Jacques Prévert Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Outside France, Jacques Prévert is best known as a screenwriter; among his credits are a number of films that have become classics of the French cinema. His first screenplay was written for his brother, Pierre Prévert, the director of L’Affaire est dans le sac (1932). The success of his dialogue in Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935) led to more such scripts, marked by Prévert’s sparkling wit and poetic repartee. His long collaboration with director Marcel Carné (born 1909) produced eight major films by 1950, including such masterpieces as Jenny (1936), Drôle de drame (1937), and Les Enfants du paradis (1945; Children of Paradise, 1968). Many film historians credit Carné’s success to Prévert’s scripts, although it must be pointed out that the highly successful Le Jour se lève (1939) was simply adapted by Prévert from an existing script, and that Prévert also adapted the unsuccessful 1956 version of Notre Dame de Paris. Carné regards Prévert as “the one and only poet of the French cinema,” one whose contribution “reflects the soul of the people.”

Prévert’s cabaret-style songs and stage pieces for the group Octobre are often overlooked in his oeuvre. Although they predate his major film successes and seem minor in comparison, these verses contain the seeds of both Prévert’s screen dialogue and his later poetry. Most screenwriters of Prévert’s time came to the new art burdened with preconceptions from the theater or literature, but Prévert himself simply wrote scenarios that he thought would appeal to moviegoers, and he succeeded. Many of his scripts have been published and today provide texts for students writing screenplays.

Prévert also produced several charming books for children, including Le Petit Lion (1947) and Des bêtes . . . (1950). In 1953, he wrote lyrics for Christiane Verger’s Tour de chant and L’Opéra de la lune. His translation into French of the medieval Carmina burana, set to the music of Carl Orff, was published in 1965 and achieved high critical esteem. In the United States, Prévert is known as the lyricist of such popular songs as “Les Feuilles mortes” (“Autumn Leaves”) and “Ne me quitte pas” (“Don’t Leave Me”).


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Despite his sweeping success, Jacques Prévert received no major literary awards. For his work as a filmmaker, he received the Grand Prix from Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques in 1973 and the Grand Prix National from Cinéma in 1975.

The appellation “the most popular poet” (in this case, of postwar France) carries a stigma in the world of poetry, where popularity is not usually a mark of quality. The French writer Guy Jacob good-naturedly referred to Prévert’s “easy-going muse,” who had “lent him in place of a lyre a barrel-organ.” 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. Prévert restored the popular validity of poetry to a literature that had been rarefied and intellectualized by movements such as Surrealism, Dadaism, and Symbolism. He refused to permit poetry to remain the means of expression of the privileged, helping himself freely to the argot of the streets for his verses.

Free of allegiance to any literary clique, Prévert reinforced the very idea of individuality at a time when the historical and political developments of World War II had necessitated conformity. A Marxist without theoretical pretensions and an anarchist at heart, he mocked pomposity and unmasked exploitation wherever he found them, all the while maintaining an aloof attitude toward partisan politics. His poetry demonstrates the charm, wit, and humanistic goals of popular poetry as well as its limitations.

Poems About Children

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

From Prévert’s poems about children to his antiwar utterances, there persists a naïveté that seems to challenge the values of the adult world and its rationalizations of man’s inhumanity to man. Children, according to Prévert, are blessed with an innocence and a capacity to dream that can be corrupted only by growing up. One of his oft-cited poems from Paroles, “Page d’écriture,” depicts a math lesson during which a child, seeing a lyrebird fly by, asks it for help. The bird’s help is forthcoming but causes something of an insurrection in the classroom before the entire scenario is metamorphosed in the final lines into a scene from nature.

In “En sortant de l’école” (from Histoires), Prévert portrays the gentle fantasies of a group of children, who, upon coming out of school, discover a train with a gilded wagon to take them through the world, where the sea promenades with all of her seashells. From the same volume comes “Jour de fête,” a heartfelt expression of the disappointment of a child who wants to celebrate a holiday dedicated to the frog, an animal that is not only a friend but that also sings to him nightly. The adults, who cannot comprehend this liaison, will not let the child go out in the rain. In the opening line, Prévert captures the parents’ inhibiting concern: “Ou va-tu mon enfant avec ces fleurs/Sous la pluie/ Il pleut il mouille/ Aujourd’hui c’est la fête à la grenouille”...

(The entire section is 420 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Some of Prévert’s most charming poems are addressed, in fact, to children by way of amusing descriptions of animals. Contes pour enfants pas sages contains a dialogue between Tom Thumb and an ostrich who rescues him; the latter complains that the child’s mother sports ostrich feathers in her hat and that his father, upon seeing an ostrich egg, thinks: “That would make a great omelette!” Another dialogue, “L’Opéra des girafes,” is written as an opera. A dromedary, antelopes, elephants, a horse on an island, a young lion in a cage, and a good-natured donkey are all subjects of brief fables, unburdened by any higher mythology. Throughout, Prévert’s sympathies lie with the beasts, who are maltreated or misunderstood by humans.

