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How to Read French Poetry

Learn how to read poetry in French, developing a poetry toolkit to better understand poetic language, poetic form, tone, and more.

How to Read French Poetry

Explore top tips for reading poetry in French to improve reading comprehension

There is a long and rich tradition of poetry in the French language. From verse playwrights like Racine and Molière, to symbolists like Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine, to surrealists like Jacques Prévert and Andre Breton, and beyond.

Any A Level (high school) or undergraduate student of French will need to learn how to read poetry in French. Understanding French poetry can be challenging, however. Even for gifted students, poetic language can be complex, even if individual words or phrases are clear.

This course will equip you with a poetic toolkit to boost reading comprehension of French poetry. Based on real-life challenges and methodologies developed at Manchester Grammar School, the course will help you to approach French poetry with confidence.

Develop a universal poetic toolkit to analyse poetry in French

The poetic toolkit developed in this course will help you understand poetic form, poetic language, and the ‘sound effects’ of French poetry. You will learn how to identify the story and meaning of a poem, and how to try and deduce the poet’s purpose.

You will ultimately be able to speak with authority on poetry in French, with the assurance that you will be able to justify your comments.

Syllabus

  • Week 1

    Week 1 Two key questions and assembling the toolkit

    • Getting started

      Here we will meet the lead educator and discover the principles of the course.

    • Looking at five poems

      We take a first look at five poems by five different poets from three centuries, each time using the approach suggested in the previous activity and asking the question: "What's the story?"

    • The second question

      We start to look at the second question: "What poetic means does the poet use to tell the story" and put together a toolkit.

  • Week 2

    Week 2 Form, structure and versification

    • Introducing the alexandrine

      We discover the rules governing the most common French verse form, the Alexandrine, and how poets flex those rules to create particular effects.

    • Form and structure in free verse

      We look at the formal and structural elements of a modern poem not written in conventional metre and consider the pros and cons of formal constraint versus complete freedom.

  • Week 3

    Week 3 Voice, verbs and repetition of structures

    • Listening to the voice

      We ask the questions "Whose voice are we apparently hearing in this poem?" and "Whose voice are we really hearing?"

    • The vitality of verbs

      In this activity we find out how the poet's choice of verbs and how they are used can have a striking effect on the tone and meaning of the poem.

    • What I tell you three times is true

      In this activity we look at the ways in which repetition of structures or words can be a poetic device.

  • Week 4

    Week 4 Allusion, vocabulary and the development of imagery.

    • Picking up the clues

      How to spot the allusions in a poem that may carry significant meaning.

  • Week 5

    Emotional and analytical responses - putting it all together.

    • Emotional response

      We look at the important point that our responses to poetry are often mainly emotional rather than analytical, and we try to reconcile the two types of response.

    • Putting it all together

      Here we approach a number of different poems, trying to give a coherent account of them through the use of techniques learnt on the course.

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and learn at your own pace. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

Learning on this course

If you'd like to take part while our educators are leading the course, they'll be joining the discussions, in the comments, between these dates:

  • 29 Sep 2021 - 29 Sep 2021
  • 11 Oct 2021 - 11 Oct 2021
  • 13 Oct 2021 - 13 Oct 2021
  • 18 Oct 2021 - 18 Oct 2021
  • 20 Oct 2021 - 20 Oct 2021
  • 25 Oct 2021 - 25 Oct 2021

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Apply appropriate elements of the toolkit to new poems to make sense of them.
  • Compare two or more poems on the same theme or by the same poet and identify points of similarity and of difference.
  • Contribute to a discussion of a poem, learning from others and helping them in their learning.
  • Critique poems according to a clear methodology.
  • Demonstrate understanding of poetic technique and how it is used to control meaning and impact.
  • Develop skills in identifying the most significant elements of a poem.
  • Evaluate the success of a poet's attempts to convey meaning and feeling through elements of technique.
  • Explain how a poem is put together and why it has its effect.
  • Identify the formal and structural elements of poems and how the poet uses them for a particular effect.
  • Interpret the imagery and other elements of a poem to arrive at a perception of the poet's intentions.
  • Justify their particular reading of a poem by reference to its various elements.
  • Modify their understanding of a poem in the light of comments made by other learners or their own further research.
  • Reflect on a whole series of poems as the course progresses and use that reflection to inform responses to other poems as they are encountered.
  • Summarise the meaning of a poem by giving a coherent account of its different elements.

Who is the course for?

This French reading course is aimed at three groups of learners:

  • A Level (high school) students of French considering degree study.
  • Undergraduate students seeking guidance on how to read French poetry.
  • General interest readers interested in French poetry.

Understanding poetry can pose serious challenges in any language. This course focuses specifically on poetry in French. The skills learned, however, would be equally applicable for students of any poetry.

Who will you learn with?

I have just retired after 36 years teaching French and German. I love the poetry of those languages and want to keep exploring them now that I have more time. I also like translating poetry.

Who developed the course?

Manchester Grammar School

Our history dates back to the time of Henry VIII, when The Manchester Grammar School was founded in 1515 by Hugh Oldham, Bishop of Exeter, to provide ‘godliness and good learning’ to the poor boys of Manchester.

The School proceeded to build a reputation as one of the country’s leading educational establishments, a position it still holds today as an independent day school.

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  • Experience the power of social learning, and get inspired by an international network of learners
  • Share ideas with your peers and course educators on every step of the course
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  • As you work through the course, use notifications and the Progress page to guide your learning
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  • Complete 90% of course steps and all of the assessments to earn your certificate

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