Monday 16 March 2009

Mourir pour des idées- a deeply felt song where he pleads for tolerance and restraint

Mourir pour des idées

A heartfelt poem against those who propagate suicidal ideals.

Brassens tells us that after the hostile response he has had after writing two recent songs (“Les deux oncles” and “La tondue”) he has decided to change his standpoint and accept that it’s a good idea to die for an ideology, his only proviso being that death should be a lifetime in coming. The song goes on to justify this delay.

Mourir pour des idées
Mourir pour des idées, l'idée est excellente.
Moi j'ai failli mourir de ne l'avoir pas eue,(1)
Car tous ceux qui l'avaient, multitude accablante,
En hurlant à la mort me sont tombés dessus.

Ils ont su me convaincre et ma muse insolente,

Abjurant ses erreurs, se rallie à leur foi
Avec un soupçon de réserve toutefois :
Mourons pour des idées, d'accord, mais de mort lente,
D'accord, mais de mort lente.

Jugeant qu'il n'y a pas péril en la demeure(2),

Allons vers l'autre monde en flânant en chemin
Car, à forcer l'allure, il arrive qu'on meure

Pour des idées n'ayant plus cours le lendemain.
Or, s'il est une chose amère, désolante,

En rendant l'âme à Dieu c'est bien de constater
Qu'on a fait fausse route, qu'on s'est trompé d'idée,
Mourons pour des idées, d'accord, mais de mort lente,
D'accord, mais de mort lente.

Les Saint Jean Bouche d'Or qui prêchent le martyre,
Le plus souvent, d'ailleurs, s'attardent ici-bas.

Mourir pour des idées, c'est le cas de le dire,
C'est leur raison de vivre, ils ne s'en privent pas.
Dans presque tous les camps on en voit qui supplantent
Bientôt Mathusalem dans la longévité.
J'en conclus qu'ils doivent se dire, en aparté (2)
"Mourons pour des idées, d'accord, mais de mort lente,
D'accord, mais de mort lente.

Des idées réclamant le fameux sacrifice,
Les sectes de tout poil en offrent des séquelles,(3)
Et la question se pose aux victimes novices (4)
Mourir pour des idées, c'est bien beau mais lesquelles ?
Et comme toutes sont entre elles ressemblantes,
Quand il les voit venir, avec leur gros drapeau,
Le sage, en hésitant, tourne autour du tombeau. (5)
Mourons pour des idées, d'accord, mais de mort lente,
D'accord, mais de mort lente.

Encor s'il suffisait de quelques hécatombes (6)
Pour qu'enfin tout changeât, qu'enfin tout s'arrangeât !
Depuis tant de grands soirs que tant de têtes tombent, (7)
Au paradis sur terre on y serait déjà
Mais l'âge d'or sans cesse est remis aux calendes,
Les dieux ont toujours soif, (8)n'en ont jamais assez,
Et c'est la mort, la mort toujours recommencée...
Mourons pour des idées, d'accord, mais de mort lente,
D'accord, mais de mort lente.

Ô vous, les boutefeux, ô vous les bons apôtres,
Mourez donc les premiers, nous vous cédons le pas.
Mais de grâce, morbleu ! laissez vivre les autres,
 La vie est à peu près leur seul luxe ici-bas ;
Car, enfin, la Camarde est assez vigilante,

Elle n'a pas besoin qu'on lui tienne la faux.

Plus de danse macabre autour des échafauds !

Mourons pour des idées, d'accord, mais de mort lente,
D'accord, mais de mort lente.

1972 – Fernande.

To die for your ideas. The idea is excellent
But I came close to dying for not having one,
For all those who had it, an overwhelming mass,
While howling for my blood came at me with full force.
They managed to convince me, and my insolent muse
Recanting her mistakes, rallies to their belief
With one tiny proviso all the same
Let us die for ideas, fine! but let death come slow
Fine! But, let death come slow.

Judging that there’s is no great risk in hanging on
Let us go to the other world taking our time
Because, forcing the pace, chance is that you might die
For ideas, no longer current on the morrow.
Now if there is a thing, bitter, and heart-breaking
On rendering one’s soul to God, it’s to find out
That you went wrong and latched onto the wrong idea.
Let us die for ideas, fine! but let death come slow
Fine! But, let death come slow.

The Saint John Chrysotoms (3) who preach for martyrdoms
Most often, besides, dawdle down here on earth.
To die for  ideas, we are quite right to say so
Is their reason for living, they won’t do without.
In almost all the groups, you see some  supplanting
Soon Methuselah’s record for longevity.
I conclude that they must whisper to each other:
Let us die for ideas, fine! but let death come slow
Fine!! But, let death come slow.

Ideas demanding the supreme sacrifice
Sects of every ilk offer followers of these

And the question is asked of the novice victims:
To die for ideas, is very nice - but which?
And as they are all alike, one with the other
When he sees them coming, with their great big standard
The wise man, hesitating, gives the tomb more time.
Let us die for ideas, fine! but let death come slow
Fine! But, let death come slow

Again, if it took only a few mass slaughters
For all at last to change, all at last be put right

Since so many grand nights when so many heads fell
In our heaven on earth we’d be already there
But the golden age is postponed constantly
The gods are still athirst, have never had enough

And it is death, death, over and over again

Let us die for ideas, fine! but let death come slow
Fine! But, let death come slow

Oh you firebrands, oh you the good apostles,
Be the first to die then, we stand aside for you.

