“Ô temps, suspends ton vol!”
o tah, sew-spah taw VUHL! Click below to hear this.*
“Oh Time, suspend your flight!”
If you made a list of the most famous lines in French poetry, this one would have to be somewhere near the top. Alphonse de Lamartine, one of the great Romantic poets of the 19th century, wrote this poem Le Lac around 1817, after learning that the woman he had met and loved the previous summer had died.
Would you like to read the poem in its entirety before reading on? Here’s a link to a blog page that includes an excellent translation from the French, by A.Z. Foreman. The French version is below the English version.
The speaker, in the poem, describes time with multiple “water” metaphors: le lac, les flots, l’océan, les ondes, les rivages (lake, tides, ocean, waves, shores). Like time, the lake is eternal yet fleeting. He addresses his plea to the lake: Ne pourrons-nous jamais sur l’océan des âges /
Jeter l’ancre un seul jour? He recalls how he sat by the lake with his mistress scarcely a year ago, and describes the peaceful scene.
Then his lover speaks, addressing not the lake, but time. Note how the meter changes in the stanzas where she is speaking, calling attention to the different (and “adored”) voice. The shortening of the second line of her stanzas gives a nervous, urgent quality to her words.
She begs time to stop: Ô temps, suspends ton vol! She acknowledges that many people, unhappy in life and living in misery, would beg time to speed up, and indeed, prays time to take away their cares. But Oubliez les heureux, she pleads, let those who are happy enjoy the leisurely passage of time.
The poet then resumes his apostrophe, speaking to the lake and all that surrounds it. If we cannot stop time, he says, at least let this lake, these rocks, these trees, the very shoreline, absorb and embody the memory of the love that he shared here. Let all who come here know that this place is imbued with love.
*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file: