Research Paper

“Prayer for Liberation”

Eluard and his Poem “Liberty” as Prayer

Tiffany Magennis

After its publication, Paul Eluards’ poem “Liberty Ton Nom” swiftly became a symbol and anthem for the French Resistance in opposition to German forces.  This poem was shared secretly among those sympathetic to the French Resistance primarily through the form of orality in order to prevent evidence for subsequent punishment on grounds of possession of a poem that  had been deemed dangerous material by Nazi rule. Therefore, orality became a preferred form of the communication of literature to persons loyal to the French Resistance and elevated the poem “Liberty” to a prayer-like status through meaning and reiteration of message.  The meditative nature of the poem is exemplified through the use of structure and familiar everyday imagery that referenced universal objects and places, and lyrical qualities through song-like construction.  This lyricism enables creative opportunity to promote the spiritual qualities of “Liberty,” and its spiritually cultural effect.

The creator of “Liberty,” Paul Eluard, was a politically active Surrealist poet who had not only served in World War I but immersed himself politically in the time of French Occupation of World War II.  In this time, the Nazi occupiers rigorously oversaw not only the economic, daily activity  of French citizens but cultural movements, mainly media.  All art, publishing, and radio were under the watchful eye of the Nazis, who ‘approved’ publications through their own publishing company in order to monitor the French. Any hint of resistance, text or otherwise, against Nazi approval could result in harsh reprimand and imprisonment, and so rebellion was incredibly risky.  It was during this dangerous period of the French Occupation that Eluard became most politically active, “carrying a briefcase loaded with forbidden papers and clandestine editions, each day risking recognition and arrest” (p.23, Lloyd) to persons against Nazi oppression. During this time, “Liberty” was made, while Eluard was in hiding from the Nazi Gestapo. Eluard, who was a steadfast supporter of the French Communist party with Surrealist ideals of social freedom and equality for the marginalized, refused for his message of liberation to be quelled under oppression of Nazi invaders, and took great risk in spreading his what became his most famous works, as well as the work of others.

The Surrealist movement “in its eloquent statements and histrionic behavior, called for total liberty in all human activities” (p.171, Fowlie) which Eluard staunchly defended, especially during the French Occupation in when he wrote Poesie et Verite , which included his most famous poem, “Liberty.”  Surrealists, as a whole, were focused on revolution in both literature and matters of society with a heavy emphasis on unrestrained  thought, the freedom of choice, and anti-bourgeoisie values that glorified the ‘common man’.1    Eluard wrote frequently of universal desires such as equality, and was deeply affected  by social injustices and oppression of any kind, especially by that of government.2   French Surrealist Paul Eluard was a passionate member of the French Communist party and known for his political influence through his production of over seventy texts, which included collaborations with writers and artists such as Fernand Leger and Andre Breton.  These collaborations included The Communist Manifesto and “Liberte Ton Nom,”(the cover of which was illustrated by Leger) which evolved to be significant works for  artistic and national movements in France.  While Eluard did not participate in automatic writing, the trademark of surrealist poets, he focused on the central theme of the Surrealist movement: uninhibited love and thinking, social equality and liberty, and exploration of the mind. Surrealism was a highly cerebral movement, and emphasized psychological theories such as the Freudian excavation of human consciousnesses, or Jung’s use of symbols, dreams, and archetypes. While other Surrealist writers used a more Freudian approach in their works (such as Breton and Aragon’s automatic writing) Eluard was influenced politically and socially by his own life experiences to dogmatically follow the spontaneity of Surrealism and developed his own poetic style, which has been described as “one of a disarming simplicity.” (p170 Fowlie) Eluard’s poetry is indeed straightforward and without pretention. As a writer he seldom uses a scholarly vocabulary, or ‘high brow’ wording. This may have been, in part, because he so supported social equality that he chose to refrain from words that would limit his audience to only the educated and/or wealthy. Even in his poetry, Eluard does not use overly complicated or strict rules in form, but simple quatrains or free verse. The exception to this are his Dada years, in which he, like many writers, “generated what could be mildly described as balderdash” (Cohen, p.4). As his work evolved and became a distinctive personal style, Eluard shied away from the chaotic and showed, “very few traces of surrealist exaggerations,”  (p. 172, Fowlie) in his writings. This resulted in some distance between Eluard and the Surrealists. Instead of the nihilistic writing of Dada and automatic chaos of Surrealism, Eluard changed his writing career to pursue a way of writing that was inspired by his Surrealist roots but would be simplistic enough for all to understand the message of his work: thus “Liberty” was written.

