Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously, we’ve offered ten of the best poems about the city, ten of the best New York poems, and some of our favourite poems about London. Now, it’s time to hop across the Channel to the French capital, with ten of the greatest poems about Paris, from French, English, and American poets.
Charles Baudelaire, ‘Parisian Dream’. What better place to begin our pick of classic Paris poems with a poem by the nineteenth-century French writer who reinvented the way poets wrote about the city? Here, Baudelaire (1821-67) blends the real with the illusory, as the title suggests, appealing to art and architecture as he recalls a vivid dream of the city he experienced…
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Place de la Bastille, Paris’.
How dear the sky has been above this place!
Small treasures of this sky that we see here
Seen weak through prison-bars from year to year …
A leading poet and painter in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Rossetti (1828-82) uses this sonnet to reflect upon Paris’s bloody past, thinking back to a time when the Bastille prison stood upon this spot in the capital, before the Revolution of 1789.
Arthur Symons, ‘Paris’. Before T. S. Eliot subsumed the Symbolist method into his work, Symons (1865-1945) was pioneering Symbolist techniques to describe the city in his own poetry, and ‘Paris’ provides a nice example of this. We can clearly detect Baudelaire’s influence in particular:
My Paris is a land where twilight days
Merge into violent nights of black and gold;
Where, it may be, the flower of dawn is cold:
Ah, but the gold nights, and the scented ways …
Sara Teasdale, ‘Paris in Spring’. Teasdale (1884-1933) was an American poet, who wrote many poems set in cities both in America and Europe. Here, she describes Paris in springtime, taking in many of the locales around the city:
I know the Bois is twinkling
In a sort of hazy sheen,
And down the Champs the gray old arch
Stands cold and still between …
Ezra Pound, ‘In a Station of the Metro’. Perhaps the most famous very short poem about Paris, this two-line imagist masterpiece captures the sudden fleeting impression of the commuters at a Paris Metro station.
Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Zone’. Written in 1913, ‘Zone’ captures the experience of modern-day Paris, with the sound of aeroplanes and the sights of the city, advertisements and the bustle of the capital.
Hope Mirrlees, Paris: A Poem. Bearing the influence of Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’ as well as the work of other avant-garde French poets such as Blaise Cendrars and Jean Cocteau, Paris: A Poem (1919) was actually written by a British female poet, born to Scottish parents in Kent in 1887. Helen Hope Mirrlees lived in the French capital during the early twentieth century, and this 445-line poem is remarkably bold and innovative, blending as it does street signs and advertisements in the Paris Metro with allusions to Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and French painting, as we follow the female narrator through the streets of the city over the course of a whole day, from dawn till dusk and through to the dawning of a new day. It was out of print for much of the twentieth century, until the publication of Mirrlees’ Collected Poems in 2011. No pick of the best poems about Paris would be complete without this underrated gem – click on the link above to access a pdf of the first edition, via the Hope Mirrlees website.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Fourth Caprice in Montparnasse’. An early Eliot poem which was only first published in 1996, this was written by the young Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) while he was living in Paris between his studies at Harvard. By this stage, the young poet had already drafted his first remarkable poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ – but this little poem shows how the French capital as well as French culture – including French poetry – influenced the young American.
Charles Bukowski, ‘Paris’. Here’s an antidote to the paeans to Paris we’ve seen elsewhere on this list: a short free-verse poem in which the poet expresses his dislike for Camus, bicycles, and berets … and (building on this list of stereotypes) Paris itself.
James Fenton, ‘In Paris with You’. Paris may be the city of love, but in this poem, the contemporary English poet James Fenton (b. 1949) is ‘on the rebound’ from a previous relationship and in Paris with a new friend (lover?). The poem is gently comical, touching, and celebratory – the perfect note on which to end our selection of great Paris poems.
Discover more classic poetry with these birthday poems, short poems about death, and these classic war poems. We also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.