Jacques Ellul’s Poetry: Sociology and Faith Have Fused (Part II)

Au bazar que prendrai-je                                      At the bazaar shall I take

L’étoile et son festin                                              The star and its banquet

Le myrte et son cortège                                        Myrtle and its cortege

Oedipe et son destin                                             Oedipus and his fate


Mise en scène virtuelle                                          Virtual mise-en-scène

Habilleuse, habille donc                                         Dresser, go and dress

et la chance rituelle                                                and ritual chance

Tourne-t-elle—Tourne donc                                 Turns its back on me—Turns around

In the first post I presented and translated the above poem, originally published in Silences, by  Jacques Ellul. I want now to point to difficulties regarding Ellul’s allusions to other forms of art. In fact, his poetry contains numerous references to mythical figures (Penelope, poem 16), biblical metaphors,  literature (“Armide” in poem 90, from  Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered) or even painting (Chagall, poem 55). Ellul may also refer to French protestant traditions (the cypress indicating private burial in poem 9), or historical events (the “Slánský trial” in poem 73).

In the present poem, we have a reference to “Electra”, in the second line (“The star and its banquet”), most likely to the modern-rendering version by French author Jean Giraudoux, then leading figure of the nouveau roman. There is also (line 3), a reference to the play Médée by Pierre Corneille (act four, first scene) and to Oedipus King by Greek tragedian Sophocles (line 4). But to trace the influences behind the poem is insufficient to help us understand the poem. Quite the opposite actually: allusions, constant in Ellul’s poetry, infuse ambiguity in a poetical style that would be otherwise almost tragically ordinary. Ellul’s poetry, in this sense, is much less focused on  rhythm and rhyming than on the imaginative power of words.

The three Greek figures inhabiting the first stanza of this poem could be mere artifice, a whimsical play in words, a passing imagination of the poet. And in a way, it certainly is. The poet is playing with himself, with his imagination and life; with words and experience; with creativity and memory. But in Electra, Medea and Oedipus, Ellul finds recapitulated the tragedy and drama of human freedom and responsibility. Here the poet, is faced with the inescapable reality of choice, with the irremediable reality of life. Life’s mise-en-scène is not virtual when the poet has to choose: the ephemeral fate of Electra, Medea or Oedipus?

Fate itself makes human life turn, ever, round and around itself, and there is no escaping from it. In Reason for Being, his commentary in Ecclesiastes, continually Ellul stresses that man’s life “under the sun” is but smoke and ephemeral reality. However, in his finitude he discovers that God’s love and freedom provide man’s own freedom in a meaningful life.[1] If poetry makes a man, in Ellul’s case, it makes him un homme entier, bringing personal unity between sociology and faith, between his experience and his God.

At the end, poetry is for Ellul “silence”; it is an expression of man’s faith before God. For Ellul, the absence of words is a mystery that leads to God: “The Word is a mystery. Silence, absence of the word is also a mystery.”[2] Thus the title of his book: the poetry of Ellul is the plural “silences” because it reveals the mystery of the relation of man with each others, and with God. It is a “silent poetry,” because confronted with death, man awaits for God in faith. In Silences, the tragic and mysterious nature of man’s life in the world  has dawned: it is hidden and revealed in God. Silences give us a glimpse of a man of faith, studying the world through sociological analysis, finding in poetry a way to express his true hope: God’s freedom offered as a gift.


[1] Jacques Ellul, Reason for Being:A Meditation on Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1990).

[2] Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word, end of chapter 2.


  • Yannick Imbert is professor of Apologetics and Church History at the Faculté Jean Calvin (Aix-en-Provence, France). He holds a PhD in theology, for which he has written on J.R.R. Tolkien's theory of imagination. He continues to write and research on Tolkien, but also Chesterton's and Newman's imaginative reason.

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  1. says: A. F. Moritz

    I found part 2: excuse me. I’d still like to know how Ellul’s book may be purchased, if you know a way.

  2. says: Yannick Imbert

    Ellul’s book “Silences” is unfortunately rather difficult to find. It is unavailable on Amazon but can be found at “Pleine Page éditeur” in Bordeaux France (http://pleinepage.com).

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