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Les Papillons Posted by on Aug 7, 2017 in Literature

I’ve recently had a loss. When someone you love dies, it is easy to see (or want to see) signs around you that show your loved one is still with you. There can be many signs that are specific to your culture. For example, in American culture, seeing a red cardinal is often interpreted as a sign that a lost loved one is visiting you. In both American and French culture, seeing a butterfly can also signify that your loved one is near.

Courtesy of Thomas and Dianne Jones at Flickr.com

In French, a butterfly is called un papillon. The word papillon comes from the Latin papilio, which means “butterfly or moth.” Papillon can also be used to describe someone who is flighty, brilliant, and all over the place. Finally, papillon in French also refers to a bowtie or a “butterfly” knot.

There are many beautiful poems about butterflies in French, as the transformation and beauty of this insect do  seem to capture the imagination of poets and writers. Here’s the first several verses of a poem by writer Gérard de Nerval, entitled “Les Papillons”:

De toutes les belles choses
Qui nous manquent en hiver,
Qu’aimez–vous mieux? — Mois, les roses;
— Moi, l’aspect d’un beau pré vert;
— Moi, la moisson blondissante;
Chevelure des sillons;
— Moi, le rossignol qui chante;
— Et moi, les beaux papillons!

Le papillon, fleur sans tige,
Qui voltige,
Que l’on cueille en un réseau;
Dans la nature infinie,
Entre la plante et l’oiseau!…

Quand revient l’été superbe,
Je m’en vais au bois tout seul:
Je m’étends dans la grande herbe,
Perdu dans ce vert linceul.
Sur ma tête renversée,
Là, chacun d’eux à son tour,
Passe comme une pensée
De poésie ou d’amour!


The Butterflies (as translated by Timothy Adès)

Of all the fine treasure
That winter forecloses,
What gives the most pleasure?
— For me, I say roses;
— For me, fair green meadows;
— The ripening harvest,
Blonde tress of the furrows;
— Nightingale’s melodies;
— For me, brilliant butterflies!

Butterfly, untethered flower,
Leaping and cavorting, yet
Captured in a cruel net.
Nature’s world, infinity:
Bud and bird in unity!

When proud summer comes to pass,
I go lonely to the wood.
There I lie in tallest grass,
Lose myself in the green shroud:
Watch above my upturned head
Every one of them go by.
Thoughts of love, of poetry!


To read more of this beautiful poem, click here.

Do you know of any other French poems or quotes about butterflies? Feel free to share them below.

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About the Author:Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at http://www.imaginistwriter.com. A la prochaine!


  1. Jim:

    Dear Elizabeth –
    I just wanted to thank you for the “papillon” post. I recently suffered a great loss myself, and it was wonderful and heartening to read. I’m sorry you’re experiencing a loss as well. Please know that your blog is appreciated by French fans — it’s one of the few emails I click open as soon as it arrives. I finally took up French study seriously two years ago, at 51, and find your blog entertaining and very helpful. Keep up the (very) good work — and may you see many de papillons in the days ahead!

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Jim Jim,

      Thank you for your very kind message. I am very sorry for your loss. I wish you many papillons as well. It is so comforting to feel that our loved ones are still with us.

  2. helena:

    Nice post, Thank you!

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