Madeleine – Jacques Brel

Madeleine

By Jacques Brel
This is a great song about a young swain off to court the fair Madeleine. His plans, carefully laid in detail, are steadily derailed—but he rallies at the end. We are left to wonder if he has genuine hope, or if this is essentially a tragic story.

See Brel perform it here.

Here again there’s a parallel structure to the verses, where the differences are what matter. It’s a particularly good song for the beginning French speaker, since it uses at least three tenses: the present, the imperfect (past), and then the future for essentially the same verbs. Sing the song, and you’ll remember how to conjugate them.

Ce soir j’attends Madeleine
J’ai apporté du lilas
J’en apporte toutes les semaines
Madeleine elle aime bien ça
Ce soir j’attends Madeleine
On prendra le tram trente-trois
Pour manger des frites chez Eugène
Madeleine elle aime tant ça
Madeleine c’est mon Noël
C’est mon Amérique à moi
Même qu’elle est trop bien pour moi
Comme dit son cousin Joël
Mais ce soir j’attends Madeleine
On ira au cinéma
Je lui dirai des “je t’aime”
Madeleine elle aime tant ça

 

Tonight I’m waiting for Madeleine
I brought lilacs
I bring them every week
Madeleine really likes that.
Tonight I’m waiting for Madeleine
We’ll take tram number 33
To eat frites[1] at Eugene’s restaurant
Madeleine really likes that
Madeleine, she’s my Christmas
She’s my promised land[2]
Even if she is too good for me
Like her cousin Joel says
But, tonight, I’m waiting for Madeleine
We’ll go to the movies
I’ll cover her with “I love you”’s
Madeleine, she really likes that.
Elle est tellement jolie
Elle est tellement tout ça
Elle est toute ma vie
Madeleine que j’attends là là

 

She is so very pretty
She is so very much all of that
She is all my life, that
Madeleine—that I’m waiting for here….here
Ce soir j’attends Madeleine
Mais il pleut sur mes lilas
Il pleut comme toutes les semaines
Et Madeleine n’arrive pas
Ce soir j’attends Madeleine
C’est trop tard pour le tram trente-trois
Trop tard pour les frites d’Eugène
Madeleine n’arrive pas
Madeleine c’est mon horizon
C’est mon Amérique à moi
Même qu’elle est trop bien pour moi
Comme dit son cousin Gaston
Mais ce soir j’attends Madeleine
Il me reste le cinéma
Je pourrai lui dire des “je t’aime”
Madeleine elle aime tant ça

 

Tonight I’m waiting for Madeleine
But it’s raining on my lilacs
It’s raining like it does every week[3]
And Madeleine doesn’t show up.
Tonight I’m waiting for Madeleine
It’s too late for the tram 33
Too late to eat frites at Eugene’s restaurant
Madeleine has not arrived
Madeleine, she’s my horizon
She’s my promised land
Even if she is too good for me
Like her cousin Gaston says
But, tonight, I’m waiting for Madeleine
We can still make the movies
I’ll be able to cover her with “I love you”’s
Madeleine, she really likes that.
Elle est tellement jolie
Elle est tellement tout ça
Elle est toute ma vie
Madeleine qui n’arrive pas

 

She is so very pretty
She is so very much all of that
She is all my life, that
Madeleine—who is not coming.
Ce soir j’attendais Madeleine
Mais j’ai jeté mes lilas
Je les ai jetés comme toutes les semaines
Madeleine ne viendra pas
Ce soir j’attendais Madeleine
C’est fichu pour le cinéma
Je reste avec mes “je t’aime”
Madeleine ne viendra pas
Madeleine c’est mon espoir
C’est mon Amérique à moi
Mais sûr qu’elle est trop bien pour moi
Comme dit son cousin Gaspard
Ce soir j’attendais Madeleine
Tiens le dernier tram s’en va
On doit fermer chez Eugène
Madeleine ne viendra pas

