Poetry has long held a special place in literature. And this is especially the case in France. More than just words on a page, French poetry is part of the country’s culture, having been seen as a piece of art, something to be admired and contemplated.
And within that recognition, many French female poets have brought their own unique experiences, having lived at a time when women’s education was not a priority.
It is those insights along with a drive to succeed, that has made these women poets widely celebrated in France and beyond for their literary prowesses. And so with that, here are the top female French poets whose works lives on through the ages. Allons-y!
1. Antoinette Des Houlières (1638 – 1694)
Antoinette Du Ligier de la Garde Deshoulières was a French poet renowned for her beauty and her intelligence. With her father serving as Maître d’hotel to French queens consort Marie de Medici and Anne of Austria, Antoinette grew up in the royal courts.
Married at 13, she attracted the attention of the prince of Condé, and became a favorite in the court of Sun King Louis XIV for her literary prowess and her looks.
Throughout her life she would write a wide variety of poems from odes, songs, ballads, and more. Her daughter Antoinette-Thérèse Des Houlières was also a poet, and it is she who published a lot of her mother’s works:
- Œuvres de Madame Deshoulières et de Mademoiselle Deshoulières. Tome 1
- Œuvres de Madame Deshoulières et de Mademoiselle Deshoulières. Tome 2
- L’enchantement des chagrins : poésies complètes
- Les Amours de Grisette. Suivis de La Mort de cochon par Mlle. Deshoulières.
2. Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786 – 1859)
Born in the age of the French Revolution, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore was considered one of the top poets of her time.
With rather dark and depressing themes, her poetry reflected her troubled life. Some of her most famous works include the classic poems:
- Les Roses de Saadi (1860; The roses of Saadi)
- Pauvres Fleurs (1839; “Poor Flowers”),
- Les Pleurs (1833; “The Tears”),
- Bouquets et prières (1843; “Bouquets and Prayers”)
She was also an actress and singer, as well as winning the Prix Lambert for literature and philosophy. Marceline is the only female writer included in the famous Les Poètes maudits anthology published by Paul Verlaine in 1884.
3. Madeleine de Scudéry (1607 – 1701)
As a female poet in 17th century at a time that literary careers were not available to women, Madeleine de Scudéry wrote under the pseudonym of Sappho, after the ancient greek poetess Sappho.
She would often also use her older brother’s name, George de Scudéry, who was a famous playwright in his own right, to publish her works.
Born at Le Havre, Normandy, she was from an aristocratic but poor family. Nevertheless, she was extremely well-educated with a comprehensive knowledge of history, Greek, and Latin.
She was famous for her literary salons called coteries that were held every Saturday in the Marais in Paris that attracted other famous intellectuals and celebrities.
Beyond her poems, she also became well known for her lengthy novels, including Artamène, which contains about 2.1 million words and is one of the longest novels ever written.
4. Hélène van Zuylen (1863 – 1947)
Hélène van Zuylen was a French poet, but she was also a race car driver. She became the first woman to compete in an international motor race during the Belle Epoque.
Born into the prominent Rothschild family, she was in an relationship with another poet, the English Renée Vivien, with whom she wrote many poems and other literary works. They wrote many works under the nom de plume Paule Riversdale, and it is unclear who wrote which works exactly.
Some of the most famous poems attributed at least partially or fully to her include:
- Échos et Reflets (1903; Echoes and Reflections)
- Vers L’Amour (1903; To Love)
- Copeaux (1905)
In her later years, she focused her work on many plays and novels. She founded the initial Renée Vivien Prize in 1935, an annual literary prize awarded in honour of her lover. The renowned award was intended to encourage female poets.
5. Anna de Noailles (1876 – 1933)
Born Princess Anna Elisabeth Bibesco-Bassaraba de Brancovan in Paris, Anna de Noailles was a descendant of Romanian royalty who became one of France’s top female poets and writers.
She was the first woman to become a Commander of the Legion of Honor, and she was honored with the “Grand Prix” of the Académie Française in 1921.
Married to the 4th son of a Duke, she and her husband were the toast of Paris, maintaining relations with the intellectual and literary set of the day. Amongst their friends were well known names like Marcel Proust, writer Colette, and Jean Cocteau.
She was also a muse for several French artists including a sculpture by Auguste Rodin and paintings by Antonio de la Gandara, Kees van Dongen, Jacques Émile Blanche.
Her own famous poems include:
- Le Cœur innombrable (1901)
- L’Ombre des jours (1902)
- Les Éblouissements (1907)
- Les Forces éternelles (1920)
- Poème de l’amour (1924)
A New York Times writer in 1929 wrote that she was “one of the finest poets of present-day France.”
6. Marguerite Yourcenar (1903 – 1987)
Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour was born in Brussels to a French father and Belgium mother. With her mother dying 10 days after her birth, she grew up with her paternal family in France.
She adopted the surname Yourcenar as an anagram of her birth name Crayencour, using the name to publish several poems, novels, memoirs, and essays. Her most famous poems include:
- Le Jardin des chimères (1921)
- Les dieux ne sont pas morts (1922)
- Feux (1936)
- Les Charités d’Alcippe (1956)
- Écrit dans un jardin (1992)
She was the first she was the first woman elected to the Académie française in 1980.