The foundation of understanding the religious implications of “Liberty” begin with the study of oral tradition, or rather, orality.  Orality can be broadly defined as the simple act of verbal communication from one individual to another (or to a large audience). The practice of orality is as ancient as the foundation of language, and was often used when textual information was unobtainable or inapplicable to the audience, sometimes for reasons of illiteracy, or passing of sensitive information. This is seen in the distribution of “Liberty” during the time of Vichy France, in which Resistance sympathizers were safer sharing the poem by word of mouth than by tangible means such as books or paper.  Moreover, the French citizens during the Oppression were impoverished, requiring their money be spent on high priced food items such as meat, cheese, and bread. Food shortages, caused by the sacking of Nazi soldiers, devastated the French economy and left little money for spending on material goods. This economic downturn took orality and the tradition of verbally relaying information to a higher and more culturally significant level, which is perfectly portrayed in the continuation of “Liberty.”

However, the subject of orality and the power of vocal narrative delves far deeper and holds more cultural significance than the sharing of stories or information, as specialist Paul Zumthor explains the topic as, “symbolic possibility open to representation, constituting through the ages a cultural heritage transmitted with, in, and through language and other human coding systems,” (p.6).  The method of oral communication is one that, in accordance with this statement, holds an abundance of symbolism that possesses unique meaning to each culture in which the message is broadcasted, and where the importance of cultural heritage lay. The practice of oral narrative was also employed for folklore and ‘storytelling,’ which are integral parts of the cultural system Zumthor referenced, and aid in forming cultural identity. Cultures pass down strong community values generationally, by way of poetry song, or stories This is done not for the sole purpose of being entertaining, but passing on the values of a nationality, as demonstrated by those of the French Communist Party in the recitation of “Liberty.”

Orality is not, however, a forgotten mode of communication that had been reserved for cultures of ancient history, but a method still utilized in the present through contemporary media and society (including that of the French Occupation). Cell phones, television, spoken lecture, and radio are prime examples of modern oral communication, but are not the limitations of its uses. A fundamental and imperative employment of orality that is rooted in ancient tradition and currently practiced, is its application in religious contexts.  The use of voice and memorization in terms of religion can be described as, “the sensual dimension of religion” (p.159, Graham), and is universal in its presence in spiritual settings. The use of orality varies in religious groups, but generally is used in memorization of prayers, songs of praise, religious rites (such as marriages, funerals, and initiations) and meditation.  Orality is an essential part of these practices, by reinforcing the use of memorization not only for functional needs, such as mass or the salat, but by creating a connection with these recitations in a more intimate form that is difficult to achieve by reading text. Reading textual information, however meaningful to the spirituality of an audience, does not produce the same bond with either party as memorization.  To memorize a text requires one to internalize and process information on a level that exceeds casual familiarity and become ingrained in the speaker in a more personal way (hence the idiom ‘know by heart’).    William Graham of Beyond the Written Word describes the link between memorization and religion as “a spiritual resource that is tapped automatically in every act of reflection, worship, prayer, or moral deliberation, as well as times of personal and communal decision or crisis.” (p.160) This is an accurate portrayal of the meaning of “Liberty” as it became more than a poem, but almost a prayer for release from Nazi occupation.  The oral nature of the work elevated camaraderie among French sympathizers and was readily available for all to share among one another, which was the poem’s typical method of transfer.

This simplicity illustrated in “Liberty” which has phrasing that focuses on vibrant and universal imagery, giving the poem life.  Use of this imagery is a dominant factor in memory retention, relatable qualities of  the poem, and most importantly, its prayer like potential.  Much of Eluard’s poetry is filled with similar traits, with “Liberty” epitomizing the beauty of his visual references and song like structure.  Cohen writes on this lyricism, “ It is almost impossible to read Eluard in silence. To appreciate the musical quality, Eluard’s poems must be read aloud.” (p.5)  Musicality is closely related to prayer and gospel, and so reaffirms the prayer like construction. Almost every known religion has prayers or textual references that are sung aloud, such as the Catholic “Our Father” or the Jewish praise at temple. This transformation of text not only reinforces memory of a message but is a variation of worship. As “Liberty” contains song-like traits, it is obvious to grasp how the utilization of music (or singing) would be both appealing and safer among fellow compatriots than text. Song would not only aid adults in learning “Liberty” but  enable younger generations to recall the poem with relative ease, just as they are taught to sing prayers or gospel to recall religious information. What makes this teachable aspect of the poem valuable to younger generations was in making “Liberty,” a tool against Nazi  influence in French grade schools. Children especially were at risk of Nazi predation and brainwash, and so the French who were against Nazi manipulation would urge their sons and daughters to recite “Liberty” to counter influence. Even Eluard’s political adversary “professed that all French schoolchildren should learn the famous poem “Liberty” by heart. And they did and, to this day, still do.” (p.2, Cohen)  The young generations, having the poem  memorized and  passing it along to their children, have not only kept “Liberty” alive in into modernity but cherished the poem as a ‘prayer’ of their nation. It had, essentially, become the “community’s authoritative scripture” (p.152, Graham) and passed down with the same reverence as a personalized prayer, or gospel song for France.