But for mercy’s sake, heavens! allow the rest to live.
Life is nearly their sole luxury down here
For in truth, the grim reaper keeps close enough watch enough
She does not need people to hold for her the scythe
No more dance macabre around the grim scaffolds
Let us die for ideas, fine! but let death come slow
Fine! But, let death come slow

(1)     When Brassens says he almost died for not having ideas, he is referring to the violent reception he was given after writing his song "Les Deux Oncles", in which he asked for equal sympathy for one of his uncles who died fighting for the Allied cause and a second who died fighting for the Fascist cause. The ideas that he expressed towards the war caused great anger in the majority of the population.

(2)     la demeure –the general meaning is “dwelling”, but it has a secondary meaning of a legal delay or stay.  Il n'y a pas péril en la demeure is an idiom  meaning  « One is not taking any risk by waiting »

(3)     Saint John Chrysotom the 14th century bishop was known as the “Golden Mouth” on account of the power of his oratory.

(4)     En aparté : When something is said as an aside on the stage, so that, in theory, the audience can hear but the characters in the play cannot.

(5)     Les séquelles usually means consequences, things that follow. Brassens is using its archaic meaning of “followers”. 

(6)     Brassens’ little joke. Martyrdom is something you can’t build up experience in. All martyrs are novices. 

(7)     tourne autour du tombeau. There are two ideas in this line. Collins Robert tells us that “Un individu tourne autour de la maison depuis une heure” means some-one has been hanging around outside the house for an hour. The phrase could also link with the expression: “tourner autour du pot” = take your time about what you are going to do. 

(8)     Hécatombes- A hecatomb was originally a sacrifice to the ancient Greek and Roman gods of 100 oxen or cattle. Brassens uses it in its modern meaning of a mass slaughter. 

(9)     Brassens is talking about the frenzied slaughter of the French Revolution. The alliteration of the “t” in this line is the drumbeat as heads fall. 

(10)  « Les dieux ont soif » is Anatole France’s brilliant novel about the period of the Terror. I have a summary of the book on my literature website. 
To read the summary -it's long!- - click here

A Footnote

Arthur Koestler made this comment about ideologies:

..... the crimes of violence committed for selfish, personal motives are historically insignificant compared to those committed ad majorem gloriam Dei, out of a self-sacrificing devotion to the flag, a leader, a religious faith or political conviction.

Click here to return to the full index of Brassens songs on this blog


Anonymous said...

Wow... fantastic explanation. Love this song!

Anonymous said...

What a marvellous blog
merci professeur pour nous donner à ecouter Brassens,for providing good English translation of French poetry and for your enriching background comments.

Please give us more: translate Prevert, Aragon, Brel,etc

Anonymous said...

Good work - but little mistake that leads to an opposite meaning at :

"En rendant l'âme à Dieu c'est bien de constater"
"Rend’ring one’s soul to God, it’s a good thing to find out"

"C'est bien de " doesn't mean, here "it's good to". There is no idea of "good" in the French sentence, on the contrary. It's just an expression, a collocaïsm, a way of speaking, to see what's a pity to "find out" that you took the wrong way. So it's not "good" to find out, it's a pity, a regret. You should delete this "good".

But you do a very good job and I appreciate you make Brassens readable for non French speaker. Many Thanks.

I can't say how to translate it exactly in English - but a better way is to forget this "bien", which is here just to enforce the se

Schwa said...

I second the previous commenter's remarks.

1. It's a good translation.

2. "Bien" here is just an intensifier.
The original sentence reads: "[...] s'il est une chose amère, [...] c'est bien de constater qu'on a fait fausse route"

"Bien" could be omitted; the meaning would remain the same since "bien" only reinforces this meaning.

An attempt at a literal translation: "if there is something bitter [to be experiences in death] it's /really/ to find out that one has been misguided."

Anonymous said...

great site !
tourner autour du pot means to beat around the bush

David Yendley said...

Thanks for the help with "c'est bien de constater". My translation was not satisfactory. The comments are absolutely right

Malooga said...

Thanks for this great site. I don't speak French, but instantly fell in love with Georges Brassens music. Now I can better understand what I am hearing.

I wanted to add that this song sounds very much like the ideas contained in Eric Hoffer's book, "The True Believer."

Anonymous said...

Pierre de Gailande came out with a CD covering Brassens songs in English including 'Mourir pour des idees'. Listen to them on this site:

Thank you for this site

Chris said...


It's a joy to discover your site - thank you!

Just a small typo here - John Chrysostom was a 4th Century Bishop (not 14th).

This is one of my absolute favourite Brassens songs - a true masterpiece!


Ty said...

This is brilliant - thank for creating this. Even though I speak French and understand the words, sometimes with Brassens, it takes the literal translation + the commentary to actually "get it". The level of cultural and historic reference baked into his songs is pretty deep.

Unknown said...

Merci beaucoup pour votre site, qui m'a permis de partager ma passion pour tonton Georges avec ma petite amie anglaise :)