Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 761
Although he did not publish his first book of poetry until the age of forty-six, Jacques-Henri-Marie Prévert (pray-ver) is generally considered the most popular French poet of the twentieth century. Prévert was born in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine into a middle-class family. His parents, André and Suzanne, had three sons; Jacques was the second of their children. His father, the author of the historical novel Diane de Maelstreck (1895), worked for Catholic charities in Paris. From 1920 until 1922, Jacques Prévert served in the French army and was assigned to Constantinople. He married twice but had only one child. In 1946, his second wife, Janine, gave birth to their daughter, Michèle. Prévert was devoted to his wife and daughter, and his only grandchild, Eugénie, brought him much happiness near the end of his life. He died of lung cancer on April 11, 1977.
Although Prévert actively supported left-wing French politics, political topics are not dominant themes in his lyric poetry. His fame rests largely on the deceptively simple poems published in his 1945 book of poems, Paroles (words), but he also worked extensively in films. He wrote screenplays for such important directors as Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné. Prévert often worked under difficult circumstances; during the German occupation of France during World War II, he and Carné created two masterpieces, Les Visiteurs du soir (evening visitors) and Children of Paradise, which was completed before the liberation of France in 1944 but not released until 1945. Nazi censorship of books and films was strict during the Occupation, and Carné and Prévert were careful to present these films as historical dramas. Les Visiteurs du soir is a moral allegory about the conflict between good and evil set in the Middle Ages. Although some censors correctly suspected that the film would be interpreted by French moviegoers as indirect criticism of the Nazis, authorization was nevertheless given to release it in 1942. (The term “paradise” in Children of Paradise does not have a theological meaning but refers instead to the inexpensive seats in the second balcony in French theaters; the French refer to this section as le paradis because it is so high.) Children of Paradise, which deals with theatrical life in Paris during the 1830’s, contains a lengthy mime sequence performed by Jean-Louis Barrault that is generally considered to be the finest mime scene ever filmed.
Although his many screenplays reveal his ability as a dramatist, Prévert would probably be considered to be a relatively minor figure in the cultural life of twentieth century France were it not for Paroles, which has remained popular since its 1945 publication. The poems in Paroles please readers both in the original French text and in numerous translations in languages including English, Russian, Greek, Polish, Spanish, and Italian. The enduring popularity of Paroles can be attributed to the fact that Prévert wrote about universal themes such as death, war, alienation, and the loss of love in a deceptively simple style that is readily accessible and understandable to readers. He described everyday situations with which any reader can identify.
In perhaps his most famous poem, “Familiale” (“Family Portrait”) from Paroles, he writes of a perfectly “normal” situation in which the mother knits, the father goes to work, and the son goes to war. Several times, Prévert says that all three characters consider these activities to be normal, and the son even assumes that after having completed his military service, he will work in his father’s business. Although “the war, business, and knitting all continue,” the son is killed in the war, and “he no longer continues.” Now the despondent father and mother believe that the only “natural” thing for them to do is to visit the cemetery where their son is buried. The final verse contains the words “La vie avec le cimetière” (“Life with the cemetery”). These five simple words convey to Prévert’s readers that life has lost all meaning for these parents, whose suffering represents the grief of all parents whose children died in war. The poem was first published just one year after the end of World War II; readers around the world understood that Prévert had expressed the universal feelings of loss and despair experienced by millions of parents whose sons and daughters had died in the war. Although Prévert continued to write poetry until his death in 1977, he never again produced poems as moving and aesthetically pleasing as those in Paroles. That book alone, however, ensures him an honored place in the history of French poetry.
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