Jacques Prévert Prévert, Jacques - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Prévert, Jacques 1900–1977

A French poet, screenwriter, dramatist, and author of children's books, Prévert was described by Hazel Hackett in Sight and Sound as "the most poetical of script-writers … and the most unliterary of poets." He began his career as a member of the symbolist movement but soon broke away to forge his own individualistic, experimental style. An anarchist, Prévert attacked bureaucracy and officialdom in his work, directing much of his poetry to common people. Paroles, his best-known collection, is credited with making poetry accessible to a large audience. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; obituary, Vols. 69-72.)

Eliot G. Fay

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is impossible to read many of Prévert's verses without becoming aware that he takes considerable interest in animals. Paroles contains a poem about a whale, a poem about two snails, and four poems about horses. But the author is not so much concerned with animals as he is with birds. Birds are spoken of in many of his poems, and in half a dozen a bird would appear to be the central theme. It seems to me, indeed, that his fondness for birds amounts very nearly to a sort of cult.

Prévert is not, of course, a sentimental poet. Though he is fond of birds he is never, under any circumstances, sentimental about them. He likes them because they are self-respecting creatures, he likes them because they are gay, or he likes them merely as symbols. (p. 450)

["Les Oiseaux du Souci"] expresses very well the ease with which a man in pain can be irritated. It expresses also the complete indifference with which he relinquishes a room, or anything else, which has ceased to seem important to him. But the most remarkable thing about the poem is the way in which its author plays with certain phrases, which he arranges and rearranges so as to create an atmosphere of boredom and of despair. The first line, "Pluie de plumes plumes de pluie," later becomes "Plumes de pluie pluie de plumes," and still later "Suaire de pluie pluie de suie." The poet, as he sits staring out the window, sees a rain of feathers and feathers of rain. This suggests to him a shroud of rain and a rain of soot. The rain, because of his mood, seems to be dirty and to have a chill of death about it. (p. 451)

In "Les Oiseaux du souci" [the bird] is a symbol of sorrow. In "Chanson de l'oiseleur" it is … a figure of speech which Prévert employs with marvellous skill to describe the heart of a woman who is afraid of life, or at any rate insufficiently responsive to it…. As we read the first twelve lines of this very pretty poem, we are delighted to note how perfectly every one of them describes the temperament, the emotions, the behavior, and the aspirations of a little red bird that is imprisoned in a cage, or perhaps within the walls of a room…. "Chanson de l'oiseleur" is, incidentally, an excellent example of one of Prévert's favorite technical devices, that of repetition. How he must have enjoyed beginning each of those first twelve lines with the words "L'oiseau!"


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William E. Baker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Given that [Prévert] interprets his world largely in sharp blacks and whites, it is useful to study Prévert not as a "proletarian" poet, but as an anti-bourgeois and pro-proletariat poet; the one prefix suggests the vitriol that saturates so many poems on capitalism, and the other, the sachet that accompanies the poems written about common people….

It is Prévert's handling of the French language, however, rather than the fierceness of his convictions, that will most likely establish an enduring reputation. His styles are unique without being intricate and mannered. He ignites upon occasion a fantastic display of verbal fireworks: puns, alliteration, obsessive rhyme, tongue slips and coined words. Elsewhere he speaks in simple, straightforward idiom, and often there are finely chiseled images presented in subdued, graceful cadences….

Always, the poet's aim seems to be communication rather than mystification. He does not ask the reader to achieve rarefied states of consciousness by contemplating symbols drawn from highly esoteric sources; he asks one merely to look at the everyday world with an unjaded eye. To look and to feel rather than to cogitate—this is the message implicit throughout Prévert's work. His is a poetry of searing images, music both raucous and refined, and humorous chatter; at its best this poetry can evoke a world of marvels—marvels experienced rather than comprehended intellectually, marvels found nowhere but in the glorious chaos of everyday life. (p. 8)

Prévert does not attack abstractions like "social and economic injustice," or "religious insincerity"; he names names…. Whatever generalizations a critic may use to cover Prévert's subject matter, they will be inevitably somewhat false to the poetry, which remains specific.

One group of themes can be called the "anti" group. Here one finds poems or parts of poems devoted to the ridicule of the bourgeoisie, the Church, militarists and chauvinists, academicians and … "all oppressors." Anti-bourgeoisie, anti-Church, anti-militarist, and anti-intellectual: such is Prévert's stance vis-à-vis the conventional structure of his society.

