Can you explain the literary form and meaning of the poem "Breakfast" by Jacques Prévert?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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"Déjeuner du Matin" by Jacques Prévert was written in 1946, one year after the end of World War II. This poem reflects the nihilistic tone of many people after the war. Having suffered a humiliating invasion by the Nazis, French citizens felt disillusioned and displaced after their liberation by the United States in 1944 and at the end of the war in 1945. Reflective of this disillusionment, the scene of this poem reveals an estranged husband and wife. They sit as one would with a stranger in a cafe at their breakfast table. In a series of clipped sentences, all of which are in the passé composé—a past tense that often denotes a definite beginning and end—the wife describes her husband's clipped and impersonal actions, performed without any recognition of her. She describes in singsong fashion these mechanical motions of her husband, who sits across from her without appearing to take notice of her.

These singsong lines, though brief, lend a certain lyricism to the poem. For instance,  the word for coffee—café [kah fay]—rhymes with lait, cuiller, tourné, parler, allumé, fumée, cendrier, parler, regarder, levé, pleuvait, regarder, and pleuré, most of which are two-syllable words and end with the /ay/ sound (-er and é sound the same=/ay/).

There is a brief action that occurs and ends in the lines. First, the man pours his coffee into the cup. Then, he pours the cream into the cup of coffee. Finally, he puts the sugar into the coffee with cream. Each action is separate but built upon the previous one. The movements of the man are mechanical and impersonal; he does everything without talking or looking at his wife ("Sans me parler/Sans me regarder"). Finally, he puts on his hat and raincoat and departs in the rain without a word or a glance. After his departure, the estranged wife lays her head in her hands and cries as she sits alone. 

One critic writes this of Jacques Prevert's poetry:

His apparent simplicity of expression, his concern with the emotions and things of everyday life, his singsong rhythms and insistent rhymes combined to create a poetry at once accessible and self-explanatory.

"Dejeuner du Matin" is such a self-explanatory poem.

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thanatassa's profile pic

thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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The poem "Déjeuner du matin" (English: "Breakfast") by Jacques Prévert was published in his 1945 collection Paroles, appearing at the end of World War II. Although this particular poem appears on the surface a simple lyrical poem expressing sadness about lack of communication in a relationship, it should be read in the context of the Nazi occupation and Prévert's own work with the French Resistance. In such a context, there was no guarantee that people who left in the morning would return, or even be alive in the evening, creating an additional sense of poignancy at the ending.

The form of the poem is vers libre (English: free verse), though it has some of the sound of a song lyric with frequent if irregular rhymes. The language is extremely simple, so much so that it is a perennial favorite of French instructors teaching the passé composé (functionally equivalent to the English simple past and/or present perfect, but formed by using an auxiliary verb, normally avoir, with a past participle).

The poem itself is a simple description of a morning routine. The unnamed man pours coffee into a cup, adds milk and sugar, drinks the coffee, smokes a cigarette, puts on a hat and raincoat because it is raining, and leaves without speaking to or looking at the narrator. The narrator takes her head in her hands and cries. It should be noted that the French verb "to rain" ("pleuvoir") in certain tenses is quite similar to "to cry" ("pleurer"), and derives from the same root.

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