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

Jacques Ellul, the well-known French sociologist and theologian, whose works on Technique have been quite influential, was also … a poet! In fact, poetry has always been for Ellul an eminently  mystical experience as well as, more profoundly, a way to discover meaning and express our deeper experiences of the world. He commented: “Poetry is the art form which pleases me the most and in which I find deep meaning.”[1] In his Humiliation of the Word, Ellul explains that through “poetical naming,” one truly becomes subject:

A poet is lying when he throws off language: “I said ‘Apple’ to the apple, and it answered me ‘Liar.’ And ‘Vulture’ to the vulture, who did not respond.” Human sovereignty is due more to our language than to our technique and instruments of war. One can claim or believe himself to be free because of language. Naming something means asserting oneself as subject and designating the other as object. It is the greatest spiritual and personal venture.[2]

The “word” was for Ellul one of the most distinctive abilities of human nature since poetical language conveys one’s deepest identity eventually revealed through images and metaphors. In fact Ellul commented that the true power of poetry was to present the human mind with the necessary ambiguity that makes up our daily world. Poetry is a gift enabling us to see the world without giving away its beauty and ambiguity. No caricature, no simplifying: just poetry. Ellul writes:

The poetic contains paradox within it. You believe poetic language to be insignificant, a side issue in comparison with political and scientific talk? You are right, but poetry continually brings the uncertainty of ambiguity to our attention, along with double meanings, manifold interpretations false bottoms, and multiple facets.[3]

Poetry makes a person, it is the incarnation of a personal day-to-day wisdom. The intimate nature of his poetry explains the difficulty of reading Ellul’s poetry.[4] In fact, Ellul had wished, during his life, not to publish his poetry, but also indicated that it was an important part of himself. Didier Schillinger, director of “Editions Opales” (publisher of Silences) reports: “Ellul told me that it was, according to him, the most important part of his work.” Enigmatic, Ellul’s poetry invites us to reflect on the powerful mystery of evocative words. As an exemple of Ellul’s poetry I have chosen the following untitled poem:

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 [5]

I will make a few comments on this poem in Part II.


[1] Patrick Troude-Chastenet, Jacques Ellul on Religion, Technology and Politics (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), 49. some of Ellul’s comments are reminiscent of Owen Barfield’s study of metaphor in Poetic Diction (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1984), a work that had a profound influence on J.R.R. Tolkien.

[2] Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 52.

[3] Idem, 25.

[4] “Ellul entrusted to me, soon before his death, a small schoolbook oncluding the poems from Silences. He had handwritten and organized them into a book.” Didier Schillinger, personal correspondence with author, March 16, 2006.

[5] Jacques Ellul, Silences (Paris: Opales, 2000), 37. Personal translation.



  • 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 Comment

  1. says: A. F. Moritz

    Have you ever published part 2? I can’t find it. How may Ellul’s book of poems be purchased? I’m in Canada.

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