A second group of themes tempers the acid of the satirist with the honey of the lyrical poet. These are the "pro" themes, in which the poet expresses repeatedly his sympathy and praise for the proletariat—a group of character types having the virtues of honesty, courage, and brotherly affection in contrast to the vices of the moneyed class; he exalts free, unfettered love between man and woman; he finds kinship and harmony between nature and the natural, uncivilized spirit of man; he celebrates the life of the senses and admires the imaginative élan of the child. (pp. 23-4)

Prévert identifies the bourgeoisie with greed, pompousness, and insensitivity and the proletariat with fraternity, honesty and courage. But these attributes would remain tiresome vacuities unless attached to people, so Prévert selects or invents characters whom he can admire or strike at…. Prévert hates war only if one adds that the poet hates it in the form of the militarists and politicians who cause it.

Here the poet's training as a film writer seems to have influenced his poetry, which often consists of a dramatization of character types…. [The types] are either heroes or villains, good or bad guys. (p. 24)

[As Jean Queval] suggests, they are like puppets in a Punch-and-Judy show, acting perennially the same role though costumes and sets may change. And the cinema provides also an analogy to Prévert's technique. Like a selective cameraman, he records many different individuals at many different moments, yet makes each event another symbol of the same, simple, eternal, human idiocies and glories. (p. 25)

It is necessary to recognize the puppet-show quality of Prévert's work and the distortion and simplification of reality it involves, because in a few poems the puppets, which can be amusing and edifying, are abandoned. There is left only an ugly, hysterical complaint against rather vague grievances. Without caricature of character types, the poetry appears flimsy. It develops both logical and technical faults. (p. 37)

[On one side of the Prévertian world] are "Those" who have and worship false idols, on the other are those who have not and believe in themselves…. [Add also] military men and intellectuals to the ranks of the bad guys, and children, beautiful women, and birds to the ranks of the good. These additions do not pair off into neat antipodes, however, as do the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Prévert regards with affection a number of diverse character types who have in common only the sentiment of love and the will to freedom, rather than occupations which can serve as class symbols. Against religion, for example, one would have to mention both the love of man for woman and the child's love of freedom. And against the regimentation of militarism one can pose whatever is free and natural: the rebellious child, the uninhibited man and woman, the hobo. (p. 53)

The poem Barbara, simple, straightforward and lyrical, is one of Prévert's finest war poems. The bitter protest involves no direct attack on social classes or economic conditions: it is based on the simple grounds that war destroyed the happiness of a young girl walking in the rain to meet her lover. Perhaps those are the best grounds. Certainly Prévert's technique of dramatizing the tragedy of war or poverty by means of ordinary, yet individual characters apparently photographed at random, is more successful artistically than his didactic comments, no matter how lucid and clever, on the entire human pageant. It is a simple fact that one almost always grieves more for the Barbaras of the world than for a whole impersonal army. (pp. 54-5)

This poem also brings one to a clearer realization of the nature of the conflict, as Prévert sees it, between church and state, and the individual. It is a conflict stemming from the supposed attempt of religious, social, or political institutions to restrict or destroy the natural appetites of man…. [The] conventional machinery of society to "protect" the property and lives of its members [ends] by spoiling the happiness in these lives. This idea appears again and again in the poetry of Prévert, who wishes to supplant the laws of institutions with the unwritten law of free, natural expression of one's will. (p. 56)

A number of poems show that freedom is the principle unifying all the values Prévert upholds, particularly in the matter of love. The kind of love Prévert endorses could be called free love in its usual sense and also "free" love in the sense that no restrictions ought to be imposed by either party in such relationships. (pp. 56-7)

In a very general way the titles of Prévert's books of poetry help define his styles: Paroles because the poet has a genius for making all sorts of ordinary idiom highly expressive, Spectacle because his verbal tricks often correspond to the antics of a clown or a magician, and La Pluie et le beau temps because the emotional tones of his symbols can have the classic simplicity of the summer-and-winter, sunshine-and-rain cycle of life and love…. [The] language is sometimes common and colloquial, even vulgar...

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Eve Merriam

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jacques Prévert, France's most popular poet of the 20th century, died this past spring, and there should be some memorial or festival of his work to mark not his death but his aliveness…. [He was] a man who was on a first name basis with the language of his times: his work was colloquial, as much so as Brecht's, and as deceptively simple. A marvelous three-ring circus of a theater event could be made out of his triplefold writings: his political poetry of World War II and the resistance movement; his heartbreakingly spare love poetry, with its empathy for women; and his crazy wonderful sense and nonsense for children. (pp. 25-6)

[His colleagues] were surreal, comic and beautiful, scathingly anti-church, anti-corporation, anti-hypocrisy of every order….

[Prévert was a] triply gifted writer: the passionate pacifist, the romantic and anti-romantic poet of love, and the children's Pied Piper. (p. 26)

Eve Merriam, "Jacques Prévert, 1900–1977," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1977 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 177, Nos. 2 & 3, July 9 and 16, 1977, pp. 25-6.