The Poem

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“Autumn Leaves” is a short poem in free verse. Its forty-six lines are divided into four stanzas. The first and third stanzas contain twelve lines each, and the second and fourth stanzas have the same eleven-line refrain. The only punctuation in the entire poem is a period placed at the end of the last line. This almost complete lack of punctuation permits diverse interpretations of many lines because it is not at all clear exactly how one should interpret them. In many cases, two or three different explanations are grammatically possible.

The poem is written in the first person. The unnamed speaker is a man who is addressing a woman whom he used to love. Although their love for each other has now ended, he still feels an emotional bond with her. He addresses her with the intimate tu (for “you”), not with the formal vous. It is clear that these are two decent people “whom life has separated.”

In the first stanza, the speaker calls upon his former lover to “remember the happy days” that now exist only in their memories. When re-creating these days of happiness, Jacques Prévert utilizes the imperfect tense in French. This is entirely appropriate because the imperfect tense refers to habitual past actions or to past actions that lasted for an extended period of time. These were wonderful days for them because “they were then friends.” Their love is described as platonic and pure.

The title, “Autumn Leaves,” occurs twice in the first stanza and once in the third stanza. Prévert states that “Autumn leaves are gathered together in a shovel” for disposal; similarly “memories” and “regrets” are carried away by the “north wind” “into the night of forgetfulness.” These images of “wind” and “night” are richly connotative, suggesting the powerful and almost unconscious human need to remember pleasant experiences from the past. The speaker ends the first stanza by recalling a love song that she used to sing to him.

The identical eleven-line refrain that follows the first and third stanzas is written in a deceptively simple but very evocative style. The speaker imagines that this love song “resembles” them, and he tells her twice within five lines: “You used to love me/ I used to love you.” The loss of love occurs slowly, in an almost imperceptible manner that Prévert compares to the “sea,” which “erases on the sand/ the steps of disunited lovers.”

In the third stanza, Prévert suggests once again that “autumn leaves, memories, and regrets” are all “gathered together in a shovel” for disposal, but the lovers choose to preserve their memories. Although they no longer love each other, he is thankful because she enriched his life and was his “dearest friend.” He regrets nothing because he will always hear in his mind the love song that she used to sing to him. The emotional power of their love still influences their lives although they both realize that they can no longer live together.

Forms and Devices

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“Autumn Leaves” illustrates very effectively the refined art of Prévert, who wrote in an apparently straightforward style and yet expressed deep feelings with which all readers can identify. The use of verb tenses in this poem does not seem to be complicated. Prévert, in fact, uses those verb tenses (specifically, the present indicative, the imperfect, and the compound past) that are most frequently used in spoken French. He avoids an overtly literary style, which would have created a barrier between his poem and certain readers. Prévert strove to attract readers who were alienated from extremely esoteric poetry. His poems deal directly...

(This entire section contains 551 words.)

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with such basic human emotions as love, loss of love, grief, and despair.

The apparent simplicity of style and vocabulary in this poem should not cause one to overlook the subtle art of Prévert. He skillfully contrasts the present with several different periods in the speaker’s past. Prévert’s use of verb tenses is very effective in “Autumn Leaves.” In this forty-six-line poem, there is only one verb in the present conditional and one verb in the future tense, yet each is used extremely effectively. Prévert begins this poem with a wish: “Oh! I would like you to remember/ the happy days when we were friends.” If she still remembers their love, this will bring him much satisfaction, but he realizes that he may no longer be part of her memories. Only one future tense is used in this poem, and even then Prévert links it not with the present but with the past. The speaker tells his former lover: “And the song that you used to sing/ always always I will hear it.” In “Autumn Leaves,” Prévert evokes past feelings by using verbs in the imperfect tense; this is entirely appropriate because lovers cannot link the gradual development and fading of their love to specific events. In French, the compound past tense is used to describe single past actions that may still have a slight effect on the present. Prévert uses only one compound past tense in this poem. The speaker tells his former lover twice in the first stanza: “You see that I have not forgotten.” Through the very effective repetition of these words, which he evokes in the third stanza with the question “How do you believe that I could forget you,” Prévert suggests subtly that he has not forgotten her because he cannot bring himself to forget her. The repetition of both entire sentences and similar expressions also serves to reinforce the fact that this speaker once experienced a pure happiness that he can no longer recapture.

In the first and third stanzas, Prévert included the elegant lines: “At that time life was more beautiful/ and the sun was hotter than it is today.” A warm summer sun brings one much pleasure, but it pales in comparison to the ecstasy that love alone enables one to experience, even if it is only for fleeting moments. Jacques Prévert’s extremely effective use of French verb tenses allows his readers to appreciate more thoroughly the simple but profound psychological insights in this poem, whose eloquence and musicality have been recognized by several famous French singers, including Yves Montand, who have performed and recorded “Autumn Leaves.”