Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Autumn Leaves” is a poem about the power of memory. “Les Feuilles mortes” literally means “Dead Leaves,” suggesting the paradoxical coexistence of the past and the present. Although one may delude oneself into believing that one has completely recovered from the loss of love, modern psychology has shown that it is never possible to suppress completely painful experiences from the past. One may not, however, fully appreciate the degree to which the past has formed one’s perceptions of reality and one’s personality. The “leaves” of the past are never completely “dead.” Seeing a certain thing may somehow remind one of experiences in the distant past. This process is called involuntary memory because one has made no conscious effort to recall these events. When the speaker sees someone collecting “autumn leaves” with a shovel before the wind can blow them away, this commonplace occurrence reminds him that it is also possible to collect things that are infinitely more significant: “memories” and “regrets.” Recapturing his memories is bittersweet for the speaker because he recalls simultaneously moments of happiness and his loss of love. He realizes that regret cannot diminish his present sadness; he prefers to think of the fleeting moments of joy that he and his beloved experienced together. Although they no longer live together, he still appreciates the importance of their love in his life. He expresses the essence of his love with these two exquisite lines: “But my silent and faithful love/ still smiles and thanks life.”
In “Autumn Leaves,” Jacques Prévert wrote in a deceptively simple style that hides the subtle and profound psychological power of this poem. The vocabulary used in “Autumn Leaves” can be understood even by intermediate students of French. Prévert clearly wanted his poetry to be accessible to as many readers as possible. A poem such as “Autumn Leaves” can be interpreted at several different levels, and each interpretation reveals the refined artistry and sensitivity of Jacques Prévert.