 

Tonight, I waited for Madeleine[4]
But I’ve tossed my lilacs
I tossed them like I do every week
Madeleine isn’t coming
Tonight, I waited for Madeleine
Our movie plans, they’re toast[5]
I’m left with my “I love you”’s
Madeleine isn’t coming.
Madeline, she’s my hope
She’s my promised land
But, she’s clearly too good for me
Like her cousin Gaspard says
Tonight, I waited for Madeleine
Oh look, the last tram just passed
Eugene’s restaurant’s must be closing
Madeleine isn’t coming.
Elle est elle est pourtant tellement jolie
Elle est pourtant tellement tout ça
Elle est pourtant toute ma vie
Madeleine qui ne viendra pas

 

She is, she is, after all, so very pretty
She is, after all, so much all that
She is, after all, all my life, that
Madeleine who will not come.[6]
Mais demain j’attendrai Madeleine
Je rapporterai du lilas
J’en rapporterai toute la semaine
Madeleine elle aimera ça
Demain j’attendrai Madeleine
On prendra le tram trente-trois
Pour manger des frites chez Eugène
Madeleine elle aimera ça
Madeleine c’est mon espoir
C’est mon Amérique à moi
Tant pis si elle est trop bien pour moi
Comme dit son cousin Gaspard
Demain j’attendrai Madeleine
On ira au cinéma
Je lui dirai des “je t’aime”
Et Madeleine elle aimera ça.

 

But, tomorrow, I’ll wait for Madeleine[7]
I’ll bring lilacs again
I bring them again all week long
Madeleine, she’ll love that.[8]
Tomorrow, I’ll wait for Madeleine
We’ll take the tram 33
To eat frites at Eugene’s restaurant
Madeleine, she’ll like that
Madeleine, she’s my hope
She’s my promised land
Too bad if she’s too good for me
Like her cousin Gaspard says
Tomorrow, I’ll wait for Madeleine
We’ll go to the movies
I’ll cover her with “I love you”’s
And Madeleine, she’ll love that.

 


[1] These are “pomme frites”—“French fries,” but Belgian frites do not deserve to be lumped in with fries as made in France or anywhere else. They are extraordinary, and only calling them frites will do. There are, indeed, worthy of a first date—or any date, especially with homemade mayonnaise and Orangina pop. If a boy offers to buy you genuine Belgian frites, you should go, even if you don’t like him. You’ll love the frites. This line alone pegs Brel as a Belgian.

[2] Literally, “she’s my America.”

[3] Anyone who has spent much time in northern France or Belgium can attest to the truth of this.

[4] Here we switch to the imperfect tense—a past tense.

[5] To be “fichu” is a somewhat informal, non-offensive way of saying something is done for or in deep trouble. Ficher (the verb) is the mild, unoffensive French “f-word” that replaces another French verb (foutre) which has much more the connotation of the English “f-word” (though the exact phrase in which it is used determines how vulgar it is—the beginner is well advised to avoid it, however, since it is a risky one if you get it wrong). Ficher vs. foutre is somewhat like “heck” versus “hell,” as it were, with the stakes raised somewhat—and, the various usages sometimes exploit the fact that another word faire (to make or to do) also starts with the letter F. So, you can sort of escalate by moving from faire –> ficher –> foutre. Again, not for the beginner or faint of heart. I never use the latter word myself. You will, however, be thought either edgy or boorish if you do.

[6] This line is repeated four times, and is the same in all cases. In the previous three, I’ve rendered it as “is not coming,” and this last as “she will not come,” which is more literally accurate.

[7] Now a switch to future tense.

[8] By now, we’re wondering if Madeleine even knows she has a date with her suitor. Is this all an elaborate fantasy that gets crushed every day, only to be resurrected by hope at the end? And if she does know, what do her persistent no-shows mean? Can he just not take the hint? Or, is she really not too good for him—is he too good for her?

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