Favourite poem: Les éléphants

Favourite poem: Les éléphants

Favourite poem: Les éléphants

I think one would find it hard to find a person on the planet who does not love elephants. The French poet Paul Éluard – one of the founders of the surrealist movement – said ‘Elephants are contagious’, and I think he was right. Their size, their beauty, their slow, calm pace. There’s such a sense of wisdom in an elephant; you can imagine them looking down at us tiny humans, rushing about, bossing them about, and knowing better than us. And have you seen the movie Water for Elephants? There’s such a sense of magic and romance around the mighty creatures.

Being one of the majestic wild creatures that is native to Kenya, of course I wove elephants into my novel Burning Embers. Rafe takes Coral on a hot-air balloon trip high above the plains, affording her the opportunity to take photographs for an article she is writing on Africa. From the novel:

The balloon was still rising, its direction fixed by the whim of the wind. The air was crisp, a whispering light breeze hitting them in the face as the aircraft ascended. The passengers watched silently as the thrilling spectacle of nature’s daily life unfolded. They caught sight of a herd of elephants rushing toward a lake in the distance: massive, magnificent animals led by the female, their large ears flapping in the morning air.

I have mentioned before that one of the great sources of inspiration for me in writing Burning Embers was the poetry of flamboyant nineteenth-century Frenchman Leconte de Lisle; and I especially love his poem ‘Les éléphants’, which I think beautifully conveys the idea of the elephant’s calm, measured, ancient wisdom. My friend John Harding has translated the poem into English; but as usual I include the French as well, because there is such beauty in the sound of words. Take a moment to read the original poem aloud, and you will see what I mean.


The Elephants

The red sand is like an endless sea,

Blazing, wordless, slumped in its bed.

Unmoving waves stretch along

The horizon with its coppery fumes, man’s dwelling.


No life nor sound.  All the fed lions

Are sleeping deep in their dens a hundred leagues hence,

And the giraffe drinks from the blue springs,

Yonder, beneath the date-palms which the panthers know.


No bird goes by, beating with its wing

The dense air through which an immense sun goes round.

At times some boa, warmed in its sleep,

Ripples its back with glittering scales.


Likewise the kindled expanse burns beneath the unclouded heavens.

But, whilst everything slumbers in the cheerless emptiness,

The rugged elephants, those slow and clumsy travellers,

Cross the deserts to the country of their birth.


From a spot on the horizon, like brown lumps,

They come, throwing up the dust, and one can see that,

So as not to stray from the straightest path,

They make the distant dunes slip down under their broad and firm feet.


He who leads the way is an old chieftain.  His body

Is covered with cracks like a tree-trunk gnawed and consumed by the weather.

His head is like rock, and the curve of his spine

Arches powerfully with his slightest effort.


Never slowing and not halting his march,

He guides his dusty companions to the certain goal;

And, leaving a ploughed sandy furrow behind them,

The enormous pilgrims follow their patriarch.


With ears spread like fans, their trunks between their teeth,

They make their way with eyes closed.  Their bellies throb and steam,

And their sweat rises in the flaming air like a mist;

And a thousand glowing insects hum all around.


What do they care for thirst and the consuming fly,

And the sun baking their black and wrinkled skin?

They march on dreaming of the forsaken land,

Of the forests of sycamore-figs where their breed sheltered.


They will see again the river broken forth from the great heights,

Where the huge hippopotamus swims along bellowing,

Where, turned white by the moonlight and casting forward their shadows,

They would crush the reeds going down to drink.


Also, full of courage and deliberation, they pass on

Like a black line, in the endless sands;

And the desert resumes its stillness,

As the ponderous travellers fade on the horizon.


Les éléphants

Le sable rouge est comme une mer sans limite,
Et qui flambe, muette, affaissée en son lit.
Une ondulation immobile remplit
L’horizon aux vapeurs de cuivre où l’homme habite.

Nulle vie et nul bruit. Tous les lions repus
Dorment au fond de l’antre éloigné de cent lieues,
Et la girafe boit dans les fontaines bleues,
Là-bas, sous les dattiers des panthères connus.

Pas un oiseau ne passe en fouettant de son aile
L’air épais, où circule un immense soleil.
Parfois quelque boa, chauffé dans son sommeil,
Fait onduler son dos dont l’écaille étincelle.

Tel l’espace enflammé brûle sous les cieux clairs.
Mais, tandis que tout dort aux mornes solitudes,
Lés éléphants rugueux, voyageurs lents et rudes
Vont au pays natal à travers les déserts.

D’un point de l’horizon, comme des masses brunes,
Ils viennent, soulevant la poussière, et l’on voit,
Pour ne point dévier du chemin le plus droit,
Sous leur pied large et sûr crouler au loin les dunes.

Celui qui tient la tête est un vieux chef. Son corps
Est gercé comme un tronc que le temps ronge et mine
Sa tête est comme un roc, et l’arc de son échine
Se voûte puissamment à ses moindres efforts.

Sans ralentir jamais et sans hâter sa marche,
Il guide au but certain ses compagnons poudreux;
Et, creusant par derrière un sillon sablonneux,
Les pèlerins massifs suivent leur patriarche.

L’oreille en éventail, la trompe entre les dents,
Ils cheminent, l’oeil clos. Leur ventre bat et fume,
Et leur sueur dans l’air embrasé monte en brume;
Et bourdonnent autour mille insectes ardents.

Mais qu’importent la soif et la mouche vorace,
Et le soleil cuisant leur dos noir et plissé?
Ils rêvent en marchant du pays délaissé,
Des forêts de figuiers où s’abrita leur race.

Ils reverront le fleuve échappé des grands monts,
Où nage en mugissant l’hippopotame énorme,
Où, blanchis par la Lune et projetant leur forme,
Ils descendaient pour boire en écrasant les joncs.

Aussi, pleins de courage et de lenteur, ils passent
Comme une ligne noire, au sable illimité;
Et le désert reprend son immobilité
Quand les lourds voyageurs à l’horizon s’effacent.

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9 years ago

I love it I remember my primary teacher taught me this poem when i was eight years 22y ago.
Beautiful poem love it!!