Despite having the opportunity to do so, not all perpetuation of  the poem was in the form of song or text, but instead recited from memory.  As a poem which reflects the heart of the French Resistance, “Liberty” becomes a literary manifestation of “a city unable to resign itself to the enemy’s regime, of the masses and poet’s faith in the masses unwilling to accept injustice” (p.172, Fowler) and Eluard’s composition of a national prayer for France. This was done to glorify the spirit of a once free France and rally its citizens with the message of never giving in to oppression, but instead realize that freedom cannot be taken as long as its citizens maintain faith in France and their comrades.  The emotional attachment and trust in  the ideals of freedom and beauty found within “Liberty” share multiple traits with prayer, with the most dominant of these is explained by orality  expert William Graham as, “shared text is a powerful binding factor in any group, and especially in a minority group at odds with and bent on reforming or converting the larger society around it.” (p.161)  Though this excerpt is in reference to purely religious texts, the philosophy and overall sentiment of persons involved are identical. “Liberty,” though written as a political poem to be shared with oppressed  and marginalized  French men and women, transcended its original meaning and became an earnest invocation for the spiritual release of France from Nazis.

Other prayer-like traits of “Liberty” can be found in the straightforward descriptions of where, if one is searching, ‘liberty’ could be discovered. The mentioned locations contain both the fantastic and concrete, much like parables of a religious text such as the Bible or the Qur’an.  To begin with, liberty is not a tangible object, but neither is “steps of death,” “vanished risk,” or “wonders of the nights,” yet these Surrealist aspects of the poem stand, very much as the miracles of a religious book or prayer. By the same token, there are other, concrete images that any person can relate to universally, such as “my gluttonous and loving dog,” “on all the pages blank,” and “stone blood paper or ash” that relate to parables of religious books in which real life situations are used.   For example, in the Bible there is a scene where Jesus, invited to a wedding (not by any means an unusual event) turns water into wine (considered a miracle). Both the fantastic and realistic are contained in this story, which is very much like the poem. Eluard’s  writing technique contains familiarized religious background to feel that the audience is connecting not only to the poem, but the community of sympathizers who also dream of liberation and freedom from Nazi rule.

In conclusion, the  poem “Liberty” could be utilized in any number of religious forms, be they song, music, chanting, or gospel. All of these resemble a type of prayer, because of  their earnest nature and relying on faith in country and fellow French men (and women) for success in the expulsion of the Nazi presence of their nation.  “Liberty,” as a prayer or poem can be used as a still in the time of the French Occupation, as it is a mix of Surrealism and reality, repeating as one would a chant for liberty, social freedom, and happiness. Moreover, this chant is shared with fellow sympathizers, creating a sense of camaraderie and knowledge, as Jung stated that  “makes  something reverberate in us that tells us we truly are no longer alone.” (p. 6, Zumthor) The shared prayer (or song) like message of desiring personal liberties and a free, peaceful nation served as a wish for hope among the citizens of France.  Eluard, who consistently stood by his country and risked career and potentially life and limb to create a creed for French liberation while in hiding from Nazi threat so the people of France during the ‘Grey Years’ of the Occupation would have a text as common and uplifting as a prayer.  Even in contemporary French society,  Eluard’s poem “Liberty” is recited by children in schools and known by memory. It is this continuation of “Liberty” that further reveals that it has become far more than a poem for France, but a national prayer that will continue for generations.

Works cited and consulted:

Graham, William A. Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion. Cambridge. Cambridgeshire: Cambridge UP, 1987. Print.

Balakian, Anna. “Aragon and Eluard.” Modern Poets: Surrealists, Baudelaire, Perse, Laforgue, and Others. Vol. 2. New Haven: Yale University, 1948. N. pag. Print.

Éluard, Paul, and Lloyd Alexander. Selected Writings: With English Translations. Norfolk, CT: J. Laughlin, 1966. Print.

Fowlie, Wallace. Mid-century French Poets: Selections, Translations, and Critical Notices. New York: Twayne, 1955. Print.

Cohen, Isaac. “Living Well, a Voyage Without Borders.” The Chicago Literary

Club (n.d.): 1-13. Print.

Éluard, Paul, and Lloyd Alexander. “The Poet and the War.” Selected Writings: With English Translations. Norfolk, CT: J. Laughlin, 1966. N. pag. Print.

Duchen, C. “Occupation Housewife: The Domestic Ideal in 1950s France.” French Cultural Studies 2.4 (1991): 01-11. Print.

Kelly, D. “The Unfree French: Life under the Occupation.” French Studies 62.2 (2008): 247-48. Print.

Bracher, Nathan. “Remembering the French Resistance:.” History & Memory 19.1 (2007): 39-67. Print.

“Orality.”, n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.


  1. Peyre, Henri. Modern French Literature
  2. The Poet and the War

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