The bird achieves a special status in Prévert’s poems—sometimes representing liberation, as in “Quartier libre” (“Free Sector,” from Paroles), sometimes as a symbol of sorrow, as in “Les Oiseaux du souci” (“Birds of Sorrow”), where the first line, “Pluie des plumes, plume de pluie” (“Rain of feathers, feather of rain”), reflects the indifference of the lonely poet in an atmosphere of despair and boredom to some birds who are trying to console him. One of Prévert’s best-known poems, featuring a consummate demonstration of his technique of repetition, is “Chanson de l’oiseleur,” a poem of thirteen brief lines, the first twelve of which begin with the words “L’Oiseau,” followed by descriptive characteristics. In the thirteenth and final line, the bird becomes a woman’s heart beating its wings pathetically in her hard, white breast.

In “Au hasard des oiseaux” (from Paroles), the poet opens by regretting that he learned to love the birds too late, then continues with a diatribe against a certain Monsieur Glacis, who is ironically portrayed as having fought courageously in the war against young Paul, a character described as poor, handsome, and decent, who later becomes old Paul, rich, aged, honorable, and stingy but masquerading as philanthropic and pious. Prévert adds that Paul had a servant who led an exemplary life, because she never quarreled with her master or mentioned the unmentionable question of wages. The poem concludes by contrasting again the bestial nature of man with the humane nature of the birds: “La lumière des oiseaux” (the light of the birds), in the final line, carries the implication of enlightenment.

Justice and Pacifism

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Prévert’s sense of justice finds metaphoric expression in “Les Prodiges de la liberté” (from Histoires), which opens with the pathetic picture of the paw of a white fox caught in the teeth of a trap in the snow. The fox holds between its teeth a rabbit, still alive. Prévert seems to be able to reconcile himself to the natural order but continually objects to the evil that originates with humankind. For example, in the poem “La Pêche à la baleine” (“Whaling,” from Paroles), a father is astounded that his son does not want to go whaling with him. “Why,” asks the son, “should I hunt a beast who has done nothing to me, Papa?”

Prévert’s antiwar sentiments were perhaps best formulated in “Barbara” (from Paroles), in which a tender and tragic tone is established in his comparison between the fate of a young girl and that of the city of Brest. The individual experiences pain in the loss of life, love, hope, and happiness, while the collective loss is shown in the destruction of the town, the ruins, and the fire raining down on one and all.

In 1952, Prévert took up his pen against the colonial war in “Entendez-vous gens du Viet-Nam” (from La Pluie et le beau temps), in which he denounces the French use of sophisticated tactics against the unarmed peasants. He notes that with the arrival of Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu came a recrudescence of terror and suffering.


One of Prévert’s best-known pacifist poems is “Familiale” (from Paroles), which is characteristic of his ability to paint in a brief scene a moral dilemma:

La mère fait du tricot
Le fils fait la guerre
Elle trouveça tout naturel la mère
Et le père qu’est-ce qu’il fait le père?
Il fait des affaires. . . .
(A mother makes a sweater,
a son makes war,
which she finds quite natural,
but the father—what is he doing?

The rhymes and the singsong rhythm lend the poem the aspect of a children’s chant, but the content grows grim after the innocent opening of a mother knitting. The reduction of each life to its most typical activity shows the isolation in which people play out their roles, unconscious of the interdependence of their activities.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Prévert championed love as passionately as he railed against war. Human happiness recognizes its most profound expression in love, and Prévert’s contribution to erotic poetry has the simplicity of the classical Greek lyric poets. “Fiesta” (from Histoires) describes a seduction over empty glasses and a shattered bottle; the bed is wide open and the door closed; the poet is drunk and his lover is likewise drunk but lively and naked in his arms. The image of a woman “naked from head to toe” occurs frequently in Prévert’s poems, but his physical descriptions rarely go further. In “Les Chiens ont soif” (from Fatras), the poet describes two lovers he has seen naked and entwined; he then assumes the point of view of the man: “He looks at her and knows without saying it that there is nothing more . . . indispensable, more simple and more inexplicable than love on a bed, than love on this earth.”

The lighter side or more ephemeral aspect of love does not escape Prévert’s wit. A character in Fatras exclaims how happy she is because her lover has said that he loves her, but she is even happier because she is still free, since he did not say he would love her forever. The lover in “Les Chansons les plus courtes . . .” (from Histoires) complains of the bird in his head repeating the refrain “I love you” so insistently that he will have to kill him the next morning. In “Le Lézard” (from Histoires), the poet declares: “The lizard of love has fled once again and left his tail between my fingers and that’s all right/ I wanted to keep something for myself.”

Many critics find the mechanics of Prévert’s poetry too obtrusive, arguing that his rhymes and his wordplay, the adroit twists with which he frequently concluded his poems, lack the depth and resonance of great poetry. That he was a genuinely popular poet, however, is denied by none. The natural quality of his verse had an appeal that revived the spirit of France after World War II, and his can be called a poetry of recovery.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Baker, William E. Jacques Prévert. New York: Twayne, 1967. An overview, fair and balanced in assessment and limited only by its date. Prevert’s work is discussed as “anti-poetry,” as the poetry of plain talk, and as an expression of both romanticism and stark political views. A good annotated bibliography in both French and English is included.

Blakeway, Claire. Jacques Prévert: Popular French Theatre and Cinema. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1990. Although the focus is on Prévert’s work in cinema and theater, especially his collaborations with Marcel Carné, the discussions of politics and Surrealism apply also to the poetry. Of special interest are the abundant black and white photographs.

Greet, Anne. Jacques Prevert’s Word Games. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. A brief examination of Prévert’s wordplay. Includes bibliographical footnotes.