Jacques Brel

The poet is the only constant in human's history. There was no scientist before Los Alamos. Newton was a natural philosopher. They already disappeared and now became engineers, technicians or of the computer variety.

There have been poets since the dawn of man. Brel was the French language poet of our time. The universe he painted is no less poignant than the one of Rimbaud, the greatest of them. As a rather secondary issue, Brel's prose was set to music. He was the composer of his songs, a moving interpreter of them and—this is where he stands up in the crowd of talents as one of those with this distinctive touch of genius that engraves their creation into immortality—he was a uniquely inspired writer who could mould with words naked emotions. He was a poet.

His vocabulary is not sophisticated but his constructions are admirable, using oxymoron, puns, neologisms, familiar expressions, powerful metaphors, insightful analogies and, most of all, powerful poetic images.

In Les amants de cœur, for instance, he captures in less than five minutes all the gamuts of the most complex, rich and inexpressible human feeling, love, naturally, from febrility of its birth, peaking to violent sensuality, then in the grip of possession, shaking of fear and jealousy before, ultimately, slowly, decaying of boredom or habits. And starting again. A common theme of Brel.

How does he, the poet, describe this violent sensuality, which, even to speak about at a distance, I can only put in crude words. This is how Words can convey elegantly and forcefully what is too intense and explicit to picture:

Ils s'aiment s'aiment à la folie
S'effeuillant à l'ombre des feux
Se découvrant comme deux fruits
Puis se trouvant n'être plus deux
Se dénouant comme velours
Se reprenant au petit jour
Et s'endormant les plus heureux
Les amants
Les amants de coeur
Les amants

I would like to work out a decent translation but this would require much work. There are a lot of transitive verbs which are awkward to render in English. A quite literate transcription could be:

They love each other, love each other till madness (1)
Dropping their leaves in the shadow of fires
Discovering themselves like two fruits (2)
Then finding not being two anymore
Untying like velvet
Recovering in the morning (3)
And sleeping the most happily
The lovers
The heart-loving lovers
The lovers

(1) in French, "à la folie", till madness, is a cute, childlike expression to say totally. In this way the author renders the candour and naivety of the passionate lovers.

(2) se découvrant has double meaning of discovering themselves, the sense I keep in the translation, and, following the previous sentence, uncovering, with which the author tactfully describes the two lovers undressing. Removing clothes like peeling a fruit, he makes this sensual action as smooth and innocent as could be, still keeping a strong sense of the excitement of the fruit that is to be consumed. The two fruits is another quite explicit metaphor, but still cast in a language of Eden.

(3) The French original is nowhere so gross as what should be the literate translation, along the lines of Having each other again in the morning. Se reprenant would rather evoke to recover oneself or to take back control of oneself, although the intended meaning flows naturally and elegantly from context. My English wordings above plays a little bit on the ambiguity like the French original. After Uncovering themselves, the two lovers later re-cover, with implied meaning of, recovering from the passionate night, but innocently stated, in such simple words.

In the song, when this part is sung, a lascivious trumpet enters to accompany the lyrics "in the act".

It's fun to outline this most explicit of the episodes of a love relationship. As I said, though, this is only one stage in the evolution of the love story. I like how, later, in two lines, he describes the agony of jealousy:

Chaque seconde est une peur
Qui croque le cœur entre ses dents

My (again, rather literal) translation:

Each second is a fear
That crunches the heart in its teeth

Everything is here: an eternity of ceaseless fear. And how could one make this lover's fear more painful?

This is five strophes, that are really four, the last one starting anew the cycle by repeating the first one. Four strophes that encompass in a masterful concision and depth essentially all that makes a lovers' relationship. I took this example because it makes a clear demonstration of the mastery of the author to explore meaningfully and creatively a powerful and rich theme without having to write a novel or a saga.

As a true writer and poet, however, Brel explored all themes. Let us have a glimpse, for instance, at Les désespérés where he sings the march to their end of those who commit suicide. After a sad prologue of desolation, opened by a single key note on the piano, the song culminates in these two sentences that glorify the terrible act, by freeing the desperate ones from all that brought them here:

Et en dessous du pont, l'eau est douce et profonde.
Voici la bonne hôtesse, voici la fin du monde.

My literal translation:

And below the bridge (1), the water is soft and deep (2)
Here is the good hostess, here is the end of the world.

(1) The construction Et en dessous du pont is a beautiful one, not the most natural (one would say Et sous le pont, that is the proper translation of And below the bridge). It has a touch of precipitation, of exaltation.

(2) One does not see water as simultaneously soft (like the blue and shallow water of a tropical beach) and deep (like the open sea, the ocean or a canal), if not in precisely this context where softness is brought by death of a sinking body, finding all the space it needs to disappear. This is repeated in the next sentence: the good hostess (or happy, or merry) is annihilation. This usage of oxymoron succeed in making a repulsive act, of self-destruction, a glorious and relieving one.

A biography

The following is a slightly adapted version of the text I wrote for the Wikipedia in July 2003 [1] (I kept most of my awkward English of the time). Interestingly, bits of it have survived in the version of today. [2]

Jacques Brel was a Belgian author-composer with such a strong power of expression in his lyrics that many consider him a poet as well. He also had some minor activity as an actor and director. He was born in Schaarbeek, Belgium, a small city north of Brussels.

In the early 1950s he went to Paris, writing music and singing in the city cabarets and music-halls where on stage he expressed his songs with grand physical gestures. By 1956 he was touring Europe and he recorded the song Quand on n'a que l'amour that brought him his first major recognition.

His thematics covers almost all aspects of whatever fits to artistic expression, especially about love (Je t'aime, Litanies pour un retour, Dulcinéa), society (Les singes, Les bourgeois, Jaurès) and spiritual concerns (Le bon Dieu, Dites, si c'était vrai, Fernand). No style constrains him entirely. He was as efficient in funny compositions (Les bonbons, Le lion, Comment tuer l'amant de sa femme...) as in heart-breaking texts (Voir un ami pleurer, Fils de..., Jojo). His acute perception made him an innovative and creative painter of the daily life with rare poetic easiness. He was indeed a master in poetic constructs. He had both intelligence of striking and stunningly simple wordings and very picturial and meaningful vocabulary. None other like him could put as much novelty and meaning in a sentence from a few words of common use. He had also a bright sense of metaphors, as in Je suis un soir d'été where the narrator is a summer's evening telling what he observes as he falls on a city. Although a master with lyrics, also his musical themes were of the first standard and also here no style captures him entirely. He composed both rythmic, lively and captivating tunes (L'aventure, Rosa, Au printemps) as well as sad and solemn songs (La quête, J'en appelle, Pourquoi faut-il que les hommes s'ennuient?)

He is widely recognized in French-speaking countries as among the best composers of all times in this language.

He played in the musical l'homme de la Mancha that he also directed and appeared in films without however displaying abilities of any comparison with his musical performances. For twenty years he was a major star gaining recognition beyong French audiences. In 1973 he retreated to French Polynesia, remaining there until 1977 when he returned to Paris and recorded his final album.

Jacques Brel died of lung cancer and was buried in the Altuona Cemetery, Altuona, Hiva-Oa, Iles Marquises, French Polynesia only a few yards away from painter Paul Gauguin.


  • If you don't know Brel, those are a few random links that should give you an idea... [3], [4], [5] and [6] or [7].
  • Brel parle.