank you to Arc Publications for allowing us to publish these poems.


As a young man, Robert Desnos joined Breton’s Surrealist group and became the master of ‘automatic’ speech and writing. But by 1928, Desnos’ life had entered a turbulent phase – he had given up hoping for a relationship with Yvonne George, who was dying of drink and drugs, and instead looked for permanent happiness with Youki Foujita (Lucie Badaud), who later became his wife. During the Second World War, Desnos became an active resistant, writing many sonnets and anti-war poems, most of which he managed to get past the censor but in 1944, he was arrested and sent as a slave labourer to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald. He died of typhus at Terezin in June 1945. Like Brecht, Desnos wrote for a mass audience, albeit an imaginary one, but without Brecht’s specific politics, or his bitterness.


Timothy Adès is a translator-poet who tends to use rhyme and metre. Born in 1941, he learnt to write Latin and Greek verse at school, took a classical degree, and studied international business. Later, he started to translate poetry from modern languages. His award-winning version of Jean Cassou’s 33 Sonnets of the Resistance appeared in 2002 in the Arc Visible Poets series. Victor Hugo’s How to be a Grandfather appeared in 2002 (Complete Edition 2012) from Hearing Eye. Homer in Cuernavaca by Alfonso Reyes won the TLS Premio Valle-Inclán Prize, 2001, and Hugo’s Moscow, Waterloo, St Helena the John Dryden Prize in 2003. Versions of Brecht, Desnos, Louise Labé and many others have appeared in journals. In 2017, Arc Publications published his translation of Robert Desnos, Surrealist, Lover, Resistant.

Recent books are Florentino and the Devil by Alberto Arvelo Torrealba (Venezuela) and Loving by Will: Shakespeare’s sonnets rewritten without using letter E. Timothy runs a bookstall of translated poetry.

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