Les Ouvriers de Rouen

Le savons nous bien tous? Tandis qu’en nos demeures,
Nous laissons, en songeant, passer sur nous les heures,
Moi, tandis que j’écris,
Et que d’autres s’en vont dans des fêtes bruyantes,
En France près de nous, sont des bouches mourantes
Dont nul n’entend les cris !
Ah ! Nous sommes des fous ou bien des misérables !
Nous jetons aux prisons, aux bourreaux, les coupables,
Et nous disons: Horreur !
Le bandit, il est vrai, frappe au cœur sa victime,
Mais nous laissons mourir-Il est plus magnanime,
Faisant moins de douleur.
Et nous nous disons grands, justes, bons et paisibles !
Ah ! Quand nous paraîtrons aux assises terribles
De la postérité
Ne disons point trop haut, de peur des ombres pâles
Dont il évoquerait encor les derniers râles,
Ce mot: Fraternité !
Oui ! Depuis plus d’un an compté par la souffrance,
On mourait à Rouen, n’ayant plus d’espérance,
Quand nous l’avons appris !
Nous ne le savions pas ! Et les plaintes des mères,
Et des petits enfants, dans les bises amères,
Pleuraient toutes les nuits !
Nous savons maintenant. Ah ! Point de cœurs vulgaires
Qui pèsent leur offrande ! Il faut sauver nos frères
Sans perdre un seul instant.
Donnons sans balancer, donnons jusqu’à nos âmes,
Tous, qui que nous soyons, hommes enfants ou femmes;
On tue en hésitant !
Vite ! Tandis que nous disons: « Il faut souscrire »
La nuit, dans les chemins, un pauvre enfant expire,
Car nous le savons tous:
Quand les pères n’ont plus aucune nourriture,
Les enfants, dans les champs s’en vont à l’aventure,
Sur la pitié des loups.
Ils s’en vont, et la ville est au loin effacée:
Ils ont peur; les plus grands prennent, l’âme glacée,
Les petits par la main.
Ils s’en vont, et sur eux se répand une grande ombre;
Beaucoup ne souffrent plus, hélas ! Car le froid sombre
A qui fait taire la faim.
Are we all really listening? In our homes
We deliberate, let the hours pass over us,
Yet while I write,
And while others join festivities,
In France, close by, are dying mouths
Whose screams no one hears!
Ah! We are mad or miserable!
We hand over the guilty to executioners
And we say: the horror!
The bandit, it is true, strikes his victim's heart,
But we let him die – it’s more humane,
Causes less pain.
And we call ourselves great, just, good and peaceful!
Ah! When we are called to the High Court
Of Posterity
Let us not give too much away, for fear the pale shadows
Which would evoke those death rattles.
This word: Brotherhood!
Yes! For more than a year defined by suffering,
We died in Rouen, having no more hope
When we faced it!
We were lost! And mothers' laments,
And little children, in the bitter kisses,
Wept every night!
Now we know. Ah! This time of vulgar souls
Who weigh the workers’ sacrifice! We must save our brothers
Now. This instant.
Give without judgement, give of our hearts,
All, whoever we are, men, children or women;
We kill with hesitation!
Quickly! As we say, "Put down your name".
At night, in the streets, a poor child dies,
Because we all know:
When fathers can no longer feed them,
Children must fend for themselves in nature,
at the mercy of wolves.
They leave; civilisation far behind them,
They fear; with frozen souls, older children take
Younger children by the hand.
They leave, and over them spreads a great shadow;
Many no longer suffer, alas! Because of the cold dark
Which hears not their hunger.

Title:Les Ouvriers de Rouen

Author:Louise Michel


Published in:

Date:October 1865

Keywords:industry, poverty, unemployment


This extraordinary poem by Louise Michel, a French radical and writer, details the sufferings of the workers of the industrial Normandy city of Rouen during the Cotton Famine. The blockade had an effect in all areas which worked cotton in Europe and Rouen was particularly reliant on the cotton industry for its workers’ source of income. Although the concentration of textile industry was far higher in the northwest of England, there was still great financial hardship caused by the blockade in industrial France, and this was part of the reason why early in the American Civil War two Confederate diplomats were arrested travelling to the UK and France (The Trent Affair), to discuss support for the Confederacy from those nations. The poem is written in highly metaphorical language and is formally interesting, relying heavily on line length and rhythm as well as rhyme. The literal translation was carried out by Rachel Jardine, whilst I turned my hand to converting the text into equivalent English poetic language. However, I found that I would lose too much of the poem’s intense imagery and provocative use of language if I tried to impose rhyme in English. – SR