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ON FREEDOM - Paul Éluard's poem

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

In 1936, the poet Paul Éluard helped to organise an exhibition of work by surrealists from across Europe. In June of that year, when the show opened at the New Burlington Galleries in Mayfair, London, Éluard addressed an audience of guests and colleagues, speaking in urgently political terms. “Surrealism,” he said, “is a state of mind” that “strives to reduce the differences between people”. He then described his experience as a soldier, fighting for France in the 1st World War, and how this was later thrown into perspective by an unexpected friendship:

“In February 1917, the Surrealist painter Max Ernst and I were at the front, hardly a mile away from each other. Max, a German gunner, was bombarding the trenches where I, a French infantryman, was on the look-out. Three years later, we were the best of friends and ever since we have fought fiercely side by side for the same cause: that of the total emancipation of human-kind.”

I read the text of this speech in June this year, as I researched my essay, Asylum, for Aeon, in which Éluard appears. Later the same day, I read Éluard’s poem Liberté. As with much of the material I had encountered since beginning work on the essay, the poem was completely new to me. I knew it had been published in France in 1942 as part of a clandestine collection and that it was then air-dropped by the British air forces in pamphlet form, across occupied territories, as an inspiration to the French Resistance. And it was this story, as well as Éluard’s 1936 Burlington Galleries speech, that illuminated the poem as I read it.

It’s written in the first person as an address to a second person. The 21 stanzas follow a pattern, each ending in the phrase, ‘I write your name’. For example, the first two:

On my school notebooks

On my desk and on the trees

On the sand on the snow

I write your name

On pages already read

On all the white pages

Stone blood paper or ash

I write your name

As I read, I pictured the two artists, Éluard and Ernst, facing one another across no-man’s-land. I read the ‘I’ as Éluard and the ‘you’ as Ernst: ignorant of one another and cast in deadly opposition by violent politics, yet carrying the flame of possibility, the hope of future friendship. I read the ‘you’, in fact, as every reader, every person living in Occupied France who found the poem stuck in a hedge or bloating in a puddle by the road; an unknown person, whom the poet had not met, could only imagine, but with whom he believed he shared a bond of common feeling. It was only when I reached the final stanza that this perspective collapsed, wound inwards, transformed through the realisation of the poem’s intent.

I suppose that’s why poetry can be magic. It reads you both ways at the same time.

Here is a recording of my own translation of Liberté. Below that is the text of my translation and, after that, the original French.


On my school notebooks

On my desk and on the trees

On the sand on the snow

I write your name

On pages already read

On all the white pages

Stone blood paper or ash

I write your name

On golden icons

On the weapons of warriors

On the crowns of kings

I write your name

On the jungle and the desert

On the nests on the broom

On the echo of my infancy

I write your name

On the wonders of night

On the white bread of days

On the beloved seasons

I write your name

On all my blue rags

On the pond weeded sun

On the lake living moon

I write your name

On the fields on the horizon

On the wings of birds

And on the mill of shadows

I write your name

On each puff of dawn

On the sea on the boats

On the crazed mountain

I write your name

On the froth of clouds

On the sweat of the thunderstorm

On the thick insipid rain

I write your name

On the glimmering forms

On the clamour of colours

On the stubborn truth

I write your name

On the wakened trails

On the routes deployed

On the overflowing squares

I write your name

On the lamp that shines

On the lamp gone out

On my home regained

I write your name

On the halved fruit

Of my mirror and my room

On my bed empty shell

I write your name

On my greedy and tender dog

On his prickling ears

On his clumsy paws

I write your name

On the sill of my door

On familiar things

On the flood of blessed fire

I write your name

On any willing flesh

On the foreheads of my friends

On each hand held out

I write your name

On the window of surprise

On attentive lips

High above the silence

I write your name

On my ruined asylums

On my fallen flares

On the walls of my boredom

I write your name

On the emptiness without desire

On naked solitude

On the marches of death

I write your name

On health returned

On vanished risk

On hope without memory

I write your name

And by the power of a word

I recommence my life

I was born to know you

To name you



Sur mes cahiers d'écolier

Sur mon pupitre et les arbres

Sur le sable de neige

J'écris ton nom

Sur les pages lues

Sur toutes les pages blanches

Pierre sang papier ou cendre

J'écris ton nom

Sur les images dorées

Sur les armes des guerriers

Sur la couronne des rois

J'écris ton nom

Sur la jungle et le désert

Sur les nids sur les genêts

Sur l'écho de mon enfance

J'écris ton nom

Sur les merveilles des nuits

Sur le pain blanc des journées

Sur les saisons fiancées

J'écris ton nom

Sur tous mes chiffons d'azur

Sur l'étang soleil moisi

Sur le lac lune vivante

J'écris ton nom

Sur les champs sur l'horizon

Sur les ailes des oiseaux

Et sur le moulin des ombres

J'écris ton nom

Sur chaque bouffée d'aurore

Sur la mer sur les bateaux

Sur la montagne démente

J'écris ton nom

Sur la mousse des nuages

Sur les sueurs de l'orage

Sur la pluie épaisse et fade

J'écris ton nom

Sur les formes scintillantes

Sur les cloches des couleurs

Sur la vérité physique

J'écris ton nom

Sur les sentiers éveillés

Sur les routes déployées

Sur les places qui débordent

J'écris ton nom

Sur la lampe qui s'allume

Sur la lampe qui s'éteint

Sur mes maisons réunies

J'écris ton nom

Sur le fruit coupé en deux

Du miroir et de ma chambre

Sur mon lit coquille vide

J'écris ton nom

Sur mon chien gourmand et tendre

Sur ses oreilles dressées

Sur sa patte maladroite

J'écris ton nom

Sur le tremplin de ma porte

Sur les objets familiers

Sur le flot du feu béni

J'écris ton nom

Sur toute chair accordée

Sur le front de mes amis

Sur chaque main qui se tend

J'écris ton nom

Sur la vitre des surprises

Sur les lèvres attendries

Bien au-dessus du silence

J'écris ton nom

Sur mes refuges détruits

Sur mes phares écroulés

Sur les murs de mon ennui

J'écris ton nom

Sur l'absence sans désir

Sur la solitude nue

Sur les marches de la mort

J'écris ton nom

Sur la santé revenue

Sur le risque disparu

Sur l'espoir sans souvenir

J'écris ton nom

Et par le pouvoir d'un mot

Je recommence ma vie

Je suis né pour te connaître

Pour te nommer


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