MFL - It's elementary

12th April 2013 at 01:00
Poetry can harness the power of earth, wind and sky

How do different languages describe earth, wind and sky? The elements are part of everyday speech: we use them literally to describe things such as weather and travel; we use them figuratively to describe moods and states of mind.

Great poets and composers have harnessed the power of the elements in extraordinary ways. Inspire your classes with some of the finest examples of this. Then let them write their own poems and songs that reach for the stars.

The Song of the Earth by Gustav Mahler, a song cycle with orchestra, would be a rich work to study in German lessons. The words are a loose German translation of ancient Chinese poetry. Its six different sections sweep through many moods, scenes and seasons, but the language at the heart of this symphonic work is sometimes beautifully simple:

"Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod."

("Dark is life, is death.")

Bring spring into your classroom with the sixth movement:

"Die liebe Erde alluberall,

Bluht auf im Lenz und grunt aufs neu!"

("The lovely earth everywhere,

Blossoms in the new green of spring!")

And, in Spanish, explore the cosmic love poems of Pablo Neruda (pictured). He uses elemental imagery to express deep emotion:

"En mi cielo al crepusculo eres como una nube ...

... Eres mia, eres mia, voy gritando en la brisa ..."

("In my sky at twilight you are like a cloud ...

You are mine, mine, I go shouting in the wind ...")

A great and gusty poem about the wind would give French lessons elan-spirit and style. Le Vent (The Wind) was written in French by the Belgian poet emile Verhaeren. It is a fantastic example of a powerful poem in a foreign language. Once you know that the subject is the "savage, fierce wind of November", read it aloud and its subject blows right through you. You can hear how the wind "tears and dismembers itself" and how it blows "across the heather ... endless and infinite":

"Sur la bruyere longue infiniment,

Voici le vent cornant Novembre ...

Voici le vent

Qui se dechire et se demembre ..."

Students are often embarrassed about trying to speak a foreign language, and perhaps French more than most, as you really have to work hard to speak it correctly. So put them in groups and give them a chance to practise a small section of Le Vent as a chorus.

Then, turn off the lights on an overcast day and let each group read their section aloud in turn. In shadowy light, a poem's words take over. The students will not feel so exposed; every individual voice will be lost in the wind.

Catherine Paver has taught French in England and English in Italy and South Africa. Hear her storytelling songs about travel at


Find the words and a translation of Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) here: bit.lyZYQAEo

Follow this link for In My Sky at Twilight by Pablo Neruda in Spanish: bit.ly10PTQTY

And this link for the English translation: bit.lyRQjLh

Read Le Vent by emile Verhaeren here: bit.ly10PNMdU

And listen to the poet himself reading it aloud here: bit.lyXGTUkG

Enjoy Baudelaire's wonderful earth and sky imagery in Les Fleurs du Mal: bit.lyX2cOb.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today